Major League relief pitchers are complicated yet predictable at the same time. Unless you are talking about elite relievers like Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman, you can almost guarantee a few “bad” seasons sprinkled throughout the MLB career of a relief pitcher. These “bad” seasons are such a common occurrence that “reliever volatility” has become a widely-accepted term among those who analyze baseball on a regular basis. It is a concept that typically leads to the avoidance of multi-year deals with relief pitchers (except for the fact that John Mozeliak and the Cardinals just gave Jonathan Broxton a two-year deal this offseason).
Siegrist’s 2016 statistics
Frankly, do not be fooled by Kevin Siegrist’s sub-3.00 ERA because the 2016 season has been underwhelming at best for the 27-year-old lefty, especially when you can provide reasons behind his ERA being so low. His ERA suppression is two-fold: 1) high LOB (left on base) rate and 2) low BABIP (batting average on balls in play). While both a high LOB% and a low BABIP are desirable, sitting at the extreme ends of the spectrum is what you could call “playing with fire.” The threat for regression is imminent, and yet, regression may never occur (that season) considering the small sample size associated with relievers.
Siegrist’s LOB% and BABIP are seventh highest and fifth lowest among qualified MLB relievers, respectively. One must note that the 2016 league averages for these two categories are 74.2% and .296. Heck, even Siegrist’s career averages (82.4%, .254) show that the lefty has been on the receiving end of positive batted ball luck for the majority of the 2016 season. Siegrist’s strikeout rate (26.3%), which has been able to disguise his “awful” walk rate up to this point in his career, is still considered “great-excellent,” but at the same time, it has reached down below where it was in his disastrous 2014 season (26.4 K%, -0.2 fWAR).
Instead of ERA, look at Siegrist’s FIP. In my opinion (and this is an opinion shared by many), FIP is a better indicator of how a pitcher has performed as it only looks at things a pitcher can truly control: HR, BB, HBP, and K. As it stands, Siegrist’s 2016 FIP of 4.52 is again rivaling where it was in 2014 (4.62) and is in a different time zone from last season’s sparkling 2.91. Thus, while the Cardinals defense hasn’t necessarily been good in 2016, it is clear Siegrist has benefited from its mere presence behind him, along with the positive batted ball luck already mentioned.
So, what could be some reasons behind Siegrist’s underwhelming 2016? Yes, “reliever volatility” is a factor, but let’s not get lazy here. Instead, let’s discuss concrete issues Siegrist is dealing with this season.
Fourseam fastball velocity, 2013-2016
The velocity chart is self-explanatory. Since Siegrist’s rookie season in 2013, the average velocity on his fourseam fastball has dropped over 2 MPH (96.00 versus 93.93). Of course, Siegrist was successful last season (1.4 fWAR) at an average of 94.93 MPH, but a further full MPH drop is significant, especially when it is a pitch turned to nearly 70% of the time.
At 27 years of age with only 200.1 MLB innings under his belt, assuming health, you generally wouldn’t expect such a noticeable drop in velocity. Sure, Siegrist’s shoulder has been subject to nerve issues in the past and “dead-ish arm” as recent as this season, but the team has downplayed any arm health issues associated with the lefty reliever, indicative by his usage rates in each of the last two seasons.
I try my best to stay out of the injury predicting business, but I would be thrilled to receive an explanation from Siegrist, Mike Matheny, or Derek Lilliquist for what is seen in the velocity chart embedded above. Admittedly, Siegrist has done an admirable job developing his repertoire over the years, through the introduction of a better changeup last season and a curveball this season, but his “money pitch” has always been his fourseamer, as you can see by its yearly usage rate. For those who have read my articles in the past, you probably are already wondering. With slower velocity, is Siegrist benefiting from more movement on his pitches? To make a long story short, nope, not really.
Fourseam fastball location to left-handed batters (via baseballsavant.com)
For those wondering, I chose fourseam fastball location to LHBs because Siegrist’s fastball location to RHBs, while not exactly the same over the years, did not exhibit as pronounced of a difference as what is seen below.
Just as it was with the velocity chart, the difference in the heat maps is easily noticeable. From 2013 through 2015, Siegrist was able to locate his fourseamer in essentially one core location when facing left-handed batters — up and away. Yet, so far in 2016, Siegrist has developed two cores for the pitch — one in the usual location (up and away), but one, with an equal concentration of pitches I must add, in a much more hittable location, bordering “middle-middle.”
Is this a change in approach or is it indicative of an inability to command the pitch? Given that the second core borders “middle-middle,” I’d lean toward the latter, and yes, this apparent inability to command the fourseamer is something I have tweeted about live during a Siegrist appearance this season.
With Seung Hwan Oh (reportedly suffering from a mild groin strain), Trevor Rosenthal, and Michael Wacha (a bullpen arm for at least the rest of the season) all close to returning to live action, the Cardinals bullpen could suddenly become a much more formidable weapon. Given the team’s current placement in the Wild Card standings and Siegrist’s underwhelming season, the Cardinals could really use all the help they can possibly get. And if Siegrist is indeed having issues commanding his fourseamer (spoiler: he is), I’d love to see him “air it out” the rest of 2016. Because a commandless 96 MPH Siegrist is a lot more appealing than a commandless 93 MPH Siegrist.