When it comes to Alec Marsh, all you really need to know about him is the three true outcomes. Strikeouts, walks, and home runs are known as “true” outcomes because they are results of at-bats that do not rely upon the vagaries of the defense or defensive alignment. They are the results only of the battle between the pitcher and the hitter. Alec Marsh was among the worst pitchers in MLB at walking batters and giving up home runs, coming in at eighth- and 18th-worst, respectively, in his rates allowed among all pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched.
However, he was also the 29th-best pitcher in terms of strikeout rate.
And therein lies the conundrum. Is Alec Marsh an unhittable machine? Or an eminently hittable machine?
Let me ask you a seemingly unrelated question: Would you like Minnesota starter Joe Ryan on the Royals? I would! Ryan was not an ace, but, per FanGraphs, he was still worth 2.2 fWAR - easily more than any Royals starting pitcher this season not named Cole Ragans, and still a little more than Brady Singer. It might surprise you to discover that such a cromulent pitcher had very similar strikeout and home run rates as Alec Marsh, who ended the season with a -0.5 fWAR. The difference, as you might have imagined, is in their walk rates.
Alec Marsh walked 11.4% of the batters he faced, this year. Joe Ryan walked only 5.1% of his batters. This allowed him a K-BB% of 24.3% while Alec Marsh could only muster a good, but not great, K-BB% of 13.5%.
Don’t like that comparison? Fine. How about Blake Snell? Snell struck out a few more than Marsh, but also walked more and they had a very similar K-BB%. The difference is that Snell allowed one fewer home run in 2.5 times the innings. Snell, by the way, is among the favorites to win the NL Cy Young Award this season.
There’s no arguing that Alec Marsh was good this year. He simply wasn’t. However, with his elite strikeout rates, he’s also not as far from being good as you might imagine. I know Royals fans are reasonably gunshy of “stuff” arguments, but there’s no doubt that Alec Marsh’s stuff actually shows up in the results. Those strikeouts are for real. And that means that Marsh doesn’t have to solve all of his problems in order to become a viable pitcher. If he and the Royals coaching staff, plus whoever he might work with in the off-season, can reduce either the walks or the home runs, there’s every chance Marsh could fit into a competitive starting rotation or as a bulk man (where he performed much better, even this season.) If, in the exceedingly unlikely event, they were able to reduce both, he’d give Ragans a run for his money as the ace of the staff.
This is a clear example of simple, not easy, as Marsh’s walk rate or home run rate would need to come down a lot. But they’re also very high. The home run rate, in particular, seems unsustainably so. If we filter the pitching results to only those starters who qualified for the ERA title this year, only Lance Lynn, Jordan Lyles, and Lucas Giolito had higher home run rates allowed. Of those, only Lyles had ever been within even half a home run of those rates prior to this season.
Marsh just finished his rookie campaign and he is only 25. He deserves no more than a C for his efforts this season, so that’s the grade I’ll give him. Even so, he deserves a chance to continue competing for a rotation spot next year. Obviously, he hasn’t earned a guaranteed spot, but it would be foolish of the Royals to completely give up on him after fewer than 75 big league innings pitched and with such a strong strikeout rate.
What grade would you give Alec Marsh’s 2023?
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