There have been plenty of developments through the first quarter of the Padres’ season. As a rebuilding team, the focus for the 2017 season is development: mainly getting players every day playing time in the hopes that the Padres can find some pieces for their next winning team. The development of Hunter Renfroe, Austin Hedges, and Manuel Margot has been exciting to watch. The development of Luis Perdomo has been even more eye-opening. Trevor Cahill has also surprised in his return to a major league rotation. Despite all these positives, the most surprising development of all has been the struggles of the Padres’ bullpen.
On the eve of the 2017 season, many felt the Padres could have one of the better bullpens in baseball, even with the label of a rebuilding team hovering over the organization. With the likes of Brad Hand, Ryan Buchter, and Brandon Maurer returning, and the long-awaited healthy return of Carter Capps, the Padres looked to have the potential for a formidable bullpen. However, through 43 games, the Padres sit at 15-28, and their bullpen has been the most frustrating part of the team to date.
We all knew the Padres rotation was going to be subpar, and we also knew the offense was going to be largely punchless save for a few key contributors. In spite of this, both the offense and pitching staff have somewhat surprised early in the season, as the Padres haven’t been nearly as miserable as most around the league expected. With that being said, the Padres bullpen has taken a pretty significant step backward in the early season. Through those first 43 games, the Padres bullpen ranks in the bottom half of the league in a variety of categories, including second-to-last in bullpen ERA (5.35), seventh worst in FIP (4.61), and fifth-to-last in HR/9 (1.54). The Padres’ bullpen is getting plenty of strikeouts, but they are also giving up too many walks, too many home runs, and not stranding enough baserunners.
When looking at the Padres’ bullpen, it’s easier to simplify to see where things have gone wrong to this point. Over at Fangraphs, there is a pair of stats that are maintained, called shutdowns and meltdowns, that look at game leverage by win probability added and attempt to measure whether a bullpen has held a game or blown a game. If a reliever adds above 0.06 WPA (win probability added) during a game, that is considered a shutdown. On the other hand, if a reliever loses at least -0.06 WPA during a game, that is labeled a meltdown, meaning the reliever has lessened his team’s chances of getting a victory. By these numbers, it is pretty clear where the Padres’ deficiencies lie. By shutdowns, the Padres rank dead last in all of baseball, with only 22 shutdowns, a full 25 behind the league leading Milwaukee Brewers. By meltdowns, the Padres aren’t as bad, at 15th in the league with 22, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.
With that introduction out of the way, I want to get to the meat of what, or more specifically who, I wanted to talk about. At the head, or end depending on how you look at it, of the Padres bullpen is right-hander Brandon Maurer. Originally acquired by the Padres from the Seattle Mariners during the Padres’ hectic 2014-2015 offseason, Maurer has been solid in his time with San Diego. There was some consideration of starting Maurer, both early in his Padres career as well as more recently, but for the entirety of his time with the Padres, Maurer has been a key member of the Padres’ bullpen. So far this season, Maurer has had his shares of ups and downs.
Through 16 innings this season, Brandon Maurer has a higher strikeout rate (29.9%) and a lower walk rate (3.0%) than he did in 2017. However, Maurer currently finds himself with an ERA over six (6.75) and a HR/9 rate over one (1.13). So what has gone wrong to this point? Interestingly enough, it’s hard to really look at Maurer and say anything is really that wrong. Sure, his home run rate is elevated, and he has already recorded four meltdowns, but he has already been worth 0.4 fWAR, which is already half of his full season total from 2016. Despite having his share of rocky outings, Maurer has still provided strong value for his club, and is still showing that he can be a formidable force in the bullpen for the Padres.
After Maurer’s most recent meltdown on Wednesday night, in which he gave up two earned runs in a tie game in the ninth inning, some Padre fans were beginning to grow somewhat concerned with the big right-hander. Coming a few days after a poor showing in Chicago, and less than a week after Maurer gave up a walk-off home run against the Texas Rangers, some fans were clearly already sick of Maurer and calling for some change. However, despite the three bad outings over the last week, Maurer has still been largely rock solid the rest of the year. In fact, prior to his poor outing against the Rangers, Maurer had gone eight straight appearances without giving up a run, striking out 14 batters during that time.
Almost all of Maurer’s early season struggles come back to that HR/9 rate we discussed earlier. Not only is Maurer giving up more than a home run per nine innings, which is not the best measure of home run rate, but he is giving up home runs in 20 percent of fly balls hit. Now this needs to be taken with a grain of salt because this is an extremely small sample size. Maurer has only given up two home runs on the season, although both came in rather important spots. Despite having a 6.75 ERA, Maurer sits near the top of baseball with a 2.54 FIP, and in the top ten of all of baseball with a 1.97 xFIP. For the uninitiated, FIP measures only those pitching events that do not result in a fielder making an out, mainly strikeouts, walks, and home runs. On the other hand, xFIP is a regression of FIP in which home runs are estimated given a league average flyball rate. By this measure, Maurer has been even more successful. So by both these measures, Maurer has been very successful in the early season, even with those few big home runs he has given up.
What all this tells us is that Maurer has had some bad luck on balls in play so far this season. At this juncture, Maurer sports a .395 BABIP, which is the 13th highest among all relief pitchers so far this season. So when Maurer does give up contact, that contact is going for hits more often than the league average. If Maurer can get some regression on his BABIP, and get some better batted ball luck, his ERA should come more in line with his FIP and xFIP, which we should expect.
So where does all this put Maurer going forward? Despite his struggles, Maurer has shown the type of pitcher he can be at the back end of the Padres’ bullpen. Given the small sample of innings Maurer has pitched in the early season, his numbers have been heavily skewed by a trio of really bad outings. If Maurer can continue to have more good than bad outings, and can somehow lessen his disastrous outings, Maurer can truly be one of the better closers in baseball going forward.
One important skill Maurer does have, and he has shown frequently, is his ability to get first pitch strikes, as he has the third highest F-Strike% in all of baseball at 74.6 percent. More often than not this season, Maurer has been good rather than bad. Those few bad outings have highlighted some of his shortcomings, but he has shown plenty of important skills of a good relief pitcher in his other outings. Whether the Padres view him as a continual piece of the team’s future or a lucrative trade candidate remains to be seen, but either way, Maurer will be just fine.