Why Is Hyped 2016 Rookie Pitcher Class Struggling So Badly?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 19, 2016

Julio Urias isn't the only much-hyped rookie pitcher who's failed to hit the ground running.
Julio Urias isn't the only much-hyped rookie pitcher who's failed to hit the ground running.Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Let's hear it for Michael Fulmer. The Detroit Tigers rookie right-hander entered 2016 with relatively little hype but is now charging toward the American League Rookie of the Year award with a 2.13 ERA in 14 starts.

It hasn't been a smooth ride for his fellow rookie pitchers, however. And the more hyped they are, the worse it's been.

The 2016 season has been a rough one for all pitchers, mind you. Following a six-year run of dominance between 2010 and 2015, the league's pitchers are struggling to the tune of a 4.20 ERA this year. That's up from 3.96 last year and way up from 3.74 in 2014.

But rookie pitchers have had it especially bad. They're rocking a 4.58 ERA, easily the worst for rookie pitchers since the whole pitching-is-king thing began in 2010.

Part of this is due to a fact of life with any rookie pitcher class: There are always going to be no-names who fail to become known names. This year, the list includes the Luis Perdomos, Mike Wrights and and Dillon Overtons of the world.

What's more surprising is how much the supposed known names have struggled.

Lucas Giolito did not make a strong first impression.
Lucas Giolito did not make a strong first impression.Nick Wass/Associated Press

This year was supposed to be a good one for rookie arms. Baseball America's preseason top 100 prospects featured 13 pitchers in the top 35. The majority of them figured to pitch in the majors sooner rather than later.

Sure enough, there are eight who have to this point. One of them is New York Mets left-hander Steven Matz, who has made good on a promising 2015 debut with a 3.38 ERA in 16 outings.

It's been a different story for the other seven:

From Hyped Prospects to Struggling Rookies
NameTeamBA RankGSIPK/9BB/9HR/9ERA
Julio UriasDodgers4836.110.94.21.04.95
Lucas GiolitoNationals527.25.97.02.44.70
Blake SnellRays12631.27.74.80.33.69
Tyler GlasnowPirates1415.18.43.41.76.75
Jose BerriosTwins28415.012.07.23.010.20
Robert StephensonReds32212.03.03.01.53.00
Cody ReedReds34524.210.63.73.38.39
28132.29.14.61.65.77
Baseball America and FanGraphs

Disclaimer No. 1: This is a mixed bag of sample sizes. Disclaimer No. 2: None of them are big.

Nonetheless, it's safe to say none of these guys have hit the ground running. That 5.77 ERA makes the 4.58 ERA posted by all rookies look like a welcome sight. And in the case of Blake Snell and Robert Stephenson, solid ERAs aren't backed up by good peripherals.

It's not a stuff problem. The group's collective average of strikeouts per nine innings pitched easily tops the MLB average of 8.1. Furthermore, the average fastball velocity here is 93.1 mph, higher than the MLB average of 92.2.

This shouldn't be surprising. It usually is the pitching prospects with the best stuff who get the best rankings. Refer back to the individual grades for these guys' pitches in the Baseball America rankings, and you'll see quite a few marks toward the top of the 20-80 scouting scale.

But all it takes to have good stuff is a good arm. It's a lot harder to master control. To wit, only one of these seven has done better than the league average of 3.1 walks per nine innings. And collectively, that 4.6 BB/9 rate is what they call "no bueno."

This is most disappointing for Julio Urias, Jose Berrios and Cody Reed, who came billed as having good stuff and good control. In each case, their minor league walk rates were there to back that up.

However, it's not just in the majors that Berrios has struggled with his control. He's following up a 1.7 BB/9 at Triple-A last year with a 3.2 BB/9 at Triple-A in 2016. Lucas Giolito's control has also taken a turn for the worse. Snell, Stephenson and Tyler Glasnow, meanwhile, are staying true to track records of substandard control.

Glasnow has walked 4.3 batters per nine innings in his minor league career.
Glasnow has walked 4.3 batters per nine innings in his minor league career.Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

As such, five of this not-so-magnificent seven arguably weren't ready to pitch in the majors yet. If nothing else, that's a reminder that deciding when young pitchers are ready is a total crapshoot.

"Young pitchers, you have to suck it up and get through it and hope they all mesh at the same time," Baltimore Orioles skipper Buck Showalter told Tim Britton for Baseball Prospectus. "Some of them don't. Nobody's that good to say, 'This is exactly what this guy is going to be' and try to smugly act like it. Evaluation is an educated guess, is what it is."

Making matters worse is that this is a bad year to try to get away with subpar control. The league's walk rate of 3.1 per nine innings is up from 2.9 in each of the last two years, and that's not an accident.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant, we can see umpires are remaining consistent with strike calls in the zone (Z-Strike%) but that they're being less generous with calls outside the strike zone (O-Strike%):

Called Strike Rates: 2010-2016
YearZ-Strike%O-Strike%
201087.8%15.8%
201187.9%15.4%
201288.7%15.3%
201389.9%15.0%
201490.5%15.4%
201590.6%14.9%
201690.5%14.3%
Baseball Savant

Umpires started getting less generous outside the zone in 2015 and have doubled down in 2016. That may or may not have something to do with pressure from on high.

Either way, the message is clear: If you want strikes, you have to hit the strike zone. By and large, the not-so-magnificent seven aren't doing that. While the rest of the league is hitting the zone 45.5 percent of the time, they're at only 43.1 percent. They're proving they still need the control to match their stuff.

Also making matters worse is that hitters are no longer intimidated by good stuff. Despite the fact that strikeouts are up, home runs are also up. Way up. The league is averaging 1.15 home runs per game, making 2016 the second dinger-iest season in history after 2000.

Cody Reed's hard stuff has been especially hittable.
Cody Reed's hard stuff has been especially hittable.John Minchillo/Associated Press

Urias and Snell notwithstanding, home runs have been a huge problem for the rookie seven. One cause is their reliance on fastballs, which is a dangerous proposition this year. The league is throwing 56 percent fastballs and giving up a .458 slugging percentage on them, up from .441 last year. For our seven, it's 59 percent and a .551 slugging percentage.

If you're into conspiracy theories, the ball may also be different from what these guys are used to in the minors. Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred doesn't want anyone believing there are juiced balls in play in the majors, but at least one smart person believes something's up.

Here's what Hardball Times analyst Jon Roegele wrote to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports in May: "I couldn't find anything to describe that amount of HR/offensive change, as far as weather, strike zone, where pitchers were pitching, etc. I suspected that they changed something with the balls after the All-Star break last year as nothing else in the data could explain it."

If it is in fact true that the balls are juiced, I only have one thing to say: Boom, nailed it.

Whatever the case, the pitching environment in 2016 is starkly different from what it was a couple of years ago. As recently as 2014, the strike zone was big and hitters weren't so powerful. But now, the strike zone is small and hitters are very powerful.

This is creating a challenging situation for all pitchers. It makes sense that it would create an even more challenging situation for rookie pitchers, and an especially challenging situation for rookie pitchers whose talent is impressive but still on the raw side.

Nobody should be giving up on Urias, Giolito, Snell, Glasnow, Berrios, Stephenson or Reed. All they've made is a bad first impression. Nobody's here to say that will last forever.

Rather, let's look on the bright side: From here, the only way to go is up.

 

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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