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Rays' starting pitcher first month report card: Bolton Sunshine Academy edition

There will be no A’s, B’s, or C’s here

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MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In the TV series Arrested Development, Maeby Funke attends a school called Bolton Sunshine Academy. Being one of the new-age institutions of learning, the school does not give out traditional grades like ‘A,’ ‘B,’ or ‘C,’ but rather lets the students know their overall progress through inanimate objects and drawings. That’s how Maeby ends up with a “crocodile” in spelling.

Trying to grade the first month of baseball should be treated the same way. The season isn’t far enough along to hand out actual grades like ‘A,’ ‘B,’ or ‘C,’ but it’s still useful to give some sort of feel for how the first month has treated certain players. With that in mind, today will cover the first part of the Bolton Sunshine Academy-style report card for the Tampa Bay Rays in April—the starting pitchers.

Chris Archer

Archer has had an interesting start to 2017. On the one hand, his April ERA (3.43) ended up more than a full run and a half lower than his April ERA from 2016 (5.01). On the other hand, his ERA is still a bit higher than he would like, and to continue to be the Rays ace and anchor he needs to find that tier he was in throughout the 2013-15 seasons, between 3.22 and 3.33 each season, and while that may not seem like much of a difference, Archer hasn’t quite felt at the same level as his peak so far this season.

His two most recent outings have been telling. In each, Cash treated him as if he were still “Ace Archer,” leaving him in past when it would have seemed natural to take him out. This is something you do with your ace. In both cases it came back to haunt the Rays, with the Orioles start being especially strange. Cash (clearly) left him in too long, and the short fences of Camden Yards burned him, a common theme throughout his career.

Of course that’s the beauty of April, there’s still plenty of time left in the season for Archer to find that next gear. Overall, Archer has looked solid, but perhaps a slight bit off. His strikeout rate is its lowest and his walk rate is its highest of the last three seasons, and watching him on the mound it seems like he’s not 100 percent sharp. Whether that’s just a misleading eye test or whether he’s working through some mechanical issues, it’s clear that his first month grade is: Captain Olimar.

Alex Cobb

Cobb has now made as many starts in 2017 as he made in his limited 2016, and he has thrown more innings than in that brief, post-TJ last season. It’s clear that Cobb is steadily improving and moving back towards the pitcher who posted back-to-back sub-3.00 ERAs in 2013-14.

It’s great to see that Cobb’s ground ball rate is still right around 50 percent (49.0% to be exact), as he has never needed an elite strikeout rate to have success in the past. As some have noted, he still doesn’t have his full repertoire, and he seems to be a bit of a different pitcher this season due to recovery issues from Tommy John surgery. Different isn’t necesarilly bad, but it may well need time to develop his approach.

Can Cobb be the same pitcher without his quality change up? Or will it return this season? These are things we can’t predict, so of all the Rays’ starter receiving grades today, Cobb is the one whose (progressive) grade may change the most over the rest of the season.

It’s more questions than statements regarding his game at this point:

  • Will he continue throwing the curveball over a third of the time, or will he go back to the changeup more once he gets his feel for it back?
  • Does the tough slate of lineups he has faced in 2017 mean he’s due to drop his ERA soon (4.66 ERA through five starts)?
  • Is the aggressive, in-the-zone attack from Cobb here to stay, or are his pitches simply not moving as much as they used to?

All of these questions mean there is only one grade possible for Cobb: Pulled Pork Sandwich.

Blake Snell

Snell has the starkest surface-stats-to-advanced-stats drop off of any pitcher on the Rays this season. His 3.42 ERA suggests a 24-year-old who is settling into his role as a number three in an MLB rotation. His 5.56 xFIP, as well as his 18 walks and 18 strikeouts in 26.1 innings this season, suggest a pitcher who is lucky to not be among the bottom of the league in overall production.

Snell is the only qualified pitcher in baseball with as many walks as strikeouts in 2017, a terrifying sign for a young pitcher whose number one knock against him has always been his control. At least in seasons past he was getting high strikeout totals with that lack of control, but in 2017 his swinging strike rate has plummeted (8.0% down from 10.9% in 2016). Snell simply isn’t getting whiffs right now.

This is troubling to say the least, yet the overall feel of this Snell season hasn’t been one of doom and gloom. In fact, it has seemed like after several Snell starts, the vibe has been that the manager/defense let him down a bit, and that Snell did well to allow the limited number of runs that he did. Some of the 2017 numbers on Snell are definitely disturbing (his percent of pitches that have gotten hitters to go out of the zone to swing has dropped over six percent in 2017), but it’s still early and it has felt like a bit of a fluky season for Snell so far. There’s lots here that’s likely to regress, and perhaps not all of it will regress in the same direction. His grade: Kid A.

Matt Andriese

Andriese has pretty much been the anti-Blake Snell. He has produced exactly to the level expected and hoped out of him in 2017. He has a 3.86 ERA and 4.20 xFIP, and he is striking out (7.07 K/9) nearly the same number of hitters as 2016 (7.68 K/9).

His all-around profile looks eerily similar to 2016, which is perfectly fine for the pitcher they have slotted in as a backend arm. His grade: B-. (Yes, I just used the same joke as Arrested Development did above.)

Jake Odorizzi

Odorizzi has made only three starts this season, and he went just one inning in that third start, leaving early due to a hamstring injury. In most normal report card articles, this would result in a ‘N/A’ or an ‘Incomplete,’ but this isn’t a normal report card article, so we’re going to power through. Odorizzi is due back Monday, and it will be interesting to see if he can pick up where he left off.

The 27-year-old was doing a perfectly serviceable job as a mid-rotation arm before being struck in the back of the leg with a liner in his second start, and leaving his third start with a possibly-related hamstring injury. Odorizzi had a 4.15 ERA over his 13.0 April innings, and he had a pair of six-inning starts his first two times through the rotation. If Odorizzi can continue pumping out six-inning starts with an ERA around 4.00, it’s not going to blow the world away, but given the heavy use the bullpen has received already this season (fifth in the majors), any days where they get a bit of a lighter load is going to be of the utmost importance, especially with the busy schedule over the next month or so.

Like many of the Rays this season, Odorizzi’s strikeout rate has been lower than in seasons past, but given the team-wide avoidance of strikeouts, one has to wonder if it’s part of a bigger plan. But that’s an article for another day. We conclude here with a final grade for Odorizzi: SwimWays Dream Works Trolls 3D Swim Ring.