After spending the last two seasons primarily as a reliever with the Mets, Trevor Williams will have the opportunity with the Nationals to once again establish himself as a starter.
It was no surprise that the Nationals needed help in their starting rotation this offseason after having the worst staff ERA in baseball last season. What was surprising, is who they signed to help. The Nationals signed Williams fairly early during Free Agency when many notable arms were still available. Not only that, they signed him to a multi-year deal, which was the first time the franchise had done so for a free agent signing since 2019. It was a gamble, but it might have been a worthwhile one for Washington.
Recency bias always reigns supreme, but Williams has had decent success as a starter in the past. In 2017 and 2018 with Pittsburgh, he had a 3.56 ERA over 321 innings as a starter. His 2019 was much worse, and his performance in the shortened 2020 season also didn't do him any favors, but 321 is a large enough sample size to deem a success as a starter.
Following a trade to New York in 2021, Williams also found success as a reliever for the Mets. While pitching in spot starts on occasion, Williams really found his groove out of the bullpen, sporting a 2.47 ERA in 51 innings as a reliever last season. For reference, he had an ERA above 4.15 in both 2021 and 2022 as a starter. So what was the big change for Williams?
At first glance, most of his pitch usage and pitch result numbers look the same. He threw his 4 seam fastball more than 50% of the time and cut his slider usage in half, according to Baseball Savant. He was also throwing more first pitch strikes and increased his first pitch swing percentage, and has done so incrementally over the past few seasons. This certainly contributes to the newfound success, but isn't atypical for relievers to throw more strikes. Walk rates can really decimate a career as a reliever, and Williams was able to cut his down from 8.3% in 2020 to 6.2% in 2022. Long story short, he is being more efficient and throwing more strikes early on. It's a great start, but still not the entire story.
Trevor Williams is yet another victim of the analytically-driven third time through the order statistic.
Most fans have heard of this before, but starting pitchers typically see a large increase in opposing hitter success when they reach the third time through the batting order, typically in innings 5 or 6. Williams was no exception to that statistic, as in 2021 while still a full time starter for the Cubs and then with the Mets, Williams had allowed a .716 OPS to opposing hitters the first time through the order. That number jumped to a .900 OPS the second time through the order. While it did drop slightly the third time through the order to a .871 OPS, hitters were still batting .333 off of Williams. Basically, Williams was making every hitter look like an All Star, MVP candidate the 2nd and 3rd time through the order.
So, the Mets did the logical thing and ensured Williams never got through the order a 2nd or 3rd time: they made him a reliever. In return, Williams had a career year and a half with New York, sporting a career best Strikeout-to-Walk ratio and a near career best FIP and ERA+, second only to his outstanding 2018 campaign when he had a 3.11 ERA in 170.2 innings.
Can the Nationals turn Trevor Williams back into a starter and maintain his effectiveness?
This is the million dollar question. Or, in this case, the $13 million dollar question. Williams certainly wants to find success again as a starter, which would greatly help in him cashing in once he reaches free agency again following the 2024 season, particularly with the way the starting pitching market has boomed recently. It is a great time to be an above average starting pitcher. The Nationals want the same, as they need to improve upon what was a league worst staff performance in 2022. Williams does them far more good as a starter than a reliever, especially when their bullpen is an area of strength and their rotation projects to consist of three pitchers who are 25 or younger.
The keys to success for Williams will be keeping his walk rate down and his first pitch strike percentage up. It sounds elementary for pitching, but it does apply in this case. The Nationals also should tinker too much with his pitch usage. Williams has always relied heavily on his 4 seam fastball, and rightfully so as it is a very effective pitch. His slider tends to get hit hard as it doesn't have a ton of movement campartively, so they should limit its usage. He did throw his changeup more often last season, as it complements his 4 seam fastball better than a slider would. Williams won't be the guy to strikeout double digits ever time out, but he can lean on his fastball and mix his other four pitches to induce weak contact. The Nationals certainly will need him to do so this season.
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