Jeremy Jeffress is a Cub
Today, the Chicago Cubs announced a big league contract signing for an old foe: Jeremy Jeffress. It's a 1 year deal for $850K, plus an additional $200K in performance bonuses based on games pitched. It's a relatively cheap deal for a relief ace who was knocked around at times last year. Jeffress missed some time last season because of injuries. The Brewers placed Jeffress on the injured list on March 28 with a right shoulder injury. He was activated April 16, but went on the IL again Aug. 25 with a strained left hip. He was activated Sept. 1, the day the Brewers designated him for assignment.
Overall, he put up a 5.02 ERA in 52 innings, coupled with a 3.96 FIP, 1.365 WHIP, and 4.40 xFIP. Do those numbers sound familiar? Recently departed longtime relief ace Pedro Strop's 2019 was a 4.97 ERA in 41.2 innings, with a 4.53 FIP, 4.19 xFIP season. Rather than bring back Strop, who is just one year removed from a stellar 2.26 ERA 2018, the Cubs opted for Jeffress. Jeffress was an all star stud in 2018: 76.2 IP with a sparkling 1.29 ERA and 2.78 FIP.
For what it's worth, Baseball Reference is predicting a 2020 Jeffress to put up a 3.97 ERA in 59 innings, with a 1.305 WHIP. Not great, but not terrible. Ideally, numbers like that make someone a 6th inning RP, not a guy you want warming up in the 8th inning with the tying run on base. But that anticipated performance is certainly worth 1 million on the free agent market.
The upside comes if Jeffress can shake off his injuries and somehow get back to who he was in 2018. That might be catching lightning in a bottle, but there is upside when digging deeper into Jeffress's down 2019.
The stats I'd like to highlight:
-Part of Jeffress's great '18 was a ridiculously high LOB%, which then swung opposite in '19, dropping nearly 30%. If that normalizes back to his career trends, he's already in a much better spot ERA wise.
-Jeffress's HR rates didn't really spike--he had similar HR/FB ratios and HR/9 rates. It's not like he was getting tagged drastically.
-Walk rate remained consistent. He didn't lose his control.
-GB% was down 8% from career norms. That's fixable.
-Not seen in the above chart is Jeffress's 2019 WHIP of 1.365, career 1.347. Consistent.
-Jeffress is going to be 32, much younger than Strop
To go back to the comparison to Pedro Strop, if you compare his 2018 to his 2019, you'll see massive wrong way swings in his FIP, HR/FB, GB%, BABIP, HR/9, BB/9 and ERA. And he's 35. I don't want to call Stropy done.. but there is writing on the wall. Yes, Jeffress was hurt last year, and health will be a key question for him this year. I've got mixed news to report there.
In terms of fastball speed, he averaged 95.19 mph in '17, 96.15 in '18, then 94.38 in '19. In 2019, his sinker was off by 2 mph, then his curve and splitter were both down by .5. We'll wait and see what velocity he can hit, but I feel like it's an achievable bounce back. His velocity was down across the charts in April, then rebounded consistently for the rest of the year, including August right before he was hurt again then canned.
If you look at his earned runs and innings pitched by month, it goes like this
Did not pitch in September.
Furthermore, he had a 3.82 ERA in 35.1 innings in the first half, before fading to a 7.56 ERA in 16.2 for the second. That decline is a problem, but it was short lived. At least that's what the Cubs are hoping.
Pedro Strop did just sign with the Reds: a one year deal with a base salary of $1.85 million, and performance clauses that could net him up to $3.5m. Good for him. But considering Jeffress is younger, cheaper, and has better upside for 2020, the Cubs clearly made a correct choice.
I can't paint an overly rosy picture for Jeffress in 2020. With some rest, he may be able to reclaim some of what he once was. If hurt, he bombs out, and the Cubs wasted a little money. If he rebounds, he's basically a solid late inning option. That's a fantastic deal for $800K.