Opening Day 2019 has finally come and gone. It was an exciting day for fans and players alike, as it always is. But not everyone had a reason to celebrate. While the vast majority of big leaguers reported for their first paid day of work this year, several big name free agents were left sitting at home.
To be sure, some role players and journeymen doubtless find themselves unemployed at the start of every season. It’s not every year, though, that multiple valuable, productive players are jobless on Opening Day. Big names like Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel found themselves unemployed, among others. If we filter out players who posted less than 1.0 fWAR last year, we’re left with five names: Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Denard Span, Jose Bautista, and James shields.
Dallas Keuchel is 31 now and doesn’t have premier stuff, but surely no one expected a recent Cy Young winner to go unsigned. Earlier this offseason, Keuchel rejected a qualifying offer from his former club, perhaps looking for something like the four years, $83 million that MLB Trade Rumors had him pegged for. As a result, whichever team that ends up signing him will forfeit at least their third-highest draft pick and maybe some international pool money.
Still, that would be unlikely to deter every team that otherwise has the cash to spend on a premier hurler like Keuchel. Keuchel posted an impressive 3.3 fWAR last season. And he’s projected to be worth at least 2.5 more in 2019!
His 3.74 ERA last season wasn’t anything to write home about, of course. And his wOBA on pitches at the bottom of the zone–where Keuchel usually excels–was up to .338, the highest mark since his 2014 breakout.
On the other hand, Statcast’s expected wOBA metric isn’t quite as bearish:
So maybe his down season wasn’t so bad after all. There are other reasons to worry–his ground ball rate shrank by 13 points and his slider wasn’t the reliable weapon it’s been in years past–but none of those reasons are bad enough to keep him out of a job. He’ll find a new team sooner rather than later, but he’ll likely have to settle for a short-term deal, low AAV, or both.
Like Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel also turned down a qualifying offer, and he likewise has a forfeited draft pick that factors into his price. Still, Kimbrel just cracked the top 15 all-time Saves leaderboard, and he’s not even 31. But as many Red Sox fans will agree after his postseason meltdown, Kimbrel’s 2018 was a down year.
There’s one important qualifier on that statement, though–it was a down year for him. In 2017, Kimbrel had a sparkling 1.43 ERA, backed up by stellar peripherals including a superhuman 44.1 K-BB%, second-most all time among pitchers with at least 50 IP (and second only to his 2012 campaign).
He followed up this stellar campaign with a 2.74 ERA, a 3.13 FIP and xFIP, and only a 26.3% strikeout-walk differential. Sure, that’s way down from 2017. But the vast majority of relievers’ best seasons can’t measure up to Kimbrel’s 2018. And don’t forget, he’s come back from this before. Kimbrel’s 2016 was, by most measures, about the same as or worse than his 2018.
Actually, his 2018 was actually better than his 2017 in some ways. Take a look at some of his Statcast numbers:
For one, his hard-hit rate was its lowest since his season with the Padres. His average exit velocity and barrel rate went down accordingly. And, most interestingly, his expected wOBA on contact (xwOBACON) dropped significantly.
Kimbrel isn’t known for allowing a lot of contact, though. He’s not exactly a pitch-to-contact type of guy. Soft contact just isn’t where his success has come from, so it’s not as important as it is for some pitchers.
As you probably already guessed, the strikeout and walk numbers were the primary driver of his success in 2017. Really, that’s true for his career as a whole. So it stands to reason that he wasn’t as good last season because his strikeout and walk numbers weren’t as good last season. And maybe his strikeout and walk numbers weren’t as good because he did something differently.
Sure enough, Kimbrel was in the zone just 36.6% of the time in 2018–that’s 10 points less than 2017 and well below the league average of 48%.
As you can see, fewer of Kimbrel’s pitches ended up down in the zone, where he’s traditionally had a lot of success. On the other hand, more pitches ended up just below the zone, but hitters didn’t chase.
What’s more, hitters whiffed less often at those pitches that were in the zone. Likewise, his wOBA against on pitches in the zone was .274, the highest number of his career by a significant margin. Simply put, he’ll need to pound the zone to continue his success going forward.
Either way, he’s very unlikely to get anything close to the six years, $100+ million he was rumored to be looking for. But there’s no reason to think he won’t still be among the top relievers in the game, even if he’s not as good as he’s been in seasons past. Chances are he’ll take a short term deal with a high AAV that’ll take him into his mid 30s.
Span turned 35 during the offseason, so this one isn’t a total shock. Still, his 1.5 fWAR in 2018 is nothing to sneeze at, and it’s more or less in line with his value over the three seasons before that.
If anything, he was better offensively last year than he’s been since he left the Nationals. He saw upticks not only in wOBA and isolated power, but also in his hard-hit and airball rates. He remained a patient hitter, too, with a chase rate of just 24% to go along with a league-average swing rate on pitches in the zone. And, as it’s often been, his contact rate was one of the best in the bigs.
While his hard-hit rate was up, it wasn’t exactly good. In fact, at 29.6, it was in the bottom 15th percentile among hitters. Likewise, his average exit velocity was in the bottom 17th percentile among hitters last year. As a result, Span’s wOBA on contact was .345, compared to a .363 league average.
Yet making high-quality contact has never been Span’s strong suit, and he was a valuable hitter anyway. All things considered, Span deserves another chance. Unless he decides to retire, he’ll find a team eventually.
Despite being a perennial All-Star what feels like just a short time ago, it’s no big surprise that Jose Bautista finds himself unemployed to begin 2019. The former slugger bounced between teams in the NL East last season after also being unemployed to start last season. Although he fared better than in his sub-replacement-level 2017, Bautista’s 2018 was marred by precipitous declines in power and average compared to his heyday, accompanied by an uptick in strikeouts.
Perhaps Bautista struggled in 2017 partly because he didn’t pull the ball as much as he usually does. A 45% pull rate is still a lot, just not for Bautista, who’s never pulled fewer than half his balls since his 2010 breakout. And the balls that were pulled in the air were hit as hard–their average exit velocity was 91.8 MPH, down from 96.5 MPH in 2016. Bautista was a founding father of the so-called air-ball revolution, so it makes sense that he lost value when he stopped doing what made him a star.
He seems to have corrected those issues in 2018, though, as his batted ball profile was much closer to normal. In particular, his power on contact was much closer to its former heights. Take a look at his quality of contact profile over the previous four seasons:
You’ll notice that his rate of poorly-hit balls (weak contact, topped, and under) was its lowest in the Statcast era. And while his hard-hit balls weren’t hit as hard as in 2015 or 2016–more balls were flares/burners or solid contact and fewer were barrels–he still made better-quality contact than in 2017.
The real problem, however, was his plate discipline. His swinging strike rate was over ten percent for the second year in a row, and his contact rate was nearly ten points lower than in his prime. His strikeout rate ballooned to nearly 28% accordingly, and his batting average was just .203 (same as 2017). He swung about as much as he always has. The problem is that he missed more often. Perhaps pitchers found some previously-unseen hole in his swing, or maybe his swing somehow changed. If he can get his contact rate back to normal, though, he may have a chance at being a valuable hitter again.
All in all, Bautista could be a valuable fourth outfielder, backup DH, or bench bat to some team. Or he could call it a career–he’s 38 years old and he’s had a good career. Still, no matter what happens now, he’ll always have the bat flip.
Fernando Tatis, Jr., the Padres blue-chip shortstop prospect, spent Opening Day playing baseball. James Shields, the White Sox’s return for shipping Tatis to San Diego, will not. Much has been made of the steep decline of the name man once known as Big Game James. Once a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, Shields has posted a FIP above 5.00 each of the last three seasons. Admittedly, it’s not as strange that James Shields is currently jobless as it is with Keuchel or Kimbrel. But he did post 1.1 fWAR last year, so it’s worth taking a look at what led him to this point.
Unfortunately for Shields, his modest increase in fWAR last season from sub-replacement level the year before wasn’t enough to earn him a job by opening day. The righty saw his ground ball rate fall while his fly ball rose, continuing the trend we’ve seen over the past few seasons. And while his HR/FB rate did decrease five points to 12.7%, only Dylan Bundy gave up more homers. All in all, there’s not a lot of good here.
If you’re searching for a silver lining, he reached the 200-inning threshold last season for the tenth time in his career, so he could eat innings for a team that really needs it. He certainly has plenty of experience. But Shields is now 37, so he might choose to hang up his hat and call it a career. He could, in theory, still turn it around, but it looks like he might not get the chance.
Stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Keuchel image via Arturo Padavilla on Flickr. Kimbrel image via Keith Allison on Flickr. Gif via MakeAGif.com