Some of you may be saying, “Is this the guy from the football side who is obsessed with defensive pressure rates?” Yes, it is.
Some of you will then ask, “Is this man as funny as Grey?” Sadly, no.
Everyone will then most definitely ask, “What does this man know about baseball?” Enough to spew 1000+ words per week into WordPress.
Baseball is far and away my favorite fantasy sport. I’ve been a Razzball consumer since I was a pimple faced teenager. My background with Razzball is important. It explains many of my philosophies, primarily those in regards to pitching. Typically, I wait on starting pitching far later than the norm and complete pre-season prep with that notion in mind. Instead of spending hours sorting top ranked pitchers, I focus in on pitchers who have the highest probabilities of far exceeding expectations.
This concept is at the core of the series, in which the sole purpose is to find the likeliest 2020 breakout pitchers. To start, I will delve into a group of 12 pitchers who exceeded draft day value from the last 3 seasons. Using their backgrounds, I hope to find some cohesion to locate what changed and led to the breakout. Finally, I’ll take those commonalities and locate 2020 pitchers meeting the same criteria to find who is most likely to win us our leagues.
The first order of business is to introduce the 12 pitchers in the review and summarize what caused the success at first glance. The surface level evaluation may not ultimately be the biggest reason for that individual breakout, but we have to start somewhere. The pitchers are grouped into two general categories: Youthful Jumps and Restored Vets.
Youthful Jumps are typically non-rookies who break through the 250-career innings pitched barrier during the season they breakout. I’ve long held a belief that there is a magical innings pitched number early very early in a pitchers MLB career where they will either make a jump and become a top half of the rotation starter, or fail to make that jump and remain a back end starter for the rest of their career. There are outliers to every rule, but I’ve found this to be common amongst elite MLB pitching. They either sink or swim very early.
A Restored Vet works within that concept as well. As you will see in this group below every pitcher had similar numbers in a season earlier in their career. Typically, they had similar numbers multiple times earlier in their career. They rediscover something that gets them back to the successes from earlier in their career. This isn’t a rule, but it is assuredly the norm.
Shane Bieber (2019) – Razzball Player Rater Finish: #6 SP
Reasons for Breakout: Bieber made a significant K rate jump during 2019, moving from 9.26 to 10.88. He accomplished this by throwing less fastballs (11.7% reduction from 2018 to 2019). His fastball was his least effective pitch in his rookie season. Throwing it less in 2019, Bieber’s fastball turned in a 12.1 pitch value. Bieber’s outside the zone swing percentage increased and the contact on those pitches decreased. Bieber threw his worst pitch less and got batters to swing and miss at tougher pitches more often.
Lucas Giolito (2019) – Razzball Player Rater Finish: #13 SP
Reasons for Breakout: Giolito had been in the majors for several seasons prior to 2019, but surprisingly only had 240 career MLB IP. If Bieber made a significant K rate jump, then Giolitio made an astronomical leap. His K/9 went from a career sub 7 to 11.62 in 2019. Giolito accomplished this by throwing his change up, which had the 5th highest value for the pitch in the MLB, 10.2% more often. By pitching off of his changeup, and with an increase in velocity to 94.6 MPH on his fastball he got more swing and miss throughout 2019.
Blake Snell (2018) – Razzball Player Rater Finish: #3 SP
Reasons for Breakout: Snell had 218 career MLB IP prior to the 2018 season. He had a K rate jump in 2018 due to throwing his curveball at a higher rate. I don’t need to go into pitch values for Snell’s curveball. If you have witnessed him pitch, you know how good that pitch is. Just as vital, he stopped walking batters with a +1 BB/9 drop year over year. It should not go unmentioned that Snell was incredibly lucky during the 2018 season, with an 88% LOB% and .241 BABIP.
Mike Foltynewicz (2018) – Razzball Player Rater Finish: #13 SP
Reasons for Breakout: Folty is a strange case. There isn’t an overarching reason for his breakout. He threw his slider more, and it was a great pitch in 2018. Though, in every other season that slider has been nothing more than pedestrian. There was nothing significantly different about the pitch from his career norms during 2018 either in terms of velocity, or movement. He struck out a few more people. He walked similar amounts. He got barreled a little more. He didn’t have outstanding luck. It seems that Folty accumulated small edges that when brought together caused a breakout. This can be confirmed with his ERA being a run lower than his xFIP and SIERA.
Luis Severino (2017) – Razzball Player Rater Finish: #8 SP
Reasons for Breakout: Severino broke out by growing up. He entered the year with 130 MLB innings. At first glance it looks like he got luckier. However, in both the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Severino had a higher swing percentage overall, a higher swinging strike percentage, a higher percentage swings outside the zone, and a higher percentage of 1st pitch strikes. It seems that in his age 23 season Severino learned to get ahead, and that opened the ability to work the black of the plate at a higher rate.
Robbie Ray (2017) – Razzball Player Rater Finish: #9 SP
Reasons for Breakout: Ray benefited from increased luck, but it also seems that he had an optimal pitch mix for a single season. He went from a 71/18/5 (FB/SL/CB) percentage mix in years prior to 59/18/22 in 2017. Ray then upped the slider percentage in 2018 and 2019. Predicting pitch mixes is a tough task, but with many young pitchers it is the key.
Hyun-Jin Ryu (2019) – Razzball Player Rater Finish: #9 SP
Reasons for Return to Form: Ryu was incredible down the stretch in 2018. Honestly, he has been an outstanding pitcher for his entire career when he is healthy. His down 2017 season was an anomaly due to an inflated HR/FB ratio. There isn’t large variance in the data to point towards in the last 1.5 years that has brought him to a Cy young level. Since his shoulder surgery he has thrown his true fastball significantly less and embraced movement on his hard stuff, employing a cutter more frequently. Ryu is quite different than the rest of this bunch and I think there are benefits to having a soft-throwing injury riddled pitcher in the pile.
Sonny Gray (2019) – Razzball Player Rater Finish: #18 SP
Reasons for Return to Form: It is well documented that Sonny Gray did not like the Yankees usage of him. His chief complaint was an overuse of his slider, but he threw more sliders and overall breaking pitches than ever in 2019. It seems that Gray picked up more spin on his curveball in the 2018 off-season and it took the pitch value of his curveball from neutral/negative from 2016-2018 to one of the best in baseball in 2019. It was a great pitch in his first 3 professional seasons and being reunited with pitching coach Derek Johnson rejuvenated Gray’s spinner. He certainly had some positive luck, but the idea that a young pitcher can “re-discover” a once great pitch and work off of it is certainly a concept to embrace.
Gerrit Cole (2018) – Razzball Player Rater Finish: #7 SP
Reasons for Return to Form: I wasn’t sure where to put Cole. He fell into both categories, but he did have a career blip of two down years in 2016 and 2017. I view his success in moving to Houston as becoming what he once was. There has been heavy discussion surrounding Cole’s velocity increase, spin rate gains, and pitch mix adjustments after joining the Astros. Though, the greatest adjustment he seems to have made is just throwing the ball in the upper half of the zone at a far more frequent rate. In his time with the Pirates, Cole never threw in the upper third of the strike zone more than 10% of the time, but with the Astros he attacked that portion of zone nearly 15% of the time.
Patrick Corbin (2018) – Razzball Player Rater Finish: #13 SP
Reasons for Return to Form: Corbin started throwing his world class slider more than 35% of the time in June of 2017. His ERA in 2017 was 4.03 and K/9 was 8.45. From June 2017 to the end of the season his ERA was 3.51 and K/9 was over 9. The ERA was anchored down by a September blow up start in which he gave up 8 ER. This was a telegraphed breakout. Corbin showed during this span that he was on a path to turning his career around by utilizing his slider as much as possible. This is exactly what he did throughout 2018.
Zack Greinke (2017) – Razzball Player Rater Finish: #7 SP
Reasons for Return to Form: Greinke had his worst season in a decade in 2016. He lost velocity in 2017, but somehow started striking out batters at a 2% higher rate without changing his pitch mix. He accomplished the swing and miss gains from his breaking pitches all having an inch, or more, of vertical movement change year over year. His curveball had an additional inch of horizontal movement and the pitch went from a 9.69% whiff percentage to 14.75%. These slight adjustments to Greinke’s curveball and slider were the keys to his success.
Gio Gonzalez (2017) – Razzball Player Rater Finish: #13 SP
Reasons for Return to Form: Gonzalez enjoyed a career year in 2017 sandwiched between poor 2016 and 2018 seasons. His success was luck driven by an 81.6% LOB% (73.8% career) and .258 BABIP (.293 career). Batters offered at his pitches less. Batters made more contact overall. Gio did get more soft contact than ever before, but it wasn’t a significant jump. Luck is hard to quantify and anticipate, but Gio Gonzlez provides a bit of an oddity to this group. He has beaten his xFIP and SIERA expectations numerous times in his career. There has to be a reason.
Next week I’ll write about the first major contributing factor I see among these pitchers success, attempt to quantify it, and find 2020 pitchers with the same traits.