After missing out on Patrick Corbin, Nathan Eovaldi, and J.A. Happ, the Angels rounded out their 2019 starting rotation with this week’s signings of Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill. Here’s a look at what each pitcher brings to the Angels.
To begin the week, the Angels signed Harvey, who will be 30 years old by Opening Day, to a one-year, $11 million deal. But, as evidenced by the terms of the contract, this is not the flamethrowing “Dark Knight” of old.
Harvey has dealt with a couple of major injuries during his career, and they have appeared to take a toll on the once-dominant pitcher. First, the captivating start to his career with the Mets was interrupted by Tommy John surgery, but, after missing the entirety of the 2014 season, Harvey returned to form in 2015, posting a 2.71 ERA across 189 1/3 innings. Harvey ran into serious trouble the next year, however.
He got off to a poor start in 2016 and eventually succumbed to thoracic outlet syndrome, which required season-ending surgery during the summer. He was fully recovered by the following April, but, after struggling through 13 starts, Harvey missed about three months due to a shoulder injury. He returned for a brutal September, permitting 28 runs in 22 1/3 frames. In total, Harvey threw just 185 1/3 innings from 2016 to 2017.
The beginning of Harvey’s 2018 was similarly troubling, and a drama-filled few weeks led to the Mets designating him for assignment and ultimately sending him to the Cincinnati Reds for Devin Mesoraco on May 8.
Harvey went on to pitch relatively well in Cincinnati, amassing a 4.50 ERA, a 4.33 FIP, and 1.5 Wins Above Replacement across 128 innings (24 starts). Alarmingly, Harvey finished with one of the game’s highest home-run rates, though Angel Stadium should help him with that. Harvey also threw strikes at the highest rate of his career in 2018 and walked just 5.6% of his batters, his best mark since 2015 and about half of what it was in 2017.
But overall, Harvey’s year was a far cry from his early seasons and merely resembled that of a mid-to-back-end starter. This severe decline can be explained in one chart:
At his best, Harvey was one of baseball’s hardest throwers, averaging over 96 mph on his four-seam fastball. Now, with his four-seamer averaging just under 94 mph, Harvey is only slightly above-average in terms of velocity. Encouragingly, though, Harvey’s fastball velocity gradually increased over the course of the 2018 season.
Harvey’s four-seam fastball was sitting around 92 mph in April before settling in at close to 95 mph in the middle of the summer. So, it is conceivable that this trend continues, and Harvey’s velocity eventually returns closer to its peak, à la Justin Verlander, whose velocity recently returned after a dip similar to Harvey’s. Perhaps that’s something the Angels are counting on.
Even if Harvey’s velocity does not return, though, he can still adjust to his depleted velocity and become a more effective pitcher than he was this year. The most obvious change Harvey could make would be to stop relying on his fastball so much. Despite the diminished velocity, Harvey’s combined fastball usage (between his four-seamer and sinker) has remained steady, with him throwing 60% fastballs in 2015 and 59.2% in 2018.
Harvey could potentially learn from Zack Greinke in this regard. Fastballs once accounted for around 60% of Greinke’s pitches. With his average fastball velocity dropping below 90 mph, however, a majority of his pitches over the last two seasons have been breaking balls and off-speed pitches. The change has helped him remain successful, as the right-hander owns a 3.20 ERA since 2017.
In Harvey’s case, his secondary pitches are still effective, so he could, in theory, benefit from adopting a similar strategy. In fact, he actually increased the spin rate of both his slider and his curve to career-high marks this year.
In 2018, Harvey held opposing batters to a .239 weighted on-base average against his slider, which averaged over 88 mph and made up about a quarter of his pitches. His curve, which he threw only 5.4% of the time this year, generated a whiff on a third of swings. Harvey also mixes in a changeup, which produced a lower average exit velocity than any of his other pitches.
The one noticeable adjustment that Harvey has made recently is that he has started throwing more sinkers than four-seam fastballs. The problem is that sinkers are, league-wide, one of the least-effective pitches, and Harvey’s is no exception. In 2018, he allowed a 50.3% hard-hit rate and eight home runs against his sinker. The ineffectiveness quite clearly stems from his inability to locate it well.
As seen above, Harvey simply left far too many sinkers in the heart of the plate. Maybe the Angels, who have placed an emphasis on ground-ball pitchers of late, believe they can help Harvey better command the pitch in the lower part of the strike zone and thus induce grounders at a higher rate.
Harvey could also follow the path of C.C. Sabathia, who supplanted his four-seamer for a cutter in 2017, helping him flourish without his peak velocity. Anibal Sanchez recently revived his career in a similar way.
In sum, Harvey has several ways forward, and while the Angels would probably be happy with the average numbers he posted in 2018, there is room for more.
A couple of days after the Harvey signing was reported, the Angels further supplemented their starting rotation with the addition of Cahill, who is entering his age-31 season, on a one-year, $9 million deal. Like Harvey, Cahill’s career has been marred by injuries. Unlike Harvey, though, Cahill is coming off one of the best seasons of his career.
He was limited to 21 appearances (20 starts), but Cahill managed to put together strong numbers across the board in 2018 and had a strikingly similar season to Eovaldi, who secured a four-year, $68 million contract earlier this month.
His 2018 numbers were better than his norms, but he has been a solid contributor throughout his career, sporting an exactly average 100 ERA+ across 10 seasons. Cahill fits in with some of the Angels’ recent pitching acquisitions, in the sense that he is a ground-ball pitcher who has an ability to miss bats. For his career, Cahill has accumulated a 55% grounder rate, which puts him in the 84th percentile of pitchers since 2009. And this year, his swinging strike rate was just below Stephen Strasburg‘s.
He complements his sinker, which he threw just 38% of the time in 2018, and cutter, which he began mixing in last year (Maybe he can teach Harvey?), with a couple of dominant secondary pitches. Opposing batters whiffed on nearly 40% of their swings at his changeup this year and put together a minuscule .208 wOBA against his curve.
But the problem with Cahill—and the reason no team committed to him for longer a year—is his injury history. From 2009-2012, the first four seasons of his career, the right-hander averaged 196 innings per year. However, 2018 was only the second time Cahill eclipsed 84 innings since 2014. To be sure, some of that has to do with the fact that he has spent considerable time in the bullpen in that span, but it is mainly due to numerous injuries, including shoulder and back ailments over the last two seasons.
So, neither Harvey nor Cahill is the durable arm the Angels were looking for, but options were scarce; Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez are probably the only starting pitchers remaining on the free-agent market who fit that description. In regard to Keuchel, it seems that the Angels were looking for a shorter-term commitment than the one he will likely command, and in regard to Gonzalez, it appears that they simply preferred to gamble on the upside of Cahill and Harvey rather than bank on Gonzalez’s reliably pedestrian production.
At a minimum, the Angels’ newest pair of starters provides the team with some much-needed depth, as the mere presence of Cahill and Harvey makes it less likely that the team will be forced to go mid-season waiver-wire hunting when its starters inevitably encounter injury issues. And if they both stay healthy, they could be two of the Angels’ better starters. Additionally, the one-year contracts leave the Angels with the flexibility to pursue top-end pitching talent in next year’s free-agent class, which will include Chris Sale, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Wheeler.
The Angels have more work to do, but Cahill and Harvey just inched them a little bit closer to postseason contention.
News & Notes
In addition to Cahill and Harvey, the Angels padded their starting pitching depth this week by re-acquiring Parker Bridwell. The Yankees claimed Bridwell off waivers from the Angels in November, but they designated him for assignment on Monday, which allowed the Angels to claim him again. Because he is out of minor-league options, if he does not make the Opening Day roster, the team would, in order to get him to Triple-A, have to place him on waivers and risk losing him again.
But as of right now, the Angels are about nine major-league-ready starting pitchers deep: Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs, Harvey, Cahill, Jaime Barria, Felix Pena, Nick Tropeano, Bridwell, and Dillon Peters. That number would be pushed to 12 with the expected mid-season return of J.C. Ramirez, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and the potential promotions of the team’s top two pitching prospects, Griffin Canning and Jose Suarez.
Wilson Ramos, who was the best-hitting catcher in baseball this year, signed a two-year, $19 million deal with the Mets last weekend. The Angels reportedly offered Ramos the same deal, but he preferred the east coast, so they missed out. The Angels are also reportedly considering Yasmani Grandal to fulfill their catching needs.
Grandal is projected for 3.6 WAR in 2019, and that does not even factor in the value of his best-in-baseball pitch framing. Comparatively, the two catchers at the top of the Angels’ depth chart, Kevan Smith and Jose Briceno, are projected for a combined 1.8 WAR. Grandal is probably looking at a three or four-year contract at about $15 million per year and would be a tremendous boost to both the Angels offense and pitching staff.
Featured image via Hayden Schiff/Flickr.