It's hard out here for an ace.
Two years after hitting a modern nadir at 3.82 in 2014, the ERA for starting pitchers is up to 4.11 in 2016. And while top aces such as Jake Arrieta, Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale are doing their damnedest to keep that figure from going any higher, a surprisingly large number of aces are doing the opposite.
Among those who began the week with zero or negative WAR were four former Cy Young winners in Dallas Keuchel, David Price, Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander, as well as notables such as Adam Wainwright and Shelby Miller. Elsewhere, Chris Archer, Sonny Gray, Matt Harvey, Max Scherzer, Jose Fernandez and Gerrit Cole began the week with no more than a 0.3 WAR.
The list of struggling aces can arguably be expanded to include John Lackey, Hisashi Iwakuma and a few others, but the dozen names above are a good case study for the subject labeled "What's Killing the Aces?" They're top-of-the-rotation starters who could have reasonably been expected to be among Major League Baseball's best pitchers in 2016, so surely they're the target of some sort of conspiracy.
They don't all have the exact same set of problems, but there are three main pain points that are plaguing many aces across baseball. The first is plain ol' bad luck, and the other two are issues that are especially problematic in today's MLB.
BABIP Is the Cruelest Mistress
In times like these, one's gut reaction is to go searching for signs that a pitcher is getting hurt by things outside of his control. These days, the quick and easy (some will say too easy) way to do that is to focus on batting average on balls in play.
Pitchers lose all control over what happens when the ball leaves the bat, so looking at their BABIP allows for a decent sense of how much help they're getting from two sources: luck and defense. If a BABIP is especially high, it may mean a pitcher is getting screwed by both.
There appears to be some of that going on with the 12 aces on our radar. Whereas the average starter has a BABIP of .296, our guys have combined for a .329 BABIP. That's been a group effort, as 10 of them own BABIPs worse than the norm:
|Struggling Aces' BABIPs|
|David Price||Red Sox||7||.373|
Subpar defense has been an issue for the majority. According to Baseball Prospectus, only Price, Archer, Wainwright and Scherzer pitch for teams in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency. And that's barely the case with Price, as the Boston Red Sox only rank 15th in efficiency.
Otherwise, bad luck is the likely culprit. And in this instance, maybe one that should have been expected.
These same 12 pitchers combined for a .276 BABIP last season, after all, with only Cole pitching a whole season and finishing with a BABIP over .300. That wouldn't have happened without some good luck, so a bit of bad was probably always in the cards for 2016. The fact that it's been so front-loaded is the good news, as they'll likely get a course correction in the long run.
But lest anyone think that will solve all of these guys' problems, think again.
It's Not a Good Year to Have a Diminished Fastball
If you had a feeling the phrase "fastball velocity" would appear at some point, congratulations. You win.
Maybe it's because it's still early in the season, but the average fastball velocity for starting pitchers is down slightly from 2015. And of the 12 aces on our radar, only Wainwright isn't feeding into that:
|Struggling Aces' Velocity: 2015 vs. 2016|
|Name||2015 FB Velo||2016 FB Velo||Difference|
In fairness, there are still some good fastball velocities here. That's most true of Cole, as a velocity dip that doesn't take a pitcher's average below 95 miles per hour is the best kind of velocity dip.
As a general rule, though, any velocity loss isn't cool. Price summed up why after his latest shellacking.
"I feel like the more velocity that you have, the more mistakes you get away with," the veteran lefty said, per Ian Browne of MLB.com. "Right now, I'm not getting away with mistakes—or good pitches, for that matter. That's part of it."
If this is true every year, then it's especially true this year.
Though Rob Arthur and Ben Lindbergh of FiveThirtyEight struggled to pin down an explanation for it, power hitting came back in a big way last season. Hitters went from a .135 ISO (isolated power) in 2014 all the way up to a .150 ISO in 2015. The trend line is continuing upward this season, as the league's hitters are combining for a .154 ISO.
The bulk of the damage is being done against fastballs. And according to Baseball Savant, the danger increases as velocity decreases:
|Struggling Aces' Fastball ISOs: 2015 vs. 2016|
|Player||2015 Fastball ISO||2016 Fastball ISO||Difference|
Bully for Harvey, Cole and Fernandez. They're the three hardest throwers pictured here, and they're also the only ones who have actually gotten better at suppressing power with their hard stuff.
Everyone else isn't having as good of a time. Their best hope is that they'll regain some velocity as the weather gets warmer, but some of them (namely Price, Keuchel, Verlander and Greinke) may be too old for that to come true.
And even if more velocity does arrive, another problem may still remain.
Even Aces Are Having Trouble Fooling Hitters
Increased power isn't the only thing pitchers have to contend with in 2016. Walks are also up, and starting pitchers have done their part by bumping their walk rate from 7.1 percent last year to 8.2 percent this year.
It doesn't help that umpires have gotten stingier with called strikes. Perhaps in response to pressure from on high, a few searches on Baseball Savant reveal that the league's called-strike percentage (out of all called balls and strikes) is continuing to fall short of its 2014 peak:
Hitters may be catching on to this. They've dropped their swing percentage from 46.9 last year to 45.6 this season. They've become even more disciplined with their swings outside the strike zone, dropping their O-swing percentage from 30.6 to 27.4.
Relative to 2015, this trend is impacting all but two of our aces:
|Struggling Aces' O-Swing%: 2015 vs. 2016|
|Name||2015 O-Swing%||2016 O-Swing%||Difference|
The first step toward fixing this is clear for Fernandez, Cole, Archer and Miller. The average starter is getting strike one 60.1 percent of the time. The four of them are falling well short of that, which would indeed make it harder for them to get hitters to expand the strike zone.
Otherwise, it's difficult to zero in on an easy solution. In times when umpires are generous and hitters are aggressive, it's not so tough to expand the zone. But in a time when umpires are less generous and hitters aren't so aggressive, doing that is going to be tough.
So, if you were wondering if the struggling ace epidemic was one of those things or a sign of the times, it looks like a bit of Column A and a bit of Column B. Bad luck has been a factor, and that part should fix itself. But the struggling aces have also been hurt by the league's increased power and discipline, and those parts will be harder to fix.
Welcome to baseball in 2016, where ace pitchers no longer run the place.