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What’s going on with Bryce Elder?

Bryce Elder has struggled as of late. Let’s dissect the root cause.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Atlanta Braves
Bryce Elder has struggled
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Braves just dropped two out of three games to the Cubs who have had the hottest offense since the All-Star Break.

It could have been assumed that Braves’ starters may have some issues with the hottest offense in baseball, and other than Max Fried’s excellent outing, we saw just that.

But, it has not just been hot offenses that have seemed to figure Bryce Elder out. He started of the year on a stellar pace of preventing runs. Through May 30th (eleven starts), Elder had an impressive ERA of 1.92. Since then, in the eleven starts following he has had an ERA of 5.07.

There are a lot of variables in play when it comes to ERA, so it is in no shape or form an end-all-be-all stat, but a split of 1.92 and 5.07 between his two halves of his season so far is alarming.

So, what exactly happened? Why are we seeing a decrease in his ability to prevent runs?

From the start of the season, Elder seemed to be out performing his underlying metrics. Almost the entire season, Elder’s xFIP has been higher than his FIP, showing that over an extended period of time, his FIP would mostly like catch up to his xFIP.

Rolling xFIP vs FIP

As we can see, his xFIP and FIP are starting to intersect. So, what this is telling us is that during his first eleven starts, he had been having some good fortune. That is not taking anything away from him, he did his job in those eleven games, but it appears his fortune is running out.

According to Fangraphs, the league average left on base percentage (LOB%) typically sits around 70.0-72.0 percent.

As can be seen in the chart below, Elder’s LOB% has been well above the typical league average almost the entire season, and as of late is starting to regress to the mean.

Rolling LOB%

Typically when a LOB% is above average, this leads to the conclusion that over time as a pitcher strands less runners, it means more runs will score, even if a pitcher pitches the exact same way against the same lineups. In other words, Elder was getting lucky in the LOB department.

Elder has also been getting fewer ground balls. Elder relies on four pitches. He pitches his sinker 38.7 percent of the time, his slider 36.3 percent of the time, changeup 12.5 percent, and 4-seam fastball 12.4 percent.

Elder has seen his groundball rate on both of his most used pitches dropped as the season has gone on. As can be seen in the chart below, his sinker peaked at 66.7 percent of the time in June and has steadily dropped to 36.4 percent of the time. His slider peaked at 65.7 percent in May and is all the way down to 42.9 percent for the entire month of July.

Ground Ball Percentage by month

Hitters are also hitting his second most used pitch (slider) much harder as the season has progressed. In May hitters had a hard hit rate of 37.1, and in June 28.0 percent. In July his hard hit rate spiked all the way up to 50.0 percent of the time. If hitters are hitting a pitch you throw 36.3 percent of the time hard every other time they make contact, that spells trouble.

Elder is not predominantly a strikeout pitcher, however, in the month of July he saw hitters stop chasing his most used pitch (sinker) as often. In June, hitters were chasing (swinging at it when not in the strike zone) his sinker 32.7 percent of the time. Outside of his one start in August, July saw hitters having the lowest chase rate against Elder’s sinker among any month he has pitched this season at just 21.6 percent of the time.

It appears that hitters are not being fooled by the sinker and are able to sit back, wait on the slider, and crush it.

We have seen a slow increase in walk percentage over the year, but nothing that draws a red flag. He had a 6.8 percent rate in May, 7.4 in June, and 8.0 in July. If that trend continues, that could be an issue, but there has not been a spike in that area.

On the other side of the coin, Elder has seen a drastic decrease in strikeouts. Like stated earlier, his bread and butter is not strikeouts, but his strikeout rate has taken a nosedive. In April-June his strikeout rate fluctuated between 19.0 and 21.8 percent. In July, it dropped down to 8.8 percent.

Based on his walk rate not taking a spike, it goes back to hitters being able to sit back and wait on the pitch they want, and hit it hard.

In Summary…

Bryce Elder was never going to keep up the elite run prevention he had in the first eleven starts of the season. His XSTATS and LOB% made that pretty clear.

However, it is a bit concerning that he has declined further than just regressing to the mean. Hitters have seemed to adjust to him. They have figured out that they can lay off of his sinker when it is out of the zone, wait on his slider, and hit it hard.

This is evident by looking at his month of July. Hitters have a low chase rate on his most used pitch (sinker) and are hitting his second most used pitch (slider), in which he is throwing about 36.3 percent of the time, and are able to hit it hard approximately 50.0 percent of the time.

This has resulted in fewer strikeouts and fewer groundballs. Combine this with his lucky strand rate coming back to earth, and we have seen his ERA balloon.

Here is to hoping now that hitters have adjusted, he can too.

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