The Red Sox and Drew Pomeranz are locked in an arbitration stalemate

The Boston Red Sox and LHP Drew Pomeranz are $2.1 million apart in their arbitration filings, per Jon Heyman.

Days after the Red Sox settled one-year deals with seven arb-eligible players, the team and Drew Pomeranz remain locked in a stalemate. Pomeranz filed at $5.7 million and the Red Sox came in at $3.6 million, a middle price would be $4.65 million.

$2.1 million dollars is an especially sizeable difference between team and player filings. In fact, the only other notable players with a difference greater than $1 million are Pedro Strop and Dellin Betances. This doesn’t mean that Pomeranz and the Red Sox couldn’t meet halfway on a deal before his arbitration hearing, but it’s clear that both sides have wildly different views of his 2016 season and outlook moving forward.

However, the disparity is more than easily explained. Before being traded to the Sox, Pomeranz enjoyed a breakout season in San Diego as one of the major league’s top starters. Pitching to the tune of a 2.47 ERA with 115 strikeouts over 102 innings pitched, he posted a 164 ERA+ before being dealt on July 14th for star prospect Anderson Espinoza. The Red Sox paid for two and half years of team control on a seemingly elite pitcher and received something wildly different.

Over 13 starts with the Red Sox, Pomeranz owned a 4.59 ERA with just 71 strikeouts and 68.2 innings pitched. He would make one appearance out of the bullpen, on the last day of the season against the Blue Jays in which he looked impressive over 1.1 shutout innings. He would then make two more relief appearances in the postseason, giving up two earned in 3.2 innings pitched. But make no mistake, Drew Pomeranz is and should be evaluated as a starting pitcher for the Red Sox.

The stark contrast in performance posted by Pomeranz in 2016 is what makes his arbitration case so interesting, but also difficult to gauge. Fans were rightly upset at the numbers he put up upon arriving at Fenway, especially given the fact that the team traded a pitcher that has drawn comparisons to a Hall of Famer that the Red Sox are deeply familiar with. And yet, the team remained committed to him even after it was revealed that the Padres withheld relevant medical information on Pomeranz prior to the trade.

What explains Pomeranz’s struggles upon arriving in Beantown? 

Well, to figure it out we need to start with what worked well for him in San Diego. Pomeranz had always profiled as a big left-hander that relied on a fastball-curveball combo while rarely (2.5% over his career) mixing in a changeup. Then, he added a cutter to his repertoire at the beginning of 2016, throwing it roughly 13% of the time. FanGraphs has a much longer, and better, explanation of the value that a third quality pitch provided to Pomeranz.

Essentially, he was able to bridge the gap in movement as well as velocity between his fastball and curveball. It’s not that he started throwing better (if anything is velocity slightly decreased between 2015 and 2016) it’s that he improved his pitching profile. It’s also ironic to note that the article was posted the day before Pomeranz was traded to Boston.

If his diversified pitching profile led to success in San Diego, then logically something must have changed upon arriving in Boston. Well, not quite. He used his pitches almost identically between the Padres and Red Sox, according to Baseball Info Solutions. More so, his velocity remained constant before and after the trade. So the stuff was there all along, what changed was where he put his pitches.

Look at these two heat maps of Pomeranz’s pitch percentages generated by FanGraphs. The first, of the 1690 total pitches he threw while in San Diego. The second, of the 1139 total pitches he threw while in Boston.

The most apparent difference is where he tended to cluster the bulk of his pitches. When he was enjoying success with the Padres, his pitches were more evenly distributed and favoured the right-handed batter’s box. With the Red Sox, he left his pitches out over the heart of the plate, hitting dead-center more than any other location.

Explaining why Pomeranz lost command is far more challenging, however. It could be mechanics, fatigue or the forearm issue that ailed him late in September – it’s impossible to tell without insider information. The running narrative has been that he wore down over the course of the season, as he threw 170 innings which nearly doubled his previous high of 96.2 which I tend to favor.

What we can tell, is that his new found tendency to leave pitches over the middle of the plate (especially his fastball) resulted in 8% more hard hit balls against and more than doubled his HR/FB ratio. The contrast in location explains why Pomeranz’s ERA+ went from 164 as a Padre to 100 as a member of the Red Sox, while allowing an extra two runs per nine innings pitched.

So as Pomeranz and the Red Sox look destined to head to an arbitration hearing, each side’s argument is quite clearly laid out. The 27-year-old pitcher will claim that he was one of the league’s best for the majority of the season, his total 3.32 ERA and 9.8 K/9 are still well above average. While, the Red Sox will argue that he failed to provide the team with any value and should be paid as a league average pitcher. From the team’s perspective, it’s impossible to ignore any of the warning signs he displayed en route to his eventual demotion to the bullpen.

Pomeranz should have a place in the rotation heading into the 2016 season, even if that is as their fifth starter and will likely get an opportunity to earn back the praise he was receiving prior to his trade. But, given the depth the Red Sox have in their rotation, his past performance and obvious health concerns, I would expect his leash to be short.

Add all of those variables together and it’s tough to see a scenario in which he comes out of his arbitration hearing happy.

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