Brad Bergesen had a relatively promising rookie season in 2009 (especially considering his prospect status, or lack thereof) before being knocked out after taking a line-drive off his leg. A healthy Bergesen giving the team a fair number of innings in the middle of the rotation with an ERA in the 4.50 area (similar to his 4.42 xFIP^ from ’09) was the hope for the season. The “healthy” part went out the window to a degree when Brad hurt himself filming a commercial before Spring Training. The 4.50 ERA didn’t look likely either, when Bergy started out the year with a 12.19 mark through three April games before getting sent down to the minors. Things were also not very good in May (4.26 ERA, 5.14 xFIP) and especially June (11.17 ERA, 7.02 xFIP), as Brad was shuffled down to Triple-A a second time. After his first couple starts I looked into what was wrong:
First, the movement on his pitches. The sinker isn’t sinking so much – with the average fastball getting about 3-4 inches less downward vertical movement and a couple inches less tailing action – and the slider has stayed a little flatter. For a guy throwing in the high 80s, that’s an issue. Especially since he’s been just a two pitch guy so far, with a lot more sliders thrown and a lot fewer change-ups. Here’s the movement graph for just pitches classified as fastballs (the groups on the left) and slider (the groups on the right):
You can see how much more sink Bergesen was getting on the fastball last year. The second issue is the location of his pitches. Even with better movement, Bergy needs to stay down in the strike-zone to be effective. That’s not happening quite enough:
The black lines give an idea of the top and bottom of the strike-zone, while the lines show the proportion of total pitches thrown at each height level. If Bergesen is throwing relatively straight 87 mph fastballs thigh-high, then he’s going to get torched. According to FanGraphs, batters haven’t missed a single pitch that they’ve swung at in the strike-zone (and only a quarter of those out of the zone). In 2009 their contact rate was an already high 91.2% (and 70.1% contact rate on pitches out of the zone). Hitters are always going to make good contact against him, so when they do Bergy needs to generate groundballs. This year, he’s been a flyball pitcher with a groundball rate almost half of what it was last season (27.3% vs. 50.1%). Hopefully he gets things turned around soon.
The soon wasn’t really all that soon, but it did eventually* happen. Starting sometime around the beginning of July, Bergesen went to his four-seamer more in lieu of the sinker.
*It was pretty neat when I posted about this, Brad kept having success with the strategy, and then the Sun caught on like a month later and asked Bergesen about it.
The results ended up being much better:
Bergesen’s 2010 totals were worse pretty much across the board compared to 2009, but I don’t know how much sense it makes to compare the years overall when 2010 was pretty clearly a tale of two pitchers. Bergy traded some grounders for improved control and a much greater ability to miss bats. That Brad Bergesen is closer to the guy – effectiveness-wise anyway – that we expected. He’s not exactly a power pitcher, but a fastball sitting at 90-92 with a decent slider, plus a sinker and change-up in supporting roles, can play with Bergy’s control. Kudos to him for making the necessary adjustment mid-season when it was clear that his older style wasn’t working. Hopefully the movement on the two-seamer – as well as his ability to locate it consistency – will come back, allowing Brad to diversify which weapons he deploys based on the situations he finds himself in. Though 0.6 fWAR and 0.4 brWAR are definitely not going to cut it if the O’s want to build out a top-flight rotation, I think Bergesen showed that he does have the ability to stick at the back end even as more youngsters get called up. Eating 180+ near league average innings isn’t the most impressive thing in the world, but ~2 WAR from your #4 or #5 starter is a fine start when it comes to fielding a competitive pitching staff.