Tyler Skaggs has had a turbulent career. The 27-year-old was once considered one of baseball’s top prospects, but an inability to stay healthy prevented him from reaching that promising potential. This year, however, Skaggs, who the Angels drafted in 2009, traded away away in 2010, and re-acquired in 2013, has managed to avoid a significant stint on the disabled list, and success has followed.
Not only has the lefty been the Angels’ most reliable pitcher in 2018, but he has also been one of the American League’s best. In 18 starts, Skaggs owns a 2.68 ERA and 3.10 FIP, which rank seventh and sixth among AL starters, respectively. His 2.5 Wins Above Replacement are tied for ninth, and if he continues his current pace, he would finish the season with 4.0 WAR, a threshold that only three Angels pitchers have reached since 2009.
Skaggs’ success is the result of him tapping into a part of his game that he has not since he made his Angels debut and adapting his approach against both right-handed and left-handed hitters, allowing him to contain righties and dominate lefties.
On the Ground Again
In 2014, his first major-league season with the Angels, Skaggs would have been considered a ground-ball pitcher. In 113 innings that year, his ground-ball rate was 50.1%, well above the league average of 44.8%. Additionally, because ground balls can’t go over the fence, he only surrendered 0.72 home runs per nine innings, which was also better than the league average of 0.86.
Over the next couple of seasons, however, Skaggs turned into more of a fly-ball pitcher, and he did so just as the ball started flying out of the park at record rates across the majors. He spent all of 2015 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but when he returned in 2016, he was greeted by a league-wide homer-per-fly-ball rate that was over 3% higher than the last time he pitched in 2014.
During that season, he watched his ground-ball rate fall to a below-average number before dropping even further the following year, to 41.8%. Skaggs started allowing more fly balls at the same time that fly balls everywhere were beginning to turn into home runs more often, meaning that the “juiced ball” phenomenon hit Skaggs particularly hard; by 2017, he was permitting home runs at nearly double the rate he did in 2014.
Skaggs’ results suffered accordingly, with his 2017 FIP of 4.56 being a far cry from his solid 3.55 mark three years earlier. 2018 has been much different for Skaggs, however, as his ground-ball and home-run rates are nearly the same as they were in 2014. Here are how those two numbers have evolved throughout his Angels career:
So, Skaggs is getting opposing batters to hit the ball on the ground at an above-average rate again, an increasingly rare, and valuable, skill in an era dominated by the long ball. But that alone does not explain the drastic improvement that his results have seen this year.
While he was struggling to keep the ball on the ground in 2016 and 2017, Skaggs also enjoyed an increase in strikeouts. However, that was also paired with an increase in walks. In 2018, though, he has managed to increase his strikeouts and decrease his walks. Here are his strikeout and walk rates each year since 2014:
In 2016, Skaggs raised his strikeout rate to just above average, but he also saw his walk rate jump to a mark that was significantly higher than average. The next year, he got his walks in check, but he also decreased his strikeouts back to a below-average level. In 2018, he owns the 15th-highest strikeout rate among AL starting pitchers, and his walk rate is also comfortably better than the major-league average of 8.3%.
But these improvements did not just materialize out of thin air. To get to the source of them, we can look at how Skaggs is attacking hitters this year, as he has demonstrated refined plans of attack against batters from both sides of the plate.
During this year’s Spring Training, Skaggs worked on reincorporating his changeup into his pitch mix. His changeup usage dipped to a career-low 9.3% in 2017, and he acknowledged that neglecting his changeup–a pitch that he admitted he only ever made “half-hearted” attempts at mastering in the past–and becoming overly reliant on his fastball(s) and curveball limited his ceiling.
His 2018 results back up this self-assessment, as he has begun leaning on his changeup more heavily this year, and his performance against right-handed batters has subsequently improved. He is now throwing the pitch 12.5% of the time, just in between his 2014 and 2016 levels. Skaggs’ changeup has also been vastly more effective than last year.
Thrown almost exclusively to right-handed hitters, opposing batters have managed only a meager .229 batting average and .333 slugging percentage against the 84-mph pitch. Furthermore, they have whiffed on 30.4% of their swings at it and have garnered just a 30% hard-hit rate.
For comparison’s sake, Skaggs permitted a .423 batting average and a .769 slugging percentage against his changeup in 2017. He also generated a mere 18.4% swing-and-miss rate and a sky-high 47.8% hard-hit rate against it last year. In addition, opposing batters have accrued a 55% ground-ball rate versus Skaggs’ changeup in 2018, a modest increase from last year’s 52.2%.
The pitch’s drastic improvement has come with one major change: Skaggs is throwing it in the strike zone significantly less. In 2016, 56.9% of Skaggs’ changeups ended up in the zone. That number fell to 49.2% last year, and it now sits at just 39.4%.
And despite seeing fewer changeups for strikes, opposing batters are swinging at the pitch more overall. Most importantly, they have been more likely to chase one out of the zone, with Skaggs posting a 31.1% chase rate on his changeup, up from 25.8% last year.
So, instead of giving up 399-foot home runs like this one from 2017…
…he’s getting swings and misses like this one from earlier this year:
In short, Skaggs is throwing more changeups out of the strike zone and getting batters to swing at such pitches more often, a combination undoubtedly responsible for the increase in whiffs and softly-hit balls in play.
With the exception of a few fewer fastballs and curves to accommodate the increase in changeup usage, Skaggs’ pitch selection against righties has remained mostly the same. But that one alteration paired with an improvement in the pitch’s overall effectiveness has helped Skaggs become more of menace for right-handed batters, and it has almost certainly helped improve the potency of his other pitches.
From 2016-2017, right-handed batters ran up a .761 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and a .328 wOBA (a number that reads like OBP but captures a player’s total offensive contribution while giving more weight to extra-base hits) while striking out about 19% of the time against Skaggs. This year, Skaggs has held them to a .699 OPS and a .310 wOBA while punching them out 23.4% of the time.
To be sure, Skaggs has been great (and better than in the past) against right-handed hitters this year. However, only a portion of his lights-out 2018 can be attributed to his improvements against them, as his biggest advancement has come against those who hit from the other side of the plate.
In the three seasons that Skaggs pitched in from 2014-2017, he had reverse splits, with righties putting together a .317 wOBA and lefties posting a .327 figure. For a left-handed pitcher known for a big, looping curveball, these struggles were perplexing. This year, though, Skaggs figured something out.
In 2018, left-handed batters are hitting only .210/.224/.333 against Skaggs, and only six left-handed starters have held same-handed hitters to a lower wOBA than Skaggs’ .240 mark. While Skaggs’ increased success against righties has been the result of fewer strikes, his dominance against lefties has come with a focus on throwing more strikes.
For instance, only 36% of Skaggs’ curves against lefties last year were in the strike zone, and that was consistent with his previous two seasons. In 2018, however, 48.4% of such pitches have ended up in the zone. Simply put, opposing batters were not chasing Skaggs’ curves often enough to justify throwing such a large number of them out of the zone, so he adjusted.
In 2017, lefties whiffed on 24.5% of their swings against Skaggs’ curveball. That’s a solid rate, but the problem was that, because so few were in the strike zone, they were not swinging at very many, opting to offer at just 43% of them. With so many more curves in the zone now, however, opposing batters have been forced into adopting a more aggressive approach, swinging at half of Skaggs’ curves this season.
Despite left-handed batters seeing more curves in the strike zone and not chasing the ones that are out of the zone any more often this year than they did last year, Skaggs is getting them to whiff at the pitch more often (28.4%). This potentially demonstrates that Skaggs is not only throwing more strikes but better strikes.
To further this point, left-handed batters are hitting Skaggs’ curve on the ground 70.6% of the time that they put it in play (up from 59.3% in 2017 and 45.5% in 2016) and have a -4 degree average launch angle (down from three degrees last year), both of which suggest that while batters are getting a lot of strikes, they are not getting many that they can drive to the outfield.
That is not to say that Skaggs doesn’t still expand the strike zone with his curve against lefties–he does, especially with two strikes. But he can now rely on it to get ahead in counts and, though he doesn’t do it a ton, to get back into counts when he falls behind. This is a huge part of the reason why he has only walked two of the 107 left-handed batters that he has faced this year.
All of this amounts to Skaggs possessing one of baseball’s best curveballs. Left-handed hitters have only managed a .213 expected batting average and a .340 expected slugging percentage against Skaggs’ 75-mph curve this year. Righties also struggle greatly with it, with lefties and righties combining for only a .253 expected wOBA against his breaking ball in 2018.
Skaggs’ curveball has more vertical movement than all but three qualified pitchers, and only two lefties have curves with more horizontal movement, both of which are responsible for those numbers and why he routinely makes left-handed hitters look like this:
And why he locks them up with curves in the zone:
Skaggs’ other significant change against lefties is that he stopped throwing his sinker against them. In 2017, Skaggs threw his four-seam fastball 35.5% of the time versus lefties while tossing his sinker 24.3% of the time.
But lefties crushed his sinker last year, hitting .444 and slugging .556 against the pitch and only whiffing on 16% of their swings. On the other hand, they batted just .174 and slugged only .391 against his four-seamer in 2017 while missing on a fifth of their swings.
He still throws it against right-handed hitters, but he has only thrown a handful of sinkers against lefties in 2018, opting to instead throw his four-seamer, which he is also throwing in the zone more often, 57.9% of the time versus left-handed hitters, who have only hit his four-seamer slightly better this year than last.
The New Normal
Skaggs’ career has been marred by injuries and inconsistency, but, as he approaches his career-high in innings pitched, he is demonstrating that the last few years were not wasted. In 2018, Skaggs has taken information from previous seasons and made a deliberate effort to improve his game with it, and he’s done so extraordinarily well.
His changeup is better than ever, and his curveball remains one of baseball’s finest. He is counteracting the fly-ball approach that continues to infect hitters across the sport and plagued him for the last couple of seasons. He’s throwing more strikes when he needs to and fewer when he doesn’t.
Skaggs now looks like the frontline pitcher he always seemed destined to be, and every meaningful change that led him to this point is a tangible and sustainable one, meaning that the same can be said about his results this year and that there is a legitimate chance that this version of Tyler Skaggs is here to stay.
Featured image via Keith Allison/Flickr.