Which Direction Will Ernesto Frieri Go in 2012?

Ernesto Frieri was never supposed to be a main bullpen guy.  He was called up in 2009 to help fill a hole.  But he didn’t allow a hit and struck out two in two innings pitched.  The team was intrigued.  The Padres added him to the 2010 25-man rotation and he rewarded them with a 1.71 ERA over 33 games.  He posted an impressive 11.7 K/9 ration, and he walked just 17 in 31.2 innings pitched.

In 2011, Frieri had another solid season, but not quite as solid as 2010.  In 59 games, he posted a 2.71 ERA and struck out 10.9 batters per nine innings.  His ERA+ dropped from 218 in 2010 to 132 in 2011.  132 is a great number, and one that most players wish they could reach.  But the question is whether Frieri’s drop between 2010 and 2011 is a regression towards his true talent (which would be fine) or a trend that will continue in 2012.

In each of Frieri’s first three years (if we’re counting ’09), he relied on his fastball.  He threw it 76.4% of the time in 2011, 79.5% of the time in 2010, and 76.0% of the time in 2009.  However, in 2011, Frieri added a slider and stopped throwing his change-up as much.  The problem with the slider was its effectiveness.  His weighted pitch value for the slider was -3.6 runs while his weighted pitch value for his fastball was 7.4 runs.

Perhaps more worrisome is the drop in velocity on his fastball.  In his short time up in 2009, Frieri’s fastball averaged 95 mph.  It dipped to 92.8 mph in 2010, and it dipped further to 92.0 mph in 2011.  Further, Frieri saw his swinging strike percentage drop from 14.1% in 2010 to 10% in 2011.  For a strikeout pitcher, 10% is not a good sign.  It means batters are either not swinging as often or they are making contact when they do swing.  Either one is not good.

When batters are making contact, they are finding holes more often than they did in 2010.  Frieri’s BAbip against was .235 in 2010.  In 2011, it was a startling .312.  Part of the jump is a result of an increase in line drives given up by Frieri.  In 2010, Frieri gave up line drives on 13.0% of balls put in play.  In 2011, that number jumped 21.4%.  In addition, Frieri’s ground ball to flyable ration increased from 0.40 in 2010 to 0.44 in 2011.

The final troubling statistic is Frieri’s contact percentage.  In 2010, batters made contact with his pitches 69.7% of the time.  In 2011, they made contact 77.1% of the time.  Batters were clearly seeing his pitches better, but Frieri still managed to get most of the out.  His ERA proves that.

All told, Frieri’s numbers indicate he may have another year of regression.  He could level out and duplicate his 2011 numbers, but it is highly unlikely he will return to his 2010 form.  The league has now seen him pitch.  In 2010, he was new.  Batters have video, have found certain weaknesses, and have adjusted accordingly.  From here out, it is up to Frieri to adjust himself to keep putting up the fantastic numbers he has to this point.  However, is the trend lines are truly indicative of what’s to come, Frieri could see his ERA jump to over 3.00 in 2012.  That is not a proposition many relievers want to face with limited innings-pitched in a very pitcher-friendly park.

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