by Steve Mancuso

Is Raisel Iglesias Worse This Year?

Raisel Iglesias gave up a big, bad home run Monday night. It was the third game in a row he’d done that. Our eyes are telling us that Iglesias has entered a new part of his career with the Reds. 

Then there’s that statistic: 4.60. That’s the right-hander’s jacked-up ERA. 

The Journey

Before getting into the numbers, it’s worth reflecting on the jagged path Raisel Iglesias has taken to reach this point. It began with a dangerous and at-first failed defection from Cuba, followed by a successful escape to Mexico. From there, the 24-year-old signed a contract to play baseball for the Cincinnati Reds that raised eyebrows in the baseball world. The Reds agreed to pay Iglesias at least $30 million through the 2021 season. 

Starting from the moment Reds fans said hello to the lanky pitcher in June 2014, Raisel Iglesias’ time with Reds has been a drama-stuffed rollercoaster. Legitimate questions were raised about whether he would be a reliever or starter. But GM Walt Jocketty told us on the day of Iglesias’ signing that the young Cuban would have a home in the rotation. In fact, the front office made a point that the Reds were paying Iglesias more than what other teams offered because the club’s scouts saw him as a starter while other teams saw him as a reliever. 

Raisel Iglesias spent a brief moment in the minors before debuting with the Reds in 2015, making sixteen major league starts that season. But in what would become an ominous omen, the Reds shut Iglesias down in September, citing shoulder fatigue. 

The following spring, the Reds addressed concerns about Iglesias’ shoulder by delaying his first spring training start to March 14. He made three appearances in Goodyear, throwing a total of six innings. Then, in a surprising move, the Reds named Iglesias the 2016 Opening Day starter to replace Anthony DeSclafani who was sidelined with an oblique injury. 

Iglesias pitched on Opening Day and made four other oh-so-promising starts (29 Ks, 7 BBs in 28.1 IP) before being sent to the disabled list with a bum shoulder. 

Raisel Iglesias would never make another start for the Reds. 

Transition from Starter to Reliever

Iglesias moved to the bullpen for the remainder of 2016 and stayed there since. He has thrived among the top relievers in the game. Iglesias had outstanding seasons in 2016 as a set up reliever and in 2017 as a closer. Last year, Iglesias earned 30 saves and achieved the lowest ERA (2.38) of his career. 

But the 2019 season has not been kind to the Reds reliever. The flashing red light is that ERA (4.60) which has nearly doubled from last year. Iglesias has blown 3 saves and given up nine home runs. This simple graph shows Iglesias’ ERA (blue) in comparison to the league average (gray).

Since Iglesias moved to the bullpen his ERA had been well below league average until this season. At 4.60, he’s right around the MLB mean.  

Questioning ERA

But ERA can be highly misleading; especially so for relievers. Their performance is poorly measured by the number of earned runs scored in the small number of innings they pitch. 

If instead we look at the outcomes pitchers have the most control over, as measured by xFIP, Iglesias performance over the years looks like this:

There’s still an increase in xFIP in 2019, but notice that it began last season. While the rate of increase has gone up, it also has for the rest of the league (gray line). Here is one final graph before we get into the nuts and bolts.

The three measurements here are ERA (yellow), FIP (red) and xFIP (blue). There is no line in this graph for MLB average but these are “minus” stats, which means they are adjusted for league average. Above 100 (average) is bad and below is good. 

Note how all three lines are low in 2017. But then in 2018, the red (FIP) and blue (xFIP) lines jump up while the yellow (ERA) stays low. Those numbers don’t tend to differ from each other for long. They usually converge the next year, with ERA moving in the direction of FIP and xFIP. 

That’s what has happened with Raisel Iglesias as we see the three lines converge in 2019. 

In other words, if you looked at the right statistics in 2018, you’d have had a reasonable indication what was going to happen to Iglesias’ ERA in 2019. Why was Raisel Iglesias’ ERA so low in 2018 when stuff he controls as a pitcher (strikeouts, walks, ground balls) didn’t support it? 

BABIP. 

Pitchers have little influence over batted balls once they are put into play. Defense matters. The pitcher can nudge BABIP in his favor a bit (notice, I said “little” influence, not none) by repressing quality contact. But one of the biggest factors in BABIP is luck. Where the balls happen to land is not something pitchers much control. We may think of a season as a large sample and that luck should “even out” over 30 starts, but it doesn’t. Huge luck variation from one season to the next is possible. 

So what was going on with Raisel Iglesias? 

BABIP tends to be around .295-.300 for all pitchers and has been for many years. Here are Iglesias’ BABIPs from his seasons as a reliever: 

  • .275 (2016)
  • .287 (2017)
  • .233 (2018)
  • .317 (2019)

2016 and 2017 were close to normal. The Reds good defense those seasons (Billy Hamilton) might explain why it was a bit low. But Iglesias enjoyed a BABIP of .233 for 2018 and almost nothing can explain that size of a deviation from average other than luck. Then, in 2019, his BABIP has been high by comparison to the league and his career. 

Let’s get back to that red warning light of his 2019 ERA. Iglesias’ ERA has jumped 2.2 runs this year compared to last year. We now know the BABIP difference alone explains 1.7 runs of it. 

How Iglesias has Actually Pitched

The all-important question is what factor(s) explain the jump in Iglesias’ BABIP? Has he been giving up harder contact (not pitching as well) or has he been unlucky? 

Let’s see if we can figure it out. 

Fastball Velocity It doesn’t appear Iglesias has lost much if anything at all on his fastball. It’s a little hard to tell because the info services have a hard time distinguishing which of his pitches are fastballs and which are sinkers. Either way, those pitches have remained in the 95 mph range the past two seasons. (FanGraphs and Statcast)

Spin Rates If anything, Iglesias has improved his spin rate in 2019. (Statcast)

Pitch Movement This is a bit mixed. His fastball has less movement this season. In 2017, both his vertical and horizontal FB movement were elite. Iglesias has had more movement on his slider this year. Both his vertical and horizontal movement on his change-up are good, better even than 2017. (Statcast)

Swinging Strike Rate A bit higher in 2019 (15.6%) than in 2018 (15.3%) or 2017 (13.9%). League average this year is 13.3%. (FanGraphs)

Strikeout Rate Iglesias has a 30.1 K% in 2019 compared to 27.5 K% last year and 30.1 K% in 2017. (FanGraphs)

Ground Ball Rate League average is about 45%. His rate has fallen from 43% to 40% to 29% in the past three seasons. This is a bad trend for Iglesias. (Statcast)

Command It’s hard to measure a pitcher’s command directly because we never know where a pitcher intends to throw the ball. So we measure outcomes like walks, which are really about control, not command. But it’s the best we can do. Iglesias’ walk-rate has been around 8% since he’s been a reliever until this year when it has jumped to 10.2 BB%. (FanGraphs)

Home Runs There are a couple ways to look at home run rates. One is to measure home runs given up per 9 innings pitched. By that measure, Iglesias in 2019 has continued a trend of worsening that started in 2018. In 2017, he gave up just .89/9 innings. (FanGraphs)

  • 2017: 0.89 HR per 9 IP
  • 2018: 1.50 HR per 9 IP
  • 2019: 1.88 HR per 9 IP

Another way to measure home runs is how many the pitcher gives up per fly ball. Research shows that pitchers tend to give up about the same rate of HR/FB as each other over time. To say a pitcher is a “home run pitcher” is really saying that he’s a “fly ball pitcher.” Significant variance of a pitcher from the league average is taken as a sign that he’s been lucky or unlucky with fly balls and that (mis)fortune will correct shortly. 

The league HR/FB number in 2019 is about 14%, up from 10-11% a few years ago thanks to the livelier ball and more uppercut swings. Raisel Iglesias gave up 8.3% HR/FB in 2017 and that jumped to 18.8% in 2018 and 20.0% this year. Note again how the spike took place largely last year. The increase from 2018 to 2019 tracks the overall increase in HR/FB across the league. (FanGraphs)

Finally, let’s put all that together and look at his xwOBA (expected, weighted on-base average) a linear weights measure of the quality of contact he’s given up, taking account of walks and strikeouts. If Iglesias has been worse as a pitcher this year, explaining his higher BABIP and elevated ERA, this is where it would show up. 

We get some news. 

  • .275 (2016)
  • .274 (2017)
  • .312 (2018)
  • .300 (2019)

MLB average xwOBA is .318. Those numbers include walks and strikeouts. If we take those out of the equation and just look at balls with contact, more news: 

  • .323 (2016)
  • .349 (2017)
  • .396 (2018)
  • .396 (2019)

League average for that number is .370. When you account for strikeouts and walks, Iglesias was better than average. Outside of that, he was worse than average.

Here is xwOBA formatted as a 100-plate appearance rolling average. 

The story is clear. Raisel Iglesias was awesome in 2016 and 2017, beating league average by a lot. The surprise is that Iglesias has been the same pitcher in 2019 as he was in 2018, despite the nagging fact of his ERA being a full 2 points higher. His expected batting average and expected slugging on balls hit has actually been lower in 2019 than it was in 2018, based on where the balls have been hit. 

Implications: (1) ERA is a lousy stat to evaluate pitchers, (2) Iglesias got “worse” a year ago, not this year. But the hard contact he surrendered in 2018 was hidden by his luck with BABIP. This year, he’s been transparently worse and unlucky. 

Conclusion

The Reds plainly deserve credit for developing Iglesias into an excellent reliever. His SIERA and xwOBA remain excellent. From his time with the Cuban Team in the World Baseball Classic to his ups-and-downs as the Reds closer, Raisel Iglesias’ journey has been fraught with unexpected turns. It would be foolish to think we’ve seen the last of them. 

Has Iglesias been over-used by David Bell? The numbers don’t show it. Iglesias averaged 64.5 appearances and 74 innings in 2017 and 2018. He’s on track for 68 appearances and 71 innings this season. The data indicates Iglesias has been the same pitcher this season compared to last. Yes, he’s walking more batters and getting fewer ground balls, but he’s also striking out more. 

Unlike most relievers, Raisel Iglesias has the pitch repertoire to be a starting pitcher. His short time in the rotation was promising. It would have been wonderful to watch his career unfold had Iglesias possessed a right shoulder labrum fit for the task.

But like most relievers, Iglesias has been inconsistent from year to year, even within seasons. That’s in part why I wrote in the summer of 2017, in the offseason after 2017, again last spring and after his contract extension that the Reds should look to trade him. Get a pitcher established as a closer, then trade him and find the next one. Just like the Reds did with Iglesias after Aroldis Chapman. 

Always be trading closers. Never truer than eight days before the deadline. 

[Featured image: https://twitter.com/Reds/status/1141062813814857729]

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.