This title is slightly misleading, and may be best put as “What is Not Quite Right with Trevor Rosenthal?” His ERA is below 4.00 and his FIP is much better than his ERA, thanks in large part to his high strikeout rate and low home run rate. Yet, Rosenthal is not dominating in the same way that he did last year when he struck out 108 batters in 75 1/3 innings and compiled a miniscule 1.91 FIP. So, what is different about Rosenthal that has led to a 1.36 increase in ERA and .83 spike in FIP? As I said, Rosenthal is in the midst of a very respectable season, by many metrics, but he is not supposed to be “just” respectable. Rosenthal should be able to dominate the league, just as he did last year when he ranked 5th among relievers in FIP and WAR. Naturally, I turned to the numbers to determine what is holding Rosenthal back from being one of the best closers in the league.
With such a significant jump in his ERA, I expected to see that Rosenthal was being hit much harder, but that is not what I found. Not only is his opponents’ SLG% down, but so is his opponents’ AVG. So, Rosenthal is allowing fewer hits compared to last year and also fewer extra base hits, which certainly seems like a great formula for success. However, based on the type of contact Rosenthal is letting up this year, I would expect to see the opposite trend. For the second straight season, Rosenthal’s GB% has decreased, and this year, his Line Drive % (LD%) ballooned 10% up to 30%. Despite allowing more hard contact, Rosenthal has decreased his BABIP, which suggests he has actually been lucky to this point in the season. Rosenthal has also done a nice job limiting home runs, even while allowing more balls to be put in the air. His GB/FB ratio has dropped all the way to .85 from 1.23 just a year ago. Fortunately, he has still managed to drop his HR/9 to 0.3 thanks to a miniscule HR/FB ratio of .037.
In an attempt to understand why he was letting up more solid contact, I looked at his fastball velocity, but it was right where it was last year. Rosenthal has not lost any velocity from where he was last year, which means it his stuff is not to blame for his increased FB and LD rates this year. Yet, even with his upper-90s heat, Rosenthal has struggled to get ahead in the count. He has thrown the first pitch of the at-bat for a strike just 57.1% of the time this year, which is a 6% drop from last season. Anytime you fall behind a hitter, you give them a much better chance to make solid contact, even when you can touch triple digits. As a pitcher with as much stuff as he has, Rosenthal must be aggressive and work ahead in the count in order to maximize his lights out repertoire.
More concerning than the fact that he is falling behind more hitters than last year, is where Rosenthal is missing. Of all the pitches Rosenthal has thrown outside the strike zone, 44% have missed up above the zone, compared to just 28% below the zone. This is compared to last year when he missed above the zone just 34% of the time and below the zone with 35% of his pitches outside the zone. While this may not seem significant since these balls are outside the zone, so they are unlikely to be hit, it is always concerning to see a pitcher consistently throwing up in the zone. Rosenthal’s propensity to miss with pitches up has certainly contributed to his increased LD% and FB%, as it is easier to elevate a pitch that is already up. This could be a strategy for Rosenthal, as it is harder to catch up to fastballs up in the zone, but it has yet to materialize into positive results, as his performance is worse than in 2013.
Also, based off the times I have seen him throw, this does not seem to be a strategy, as he has also missed up in the zone with his changeup, which is never intended by any pitcher. Despite some issues keeping it down in the zone, Rosenthal’s changeup has been his best pitch by far this season. This is particularly surprising for a pitcher that throws as hard as he does, but his changeup has compiled an astounding 5.71 runs above average per every 100 pitches, which has likely contributed to his increased use of the pitch (up to 15% from 6% in 2013). On a more concerning note though, his fastball is registering a career low .21 runs above average per every 100 pitches, down .77 runs from last year. It isn’t surprising the fastball is not worth as much as the changeup on average because the changeup is often used in higher leverage situations and also with less frequency. However, with Rosenthal’s struggles to get ahead in the count, it is not shocking that his fastball is less effective this year.
While Rosenthal has allowed harder contact this year, it has yet to materialize into better statistics for his opponents, in terms of batting average and slugging percentage. Where Rosenthal has been hurt this season is with his walks, which is among the few things he can fully control. He has already walked 17 batters this season, after walking just 20 all of last season in 45 more innings. Rosenthal’s BB/9 has actually more than doubled from it 2.39 mark in 2013, as it sits at 4.99 thus far in 2014. As a result of his lost control, Rosenthal’s opponent’s OBP has shot up from .289 last year to .321 this season, despite a lower opponent’s batting average. Rosenthal also tends to lose his control at the wrong times, as he has walked 10 of his 17 batters in high leverage situations, while pitching just 2/3 of an inning more in those situations than low and medium leverage situations.
Even more concerning, he has walked 11 batters with men on base, leading to an opponent’s OBP of .409 with men already on base. Rosenthal’s struggles from the stretch seem to be related to his rushing to the plate. Based purely on the times I have seen him throw, he has a propensity to rush to the plate when pitching from the stretch, which does not give his throwing arm time to get up into position. This tendency for his arm to lag leaves him susceptible to throw the ball up, which is where most of his pitches are missing. With his struggles from the stretch, it is no wonder Rosenthal’s Left on Base% has dropped 5.3% from last season.
This is not an article to criticize Rosenthal and call for his removal from the closer role, but rather to point out where Rosenthal needs to improve. His ERA is certainly high for a closer, but because he is not allowing many hits, he can easily improve his season by being more aggressive in the strike zone. A pitcher with as much stuff as Rosenthal should not be afraid to pitch within the zone. Working ahead in the count will also work to prevent the solid contact that has increased this year. Rosenthal shows the importance of throwing strikes, as he has gone from one of the premier late-inning arms in the game to a pitcher with the 114th best ERA of qualified relievers. Even in terms of FIP, Rosenthal ranks 51st among qualified relievers. While these are certainly discouraging trends, if he can return to throwing strikes the way he did in his previous two opportunities in the Majors, he will be able to reverse these trends.