Coming into this season, Corey Oswalt was the starting pitcher most likely to come to the majors and give the Mets something. While most of the prospect hounds preferred the long-term upside of Justin Dunn and David Peterson, the club’s last two first-round picks, neither was considered close to ready for the big time. And indeed Oswalt has come up and pitched in 16 games, making 11 starts.
As you might expect from a rookie pitcher, Oswalt has not been particularly good. When four-time CY Award winner Greg Maddux first made the majors, he went a combined 8-18 with a 5.59 ERA over his first two seasons. If Hall of Famers get knocked around in their first exposure to the majors, why should we be surprised when it happens to mere mortals?
Regardless, even when getting beat up by more advanced hitters, Oswalt has still managed to show something. Saturday afternoon he started and went five innings and allowed two runs. It wasn’t a great outing but he gave the team a chance to win, which is more than you can say for the bullpen, which allowed four runs in three innings after Oswalt was removed.
The issue in his latest game was essentially the same issue it’s been all season long for Oswalt – the gopher ball. He tried to come inside on Trea Turner, who doubled off him earlier in the game, and Turner crushed it for a two-run homer. It was the 14th HR allowed by Oswalt this year in 60.2 IP. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. That works out to a 2.08 HR/9. There are 317 pitchers so far this year to throw at least 50 IP. Oswalt’s HR/9 is the fifth-worst mark in the majors among those pitchers.
When Maddux was getting beat up back in 1986-87, he allowed 20 HR in 186.2 IP, for a 1.0 HR/9. That was a higher mark than he would have throughout his career but it wasn’t what was doing him in. Instead, he was simply allowing too many baserunners, as his 1.661 WHIP would attest. Maddux finished his career with a 1.143 WHIP, so he obviously got his baserunner issue under control. While absolutely no one thinks Oswalt is anything like Maddux, the question for his future is if he can duplicate Maddux’ feat and get his trouble spot under control.
Is there anything Oswalt can do to curb his homers allowed?
In his two seasons in the minors where he was healthy and made the most starts, Oswalt had good HR/9 rates. In 128.1 IP in 2015, he had a 0.42 HR/9 and last year in 134.1 IP, it was a 0.60 mark. But it’s been a different story here in 2018. In Triple-A, he had a 1.55 rate and despite leaving Las Vegas and the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, that number has gotten worse here in the majors.
The homer he gave up to Turner illustrates the problem nicely. Oswalt wanted to come inside and the pitch indeed was off the plate. But Turner was still able to do damage with it because of two reasons. It wasn’t far enough inside and it didn’t have enough velocity to beat him. There’s not much Oswalt can do about the latter issue. But can he improve his control enough to not just throw a pitch for a ball when he wants to, but to also make it far enough away that good hitters can’t put a good swing on it?
The minor league scouting reports on Oswalt had his velocity consistently in the low 90s, topping out at 95. But instead we’ve seen 88-90, with the ability to dial it up to 92. In trying to come inside against Turner with hard stuff, Oswalt’s pitch registered at 91.46, according to Brooks Baseball. There just wasn’t enough velocity to beat him with that location.
Of the 14 HR allowed by Oswalt this year, 10 have come off pitches classified by Brooks Baseball as fastballs. Turner’s was the second-fastest one of the bunch, beaten only by a 92.37 fastball that Austin Hedges hit out of the park on July 25.
Earlier this month, we saw that 39 percent of runs scored against National League pitchers came via the HR ball. Oswalt’s percentage is 55, as 23 of the 42 runs he’s allowed have crossed the plate thanks to a homer.
Another thing that has helped to torpedo Oswalt’s rookie year have been a few bad outings. Every pitcher has bad outings. But when Oswalt has been bad this year, he’s been beyond awful. In three of his appearances, he’s allowed 17 ER in 3.2 IP. In his other 13 outings, he has 57 IP and 24 ER for a 3.79 ERA.
Interestingly, in those three bad outings, the HR ball has not been the main culprit. While 3 HR in 3.2 IP is not good, that doesn’t come close to explaining 17 runs. In fact, in those three appearances, seven runs scored on gopher balls. That’s 41% or much closer to average than his overall numbers.
The first bad outing came in his first start of the year and the other two came when he was working as a reliever. In 11 starts, Oswalt has a 4.91 ERA. The gopher ball is still a problem in his starts but we see a solid 1.286 WHIP and a 2.50 K/BB ratio when he works in the rotation. The NL averages this year are a 1.295 WHIP and a 2.59 K/BB rate.
You don’t have to squint too hard to see a league average pitcher here. Keep him as a starter and hope that there’s improved fastball location in his second year in the league. But what are the chances the Mets do that? They seem unlikely to trade one of their four pitchers who came up through their minor league system and the salary they’re giving to Jason Vargas means he’ll get every opportunity to remain in the rotation.
They could have Oswalt pitch in the minors as a starter or they could hope that he’ll improve working out of the pen in the majors in 2019. An interesting solution could have him as a designated piggyback pitcher for Vargas. This way he could keep on a regular schedule and go between 2-5 innings per game, depending on what Vargas delivers. It could be a simple way to add another multi-inning reliever to the team.