Thursday, February 9, 2023

MLB trends: Red Sox’s power outage, Reid Detmers’ resurgence and baseball’s chance for a rare 20-game loser

Only five weeks remain in the 2022 MLB regular season. The trade deadline has passed and we’re well into the dog days of summer, and the postseason races (and the awards races) have begun to really heat up. A dozen teams will play in October this year and there’s still plenty of time for the races to get flipped upside-down. 

With that in mind, our bi-weekly series breaking down various trends across the league continues Wednesday with one rookie pitcher’s adjustments, one team’s lack of power, and one pitcher approaching a dubious milestone. Last time we looked at Shohei Ohtani’s new pitch, the Marlins avoiding a record for offensive futility, and the increase in team shutouts league-wide.

Detmers rediscovers strikeout ability

This has been an eventful season for Angels rookie lefty Reid Detmers. The No. 10 pick in the 2020 draft opened 2022 in the big league rotation (he made his MLB debut last August) and fired a no-hitter on May 10. Less than two months later, Detmers was back in the minors. He allowed 17 runs in 27 innings in six starts after the no-hitter to earn the demotion.

“Just a little bit of a reset for him. There’s greatness in there. I’ve said that before. There’s been a ton of guys who had to go back down and kind of reset themselves,” Angels interim manager Phil Nevin told the Orange Country Register after Detmers was sent to Triple-A. “… He really hasn’t had that many major league or minor league innings underneath his belt. It’s very rare you see the guy come right out of college, and have the accomplishments that he’s had.”

Detmers spent only 16 days in the minors and made just one Triple-A start, and in that start he struck out 14 batters in six innings. Since being recalled on July 8, Detmers has made eight starts with a 1.97 ERA while striking out 29.4 percent of batters faced. Prior to being sent down, he had a 4.66 ERA with an 18.6 percent strikeout rate in 12 starts. 

While surely disappointing, the demotion proved to be the best thing that could happen to Detmers. Detmers was able to reconnect with minor-league pitching coordinator Buddy Carlyle, who identified a mechanical flaw. The two got together and broke down the video, and worked to correct the flaw in Triple-A bullpen sessions. The Athletic has the details:

“It was just side-by-side video,” Detmers said. “It was just a small tweak. The shoulders were tilted. It was just get back to level. When I was striding out, shoulders were tilted … which caused my arm angle to be really high. Just get my shoulders to be level again … and get my arm angle how it used to be.” 

“He’s an incredibly gifted pitcher who was determined to get back to Anaheim as soon as possible,” Carlyle said of Detmers. “He never felt sorry for himself and put a ton of work in, as he always does.” 

Correcting the arm angle improved Detmers’ slider. Or, more accurately, it got his slider back to where it was last year, when he struck out 108 batters in 62 minor-league innings and was arguably the best pitching prospect in baseball. And, of course, an improved slider helps everything else plays up. Here are the swing-and-miss rates on Detmers’ arsenal this year:

Fastball

18.8%

30.7%

21.7%

Slider

25.3%

29.2%

34.1%

Curveball

24.7%

29.7%

30.7%

Changeup

26.6%

32.4%

29.8%

Detmers still has work to do to turn his slider into an above-average swing and miss pitch, though he is on the right path, and is in a much better place now than he was earlier this year, even when he threw the no-hitter. Detmers struck out only two batters in that no-hitter! It was the first no-hitter with two or fewer strikeouts since Francisco Liriano‘s two-strikeout no-hitter in 2011. That was 37 single-pitcher no-hitters ago.

Not much has gone right for the Angels this season outside Shohei Ohtani. They’re in danger of losing more than 95 games for the first time in franchise history and that’s despite starting the season 22-11. Detmers’ progress qualifies as a success story. The recently turned 23-year-old figures to be a big part of the next contending Angels team, and he’s resembled a building block pitcher since his recall.

Red Sox lagging in home runs

Sunday afternoon the Red Sox did something they had not done in 16 games: they hit three home runs. Franchy Cordero, Tommy Pham, and JD Martinez all went deep in a loss to the Rays. Boston’s previous three-homer game was Aug. 10. The Red Sox as a team have only 11 three-homer games in 2022. Eleven individual players have had three-homer games this season.

“We expected more homers out of our lineup, but we haven’t done that,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora told the Boston Herald last week. “We haven’t been capable of drive the baseball for X and Y causes. Some guys are banged up. Others, their swings haven’t been there all through the season. If you look, I feel Christian (Vázquez) hit 10 right here. JD and Xander (Bogaerts), they’re round there. Trevor (Story) has 15 … We were trying to hit homers in the past, but we just haven’t been hitting them, and that’s surprising. That’s surprising for a team, especially here, pull-side power that we have, it hasn’t happened.”

The Red Sox have hit 122 home runs this season, the 11th-fewest in baseball. They’ve hit fewer home runs than the Pirates, a team that isn’t even pretending to compete (Pittsburgh has 127 homers in one fewer game). Boston is on pace for 152 home runs this season, which would be its fewest in a non-pandemic season since hitting 123 homers in 2014, a year they lost 91 games. Last season the Red Sox swatted 219 homers en route to the ALCS.

Injuries have surely played a part in the lack of home runs (Story has only played 84 games and Enrique Hernández only 63 games, for example). Three players really stand out when you look at Boston’s lack of home run production though:

Xander Bogaerts

11

13.7

23

26

Bobby Dalbec

11

13.7

25

25

JD Martinez

10

12.5

28

25

Martinez’s game has completely collapsed. Sunday’s homer ended a 34-game drought and he entered Tuesday hitting .219/.287/.344 in over 300 plate appearances since June 1. At age 35, there’s always a chance age has caught up to Martinez and his bat has slowed to the point where he’s an average at-best hitter. He thinks he’s identified the problem and can correct it, however.

“I’ll just put it easy for you: I’m not using my hips as I once was. It’s not like they don’t work,” Martinez told MLB.com following Sunday’s game. “It’s just a mapping thing from my brain and finding a drill, finding something that gets me to fire my hips correctly. I can do it in drills. When I grab the bat with two hands, it’s been a grind.”

Bogaerts is hitting for average, getting on base, and pounding doubles at rates in-line with his career norms. The home runs have just dried up. Dalbec’s game has regressed badly. The 27-year-old had what looked like a breakout second half last season, hitting .269/.344/.611 with 15 homers in 195 plate appearances. Plate discipline and contact concerns — concerns dating back to his time in the minors — have been exposed this year though. Dalbec’s strikeout and swing-and-miss rates are among the worst in the league.

With Bogaerts and Martinez underperforming, Dalbec getting exposed, and Story missing so much time, Rafael Devers is Boston’s only reliable source of over-the-fence power. Home runs aren’t everything but you need them to win in today’s game. It is really, really hard to string together three or four hits and walks in an inning to score a run nowadays. And, frankly, the Red Sox pitching staff isn’t built to win low-scoring games. That one big swing has eluded Boston all year and is a major reason they’re in the AL East cellar.

Corbin trying to avoid 20 losses

The decline of Nationals lefty Patrick Corbin has been well-documented. Corbin pitched at an ace-level with the Diamondbacks in 2018, signed a $140 million contract with the Nationals after that season, then helped the club win the 2019 World Series with a very good regular season and a strong postseason that saw him pitch eight times in the team’s 17 postseason games (three starts and five relief appearances). Flags fly forever and Corbin helped deliver Washington its first ever World Series title.

In the three seasons since Corbin owns a 5.87 ERA and a .304/.359/.511 opponent’s batting line in close to 400 innings. He’s turned every hitter he’s faced the last three seasons into slightly better version of NL Rookie of the Year favorite Michael Harris II (currently hitting .296/.341/.512). A strong case can be made Corbin is the worst starting pitcher in baseball, and yet, because he has that big contract and because the rebuilding Nationals need innings, he remains in the rotation.

Because he’s pitched so poorly and because the Nationals are in a rebuild, Corbin has 17 losses this season, four more than any other pitcher and the most since Tigers righty Spencer Turnbull lost 17 games in 2019. You have to go back to 2016 for the last time a pitcher lost more than 17 games. That year Chris Archer and James Shields each took 19 losses. With five weeks to go in the regular season, we are firmly in “20-loss watch” territory with Corbin. Here are the last five 20-game losers:

Mike Maroth

2003 Tigers

9-21 (5.73 ERA)

43-119

Brian Kingman

1980 Athletics

8-20 (3.83 ERA)

83-79

Phil Niekro

1979 Braves

21-20 (3.39 ERA)

66-94

Phil Niekro

1977 Braves

16-20 (4.03 ERA)

61-101

Jerry Koosman

1977 Mets

8-20 (3.49 ERA)

64-98

Only one pitcher in the last 40 years has lost as many as 20 games in a season. I wouldn’t call losing 20 games common back in the day, but it certainly happened more often than it does now because pitchers routinely made 40-plus starts in those days, and bullpens are so much more involved now. The third time through the order penalty was not a thing teams thought about in the 1970s, you know?

These days it will take a special set of circumstances for a pitcher to lose 20 games, and the Nationals and Corbin appear to check all the boxes. A bad team? Check. A bad pitcher with a big contract that keeps him in the rotation? Check. No viable alternatives to replace said pitcher in the rotation? Check again. Without those things in place, the team pulls the ineffective pitcher from the rotation and he doesn’t get a chance to reach 20 losses.

The Nationals skipped one of Corbin’s starts earlier this month and could do so again at some point later this season, though they are short on fill-in starters, and they need someone to chew up innings. Assuming they stay on turn with a normal five-man rotation the rest of the season, Corbin has six starts remaining:

  • Sat., Sept. 3 at Mets
  • Thurs., Sept. 8 at Cardinals
  • Weds., Sept. 14 vs. Orioles
  • Tues., Sept. 20 at Braves
  • Mon., Sept. 26 vs. Braves
  • Sun., Oct. 2 vs. Phillies

Oof, that’s tough. Five starts against teams currently in postseason position plus one against a surprisingly competitive team on the rise and in the hunt. Also, if the Nationals want to skip Corbin’s final start to potentially avoid 20 losses, it’ll be difficult. They have a doubleheader with the Phillies on Oct. 1, and are going to need innings that weekend.

No pitcher has lost more than 20 games since 1974, when Mickey Lolich lost 21 and Bill Bonham, Randy Jones, and Steve Rogers each lost 22. The remaining schedule makes it appear Corbin has a chance to do it. I know it seems like I’m picking on Corbin but that’s not my intent — losing 20 games is a team effort and Washington is 2-7 in the nine games in which Corbin has allowed two or fewer earned runs — I’m just pointing out a little bit of inglorious history. It’s been a while since baseball has seen a 20-game loser and even longer since someone lost more than 20 games. The stars are aligned for it to happen in 2022.

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