Home Featured 2020 MLB Rewind: What to make of these five star pitchers’ career-best seasons

2020 MLB Rewind: What to make of these five star pitchers’ career-best 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’ve looked at established hitters and pitchers who disappointed mightily in 2020, as well as several hitters who exceeded expectations, so let’s wrap things up with five pitchers who enjoyed career-best seasons:

Shane Bieber, SP, Cleveland Indians

2020 stats: 8-1, 1.63 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 122 K, 21 BB, 3.3 bWAR in 77.1 IP

Bieber’s 2020 season was one for the history books. The 25-year-old right-hander became the first pitcher since Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw in 2011 to win the pitching triple crown by leading the AL in wins, ERA and strikeouts. He also reached 100 strikeouts in a season faster than any pitcher in MLB history in terms of innings (62 ⅔) and led the junior circuit in wins above replacement, win-loss percentage (.889), fewest hits per nine innings (5.4) and strikeouts per nine innings (14.2). He won AL Cy Young unanimously and would have had my vote for MVP as well.

A few things to make clear before we start diving into the numbers: Nobody is doubting that Bieber has emerged as a great starter — he’s taken significant steps forward in each of his three big league seasons. At the same time, nobody is expecting him to post a sub-2.00 ERA moving forward. The question with Bieber is whether we should expect an ERA closer to 2.00 or 3.50.

First off, it should be noted that Bieber made some significant changes to his pitch mix in 2020. He lowered his usage of his four-seam fastball, which had proven too hittable at times, from 45.6% in 2019 to 37.5% this past season. In turn, Bieber threw his sensational curveball 6% more while cutting his slider usage significantly and introducing a new cutter, which rated as one of the best such pitches in the game. These aspects combined help to make Bieber’s significant increase in ground ball rate more believable and could be an indication that the huge increase in chase rate (to a remarkable 35.9% in 2020) he experienced is, while not fully sustainable, also not completely fluky. 

That being said, there are certain areas where Bieber is certain to regress in 2021. He won’t post a strikeout rate above 40% again, he won’t have a soft contact rate nearly double that of his previous two seasons and batters won’t have a collective .267 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) against him (the league average is closer to .300). It’s difficult to know to what degree Bieber will regress, but given his expected ERA (xERA) via Baseball Savant of 2.63 for 2020 and the aforementioned factors, an ERA around 3.00 would seem to be a reasonable projection for the upcoming campaign. What’s quite clear is that Bieber has made the adjustments to become one of the very best pitchers in the game for years to come.

Trevor Bauer, SP, Free Agent

2020 stats: 5-4, 1.73 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 100 K, 17 BB, 2.7 bWAR in 73 IP

4.19, 2.21, 4.48, 1.73. Those are Bauer’s ERA marks each season from 2017 to 2020. The roller coaster trajectory of those numbers isn’t a fluke, either, as Bauer’s xERA marks during those four seasons are as follows: 4.42, 2.82, 4.21, 2.17. One of the most outspoken and polarizing figures in the game, Bauer is the top free agent pitcher this winter and unlikely to return to Cincinnati and his favorite pitching coach, Derek Johnson. So which version of Bauer should a potential suitor expect moving forward? The version that just won the NL Cy Young award or the version that posted an ERA above 4.00 in seven of his nine big league seasons? 

The short answer is that it’s incredibly difficult to predict. That’s the case for most pitchers entering their 30s, but particularly Bauer, who’s been known to tinker with his approach, pitch mix, spin rate, among other factors, more than any other starter in the game. You can look at that tinkering as a sign he won’t struggle for too long without finding a way out of that rut, or you can look at it as a sign he’ll continue to be an unpredictable pitcher for years to come. 

Here are a few things to consider with Bauer: 1) His spin rate numbers were off the charts in 2020, something reflected in his high strikeout totals despite a decrease in velocity numbers. It’s hard to know if that will continue without understanding how it happened. (Everything from use of foreign substances to putting his all into the shortened season to the pitching coach difference has been suggested.) 2) The level of competition he faced was very poor. With the only exception of the White Sox, every lineup Bauer faced in 2020 was in the bottom third of MLB in runs scored. 3) Bauer’s fly ball rate (47.8%) was the highest of his career, which combined with opponents’ .215 BABIP against him paints the picture of a pitcher who did get some good luck in the ERA department. 

Despite all this, Bauer’s xERA was a sensational 2.17. And yet Steamer (a popular projection system) projects him for a 4.07 ERA in 2021. The only things that are clear are that Bauer is a good bet for a ton of innings and that his environment could play a big role in his production moving forward. It’s a bit of a cop-out answer, but there really is no easy conclusion here.

Zach Davies, SP, Chicago Cubs

2020 stats: 7-4, 2.73 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 63 K, 19 BB, 1.7 bWAR in 69.1 IP

Where there is an easy conclusion, though, is with Zach Davies. The right-hander, who was recently dealt to the Cubs in the Yu Darvish trade, had a truly impressive 2020 season but received little national attention. Part of that may be because there’s little reason to believe Davies has actually taken the massive step forward that the numbers above would seem to indicate. The 27-year-old posted an ERA between 3.55 and 4.00 in four of the five seasons leading up to 2020 (along with a 4.77 ERA the other year), and from a skills standpoint, not very much seemed to change this past season for the better. 

Davies’ strikeout rate of 22.8% was a career-best, but his barrel percentage of 10.3 was a career-worst and in the 14th percentile among MLB pitchers. His hard hit percentage and strikeout percentage were both roughly league average, his pitch mix didn’t change all that much and his batted ball profile was similar to previous seasons. 

The bump in strikeout rate is the only under-the-hood metric that drastically improved, and Davies’ .249 BABIP against and nearly 80% strand rate indicate good luck. ERA estimators seem to concur, as Davies’ FIP (3.88), xFIP (4.14) and xERA (5.01) were all significantly higher than his season mark. A ground ball pitcher who rarely throws above 90 and pitches to contact, Davies has been called a “poor man’s Kyle Hendricks”. He’ll now slot in alongside Hendricks in the Cubs rotation. If the team is expecting him to post a mid-to-high 3.00s ERA and eat innings as a solid No. 3 or 4 starter, they’ll likely be pleased with what they get from Davies. Expecting a repeat of his 2020 performance would be a big mistake, though.

Dinelson Lamet, SP, San Diego Padres

2020 stats: 3-1, 2.09 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 93 K, 20 BB, 2.4 bWAR in 69 IP

Davies’ former teammate also enjoyed a career-best year in 2020, as Lamet finished fifth among all qualified pitchers with that sparkling 2.09 ERA and came in fourth in NL Cy Young balloting. Unlike Davies, though, there are clear differences in the underlying metrics and approach of Lamet from previous years that indicate he’s made a stud turn. 

First off, Lamet added a tick of velocity to his fastball, averaging 97 mph and seeing his opponents’ slugging percentage on the pitch drop from .624 in 2019 to .462 in 2020. The most notable change, though, was an extreme focus on his slider as his main breaking pitch. In 2019, Lamet threw his slider roughly 12% of the time. This season it was up all the way to 53%, with his 559 sliders far and away the most in baseball. 

There was a good reason for that drastically increased usage: Lamet’s slider was one of the very best pitches in all of baseball. Opponents hit just .080 against it and their xBA was just .097. One other encouraging development: Lamet slightly increased his already elite strikeout rate (up to nearly 35%) while decreasing his walk rate from nearly 10% down to 7.5%. 

When it comes to potential areas of concern for Lamet, his reliance on the slider could prove a problem if batters are able to make an adjustment, though his impressive fastball velocity should allow him to adjust in such a case. And it should also be noted that he missed the playoffs due to a biceps injury and reportedly received platelet-rich plasma injections in his elbow after the season. While it’s fair to wonder about his health heading into the 2021 season, it seems clear Lamet has taken a major step forward and figures to be a big part of a very exciting Padres rotation for years to come.

Dylan Bundy, SP, Los Angeles Angels

2020 stats: 6-3, 3.29 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 72 K, 17 BB, 1.8 bWAR in 65.2 IP

Last but not least is Bundy, who is really the poster child of this particular article. The former top prospect never found consistent success in several seasons with the Orioles but really put things together in 2020 after being dealt to the Angels, finishing eighth among AL pitchers in bWAR.

It’s clear that Bundy has made some significant changes. His fastball, which once regularly sat in the mid-90s, is nowhere near where it used to be, and Bundy has smartly made the adjustment to throw it less, something that made it more effective. Batters hit .346 against his heater in 2019 but just .241 against in this past season. In turn, Bundy deployed his slider, curveball and changeup more frequently, with the latter pitch in particular being especially effective in limiting lefty batters like never before (they hit just .217/.294/.391 against him). 

All of that seems very encouraging. Less encouraging is that after a great start to the shortened season, Bundy posted a 4.62 ERA in his final eight starts, in which he started increasing his fastball usage again. It appears there were just some days where Bundy didn’t have a good feel for his slider, and that often spelled trouble. That does lead to some questions about his ability to sustain a near-ace level for an entire 162-game season. The Angels, desperately in need of reliable starting pitching, shouldn’t count on Bundy to be a reliable ace, but it is clear that he’s turned a corner.

Photo by Erik Drost / Flickr

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