Baseball is a wonderful game and the following 6 pitchers continued to put out good vibes since beginning to toe the slab back in March and April. This list, while obviously not exhaustive, will also focus more on younger hurlers trying to set some roots down in the big leagues and, for the collector, might be worth a look or two when it comes to custom gear.
Shane Bieber, Cleveland Indians
In what’s become a yearly occurrence during their recent run of success, the Indians once again have a top-10 starting rotation when using fWAR as the barometer. However, it’s happened despite Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco both missed significant time on the injured list, along with Trevor Bauer getting dealt at the trade deadline.
The man who leads the starting staff in starts (31), innings pitched (201.1), and fWAR (5.1), is — you guessed it — Shane Bieber. He’s also added in a 30.6% strikeout rate, 4.9% walk rate, and 3.26 ERA in the process. This is a huge step forward from last year’s rookie campaign, which included a 2.7 fWAR, 4.55 ERA, 24.3% strikeout rate, and 4.7% walk rate in 114.2 frames.
Fans certainly showed their appreciation donning custom t shirts, unique signs and full body paint that drew more than a few watching eyes of both the media and opponents. While Bieber’s batted-ball profile didn’t change a ton and his hard-hit rate allowed is still above 40.0%, he’s made huge strides in the placement of his pitches. His 65.6% first-pitch strike rate is close to what he did last year (66.4%), but the percentage of his pitches in the strike zone has gone down from 48.0% to 40.1%. It’s impressive to see this happen while not experiencing a huge spike in walks, too.
Both the 24-year-old’s slider (44.5% to 35.3%) and curveball (35.3% to 28.9%) saw the largest changes in zone percentage.
Lucas Giolito, Chicago White Sox
What a difference a year makes, right? Just 12 months ago, Giolito was finishing up a terrible campaign. So terrible, in fact, that his 6.13 ERA was easily the worst among qualified starters. His 5.37 SIERA was also the worst in this group.
But, fast-forward to 2019 and he’s appeared in his first All-Star Game while enjoying a true breakout performance. The differences between this season and last season are so striking that it’s better to put a handful of the stats side by side.
So what clicked for the former top prospect? The biggest difference in his game has been the usage and success of his changeup. After tossing it at a 15.9% clip in 2018, that number has climbed all the way up to 26.1% in 2019. His 2.00 changeup value on a per-100-pitch basis is also among the best in baseball.
Opposing hitters have only experienced a slight decrease in wRC+ when compared to last year (86 to 77), but that also includes a dramatic increase in strikeout rate (23.1% to 33.8%). A sizable rise in swinging-strike rate (16.7% to 22.2%) and chase rate (31.5% to 37.0%) also took place.
Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds
Although the rest of his 2019 campaign doesn’t comparison to what he did throughout March/April, the Reds have a budding ace on their hands in Luis Castillo. His 9.9% walk rate is on track to be a career worst, but that’s paired with a 28.9% strikeout rate, which is on track to be a career high.
It’s worth noting that Castillo’s 4.0 fWAR has nearly doubled his 2018 performance (2.1) in about the same number of innings (169.2 in ’18, 178.2 in ’19). Although the young righty’s hard-hit rate allowed is up at 37.4%, the rest of his batted-ball profile looks like his solid rookie campaign of 2017.
Castillo has watched both his line-drive rate (21.8% to 17.8%) and fly-ball rate (32.4% to 26.9%) drop, while his ground-ball rate has shot back up (45.9% to 55.3%). Similar to Giolito, Castillo’s changeup has played a significant role in his success.
His fastball usage has gone down each of the last two years (62.4% to 57.2% to 50.5%) and his changeup usage has been on a steady rise (22.7% to 26.3% to 32.7%). Joey Lucchesi is the only qualified starter who has used his changeup more often than Castillo (35.3%).
Eduardo Rodriguez, Boston Red Sox
It’s easy to see where Eduardo Rodriguez has made improvements this season. His 185.1 innings pitched and 17 wins are both career-high marks. However, his 3.64 ERA and 3.2 fWAR aren’t totally different from 2018 (3.82 and 2.1, respectively). He’s also seen a slight decrease in strikeout rate and a slight increase in walk rate.
So where is the huge step forward? Well, being healthy and consistent enough to make 30-plus starts is a tremendous plus for a Red Sox rotation that lacked both of those things this season. Another area is in his batted-ball profile — Rodriguez maintained a low hard-hit rate allowed (28.8%) but also bumped up his soft-hit rate from 19.8% to a league-leading 23.8%.
This has been accompanied by nearly identical improvements of about 10 percentage points in both his ground-ball rate allowed and fly-ball rate allowed. He’s really turned things on since the All-Star break, too — prior to the midsummer respite, E-Rod owned a 4.65 ERA through 102.2 innings. Over his most recent 82.2, though, he’s twirled a 2.40 ERA.
Mike Soroka, Atlanta Braves
There are stellar performances every year that get overlooked because another player had an even bigger year. That’s going to happen in the MVP races, but also to Mike Soroka in the National League Rookie of the Year race, likely thanks to Pete Alonso.
Soroka will probably take a trip to the postseason over that individual award, though. The young righty has accumulated 3.7 fWAR in 164.2 innings despite owning a 19.7% strikeout rate. He’s managed to lower his season-long ERA by almost a full run compared to last year (3.51 to 2.57) because he’s limited base runners and has stranded those who have reached base.
The 22-year-old has lowered his WHIP from 1.44 to 1.09, while in turn rising his strand rate from 64.6% to 80.6%. That’s certainly a recipe for successful run prevention. For a guy like Soroka — who isn’t a big swing-and-miss pitcher — it’s imperative to control contact as much as possible.
That’s exactly what he’s done, with the biggest change coming in his infield-fly rate. That number has risen from 0.0% to 14.4%, while his fly-ball rate hasn’t crested above 25.0%.
Chris Paddack, San Diego Padres
After storming onto the scene in March/April, Chris Paddack went through some of the normal rookie ups and downs this season. He’s thrown at least 10 innings each month, experiencing three months with an ERA below 2.00 and two months above 4.00. His first half (2.84 ERA) has been better overall than his second half (4.22), but it’s undoubtedly been a huge step forward for the San Diego hurler.
Let’s not forget that the 135.2 innings he’s thrown is not only a career high as a pro ballplayer, but it’s the first time he’s thrown more than 100 innings in a season since turning pro. He also made the leap straight from Double-A to the majors after impressing during Spring Training.
His two most-used pitches in 2019 were the four-seamer and changeup, and opposing hitters had an equally tough time with them. Paddack’s four-seamer produced a 77 wRC+ and his changeup produced a 62 wRC+. And if we throw in his curveball, which he’s tossed slightly more than 10.0% of the time, none of his pitches yielded a wRC+ higher than 94.
For a team like the Padres, who don’t have a ton of legitimate and proven starting options for the future, watching Paddack succeed at the level he did was a welcome sight.