Before we delve into the post, I want to say I’m happy to be joining the team at Redleg Nation this year! I also want to briefly go over what my column is about.
Given that the Reds have a boatload of young, talented arms, I’m going to break down a different pitcher every week to talk about what they have working for them and where they could stand to improve. I’ll do this using less traditional statistics to break it all down, rather than stats like wins and losses (hence the title, “Kill the Win”) that don’t tell us much, if anything, about a pitcher’s abilities.
With that out of the way, let’s get to talking about everyone’s favorite new Cuban pitcher, Raisel Iglesias.
Iglesias overcame some first-half issues with pitch efficiency and getting deep into games — reasonable problems to have considering he had been a reliever for his entire career in Cuba — to put together a strong rookie campaign. He particularly turned it on from August 1 to September 2, when he struck out 55 batters in 46.2 innings to the tune of a 2.31 ERA and 0.77 WHIP. In the month of August, Iglesias ranked fourth in baseball in K% (30.6%) and was 15th among starters in ERA (2.27).
ERA estimators particularly loved him, as he finished the month third among all starters with a 2.52 expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP). The only two guys to finish in front of him? Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw. Iglesias’ skill-independent ERA (SIERA) of 2.59 was also good for fifth in baseball, trailing only Bumgarner, Chris Sale, Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg. That’s some pretty good company.
For those who may not know, xFIP attempts to predict a pitcher’s ERA based on things within their control (strikeouts, walks, hit batters, home runs/fly balls allowed, etc.) that they don’t rely on someone else for (defense). Here’s an explanation from Steve Mancuso on SIERA:
SIERA (skill-interactive ERA) adds more nuance yet to FIP. It accounts for the fact that all balls in play are not the same. For example, ground balls are turned into outs at a higher rate than line drives but at a lower rate than fly balls. It also turns out that pitchers with more strikeouts generally have lower HR/FB, so it’s a refinement on xFIP. Pitchers with more strikeouts also tend to have lower BABIP and more double plays per ground ball. SIERA has been proven to be a better predictor of ERA than either FIP or xFIP.
As you can see, these measures are more reflective of how a pitcher actually performed than ERA is. In other words, Iglesias was at a truly elite level in August.
He was eventually shut down due to shoulder fatigue in September, but his performance down the stretch has Reds fans excited about what he can do in 2016 and beyond.
What makes him effective?
One of the biggest things working in Iglesias’ favor is the deception he creates with his multiple arm angles, which makes his pitches have more movement and be tougher for batters to pick up. This was on full display in his first year in the big leagues, as he fanned 26.3 percent of the hitters he faced, or 9.82 batters per nine innings.
What also makes Iglesias special is his pitch arsenal, which includes four solid pitches: a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a slider and a changeup. He doesn’t throw particularly hard (his fastball averages 92.1 mph), instead getting batters out with the movement on his pitches.
The 25-year-old’s best putaway offering is undeniably his sweeping slider. Used as his go-to pitch with two strikes, his slider was responsible for the final strike on 53 of his 104 strikeouts (50.9 percent). Overall, batters swung and missed (SwStr%) at the pitch 19.9 percent of the time it was thrown. When hitters did manage to make contact with the pitch, they hit just .173/.216/.373 against it, indicating that they weren’t making solid contact most of the time.
The success of Iglesias’ slider isn’t so much related to the spin rate — his 1,180 rotations per minute, as measured by PITCHf/x, is well below the league average of 2,090 rpm, as measured by MLB.com’s Statcast. (Most spin rate data is not yet publicly available, so the numbers come from two different sources. This leaves room for some possible disparities, but the concept is still the same.) Since he doesn’t achieve a tremendous amount of movement on the slider, that leaves his array of arm angles as the biggest reason for his success with the pitch.
His most-used pitch in his rookie season was his sinker, which he threw roughly 40 percent of the time. It proved to be a decent pitch, as Iglesias got a ground ball with it 53.4 percent of the time it was put in play and hitters batted .277/.327/.426 against it. The lower the spin rate of a sinker, the more it’s going to sink and the more it’s going to result in ground balls or swings and misses, which is the ideal result. The spin rate of Iglesias’ sinker was 2,025 rpm, a bit below the league average spin rate for sinkers (also classified as two-seam fastballs) of 2,123 rpm, while the pitch accounted for a SwStr% of 6.8 percent.
When it comes to a fastball, the idea is to have a high spin rate, which induces more empty swings and fly balls, or a low spin rate, which causes more ground balls. Falling in the middle is generally not great, as it leads to flat, hittable pitches. Iglesias’ fastball spun at 1,922 rpm, well below the major-league average of 2,226, yet only got a ground ball 18.4 percent of the time. However, Iglesias does get a good amount of movement on his fastball due to his lower-end spin rate. The movement on his fastball is in part evidenced by an 8.0 SwStr%, a healthy rate considering that most big-league hitters can handle a straight heater.
Iglesias has also displayed a better changeup than was advertised when he came from Cuba, though it’s still his least used offering. After his slider, it was his second-best swing-and-miss pitch, registering whiffs at a 17.1 percent rate. Opposing hitters managed a meager slash line of .156/.250/.188 when they did put the pitch in play. He also generated a ridiculous ground-ball rate of 69.2 percent, which can be traced to the changeup’s spin rate of 1,505 rpm compared to the league average of 1,746. Similar to a sinker, the idea with a change is to have a low spin rate to help the ball sink more and cause more grounders, which Iglesias excels at. With such a great deal of success throwing the pitch in 2015, expect him to throw it more in the coming season.
Where can he improve?
The obvious answer is his stamina. Before a six-inning outing on July 27, Iglesias had only lasted that long in a game twice as he struggled to get through lineups the second and third time around. His pitch efficiency improved down the stretch, when he threw eight consecutive starts of six innings or more during his incredible streak in August. At the end of the season, however, he had to be shut down due to shoulder fatigue, which didn’t come as a huge surprise considering he was a reliever in Cuba and didn’t pitch in 2014 when he was defecting from the country. The Reds’ training staff has worked with Iglesias on his right shoulder flexibility this spring in hopes that he can stay fresh deeper into the 2016 season. Between the minors and the majors, Iglesias tossed 124.1 innings, 41.2 more than he ever through in a single season in Cuba. With an offseason of work, the Reds are hopeful he can increase his workload further in 2016.
While few pegged him a future starting pitcher and even fewer projected him as a top-of-the-rotation arm when he was signed out of Cuba, Iglesias showed in his dominant August performance that he has that type of potential. With four quality pitches and two devastating putaway pitches, the sky is the limit for the right-hander. The main question for him is whether he can have the kind of success he had in August over a full season without tiring out. If he can, the Reds may have their future ace.