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Who were 2014's most improved pitchers?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Here's the second installment of the three-part Most Improved Player (MIP) series. I described the methodology behind MIP and how it is different from the Comeback Player Award on Monday.

In the first post, we saw that J.D. Martinez was the most improved position player and Carlos Gonzalez was the largest decliner. In this post we'll look at pitchers with over 100 innings pitched in 2013 and 2014.

Most Improved Pitcher

Here are the 10 most improved pitchers according to fWAR/150:

Phil Hughes was a person of interest for Pirates fans as a free agent last off season. Travis Sawchik identified him as a good bounce-back candidate "similar to [A.J.] Burnett and [Francisco] Liriano." In 2013, Hughes posted a 5.19 ERA for the Yankees, but much of that was due to him being a fly-ball-throwing righty who had to pitch over half his games in Yankee Stadium. He had a 6.32 ERA and 1.95 HR/9 at home compared to a 3.88 ERA and 0.96 HR/9 on the road.

Hughes signed a three-year, $24 million deal with the Twins last December and he's paid immediate dividends.  In 2014, he won 16 games, while posting a 2.65 FIP and the lowest HR/9 of his career, 0.7.

Ryan Vogelsong had the second largest drop-off in fWAR/150 from 2012 to 2013 (1.93 to -0.81). Much of that was due to a spiking home run rate (8.2 HR/FB% to 13.4) and a plummeting K/BB ratio (2.55 to 1.76). In 2014 Vogelsong bounced back, largely because his HR/FB, BB/9 and SO/9 returned to 2012 levels. His FIP dropped from 4.91 in 2013 to 3.85 in 2014.

Clayton Kershaw posted the highest WAR/150 in 2014, and ranks as eighth most improved.

Aaron Harang is one of the more surprising stories from the 2014 season. After pitching for four teams between 2011-2013, the Braves signed the right-hander to a one-year, $1 million deal in March. In 204 innings last season, he posted the lowest FIP of his career, 3.57, due largely to the lowest HR/9 rate of his 13 years in the majors, 0.7. Harang is a free agent.

Largest Decline

Here are the 10 pitchers which had the largest drop-off on fWAR/150:

There are a lot of interesting names on this list. First, continuing a trend we saw with the position players, three pitchers that were in last year's top ten most improved list dropped to among ten largest decliners. Most dramatically, Clay Buchholz went from the most improved to largest decliner as his FIP spiked from 2.78 to 4.01. The two other pitchers who went from most improved to decliners are Ubaldo Jimenez (fourth most improved to 94th) and Mike Minor (10th to 99th).

Doug Fister, who the Tigers traded last offseason, declined significantly from his 2013 campaign. (It was still a bad trade, however.)

A.J. Burnett is of obvious interest to Pirates fans. He struggled most of the year, but some of that was due to injury. Interestingly, he still posted a better overall fWAR/150 than Edinson Volquez, 0.68 to 0.55.

Justin Masterson is likely on the Pirates' radar this offseason. After posting a very solid fWAR/150 in 2013, he dropped to the bottom quarter amongst pitchers with over 100 innings pitched. In 2014, he allowed a career-high walk rate (11.7 percent) and line drive rate (20.3 percent). He also was hurt by the second highest HR/FB rate of his career, 14.6 percent.


Finally, here are the Pirates pitchers by WAR/150:

Four out of the five qualified pitchers declined, with only Volquez improving.

Volquez's surface numbers suggest an impressive bounce-back season: from a 9-12 record and 5.71 ERA in 2013 to a 13-7 record with 3.04 ERA in 2014. However, his FIP barely improved, 4.37 to 4.15. What is interesting about Volquez is the dramatic change in the components that make up his FIP. He lowered his HR/9 by 0.8 (1.6 to 0.8), but his SO/W ratio also declined by 1.28 (3.25 to 1.97).

Jeff Locke's dropped off fairly significantly from 2013. His FIP increased from 4.03 to 4.37, and it was once again a tale of two seasons for the left-hander. His SO/W ratio went from 5.83 in the first half of the season to 1.59 in the second half, and his OPS-against sky rocked from .602 to .804.

Gerrit Cole had another fine season. His WAR/150 ranks in the top-third of pitchers who qualified for this study. His decline is largely due to his HR/FB ratio regressing back to league average. Last season 8.1 percent of fly balls resulted in home runs, while 9.4 percent did this year. League average is 9.5 percent.

Francisco Liriano posted the eighth biggest improvement in 2013. Last season he dealt with health issues most of the year, which contributed to his fWAR/150 dropping into the lower half of the league and a rather large decline overall. His FIP climbed to 3.59 from 2.92 in 2013. Most of that increase is due to his walk rate jumping from 9.5 percent to 11.7 percent.

Next up

I'll conclude this series later this week by looking forward to who early projections predict will be the most improved or least improved next season. There are some surprising names on the list, as well as some interesting projections for Russell Martin, Pedro Alvarez, Josh Harrison, Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole.