You know him, you… tolerate him as your favorite team's closer. It is time to take a hard look at what is projected in 2014 for the Angels' embattled closer, Ernesto Frieri.
(SPOILER ALERT: It involves a lot of home runs allowed)
*The MWAH projections are simply my best guess based off my own personal opinion and research (my wOBA calculation is approximate because my math skills are only "meh")
What happened in 2013?
Homers. Homers happened in 2013. Just so many homers. OK, well, 11 homers, but that's a lot for a late inning reliever. Frieri had an otherwise excellent statistical season save for the face that he just couldn't keep the ball in the park. He slimmed down his walk rate and barely sacrificed his strikeout rate in the process. But he gave up a lot more hits (35 in 2012 versus 55 in 2013 in very similar innings) and when Frieri gives up hits they tend to leave the park.
The season left a lot of folks feeling shaky about Frieri remaining as the closer, thanks in large part because of a two-week stretch from July 23rd through August 6th in which he made seven appearances, allowed 15 hits, 12 runs 4 walks and 3 homers while blowing two saves and suffering three losses. That streak saw his ERA balloon from 2.76 to 4.79 and made it functionally impossible to ever have real confidence in him again even though he only allowed four runs the rest of the season.
What do the projections think he will do in 2014?
The projections are actually rather bullish on Frieri. While they generally see his strikeout rate becoming a bit more mortal, they unanimously agree that his walk rate will continue to improve. What's more important though is that they all anticipate Frieri "only" allowing eight homers on the year.
Interestingly, the systems all see him giving up roughly the same amount of hits in 2014. The big difference for Frieri last year was that he had a .293 BABIP as compared to a .209 mark in 2012 when he was so untouchable. With Ernie's extreme flyball tendencies, one would think that he could possibly hack that BABIP back down, but the projection models disagree.
Does the Monkey agree or disagree?
I guess I disagree. I think the Frieri we saw last season is a pretty accurate representation. I'm not willing to look at that disastrous two-week stretch and write it off as a fluke. Watching Frieri every game, it is pretty clear that he really struggles to maintain consistent command. When he loses the zone, it is time to head for the fallout shelter. I don't really see that changing anytime soon.
I'm also not sure I buy his improving walk rate either. This is a guy that just can't hit water if he fell out of a boat some days. When he is going like that, I don't know why any batter would ever take the bat off his shoulders until he had two strikes against him.
I also don't see his home run rate coming all the way back to earth. What bothers me the most about all the dingers he coughed up last season is that his HR/FB rate actually went down. What that really boils down to is just that Frieri allows so many flyballs. In fact, no pitcher in baseball that logged 30 or more innings had a higher percentage of flyballs allowed than Frieri. Even if he reins that in a bit, he's still going to be one of the most flyball prone pitchers in baseball and those flyballs are invariably going to leave the park.
What are the known unknowns?
The big X-factor for Frieri this year will be Ernesto's offspeed pitch. Frieri freely admits that a big problem for him is that he throws almost exclusively fastballs. The reason for that is that he just can't get his breaking ball over the plate. Last season, his breaker was a called ball 45% of the time it was thrown. That makes it hard to use as an effective secondary pitch.
As a result, Frieri is going to scrap the pitch and focus more on his changeup. That may or may not be a good thing. Ernie didn't use that much in 2013, but he had similar issues keeping it in the zone. More importantly, batters weren't swinging and missing at the pitch. Again, it was a very small sample size and something he has been working to improve, so maybe it can serve him better in 2014.
"Better" is all he really needs it to be. It doesn't need to be a plus pitch, it just needs to be good enough for hitters to have to think about so that they don't just try to time his fastball. If Frieri can get that to work for him, then maybe he will prove me wrong and the other projection systems right.