Szymborski’s 2022 Breakout Candidates: Pitchers

© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One of my favorite yearly preseason pieces is also my most dreaded: the breakout list. I’ve been doing this exercise since 2014, and while I’ve had the occasional triumph (hello, Christian Yelich), the low-probability nature of trying to project who will beat expectations means that for every time you look smart, you’re also bound to look dumb for some other reason. Yesterday, I highlighted my breakout candidates among the league’s hitters. Today, I consider the pitchers.

Let’s start things off with a brief look at last year’s breakout pitcher list and see how they fared:

Seven of the eight players here either tied (Musgrove) or beat their previous career best in WAR, so it would be greedy to complain that Means only had a good bounce rather than finding a truly new plateau. While I’d like to attribute this showing to some brilliance on my part, I’d also call these results luckier than average and certainly above any reasonable mean expectation of my perceptiveness.

So, let’s get to this year’s list. Just to reiterate, this is most assuredly not simply a list of players ZiPS really likes. Now, in some cases, ZiPS does like them, but like any parent, I frequently disagree with my creation. Also, all 32 players highlighted in this series (the busts will run Wednesday and Thursday) were selected prior to Opening Day; the compressed spring training schedule resulted in these articles running a week later than usual. In any case, changing my mind on players due to the first series of the season would be a very bad idea.

Yusei Kikuchi, Toronto Blue Jays

It’s undeniable that Kikuchi had a rough second half of the 2021 season, especially in September, which featured some lapses in command. But to play devil’s advocate, who has ever looked good while giving up a .452 BABIP? Still, I’d argue he’s closer to the potential he showed in the early months of the season than his late swoon.

Kikuchi has quietly become one of the hardest throwing lefty starters in baseball, and he still has an impressive array of secondary pitches he can whiff batters with. To my eyes, the biggest culprit behind his rough second half was some late-season trouble with his slider. He’s changed how he throws the pitch in recent years, shifting into more of a slurvy — I don’t mean this in a negative way — accompaniment to his cutter, and both it and the cutter saw their whiffs-per-swing plummet starting in August. Unlike a lot of pitchers, Kikuchi uses his slider as much as his off-speed stuff (splitter) when facing the platoon disadvantage, and with the slider failing, right-handed hitters absolutely torched him the last two months.

Given his impressive velocity — and he threw harder the second and third times through the order in 2021 — and four solid pitches, I think Kikuchi will be able to adjust in the long run. I’m not sure Carlos Rodón is an obviously superior signing and I really liked that one, too. Indeed, I think three years and $36 million for Kikuchi may end up being one of the best bargains of this past winter.

Triston McKenzie, Cleveland Guardians

As part of establishing a baseline, ZiPS calculates “zStats” or ZiPS-specific xStats will the ones you have likely seen over at Baseball Savant. One component that I’ve talked about in the past is zBB, which estimates walk rate from plate discipline and a few other stats. As it’s a bit more predictive than a player’s actual walk rate, deviations between zBB and actual walks tend to have predictive value, allowing the system to shade a projection over to one side or the other.

In 2021, no pitcher had a larger deficit in zBB than McKenzie. Against 58 actual walks, ZiPS thought he should have only had 41, a notable deviation. Given that his walk rate was itself a fairly large jump for a pitcher with a history of good control, the odds favor improvement here (let’s try and forget a really poor showing in his 2022 season debut against the Royals). McKenzie’s not going to regularly throw 96 mph, and he’s running out of time to fill out, so it’s unlikely he can ever survive as a straight-up power pitcher. Command is going to be crucial for his continued success.

Eduardo Rodriguez, Detroit Tigers

In addition to the basic zStats I just discussed, ZiPS also calculates an overall number, which I’ve dubbed zFIP. Naturally, as with FIP, the players who most underperformed their zFIP in terms of ERA include a lot of pitchers having lousy seasons; a player having an awful year is more likely to have had bad breaks than a player enjoying a spectacular one. Rodriguez stands out as the only pitcher in the top 10 who actually had a good season (3.8 WAR). Despite a career-best 3.32 FIP, ZiPS thought it should have even been better, pegging E-Rod with a few fewer home runs and seven fewer walks than he actually managed, resulting in a zFIP around 3.00. And he did this despite missing the 2020 season due to a nasty bout of myocarditis. Rodriguez is already good, and with the Tigers, he might move up another tier among major league starters.

Dylan Cease, Chicago White Sox

This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve picked a player for my breakout list twice in a row. In fact, from 2016 to ’18, I picked Nomar Mazara three years in a row. Suffice it to say, that didn’t work out, forever destroying my warm, sunny disposition. Cease, however, will be the first player I pick twice in a row after the pick actually worked the first time.

So, am I a cheater? In my defense, I saw Cease’s breakout in 2021 as him simply performing in line with his previous underlying stats. But in 2021, those secondary numbers underwent another bump; of all the pitchers with 30 IP in 2019-20 and 30 IP in ’21, Cease enjoyed the fifth-largest improvement in contact rate. His more-than-respectable 3.91 ERA was still a half-run per nine worse than his FIP.

Last year, I thought Cease was a good pitcher who many others thought was a lousy one. Now, I think that Cease may be a serious Cy Young candidate, while many others think he is merely a good pitcher. So did I cheat? You be the judge!

Robert Suarez, San Diego Padres

No, Suarez’s first couple of games in the majors did not go well. In his debut, he issued more than a third of the number of free passes (two walks, one hit by pitch) that he granted in his entire last season in NPB (eight walks in 62.1 innings). But it’s going to take more than a rocky start for me to give up on a pitcher who can hit triple-digits on the radar gun while still having a better-than-vague clue of where the ball is going. NPB isn’t the majors, but it’s a stronger league than Triple-A.

It’s also important to note that Suarez’s road to the majors involved a bit more of a learning curve than that of other similarly talented pitchers. Suarez did not spend his early 20s pitching professionally, as he attracted little attention from scouts. He eventually signed in Japan after getting a shot with the Mexican League and had never been in an American professional league until this year. It seems unlikely he will be the closer this season, what with Taylor Rogers on the roster, but I still think that may eventually become his role. I think the best play for the Padres is to use Suarez in lower-leverage situations, then “graduate” him to higher-leverage ones as his play warrants.

Jesús Luzardo, Miami Marlins

There isn’t much in spring training I really look at, but one thing I did monitor this spring was Jesús Luzardo’s control. Yes, only allowing a single run in 11.2 innings is nice in a small sample sort of way, but only walking three batters in those innings is a significant victory after a season during which his walk rate nearly doubled from the prior year. By my accounting, he only had a single 11.2 inning run at any point in 2021 during which he walked that few. He still hits the upper-90s and has a wipeout slider, so I’m still going to be optimistic about Luzardo going forward.

Brusdar Graterol, Los Angeles Dodgers

Like Suarez, Graterol tickles the century line with his hard stuff, most notably a cruel sinker that ought to keep him an extreme groundballer for a long time. What’s plagued Graterol is similar to what plagued Nathan Eovaldi in the days of yore: a lack of success finishing off batters. He added a cutter last season to go along with the slider and was tinkering with a secret pitch in the spring, though he didn’t expound on that in detail. I happen to think that he’s a halfway-adequate changeup away from conquering his large platoon splits.

Sam Howard, Pittsburgh Pirates

Howard struck out a ton of batters in 2021, but he was plagued by the other two “true outcomes” of home runs and walks allowed. But there are reasons to believe that both numbers are headed towards improvement. Home runs are a particularly spiky number for pitchers; it’s why xFIP is predictive even while taking an incredibly oversimplified view of home runs. Howard’s not allowing scary velocity numbers, so the bet is that his home run rate shows some improvement simply from gravity. He walked too many batters, but again, increases in first-strike percentage is one of the best single leading indicators of future walk rate, and Howard actually ticked up near league-average last year. He may not be elite, but I’m confident that Howard is a much better reliever than his ERA in 2021 suggests.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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elwood7_
2 months ago

I really hope Luzardo does well, he had great potential