I was apprehensive about Jeremy Bonderman’s spot in the rotation as soon as the season began. He failed to impress (even the slightest bit) in 2009 and this spring he struggled his way to a 6.92 ERA. His velocity was gone and I was convinced we had seen the last of the successes of this two-pitch pitcher. Even as a fourth or fifth guy, I feared an ugly end to his Tiger tenure.
So far, however, Jeremy has proven me to be wrong. I wouldn’t quite say that he’s reinvented himself, but it does seem that he has achieved a certain comfort level with his loss of his powerful arm. It truly is a shame that he can only boast a 2-2 record at this point in the season because he’s easily been one of Detroit’s top two starters. That in itself may not say much about his performance, especially considering Tigers’ starting pitching has been downright terrible, but he really has been quite good by any standard.
Jeremy’s good-but-not-outstanding 3.86 ERA (as a starter) ranks him 35th among qualified starting pitchers in the American League. There’s fourteen teams in the AL so he ranks here as a mid-level third starter. Not bad for a guy I considered to be dead in the water only two months ago.
But let’s take it a step further. FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and the slightly revised xFIP estimate ERA by stripping away what is considered to be the responsibilities of the fielders. We are left with homeruns (this is replaced with fly balls allowed in the case of xFIP), walks, hit batsmen, and strikeouts from which to calculate our fielding independent statistics. Jeremy is a little bit of a peculiar case as his FIP and xFIP numbers differ by a full run. Either one, though, is an improvement (AL ranking wise) over his ERA. Jeremy’s FIP of 3.02 (as a starter) is good for fourth in the league, and his 4.01 xFIP ranks him as 18th.
(More after the jump)
The difference we see in these two numbers is due to his extremely low home run per fly ball ratio (fourth best in the league). Unfortunately, he’s unlikely to keep this ratio so low considering his infield fly ball percentage is also very low (fourth worst in the league). This means we’ll likely see Bondo give up the long ball more often, and that the 4.01 xFIP number (not too far off from where he is now) should be a better predictor of his future ERA than the 3.02 FIP value. It may be important to note that his xFIP drops to 3.98 if you include his relief appearance.
Saying that I would be happy with a 4.01 ERA out of Jeremy would be a vast understatement. I think we’d all be downright ecstatic considering his career best season ERA is the 4.08 number he put up in 2006.
So how has he done this, considering he’s lost a few miles per hour on his fastball and he hasn’t gained command of a third pitch? The answer appears to be a more effective fastball, specifically through the implementation of a two-seamer. According to the PitchFX data posted on Fangraphs, he’s been really cutting down on the number of four-seam fastballs and making up the difference with two-seam fastballs. In his last full season (2007) he threw a four-seamer 59.7% of the time and a two-seamer only 0.2% of the time (the rest was mostly sliders with a few changeups). This season Jeremy has gone to the two-seam fastball for 23.0% of his pitches and the four-seam fastball for only 39.4%.
Interestingly, this is the first season that Jeremy has posted a positive (above average) pitch value on his fastball (they lump both grips together). Jeremy’s fastball has been 3.9 runs above average (again, according to Fangraphs) which ties him with Mark Buehrle for the twelfth most valuable fastball in the American League so far this season. And although his slider hasn’t been quite as devastating as it was during his earlier years (it was routinely a top-four ranked slider in the AL according to pitch values), it’s still been a very good pitch for him (top twelve this season).
Of course it’s still very early in the season so we’re encountering some sample size induced uncertainties, but it appears as though Jeremy has found a nice new approach to pitching. In fact, if he is able to maintain his current level of success for the rest of the season, he’ll easily have earned his $12.5 million paycheck.