Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Breakout Candidates for 2021 – Relief Pitchers

Spring Training is finally upon us. There are still dozens of moving pieces to settle before rosters finalize but in this article, we’re going to focus on some relievers set to make their mark in the return of full-season baseball. Most of the pitchers featured took an impressive step in 2020, while others merely flashed promise still needing to be unlocked.

This is the third of four articles of a breakout players series here on Max’s Sporting Studio with infielder and outfielder breakdowns already available.

A lot of weird things can happen in a 60-game sample and the peculiarities need to be sifted through in order to identify true breakout potential. The following players are not ranked in any intended order.

Victor Gonzalez – LHP – Dodgers

Since Victor Gonzalez received the call-up in late August, he quickly became one of the Dodgers’ best relief pitchers. Through 20.1 innings in the regular season, Gonzalez recorded a 1.33 ERA and struck out 23 batters. Gonzalez was elite in preventing well-hit balls and walks, with a stellar 69.2% GB%, 2.5% BB%, and an unbelievable 0% Barrel%. Granted this all happened during a very small sample size, but Gonzalez showed much to be excited about, just look at his statcast profile!

Baseball Savant

Gonzalez continued his excellence to a lesser extent during the Dodgers’ World Series run during 6.2 innings out of the pen, allowing two earned runs.

When looking at Gonzalez’s career minor league stats, 2020 is an outlier. It took a while for Gonzalez to reach the majors, as he dealt with injuries and poor performances that slowed his progression. After a handful of underwhelming stints in Single-A and Rookie ball, Gonzalez finally broke out in 2019 when he recorded ERA’s below 2.50 in High-A and Double-A and earned a late-season promotion to Triple-A.

With the departures of Pedro Baez and Adam Kolarek this offseason, Gonzalez should see more high-leverage opportunities for the Dodgers this season, creating fantasy value to those in leagues that record holds.

Most of Gonzalez’s excellence is likely the result of a small sample size. He didn’t even face enough batters to qualify for Max’s Sporting Studio leaderboards. There’s no way he’ll have another season where he doesn’t concede single a home run or Barrel, but Gonzalez has shown enough progression to believe he will be a good relief pitcher in the MLB.

Gregory Soto – LHP – Tigers

Gregory Soto might be the most improved player on this list. After an abysmal showing in 2019, Soto came back with a 4.30 ERA and 29 strikeouts over 23 innings in 2020. Soto had an up and down career in the minor leagues before getting his first major league call up in 2019, before finally starting to put it together in 2020.

Soto’s main strength comes with his fastball velocity. His most frequently thrown pitch is his sinker, which had an average velocity of 97.3 MPH. Soto’s sinker always had the stuff to be a valuable pitch, but in 2020 it added 2 MPH in average velocity and had improved command. Soto’s slider also had very promising results, with a 61% Whiff% and .078 xwOBA in 2020 despite throwing it just 20.3% of the time. If he can put more trust into his slider moving forward, he will see better results.

Soto’s walk rates are another thing holding him back from his potential. Soto’s BB% of 13.3% was poor and needs to be better moving forward. Soto’s pBB% of 9.8% isn’t great either, but it is not terrible for a relief pitcher. Control should be Soto’s main focus for improvement if he ascends to high-end reliever status.

As far as usage goes, Soto doesn’t have much competition to overcome for the closer role in Detroit. While he likely won’t start the year as Detroit’s 9th inning man, Soto has a relatively easy path to the closer role, since he only has to beat out Bryan Garcia, Joe Jimenez, and Buck Farmer.

Phil Maton – RHP – Indians

If there’s one word to describe Phil Maton in 2020, it would be “unlucky.” Maton appeared in 21.2 innings during the 2020 season, where he recorded a 4.57 ERA and 32 strikeouts. Since making his debut for the Padres in 2017, Maton has struggled to maintain an ERA below 4.00. After a promising 2018 campaign, Maton struggled in 2019 as he spent much of the season in AAA before being shipped to Cleveland for future considerations.

Looking past his 4.57 ERA, 2020 was a huge season for Maton. Maton started the season hot, with a 0.79 ERA and 16 strikeouts during July and August, but seemingly fell apart during the months of September and October. During the last two months of the 2020 regular season, Maton had an abysmal 8.71 ERA.

Despite this surge in ERA in the final months of the season, Maton actually improved his FIP and xFIP while striking out more batters. In fact, Maton’s peripheral stats are what generates much of the hype around him.

Baseball Savant

Maton ranked in the top 90% in the vast majority of statcast statistics during the 2020 season, and his profile looks beyond elite. Maton was among the top in the league in strikeout rate, Hard Hit%, and spin rate, showing that he has the stuff to be a top-tier relief pitcher.

Looking at his xwOBA over his last 50 PA, you’ll see that he’s had some poor stretches. This could suggest that his stats will regress over the course of a full season, so don’t expect stats similar to the aforementioned moving forward.

Maton has three pitches in his arsenal, including a 4-seam fastball, a cutter, and a curveball. Maton’s fastball’s velocity isn’t very great, clocking in at 93.5 MPH on average. Despite the mediocre velocity, Maton’s fastball had great results with an xwOBA of .248 and an average LA (launch angle) of 8 degrees. Maton’s curveball and cutter both have had consistently good results over his career, and I’d expect those to continue moving forward.

While Maton’s BB% of 6.3% in 2020 is good, I wouldn’t expect him to repeat that in future seasons. Maton managed to go the entire first half of the 2020 season without walking a single batter, but his walk rate ballooned up to 9.7% in the second half. Maton’s pBB% of 8.4% is more in line with what I’d expect his BB% to be moving forward. This would still put him above average in walks, meaning poor control likely won’t be a major issue for Maton in the future.

While most ERA estimators are very bullish of Maton’s 2020 season, predictive weighted on-base average (pwOBA) wasn’t. Maton’s pwOBA+ of 96 in 2020 was just three points below his wOBA+, and he had a pERA of 4.12.

Despite these disparities in Maton’s stats, I think Maton has all the tools to be a great reliever for the Indians. While James Karinchak is Cleveland’s presumed closer, his high walk rates could result in the Indians opting for a closer committee. In that scenario, Maton, Nick Wittgren, and Emmanuel Clase would all be in the mix for saves.

Felix Peña – RHP – Angels

Felix Peña was signed by the Cubs back in 2009, and it took him a while to make it to the big leagues. Since his debut in 2016, Peña has struggled to make his mark in the big leagues, even after being traded to the Angels.

2020 was Peña’s fifth season in the majors, and he finally saw some promising results. Peña saw the highest K% of his career at 25.2%, the lowest hard hit% of his career at 31.2%, and the lowest ERA of his career at 4.05. These results are an improvement, but they still aren’t amazing.

Peña throws four pitches: a sinker, a slider, a changeup, and a 4-seam fastball. During the 2020 season, Peña had significant pitch velocity increases across the board, resulting in improved pitch performance.

Baseball Savant

Despite these velocity improvements, Peña actually saw a decrease in Whiff% during the 2020 season. Most of the improvements in xwOBA he saw came from the decrease in exit velocity, showing that he relied on inducing soft contact.

Peña also had less than optimal pitch usage in 2020. Peña’s best-performing pitch was his slider, which had an xwOBA of .121 and Whiff% of 56.5%. Despite this, Peña actually threw his slider less often in 2020 than he did in previous seasons. If Peña can optimize his pitch usage in 2021, he could be ready to break out.

With competition for late-inning roles with newly acquired Raisel Iglesias, Ty Buttrey, and Mike Mayers, Peña will have to impress if he were to get regular hold opportunities.

Lucas Sims – RHP – Reds

Right-hander Lucas Sims has found inconsistent success since being drafted by the Braves 21st overall in 2012. After recording a 5.96 ERA in 68 innings with Atlanta, including 10 starts, a change of scenery was due for the Georgia native which came when the Braves acquired Adam Duvall at the 2018 trade deadline, sending Sims as part of the package to Cincinnati.

Immediately, that success came in the form of a nearly doubled strikeout rate from 17.5% with Atlanta all the way up to 31.8% in 74 innings so far with Cincinnati. In 2020, Sims pitched to a 2.45 ERA in 25.2 innings with peripheral estimators lagging behind (3.70 FIP, 4.06 xFIP, 3.34 SIERA). Sims’s pwOBA was 4% above league average at .301.

Since that trade went through, Cincinnati and pitching coach Derek Johnson helped Sims optimize his stuff, slightly increasing his velocity across the board and significantly increasing the spin rate on each of his pitches. His slider is an exception, though Sims has gained better command of it. In 2019, the whiff% on his slider jumped up to 55.2%, a ridiculous figure, up from 25% and 14.3% in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Graphs via Baseball Savant

In 2020, that elite swing and miss pitch became his curveball, though his slider remained a weapon. A 46.8% whiff rate on the curveball, the 14th best mark in the league, helped Sims strike out nearly a third of the batters he faced last season.

As is often the case for pitchers with plus stuff, walks can be an issue. An 11.4% walk rate with Cincinnati exceeds the league average (8.1% in 2019 & 8.6% in 2020) but isn’t quite an alarming figure.

Overall, Sims utilizes two plus breaking pitches and a fastball, averaging 93.9 mph, that he spun in the 99th percentile of all pitchers in 2020. The pure stuff is great and the numbers are now starting to back that up.

After Cincinnati’s bullpen was dismantled with the departures of Raisel Iglesias and Archie Bradley and breakout pitcher Tejay Antone set to join the rotation, Sims and Amir Garrett stand as the top pitchers at the disposal of manager David Bell.

Chris Stratton – RHP – Pirates

Drafted just one selection before Lucas Sims, Chris Stratton is another former starting pitching prospect that never flourished in that role. Debuting for the Giants in 2016, Stratton never lived up to the 1st round pedigree, posting a 4.63 ERA and 4.76 SIERA in 213.2 innings for San Francisco. Though those are respectable numbers for a back of rotation innings eater, the league had his number during his final season with the Giants, tagging him for a 5.09 ERA.

San Francisco had seen enough, trading Stratton to the Angels for Williams Jerez, who they designated for assignment just months later. The Angels continued with Stratton as a starter which proved to be a failed experiment. The Pirates saw something in Stratton, acquiring him for cash considerations and deploying him solely out of the bullpen.

Beyond the fact that Lucas Sims and Chris Stratton will always be linked by the 2012 draft, they’ve followed very similar career arcs. Like Sims, Stratton found an NL Central team he could ascend with. With his transition to the bullpen, Stratton experienced an expected velocity boon, gaining almost 2 mph on his fastball which averaged 93.2 mph in 2020, and figures to see more of an increase with a normal Spring Training and season. More importantly, his fastball spin rate jumped from the mid-2400s to 2627 in 2020.

Graph via Baseball Savant

This optimized fastball has led to significantly more success. Although in the small 2020 sample, Stratton managed to get hitters to swing and miss at his fastball 39.1% of the time he threw it, the second-highest mark in the league behind Edwin Diaz.

The new and improved fastball led Stratton to strike out 29.8% of hitters in 2020, landing in MLB’s 80th percentile, though his 90th percentile whiff percentage indicates more strikeouts are possible. Along with his heater, Stratton still has a starter’s arsenal; featuring a slider (26.7% usage in 2020), a curveball (17% usage), and a changeup (9.9% usage).

The slider wasn’t great in 2020 as hitters recorded a .362 wOBA against it but a .287 xwOBA against tells a story of some bad luck with balls in play.

Stratton’s curveball was plain elite in 2020. A spin rate of 3088 rpm stands in the 99th percentile of all pitchers. His curveball also horizontally moved an average of 15.7 inches, the 12th highest mark in the league. A .104 wOBA against is the cherry on top to show just how dynamic Stratton’s curveball is.

Another encouraging sign from Stratton’s 2020 campaign was his .300 pwOBA which was 5% above league average.

Stratton has never been great at limiting walks with a career 9.5% rate that’s marginally above league average. He also got hit pretty hard last year, although his exit velocities allowed have fluctuated up and down throughout his career. If the Pirates reliever can manage to bring his walk rate down ever-so-slightly and find more fortune with quality of contact, he will be an elite reliever in 2021.

Justin Topa – RHP – Brewers

Not much can be or needs to be said about Justin Topa. Just let these clips speak for themselves (sorry, Cardinals fans).

Clips via Baseball Savant

Topa, a former 17th round pick, doesn’t have the minor league track record to support a spot in this article. In 5 MiLB seasons (215.2 innings), Topa owns a 4.84 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, and a middling 18.2 K%. As a result, Topa was simply looking to catch on with a minor league team heading into 2019.

The Brewers brought Topa in, a decision they can look back on with pride. Between High-A and Double-A, Topa pitched to a 3.38 ERA, bumping his K% to a very respectable 24.2% without sacrificing control and recording a BB% just a smidge below his career average of 6.1%. This was enough for the Brewers to add Topa to their 2020 60-man roster, eventually to their taxi squad, and finally to their active roster on August 31st.

There was no looking back for the Long Island University alum. He was dominant in a small 7.2 inning sample, striking out 12 without issuing a walk. He only allowed 3 runs (2 earned).

There’s a reason I started with the 4 strikeout compilation. After reading his player bio, it might seem like it would be a stretch to peg Topa as a breakout candidate, but the arsenal speaks for itself.

A nasty high-90s 2-seamer/sinker that dives in on righties and away on lefties mixed with a frisbee of a slider creates some top-notch pitch sequencing possibilities. As mentioned above, Topa had an above-average walk rate which isn’t always the case for a pitcher whose stuff moves as much as Topa’s. If the command and control can stay plus, Topa will be a dominant pitcher in 2021.

The only con to Topa’s 2021 outlook is that Milwaukee has a deep bullpen with the likes of Josh Hader, Devin Williams, Brent Suter and/or Freddy Peralta.

Codi Heuer – RHP – White Sox

The final feature of this article, Codi Heuer, fast-tracked to the big leagues after a 6th round selection out of Wichita State in 2018. The hard-throwing righty barely notched 100 minor league innings before Chicago gave him a chance in 2020.

In 23.2 innings, Heuer struck out a formidable 27.2% of hitters, landing him in the 69th percentile of all pitchers, though his 85th percentile whiff% exceeded that. His 1.52 ERA points to his ability to keep the ball on the ground and in the yard as he allowed just 4 home runs allowed in 105.2 MiLB innings.

The only knock on Heuer is his below-average control. A 9.8 BB% landed in the 37th percentile. Still, his WHIP remained at 0.89 as a result of his approach to focus on ground balls, and a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) on the luckier side (.193). pwOBA was also high on Heuer at .305 (3% above average).

Why should we expect this success to continue? Because, like Justin Topa, Heuer utilizes an upper-90s two-seamer with a lot of movement. More important to his success, Heuer’s upper-80s slider is nearly unhittable in combination with the oppositely moving fastball. Of pitchers who threw at least 90 sliders in 2020, Heuer’s 66.7% whiff rate ranked 2nd. An upper-80s changeup gives Heuer a deceptive third offering that moves an average of 3 inches horizontally, a top 20 mark for changeups.

Heuer’s arsenal can sequence together extremely well, especially with agreeable movement between the three high velocity pitches.

As is the case with the Brewers pen, the White Sox have a deep bullpen, headlined by the newly signed Liam Hendriks, a pair of dynamic lefties in Aaron Bummer and Garrett Crochet, Matt Foster, and Evan Marshall who will be listed as an honorable mention. Crochet would’ve been included on this list but he was a 1st rounder in 2020 and made a name for himself in his 2020 debut with an electric 100 mph fastball.

Honorable Mentions

Adrián Morejón – LHP – Padres: If Morejón doesn’t end up rounding out San Diego’s dynamic rotation, he has the tools to be a lights-out reliever. An upper 90s fastball, a filthy splitter, and a sweeping curveball give the southpaw three potentially plus pitches. An elite 26.6 K-BB% in 2020 is like a ribbon on top. 2020 didn’t look great on the surface (4.66 ERA) but a stable role and more experience would serve Morejón well.

Evan Marshall – RHP – White Sox: A former 4th round pick of the Diamondbacks, Evan Marshall has emerged with the White Sox the past two seasons, recording a 2.45 ERA in 73.1 innings with the club. 2020 showed significant improvement from 2019 and put Marshall on pace to be a reliable late-inning arm. His curveball was among MLB’s most effective in 2020, getting a 58.5 whiff% and .108 xwOBA against. The White Sox pen is stacked and Heuer’s pure stuff gives him a slight advantage.

Josh Staumont – RHP – Royals: The only reason Staumont was excluded from the list was that he already broke out in 2020. He had a 33% K% and a 2.52 ERA in 2020 despite a 50% hard-hit rate. Staumont was elite at missing bats, but he also struggled with walks. If Staumont can continue to improve, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll take over the closer role in Kansas City.

Tanner Rainey – RHP – Nationals: Rainey was fantastic in 2020, finishing with a 2.66 ERA and a 42.7% K% that placed him in the 99th percentile. He was among the best at missing bats but was hit hard when opponents made contact with an 11.4% barrel%. Rainey had the highest slider Whiff% among qualified players in the league at a whopping 72.9%. Rainey could be in the mix for saves if Brad Hand struggles too, making him an overall great late-round target in fantasy drafts.