There are few things stronger in this world than first impressions, and Edward Mujica learned that first-hand last season. His first year with the Red Sox got off to an incredibly rocky start, and he was never able to overcome the negative perception that came with that initial performance. By the end of the year, his numbers ended up being at least respectable, although they admittedly weren’t great.
He ended 2014 with an exactly average 100 ERA+, a 3.70 FIP and a 3.1 K/BB ratio. What really killed him were his first 16 appearances over the first six weeks of the season. In that time he posted an abysmal 8.04 ERA while allowing a 987 OPS. He was much better through the rest of the year, pitching to a 2.44 ERA and allowing a 712 OPS from May 24 onward. Despite the strong 48 appearances that came in the final two-thirds of the season, many people still hung on to his initial performance as his true talent level.
Early on in 2015, things have been taking roughly the same path. There’s no way to sugarcoat how this year has gone for Mujica thus far. He’s been terrible. So, now we have the questions popping up again. Is he going to be a useful part of the bullpen for the rest of the season, or have we seen the last of a productive Mujica?
On the surface, the early-season numbers don’t really tell the story of how poorly the 31-year-old has pitched so far this year. Reliever ERA is typically an overused statistic, and that’s even more true in April and May. As of this writing, his ERA stands at 4.70 and his ERA+ is "only" 92. Of course, his FIP tells a much better story of how he’s pitched, currently sitting at 6.99.
We’ll start off with the biggest positive in Mujica’s game, which continues to be his control. He’s never been, and is never going to be, a big-time strikeout pitcher. He has six strikeouts in his first 7-2/3 innings this season, and he’s only struck out more than 7.5 batters per nine innings once in his career. That was way back in 2010. Instead, he relies on not giving up free passes. He’s shown that control early this season, walking just one batter so far this year. His career high in BB/9 is just 2.3.
This strength, however, has been part of the reason for his undoing. Mujica lives in the strike zone, and always has. That’s a strategy that works out much better for a younger pitcher, though. He has watched his velocity drop steadily over the last few years, with his fastball averaging 90.8 mph so far this season. Back in September, he was averaging a hair over 92 mph.
It’s not just the velocity that’s made him so susceptible to hard contact, though. Take a look at Mujica’s zone plot so far this season.
The good thing is he’s been pounding the bottom of the zone. This has helped him induce ground balls at a 57 percent rate, per Baseball Prospectus. However, that pesky bright red box right in the center of the zone has killed him. When Mujica is missing this season, he’s missing right in the middle of the zone. That may work out for the Aroldis Chapmans of the world, but not for an aging pitcher with reduced velocity.
On top of the lackluster location, Mujica’s been incredibly predictable. According to Brooks Baseball, all but four of his 119 pitches this season have been either fastballs or splitters. He’s leaned on these two pitches throughout his career, but never to this extent. If he’s going to get by as a control-based pitcher, he’s going to need to keep opponents on their toes a little more.
When he fell into trouble last season, he leaned more heavily on his slider than in past years, and it worked well for him. He didn’t allow a single home run on the pitch, and the .049 Isolated Power opponents managed off the pitch was by far the lowest of the three main pitches in his repertoire. If he’s going to bounce-back again this season, he’d be smart to begin leaning on this pitch a little more.
Since we’ve seen Mujica come back after this kind of horrid performance before, it’s too early to write him off. With that being said, there are certainly some uncomfortable signals that this may be different. Chief among those concerns would be his declining velocity, which likely isn’t a mirage given his advancing age. He’s always been prone to some loud contact in his career, and fastball that barely cracks 90 mph certainly won’t help that issue. The best move would likely be for John Farrell to pull Mujica out of high-leverage spots for his next few outings and allow him to work on adding his slider into the mix more. It helped him last year, and is probably his best bet again this year. Last season’s first impression stuck with Mujica all season, though it wound up being unwarranted. Things may not be the same in 2015.