Rays News

Ernesto Frieri, A Reclamation Project Worth Taking On

By Robbie Knopf

Ernesto Frieri was downright terrible in 2014. Between the Los Angeles Angels and Pittsburgh Pirates, he managed just a 7.34 ERA in 41.2 innings pitched, giving up an astounding 11 home runs (2.4 per 9 innings). But while everyone else sees numbers like that and cowers in fear, the Tampa Bay Rays look at them and see an opportunity.

Marc Topkin reported that the Rays have signed Frieri to a one-year deal with a base salary of just $800,000. There are manifold incentives that could take the value of the contract all the way to $3.15 million, but if Frieri makes that much money, he will have performed will enough to earn it. In his first year as an arbitration-eligible player in 2014, Frieri netted $3.8 million. Who would have thought that he would get a base salary of $3 million less than that for next season?

The Rays will have a rough task ahead of them as they attempt to turn Frieri around entirely. However, Frieri featured two things in 2014 that will make their task easier: electric stuff and promising peripherals.

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Unlike many pitchers who suffer disastrous seasons, Ernesto Frieri’s fastball velocity did not fade in 2014, averaging 94.84 MPH. The reason things got so bad for Frieri nonetheless was that he doesn’t have a wipeout secondary pitch, with his slider being closer to decent than plus. With that in mind, when his fastball command faded this year, he didn’t have another weapon he could use to make up for it, leading to his terrible numbers. However, if he can get his command back on track, he certainly has the pure stuff to be a successful high-leverage reliever once again.

Frieri’s command issues were the primary culprit for that disastrous 2.4 home runs per 9 innings ratio, but Frieri’s numbers looked much better aside from that. He still struck out 10.4 batters per 9 innings while walking just 3.0, leading him to a 3.74 xFIP. Using xFIP in this case includes a questionable assumption–that Frieri truly should not allow more home runs than anybody else–but it is a good sign that xFIP liked Frieri even in his worst-case scenario season. If Frieri’s homer rate returns to anything remotely close to the rest of baseball, there is reason to be optimistic about his overall results.

An interesting comparison that can be made is between Ernesto Frieri and Fernando Rodney. Both once had a 37-save season but with a questionable ERA (Rodney in 2009, Frieri in 2013), and they struggled with the Angels the year before coming to the Rays. From one viewpoint, though, we had less reason to believe Rodney would rebound. He walked more batters than he struck out in 2011, leading to just a 4.71 FIP and a 5.09 xFIP to accompany his 4.50 ERA. Yet Rodney proceeded to deliver arguably the best reliever season in the history of baseball.

There is no reason to believe that Frieri can deliver another Rodney-esque year, and he has a distinct disadvantage given that he doesn’t have a secondary pitch like Rodney’s changeup. However, the risk is so small as the Rays inked Frieri to a deal with such a low base salary and there is still reason to believe that Jim Hickey and the Rays can get him on track. Ernesto Frieri is a classic Rays reclamation project, and they are hoping that he can be their next notable success.