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When looking at how the year went for the following six pitchers, they all saved their best work for the second half. They’ve entered the offseason with plenty of confidence and are hoping those good vibes carry over into 2019.
Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds
The Reds haven’t had much luck with their starting rotation in recent years, which is why the emergence of Castillo in 2017 was so wonderful. He was worth 1.8 fWAR through just 89.1 innings thanks to a 3.12 ERA, 3.63 SIERA, and 27.3% strikeout rate.
The young right-hander’s first half of 2018 went in the opposite direction, though. In 103.1 frames prior to the All-Star break, Castillo struggled to the tune of a 5.49 ERA and .341 wOBA allowed. He did figure things out over his final 66.1 innings in the second half, which included a 2.44 ERA and .268 wOBA against.
So what happened? His strikeout rate (21.5% to 26.3%) and walk rate (7.9% to 5.3%) both improved, but there wasn’t much change in his batted-ball profile. Castillo did rely on his his fastball less (60.3% to 51.9%), which led to an increase in changeup usage. Overall, that offering limited hitters to a 56 wRC+ and 43.2% strikeout rate.
Mike Clevinger, Cleveland Indians
The Indians disappointed in the postseason again, but their rotation was the first in baseball history to boast four pitchers with 200 strikeouts. Of that group, the most unheralded one of all is likely Clevinger, who racked up 207 punchouts.
His 4.3 fWAR through 200 innings nearly doubled what he did in 2016 and 2017 combined. It’s not as if his first half was all that bad (3.47 ERA and .300 wOBA against in 122 innings), but his second half was that much more impressive (2.31 ERA and .268 wOBA against in 78 innings).
Some themes that have been trending in the right direction are his rising workload (53 to 121 to 200 innings), a decreasing walk rate (12.5% to 12.0% to 8.3%), and an increased first-pitch strike rate (60.9% to 63.4% to 64.1%).
German Marquez, Colorado Rockies
Kyle Freeland received a lot of praise for basically dominating from start-to-finish in 2018 (and for posting a 2.40 ERA at Coors Field), but German Marquez enjoyed a breakout season in his own right.
While he posted season-long career highs in a number categories, none of it would’ve happened without a sparkling second-half run. Heading into the midsummer classic, the 23-year-old owned a 4.81 ERA through 103 innings. He turned things around in his final 93 frames, evidenced by a 2.61 ERA.
Marquez’s hard-hit rate increased substantially (34.0% to 41.9%), but his fly-ball rate dipped more than four percentage points. That helped his homers allowed per nine innings rate (HR/9) decrease from 1.49 down to 0.68. His strikeout rate also spiked more than 10% percentage points (23.5% in first half to 33.9% in second half), allowing his season-long mark to make a huge jump for the second consecutive year.
Jakob Junis, Kansas City Royals
Not much went right for the Royals in 2018, as they suffered through their first season of 100-plus losses since 2006. There was at least a positive progression as the year went on from Jakob Junis, though.
The 26-year-old righty owned a 5.13 ERA and .343 wOBA against through 101.2 first-half innings, but improved those marks to 3.46 and .318, respectively, in 75.1 second-half frames. He was victimized by dingers to start the year (2.12 HR/9) but improved significantly after the All-Star game (0.96).
Although Junis’ hard-hit rate allowed didn’t budge very much (42.0% to 39.7%), he did cut his fly-ball rate down from 42.7% to 29.3%. Some of that difference went to his ground-ball rate, but more of it went to his line-drive rate (17.8% to 25.2%), which is why his BABIP allowed increased to .333 (.247 in first half).
The one constant the hurler must keep up is his command of the strike zone — his 5.7% walk rate is right in line with what he did as a rookie in 2017 (5.9%).
Zack Wheeler, New York Mets
The 2018 regular season began in Triple-A for Zack Wheeler. He didn’t stay there for long, and an incredibly strong finish has him back among the Mets’ core of talented starting pitchers.
Saying Wheeler just had a strong second half isn’t doing him justice, though. His first 50 innings (all prior to June 1st) resulted in a 5.40 ERA, but his 4.04 SIERA and 3.93 xFIP told us he was a little unlucky. The righty’s final 132.1 innings were mostly terrific, as he produced a 2.52 ERA with a 24.3% strikeout rate and 6.9% walk rate (nice).
What jumped out the most about Wheeler’s performance was his ability to control the quality of contact from opposing hitters, posting career-best marks in soft-hit rate (23.4%) and hard-hit rate (24.8%). Among starters qualified for the ERA title, that soft-hit rate allowed was third-best in baseball, while the hard-hit rate allowed was the best.
Ryan Pressly, Houston Astros
Pressly’s 2018 season was going just fine with the Minnesota Twins — he owned a 3.40 ERA, 33.2% strikeout rate, and 9.1% walk rate through 47.2 innings — but he went into another gear after landing in Houston.
The 29-year-old threw just 23.1 frames for the Astros, yet accumulated more fWAR (1.1) than he did in Minnesota (0.8). He accomplished this thanks to a sparkling 0.77 ERA, 38.1% strikeout rate, and 3.6% walk rate. One would think there’s some regression coming after looking at his BABIP allowed (.213) and strand rate (95.6%) during this run, but this is still remarkable.
Not surprisingly, this move brought a shift in pitch mix. After throwing his fastball at a 48.5% clip in Minnesota, that dropped to 34.6% in Houston. That difference mostly went to his curveball usage (24.5% to 34.7%), which greatly improved in FanGraphs’ pitch value per 100 pitches from one stop (-1.64) to the next (4.70).