Monday night's game seemed to summarize the Rays' season thus far. A brilliant performance by Erasmo Ramirez, was undone by a lackluster offense and another shaky performance from Brad Boxberger, which gave the Rays their seventy-fourth loss of the season. By the end of last season, Boxberger was one of brightest spots of the Rays bullpen. This season, he has been shaky and dull, and that's sad. What's going on?
Last year Boxberger was part of a shutdown reliever duo with Jake McGee known as "Jake and the Box." In almost 63 innings, he posted an excellent 2.37 ERA in 2014, which wasn't too far from his expectations, backing that up with a very good 2.84 and 1.95 FIP/xFIP. He also struck out batters at an amazing 14.47 K/9 rate, and only walked 2.78 BB/9. He was a little lucky with a .227 BABIP. He finished 2014 with two saves, eighteen holds, three blown saves and a record of 5-2.
This year has been a completely different one for Boxberger. Strikeouts are down at 11.09 K/9, walks are up at an alarming 4.50 BB/9. Boxberger's ball-in-play performance has been pretty close to the expected with a .301 BABIP. His ERA of 3.81 is nowhere near where a "closer" should be, and his 4.24 FIP and 3.96 xFIP suggest that he should actually be doing worse.
So whats going on? Earlier in the year, Boxberger admitted to tipping his pitches, and he may still be struggling to hide or mix his pitches more effectively. Only Boxberger and pitching coach Jim Hickey can comment on that. Boxberger also admitted to opposing hitters approaching him differently (in today's article by Tampa Bay Time he complained about his usage, but we're more interested in the facts of his performance.) Lets take a closer look and see if we can find anything.
According to Fangraphs, 28.7% of Boxberger's pitches are getting hit hard this year, which is up from 24.4% from last year. That is a factor, although not a major one in the grand scheme of things, especially given the valid questions about the quality of that data. His fly ball percentage through this point is surprisingly the exact same as last year at 42.1%, and even his HR/9 rate has gone down from 1.25 last year to 1.13 this year.
Pitches in and out of the zone
According to Brooksbaseball.net, Brad Boxberger threw his fastball and changeup a combined 1,025 times in 2014. Out of those pitches, 42.4% landed inside the strikezone, with the other 57.6% falling outside the zone. So far in 2015, Boxberger has thrown a combined 978 pitches with 34.3% of those falling inside the zone, and 65.7% outside the strike zone.
That's already an alarming loss of control. Lets dig a little deeper and see if we can find out whats going on.
Brad Boxberger's Fastball
Brad Boxberger had supreme command of his fastball in 2014, which he used to fill up the strikezone and keep batters on their toes. He distributed evenly inside the strike zone, and even when he went outside, it was in a very specific location. Batters had to protect the entire plate, and a little bit off it on the corners as well.
That command is diminished in 2015. The inside of the strike zone is no longer painted evenly, with most pitches being grooved right down the middle to batters or the lower corner of the plate. Almost 60% of his total fastballs are being thrown outside the zone. As a pitcher everything is built upon a good fastball, and a lost one is setting Boxberger up for failure.
Brad Boxberger's Loss of Deception
The differences at first glance look subtle, but a longer look reveals a much bigger change. Boxberger's usage of offspeed pitched inside and outside the zone actually doesn't differ too much from 2014 to 2015. He threw it inside the strike zone 28% of the time in 2014, compared to a smaller 24% in 2015. Last year it was no problem, because it played off the evenly-spread fastball that forced hitters onto the defensive, and hitters either completely missed it, or were way ahead of the pitch.
The major difference is out of all of his offspeed offerings (which does include curveball that he tried out at the beginning of the season and has now abanded), 51.1% of his pitches are below the strike zone in 2015. In 2014 that number was 42.2%. That is a significant jump, as, like the changes to his fastball, it now means that hitters have to second-guess their swings less based on locations, and MLB hitters have taken notice.
So the increased number of pitches being below the zone definitely helps explain the increased walks. Remember earlier when we mentioned that hitter's may be approaching Boxberger differently? Well there is some bad news, according to the FanGraphs PITCHf/x plate discipline statistics. Hitters are swinging at 33.4% of pitches outside the zone, which is up a bit from 32.9% last year. That seems like a good development, but even though they are swinging at more pitches, their level of contact is consistent from 2014 to 2015 at 61.9% to 61.0%. That's kind of weird, what about pitches in the zone?
MLB batters are swinging at 62.6% of Boxberger's pitches for 2015 inside the zone according to Fangraphs. That's up a large amount from 57.3% in 2014. Out of those pitches, batters are making contact with 79.6% of them inside the zone. That's a solid jump from 2014's 72.1%.
It appears that hitters are seeing Boxberger's pitches better both inside and outside of the game than they did last year.
Without control and command, it's an uphill battle for the Rays' All-Star closer before he even throws the first pitch. His fastball is no longer spread out throughout the zone as it used to be, instead either going for a ball or being grooved. And the location on his changeup has also become more predictable.
Not only is Boxberger not throwing strikes as often as he did last year, batters also now have a good guess at where his offspeed offering is going to end up. Using that knowledge, batters have been able to have a more productive at bats against the Rays both taking walks and looking for their pitch in particular spots and then hitting it.
Boxberger isn't fully to blame for the Rays being where they are, but if he had only one or two blown saves instead of five, that would put this team above .500 and in a better spot for making a run at the wild card.
The Rays need to figure out the Brad Boxberger if they plan on having long-term success in the bullpen.