Ranking the Worst MLB Pitchers of the 2021 Season
Even though Major League Baseball took sticky stuff away from them in June, pitchers have still had a good year in 2021. Runs per game are down and the leaguewide .243 batting average is one of the lowest ever.
There's the compliment, which must mean it's now time for the "but..." that leads us to a list of pitchers who haven't exactly pulled their weight.
We narrowed things down to the 10 worst pitchers of them all, broken up between five relievers who have made at least 25 appearances and five starters who have made at least 15 starts.
As always, wins above replacement provided a helpful guideline for picking out names. But since it would have been boring to simply list the pitchers with the lowest WAR, we also dove into other statistics to find especially damning evidence against specific hurlers.
We'll start with the relievers and end with the starters.
Worst RP No. 5: LHP Brad Hand, Washington/Toronto/New York Mets
Why pick on Brad Hand even though his 100 ERA+ qualifies him as an average pitcher? Well, suffice it to say this is one for the "Context Matters" file.
A closer's job is to nail things down in high-leverage situations, or ones in which the win probability could shift drastically depending on whether he does or doesn't record outs or give up runs. As such, perhaps the best way to determine whether a closer is good is to look at his win probability added.
Which brings us back to Hand, whose minus-2.69 WPA is easily the worst of any reliever who's appeared in 25 games this year.
Alas, Hand has been lit up to the tune of an .880 OPS in high-leverage spots. You could chalk that up to some form of mental weakness, but a simpler explanation is that there's only so much a guy can do when hitters are slugging .500 against his sinker and four-seam fastball.
On the plus side, the three-time All-Star still has a really good slider working for him. As long as that's the case, he can have high hopes for a rebound season in 2022.
Worst RP No. 4: RHP Brandon Workman, Chicago Cubs/Boston Red Sox
At the most basic level, a pitcher's job is to get outs. Everyone knows this, including Brandon Workman.
He was just really bad at it when he was pitching for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox through July 29. The 33-year-old allowed a .419 on-base percentage, which is still the highest mark among all pitchers with at least 25 innings this year.
Too much of that damage was self-inflicted, as Workman issued free passes to 15.4 percent of the batters he faced. In so doing, he put that much more pressure on himself to collect outs either by missing bats or inducing soft contact.
He did those things just fine in 2019, wherein he had a 36.4 strikeout percentage and an 85th-percentile hard-hit rate feeding into his MLB-low .123 batting average against. But this year, his strikeout rate was about half as large, while hard-hit balls accounted for more than 50 percent of balls in play off him.
In short, there are good reasons teams have steered clear of Workman since he elected free agency in August.
Worst RP No. 3: RHP Adam Plutko, Baltimore Orioles
There might not be a more thankless job in 2021 than that of a middle reliever for a Baltimore Orioles squad that's lost 102 games and allowed 274 more runs than it's scored.
Such a task is really more of a curse than a job, which could explain why Adam Plutko has pitched like a guy with a curse on him this season.
Though his pitiful strikeout-to-walk ratio might be the first thing that stands out, that he's also given up 17 home runs in only 56.1 innings is not to be glossed over. He's likewise served up 15 doubles and two triples, meaning that more than half of the 65 knocks he's surrendered have gone for extra bases.
It would be nice to throw the guy a bone by pinning this on bad luck or on Oriole Park at Camden Yards' tiny dimensions. But the average batted ball off him is 91.3 mph, or as if he was only ever facing Matt Olson.
Worst RP No. 2: RHP Yency Almonte, Colorado Rockies
Granted, it might have been fairer for us to go after Colorado Rockies closer Daniel Bard instead of Hand. Bard may have Hand beat in WPA, but he has as many blown saves (8) and a much worse ERA (5.28).
We didn't do that, though, because A) in WPA we trust and B) Bard hasn't even been the worst reliever in his own bullpen.
That's Yency Almonte, who...well, just look at those numbers. They are unequivocally awful, and his underlying metrics only do so much to redeem them. His batted ball numbers actually OK, but not nearly good enough to make up for his 33rd-percentile strikeout rate and 5th-percentile walk rate.
Indeed, the best thing to say in the 27-year-old's defense is that he's been fine on the road, pitching to a 3.93 ERA in 18 appearances. It's Coors Field that's really killed him, as his 26 outings in Denver have yielded an 11.22 ERA.
But lest anyone flippantly mumble "Coors," that's an unusually high ERA even for Coors Field. For that matter, the last time anyone had a home ERA that high was back in the steroid-addled era of the late 1990s.
Worst RP No. 1: RHP Bryan Garcia, Detroit Tigers
The Detroit Tigers have taken a step toward contention in 2021 precisely because of the good pitching they've gotten, particularly from Casey Mize in their rotation and Gregory Soto in their bullpen.
Bryan Garcia, on the other hand, hasn't quite stayed on the path that led him to a 1.66 ERA amid last year's shortened season.
What's more, there's basically no explaining away his 7.50 ERA as some kind of anomaly he doesn't deserve. On the contrary, his 8.26 expected ERA suggests he actually deserves worse. It's also the worst xERA of any pitcher who's logged at least 30 innings, with nobody else even breaking the 7.00 threshold.
From looking at his .333/.479/.719 slash line against left-handed batters, the 26-year-old should probably settle into a role as a right-handed specialist going forward. That is, of course, unless he can develop a better changeup than the one that lefties have slugged .929 against.
Either way, it will be hard for Garcia to ever have another season as bad as the one he's had in 2021.
Worst SP No. 5: RHP Mike Foltynewicz, Texas Rangers
It was only three years ago that Mike Foltynewicz, then 26, looked like a rising young star with Atlanta. He made the All-Star team and eventually finished with a 2.85 ERA over 183 innings.
Now in 2021, he's the first pitcher in history to give up as many as 34 home runs without even eclipsing 140 innings. And according to Statcast's formula for expected home runs, only one of those was undeserved.
This, evidently, is life when a power pitcher becomes incapable of blowing hitters away.
In 2018, Foltynewicz worked around 96 mph and got as high as 100.1 mph with his heat. This year has seen him operate more in the 93-94 mph range, with a max of 97.3 mph. It's unsurprising, then, that Folty's fastballs account for 21 of the 34 homers he's surrendered.
At least in theory, Foltynewicz would benefit from a move to the bullpen, where he would more easily be able to reclaim the velocity that fueled his rise in 2018. But that isn't working so well in practice, as his relief appearance on Sept. 19 saw him average only 92.1 mph with his heat.
Worst SP No. 4: RHP Chi Chi Gonzalez, Colorado Rockies
Even when Chi Chi Gonzalez was rated as one of the Texas Rangers' best prospects, he wasn't much of a strikeout artist. To wit, he whiffed under five batters per nine innings at Triple-A in both 2015 and 2016.
The last team a pitcher like this should ever play for is the Rockies. Because playing for them means pitching at Coors Field, where batted balls are much more likely to cause damage than they are anywhere else.
This is to say that it's hardly a shocker that the 29-year-old has had it pretty rough in his three years with the Rockies, and never more so than this season.
By striking out only 55 of the 439 batters he's faced, he's secured the lowest strikeout rate of any pitcher who's made at least 15 starts this year. Throw in a hard-hit rate in the 11th percentile, and him pitching for the Rockies is as if a gasoline-based lifeform made its home in a volcano.
To give credit where it's due, there's hope to be gleaned from Gonzalez's above-average walk rate and spin rates on his fastball and curveball. Should he escape Denver, such things may yet pave his way to success.
Worst SP No. 3: LHP Justus Sheffield, Seattle Mariners
The Seattle Mariners really seemed to have something in Justus Sheffield last year, wherein he broke out with a 3.58 ERA over 10 starts.
This year, however, has been a substantial step back for the 25-year-old southpaw. And not just because he's been rocked with a 7.94 ERA in five outings in relief.
As a starter, Sheffield allowed 96 hits and 35 walks and also hit five batters in just 73.2 innings. His .391 on-base percentage in that role is matched only by Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Mitch Keller, who at least has nearly as many strikeouts (85) as innings pitched (88) as a starter.
Though Sheffield's fastball velocity is down slightly from 2020, it's really his whole arsenal that's been the problem. Out of the six pitches he's thrown, his changeup (.140) is the only one that opposing batters haven't hit at better than a .300 clip.
It's a positive that Sheffield still has youth, but the best path forward for him might involve becoming a left-handed specialist. Because, let's face it, a .956 OPS against right-handed batters just isn't going to cut it.
Worst SP No. 2: LHP Patrick Corbin, Washington Nationals
Though Patrick Corbin had his best season in 2018, his career certainly peak in 2019 when he put up a 3.25 ERA in the regular season and helped the Washington Nationals win the World Series.
In two years since then, he's only gone from bad to worse.
Corbin is only the fourth pitcher in the last seven seasons to pitch as many as 150 innings with an ERA+ under 70. Because he also bears a 5.91 xERA—the highest among all ERA title qualifiers—there's no blaming bad luck for his precipitous fall from acehood.
The 32-year-old's slider just isn't what it once was, as the slugging percentage against it is now 138 points higher than it was in '19. Even though he's throwing harder on average now than he was then, it's been for naught as his sinker and four-seamer have been getting lit up in each of the last two seasons.
More generally, Corbin's splits against right-handed batters have become unsustainably bad. Unless he can fix that, he may not be far off from having to pull a Francisco Liriano by reinventing himself as a lefty specialist.
Worst SP No. 1: RHP Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs/San Diego Padres
Speaking of pitchers who used to be good, it was six years ago that Jake Arrieta won the National League Cy Young Award and five years ago that he was part of the Cubs' long-awaited World Series winner.
As for where he is now, well, it's not good.
Arrieta is only the 17th hurler in the live-ball era (i.e., since 1920) to go as low as minus-2.8 rWAR in a season. His year really has been that ugly, as he tops the charts in both average (.320) and (.563) slugging against.
What has become of the 35-year-old isn't some great mystery. The quality of his stuff diminished even from 2015 to 2016, and it's only continued to decline in the years since then. His fastball, for example, has gone from 85th percentile for velocity and 68th percentile for spin in 2015 to the 23rd and 18th percentile in 2021.
After his release from the Cubs in August, Arrieta might have gone unsigned for the rest of the season if the San Diego Padres hadn't been so desperate for healthy arms. Once his stint with them is over, whether he'll ever pitch in another major league game will be a fair question.