Nobody knows when the 2020 Major League Baseball season will begin, but we can still look forward to its start. With that in mind, we’ll continue our series on potential bounce-back players from each division, this time focusing on notable National League Central pitchers whose production fell off from 2018 to ’19.
Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Cubs:
Undoubtedly among the greatest relief pitchers in baseball history, Kimbrel’s numbers careened off a cliff in his first season as a Cub. In fairness, though, Kimbrel didn’t have a normal offseason before finally joining the Cubs on a three-year, $43MM contract. The 31-year-old flamethrower went without a deal until the first week June, and he never really got on track after debuting later that month. Kimbrel battled elbow issues and threw just 20 2/3 innings, over which he allowed 15 earned runs on 21 hits (including a whopping nine home runs) and 12 walks. Although Kimbrel did strike out 30 hitters and continue to throw upward of 96 mph, it wasn’t enough to overcome the other problems. Considering what the Cubs have invested in him, not to mention the losses their bullpen suffered in free agency, it’s a must for him to return to form this year.
Jeremy Jeffress, RHP, Cubs:
Jeffress was a lights-out part of the Brewers’ bullpen in 2018, but last season represented an enormous step backward. In fact, it went so badly for Jeffress that the Brewers – then vying for a playoff spot – released him during the first week of September. Jeffress wound up with a ghastly 5.02 ERA in 52 innings and saw his typical fastball go from 95.3 mph in 2018 to 93.8. He also lost 4 percent on his swinging-strike rate, almost 10 percent on his strikeout rate, and 8 percent on his groundball rate. Consequently, he was only able to secure an $850K guarantee in free agency.
Trevor Bauer, RHP, Reds:
Bauer went from one of the absolute best pitchers in the sport two years ago to someone whom the opposition shelled after the Reds acquired him from the Indians at last summer’s trade deadline. The 29-year-old kept throwing hard, averaging about 95 mph on his fastball, but yielded 57 hits (including 12 home runs) en route to a 6.39 ERA in 56 1/3 innings as a Red. Between the two teams, his combined 4.48 ERA and 4.34 FIP were each more than two runs worse than the production he logged in 2018. Bauer also experienced an almost 7 percent fall in groundball rate, and he wasn’t any kind of Statcast hero, ranking near the middle of the pack in multiple important categories.
Pedro Strop, RHP, Reds:
Strop, 34, had several terrific years with the Cubs, but last season wasn’t one of them. His average fastball dropped by 1.5 mph (93.6), his walk rate spiked to its highest level since 2012 (4.32 BB/9) and he gave up more home runs than ever (1.3 per nine). All of those factors helped lead to career-worst run prevention totals for Strop (4.97 ERA/4.53 FIP), which came at a less-than-ideal time for the pending free agent. Strop’s subpar output last year stopped him from cashing in on the open market, but if he can rebound, the Reds will have a bargain on their hands at $1.825MM.
Chris Archer, RHP, Pirates:
MLBTR’s Steve Adams just took a more in-depth dive into the surprising struggles Archer has gone through as a Pirate. The former Rays standout has been a shell of himself since Pittsburgh acquired him from Tampa Bay in a July 2018 trade that looks incredibly lopsided in the Rays’ favor. But not all hope is lost for Archer, who – at the Pirates’ behest – grew too reliant on a sinking fastball that the opposition hammered. Archer bagged the pitch last summer and proceeded to post far better numbers during the second half of the season than he did before then, making the 5.19 ERA/5.02 FIP, 4.14 BB/9, 1.88 HR/9 and 36.3 percent groundball rate he put up over 119 2/3 innings look somewhat deceiving.
Derek Holland, LHP, Pirates:
Holland resurrected his career two years ago in San Francisco, only to fall apart between the Giants and Cubs last season. While Holland made 30 starts in 2018, he had such a rough time a year ago that he spent most of it in the bullpen, where he amassed 43 of 51 appearances. The 33-year-old limped to a 6.10 ERA/6.08 FIP with 8.75 K/9, 4.8 BB/9 and 2.13 HR/9, forcing him to settle for a minor league contract with Pittsburgh in the offseason.
Andrew Miller, LHP, Cardinals:
The first season as a Cardinal didn’t go well for Miller, whom they signed to a two-year, $25MM pact beforehand. The majority of his numbers, including a 4.45 ERA/5.19 FIP in 54 2/3 innings, went the wrong way. Miller, who barely walked more than one hitter per nine during his career-best season back in 2016, issued almost four and a half free passes last season. Moreover, he endured a 10.5 percent dip in groundball rate from 2018 and saw his home run-to-fly ball rate skyrocket to 21.6 percent. The 34-year-old has since dealt with some health troubles this spring, though the latest update on his status was encouraging.
Corbin Burnes, RHP, Brewers:
Burnes had a promising debut from Milwaukee’s bullpen in 2018. However, the spin rate darling’s propensity for surrendering homers proved to be his undoing last season. Burnes, 25, gave them up on 38.6 percent of fly balls, leading to an awful 8.82 ERA/6.09 FIP in 49 innings and canceling out a strong strikeout rate of 12.86 per nine and a borderline elite swinging-strike percentage of 17.2.
Corey Knebel, RHP, Brewers:
Knebel’s on the list for injury reasons, not ones related to performance. He was a huge piece of the Brewers’ relief corps from 2017-18, but Tommy John surgery kept him off the mound a season ago. Knebel, who underwent the procedure just under 12 months ago, had been lining up for an early May return before the game shut down, according to Adam McCalvy of MLB.com. So, the longer baseball’s hiatus last, the better Knebel’s odds are of returning to his past role as a Brewers contributor over a full season.