Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Drew Pomeranz.
The Year in a Sentence
After coming into the year as arguably the second best pitcher in the rotation, Drew Pomeranz had a disaster of a 2018 that the Red Sox were able to overcome but will also cost him a lot of money in free agency.
Yesterday when we talked about Steve Pearce, there really wasn’t anything I could put into the Negatives section of this post without really stretching it. Well, there’s a similar situation today with Drew Pomeranz, except it’s the exact opposite. Pomeranz’ 2018 was one of the few total disasters on this Red Sox roster, and there really aren’t a whole lot of positives. This isn’t even a situation when I can point out some positives relative to already low expectations, either, because as mentioned above he was arguably the number two pitcher in the rotation heading into the season. At the very least, he was the number two pitcher in 2017.
If you really want to squint, you can look at a few of his splits and compare them to counterparts to feel at least a little good about some of Pomeranz’ year. For one thing, he did have a stretch in August when people had some actual confidence in the lefty. Remember, this was about the peak of the time when Red Sox fans were panicking about the bullpen, and Pomeranz had just recently transitioned into a bullpen role. He pitched relatively well in August over nine appearances (one of which was a start) and held opponents to a .254/.369/.394 line while pitching to a 3.15 ERA. Things fell apart pretty quickly after that, but we had that short moment when some fans legitimately were looking at Pomeranz as a legitimate option.
Looking even a little bit deeper, the lefty was solid enough against left-handed batters. Granted, you’d hope for something close to dominant from a lefty against other lefties, but we’ll take what we can get I suppose. Left-handed hitters put up a line of .281/.361/.344 against Pomeranz this year, with the lack of power standing out the most. Additionally, he was good in a mop-up role, which sounds like shade but being able to eat those innings does bring some real value. In low-leverage spots opponents hit .246/.370/.361. Above all else, Pomeranz inexplicably made the World Series roster, though he didn’t actually appear in a game.
Everything? Really, it was just a disaster of a year for Pomeranz that came at the worst possible time for him right before he was set to hit the open market. We’ll get into the reasons for the bad season in a second, but first we should just look at the overall numbers. The lefty ended up appearing in 26 games in the 2018 season with 11 starts and 74 innings in total, and all of his overall metrics were poor. The 30-year-old (he was 29 throughout the 2018 season) pitched to a 6.08 ERA, a 5.46 FIP and a 7.90 (!) DRA, all of which were obviously safely worse than average. No matter where you look, you aren’t going to find many numbers that will make you feel good about the year that was for Pomeranz.
The issues for the southpaw started all the way back in spring training and he was dealing with arm issues that clearly affected him all season long. It started with a forearm injury in March that caused him to miss time in camp and then miss time to start the regular season. Because of the forearm injury he didn’t make his first start of the year until April 20. Then, after eight starts, he went back to the disabled list right at the beginning of June, this time due to a biceps injury. Pomeranz was held out for about six weeks this time around, making his return on July 24.
You didn’t need to be a trainer or a baseball expert to see how badly the injuries were affecting him all year, either. Pomeranz has certainly never been a flamethrower on the mound and he’s been at his best when his secondaries were working well, but you still need some sort of fastball to compete at this level. Pomeranz didn’t have that, watching his average fastball velocity drop 2-3 mph on average from the year before and struggling to even get to 90 mph with the pitch. There are some pitchers, especially lefties, that can survive with that kind of speed on the fastball, but Pomeranz just doesn’t have the command for that.
Speaking of the command, his plate discipline numbers were an absolute disaster in 2018. He was all over the place, and he wasn’t fooling hitters in the process. On the surface, the eight strikeouts per nine innings doesn’t look terrible, that is until you remember that a big chunk of his season came out of the bullpen and the fact that he regularly struck out over a batter per inning before this season. Additionally, he walked over five per nine innings. Pomeranz has never had great control, but this was a new level for him. Looking at his plate discipline numbers on Baseball Prospectus, everything got worse. He hit the strike zone less, allowed a lot more contact, allowed a career-high rate of swings on pitches in the zone and a career-low rate of swings on pitches out of the zone and his swinging strike rate fell below 20 percent for the first time in his career. In fact, among the 268 pitchers with at least 1000 pitches in 2018, only 16 had lower swinging strike rates than Pomeranz.
Even beyond the plate discipline, things weren’t any better when batters were able to make contact off the lefty either. Pomeranz allowed career highs in both home runs per nine innings and batting average on balls in play, and while sometimes that can indicate some bad luck it certainly didn’t feel that way while watching it. The truth is, opponents were just able to launch pitches in the zone because of diminished stuff. Per Fangraphs’ batted ball data, he allowed a career-high 35 percent hard-hit rate and a career-low 16 percent soft-hit rate. He’s also been able to maintain a respectable ground ball rate over his career, but that plummeted to 37 percent in 2018. So, batters were smoking the ball and often in the air. You don’t need to be a baseball genius to realize that’s a recipe for disaster.
The Big Question
No, no he could not. In the past, Pomeranz had been able to have some sneaky success largely because he was a left-handed pitcher who gave righties fits. The reason was mostly that his curveball was nasty, and hitters had to respect the fastball enough that the curveball handcuffed everyone. The fastball took a major step back in 2018, of course, and that affected everything else as well. Righties teed off on Pomeranz this past year, hitting .297/.392/.502 on the year.
The Year Ahead
Pomeranz is now on the open market, and when it was once thought he’d be able to land a nice, multi-year deal he’s now going to have to settle for a one-year deal at best. I’d be surprised if the Red Sox are the team to give him that deal, as they’ll presumably be looking at higher-end names for their final rotation spot and they don’t have room in the bullpen for another left-handed long reliever. If he has to settle for a minor-league deal — which wouldn’t totally shock me — maybe a reunion could be possible. It would make the most sense for him, however, to go to a rebuilding team that will stick with him, and preferably one in a pitchers park. That being said, it’s all about health. If he gets the velocity back, he’ll be a nice value for someone. If not, well, we’ll always have 2017.