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Tyler Mahle’s Potential Breakout Season

When we think about the Reds starting pitchers, Tyler Mahle doesn’t typically come to mind. However, in 47.2 innings, Tyler Mahle finished with one of his best seasons in terms of strikeout rate and ratios. With a pitch mix change and some luck in his favor, we could see Tyler Mahle’s potential breakout season in 2021. Per usual, we’ll look at batted ball profile, plate discipline, pitch mix, and other underlying metrics to determine whether we’re heading towards Tyler Mahle’s potential breakout season. With that, let’s dive into his 2020 season and what to expect in 2021. 

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Tyler Mahle’s Potential Breakout Season

What Happened in 2020?

Tyler Mahle finished 2020 with a career-best strikeout rate and near career-best ratios. So, is Tyler Mahle’s potential breakout season on deck? In 47.2 innings and nine starts, Mahle logged 60 strikeouts, a 3.59 ERA, and 1.15 WHIP. Through nine starts, he tossed four quality starts and one out away from a fifth quality start. Although it’s a small sample, Mahle reached a career-best WHIP and close to career-best ERA.

If we toss out Mahle’s 20 innings pitched in 2017, then his 2020 ERA looked much better than his 4.98 ERA in 2018 and 5.14 ERA in 2019. Mahle notched a career-high 11.33 K/9, but the 3.97 BB/9 raised red flags. However, sometimes if a pitcher’s strikeout rate increases, then it allows them some slack with the walk rate as long as it doesn’t balloon further. On the surface, it looks like we’re in store for Tyler Mahle’s potential breakout season in 2021.

Before we dive into the underlying metrics, let’s first compare past seasons. In 2018, Mahle pitched 112 innings with an 8.84 K/9, 4.26 BB/9, 4.98 ERA, and 1.59 WHIP. Then in 2019, Mahle pitched 129.2 innings with an 8.95 K/9, 2.36 BB/9, 5.14 ERA, and 1.31 WHIP. We noticed he pitched more innings with a similar strikeout rate, but then the walk rate dropped. Unsurprisingly, since the walk rate decreased in 2019, the WHIP also improved. With the strikeout rate increasing, does this mean we’re on the brink of Tyler Mahle’s potential breakout season?

Batted Ball Profile 

Let’s dig into his batted ball profile. A couple of notable changes include the drop in the groundball rate and the rise in the fly-ball rate. He held a 29.3% ground ball rate in 2020 and a 47% ground ball rate in 2019. On the flip side, Mahle had a 50% fly-ball rate in 2020 and a 31.3% fly-ball rate in 2019. Interestingly, with the increased fly ball rate in 2020, his HR/FB rate dropped over 10%. I expected an increased HR/FB rate due to the lowered ground ball, but the opposite occurred. However, take this data with a grain of salt since it’s a small sample. 

Generally speaking, a pitcher increasing their fly ball rate in Great American Ball Park (GABP) is worrisome since the ballpark ranks top-6 in Home Run Park Factors Plus to all fields. Home Run Park Factors Plus comes from Max Freeze, and it means that home runs fly out to all parts of GABP. For context, teammate Sonny Gray logged a 51.1% ground ball rate and a 23% fly-ball rate in 2020. Meanwhile, Luis Castillo also finished similarly to Gray with a 58.4% ground ball rate and a 22.5% fly ball in 2020. Thus, Mahle having a high fly ball rate and low ground ball rate in 2020 leads to reasons for concern. 

Plate Discipline

When looking at plate discipline, the most notable metrics include lowered contact rates across the board and lowered zone rates overall. Interestingly, Mahle finished with similar contact rates and zone rates in 2018 and 2019. However, we noticed a significant difference in 2020 compared to the previous two seasons with the potential for Tyler Mahle’s potential breakout season.

Tyler Mahle 2020 Plate Discipline

After seeing the plate discipline differences in contact rates and zone rates, it leads us to look at his pitch mix. At first glance, it made sense that Mahle finished with a higher strikeout rate in 2020 compared to 2018 and 2019. However, once again, keep in mind that 2020 came in under 40% of the innings pitched the previous two seasons.

Pitch Mix 

First off, let’s note that Fangraphs categorizes Mahle’s pitches differently than what shows on his Statcast page. On Fangraphs, Mahle throws a cutter, and on Statcast, Mahle throws a slider. Mahle primarily uses a three-pitch mix with a four-seamer and slider/cutter that accounts for over 87% of his pitches. Sometimes when a pitcher adjusts their pitch mix, it can elicit positive results, hence the title Tyler Mahle’s potential breakout season.

According to Statcast data, Mahle used the four-seamer 54.9% of the time in 2020 compared to 57.1% in 2019 and 67.7% in 2018. On the flip side, Mahle increased the cutter/slider usage at 32.4% in 2020 when compared to 23.2% in 2019 and 24.2% in 2018. For context, Statcast lists Mahle throwing a curveball in 2019 but a slider in 2018 and 2020. With that information, let’s dig into the results against particular pitches.

The splitter is Mahle’s third most utilized pitch at 11.7% of the time in 2020 and 12.8% of the time in 2019. Mahle increased the usage of the split-finger, most notably from 2018 to 2019. According to Fangraphs, Mahle used the splitter 11 times in 2018 and then threw it 289 times in 2019.

During the 2019 season, the splitter recorded a filthy 43.3% O-Swing%, 14.2% swinging-strike rate, and 28% whiff rate, all of which ranked as season highs for Mahle. While the usage of the splitter dropped about 1% to 11.7%, the swinging-strike and whiff rates slightly decreased. However, the splitter performed well in terms of batting average (.174), slugging percentage (.217), and wOBA (.200) allowed.

Pitch Results

Tyler Mahle's potential breakout season
Tyler Mahle Pitch Results 2018-2020

When looking at the table above, we notice Mahle gradually lowered his fastball usage and increased the secondary pitch usage in the slider, curve, or cutter, depending on the website classification. With the pitch mix adjustments, the results improved against Mahle’s fastball and second most used pitch from 2018 to 2020.

Overall, the success against both pitches contributed to the improved ratios and strikeout rate in the small 2020 sample of 47.2 innings. However, it provides reasons for optimism that we’re on track for Tyler Mahle’s potential breakout season in 2021, even with a small sample. Of course, this assumes that the results stick and continue with the pitch mix change moving forward. 

ERA Estimators & Statcast Data

Some of the ERA estimators fall in line with his ERA. According to Fangraphs, he had a 3.88 FIP, 4.59 xFIP, and 4.07 SIERA. On Statcast, Mahle’s 3.33 xERA ranked in the 77th percentile, but that’s due to career-best Statcast percentile rankings across the board compared to 2018 and 2019. Outside of the hard-hit rate allowed, Mahle ranked above average in all Statcast metrics. However, we need to see how that shakes out over a full season. 

Tyler Mahle 2020 Statcast Data

Concerns – Tyler Mahle’s Potential Breakout Season

Tyler Mahle 2019 Statcast Data

Let’s review the concerns for Mahle, which includes the increased fly ball rate paired with a lowered ground ball rate in Great American Ball Park. With the increased fly ball rate, he surprisingly finished with a decreased HR/FB rate, but it’s hard to expect that to continue over a full season. As mentioned earlier, teammates Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo have high ground ball rates and low fly ball rates, which fits the home ballpark. The relatively high walk rate also provides a reason for concern, but tolerable with a higher strikeout rate.

Optimism – Tyler Mahle’s Potential Breakout Season

Now the reasons for optimism, which involves the pitch mix change of lowering the fastball usage while increasing the cutter/slider usage. We noticed improved results across the board in terms of BA, SLG, wOBA, and swings and misses. However, hopefully, he increases the splitter usage since it’s a quality third pitch that had a high 43.3% O-Swing% and 14.2% Swinging-Strike%. 

2021 Outlook

So what do we make of Tyler Mahle? Was he lucky in 2020? Or do we have Tyler Mahle’s potential breakout season in 2021? It’s probably a mix of both, and we find both reasons for concern and hope moving forward. According to NFBC, Mahle had a 528.39 ADP with a high pick of 227 and a low pick of 597. On the Razzball Player Rater, Mahle ranked as the 63rd starting pitcher in 2020, sandwiched in between Andrew Heaney and Lance McCullers Jr. Assuming Mahle continues his 2020 success into 2021, that SP60 – SP70 range is a safe expectation. It’s hard to imagine his ADP nearing pick 500 again, and it likely rises in 2021. 

In Jake Devereaux’s Top-100 2021 Starting Pitcher Rankings, Mahle ranks 85th behind Randy Dobnak, and that’s potentially his floor. Mahle’s worth taking a flier on later in drafts in the streaming pitcher group with hopes that he continues improving in 2021. Outside of Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray, Mahle projects to have a starting rotation spot with Trevor Bauer as a free agent. With more reasons for optimism than concern, I’d argue we have Tyler Mahle’s potential breakout season in 2021.

The paint is still wet on the 2020 MLB season, but we are already preparing for next year. Keep track of all our 2020-21 MLB Offseason Analysis.

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