Szymborski’s 2022 Bust Candidates: Pitchers

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On Wednesday, I looked at the hitters I’m bearish on, so it’s time to finish the series for 2022 with the pitchers that are causing me worries. (If you’re wondering about my breakout picks, wonder no more.)

So what exactly is a bust? I don’t take it to mean that a player is awful or has no value. For me, a bust is a player who will step down a tier in performance or who is in a down cycle and has passed the window to get back to what they used to be. None of the players involved are literally without value, and some of them are still really good. But they’re all players I think will be well below their best, usually in a manner that makes me sad as a baseball fan.

Before getting to the 2022 candidates, here are my ’21 bust choices and how they performed:

Nobody really shone here, but by the same token, nobody was legendarily awful (I had expected Lester to go down that route and he didn’t really). We obviously didn’t get a ton of Kluber, but he was definitely much more effective than I expected. My concern with May was that he was still rather awkward at punching out batters, despite the explosiveness of his stuff, so I was happy that he spent April proving me very wrong about where he was as a pitcher — then very unhappy as he tore his UCL in early May and required Tommy John surgery.

As a reminder, I selected all of these players by Opening Day, so there’s no knowledge of anything that happened after Opening Day. It would have been really awkward if someone on my list had surprise Tommy John surgery this week!

Jack Flaherty, St. Louis Cardinals

Flaherty’s rise to prominence was fueled by a nasty slider, resulting in one of the most marvelous half-seasons we’ve seen in living memory in 2019. While his ERA last year looked fine and his FIP, though disappointing, wasn’t actually terrible, that slider seemed largely missing last year. It was hit very hard in 2021, with exit velocities five-to-eight miles per hour harder on sliders than in other seasons. His knuckle-curve remained effective, but it’s not really used as an alternate breaking pitch against righties; with its nearly forkball-esque sudden dip at the end, it’s mostly a tool against lefties, where many other righties will use a changeup (Flaherty doesn’t really have an effective one in his repertoire). That lack of an out pitch against righties fueled a big reverse spike in his platoon splits last year. I’m bearish until I see the slider biting again (and until he’s healthy and on the mound again, too).

Noah Syndergaard, Los Angeles Angels

Signing Syndergaard to a one-year, $21 million contract was a deal that I thought a lot of teams should be interested in. The team that actually gave him that deal, the Angels, was not one of them; Los Angeles’ thin rotation and status as fringe contenders should have had it more interesting in high floors than ceilings. Thor’s exciting velocity was largely missing in his brief return last fall and in spring training, and that knocks him down a whole bunch of pegs for me.

Syndergaard has said that he expects his velocity to tick up over the season, but I’m not pinning hopes on that. After so much time lost due to injury, that promise is a bit like buying smaller-sized clothes because of a future diet you haven’t yet started.

Chris Flexen, Seattle Mariners

The return of Flexen from Korea and him being a big part of the Mariners surprising everyone and staying in the playoff hunt until the final weekend of the season was a really fun story in 2021. But given that he’s a fairly soft-tosser by modern standards, he has a very small margin of error as an easily hittable pitcher with a microscopic strikeout rate. I like the crafty veteran archetype and wish the current game allowed more of it, but in a world that focuses on things like exit velocity and launch angle, surviving long-term is extremely difficult. The ones who’ve done so tend to be some combination of high groundballer and low exit velocity, but Flexen isn’t particularly adept at inducing wormburners, and his contact-against stats were fairly ordinary. I’m disappointed to say it, but I think he’s more of a decent fourth starter.

Michael Pineda, Detroit Tigers

Pineda was one of my Do Not Sign pitchers this offseason — theoretically, as I do not own a team — because of a gaggle of red flags. His dip in contact rate supported the drop in strikeout rate, he lost significant amounts of already marginal velocity, and he was hit really hard at times in 2021. Every season, there’s a veteran who implodes suddenly and completely and finds himself on a surprise retirement tour (hi, Jake Arrieta!). I think there’s a good chance that Pineda is 2022’s example.

James Karinchak, Cleveland Guardians

Watching Karinchak is a lot of fun in that most at-bats seem to be a battle as to who is more confused about where the ball is heading. He struggled last year after baseball’s sudden enforcement of foreign substances, leading to rampant speculation about whether he was one of the Spider Tack Squad. It was even enough to earn him a demotion late in the season.

However, while it’s hard to prove whether that was an issue, even before the decline in effectiveness, batters were more successful at laying off his so-filthy-it-offends-Potter Stewart curveball and waiting to crush a fastball in a location Karinchak did not intend. I know the hope of the Guardians, given their fairly thin bullpen, is that with an entire offseason to get his stuff together, he would bounce back, but I’m not so sure. I think that when he’s back from his current muscle strain, he needs to spend some time in the minors refining his stuff. It’s too bad, too, because Karinchak has been a ton of fun when he’s on.

Emilio Pagán, Minnesota Twins

If I can pick up a fascinating undervalued starting pitcher (Chris Paddack) for one year of any closer (Taylor Rogers), I’m almost always very happy to do that. I’d just not be crazy about getting Pagán as part of the package. He’s hit far too hard to be fully trusted, and while homer rates can be quite volatile, he throws more barrels than Donkey Kong. (Uh oh, there’s nobody left in the majors who is old enough to have played Donkey Kong in an arcade. Please find me a more timely reference, fellow kids.) Even worse, ZiPS thinks his walk rate should have spiked quite a bit more given the big dropoff in first-strike percentage last year.

Mark Melancon, Arizona Diamondbacks

After a dropoff from 9.1 strikeouts per nine in 2019 to an abysmal 5.6 in 2020, Melancon’s strikeout rate bounced back last year. But ZiPS doesn’t think it really should have bounced that far, as he had pretty much the same underwhelming swinging-strike and overall contact rates that he had the year before. I might be more optimistic if he played in front of one of the elite infield defenses, but Arizona is fairly ordinary in this department, and I don’t expect a surfeit of bailouts from his teammates.

Bryse Wilson, Pittsburgh Pirates

I tend to have a soft spot for disappointing post-prospects that have become a bit underrated, but I’m just not seeing it with Wilson. The Pirates weren’t ever going to steal an elite prospect for Richard Rodríguez, but Wilson’s stuff looks notably worse to me across the board than it did back in his prospect days. ZiPS was still (slightly) hopeful given his age but thought he was even worse than his atrocious runs allowed number in 2021, pegging him with a zFIP over six. He wasn’t able to even strike out Triple-A hitters last year. Even in an extraordinarily weak Pirates rotation, I’d wager that he’s out of it before June.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for 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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1 year ago

The Donkey Kong reference might be the only video game reference I understand.

1 year ago
Reply to  tz

Syndergaard won’t even stay healthy enough to get his velocity up. He gets hit by more red shells than Mario!