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What should the Washington Nationals do with Erick Fedde?

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Erick Fedde has teased us at times this year, showing that he might yet turn the corner and be a middle of the rotation starter. At other times, he’s looked like one of the worst starters in the league. How should the Nationals handle him moving forward?

MLB: Game Two-Washington Nationals at New York Mets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

When the Washington Nationals drafted Erick Fedde with the 18th overall pick in 2014, he had a tough act to follow. Thanks to the Rafael Soriano signing, the Nats didn’t have a first round pick in the 2013 draft, so let’s look at the previous four first round picks the Nationals had made in the Rule IV draft:

  • Lucas Giolito (2012)
  • Anthony Rendon (2011)
  • Bryce Harper (2010)
  • Stephen Strasburg (2009)

Prior to Strasburg in 2009, the Nationals had just one first round pick who has really made an impact in the major leagues. That would, of course, be the Nationals’ first ever draft pick. Ryan Zimmerman was the fourth overall pick in 2005, and has become Mr. National over the course of his illustrious career. Some of us will remember the Nats’ first rounders from 2006-2008, but we’ll all agree that none of them are headed for Cooperstown.

  • Chris Marrero (2006/15th) - I remember thinking he was going to be a star, but he’s had 174 big league PA
  • Ross Detwiler (2007/6th) - I actually remember waiting on his parents in St. Louis when he came up in 2009. He’s still in the majors, but he’s thrown a grand total of 714 innings with 2.6 fWAR in his career
  • Aaron Crow (2008/9th) - Yet another Missouri guy (Det went to Missouri St.), the Nats failed to sign him. He went to the Royals in the 12th round the next year, signed, and was a decent reliever in the Royals’ bullpen for a few years.
  • The Nats would use that extra first round pick in 2009 to take Drew Storen, of course. Storen had some long stretches of success, but will probably always be remembered for a certain game in 2012. All in all, he was a successful first round pick.

There’s an argument that 2009-2012 was the most successful four year run that any MLB organization has ever had in the first round. Among those five first round picks (including Storen), the Nationals selected two players who were considered generational picks, a reliever who worked his way into the closer’s role the year after he was drafted, a third baseman who may well have actually been better in his Nats tenure than either of those “generational” talents, and a pitcher (now with the White Sox) who is just hitting his prime and is among the best starters in the game. That’s a tough act for Erick Fedde to follow.

Has Fedde lived up to that first round value?

I suppose that depends on what you consider first round value. We’ve already looked at some of the players that the Nats selected in the first round in the years leading up to 2014. Let’s consider some of the other players selected in that 2014 first round when Fedde was selected.

Highlights (7.5 bWAR or higher)

  • Aaron Nola (7th)
  • Trea Turner (13th)
  • Matt Chapman (25th)
  • Michael Conforto (10th)
  • Kyle Freeland (8th)
  • Carlos Rodon (3rd)
  • Jack Flaherty (34th/Supplemental 1st)
  • Kyle Schwarber (4th)

Lowlights (Never reached majors)

  • Brady Aiken (1st)
  • Tyler Kolek (2nd)
  • Max Pentecost (11th)
  • Kodi Medeiros (12th)
  • Nick Howard (19th)
  • Casey Gillespie (20th)
  • Grant Holmes (22nd)

* As an aside, I will say that I see a lot of talk on Twitter nowadays about “the tank.” Ask the Astros and Marlins how that worked out for them in the 2014 draft. The Astros did salvage the Aiken pick (they didn’t sign him) the next year by taking Alex Bregman with their compensatory pick. The Marlins drafted Kolek with the second overall pick. He never made it out of A ball. Let’s celebrate Nats wins the rest of the way rather than talking about tanking for a better draft pick please. MLB is far different from the NBA, NFL, or even the NHL in terms of how polished players are when they’re drafted.

Among players selected in that 2014 first round, Fedde ranks fourteenth with 1.2 bWAR in his career. As a player who has pitched in parts of five seasons, 1.2 bWAR certainly isn’t awe inspiring. In fact, during his start on Tuesday, I couldn’t help but notice several people on social media suggesting that the Nats should let Fedde go this offseason (or sooner!).

Given that he’s out of minor league options, Fedde’s level of performance might give the front office pause this offseason if they were in the same situation they’ve been in for the past decade. The fact of the matter, however, is that the Nats won’t be entering this offseason with the goal of contention in 2022. Like it or not, that changes things.

Let’s see what the numbers tell us

Before we get into anything too crazy, let’s have a look at Fedde’s surface statistics over at Fangraphs. His 4.29 ERA and 1.37 WHIP last year, when he finally stuck in the big league rotation because of injuries and opt outs during the COVID shortened season, looked like they might be indications that he was ready to take a step forward. Both that ERA (5.14) and WHIP (1.43) have taken a hit this season, which might not be what we’d expect in Fedde’s age 28 season. Were last season’s numbers legitimate, though? Are this year’s?

Setting aside that 2020 left us with a pretty small sample across the entire league, let’s focus more on some of the numbers that betray Fedde’s supposed 2020 breakthrough. He got to that 4.29 ERA with some smoke and mirrors. Among the 81 pitchers with 50 innings pitched....

  • Fedde’s 5.01 K/9 ranked 81st (last!)
  • His 3.93 BB/9 ranked 73rd
  • His 1.79 HR/9 ranked 71st
  • His .233 BABIP allowed ranked 8th
  • His 4.29 ERA ranked 54th
  • His 6.15 FIP ranked 78th

Fedde pretty much rode that BABIP to a slightly below average ERA, but his underlying numbers showed that he was among the worst starters in the majors last season. The ridiculous thing is that Fedde has actually shown a lot of improvement this season, in spite of what those surface numbers tell us. Since Fedde is at 96+ innings (short of qualifying for the ERA title), let’s look at pitchers who have thrown at least 90 innings this season. There are 107 pitchers with 90+ MLB innings this season.

  • Fedde’s 8.13 K/9 ranks 70th
  • His 3.83 BB/9 ranks 96th
  • His 1.31 HR/9 ranks 70th
  • His .296 BABIP allowed ranks 73rd
  • His 5.14 ERA ranks 93rd
  • His 4.57 FIP ranks 81st

Has Fedde been great this year? Absolutely not. He has, however, shown improvement over last year in every area other than luck and the defense behind him. His strikeout rate has improved significantly. The walk rate is still a problem, but it’s been a bit better than last year. He’s brought the home runs down quite a bit as well. It all adds up to a FIP that is 1.58 runs better than it was in 2020.

How about some splits? Is there anything that could explain his problems?

Let’s have a look. Fedde starts off with some pretty substantial platoon splits.

  • Lefties are tagging him, batting .284/.364/.447 with a .348 wOBA. Opponents have loaded up with lefties, as he’s actually faced more lefties (216) than righties (207)
  • He’s performing much better against righties, which is to be expected. They’re batting .236/.303/.407 with a .304 wOBA against him. The one troubling thing here is the .171 ISO
  • He both is and isn’t suffering from the third time through the order penalty that we noticed with Patrick Corbin last week. Teams are slugging significantly better during Fedde’s second and third times through the order, but he’s actually performed better the third time through than the second.

Despite the fact that Fedde has thrown five different pitches in the past, there are some things here that could indicate that the ideal role for him might be in the bullpen.

The big platoon splits are certainly the first thing that could take us in that direction. Lefties are batting 48 points higher, reaching base 61 points higher, and slugging 40 points higher than right-handed hitters are against him. The three batter rule has made it more difficult for managers to ensure that they’ll have the platoon advantage when they go to the bullpen, but it would still allow for a more controlled environment than a lineup stacked with lefties.

While we brought up that Fedde hasn’t quite had the third time through the order penalty in terms of batting average and OBP, teams have an ISO of .202 the second time through the order and .197 the third time through. The first time through the order, teams have an ISO of just .121 against Fedde. All of this has led to...

  • 3.29 ERA the first time through the order
  • 6.10 ERA the second time through
  • 7.41 ERA the third time through

Do they bring Fedde back next season?

With respect to the “DFA Fedde” crowd, this is a rhetorical question.

  • After a second straight lost season ended with thoracic outlet surgery, Stephen Strasburg’s status is a bit up in the air.
  • Joe Ross seems to have opted to avoid a second Tommy John surgery for now, but that’s no guarantee that he’ll make it through the 2022 season.
  • Paolo Espino is 34, has had a career year, and has shown signs that he might be out of magic pixie dust lately.
  • Top prospect Cade Cavalli still has plenty of work to do regarding his control. While a rebuild does allow for teams to give prospects more opportunities, rushing prospects can set back their development.

It seems fairly certain that both Patrick Corbin and Josiah Gray will be in the 2022 rotation. Beyond those two, Fedde is the surest bet that’s currently in the Nationals’ organization. He’ll hit arbitration for the first time this season, but that’s unlikely to make him that expensive. Given Fedde’s level of production to this point in his career, it seems unlikely he’ll get more than $2 million next season if he goes to arbitration. That figure even seems a bit high. Cheap back end starters don’t grow on trees.

How can the Nats maximize Fedde’s value?

Honestly, the best way to maximize Fedde’s value may be to use him as an opener. We’ve seen this model work with great success in the past few years, particularly in Tampa Bay. In his career, his wOBA against is .328 the first time through. It goes up 30 points the second time through before jumping all the way to .396 the third time through the order. He just tends to get rocked after hitters are seeing him for the second time in a game.

There may be a way that this could work in the Nats’ favor without burning the bullpen every time. Let’s go a bit outside the box for the first idea. We’ll follow up with the more likely way that the Nats handle him heading into 2022.

Piggyback/Tandem Starters

Tandem starters are something that we see a lot more in the low minors than the majors.

Still, this is a creative idea that gives the club a little more flexibility with one or two spots in the rotation. The idea is to take a couple of potential starters and use them in tandem to pitch together regularly in the same games.

One of the general ideas behind using this in the minor leagues is that it helps to limit pitchers’ innings. With most prospects, organizations want to let them gradually build up their workload from year to year. Limiting pitchers to three or four innings in a start before going to the other pitcher in the tandem is a good way to control this.

The other thing that tandem starters can do, however, is limit exposure. Exposure seems to have been a big problem for Fedde throughout his big league career, given how much harder he tends to get hit the second time through the order. The perfect tandem starting partner for a guy like Fedde would, ideally, be a left-handed pitcher (see below) who could punish opponents the second time through the order if they stack up the lefties against Fedde.. or vice versa.

Trying an outside the box strategy like tandem starters certainly wouldn’t work for all five spots in the rotation, but it could work for one or two. While I don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to try a top prospect like Cade Cavalli in that kind of role, it’s an ideal way to take more of a look at some of the more fringy prospects who the organization might want to have a look at; guys like lefty Seth Romero (see above).

Some minor league overachievers (a guy like Sterling Sharp, maybe?) have continued to defy the odds in the majors. The Nats have had a handful over the years... players such as Craig Stammen, Tanner Roark, and Tommy Milone all come to mind. Committing to a tandem starter spot gives the organization more opportunities to give them a look.

The more likely way this plays out

You’d have to think that the more likely scenario is that the Nats simply add a starter or two in the offseason and stick Fedde in a more traditional fifth starter’s role, hoping he’ll improve with experience. If this is the case, we’ll have to hope for Fedde’s control and command to both improve a bit more for him to take another step forward. Fedde has thrown a strike 60.2% of the time he’s thrown a pitch this season. That’s the third worst percentage among that list of 107 starters we looked at earlier.

Fedde’s Swinging Strike % of 7.8% is 2.1 points higher than last year, it’s still 3.5 points below the league average. Some of this is due to his O-Swing%, which has been a career worst 26.0%... That’s 5.1 points below the league average. When Fedde is missing the zone, he’s not keeping it close enough to tempt the opposing hitters.

His troubles finding the strike zone mean that Fedde isn’t just getting rocked his second and third times through the order. He’s racking up absurd pitch counts in doing so. Here’s what Davey had to say after Fedde notched his first win since June 12 on Tuesday:

“In the fifth inning he had 94 pitches, he wanted to go back out, but I told him, ‘You need to get 94 pitches in the seventh inning and maybe I’ll send you back out there.’”

It’s possible that Fedde could still naturally show a little more improvement without making drastic adjustments to his usage. He did truly look like he was starting to figure things out in the first half this season.

While we shouldn’t put too much stock in the small sample of his three June starts, his season really seems to have gone off the rails when he hit the injured list with a strained oblique in late June. Since returning from that injury on July 6, Fedde has a 6.80 ERA and 1.71 WHIP in 41 innings. It’s entirely possible that he was pitching hurt.

Fedde still has three years of club control, and his performance to this point is liable to depress his salary some during his arbitration years. It makes sense for the Nationals to get what they can out of him throughout those arbitration years until/unless they hit the jackpot with players like Cade Cavalli, Gerardo Carrillo, Aldo Ramirez, and a few others. At the very least, he’ll help let the kids develop at a more traditional pace. That said, if he suddenly has a massive first half in 2022 or 2023, they should probably shop him around to other teams.