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Caleb Ferguson entered the 2019 season with high expectations. After an impressive 2018 campaign mostly out of the bullpen, many were hoping he could take the next step as a bridge to closer Kenley Jansen. Unfortunately, that was not the case, as Caleb spent time in the minors and pitched in mostly mop-up innings.
|Caleb Ferguson (2019)|
Despite this lackluster season, there is still plenty of evidence that Caleb is a very good reliever and can serve as a weapon out of the bullpen for the Dodgers in 2020. Let’s take a look at what went wrong and what needs to be fixed.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) June 6, 2018
Ferguson’s pitch usage was a mystery for fans last year. Firstly, he dumped his changeup entirely. This was a confounding decision, as the changeup operating as a third pitch helped him face batters more than once, and potentially serve as a starter if needed. Additionally, he threw his curveball less and his fastball more, despite the curveball being the far more effective pitch.
Caleb’s curve ranked in the 98th percentile in spin rate, and hitters sported a mere .175 batting average against it in 2019. However, it was thrown only 22% of the time, a dip from 25% in 2018.
With this low curveball usage, and no third pitch for Caleb to even show, hitters just sat fastball and pounced on it. Even watching at home, it was easy to predict a fastball was coming. Caleb will need to throw fewer fastballs and more curveballs in 2020 in order to keep hitters off balance.
— Strand Sport Stats (@StrandStats) June 20, 2019
Controlling the Zone
Probably the biggest issue for Caleb last season was his insanely high walk rate. He was able to keep it under wraps in 2018 at only 5.9%, but in 2019 it jumped to 13.2%.
As far as the eye test goes, it’s a pretty big mystery as to why Caleb couldn’t find the zone. He missed a few weeks with an oblique injury earlier back in April, which could have threw things off mechanics wise. But even after spending time in AAA to work on his delivery, he still couldn’t find any success at the big league level. It’s also possible that there was some sort of mental roadblock, similar to the yips, but that’s just speculation.
Whatever the issue, Caleb is unusable when his command is as bad as it was last year. He will need to clean that up this Winter.
Batted Ball Type
One of the best skills a pitcher can have is the ability to induce ground balls. With the juiced baseball, where seemingly everything goes 400 feet, pitchers need to be able to keep the ball on the ground. This is an area where Caleb excelled in 2018, but struggled in 2019.
|Av. Launch Angle||8°||15°|
All of this goes right back to Caleb’s pitch usage. With his high spin curveball, batters often swing on top of it, leading to ground balls. With fewer curveballs, his ground ball rate unsurprisingly went down with it.
As mentioned earlier, hitters sat fastball, and predictably were able to get it up in the air for extra base hits, leading to his inflated ERA.
Caleb, only 23, has already shown what he is capable of. He will just need to morph back to his 2018 form. He can do so by throwing more curveballs, commanding the zone, and keeping the ball on the ground. If Caleb is able to follow these steps, he can emerge as a top bullpen option for the Dodgers in 2020.