After the SF Giants found great success with pitchers like Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly, fans are excited about Anthony DeSclafani’s prospects. However, there are reasons to lessen expectations.
The SF Giants entered the offseason with clear needs in their starting rotation. After finding success with Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly, starters coming off disappointing 2019 campaigns, many have been wondering if they could have that success once again. On Wednesday, they added a pitcher that fit that mold in Anthony DeSclafani.
DeSclafani has been a staple in the Cincinnati Reds rotation over the past six seasons. From 2015-2019, he was a solid mid-rotation starter, making 103 starts to a 4.01 ERA (4.17 FIP) in 589.2 innings. Then 2020 happened. In the pandemic shortened season, DeSclafani posted a 7.22 ERA over 33.2 innings with the worst strikeout and walk rates of his career. Needless to say, he fits the bounce-back mold they found success with.
Following the move, we asked fans what they expected DeSclafani’s ERA to be next season. More than half of voters believe his performance will be in line with his career numbers, between 3.75 and 4.25. Nearly a quarter of voters expect his ERA to be lower than 3.75. Somehow, after recording a 7.22 ERA in 2020, only 11.3% of voters expect his ERA to be above 4.75 next season.
It’s a credit to Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi that his fanbase has so much faith in his acquisitions. However, it’s probably time to have a sobering conversation. It’s a good move if DeSclafani can complete 150 innings with a sub-4.50 ERA. While Gausman’s signing worked out great for the team, he is much more the exception than the rule.
In 2019, the year before his breakout 2020 with the Giants, Gausman’s career seemed to be heading in the wrong direction. He finished the season with an ERA north of 5.50. After being a consistent mid-rotation starter from 2014-2018, he fell off a cliff. Except, a deeper look at the numbers suggested Gausman had been the victim of a lot of bad luck.
Gausman’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) unexpectedly jumped to .344, and his strand rate (LOB%) plummeted to 61.2%. Both were career-worsts, but also metrics that tend to regress to league averages. Furthermore, he struck out more than a quarter of the batters he faced for the first time in his career. Per Statcast, hitters were swinging and missing at his pitches at the highest rate of his career as well.
Almost all ERA estimators suggested Gausman’s 2019 was primed for a bounceback. FIP (3.98), xFIP (4.05), and xERA (4.57) were comparable to his career numbers. ZIPS, a projection system operated by Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs, estimated Gausman to have a 3.81 ERA and 3.50 FIP in the 2020 season.
Giants coaches clearly encouraged Gausman to decrease the usage of his fastball last season. He threw his heater less than 50% of the time for the first time in his career while throwing his splitfinger over 40% of the time. Both trends clearly played a role in his 2020 success, but if you looked below the traditional numbers, Gausman’s breakout had begun in 2019.
The same cannot be said of Anthony DeSclafani. His BABIP and LOB% leaned towards bad luck, but not to the degree that Gausman’s did. FIP (6.10), xFIP (5.63), xERA (6.36) all told the same story. DeSclafani might not have been as bad as his 7.22 ERA indicated, but he was far from a mid-rotation starter. ZIPS is projecting DeSclafani to have a 5.03 ERA (5.07 FIP) in 2021. Again, a marked improvement from this season, but far from a dependable arm.
Smyly is an example of someone who undeniably performed poorly in 2019 that took a massive step forward with the Giants. However, with an extensive injury history, some credit can go to him just healing up. DeSclafani has never undergone serious surgery, although he did miss part of last season with a mild strain near his rotator cuff.
In 2020, Giants coaches worked with Smyly to utilize his curveball more aggressively, and it worked wonders. It’s also worth noting that his fastball averaged 93.8 mph, easily the fastest mark in his career. Before that, he had not averaged more than 91.2 mph on his fastball since 2013. There could be an adjustment the staff can make with DeSclafani, but his four-seam fastball already averaged a career-high 94.8 mph in 2020.
There were some hints last season that DeSclafani was tipping pitches. That would be the best-case scenario for Giants coaches. If they can correct the tip, DeSclafani still has much of the arsenal that made him an excellent mid-rotation starter. Still, the first report about tipping pitches came after his third start of the season. He made six more appearances, and his numbers got no better.
Predicting which players just had one bad season and which are heading in the wrong direction is really hard, even for the best. While Zaidi deserves credit for adding Gausman and Smyly last offseason, he re-signed Derek Holland for one-year, $7 million, and added Drew Pomeranz on a one-year deal prior to 2019. Pomeranz eventually found his footing as a dominant high-leverage reliever, but both were out of the starting rotation by midseason. Two other free agents, Wade Miley and Jordan Lyles signed for about $6 million combined. Each made at least 28 starts and held opponents to a 4.15 or lower ERA.
This is not a criticism of the SF Giants adding Anthony DeSclafani on a one-year, $6 million deal. His track record as a solid mid-rotation arm easily makes him worth the risk. However, that does not mean he’s going to the next Smyly or Gausman. Even with the upside, fans should make sure to keep their expectations in a broader context.