Pitchers Trending Down: Kimbrel, Gausman, & Sanchez

Craig Kimbrel

The Kimbrel discussion starts with this graph:

Plenty of narratives can exist explaining the initial velocity drop. He missed a good part of spring training. The cold weather is keeping his velocity down. He’s still warming up.

The drop doesn’t bother me as much as the trend. If he’s still building strength for the season, shouldn’t his velocity start trending up at some point?

His owners are happy so far because his surface stats looking great with 5 Saves, 11.3 K/9, and a 0.00 ERA. One problem is regression should be expected with his LOB% (100%), BABIP (.133), and HR/9 (0.00). Closers can put up a good eight games, so these stats can be expected in a season.

My main worry center around his ability to miss bats and throw strikes. His walk and strikeout rate (career low) have gotten worse with his K%-BB% dropping from a career-high 44% last season to career low 21% this season. Something is off and no signs point to the issue improving.

I’m not worried about Kimbrel losing his job since no other Red Sox reliever is throwing lights out. I’m more worried about him eventually needing to go on the DL. In leagues where every Save is sacred, owners may want to stash Matt Barnes.

Kevin Gausman

I’ve never been a huge Gausman fan but he seemed to have turned the right corner last season when he added a slider. He posted a 3.41 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in the second half. Additionally, his strikeout rate jumped from 7.7 K/9 to 9.6 K/9. Owners where dreaming during the offseason on those second half stats.

The stats didn’t continue into this season. His 8.1 K/9 is a four-year low. His 1.57 WHIP and 2.6 HR/9 are career highs. The 5.57 ERA is his highest since his rookie season. It’s been ugly so far this season.

Some regression should be expected with the home runs coming down some. Maybe.

The first issue is that his once elite fastball is down 2.5 mph to 92.4 mph. over the past few seasons, his fastball’s swinging strike rate gets halved in the low 90’s.

Kevin Gausman’s Fastball Swinging Strike Rate
FB Velo SwStr%
91 2.3%
92 2.9%
93 5.8%
94 7.4%
95 6.4%
96 6.6%
97 12.7%
98 7.6%
From 2016 to 2018

With a diminished fastball, he’s getting killed when behind in the count since he can’t throw is breakers for strikes. His splitter is in the zone 22% of the time and slider 40%. With these low zone rates, he’s forced to go ~70% fastball when behind.

Hitters are sitting on his fastball with a .463 BABIP and .308 ISO against it this season. They are posting a 1.717 OPS when ahead in the count, .750 OPS when even, and .393 OPS when behind. This issue is exacerbated by a career-low 47% first-strike rate.

For now, he should be on owner’s benches until his velocity and first strike rate improve. He’s always toed the edge of being a startable pitcher. He’s not startable now.

Aaron Sanchez

Blister boy is back and the results aren’t good and they could get worse. He’s posting a 5.3 K/9 and 4.6 BB/9 which puts his ERA estimators near 5.00. His ERA is only at 3.86 because of a 0.4 HR/FB.

Sanchez has a couple factors dragging him down. Like the first pitchers I examined, his velocity is down (1.5 mph) mainly influenced by two games.

At least his velocity bounced back some in his last start.

Along with the velocity loss, he’s only throwing pitches in the strike zone at a career low 45% of the time. Something seems physically off. The velocity and control issues are real and they need to improve

Another issue with Sanchez, like Gausman, he can’t throw his non-fastball for strikes (39% on his change and 29% on his curve). And he’s not disguising this weakness by using 73% fastballs when behind and only 45% when ahead.

His sinker has a decent 62% GB% has gotten hit around a bit with a .873 OPS against it. His four-seamer is much worse. It generates a below league average number of swinging strikes and so far, hitters have posted .988 OPS against it. Batters are just sitting on these two pitches by posting a 1.381 OPS when ahead, .483 when even, and .410 when behind.

Someone around Sanchez has noticed that the four-seamer is ineffective with its usage going down from 26% in the first two games to 16% in his last two.

Overall, I’m benching him. The velocity fall-off and inability to throw strikes makes me think something is wrong. At least some signs exist of him making changes for the better.

Jeff, one of the authors of the fantasy baseball guide,The Process, writes for RotoGraphs, The Hardball Times, Rotowire, Baseball America, and BaseballHQ. He has been nominated for two SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis and won it in 2013 in tandem with Bill Petti. He has won three FSWA Awards including on for his MASH series. In his first two seasons in Tout Wars, he's won the H2H league and mixed auction league. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.

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I’m a big Sanchez guy but I agree the diminished velocity is a concern. His change up could be a developing weapon for missing bats but without a solid sinker and at least average control he is tough to roster. Wait and see approach.