Proclaiming that a pitcher is ‘different' from year-to-year isn't really going out on a limb, but saying that someone is a ‘new' pitcher comes with baggage. A lot goes into who a pitcher is, from their arsenal to their delivery to their velocity, and so on. To say all of those facets of the game have changed (which is what you'd need to see to decide that a pitcher is completely different), is a bold statement. Players evolve (and, possibly, devolve) all the time, but a complete transformation is rare. It's not often we witness this, but this may truly be the case when it comes to Chasen Shreve.
Considering Shreve's poor performance this season, you probably aren't thrilled with Shreve's sudden change into a whole new pitcher. Change is good, but not when the product is less than what we started with. That's not to say the new Shreve is worse than 2015's version, but the early returns have been disappointing. His 5.21 ERA is a far cry from last year's 3.09 mark, and the southpaw has given up seven of the bullpen's 19 home runs allowed on the season. We expected him to be the most dependable bridge between the starters and "The Big 3," but instead Shreve is pitching nearly as poorly as he did last September.
The easiest way to explain Shreve's sudden hittability would be by way of the AC joint sprain that landed him on the disabled list on Wednesday. Although that injury could be responsible for the two home runs he allowed in his last game before being sidelined, he hasn't been throwing like an injured pitcher all season. His fastball and splitter velocity are right on par with last year, so I'm inclined to think the shoulder injury doesn't explain his struggles. At the same time, I want to avoid implying that the new-Shreve is fully responsible for his 2016 struggles, because Shreve 2.0 isn't all bad news.
Anyway, let's get down to the interesting stuff. The first part of "2016 Shreve" that really stood out to me is his release point. At the core of all pitchers is their delivery, and it appears that Shreve has tweaked his motion a bit this offseason.
Ignoring the small sample size of October 2015, these changes are quite striking. Although Shreve's release points are trending toward 2015-like levels this month, he's still significantly altered where he lets go of the ball. I can't say there's a direct connection between his release points and pitch movement, but this change could play a role in why his arsenal looks so different this season.
The source of Shreve's late-season struggles last year was his splitter, and the same pitch is causing troubles this year. The difference, though, is why the splitter is getting hit hard. In September of 2015, Shreve's splitter looked about the same as it did every other month. The problem was that he left the ball up in the zone, likely due to fatigue from heavy use throughout the season. This year, his splitter looks like an entirely different pitch. Literally.
Shreve's splitter hasn't seen much change in terms of horizontal movement, but it's lost almost two full inches of drop. The pitch already had a pretty strange shape for a splitter, and the flattening of it (and low-80's velocity) makes the pitch look more like a changeup than a split-finger fastball. Unfortunately, this new 'changeup' isn't very good. Batters are hitting .300 with a .500 slugging percentage off it this season, opposed to a .134/.224 line in 2015. Considering his splitter was nasty last season—and arguably his best pitch—this is really bad news. But, it isn't all bad news for Shreve 2.0.
His third pitch, the slider, is starting to look like his nastiest offering. It's essentially gained all the drop his splitter lost and up until Wednesday was virtually unhittable. And that isn't hyperbole—Shreve hadn't allowed a hit off the pitch all season up until his last appearance (when he gave up two home runs off the pitch). For now, though, let's ignore Wednesday—the shoulder injury likely affected his performance.
Other than the fact that hitters were hitless against the slider until Wednesday evening, there's plenty of other interesting information about the pitch. The first of which is its 73% groundball rate, which is fourth best in the big leagues among relievers (min. 60 pitches thrown) and highest among southpaws. That massive groundball rate makes the two home runs all the flukier. Discounting Wednesday's game, Shreve's wSL/C (calculated by Fangraphs), which is essentially a measure of pitch value, was third highest in the big leagues, trailing only Dan Otero and Gonzalez German (two Rockies, interestingly enough).
A final note on the slider is its velocity, which has really fallen off this season. Averaging 84 mph in 2015, it's now being thrown at about 81.3 mph. A slower slider isn't great news, though it's been working so far—especially compared to last season, when it had a .649 slugging against. This, along with the added drop, does beg the question of whether he's using a new grip on the slider. I've yet to see anything on the subject, but it could explain why the pitch looks so different, and better, this season.
One thing you may have noticed about Shreve is that he's dramatically cut his walks, with his BB/9 dropping from 5.09 to 1.89. So why, then, is Shreve pitching so poorly? His splitter has been bad, sure, but the slider has made up for it. And given that he's improved his control (and groundball rate), things should be looking up for Shreve. Alas, that's not the case. The reason behind it may come from the same control versus command issue that Michael Pineda has faced.
Shreve lived in the bottom of the zone last season, which helped him in several ways but also made him susceptible to walks. To limit the base on balls, Shreve has brought his location up in the zone this season. It's helped his walks, but Shreve doesn't really have the to spot all his pitches in the strikezone without leaving them over the meat of the plate. As a result, the home runs he's allowed have skyrocketed, and hitters are making more hard contact against him. Just like with Michael Pineda, the low walk rate is deceiving. He's throwing more pitches in the strikezone—hence, good control—but hasn't been able to locate pitches within the zone, which means poor command and worse results.
While 2016 hasn't been kind to the 25-year old thus far, it's not a lost cause yet. Shreve's improved in some areas but regressed in others, and right now that's hurting him. Despite seeing his slider become better and his splitter (or what could presently be referred to as a changeup) grow worse, Shreve hasn't adjusted his usage rates on the two pitches yet. Using a bad pitch more than a good pitch isn't the best way to go about things, but Shreve should be able to adjust as the season goes on. He'll also have to find a happy medium between throwing pitches for strikes and throwing too many pitches for strikes, though it's a problem that can be worked out. Ultimately, we're looking at a different Shreve (new release points, pitches, velocity, and locations), but that doesn't mean we're looking at a worse Shreve.