FantasyStitches | Ten Pitchers Ready to Break Out in 2018

It’s that time of year again…

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With MLB teams apparently adverse to upgrading themselves with this year’s free agent market (seriously, when will it start) it might be worth turning our eye to those players already employed by teams – players whose improvements (or declines) could have a significant effect on their team’s performance in 2018. Today, as you already discerned from the title, we’ll be looking at pitcher’s who are potentially poised for breakouts in 2017 – a pleasant surprise for their teams and fantasy owners..

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When evaluating a player and by extension, their chances of improvement in a given year, it is important to try to focus on the statistics that best indicate a players raw skills. These are the things that players have the most control over and are therefore most predictive of their future performance. When it comes to pitching, the most predictive component is K-BB% (r=.586). Pitchers who excel at striking hitters out and limiting free passes tend to excel at preventing runs. It’s not perfect and that’s what makes the game so interesting but it’s pretty good. As we said though, we want to get as close as we can to raw skills and while K-BB% is better than something like ERA, we can get deeper. While there are a number of components we could use to look beneath K-BB% (velocity, o-swing% etc), today we’re are going to focus on just two: Swinging Strike Rate (SwStr%) and Zone Percentage (Zone%).

These are quite transparently base components of K-BB% and consequently run prevention (ERA). Therefore, we can consider SwStr% and Zone% to be leading indicators of future performance. From, this I constructed a simple metric – creatively named Pitcher Breakout Scores or pBrkOut for short – that looks like this.

pBrkOut = (SwStr%-K%) + (Zone% – BB%)

Where all components are converted into a Z-Score and scaled so the minimum = 0

If a pitcher posts a high SwStr% then we expect that he would also post high strike out rates (r=.824). Further, while the correlation between zone rate is significantly weaker (r=.201), the ability to throw the ball in the strike zone should serve as reasonable proxy for potential walk rate improvement. By subtracting K% and BB% from their base components we are calculating the degree to which the player under or overachieved their raw skills. For example, a player with a high SwStr% but a low k% would get a positive score and we would therefore say that he should strike out more hitters in 2018. In this way, we are predicting K-BB% and by extension run prevention.

The Interesting Part

So with the methodology out of the way, let me skip straight to the top ten pitchers on the list:

Name SwStr% Zone% K% BB% pBrkOut 2017 ERA
Ariel Miranda 10.80% 47.40% 20.20% 9.30% 2.818 5.12
Jharel Cotton 9.70% 47.60% 18.60% 9.40% 2.750 5.58
Danny Duffy 11.40% 50.70% 21.40% 6.70% 2.479 3.81
German Marquez 9.10% 53.20% 21.00% 7.00% 2.435 4.39
JC Ramirez 8.80% 48.90% 16.90% 7.90% 2.275 4.15
Rafael Montero 10.20% 41.80% 20.70% 12.20% 2.257 5.52
Chad Kuhl 9.50% 45.70% 20.90% 10.60% 2.245 4.35
Tyler Chatwood 9.90% 41.10% 19.00% 12.20% 2.246 4.69
Matt Boyd 10.00% 46.10% 18.20% 8.80% 2.180 5.27
Sean Newcomb 11.20% 41.20% 23.70% 12.50% 2.086 4.32

And for reference, here are the league averages for those components:

Avg SwStr 9.97%
AVG Zone 44.8%
AVG K 21.41%
AVG BB 7.93%

I’ll be honest here and say I did manually remove a couple of names. Tim Adleman appeared on the list but just signed to pitch in Korea, R.A Dickey is a knuckleballer well past his prime and Danny Salazaar topped this list but has already broken out numerous times only to get injured, lose the strike zone or both. You could argue that Danny Duffy already broke out in 2017, though this, to me, shows there might still be another gear.

Nonetheless, what we have here is a list of interesting names who, as evidenced by their ERAs, significantly under-performed in 2017. While I’m not expecting any of these pitchers (with the exception of Duffy) to turn into top of the rotation starters, with some better K-BB% luck in 2018, they could all turn into serviceable MLB starters – something which has real value both on the field and in fantasy leagues.

So with that, let’s take a quick look at each of these breakout candidates.

Ariel Miranda. Miranda was a 28 year old rookie in 2017. A lanky left-handed thrower, Miranda’s fastball sits in the low-mid 90s and will reach 97. He also features a plus slider (1.27 pitch value/100) which generates a reasonable amount of swings and misses. Miranda was in the zone 3% more than the average pitcher in 2017, despite below average walk rates so we could see some improvement on that front. He rarely induces ground-balls however (30%) and has suffered from high HR/FB rates despite pitching in homer friendly SafeCo Field. The numbers here suggest improvement for Miranda but he will have to find a way to overcome his home run problem in 2017 if he is to prove any more than a #6/7 type starter in 2018

Jharel Cotton. A reasonably hyped prospect coming into 2017, Cotton had a pretty disastrous debut with the A’s. Loaded with a high-spin rate fastball and one of the best change-ups in baseball, Cotton was a popular breakout candidate coming into last season. Cotton had never had any problems with strikeouts or walks in the minor leagues (and in fact excelled in those areas) but posted below average marks in the Major Leagues. There was some suggestion that Cotton had been misguided by the former A’s pitching coach on how to use his high-spin arsenal, so perhaps the new pitching coach in Oakland will help him get the most out of his impressive stuff. If he can, then Cotton could be a number 3 type starter as soon as this year, though pitching with the A’s, owners should expect a low Win total.

Danny Duffy. Duffy has already been established as an excellent MLB starter for at least a year now but his inclusion on this list suggests that ace-hood could be within reach for Duffy in 2018. Duffy possesses elite stuff headlined by a mid-90’s fastball as well as a plus slider and change-up. The left-hander’s SwStr% was almost 2% higher than the average starter in 2017, though his strike out rate was exactly average. This should increase in 2018 and this would but him squarely in the ‘ace’ conversation. Duffy also appears to be a potential trade candidate and a move away from Kansas City could significantly boost his fantasy value.

German Marquez. Marquez is another pitcher who possesses premium stuff. The fastball will touch 100 times and he backs it up with a hard curveball and a usable change-up. His 53% Zone rate suggests significant improvement in his already average walk rate. While Coors field sucks a lot of the life out of his curveball (and therefore what could be an elite strikeout rate) an improvement in Marquez’ BB rate would render Marquez a mid-rotation starter with upside. He will pitch for a Colorado team that will fight for wildcard though the Rockies stacked ‘pen could see some lower innings totals for Marquez.

JC Ramirez. Ramirez is yet another hard thrower on this list, also capable of reaching the high 90’s with the fastball. A converted reliever, Ramirez will also show both a slider and a curveball. Ramirez already boast an elite groundball rate (50.4%) and an average BB rate, though both our breakout scores and his raw stuff suggest some potentially significant improvement in both the strikeout and walk rates. With improvements in both of those areas, Ramirez looks like a legitimate mid-rotation arm on a new look Angels squad. If not, the groundball rate gives him a high enough floor that he should still be fine at the back of a rotation and be playable in 12 team leagues.

Rafael Montero. Montero is a fastball/change-up righty who also began showing a slider more in 2017. He has the stuff to pitch at the back of the rotation but has had a hard time throwing strikes in the Major Leagues. Montero was called upon to help out an injury depleted Mets rotation in 2017 and unless those injury problems strike again I would be surprised to see Montero throw more than 100 innings in 2018.

Chad Kuhl. Despite ranking lower in this list, Kuhl might be one of the better breakout candidates here. A 25 year old right hander with a vicious mid 90’s sinker, Kuhl struggled with walks in his first full season in the Major Leagues, despite a career best strikeout rate. Kuhl never struggled with walks in the minors and our breakout scores suggest improvement in that area. If he can improve his walk rate rate while maintaining his strikeout gains, Kuhl could be a significant rotation piece for a Pirates team on the fringes of contention. Kuhl probably won’t provide a ton of fantasy value in 2018 but could be a nice streaming option for invested owners.

Tyler Chatwood. Breakout potential is what just earned Tyler Chatwood a 3yr/$38M deal from the Cubs, so it’s nice to see his name show up on this list. It was Chatwood’s high-spin curveball and elite ground-ball rate (58%) that caught people’s eye at the start of the off-season, though our metric here suggests improvements in what have typically been lackluster strikeout and walk rates. Those factors combined with a move away from Coors field could push Chatwood to the middle of the Cubs rotation. If so, Chatwood could have real fantasy value in 2018. If you can buy at back of the rotation prices/ADP Chatwood might be worth the gamble.

Matt Boyd. A back-end type, the left-handed Boyd has struggled to prevent runs in his three MLB stints thanks to mediocre strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates. Our breakout scores suggest slight improvements in both the former two categories at which point Boyd begins to look like a reasonable 5th starter in the big leagues. At this point, even with some improvement, Boyd is only playable in deep or AL-only fantasy leagues.

Sean Newcomb. Last on this list, Newcomb is perhaps the most interesting. A top prospect with huge stuff, the book on Newcomb has always been ‘top-of-the-rotation if he can throw strikes’. The left-hander still doesn’t throw enough strikes and at 24, while there is still time for improvements it’s unlikely he will ever show the control to reach his high ceiling. Our breakout score suggest slight improvements in both Newcomb’s strikeout and walk rate however and if the walks can improve enough, Newcomb starts to look a lot like a younger Gio Gonzalez.

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