At the end of last season, Kyle Crick emerged as a strong late inning setup reliever for the Pirates. This season, however, Crick has lost all his dominance. Has Crick changed or have batters figured him out?
In the offseason, the Pittsburgh Pirates looked forward to having one of the best late inning group of relievers in baseball with All-Stars Felipe Vazquez and Keone Kela pairing with emerging stars Richard Rodriquez and Kyle Crick. All but Crick ranked within the top 50 in FIP among all MLB relievers with 40 or more inning. Crick’s 3.14 FIP ranked just outside at 51st, still among the better relievers in baseball, and well under the league average of 4.06. His 2.39 ERA ranked 19th.
This season has been much different. Entering play on Monday Crick owned a 4.96 ERA and 5.95 FIP to go with a 15.5% walk rate and 20% HR/FB rate this season. The only positive has been his 27.1 K%, which is well above average. His FIP ranks second worst among relievers and his walk rate is seventh worst.
Why is this happening to Crick?
Coming over in the deal that sent long time Pirate hero Andrew McCutchen to San Francisco there were a lot of expectations that Crick would emerge as the Pirates’ new setup man. This was for good reason as his slider was one of the best in baseball, and still is with a 61 wRC+ and 40.4 K%.
While his slider is still a solid pitch, Crick’s supporting cast consisting of a sinker and four-seam fastball are not working. The sinker, his least used pitch, has produced a 1.000 OPS and 163 wRC+ so far according to Fangraphs. This comes with a 9% decrease in his ground ball rate on his sinker, which isn’t good.
His fastball also sits at a 163 wRC+ with a .961 OPS and a 22.7 BB%. Hitters are both walking 10.2% more on his fastballs and crushing them at a more consistent rate (.229 ISO vs .061 last season).
So has Crick done something to his fastballs to make them more hittable? At a glance, it doesn’t seem so. His fastball velocity and movement hasn’t changed much. It seems more likely that hitters are approaching him differently.
For example, according to Baseball Savant last year Crick gave up one home run over the horizontal middle third of the plate despite allowing 22 hard hits in that area of the zone. This season he’s allowed 17 hard hits in the middle of the zone, and 6 of them have left the park. Last season, 21% of his pitches were in that middle third. This season, he’s continued the trend.
Hitters are starting to take more advantage of Crick in the zone, who has a career 8.2% meatball (7.9% this season), which is above league average. Last season hitters took swings on just 67% of his meatball pitches, but that has jumped up to the league average of 75%. That 8% is a huge change, which explains why hitters are barreling up 6.6% of the time compared to just 3.1% last season.
Crick’s whiff profile hasn’t changed much outside of a drop from 25% to 17% in the center of the zone. He’s just not fooling hitters over the middle of the zone anymore, or more likely he’s not benefiting from the same luck he had in 2018.
Another issue this season for Crick has been his walks. As I mentioned earlier, his walk rate ranks seventh worst among relievers in baseball, and its mostly due to Crick’s ineffectiveness when down or even in the count. When down in the count, Crick has a 7.64 FIP and 27.1% walk rate, both tremendously higher than his 4.15 FIP and 14.7% walk rate from 2018.
Working in an even count has also been an issue, posting a 4.93 FIP and 21.7% walk rate when just a season ago it was 2.40 and 10.5% through even counts. Naturally, Crick still produces well when ahead of the count, posting a 3.30 FIP with just a 7.7% walk rate this season.
With hitters pounding his fastballs paired with his seemingly ineffectiveness to get back in counts, Crick certainly will need to tweak something this offseason. A focus on pitching down in counts while staying out of the middle of the plate has to be the emphasis.
Being a pitcher in the MLB is hard, even if you have the nasty junk that Crick has. The bright side is that Crick is just 26 and has a little over a year of service time under his belt. So, his struggles this season may just be growing pains.