2019’s Top Starting Rotation Struggles

What happened to 2019's best pitching staff?

After winning the World Series last season, the Washington Nationals finished last in the NL East and tied for the second-worst record in the NL. What’s changed?

One of the biggest differences between the two teams is their starting pitching. After combining for the highest WAR and second-best ERA in 2019, this year’s starting rotation ranked 24th in WAR and 25th in ERA. However, the staff itself is not too drastically different in composition from last season. Other than Stephen Strasburg, whose season ended due to injury after just two starts, the Nationals returned the rest of its rotation. It’s the same players, just playing worse. In fact, Erick Fedde is the only returnee to not post a worse ERA this season. Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, and Anibal Sánchez all had down seasons. Let’s try to figure out why.


Control Issues


After finishing third in the race for the Cy Young Award in 2019, Max Scherzer’s 3.74 ERA is the worst it’s been since 2012, the last time he didn’t make the All-Star Game. However, in some sense, he’s still nasty. He still averaged 12.3 K/9 this season after leading the league with 12.7 in 2019 and his 32.6% whiff percentage is the same as his career average.

Max Scherzer Whiff Percentage
Sure, there’s been a slight drop in his whiff percentage this season, but to put things into perspective, Scherzer still finished ninth in strikeouts among MLB pitchers with 92 this season. So what has been his biggest struggle this season? Walks.
The problem is that his K/BB has dropped from an MLB-leading 7.36 to 4.00 and his 3.1 BB/9 is the highest it’s been since 2010. This suggests that Scherzer’s stuff is still elite, there’s just been a lapse in control. His control problems are even more evident when you compare the percentage of pitches he threw in the strike zone over the past couple years.

Scherzer’s 43.0% Zone% in 2020 is his career-low. He is clearly having a harder time throwing strikes this season. One reason for this may be a lower fastball usage.

Max Scherzer Pitch Composition / Zone %

Other than 2017, Scherzer has shown a positive correlation between his fastball/cutter usage and the percentage of pitches that end up in the strike zone. The more fastballs/cutters he throws, the more pitches that end up in the zone.

However, Scherzer didn’t just throw fewer fastballs this season for no reason. Hitters were hitting his fastball better this year than previously. Opponents’ xBA on the pitch was up 68 points and xSLG was up 158 points from 2019. One reason for this may be that his fastball is moving less than it was last season. He’s witnessed a 1.7-inch decrease in both vertical and horizontal movement this season, suggesting that his fastball has become more straight and thus more hittable.

Clearly, the fix for Scherzer isn’t as simple as throwing more fastballs, he also has to be able to throw it effectively. But overall, the combination of a similar whiff percentage, high amount of strikeouts, and a lower Zone% all suggest that should Scherzer be able to regain control, he’ll be able to return to an elite level in 2021.


Slowing Down


Patrick Corbin, on the other hand, is more concerning. From 2018 to 2019, Corbin had two of his best seasons. Not only did he put up the lowest ERA numbers of his career, but he also showcased a newfound ability to strike out hitters. His K/9 in 2018 and 2019 were 11.1 and 10.6, respectively. To put this in perspective, his previous high had been 8.4.

However, Corbin lost his ability to strike out hitters this season. He had an average strikeout rate of 29.7% from 2018 to 2019, but this season, his strikeout rate was only 20.3% and his K/9 was 8.2. His whiff percentage was down from 31.8 in 2019 to 23.7 this season. Corbin had a harder time getting hitters to swing and miss, and some of this might be explained by a drop in Corbin’s velocity this season.

Patrick Corbin Velocity (mph)

Corbin’s velocity is at a career-low for all of his pitches, but let’s look at his most important pitch, his slider. This is Corbin’s moneymaker. It has been his most thrown pitch since 2017 and if you just look at 2019 for an example, 67.6% of his strikeouts came on this pitch. But it just wasn’t as effective this season: his opponents’ xBA on his slider increased from .154 in 2019 to .216. This might be due to a combination of his decrease in velocity and a lower spin rate.

Patrick Corbin’s Spin Rate and Whiff% on Slider by Year

From 2018 to 2019, the lefty’s slider averaged 2393.5 rpm en route to a 52.8 whiff percentage, but this season, those numbers are down to 2241 rpm and 38.2. For Corbin, a higher spin rate roughly correlates to a higher whiff percentage, meaning he’s proven to be more successful with his slider when he has a higher spin rate. Clearly, spin rate isn’t everything, but combining this information with the fact that his velocity is at a career-low, it seems to make a little more sense why hitters are making more contact.


Dealing with Father Time


That leaves us with Anibal Sánchez. The 36-year-old had possibly the worst season of his career. Though he only started 10 games in this shortened season, Sánchez’s 6.62 ERA was the highest of his career. His 1.66 WHIP and 11.9 H/9 are the worst numbers he has put up since 2007, a season in which he only pitched 30 innings. A big reason for this is the fact that his fastball has become more hittable. Opponents hit .267 against it in 2019, but this season, they’re hitting .441. Like Corbin, Sánchez’s spin rate and velocity on his primary pitch are down this season. In fact, for Sánchez, an average fastball velocity of 89.1 mph and a spin rate of 2148 rpm are the lowest numbers he’s put up in these categories throughout his career.

Anibal Sánchez’s Fastball
Now, Sánchez is in fact getting a little unlucky this season. His opponents’ xBA and his xSLG are both below their actual BA and SLG. And sure, Sánchez did get a little lucky in previous seasons. In 2019, his opponents’ xBA and xSLG were both above their actual BA and SLG. But, even with the combination of bad and good luck, there is still a significant drop in his 2020 performance correlating with the drop in his fastball velocity. His opponents’ xBA is up 72 points this season. Their xSLG is up 157 points. They’re even hitting the ball harder, with the average exit velocity going up 2.8 mph.
All this suggests that perhaps one of the reasons why Sánchez has struggled is because Father Time has finally caught up to the 36-year-old pitcher. He doesn’t have the same arm anymore.
But again, none of this is a guarantee of a permanent decline. When Sánchez left the Detroit Tigers for the Atlanta Braves in 2018, he saw his WHIP drop from 1.595 to 1.083 and his H/9 drop from 11.9 to 7.0. One reason for this was the development of his cutter. His cutter usage increased from 7.3% to 20.2% between these two seasons. In fact, he totally changed his pitching repertoire.
Anibal Sánchez’s Pitch Percentage Thrown 2017-2018
Sánchez basically reinvented himself as a pitcher and saw his stats improve as a result. With this new arsenal, he saw his opponents’ barrel percentage drop from 7.5% to 5.1%. Their average exit velocity also dropped from 88.2 mph to 85 mph, putting him in the top percentile of pitchers in 2018. He did this at the age of 34, and he already has the framework to do it again at the age of 37.
Anibal Sánchez Pitch Percentage Thrown

With his fastball becoming more hittable, Sánchez increased his usage of his splitter this season. It was a great move. His splitter had an xBA of .194, the lowest out of any of his pitches in 2020. Of course, the splitter has to work off of another pitch, but perhaps Sánchez can reinvent his arsenal next season to focus more on throwing this pitch. If so, Sánchez can again be an effective starting pitcher.


And Finally, Some Improvement


That leaves us with Erick Fedde as the final returnee of the starting pitching staff from 2019. After posting a 4.50 ERA in 2019, he has maintained a relatively similar ERA this season of 4.29. However, in some categories, he has vastly improved. His opponents put up an xBA of .318 last season, putting Fedde in the bottom of 1% of MLB pitchers, but that did improve in 2020 to .280. Though that still isn’t great, it’s an improvement.

As a sinkerball pitcher, it’s encouraging that his sinker showed the most improvement in 2020. Hitters’ xBA on this pitch went down from .388 to .303, the xSLG went down from .617 to .530, and the exit velocity fell from 91.9 mph to 89.3 mph. This may be because of better movement on the pitch—his sinker showed an extra 1.4 inches of horizontal break this season. As a pitcher whose focus is on inducing weak contact (his 12.6 K% is in the bottom 1% this season), this has made him more efficient, as seen from the rise in his groundball percentage from 51.6 to 55.6.

So sure, Fedde’s stats aren’t great, but he has gotten better. And like the rest of the pitching staff, he is not beyond repair.


A 2021 Comeback?


Overall, the Nationals’ starting pitchers definitely underperformed in 2020. However, there’s no guarantee that this will be a prolonged decline, just as there is no guarantee that the Nationals will immediately bounce back. Changes will have to be made if the Nationals want to return to peak form, but fans should keep their heads up. Strasburg will be back next season, and any pitching staff with him and Scherzer at the top of the rotation is a rotation to be feared.

If all goes well, Washington just might have a staff ready to make another run next season.


Scherzer (Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire) | Corbin (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire) | Sánchez (Ian D’Andrea on Flickr) | Fedde (David bootbearwdc on Flickr) | Adapted by Rick Orengo (@OneFiddyOne on Twitter)

Samuel In

Samuel is a lifelong San Diego Padres fan with a deep appreciation for small market teams, YouTube and random conversations. You can share in all his misery on Twitter at @Samuel_Out.

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