In this guest post from Kyle Matte, he looks at how some of the peripherals suggest that the outstanding results the Jays have gotten from Dustin McGowan since he moved to the bullpen aren’t maybe as outstanding as they seem. Follow Kyle on Twitter at @KyleMatte.
Dustin McGowan has been a wildly enigmatic pitcher through the first three months of the 2014 season. He set the Grapefruit League ablaze en route to being named to a rotation that ranked 29th and 28th in ERA and FIP respectively last year, with the hope he could help steer it in a more positive direction. Despite his outstanding numbers in an admittedly small sample the decision wasn’t an easy one, and the organization publicly went back and forth regarding their plans for the right hander. McGowan was a stud out of the bullpen in 2013 and has a well-documented injury background, yet the alternatives proved so inept in March that there was no other reasonable choice for the club to make but to try him in the rotation.
He made his season debut against the New York Yankees on April 4th — his first in over thirty months — and it probably went as well as could be honestly imagined, given the rust; 4 runs allowed on 9 base runners while recording just 8 outs. The poor results were accepted by most, but what caused a stir amongst savvy fans were his swinging strikes – or the lack there of. Chops McGowan induced just three whiffs across his 72 pitches (4.2%), as the Yankees made contact with or fouled off pitch after pitch. It was suggested on the Twitter machine that Dustin may have been tipping his pitches, a rumor that was later substantiated by Pitching Coach Pete Walker.
The pitch-tipping story quickly became a thing of the past, but the elusive swinging strikes remained an ongoing battle for McGowan. Over the eight starts he would make through April and May, McGowan reached the 10% swinging strike rate plateau just three times, with his high water mark coming at 12.9% on April 23rd against the Baltimore Orioles. These struggles were a new thing for McGowan. While working as a reliever in 2013, he maintained an 11.5% swinging strike rate for the season. Among 273 relievers with at least 20 innings pitched (via Fangraphs)that rate ranked 76th – tied with Brett Cecil in the 72nd percentile; among very good company.
Manager John Gibbons seemed openly relieved when it was announced McGowan would be returning to the bullpen, where he had proven to be a valuable and reliable piece. High leverage relief pitchers enter games in the late innings, usually with a narrow lead, and often with runners on base. In terms of run expectancy, two of the best ways to get out of such scenarios with minimal damage is through strikeouts and groundballs, and Dustin had proved proficient at coaxing both. 22.8% of batters he faced walked back to the dugout with their head hung in shame, and 46.6% of balls put in play burned the hypothetical worms in the Rogers Centre turf. Those figures ranked 108th(60th percentile) and 102nd(63rd percentile) respectively among the 273 relievers with at least 20 innings pitched – neither elite, but both well above average.
Unfortunately, Dustin McGowan simply hasn’t been the same pitcher since his return to the pen. Sure, on the surface he’s been outstanding – just two earned runs allowed 16.2 innings pitched (1.08 ERA) through June 25th – but the underlying numbers suggest that unless he can rediscover his old self, a tidal wave of regression might be heading his way. His bullpen strikeout rate has sunk to just 18.6%, while his overall groundball rate is a Todd Redmond-esque 37.5%. McGowan’s success can almost entirely be tied to two completely unsustainable numbers; a .180 BABIP, and an 84.8% strand rate in his relief appearances. I know Toronto’s fielding is much improved, but there’s not a defense in existence that will turn 82.0% of balls in play into outs once the sample size starts to grow beyond a few handfuls of innings.
This leads to the obvious question: what happened? While we can further analyze particular aspects of the results – which I’ll do below – there’s a limitless deluge of possible reasons for the variance. It could be a change within McGowan, mentally or physically. Perhaps he’s still wearing his insulin pump on the mound which he didn’t last season, or maybe there’s been an immeasurable alteration in the kinetic motion of his delivery. There could be an adjustment on the side of the hitters, too. After years in baseball purgatory, McGowan has returned to a landscape where scouting reports are more advanced than ever before. It’s entirely possible teams have formulated a book on him, are significantly more aware of his tendencies, and are able to game plan to take away his strengths.