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2020 MLB Rewind: What to make of these five star pitchers’ disappointing seasons

by Chris Brown

As was expected given COVID-19 revenue losses and uncertainty, the MLB offseason has been painfully slow thus far, with no real hopes of that changing any time soon. With that in mind, this seems like the perfect time to take a look back at the truly unprecedented 2020 season to help us understand what we should expect for the upcoming 2021 campaign.

This past season was, of course, played under vastly different circumstances than normal, from the delayed start to the 60-game regular season (instead of the normal 162) to safety protocols which, while certainly necessary, disrupted the routines of many MLB players. Some MLB stars with established track records never found a rhythm and finished with truly awful stat lines, while others enjoyed career-best performances which may not be indicative of real strides forward.

More so than perhaps any of the other major North American sports, it often takes long stretches for an individual MLB player’s results to normalize. Great players frequently have multi-month long stretches of poor play while well-below-average major leaguers can look like Babe Ruth or Cy Young for surprisingly long stretches. That’s just one reason to take all outlier individual 2020 individual stat lines with a major grain of salt. 

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be learned from a star’s outlier season. It just means we may need to look beyond the surface for explanations that can help us predict future performance. We continue our look at different groups of players with five star pitches who vastly underperformed expectations in 2020:

Patrick Corbin, SP, Washington Nationals

2020 stats: 2-7, 4.66 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 60 K, 18 BB, 1.7 bWAR in 65.2 IP

Slotted behind Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in the Nats’ rotation, Patrick Corbin has quietly been one of the more reliable starters in baseball in recent years, posting a 39-27 record, 3.47 ERA, and 3.33 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, a common ERA estimator) while striking out roughly 10 batters per nine innings from 2017-19. The most recent campaign was a different story, though, as the left-hander experienced one of the worst seasons of his career. In just over 65 innings, Corbin surrendered a league-high 85 hits while allowing opponents to bat an extremely troubling .308 against him. His Statcast expected ERA (xERA) was 5.01. 

The biggest factor in Corbin’s 2020 struggles would seem to be a nearly two mile per hour drop in average fastball velocity. That may not seem like much, but for an MLB pitcher that’s a really significant decline. He attempted to use his slider more frequently than past seasons as a result, but that didn’t help matters. Put simply, you can’t be an effective major league pitcher when opponents are hitting .415 with a .679 slugging percentage against your fastball, and that’s what happened to Corbin in 2020. His whiff percentage on the pitch dropped from 19% in 2019 to just 6% this past season.

There aren’t a ton of positives in Corbin’s profile, though his command remained strong and the batting average of balls in play (BABIP) of his opponents skyrocketed to .362, indicating he likely experienced some bad luck. The 31-year-old indicated to reporters that the quick ramp up to the season after the COVID-19 delay and other unique factors in the season may have affected his arm strength in 2020. Corbin will turn 32 in the middle of next season, so it’s quite possible he’ll be unable to return to his previous form, but the circumstances of the 2020 campaign could have just thrown him off. What’s clear, though, is that a bounceback will likely hinge on him recovering some velocity.

Madison Bumgarner, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks

2020 stats: 1-4, 6.48 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 30 K, 13 BB, -0.3 bWAR in 41.2 IP

The three-time World Series champion’s first season in the desert was simply horrendous. There were some warning signs that Bumgarner would regress away from San Francisco, as his 5.16 ERA away from the pitcher-friendly confines of Oracle Park the previous two seasons indicated. But no one expected the disaster that was Bumgarner’s 2020 season. Batters were squaring him up at an alarmingly high rate, not a single one of his pitches was particularly effective, his strikeout rate (15.8%) was a career-low and his xERA was 7.51. His .266 BABIP against doesn’t indicate bad luck, either.

Like Corbin, a decrease in velocity could be a significant factor, as Bumgarner’s average fastball dropped from exactly two miles per hour from 2019 to 2020 and his cutter dropped nearly five miles per hour. He also didn’t seem to have good command of his pitches most of the season, and opponents made him pay to the tune of the highest home run rate (2.81 per 9 IP) of his career. 

Bumgarner is owed nearly $80 million over the next four seasons by the Diamondbacks, who are surely afraid of this turning into one of the worst contracts ever handed out. A few reasons for optimism: After allowing eight earned runs on 13 hits on Sept. 15, Bumgarner held the Astros and Rockies scoreless in back-to-back five-inning starts to end the season. And the 31-year-old also missed time due to a back injury, which could be a partial explanation for his struggles. My two cents: the veteran lefty will get back to being a serviceable option, but there’s a good chance we won’t see the old MadBum again.

Corey Knebel, RP, Los Angeles Dodgers

2020 stats: 0-0, 6.08 ERA, 1.73 WHIP, 15 K, 8, -0.1 bWAR in 13.1 IP

For a pitcher who not long ago was one of the better closers in the National League, the above stat line seems pretty alarming. Knebel’s strikeout rate in 2020 was a career-low, his walk rate tied a career-high and his FIP was a rough 6.64. His average fastball velocity was also down a few ticks from previous years.

But this is one of those scenarios where diving too far into the data likely isn’t all that helpful. Knebel missed all of the 2019 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and it often takes time for pitchers to get back to firing on all cylinders. Plus we’re talking about a 2020 sample size of less than 15 innings thanks to the shortened season and a hamstring injury that kept him out of action for roughly three weeks. And finally, Knebel impressed down the stretch, posting a 2.70 ERA with eight strikeouts in 6 ⅔ frames across his final six appearances. 

The Dodgers, clearly not scared off by those results, acquired Knebel from the Brewers in early December for minor league left-hander Leo Crawford. Perhaps he doesn’t recapture his previous form, but there’s reason to believe the Dodgers could have just landed a dominant late-inning option for an extremely low cost.

Chris Paddack, SP, San Diego Padres

2020 stats: 4-5, 4.73 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 58 K, 12 BB, 0.3 bWAR in 59 IP

The Padres starter burst onto the scene in 2019 with a 3.33 ERA in roughly 140 innings in his rookie season and was tabbed as an emerging ace, but Paddack took a significant step back in his sophomore campaign. Paddack’s low 4.9% walk rate would seem to indicate that finding the strike zone wasn’t the issue. But while his changeup remained a plus pitch, opponents were able to sit on his fastball and square off to the tune of a .308 batting average and .658 slugging percentage against the pitch. Paddack’s home run rate (2.1 per nine innings) was also alarmingly high.

Unlike the players before him on this list, Paddack’s major league track record isn’t very extensive, so it’s hard to know who the real Chris Paddack is. It could be that the league adjusted to him and he’ll be unable to adjust back, particularly without a third pitch he’s comfortable throwing. Or he could have just been thrown off by the unorthodox season and be set to adjust back to the league’s hitters. The data can only tell us so much at this point of Paddack’s career, but my belief is that while he could be a serviceable No. 3 or 4 starter with his current arsenal, he’ll need to have a third pitch he’s confident in to deliver on his star upside.

Jack Flaherty, SP, St. Louis Cardinals

2020 stats: 4-3, 4.91 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 49 K, 16 BB, -0.3 WAR in 

The young right-hander had one the best post-All-Star break stretches in MLB history in 2019, posting a miniscule 0.91 ERA in the second-half, the third-lowest such mark of all time. Flaherty finished fourth in NL Cy Young balloting and there was universal agreement that he had emerged as one of the best young pitchers in the sport. As you can surely tell from the numbers above, his 2020 season wasn’t nearly as impressive, but there are a few major reasons for optimism heading into 2021.

For one, the Cardinals, who had to pause for an extended stretch due to a COVID-19 outbreak, handled their young ace with kid gloves given the unique circumstances. He had starts skipped, an uneven schedule and wasn’t allowed to go deep into games, all factors that seemed to prevent him from getting into a rhythm. There’s no denying the overall numbers, of course, but most of the key advanced metrics show small regression rather than anything particularly alarming. It should also be noted that if you were to remove one disastrous start (9 ER in 3 IP) then Flaherty’s ERA would drop from nearly 5.00 to 3.13. It’s fair to question what to expect from the right-hander moving forward, but there’s certainly a strong case to just write off the 2020 struggles.

Photo by All-Pro Reels / Flickr

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