Brett Cecil has been bad in the first month of the season. At least, that's what the conventional statistics would tell you. In 14 outings Cecil owns a quite dreadful 0-5 record and an even worse 5.59 ERA.
He's part of the reason it seems as if the Jays cannot hold late inning leads or win close baseball games. In fact, the Blue Jays bullpen leads the entire major leagues in losses with a colossal nine. At the end of April last season, the Jays had a 4-5 record, so it's not as if this year's reincarnation is totally new. Yes, they haven't won a game, but things could get much worse.
That said, in what is a big contract year for Cecil, it will be crucial for him to turn it around as one of the Jays only effective (formally) left-handed relievers. Looking at his batted ball data initially, it's a little bit confusing why exactly he's struggling. Thus far, his BABIP sits at a lofty .345 which is a good thirty points higher than his career mark.
If you thought maybe he was getting hit harder, leading to more balls in play landing for hits, you'd be sadly mistaken. This season, his "hard" contact rate according to Fangraphs is actually lower than last season, along with his medium contact rate, with a reciprocal increase in his soft contact rate. Hypothetically, this would suggest that those balls being put in play actually shouldn't be falling for hits as often as they are.
But they are, so it's worth exploring why exactly this is happening. In this, it is best to examine his pitch arsenal and compare it to his last season when he had his most productive season by WAR as a reliever of his career. Looking at his two most used pitches-- his curveball and four-seam fastball--you can see he's struggled this season.
|Pitch||Usage||Strike rate||Swing rate|
|Curveball||40 %||67.2 %||51.6 %|
|4-seam Fastball||38.5 %||65.3 %||47.7 %|
|Sinker||11.3 %||71.1 %||45.6 %|
|Pitch||Usage||Strike rate||Swing rate|
|Curveball||45.2 %||55 %||37.5 %|
|4-seam Fastball||26.6 %||70.2 %||51.1 %|
|Sinker||21.5 %||68.4 %||39.5 %|
As you can see, there really isn't a massive difference in his pitch usage between the last two seasons. The percentages vary by a couple points, but I'd like to think those would even out over a larger sample size than the month of April. The disparity you'll see if you look closely is his strike throwing ability with his most frequented pitch: the curveball. Last season Cecil threw his curveball 40 per cent of the time, being labelled as strikes according to Texas Leaguer, 67.2 per cent of the time. Thus far, he's employed the curveball 45.2 per cent of his pitches which were converted for strikes only 55 per cent of the time. Put simply, Brett Cecil is throwing his curveball at a comparable rate to that of last season but the difference, which proves important, is that it is not in the strike zone as often this season.
The reason this is important is quite simple: throwing the ball in the strike zone, quite often, is highly correlated with getting batters out. If the ball is not in the strike zone, batters can take the pitch, getting ever closer to the coveted walk. This is even more important for a breaking pitch like a curveball because unless hitters are sitting on that pitch, it's unlikely they would be willing to swing at something that is far more difficult to square up than a fastball. This theory is supported by the swing rate Cecil has had on his curveball. Thus far, he's watched his swing rate decline from 51.6 per cent last season to 37.5 per cent this season on the curveball. Adding on to this, his whiff rate on the pitch has declined from last season, going from 27.67 per cent to 12.66 per cent this season.
This all creates the perfect storm that produces the hitter's success we are seeing thus far. That is, hitters are laying off the curve and are instead swinging at the fastball more often. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that when a hitter knows what's coming, the fastball, they will be more successful. That theory is also correlated in the numbers as he's allowed a .500 batting average against his fastball this year which is more than double the .254 batting average against the fastball last season.
This is all to say that there's more than just an inflated .406 BABIP that can explain why Cecil has been as bad as he is so far. Cecil needs to get back to painting the strike zone with his curveball if he wants to increase the effectiveness of his secondary pitches, especially his fastball, when entering ball games. If he can force batters to swing at his curveball, everything gets better and the 2015 Cecil is reborn in front of our eyes.
Whether or not that will happen is still completely up in the air. As noted on Sunday's broadcast, Cecil is a notorious under-performer in the month of April so there's a good chance he will figure this pitching thing out at some point or another.
For the sake of the Jays struggling bullpen, let's hope that epiphany is on the horizon.