It's been a tough year for pitchers. Whether because of the shift ban, the increased activity on the base paths, the sticky substance crackdown or all of the above, bad starts have had a tendency to snowball, skewing ERAs and making lineup-setting a fool's errand. For all you know, even a presumed ace could be at the precipice of disaster.
I want to focus on six pitchers in particular who we've come to accept as good but who haven't shown it lately. What's going on with them? Have they simply fallen victim to a more random environment, or are deeper issues at play? For each, I offer my concern level both for this season and future seasons, as represented by this ball icon ⚾. One ball is the lowest level of concern. Four balls is the highest level of concern.
Concern level (this season): ⚾⚾
Concern level (future seasons):⚾ 1/2
Aaron Nola is at once the most proven of these pitchers and also the one whose struggles have persisted the longest, his ERA never once dropping below 4.00 all year. So while you may be inclined to give him more benefit of the doubt, at what point is it enough? He had a year much like this one in 2021, remember. His biggest issue then was much the same as now -- too many long balls -- but while once is a fluke, twice is a trend. When he doesn't keep the ball on the ground, bad things happen. Meanwhile, he has just 9.3 K/9 now vs. 11.1 K/9 then, which explains why his ERA estimators, while still strong in 2021, are more modest now. Then again, his velocities and swinging-strike rate, clearer indicators of raw skill, aren't so different. He's also such a workhorse that he's been a top-20 starting pitcher in points leagues despite these struggles. Altogether, it still feels premature to write off Nola, but the biggest improvements may not come until the offseason.
Concern level (this season): ⚾⚾⚾
Concern level (future seasons):⚾
A former top prospect who had already taken his lumps at the start of his career, Jesus Luzardo found his footing last year and then was launched into the stratosphere during a seven-start stretch from mid-June to late July in which he compiled a 1.48 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and 11.6 K/9. But, um, he has a 10.13 ERA and 2.10 WHIP in three starts since, two coming against bad Tigers and Yankees lineups. You won't see a pitcher go from diamonds to dust faster than that. Notably, it began the very start after he eclipsed his previous career high in innings. The correlation is almost too convenient, but there is a history of young pitchers struggling when they push their arms beyond what they're used to. His velocity hasn't suffered, but his delivery may not be as sharp right now. Presumably, he won't struggle to quite this extent all the way through September, but the point is that uncharted territory is exactly that. You can't be sure what to expect.
Concern level (this season): ⚾⚾1/2
Concern level (future seasons):⚾⚾
A trendy pick at the start of the year, Cristian Javier has now disappointed for so long that you may have forgotten just how well things were going at first. Through 10 starts, he had a 3.07 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 9.8 K/9 and a 14 percent swinging-strike rate that was very much in line with last year's. It's that swinging-strike rate that collapsed first, his ERA ultimately climbing all the way to 4.34 during a seven-start stretch in which he recorded double-digit swinging strikes only once for a seven percent rate overall. There have been small signs of a turnaround. He's riding a five-start stretch with double-digit swinging strikes, good for a 13 percent rate. The ERA hasn't improved because he's walked 16 batters in 26 1/3 innings, but he's allowed just a .174 batting average during that five-start stretch, which is more Javier-like. I don't know how close we are to getting him back in our lineups, but I do think that's how this ends.
Concern level (this season): ⚾⚾⚾
Concern level (future seasons):⚾⚾⚾
Lucas Giolito's 3.45 ERA and 1.13 WHIP through his first 19 starts gave the impression he was back to his near-Cy Young form after the disaster that was 2022, but there were warning signs that are all too apparent now in retrospect. I didn't want to believe them because I so desperately wanted something reliable in this pitching environment, but alas, they must be noted. From 2019 through 2021, what we remember as Giolito's best years, he had 11.1 K/9, which is of course far better than his 9.4 K/9 through those 19 starts this year. His swinging-strike rate used to be among the best in baseball, ranging from 15 percent to 17.3 percent, but in those first 19 starts this year, it wasn't even 12 percent. The stuff just isn't as good anymore, and it's come back to bite him with an 8.75 ERA and 1.86 WHIP over his past five starts. He's still capable of a quality start more times than not, but we may not see that ERA dip below 4.00 again.
Concern level (this season): ⚾⚾1/2
Concern level (future seasons):⚾⚾1/2
Mitch Keller has spent the past couple seasons adding pitches to his arsenal -- namely, a sinker, sweeper and cutter -- and it's made the highs much higher, beginning with a 2.71 ERA over his final 15 starts last year and continuing with a 3.31 ERA, along with a much improved strikeout rate, in his first 19 starts this year. But since then, he has a 7.71 ERA in six starts, and only in his latest, a quality effort against the Reds, did he come anywhere close to stopping the bleeding. My hunch is that while having six pitches, none thrown more than 25 percent of the time, can make up for a shortage of raw stuff, it also raises the margin for error. Finding the right sequence on a given day will involve more trial and error. It's the same reason why pitchers like Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove have given us fits with their ups and downs over the years. In the long run, I suspect Keller will be fine, but it won't be without pain.
Concern level (this season): ⚾⚾⚾⚾
Concern level (future seasons):⚾⚾⚾⚾
The modern game has seen pitchers do some amazing things deep into their 30s, so when you see one still ripping his curveball at 3,000 rpm while reaching his usual fastball velocity and registering swinging strikes at the second-best rate of his career, you want to say it's too early to write him off. I don't actually know if Charlie Morton's struggles are owed mostly to his 39 years of age or something else, but I know they're deepening. And I confess I'm at my breaking point. The way he's walking batters -- 8.0 per nine innings in his past five starts -- is simply untenable, and his 4.91 xERA and 4.37 xFIP are both far and away the worst marks of his career (or at least since he became good with the Astros in 2017). Factor in a 1.46 WHIP that ranks 58th among 61 qualifiers, and it's fairly miraculous Morton's 3.71 ERA is as good as it is. Feels like he's doing more harm than good now, even with the Braves offense backing him.