I’ve mostly written about the Reds’ young pitchers so far, but I thought it would be interesting to take a look at one of the team’s veterans this week. Alfredo Simon was signed to be an innings-eater in an otherwise inexperienced rotation and, well, that hasn’t been going as planned. After an ugly season with the Detroit Tigers last season, it’s gotten even uglier in 2016.
Age likely has something to do with it (he’ll turn 35 on May 8), but from a pure stuff standpoint, why has Simon struggled so badly? Let’s take a look.
2015 season & 2016 so far
Since Simon’s 2014 first half that earned him his only career All-Star appearance, it’s really been all downhill for him. Despite the warning signs, the Tigers still traded for him in December 2014 for Eugenio Suarez and Jonathon Crawford in what proved to be a complete heist for the Reds.
Simon started off 2015 as strong as he did 2014, posting a 3.13 ERA and 3.82 xFIP in April, while striking out 16.5 percent of the batters he faced and walking a mere 4.7 percent. His ERA actually improved in May (2.10), but there were indications his performance was about to get worse — such as his 4.93 xFIP and 9.2 BB% — and it did.
Over the final four months of the season, the right-hander had a 6.11 ERA, 1.54 WHIP and surrendered 10.3 hits per nine innings. He saw his already mediocre 16.1 K% from the season’s opening two months drop to 13.5 percent, and his 6.8 BB% rose to 8.9 percent.
Of 78 qualified starting pitchers, Simon was among the worst, finishing 71st in WAR, 75th in xFIP and 77th in K/BB% (yet he still led the Tigers in wins with 13 — kill the win!). Additionally, he had 11 games where he allowed five or more earned runs, 10 of those coming from June onward. After the season, Simon blamed his struggles on a knee injury he dealt with throughout the entire season and never reported to the Tigers. It’s impossible to tell how much that affected him, but he clearly didn’t pitch well regardless.
He has also dealt with bicep and shoulder issues early on in 2016, but he’s only missed one start. Unless the Reds are letting him pitch while hurt, it’s hard to blame that for his complete ineffectiveness. Aside from his first start of the year against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Simon has gotten absolutely rocked. He’s allowing an average exit velocity of 92.72 mph, eighth-worst among pitchers who have allowed at least 30 balls to be put in play this season. Over his last 4 1/3 innings, he’s given up 16 earned runs, 17 hits, four home runs and four walks. That’s right, he has a 33.23 ERA and 4.85 WHIP in his last three outings. While that’s a tiny sample size, numbers like that are unfathomable for not just a major-league pitcher, but a pitcher at any level of baseball.
Why is he pitching so poorly?
The first thing to look at when a pitcher drops off a cliff like this is a possible dip in velocity. That has been the case with Simon, and though it hasn’t been a dramatic drop-off, it’s been enough to have a noticeable effect. In 2014, he was averaging 94.0 mph on his two-seam fastball and 93.6 mph on his four-seamer. Those numbers dropped to 92.6 and 92.7, respectively, in 2015 and have decreased a little further this year to 92.1 and 92.2.
Not only has Simon lost some of the velocity on his fastballs, his location has also been awful, as you can see in these heat maps (via Baseball Savant):
On the left is his 2014 season and on the right is 2015. It’s a night-and-day difference. In 2014, he was generally keeping the fastballs on the corner, but has been missing right down the heart of the plate ever since. Predictably, batters have been teeing off on the pitches, particularly the two-seam fastball, which is his most-used offering. Against the two-seamer, which has easily been his worst pitch, batters have a .346 batting average and a .623 slugging percentage. When putting the four-seamer into play, they’ve hit .276 and slugged .457.
Simon’s other go-to pitch is his splitter, which has also gotten worse. In 2014, it was his best pitch, as hitters batted only .223/.261/.331 against it with a ground-ball rate of 56.0 percent and a swing-and-miss rate of 15.1 percent. After having such success with the split, he threw it more than any other pitch in 2015. While it was still a decent pitch in terms of results (.243/.295/.413), it took a step back overall. The GB% on the pitch dropped to 53.9 percent and the SwStr% dropped to 10.9 percent. This can be traced to the spin rate of the pitch (with splitters, the ideal spin is low so the ball dives more), which increased to 1,501 rpm from 1,346, according to PITCHf/x. His split-finger spin rate has gotten even worse this season, jumping to 1,693 rpm. The results have been bad for even his best pitch this season (.333/.385/.583) and will continue that way if the spin rate keeps going up and the pitch keeps flattening out.
When it comes to the secondary pitches for Simon, the story hasn’t been much better. He also features a cutter and a curveball, and both have seen a decline in quality as well. When the cutter was put into play in 2014, batters hit only .230/.264/.370 against it. That has jumped up to .278/.301/.418 in the last season-plus. Though the cutter’s velocity has decreased like the rest of his pitches, there hasn’t been a huge difference in spin rate or location, so its ineffectiveness may stem from the fact that he isn’t fooling anyone with his other pitches.
The curve has seen an even bigger drop in quality for Simon. Batters struggled to a .196/.233/.357 line on the bender in 2014. Since then, they’re hitting .292/.329/.462 on it. Quite simply, his location of the pitch has been horrendous. Here’s a look at the heat map in 2014 (left) compared to 2015 (right):
Again, the difference is astounding.
It could be a result of age, injuries, mechanics or a combination of the three, but the decline of all of Simon’s pitches has been steep. He’s a shell of his former self on the mound right now and if he keeps trending the way he has, he might not be on the Reds’ roster for much longer. Whether the club moves on from him or not, his time in the rotation is nearing an end, with Anthony DeSclafani, Homer Bailey and John Lamb all on the mend from their respective injuries. Simon has had success in the past out of the bullpen, so perhaps the team will move him there to try to get him going. Whatever the club decides to do, it’s pretty evident that his stuff just isn’t there any longer and there are better pitching options out there than him.