After a 2011 season that was the best of his career at age 35, the Rays picked up their 2012 team option on Kyle Farnsworth and expected him to be their closer again. Instead, Farnsworth suffered an elbow injury in spring training, sidelining him until the end of June. And once he got back, Farnsworth wasn’t the same. Instead of being the reinvented pitcher who walked a career-low 1.9 batters per 9 innings in 2012 while still managing an 8.0 K/9, Farnsworth’s walk rate jumped all the way to 4.7 batters per 9 innings, his highest mark since 2000. On the year, he went just 1-6 (tying for the Rays bullpen’s lead in losses despite appearing in half the number of games that Joel Peralta did) with a 4.00 ERA, 8.3 K/9, a 4.7 BB/9, and a 0.3 HR/9 in 34 relief appearances and 27 innings pitched. He did not do the job and became the pitcher that Rays fans least wanted to see in big spots. Why should the Rays possibly bring him back?
Those numbers I just showed you, especially the 4.7 BB/9, had to make you wince a little bit. But in reality, Farnsworth’s 2012 numbers were actually quite deceiving. Take out his first two appearances and final three, and Farnsworth actually managed a 2.16 ERA, a 7.6 K/9, and a 2.9 BB/9 in his other 29 appearances, not all that far off from his 2.18 ERA, 8.0 K/9, and 1.9 BB/9 from 2011. His groundball rate on the season was actually 55.1% compared to 50.6% in 2012, which can only be a good sign. But it was a small sample size and stats can only tell us so much. The more pressing issue is how Farnsworth’s arsenal looked after he came back from his elbow injury. Was Farnsworth’s stuff up to the same level that it was at in 2011?
According to Brooks Baseball, Farnsworth’s pitch usage in 2012 was remarkably similar to what it was the previous season. He threw his sinker 34% of the time, his fastball 21%, his cutter 20%, and his slider 25% compared to 37%, 22%, 21%, and 20% respectively in 2011. But the difference in velocity on his pitches between the two years was quite stark.
What’s going on here? Is Farnsworth’s loss of velocity a concern moving forward or a reflective of more of a pitch-to-contact approach from him? The good news is that it the latter factor may have played a roll. When you look at Farnsworth’s fastball and sinker velocities with 2 strikes, he jumps to a 96.16 MPH average on his fastball and 93.71 MPH on his sinker, just about where he was at in 2011. Farnsworth’s loss of velocity looks like a conscious change, whether it was to help him get more movement on his pitches or to help him throw strikes more often after bouts of wildness plagued him in his first few games after returning to the big leagues. But does that mean that Farnsworth has the ability to get back to the pitcher he was in 2011? Probably not. Farnsworth’s 7.6 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 from even when he was going strong in 2012 was not nearly what we’re used to seeing from him.
Kyle Farnsworth was a pitcher who struck out 10.1 batters per 9 innings from 2001 to 2009, driving managers insane with his enigmatic tendencies but exciting fans with his ability to light up radar guns with his fastball. The last three years, though, he has slipped to just 8.3 strikeouts per 9, and he shows no signs of getting back to his previous levels. Farnsworth is done being that fireballing reliever who touched triple-digits like Rays fans remember him as from his time with the Yankees, and we’ve known that for years now. We also saw firsthand in 2011 how fastball’s new approach on the mound, trading an electric high-90’s fastball for more sinkers and cutters, could lead to incredible results. At this point, however, Farnsworth may be a step beyond even that. Farnsworth may still be able to dial his fastball up to 97 MPH when it matters most, but on the whole he’s going to be a pitcher who works in the low-90’s and is going to rely heavily on control and command to be successful. But as a pitcher who focuses more on getting groundballs than striking everybody out, Farnsworth still has something left in the tank.
This offseason, the Rays traded away Burke Badenhop. For just about his entire career, Kyle Farnsworth has been a relief pitcher on the exact opposite spectrum as Badenhop- but at this point, they are exponentially more similar than ever before. In Farnsworth, the Rays have a pitcher to fill that same type of role as a middle reliever who comes in and forces groundballs, and Farnsworth has the ability to vastly outperform Badenhop because even his diminished stuff makes Badenhop’s repertoire pale in comparison. If Farnsworth is willing to settle for a salary between 1.5 and 2 million dollars and understands that he’ll be used in a lesser role for them next season, the Rays would be glad to welcome him back. He may not be the pitcher he once was, but he still has the ability to contribute to a major league bullpen and the Rays would be glad to let him play such a role for them next season if that’s the way their offseason plays out.