Rejuvenated Fedde gets chance to show Nats how far he's come

CHICAGO – Erick Fedde holds no grudges against the Nationals. He can’t fault them for giving up on him after the 2022 season, the latest in a string of disappointing seasons for the organization’s 2014 first round pick.

“I definitely understand them moving on,” he said Monday. “I never pitched well.”

While that’s not entirely true – he did pitch well in brief stretches during his time in D.C. – Fedde’s overall performance with the Nats was nothing to be proud of. In 102 big league games (88 starts) over six seasons, he went 21-33 with a 5.41 ERA and 1.523 WHIP. He never came close to pitching like an ace. He was perpetually competing with the likes of Joe Ross and Austin Voth for the final spot in an otherwise star-studded rotation.

That kind of resume doesn’t exactly lead to enticing contract offers. And when nobody came calling with a major league deal after the Nationals non-tendered him in November 2022, Fedde decided the best place to go was across the Pacific Ocean. He signed a $1 million contract with the NC Dinos of the Korean Baseball Organization, truly a life-changing decision.

“I think the biggest reason to go over there was I wasn’t going to be on the Triple-A/big league/DFA train that I’ve seen,” he said with a laugh. “Just somewhere I was going to get the ball every fifth day. I was going to have a chance to throw 175-plus innings. And work on some stuff.”

And dominate. Fedde forgot to mention the part where he dominated.

The guy with 21 wins and a 5.41 ERA in six major league seasons won 20 games with a 2.00 ERA and 209 strikeouts in South Korea. He won the league’s equivalent of the Cy Young Award. Then he took that a step further and won the league’s MVP award.

What happened? To hear Fedde tell the story, there was a concerted effort to improve two key pitches. He began throwing a changeup with far more consistency and effectiveness than he ever did in the United States. And he turned a looping, high-70s curveball into a sharper, low-80s sweeper. The difference in results was night and day.

But there was another component to Fedde’s dramatic turnaround. After years spent as the anonymous fifth starter in a rotation that at various points included the likes of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez, he was now the ace of his staff for the first time since college.

And he liked the attention that came with that designation.

“In some ways, when you’re at the back end of a rotation, you forget what it’s like to be The Guy and be depended on,” he said. “I think it woke something up in me. I was expected to be the guy people counted on for seven innings and no runs. Not just to be OK with five innings. It was a good thing. It lit a fire back in me and reminded me of what I always wanted to be.”

Dominating season or not, there was no guarantee Fedde’s success in the KBO was going to translate into a guaranteed second chance in the major leagues. Nor any guarantee of success if he did get a chance to back here and pitch again.

But with the free agent pitching market dead quiet last December as Scott Boras waited for big offers to come for premier clients Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery, it was Fedde who shockingly got the first multi-year deal for a pitcher: two years and $15 million from the White Sox. (That was roughly three times as much money as he made his entire time in D.C.)

“I knew there would be some interest. I obviously had the season of a lifetime,” he said. “But I think it was almost a perfect storm with that Winter Meetings lull. There was nothing going on, and then all of a sudden, it was all my name bouncing around. It was kind of fun.”

Not as fun as returning to the big leagues and picking up right where he left off in South Korea. Through eight starts with Chicago, Fedde is 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA and 1.156 WHIP. Three weeks ago, he struck out 11 batters for the first time in his career. Two weeks ago, he pitched into the ninth inning against the Rays. (He never so much as reached the eighth with the Nationals.)

In short, Fedde is pitching with the kind of confidence he forever sought but never found in Washington.

“Confidence is definitely important,” he said. “But realistically, that confidence is coming from me feeling like I have four real weapons now, where at times in the past I felt like I only had two. Sometimes one. I’ve been describing to people as: When any type of hitter comes up in the lineup, I feel like I have what it takes to get them out. It just comes down to execution. I have that confidence right now, and I have the weapons to get them out.”

The Nationals will find out firsthand tonight when Fedde takes the mound for the nightcap of a doubleheader necessitated by Monday’s rainout. There aren’t that many hitters left who played with him, even as recently as 2022. Those who do remember him may be surprised to see the pitcher he is now.

“It’ll be strange. First time seeing the W on the other side of the field,” he said. “They were always good to me, treated me well. I have no hard feelings. … Of course every start I want to pitch well, but I want to go out there and show what I’ve done.”

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