Last night, Trevor Williams turned in another excellent performance as the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the St. Louis Cardinals 2-0. Williams tossed six scoreless innings and recorded a career high eight strikeouts. He lowered his season ERA to 3.30.
Over his last eight starts, Williams has been historically impressive. He’s given up just four runs in 48 innings. Obviously a 0.75 ERA is unsustainable for a starting pitcher over the course of a full season. On the other hand, Williams has been doing this for almost two months now.
Just how good has Williams been? Has he finally pitched well enough that his peripherals match his on-field production? Williams has obviously cemented a spot in the Pirates’ starting rotation next year. Should we be confident that he will replicate what he has done this season?
Not so fast
Williams’ 3.30 ERA is ninth in the National League and 18th in all of baseball. By that metric, he’s pitched like a borderline number one starter.
Oh but the peripherals. Please welcome the Debbie Downer in me.
Williams’ FIP is 4.23 and xFIP 4.79. His strikeout rate is 16.7 percent, well below the MLB average of 22.1 percent. His walk rate of 8.2 percent is right around the league average of 8.4 percent.
The bearded one has done a pretty nice job of limiting hard contact to a rate of 30.9 percent. MLB average is 35.5 percent. In terms of generating ground balls, Williams is doing so less than he ever has. His GB rate of 39.4 percent is well below the rate of 48 percent he posted last year. It is also lower than the 43.2 percent league rate this year.
On the season, opponents are hitting .226/.297/.371 off of Williams.
Okay but what about his last eight starts? Perhaps he has made some adjustments to validate his recent excellence?
Last eight starts
K rate: 15.6 percent
BB rate: 8.3 percent
Hard contact rate: 32.9 percent
GB rate: 36.6 percent
Opponents have hit .204/.271/.284 against Williams over this span.
I am perplexed. Williams is striking out less batters while giving up more hard contact and is generating less ground balls. He’s getting the results of Bob Gibson.
Regression is such an icky word
But it will happen! Williams will not have an 0.75 ERA the rest of the way. Obviously. 3.30 might be the low water mark for his ERA this season. Unfortunately, he will regress.
Note that the BABIP gods have been in favor of Williams this season. League average is .294. Willams’ BABIP against this year is .251. Over his last eight starts, that total is .231.
Williams will ultimately get smoked again. Baseball giveth, baseball taketh away. Although he has gotten great results this season, Williams still needs to improve dramatically if he ever wants to be more than a backend starter.
Right now, Williams is closer to those two pitchers than he is an All Star.
Quick note on the changeup
One way Williams can improve for the long term is to improve his changeup. Right now, it is his worst pitch. As a guy who averages 90 mph on his fastball, Williams’ changeup needs to be at least 10 mph slower. This season, his changeup averages about 83 mph.
Opponents are hitting .274/.293/.438 against his changeup this season. That’s not terrible but it could be much better if a few ticks are taken off of the pitch.
Williams is pitching out of his mind at the moment. Watching him pitch right now makes me want to burn all of the spreadsheets and tell those analytical nerds to eat shorts.
But the numbers never lie. Because of that, it is hard for me to be excited for a guy like Williams in the long term. I see him as a career number five starter who may very well, at the moment, be pitching the best baseball he will ever pitch.
I hope that isn’t the case though. Off the field, Williams is the embodiment of how you want a major league baseball player to act in the year 2018. He plays hard but doesn’t take himself to seriously. He gives back to the community. His quirky attitude makes the Pirates and the game in general more enjoyable.
The peripherals will never be on his side. They never are for soft tossing, low strikeout guys. Williams has said time and time again that he has to execute pitches at a higher rate than someone who throws harder. That is 100 percent true.
He needs to be consistently surgical with his pitch locations to be successful in the long run.
Here’s to hoping he can do exactly that.