During a 65 start stretch from May 2017 through May 2019 Trevor Williams was one of the most consistent starting pitchers in the National League, but after going on the injured list last May Williams struggled for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the final three months of the season. What version of Williams will the Bucs get in 2020?
Arguably the biggest question mark for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2020 will be the team’s starting rotation. While the team appears set on who will be in the starting rotation, there are plenty questions about how these pitchers will perform.
One of the big question marks is Trevor Williams. Williams finished the 2019 season with a 5.38 ERA, 5.12 FIP and 1.0 fWAR across 145.2 innings of work in 26. However, it was a tale of two seasons for Williams.
Prior to going on the injured list in late May, Williams had made nine state. In these nine starts, Williams posted a 3.33 ERA and a 3.40 FIP. Williams pitched 54 innings in these nine starts, allowing just four home runs to go with a 4.5% walk rate and 18.8% strikeout rate. He was also inducing soft contact 18.7% of the time.
Williams returned from the IL in late June, and simply was nowhere near the same pitched. Over the course of final 17 starts of the season he pitched 91.2 innings, seeing his average innings pitched per start drop from 6 to 5.3. In these 91.2 innings of work Williams surrendered an alarming 23 home runs, to go with a near doubled walk rate of 8.2% and a drop in strikeout rate as it fell to 17.2%.
Prior to going on the IL, Williams was riding one of the best 65 start stretches in all of baseball. Since joining the Pittsburgh Pirates starting rotation in May 2017, Williams pitched 363.1 innings posting a 3.47 ERA and a 3.81 FIP. He allowed 31 home runs (0.77 HR/9), walked 7.3% of batters faced and struck out 18.2%.
Williams posted a 2.5 fWAR in 2017, 2.7 fWAR in 2018 and owned a 1.3 fWAR in 2019 when he hit the injured list.
So, what went wrong for Williams? Well, a big issue was an increase in hard contact allowed. The MLB average for exit velocity is 87.5 MPH, Williams limited opposing batters to a 85.0 MPH exit velocity in 2017 and 85.6 MPH in 2018. Then in 2019, this number jumped to 87.2 MPH. While that is still a tick below league average, a 2 MPH increase is a big and concerning one.
Williams also saw a spike in hard contact allowed, and a decline in soft contact allowed. He limited opposing batters to a 29.4% hard contact rate in 2017 and 30.6% in 2018, both below the league average of 34.5%. Then in 2019, this number spiked to 36.6%. Not only is that a huge increase over his 2017 and 2018 numbers, it’s also more than 2% higher than league average.
As for soft contact, Williams was among the best in the National League in inducing soft contact in 2017 and 2018. The Pittsburgh Pirates starter induced soft contact 21.8% of the time in 2017 and 20.3% of the time in 2018. In 2019, Williams induced soft contact just 18.4% of the time.
The key for a bounce back season from Williams in 2020 could be decreasing the amount of hard contact he allowed, while inducing more soft contact. This was his recipe for success in 2017, 2018 and the first two months of 2019 after all. So how does he do this?
Well, a shake up in pitch selection could help. According to Baseball Savant, Williams only threw 21 curveballs in 2019. Well, in a meeting with the media at PNC Park last week Williams talked about working with new pitching coach Oscar Marin during the shutdown to improve his curveball in an effort to increase curveball usage this season. He also said he is looking to refine his slider further for 2020. Since opposing batters slugged .509 with a .353 wOBA off his fastball last season, throwing it nearly 52% of the time again does not seem like the best recipe for success.
During the shutdown, Williams and Marin were both staying at their Phoenix area homes. This allowed to the two to work together nearly daily, and this will undoubtedly pay dividends for Williams this season.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates get the Williams, or something close to, that they got during that 65 start stretch from May 2017 to May 2019, then the 2020 starting rotation will improve substantially. If they get the Williams that struggled after coming off the IL last June, the rotation will continue to be shrouded in question marks. This makes Williams one of the team’s biggest wild cards for the 60-game 2020 season.