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

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The first three parts of the breakout candidates series took a look at infielders, outfielders, and relief pitchers with the potential to break out in 2021. Part four looks at five starting pitchers with the potential to break out in 2021. The methodology used to select potential breakout candidates for pitchers last year consisted of looking primarily at DRA, SIERA, and FIP, in combination with other stats. The methodology will remain mostly the same this year, but with one addition: Max’s Sporting Studio’s pERA will also be considered.

It’s important to note that the best pERA in the league was Jacob deGrom‘s 3.26, and just 33 pitchers faced at least 90 batters and had a pERA below 4.00. pERA is more intended to predict future performance rather than describe past performance, so that must be kept in mind when using pERA to analyze a pitcher.

Kevin Gausman

3.19 DRA

2.96 FIP

3.18 SIERA

3.94 pERA

Gausman has previously been a successful pitcher, most notably in 2016 when he posted a 3.61 ERA and 3.1 fWAR across 179.2 innings. Still, his advanced metrics didn’t love him even in that career year, as his 4.10 FIP and 3.81 SIERA lagged a bit behind his ERA. Interestingly, his pERA in that 2016 season was 3.94, exactly matching his 2020 pERA. However, his pwOBA in 2020 was .279, by far the best of his career. This was right in line with his .278 wOBA and identical .278 xwOBA. xERA was also optimistic about Gausman, as his 3.49 xERA was lower than his actual 3.62 ERA.

The biggest reason for Gausman’s 2020 success seemed to be his rise in strikeout rate, a number that trended up each of the past two seasons to a career-high 32.2% in 2020. His walk rate of 6.5% was right on par with his career numbers, and outside of an uncharacteristic spike in 2017, has remained fairly steady throughout his entire career. Gausman also increased his ground ball rate from a career-low of 37.5% in 2019 to 41.9% in 2020, though that was still a bit below his career average. Given that his HR/FB% has remained steady his entire career, Gausman certainly benefits from decreasing the frequency of fly balls.

Another promising sign for Gausman is his fastball velocity. In 2018 and 2019, he saw a slight dip in fastball velocity, even with having spent a portion of 2019 in the bullpen. His fastball velocity rebounded in 2020, averaging 95.1 MPH, his best since 2015. Gausman benefits from a pitcher-friendly home ballpark. There are plenty of signs there to see Gausman further taking a step forward in 2020 and becoming a true success story for the Giants.

Pablo Lopez

2.65 DRA

3.09 FIP

3.98 SIERA

4.14 pERA

Lopez showed some promising signs as early as his rookie season in 2018, posting solid walk rates and quality of contact numbers. However, the surface level stats did not keep up in his first two Major League seasons, posting a combined 4.79 ERA and 4.35 FIP. The tides began to turn in 2020, as he further improved across the board.

In terms of contact quality, Lopez held hitters to an average exit velocity of 85.7 MPH in 2020, ranking in the 90th percentile of the league. He also ranked in the 74th percentile or better in xwOBA, xBA, xSLG, and barrel rate. This led to a 3.16 xERA, which ranked in the 82nd percentile.

The gains went beyond just quality of contact. Perhaps the most important stride Lopez made in 2020 was increasing his strikeout rate. After posting below average rates in each of 2018 and 2019, he raised his strikeout rate to an above-average 24.6% in 2020, striking out more than a batter per inning.

A quick look shows this gain in strikeout rate was likely caused primarily by a pitch mix change. While his four-seam fastball was still his primary pitch, its usage dropped from 42.4% to 32.2%, and saw its whiff rate increase from 20.0% to 28.4%. His changeup remained his second most used pitch, rising from a 22.0% usage rate in 2019 to 29.9% in 2020. The changeup became an elite pitch for Lopez in 2020, as his .230 xwOBA was a drastic improvement on his already solid .284 xwOBA on the pitch in 2019. His whiff rate on the changeup also increased to 32.9%, the best of any of Lopez’s pitches.

While not a strikeout pitch, he also went to the sinker more often in 2020, upping its usage from 16.3% to 22.5% while improving his xwOBA allowed on the pitch from .383 to .297. The cutter was a new pitch for Lopez in 2020, and though he threw it just 76 times, it was incredibly effective, allowing just a .163 xwOBA. The curveball saw the only drop in usage, going from 19.2% in 2019 to just 7% in 2020. Though thrown just 63 times, the pitch was hammered to the tune of a .482 xwOBA, so it was wise for Lopez to move away from the pitch.

The pitch mix change, strides in the strikeout department, and ability to limit quality contact make Lopez a prime candidate to have a great 2020 season and anchor what could be a stellar rotation from top to bottom in Miami.

Josh Lindblom

5.58 DRA

3.88 FIP

4.09 SIERA

4.58 pERA

Josh Lindblom is a less than typical breakout candidate. At 33, Lindblom never found his footing in two separate MLB stints before heading overseas to the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO). The third time around might be the charm for the Brewers pitcher. A 5.16 ERA might not suggest that is the case, but his peripheral numbers were much better. A 3.88 FIP, 4.24 xFIP, and a 4.09 SIERA paint a reasonably optimistic picture, although DRA pegs Lindblom at an unsightly 5.58 figure. pERA was also slightly pessimistic on the analytically-minded pitcher, notching him at 4.58.

Like many names on this list, Lindblom curbed hard contact in 2020. His average exit velocity against was slightly better than average and a 5% barrel rate ranked in the 76th percentile. Lindblom’s xwOBA was in the 54th percentile at .310 which, although not stellar, is a good baseline for improvement. As previously mentioned, Lindblom heavily involves himself with pitch data and is targeting progression in his second season back in MLB. Although he spins his fastball in the top 6 percent of pitchers at an average of 2551 rpm, Lindblom’s active spin rate was just 81.7% which ranked 408th in the league. This offseason he set out to improve his spin efficiency which should aid his overall performance. Averaging just 90.1 mph on the fastball, the movement created by backspin will a key to success.

On another note, Lindblom’s slider was excellent, garnering a 43.5% whiff rate and .225 xwOBA against. Increased slider usage might be in the cards. With a very versatile pitching staff in Milwaukee, Lindblom might serve in somewhat of a hybrid role but he’s still likely to start games and rack up a lot of innings.

Zach Eflin

2.85 DRA

3.39 FIP

3.50 SIERA

4.05 pERA

Eflin and consistency have never been two peas in a pod although, glimpses of greatness have been abundant throughout the 26-year-old’s career, most prominently in 2020. In 59 innings, the right-hander recorded his lowest career ERA at 3.97. ERA estimators were even more fond of Eflin as his FIP sat at 3.39, xFIP at 3.23, and SIERA at 3.50. pERA, however, was somewhat bullish, predicting his ERA for 4.05.

Eflin has effectively limited hard contact since 2018 but, like the rest of his performance, peaked in 2020. The former Padres draft choice recorded career bests in average exit velocity allowed (87.4 mph, 66th percentile in MLB), Sweet Spot % (27%), and Hard Hit% (32.7%). As a result, his 78th percentile .280 xwOBA was also a career-best mark.

The biggest stride for Eflin was a surge in swings and misses, especially with two strikes. Exceeding his previous career average by over 10%, Eflin struck out 28.6% of hitters, falling into the 74th percentile. A career-high Put Away% on Eflin’s sinker (26.2%) and curveball (33.9%) fueled the strikeout ascension that makes Eflin’s overall profile enticing.

Arguably, the most significant change for the Phillies starter was the change in pitch usage between his fastball and sinker. In 2019, Eflin threw his fastball 34.2% of the time and his sinker 21.1% of the time, whereas, in 2020, the sinker was used 51.6% of the time while his regular 4-seamer was used at an infrequent 9.6%. Overall, the sinker is a more useful pitch that lends itself to a high ground ball rate, where Eflin saw a career-high 47.7 ground ball rate.

Tejay Antone

3.73 DRA

3.64 FIP

3.69 SIERA

3.83 pERA

Perhaps the most talked about breakout candidate among starting pitchers for 2021, it’s impossible to have this list without mentioning Antone. Antone was sitting in the 88-92 MPH range with his fastball as recently as 2019, before averaging 95.6 MPH in 2020 and topping out in the 98-99 MPH range. The Reds obviously saw something they liked after the 2019 season, as they added him to the 40-man roster prior to the Rule 5 draft that year.

Antone had some success in AA in 2019, pitching to a 3.38 ERA and 3.51 FIP, though with just a 20.2% strikeout rate across 74.2 innings. Upon being promoted to AAA in 2019, he struggled a bit, posting a 4.65 ERA and 4.28 FIP, though the strikeout rate crept up a bit to 21.7%. Still, none of that made Antone stand out as a must-watch in 2020.

Antone essentially came into 2020 as an entirely new pitcher with that added velocity. Still, that wasn’t even the most impressive part of Antone’s profile. He brought with it an elite spin rate on both his curveball and fastball, which ranked in the 95th and 98th percentile of the league, respectively.

As you can see in his entire StatCast profile above, there was a ton to like with Antone in 2020. He was great at limiting quality contact, including a .167 xBA, .284 xSLG, and .265 xwOBA. He was also great at limiting the frequency of contact, posting a 31.9% strikeout rate. His walk rate rose to 11.3%, a fair amount worse than even his worst Minor League mark. It seems reasonable to expect that number to regress toward his MiLB average, which would go a long way toward a breakout in 2021.

Antone is also the poster child for the “Spincinnati” revolution, as the team has focused on acquiring pitchers with elite spin rates. Antone ranked in the 98th percentile in fastball spin rate in 2020, while ranking in the 95th percentile in curveball spin rate. This offseason, Antone worked on maximizing the efficiency of that spin, a change that could lead to even more success in 2021.

The biggest question remaining around Antone is regarding his role for 2021, as it’s unclear whether he will be in the rotation or the bullpen. Even if he begins the season in the bullpen, he will likely be one of the first up to get starts in case of injury and should have no issue racking up over 100 innings in a bullpen role. Of the names on this list, Antone may very well be the one with the most upside, and he’s the one worth paying the most attention to over the course of the season.

Others to watch: Elieser Hernandez, Framber Valdez