Everything about Reds starter Alfredo Simon’s season has been a pleasant surprise.
Originally expected to open the season in the Reds bullpen, Simon, 33, was given a chance in the starting rotation during spring training due to an injury to Mat Latos. With only 19 career starts in the major leagues under his belt headed into the season, the hope was that Simon would simply hold down the role and stabilize the back end of the rotation until Latos was ready to return.
Instead, the right-hander has relished the opportunity, turning in a breakthrough performance during the first half of the season while arguably serving as the Reds' most consistent starting pitcher.
Simon’s 12 wins headed into the All-Star break tied him with Adam Wainwright for the most in the National League, and he’s currently riding a streak of eight consecutive quality starts. However, Simon’s excellent first half didn’t result in an All-Star selection as many expected, though he eventually earned a spot on the team as a last-minute replacement for teammate Johnny Cueto.
However, in spite of Simon’s overwhelming success this season, there are reasons to believe the right-hander’s performance will regress during the second half.
Prior to this year, Simon’s only experience as a starter came back in 2011 as a member of the the Orioles, making 16 starts and posting a 4.90 ERA while logging 115.2 innings. This season, the right-hander has already set a new career-high for innings pitched with 116.2, and more importantly, he’s done so while registering a career-best 2.70 ERA.
So, what’s to make of his vast improvement this season?
If we look at Simon’s statistics from 2009 and 2014, we see that his current success is at least partially driven by luck.
Specifically, the large discrepancy between Simon’s 2.70 ERA and 4.34 FIP this season is a result of his high strand rate (85.1 percent left on base) and low opponents’ batting average on balls in play (.232 BABIP). In 2011, the right-hander stranded runners only 68.2 percent of the time while opposing hitters posted a .317 BABIP, which is why his 4.42 FIP was more in line with his 4.90 ERA. However, stats alone don’t tell the full story as to why Simon has been so successful this season.
Simon’s approach this year as well as his pitch usage is noticeably different compared to his 2011 campaign with Baltimore.
Specifically, the right-hander has thrown both his two-seam fastball and cutter more often this year while scaling back his use of the slider, a pitch he struggled to control in previous seasons. Furthermore, Simon has shown the ability to mix in a curveball this year to give hitters a different look, albeit as a show-me pitch, which is impressive considering he last threw the pitch in 2009 as a reliever.
As a result of his increased fastball (including his cutter) use, Simon’s ground-ball rate has improved from 43 percent in 2011 to 49.3 percent this year, while his fly-ball rate has improved by a similar amount (6.8 percent), per FanGraphs.
While the changes to Simon's approach and arsenal this season have detracted from his ability to miss bats, they've also helped him to work within the strike zone more consistently, which in turn has enabled him to work deeper into games.
However, Simon already has entered uncharted territory with a career-high 116.2 innings pitched this year, and his unsustainably high strand rate and BABIP suggest an inevitable regression, at least from a statistical perspective. The ZIPS and Steamer projection models (via FanGraphs) suggest something similar:
The fact that Simon has blown past all reasonable expectations means the Reds are likely to stick with him as a starter moving forward, even if he encounters the struggles his stats predict. However, it's also been widely assumed that he'll return to the bullpen at some point this season due to workload concerns, so it wouldn't be surprising if that happened ahead of schedule should Simon get off to a slow start in the second half.