Welcome to our 2020 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we take a look at the 2020 season for Jeffrey Springs.
2020 in one sentence
Jeffrey Springs made a horrible first impression with Red Sox fans, and that served to obscure what was a usable, though far from spectacular, run through the middle of the season.
It is likely going to become clear as we get further and further into this post that I have bought perhaps a little too much into what I saw from Springs, particularly since we’re talking about a guy who finished the year with a 7.08 ERA. In the past I have describe this sort of Stockholm Syndrome where I convince myself some pitchers on this staff are better than they are just because they are surrounded by even worse pitchers. Springs is probably the best example of this.
That said, there were legitimately things that stood out as actual positives, and you have to start with his surprising ability to miss bats. This, in a way, came out of nowhere as Springs had come up more as a contact-oriented arm who generally carried solid-average strikeout rates in his first two major-league seasons before this one. However, he ended 2020 with a strikeout rate over 28 percent, more than six percentage points higher than his previous career-high.
It will come as no surprise that this spike in strikeout rate comes along with a spike in swinging strike rate, a spike that was attributable to a drop in contact on pitches both in and out of the zone. But if we have to nail this strikeout-heavy season down even more and find a more specific reasons, it’s hard not to look at the changeup. This has long been the top pitch Springs brings to the table, and that continued to be the case in Boston.
He actually threw the pitch a bit less in 2020 for some reason, but when he threw it it was effective. By the end of the year, Springs had allowed a wOBA (on the same scale of OBP) of just .301 on the pitch, and even that was about 30 points higher than the expected wOBA, which is calculated based in part on quality of contact. More specifically with the strikeout rate, Springs’s changeup induced whiffs on a whopping 53 percent of swings. It was an effective weapon for him all year, and as you can see below he was a master of painting the bottom arm-side portion of the zone with the changeup. That also happened to be the zone where he got most of his whiffs.
I would also point to the middle portion of the season for Springs, which is where I really started to buy in on him as a legitimate major-league pitcher, albeit one that shouldn’t be in any sort of major role. Still, after a horrible first impression which we’ll get to in a second, the lefty had a stretch of 11 appearances (69 percent of his season) in which he pitched to a solid 3.68 ERA with 21 strikeouts to just four walks over 14 2⁄3 innings. That essentially amounts to one good month in a normal season so I will not blame anyone for rolling their eyes, but that was also most of the time we saw him. At the very least, we know he can be that good, even if whether or not he will be is still a more than fair question.
And while there were certainly some things I liked, at the end of the day Springs did finish with that aforementioned 7.08 ERA. And you don’t really bad luck your way into an ERA above 7.00. There were some legitimate issues here, and I think I have to start with that first impression I’ve referenced a couple of times. Springs, a cheap acquisition last winter in which the Red Sox traded Sam Travis for him, made his debut with the team in their fourth game of the season against the Mets. He faced ten batters, recorded four outs and allowed five runs on four hits (two of which were homers) and a walk with two strikeouts. First impressions stick, and Springs made a terrible one.
It would be disingenuous, of course, to present Springs’s season as one that was simply bogged down from one bad appearance. That was certainly not the case. He allowed at least three runs in four appearances, which doesn’t sound too bad until you remember that accounts for a full quarter of his appearances on the season. A reliever simply can’t allow chunks of runs that often.
And while he did miss a bunch of bats in 2020, he also had a hard time limiting damage on the occasions he did not miss said bats. Some of this absolutely ties back to the sample size issues we’ve alluded to in every one of these posts, but it’s hard to ignore that he allowed a .431 batting average on balls in play along with five homers, which works out to more than two per nine innings. It’s a little strange, though, because Springs’s batted ball profile is not one that makes a ton of conventional sense.
On the one hand, he actually did a solid job in limiting hard contact. According to Baseball Savant, the average exit velocity opponents managed off the southpaw put him in the top 17 percent in all of baseball. That’s good! Looking at the rate at which they hit the ball hard, defined as being at least 95 mph off the bat, he drops down just about to the middle of the pack, specifically in the 53 percentile.
But even if you break it down further from there, you can look at hard-hit balls as solid contact and barrels, with the latter being the ideal contact. Almost all of the hard-hit balls against Springs were barrels, so while he was very good in terms of exit velocity and solid in terms of hard-hit rate, he gave up barrels at one of the highest rates in baseball, landing in just the sixth percentile in that category. It’s difficult to parse exactly what to make of that. On the one hand, it seems reasonable to think in a larger sample things would normalize more to some of those barrels just being regular solid contact, which is still damaging but to a lesser extent. On the other hand, this is still an indication that Springs is leaving too many pitches in the middle of the plate to be barreled in the first place, and that while he got a bunch of whiffs this season he doesn’t have the pure stuff to mask his mistakes.
The Big Question
We talked about Springs’s changeup above, and that is a legitimate weapon around which he can build his strategy. It’s not exactly conventional, nor easy, to build an arsenal around a changeup in today’s era of power relievers with fastballs and sliders, but it’s not impossible. The issue has been that Springs doesn’t have another pitch, and that continued this year.
The slider, to be fair, wasn’t terrible. The .459 wOBA he allowed on the pitch, per Baseball Savant, is certainly terrible, but that was paired with a .316 expected wOBA, so that could have been some small sample noise. On the other hand, that he only gets whiffs on 18 percent of sliders is not great for that pitch. The thing is, even if the slider is closer to the effectiveness indicated by the expected wOBA I’m still not sure how effective a changeup/slider reliever can be in today’s game.
The real issue for Springs is that he doesn’t have an effective fastball. Baseball Savant calls it a sinker, but it’s mostly referred to elsewhere as a four-seam and since he is a fly ball pitcher and works the offering up in the zone, I tend to think it’s a four-seam. I’m not sure it really matters, because he’s gotten terrible results including a .416 wOBA and .374 xWOBA in 2020. I wonder if they would think about trying a cutter and ditching both the fastball and the slider in the process.
Looking ahead to 2021
While I am relatively high on Springs as a pitcher, it’s hard to deny he is on the fringe of the roster at this point as they look to pare things down for the Rule 5 deadline, not to mention potential free agent acquisitions. That Springs has multiple options remaining helps his case, but he’s no sure thing to make it through the winter. If he does, expect him to be an up-and-down Quad-A arm to start the year, and to either work his way up to a better role or find himself off the roster midway through the year.