On Sept. 23, 2020, Robbie Ray closed out his season with a scoreless four-inning start to lower his season ERA to 6.68. A little more than a year later, Ray closed out the 2021 season with a 2.84 ERA along with an American League-leading 157 ERA+ and 1.04 WHIP in 193 1/3 innings, statistics that secured him the AL Cy Young.
Ray’s story is one that’s told seemingly every season. While not every pitcher’s year-to-year improvements are as drastic as Ray’s, it seems like every year there are a handful of pitchers who look remarkably different compared to the year prior. With that in mind, here are five pitchers who have turned things around after a rough 2021 season.
Note: All statistics are through Saturday's games.
Martín Pérez, Rangers
2021: 7-8, 4.74 ERA, 0.6 fWAR, .293 opponent batting average
2022: 4-2, league-leading 1.42 ERA, 2.0 fWAR, .200 opponent batting average
Chris Young and the rest of Texas’ front office struck gold with Pérez, who signed with the Rangers on a one-year, $4 million deal in the offseason.
Through eight starts this season, Pérez has been one of the best pitchers in baseball. Not only does the 31-year-old have a 1.42 ERA, but he’s also thrown one of only three shutouts in baseball so far this year -- and it doesn’t stop there. Take your pick of any statistic, and chances are Pérez has improved upon it from last year. His ERA has dropped by more than three runs, opponents are hitting 94 points worse off him, his WHIP is down by 50 points and he didn't give up his first home run until Sunday.
As we detailed earlier this month, part of the reason for Pérez's success can be attributed to him increasing his sinker usage and turning his cutter into a strong secondary pitch. Pérez has also started to rely on his changeup more of late, with batters hitting .127 off it -- the lowest mark of any of his pitches.
Triston McKenzie, Guardians
2021: 5-9, 4.95 ERA, 1.18 WHIP
2022: 3-5, 3.10 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, averaging 5.3 hits given up per nine innings
Since he got recalled from Triple-A Columbus last July, McKenzie’s been a different pitcher. After teasing Cleveland baseball fans in 2020 (3.24 ERA in 33 1/3 innings), McKenzie struggled at the start of 2021 and ended up being sent back to Columbus after tallying a 6.38 ERA through his first 11 appearances. But once McKenzie returned, he was more effective and consistent, recording a 4.17 ERA in his final 77 2/3 innings.
McKenzie appears to have carried that momentum with him into 2022, limiting traffic on the base paths (opponents are only batting .170 against him) and going deep into games, pitching at least seven innings in his last four starts.
One of the reasons for McKenzie’s continued success this year could be the improved command of his fastball. Batters are hitting a measly .172 against his fastball compared to .227 last year. He’s also dropped his walk rate from 11.7 percent last year to 7.3 percent this year, a far cry from early last year when he walked 39 batters in 42 1/3 innings before being demoted.
After struggling last year, McKenzie is beginning to show the potential that made him a top-60 prospect in baseball for four years in a row.
Tarik Skubal, Tigers
2021: 8-12, 4.34 ERA, 2.1 HR/9, 0.7 fWAR
2022: 4-2, 2.15 ERA, 0.3 HR/9, 2.2 fWAR
Despite having his scoreless innings streak broken at 21 earlier this year (the longest by a Tigers starter since Michael Fulmer’s 34-inning streak in 2016), Skubal has put together a masterful start to the season.
While Skubal showed promise through his first two seasons in the Major Leagues, he struggled with limiting the long ball. After giving up 35 home runs last year -- tied for the third-highest total in baseball -- Skubal has only allowed two home runs in 58 2/3 innings this year to go along with a 176 ERA+ and a 0.96 WHIP.
Skubal’s success is due in part to the emergence of his slider. After mostly using it as a secondary wipeout pitch (opponents batted .204 on the pitch last year on 22.8 percent usage), Skubal has gone all in on it this year. Not only is he using the slider more than ever (29.8 percent usage), but he’s getting even better results: Batters are hitting a measly .171 off the pitch.
As Skubal’s fastball usage has dropped (28 percent usage this year compared to 42.8 percent last year), its effectiveness has grown. After giving up an eye-popping 22 home runs on his fastball last year, Skubal has yet to allow a homer on the pitch this year. Additionally, Skubal’s beginning to feel more and more comfortable throwing his changeup after making an offseason change to his grip.
Zac Gallen, D-backs
2021: 4-10, 4.30 ERA, 1.29 WHIP
202: 4-0, 2.32 ERA, 0.91 WHIP
Through his first seven starts this year, Gallen had an ERA of 1.13, the second-best mark in franchise history, trailing only Randy Johnson’s 0.93 ERA through the same number of starts. And while Gallen allowed a season-high six runs in his eighth start on May 24, he recovered nicely in his ninth, allowing two runs over 5 2/3 innings on May 30.
So far this year, Gallen ranks in the top 10 percent of the league in expected batting average (.204), expected WOBA (.265) and expected ERA (2.50). While Gallen’s pitch usage really hasn't changed from last year (he’s still primarily a four-seam fastball, changeup, curveball guy), his spin rate is up and his opponents' exit velocity is down, two things that are a recipe for success for any pitcher.
One pitch that Gallen is leaning on more is his cutter, which he’s throwing 12 percent of the time, up from his 8.3 percent rate last year. The expanded usage of the cutter has come with success too: Opponents are hitting .185 off the pitch -- a far cry from the .343 opponents averaged against it last year. After taking a step back last year, Gallen is healthy and producing like an ace for a D-backs team that has opened some eyes this season.
Logan Gilbert, Mariners
2021: 6-5, 4.68 ERA, 90 ERA+
2022: 5-2, 2.22 ERA, 167 ERA+
Gilbert, the AL Pitcher of the Month for April, has been one of the few bright spots for a Mariners team that’s struggled to find its footing. The second-year hurler has been one of the best pitchers in baseball thus far this season. While Gilbert struggled last year, he managed to end the year on a good note, going five or more innings in his last four starts -- all of which were Mariners wins.
Gilbert’s been able to carry that momentum into this year: his ERA difference of -2.46 compared to last year is the fourth-best in baseball. Gilbert’s been going deeper of late, pitching at least six innings in his last four starts.
Gilbert’s fastball (opponents have a .219 batting average against the pitch) and slider (.200 average against) both appear to be plus pitches, but the biggest change has been in his changeup. After getting lit up when throwing the pitch last year (batters hit .364 against it), Gilbert has turned it into a wipeout pitch this year: Batters are hitting .071 against it with a 34.3 whiff percentage.