One year ago, Ernesto Frieri was entering the 2014 season after one of his worst years, but he turned the tables and posted a 3.72 FIP while striking out batters 33.6% of the time and recording his lowest walk percentage to date at 10.3%. This year, Frieri will start a new adventure with the Rays after another career-worst year. Except this time, the bad season was a truly horrendous season.
Allowing nearly one homerun every five flyballs surely doesn't help your production as a relief pitcher. Although Frieri crucially lacked of luck in 2014, his usual stuff was nowhere to be found last season with the Angels and the Pirates. The 2015 season has to be a rebound year for him, as his one-year contract indicates. The Rays could get good value from him and his $800,000, though Frieri will have to carve his way into a good bullpen.
What went wrong in 2014
When you look at Frieri's career numbers before 2014, you'll probably see a good reliever with good closing potential who had his share of good luck in the beginning of his career as his HR/FB ratio of 2010 and 2011 were below 5% during his time in San Diego.
|Total||- - -||273||3.46||31.40%||10.90%||25.90%||10.30%||3.72||22.82||1.9|
His 31.40 K% career average over five seasons in the big leagues compares very well with the league average among relievers, which oscillates between 20 and 22%, while RE24 and xFIP shows an above-average, if not solid, performance year in and year out -- strong numbers that would put him in competition with Jake McGee, Kevin Jepsen and Brad Boxberger for the closer spot in Tampa Bay.
So what happened last year? First of all, he did not suffer any injury during the season, which is good for his future in a way. Secondly, if you take a look at his HR/FB ratio along his career, his 2014 metric will certainly stand out and rightly so. Before 2014, Frieri averaged a 8.25% mark between 2010 and 2013, which was better than the league level during this four-year span. Give that relievers can sustain unusual HR/FB ratios, it is not crazy to think Frieri can return to this rate in the future.
Now, about those home runs. Was that purely bad luck, a bit of bad luck and something else -- perhaps a problem with Frieri pitches? Let's compare his locations between his career pre-2014 and his past year.
As you can see, Ernesto Frieri threw more frequently inside the zone and on the batter side than he used too. He was also unable to locate his pitches "away" from the batter (considering only righties here), which is not really good, especially if you want to avoid dingers. Thus, there was some sort of change in his location, but was it really the cause of his troubles?
I will leave to your own judgment, but in this case, and considering the small sample size, I more willing to say "no" than anything else. Surely he did not throw as well as he did before 2014, but there wasn't that much of a change either. Now let's go to the fun part, thanks to ESPN Home Run Tracker.
Ernesto Frieri, the "Unlucky" One
Using the ESPN Home Run Tracker can be really neat to see how far a long ball just went, but also to see which home runs were no doubters or the result of some luck. The ESPN tool has eight records of home runs allowed by Frieri with the Angels in 2014. How many were "no doubters"? One. How many were "Just Enough"? One. How many were "Pure Luck"? You guessed it. Six. Six out of eight were lucky homers when only one was out without any doubt.
Yeah alright, so Frieri was unlucky with the Angels, but what about his short time with the Pirates? Well ESPN has three records of dingers conceded by him with Pittsburgh. One was "Just Enough". The other two? Yep, "Pure Luck".
You can think what your will about this tracker, but according to their methodology, Frieri was just plain unlucky in 2014, inflating his ERA, FIP and RE24. Nonetheless, even without considering the question of luck, if you take into account his five good previous seasons, it is very reasonable to think that he will perform in a much better way in 2015 with the Rays.
What to expect in 2015
Last season, Frieri finished 30 of the games in which he pitched. In 2013, it was 51 out of 67 and 46 out of 56 in 2012. This year he will probably not see as much late innings as he did in the past considering Brad Boxberger and Kevin Jepsen will already be competing for the closer spot before the return of Jake McGee during the season. In my opinion, Frieri could be used at best as a secondary setup man, but most likely as a middle reliever with Jeff Beliveau. It could be interesting to see how it affects him, if he feels less pressure or not. In any case, Frieri will certainly be a good asset to eat some innings in the very least or even better if he bounce back to his past form.
In terms of projections, here's how Steamer and ZiPS are predicting Ernesto Frieri for the upcoming season:
While not great, these numbers are already way better than what he achieved last year.
Overall, Frieri is a great candidate for a bounce back year, if not the best among relievers, considering his lack of luck, his "stuff" and past performances. It will surely be very interesting to see how he thrives in Florida with the Tampa Bay Rays, even if he already allowed two home runs in four innings pitched during Spring Training. Although, preseason does not count, as everyone knows, and I prefer to expect a little more of this than other things.
For more on Ernesto Frieri, his reasoning for signing with the Rays (to work with Jim Hickey), his inspiration in follow Colombian Edgar Rentaria, and his story of finding the strength to pitch by grinding corn for his grandmother, check out this great interview with Neil Solondz.