Our preseason series exploring potential bounce-back candidates for 2020 began with a look at several AL West hitters hoping to rebound. Let’s stay in the division and focus on a group of talented pitchers who want to put disappointing seasons behind them…
Corey Kluber, RHP, Rangers: Kluber was the Rangers’ highest-profile offseason pickup and someone who’s now near the front of a revamped rotation, but the Indians decided the 33-year-old was expendable in the wake of a truncated 2019. In a limited number of innings (35 2/3), Kluber came nowhere near his two-time Cy Young form, notching a 5.80 ERA/4.06 FIP, and didn’t pitch past May 1 as a result of a broken forearm. Kluber did strike out almost 10 batters per nine when he was healthy enough to take the mound, but he offset that with some of the worst walk (3.79 BB/9), groundball (40 percent) and average fastball velocity (91.6 mph) marks of his career. With the Rangers holding an $18MM option or a $1MM buyout over him for 2021, this is an especially pivotal season for Kluber.
Jose Leclerc, RHP, Rangers: Leclerc was an absolute force during a breakout 2018, but his run prevention numbers took noticeable steps backward because of control problems. He lost his job as the Rangers’ closer at one point early in the year and wound up with a 4.33 ERA and 5.11 BB/9 in 68 2/3 innings. However, the 26-year-old did get a lot better after a terrible May, and he also concluded with 13.11 K/9 and a career-high 96.8 mph average fastball velocity (1.5 mph better than he recorded during his dream ’18).
Andrew Heaney, LHP, Angels: Considering their lack of high-end pitching additions in the offseason, it’s particularly important for the the Angels to get a healthy and better version of Heaney in 2020. Injuries victimized Heaney last year, holding him to 95 1/3 innings of 4.91 ERA/4.63 FIP ball. He also struggled to induce grounders (33.6 percent), which helped lead to an 18.3 percent home run-to-fly ball rate. But Heaney did log 11.14 K/9 against 2.83 BB/9 with a personal-best average fastball velocity (92.5 mph) and a career-high swinging-strike rate (14.1 percent).
Lou Trivino, RHP, Athletics: Trivino had an outstanding rookie year from the A’s bullpen in 2018, but with the clear exception of his 97 mph-plus velocity, just about everything went downhill last season. Fewer strikeouts and more walks meant far more runs against, with Trivino’s ERA/FIP shooting from the twos and threes to 5.25/4.53 over 60 frames during a year that ended early because of rib issues. And Trivino wasn’t as lucky as he was a rookie, as his batting average on balls in play and strand rate each went the wrong way. On a more encouraging note, the 28-year-old did rank near the top of the majors in a few notable Statcast categories, including average exit velocity against (85.5 mph).
Joakim Soria, RHP, Athletics: Soria was another A’s reliever who may not have produced as the team hoped he would have in 2019. The A’s signed Soria to a two-year, $15MM deal in December 2018 after a terrific season between the White Sox and Brewers, but for the most part, he couldn’t match what he did then. That’s not to say Soria was bad – he still posted a 4.30 ERA/3.62 FIP with 10.3 K/9 and 2.61 BB/9, and his mean fastball velocity remained in the 93 mph range. Also, as with Trivino, Soria was something of a Statcast favorite, mostly earning good marks in that area.
Yusei Kikuchi, LHP, Mariners: On the heels of an excellent tenure in his homeland of Japan, Kikuchi was a high-profile signing for the Mariners entering the 2019 campaign. They guaranteed Kikuchi $56MM on a contract that could max out at $109MM, but Year 1 of the deal probably didn’t go to the Mariners’ liking. In his first season in the majors, the 28-year-old recorded a 5.46 ERA/5.71 FIP – both among the worst in the game – across 161 2/3 innings. He relied primarily on a fastball-slider-curve mix, but all three of those offerings ranked among the least effective of their kind, per FanGraphs. Kikuchi did walk fewer than three hitters per nine, though his K/9 (6.46) placed sixth from the bottom out of 75 pitchers who accumulated at least 150 innings.
Carl Edwards Jr., RHP, Mariners: It wasn’t long ago that Edwards was a key component of the Cubs’ bullpen. As recently as 2018, he put up a 2.60 ERA/2.93 FIP with 11.6 K/9 across 52 innings, though that stellar production did come in spite of a 5.54 BB/9 and a lowly 28.9 percent groundball rate. Edwards found a way to dodge home runs then, as he gave them up on just 3.8 percent of the many fly balls he allowed, but he wasn’t able to do so during an abbreviated, shoulder injury-plagued 2019 in the majors. Edwards only totaled 17 innings between the Cubs and Padres (his other 17 2/3 frames came in Triple-A ball), and he gave up HRs 15 percent of the time en route to an abysmal 8.47 ERA/5.74 FIP. His control got worse along the way, as he surrendered almost seven walks per nine, and so did his strikeout rate. Edwards fanned a little over 10 hitters per nine, but his strikeout percentage fell almost six points from the prior year, while his swinging-strike rate dropped nearly 4 percent. Still, for $950K, you can’t fault the Mariners for rolling the dice.
Yoshihisa Hirano, RHP, Mariners: Hirano’s another low-cost bullpen flier for the Mariners, whom they inked for $1.6MM last month. No doubt, they’re hoping they get a version of Hirano closer to 2018 than ’19. The former Diamondback recorded a 2.44 ERA/3.69 FIP in his first year in the majors, but those numbers rose to 4.75 and 4.04, respectively, last season. Hirano also generated fewer ground balls, gave up more home runs and issued more walks, though he did see his K percentage go up almost 4 percent, finishing with 10.36 per nine. Like the Edwards signing, there’s little to no harm from the M’s perspective in taking a chance on a rebound.