St. Louis Cardinals reliever Seth Maness had an off year in 2015. Can the ground-ball specialist bounce back?
A ground-ball double play is a pitcher’s best friend, and St. Louis Cardinals reliever Seth Maness has been the king of grounders since joining the team in 2013. But last season, at least by his standards, was a down year for the 27-year old.
So, what happened?
Maness finished the 2015 season with a 4.26 ERA, 3.78 FIP and a 1.42 WHIP — all career highs. The most alarming numbers were a career low 69 LOB% and 55.9 ground-ball percentage. But it wasn’t all bad. Maness still managed to induce 11 ground-ball double plays, which was tied for fourth in the National League last season.
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A closer look offers some explanations as to why Maness’ numbers were down overall.
The right-hander posted a career-high .345 BABIP last season, which essentially means that hitters had a lot more batted ball luck. Another reason for Maness’ struggles resides in the contact hitters were making on his pitches last year.
Maness recorded a career-high 30.5 Hard%, which is the percentage of balls in play that are classified as “hit with hard speed.” Now, hard-hit grounders are not a bad thing necessarily for a ground-ball pitcher but only if they are hit right to a fielder. It can make turning double plays easier in terms of how quickly they are turned and, depending on the speed of the runner, that can be a good thing.
Still, this is an alarming number especially considering that Maness gave up 7 homers and 30 earned runs — also career highs. It’s not all Maness’ fault, though.
Maness’ numbers also likely suffered from the Cardinals shoddy defense. Last season, St. Louis had the fifth most errors (96) in the National League. Sixty of those 96 errors were committed by the Cardinals’ infield and 32 of those 60 were booted by the middle infielders (Kolten Wong alone committed 17 errors). Maness undoubtedly would have been on the mound for some of that bad defense and that would have made his numbers look worse than they really were. Still, Maness could stand to pitch better this season.
So, can he bounce back in 2016? Sure he can, and here’s how: throw more sinkers.
Pitch selection also could have played a role in Maness’ struggles last season. According to FanGraphs, the righty threw his sinker a career-low 45.7 percent of the time and his slider a career-high 16.2 percent of the time. The decision to throw his slider so much more is the most perplexing. In 2013, Maness only threw his slider 4.4 percent of the time. In 2014, he threw it a bit more at 9.4 percent. So there has been a steady increase in how often Maness has thrown his slider over the last two seasons, but none greater than last year. The drastic increase is surprising given that his slider pitch value was only 0.3 in 2015, which is barely above average.
Mixing speed and location is the bread and butter of pitching, I get it. But “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” For a guy who comes in to pitch to one or two batters with runners on base and the team looking for a ground-ball double play, I say: stick to your best pitch. And Maness’ best pitch is his sinker.
Maness has proven that even if he throws his sinker more than 50 percent of the time, he can be extremely effective. In 2014, the righty threw his sinker a whopping 60.7 percent of the time. Guess what happened — he had one of his best seasons. In 2014, Maness recorded career-bests in ground balls (136), strikeouts (55), WHIP (1.096), FIP (3.38), walks per 9 (1.2) and extra base hit percentage (6.3%). He also left 76.1 percent of runners on base.
Again, the defense is another crucial piece to this puzzle. That career year for Maness in 2014 also came behind a Cardinals defense that committed just 88 errors (4th lowest in the National League).
His 2016 projections look like this:
Maness is a Mike Matheny favorite and for good reason. Since 2013, he has induced 39 ground-ball double plays, which ranks first among National League relievers.
The Cardinals will need their ground-ball specialist to continue getting them out of jams in 2016. If that sinker is working and used more often, and the Cardinals’ defense can improve, then Maness should do just that.