There are many factors that can derail a pitching season. Injuries, shoddy defense, bad luck with the balls in play, struggles to keep runners from scoring and losing control of some pitching. All this and more can prevent even the most talented arms from achieving the results they are capable of.
But a new season offers the opportunity to turn the page and start from scratch. That’s what five MLB.com writers had to consider when asked to pick a pitcher who would enjoy a comeback in 2022.
Eduardo Rodriguez — LHP, Tigers
Key number: Expected EFE of 3.47 in 2021
Clearly, the Tigers are betting on a turnaround for Rodriguez, given that they moved early in the offseason to give him a five-year, $77 million deal to wrest him from the Red Sox. At first, such a compromise may have seemed strange. The left-hander did not pitch in 2020 while he was recovering from myocarditis caused by COVID-19. And while he returned to make 31 starts in 2021, his ERA was 4.74.
But beyond the surface, advanced metrics tell a very different story. Keep in mind that the Red Sox were the worst defensive team in the major leagues (according to Statcast’s Outs Above Award), something that obviously hurt Rodriguez. Case in point: Opposing hitters averaged .316 ground balls against the Venezuelan, the most of any starter and 75 points above the major league average. That was one reason why Rodriguez’s anticipated ERA — which takes into account quality of contact, strikeouts and walks — was so much better than his true ERA. Few pitchers had such a margin in 2021 and Rodriguez is expected to do better in 2022, especially now that he has Javier Baez behind him at shortstop. Rodriguez will be just 29 years old this season and is capable of racking up strikeouts and getting weak contact, so the best may be yet to come.
Aaron Nola — RHP, Phillies
Key number: 1.28 point difference between your EFE and your expected EFE
Plot: Nola’s 2021 season was one of the “saltiest” for a pitcher. In the history. It’s true that he gave up too many homers — 26 in 180 2/3 innings — but his ERA couldn’t have been 4.63, fifth-worst among rated arms.
Evidence: Let’s focus on two numbers. First that 4.63 earned run average. Among pitchers rated with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.00 or better — as Nola did by striking out 223 batters and giving up just 39 BBs (5.72 K/BB) — it’s the second-highest in history. (The worst, by the way, belongs to Venezuelan Germán Márquez in 2019, when he had a 6.26 ERA at Coors Field. Second, the difference between Nola’s ERA (4.63) and his expected ERA (3.35) was 1.28, the widest in the sport.
What explanation is there? Well, the biggest culprit may have been the Phillies’ defense, which was -20 Above Average Outs in 2021 (seventh-worst mark in MLB), and the Phillies’ bullpen, which had an earned run average of 4.60 (sixth worst). Not that Nola is absolved of responsibility, but his average against balls put in games was .308, sixth-highest among qualified pitchers, while his 66.8% rate of runners left was the lowest. His defense and his relievers did him few favors. Even if this continues, the 28-year-old pitcher will have better numbers that reflect his talent. No one can be so unlucky two years in a row.
Yu Darvish — RHP, Padres
Key number: 22.8% strikeouts per walk, tied for 8th among starters (minimum 150 innings)
Darvish and the Padres seemed to be in a tailspin at the same time last season, and the results were uncharacteristic for Darvish: 8-11 with a 4.22 ERA — which also resulted in a sub-.500 mark for the Friars. But several of the things that Darvish dominated in 2020 were pretty close to the surface. His ERA stood at 3.09 through his first start after the All-Star break. Still, he finished with 199 strikeouts, maintaining a satisfying 29.8% strikeout rate over his last 11 appearances (even as his earned run average dipped above six). After a final nine weeks of the forgettable campaign, Darvish was still in the top 25% of qualifying pitchers in quite a few advanced metrics: hard hit rate, strikeout rate, walk rate, early average, Anticipated wOBA and anticipated ERA (nearly a full career better than his current figure).
There are warning signs. If Darvish (the king of variety) has reliable pitching, it’s the slicer he throws about a third of the time — and that one was less and less effective as the season went on. Darvish’s fly ball rate increased, compared to his average in recent years. It’s hard to deny that hip and back problems in the second half contributed to his decline, but at 35, those kinds of injuries crop up frequently.
Despite all that, I have a simple feeling that the Padres will be back in contention. San Diego’s breakout season will come a year later than anticipated, and a fit Darvish will be one of the biggest reasons why.
Zac Gallen — RHP, D-backs
Key number: 26.6% strikeout rate
After a strong first season in the majors, finishing ninth in the voting for the 2020 NL Cy Young Award, Gallen suffered a broken right arm in March of last year and then missed time with a sprain. in a right elbow tendon and a right hamstring strain.
When Gallen was able to be on the mound, his effectiveness worsened. His hit-swing and swing-out-of-the-zone rates dropped, while his hard-hit rate rose. Still, the 7.9% barrel rate and 32.7% solid hit rate weren’t that different from the numbers he posted in 2020, and he was able to maintain a good 26.6% strikeout rate. Gallen is one of 16 starters in the majors who have posted a strikeout rate of 26.5% or higher in each of the past three seasons, joining aces Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer.
What’s alarming is that Gallen didn’t come into Spring Training fully healthy, dealing with bursitis in his right shoulder. But if his fitness cooperates, Gallen could pitch better in 2022.
Clayton Kershaw — LHP, Dodgers
Key number: 3.17 ERA anticipated in 2021 (best since 2017)
Now that Kershaw has re-signed with Los Angeles, this pick is entirely health-dependent. The three-time Cy Young Award winner had his 2021 campaign derailed by a sore left forearm, an injury that surfaced in early July. Kershaw initially went on the disabled list on July 4, though he returned to the mound on Sept. 13 — and made a couple of appearances that raised hopes. That optimism disappeared when he suffered on Oct. 1, forcing the left-hander to miss his last start of the season — and keeping him out of the entire postseason.
Kershaw had an up-and-down last year, finishing with a 3.55 ERA, by far his worst since posting a 4.26 ERA as a rookie in 2008. However, his anticipated 3.17 ERA was his best since 2017, while his His 29.5% strikeout rate was the most since 2017. Additionally, in 2020 he posted a 2.16 ERA in 10 starts of the short-lived 2020 season. Kershaw’s injury history is alarming, as he has been disabled at least once once in each of the last six seasons, but if he manages to stay in relative health, he’s always projected to have an ERA below 3.00.
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Five pitchers ready for a comeback