Jace Fry, bullpen man of mystery

Jace Fry caption: 

Jace Fry has a high ceiling, but he hasn’t met those expectations yet.

Fry is supposed to be a candidate for high-leverage outs in important games, and his 2018 season showed he could fill that role. The ERA was not necessarily fantastic at 4.38, but Fry’s peripherals pulled the ERA up: He had a K-rate (32.7%) in the top 6% of baseball, to go along with a 2.67 FIP. Fry’s walks were not a concern, but a 9.3% BB rate was a flag for the future. No matter, a .194 batting average against helped mitigate most potential rallies. Like most left-handed pitchers, Fry was much better against lefty bats: In 2018, he had a phenomenal .408 OPS against lefties and a worse (but not awful) OPS against righties at .690. He could get both sides of the plate out and made people look silly.

Then came 2019, and though Fry’s ERA was not far off from his 2018 mark, everything else got worse. His FIP skyrocketed up to 4.90 and his strikeouts were more pedestrian (though not a bad number) — but what really bit him were walks. In just one season, Fry’s BB rate rose about 8%, to 17.1%. That walk rate was the third-worst among relievers with 30 innings pitched (out of 249 pitchers). In plain words, Fry should have been sent down to Charlotte to fix control woes.

For Fry, though his strikeout numbers did fall, an 11.13 K/9 is still very good, and he was still fantastic against lefties. He had a .193 batting average against lefties to go along with a 3.34 FIP, and none of the seven home runs he allowed came from that side of the plate. He also still had that one elite pitch, his cutter/hard slider (whatever you want to call it, even websites disagree) and that’s almost all you really need to be a good reliever. Fry’s cutter in 2019 had a .176 batting average against, 16th-best in baseball for a cutter (minimum 25 batters faced). With a minimum of 100 batters faced, Fry’s cutter showed the 15th-most average RPMs; though that is not indicative of success (Carson Fulmer was 13th), some household names with great cutters are at the top of the list, including Yu Darvish, Adam Ottavino, and Walker Buehler.

And as you can see below, Fry’s cutter is just nasty.

First let’s look macro, and then go down the ladder.

Jace Fry had a large increase in walks. His walk rate rose almost 8% in a single season, and that is really bad. Four of the five pitches Fry uses were called balls more often in 2019 than 2018. The cutter’s ball rate went up 12.8%, the curve increased by 16.7%, the four-seamer’s ball rate elevated by 4.3%, and the change was called a ball 10.9% more often than in 2018. Of those four pitches, three of them were thrown outside of the zone in 2019 more than the previous season, the cutter (4.6%), curveball (8.8%), and four-seamer (6.3%). One reason there were more balls called was because opposing hitters just stopped swinging as much outside the zone. The total chase rate against Fry fell about 6% from 2018.

However, oddly enough, of the five pitches Fry uses, only two of them saw a decrease in chase miss rate, the cutter and change, arguably his two most effective pitches. Now, the fewer swings and misses from the cutter outside the zone is big for the walk rate because 61.1% of the cutters he threw were outside of the zone. The curve, sinker, and four-seamer all had their chase miss rate increase — and sometimes it was a huge increase — so batters were not necessarily swinging less because Fry’s pitches were worse or less deceiving. In fact, overall, Fry had more swing-and-misses outside the zone in 2019 than in 2018, but his walks still increased an almost unbelievable amount. So Fry’s problem wasn’t necessarily how good his stuff was. It was his command.

Baseball Savant, attack zones 1-39.

For the following stats, refer to the heat map outline above for a better picture of Fry’s pitch placement. From 2018 to 2019, Fry had an increase in pitches that are categorized as solely waste pitches, as well as chase and waste pitches. He had a .6% increase in waste pitches and an increase of 3.4% in chase and waste pitches; so Fry was just missing his sweet zone for strikes more often in 2019. While there was an increase in pitches further away from the strike zone, there were also fewer strikes. On waste pitches, Fry’s strike rate fell about 1%. On waste and chase pitches, that strike rate fell about 3%, so he was throwing more pitches that looked like ball and getting fewer strikes on them.

So it was a command problem, although, Fry’s curve and sinker also did not help much when contact was made.

Overall, batters hit .529 against Fry’s curve and .367 against his sinker. The problem with relievers though, is that even entire season’s worth of data is a small sample. Batters had a .313 BABIP against Fry’s curve in 2018, which skyrocketed up to .583 in 2019. That sounds a little lucky, until you look at the batted-ball data. Per FanGraphs, batters had a 42.9% line drive rate against the curve, a 30% increase from 2018, and just a 35.7% ground ball rate, a 30% decrease. So sure, the BABIP was high, but the quality of contact against Fry was very good.

For the sinker, it is even more befuddling. The BABIP against Fry’s sinker increased from .217 in 2018 to .393 in 2019; at first glance it looks like Fry just got very unlucky, and this time, the batted-ball data seems to reveal the same thing. The ground ball rate increased 39.6% in 2019 to a whopping 71.4%, so the sinker was doing its job in getting ground balls. They just did not turn into outs at the same rate as Fry’s 2018 sinker, even though a far higher percentage were in the air.

What this basically comes down to for Fry is that he has a career 4.94 ERA and has shown great potential. His cutter is elite, and he has good enough secondary pitches to get batters out on both sides of the plate. This was all a roundabout way of saying, yeah, Fry seems like he should be a really good reliever. He has the ability to use five pitches and has that one pitch great relievers always seem to have — but he hasn’t put it together. In 2019, Fry’s curve and sinker went wrong, and his command faltered. Maybe he should continue to utilize less of his curve and sinker, but 2019 could have been a statistical anomaly as well with opposing hitter success against those two pitches because when those pitches are on, they’re on.

Thus, Jace Fry is still a man of mystery.

But while all that’s well and good, 2018 was pretty tight and 2019 war rough, it’s now or never for Fry because with the White Sox are turning the page toward contention without Fry actually producing a truly sound season (just a peripherally good one). Will Fry take the next step or build the consistency it seemed he was on track for after 2018, or was 2019 Fry the real one, the one that threw more pitches way outside the zone and was almost a detriment to the club when he faced right-handed hitters?

We are going to find out quickly, because a team in contention cannot deploy an unsteady pitcher in critical situations.

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