Szymborski’s 2023 Breakout Candidates: Pitchers

Hunter Greene

We’ve reached the point in the offseason when it’s time for one of my favorite/most hated preseason traditions: my attempt to predict breakouts and busts. Since any breakouts or busts beyond what a projection system suggests are naturally going to be low-probability outcomes, there’s a high probability of me looking pretty silly — something writers try to avoid. Let’s start by looking back at how smart I was last year… or how foolish:

Szymborski Breakout Pitchers, 2022
Pitcher K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP ERA- ERA- Percentile WAR
Yusei Kikuchi 11.09 5.19 2.06 5.62 134 23rd -0.7
Triston McKenzie 8.94 2.07 1.18 3.59 76 88th 3.6
Eduardo Rodriguez 7.12 3.36 1.19 4.43 106 32nd 0.6
Dylan Cease 11.10 3.82 0.78 3.10 56 95th 4.4
Robert Suarez 11.52 3.97 0.76 3.22 59 87th 0.7
Jesús Luzardo 10.76 3.14 0.90 3.12 84 84th 2.2
Brusdar Graterol 7.79 1.81 0.54 2.95 82 41st 0.8
Sam Howard 4.50 18.00 4.50 16.11 222 5th -0.2

First, from the comments in the hitter articles, there’s still some lingering confusion on what I mean by a breakout or bust. When I pick a player to break out or bust, I’m basing this relative to the general expectations as I perceive them, not relative to the previous season’s performance. For example, Joey Gallo is a bust not because I think he’ll be worse than last season, but because I think he’ll be worse than those baked-in expectations; there has been a lot of speculation that the shift will save him, and I don’t think that’s true. You see this on the financial markets quite a bit, when the market reacts negatively to good news that’s not as good as what was already priced into the valuations, and vice-versa. Also remember, that this isn’t necessarily me versus ZiPS; sometimes ZiPS agrees with me, and sometimes it angrily disagrees, or at least it would if I didn’t have the power to delete it from existence.

Back to business. Kikuchi was one of my worst breakout picks ever, and while I was correct that his BABIP and strikeout rates would bounce back from the second half of 2021, I missed his overall command being significantly worse, the slider being an ultra-disaster, and the resulting awful season. Howard ended up in the minors after a horrific opening week, and while he pitched well in the minors, I’m certainly not going to claim any victory based on translations! I’m still not sure what to make about Rodriguez’s season, which featured a ribcage strain and a mysterious stint on the restricted list thanks to persona/family reasons. Graterol pitched well, but he’s still not hitting the strikeout rates I think his stuff could be giving him.

On the plus side, McKenzie was solid, Suarez became one of the better relievers in the league after that first rough patch, and Luzardo did, in fact, have his walks under control. I thought Cease would be a serious Cy Young contender and he was; I’m still fuming that he didn’t make the All-Star Game.

Without further ado, let’s get to the picks, and may the baseball fates have mercy on my soul.

Hunter Greene, Cincinnati Reds

People tend to care too much about first-half/second-half numbers as a whole. Even a season is a small sample size to an extent, so you won’t generally get a whole lot of insight by chopping up stats into smaller and smaller segments. But when the differences are significant and in stats in which changes stick much quicker, then I stand up and take notice. Greene struggled with walks early on, allowing 24 in his first 44 innings. But he nearly halved that rate from there on out, needing 81 2/3 innings to walk two dozen more hitters. His first-pitch strike rate, an important leading indicator of walk rate, was a sterling 69.1% in a second half abbreviated by a shoulder strain. To put that into perspective, only a single qualifying pitcher in 2022, Aaron Nola, had a better number.

I think Greene has crushed down the walks for good, and his early-season homers — 15 in his first nine starts — smelled of fluke. I wrote about those homers in June, talking about the disconnect between his homers allowed and his advanced statistics. The zHR model estimates its expected home run percentage as 3.7% through early June instead of Greene’s actual 6.2%. His HR% for the rest of the season? 3.1%. The home runs, at least at the rate he allowed early last season, ought to be gone for good. And this is a pitcher who missed two developmental years due to COVID and Tommy John surgery!

If you asked me to say what percentile projection Greene’s actual results would be, I’d probably go with somewhere around 85. At the risk of just begging to have my hubris punished, there’s no other pitcher in baseball I’m as confident in beating his projections than Greene.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Hunter Greene
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 154 2.89 4.1
90% 147 3.03 3.9
80% 132 3.37 3.3
70% 125 3.57 2.9
60% 118 3.77 2.6
50% 114 3.92 2.4
40% 108 4.13 2.0
30% 102 4.38 1.6
20% 96 4.64 1.3
10% 90 4.97 0.8
5% 84 5.32 0.4

Brandon Pfaadt, Arizona Diamondbacks

ZiPS gave Pfaadt an extremely aggressive projection for a rookie, and I can’t be completely disloyal to my creation. His 10 starts in the Pacific Coast League were especially impressive given the environment he pitched in. I think it’s still generally underappreciated just how much offense has exploded in the high minors in recent years. The average ERA in the PCL was 5.39 last year, with teams scoring nearly six runs per nine innings; that’s an entire run per game more than the PCL’s environment from the late 90s to the mid-2010s. Combine that hitter-friendly environment with the decline in offense in the majors over that same time frame, and with the exception of a few teams in stronger pitchers’ parks, such as the Tacoma Rainiers in Cheney Stadium, a PCL pitcher’s minor league translation is basically their raw Triple-A stats! Pfaadt won’t blow anyone away with velocity, but he can hit the mid-90s, has a solid, varied repertoire, and doesn’t give up many free passes.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Brandon Pfaadt
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 192 2.15 5.7
90% 166 2.49 4.9
80% 141 2.94 4.1
70% 129 3.20 3.6
60% 121 3.41 3.1
50% 115 3.60 2.8
40% 109 3.81 2.4
30% 103 4.00 2.1
20% 97 4.28 1.7
10% 88 4.69 1.0
5% 84 4.90 0.8

Graham Ashcraft, Cincinnati Reds

Hey, two Reds! Ashcraft is an unusual club in which he may be the only member: guys who can throw 101-mph fastballs, possess a good secondary pitch, and have adequate control but can’t strike anyone out. If all you knew about Ashcraft were his basic line, you’d look at his numbers and assume he was some 89-mph soft-tosser who maybe had an OK changeup, something like a poor man’s Doug Fister. But the basic tools are there for Ashcraft to be a strikeout pitcher, so I think the upside has to be in there somewhere. His slider has certainly looked good this spring, and I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked if the light bulb went on and he started striking out a batter an inning this year or next. Nathan Eovaldi figured it out, and I think Ashcraft can, too. Also, his name sounds like that of a World of Warcraft NPC vendor selling longbows in Stormwind, which also pleases me in a very dorky way.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Graham Ashcraft
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 125 3.57 3.0
90% 120 3.72 2.8
80% 113 3.96 2.4
70% 107 4.16 2.1
60% 103 4.32 1.9
50% 100 4.45 1.7
40% 97 4.59 1.5
30% 93 4.78 1.2
20% 88 5.05 0.9
10% 82 5.43 0.4
5% 77 5.78 0.0

Tanner Scott, Miami Marlins

Scott is one of two players in the ZiPS projections in recent years to have a long-term projection distribution curve that is notably bimodal, along with Michael Kopech. In less mathy words, ZiPS has long though that Scott had a relatively high rate of being a star or a scrub compared to the likelihood that he’d be just a dude. Now, he has kind of had that middling dudeification in the majors so far — that’s the scientific term — but you look at his profile and you can still see both of those widely divergent paths as realistic.

Scott remains an incredibly hard-throwing lefty with control issues, but it’s almost impressive how acceptable he was overall for a pitcher given that walk rate. His BABIP is still likely to go down, as high BABIPs aren’t usually persistent long-term with guys who are hard to hit very well, and his stuff is electric when it’s in the same galaxy as the strike zone. He’s good enough that a small improvement in control might be leveraged quite well give his stuff, and this is a case that ZiPS agrees on. Just look at the range in those ERAs!

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Tanner Scott
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 193 2.12 2.3
90% 169 2.42 1.9
80% 141 2.90 1.3
70% 128 3.18 1.1
60% 120 3.41 0.8
50% 113 3.62 0.6
40% 104 3.92 0.4
30% 97 4.21 0.1
20% 89 4.60 -0.2
10% 76 5.36 -0.8
5% 63 6.52 -1.5

Josiah Gray, Washington Nationals

Leading the National League in home runs and walks allowed is hardly a good thing, but was Gray really pitching that poorly? The walks may be deserved, but pitcher home runs is an incredibly noisy stat year-to-year, something I try to emphasize when talking about guys like Corbin Burnes or Andrew Heaney who have led the league in HR underperformance in ZiPS in recent years. Gray was hit sporadically hard rather than consistently hard, combining a high barrel late with a low hard-hit rate. This suggests to me that the problem isn’t his stuff generally, but the mistakes, and I’m more confident in a young pitcher taking his lumps in figuring out how to avoid mistakes than trying to improve their repertoire drastically.

It’s also important to note that Gray is still relatively inexperienced as a pitcher. He was primarily an infielder until his junior year in college at age 20, and between that, the lost 2020, and a 2021 shoulder strain, he hasn’t really thrown that many innings. I was more forgiving of Dinelson Lamet as a prospect for that reason, and in his case, the problems have been more injuries than lack of improvement. I don’t think Gray will necessarily be a Cy Young contender in 2023 or anything, but I think there’s a really good chance that he’s an average-to-above-average starting pitcher in a tough division for a terrible team.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Josiah Gray
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 115 3.55 3.2
90% 108 3.79 2.8
80% 101 4.06 2.2
70% 96 4.26 1.8
60% 92 4.45 1.5
50% 89 4.60 1.2
40% 86 4.77 0.9
30% 82 4.96 0.6
20% 78 5.25 0.1
10% 73 5.58 -0.4
5% 69 5.91 -1.0

Roansy Contreras, Pittsburgh Pirates

This was almost Mitch Keller’s spot, but I went back and forth on who I liked better by the smidgiest of smidgens. I went with Contreras in the end simply because I have the perception that more people are thinking of Keller as a breakout choice already. There are good reasons for that, but I think it would be a mistake to overlook Roansy. He already has a wicked slider that batters have proved ineffective at doing much with; it has good, consistent location, too, dangling just inside or outside the corner of the strike zone.

Contreras’ problem isn’t his OK curveball which ought to be used more; he just needs to figure out exactly what to do with his solid, mid-90s fastball. It’s the pitch that most results in a lot of hard-hit mistakes, many smack dab in middle of the wheelhouse of too many power hitters. You’re not going to get too many major league hitters to swing through hittable mid-90s fastballs these days unless your pitch has a little more of a trick to it. Maybe he should plagiarize Keller’s sinker. Whatever happens, I think his command is good enough that he still has time to adjust and improve.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Roansy Contreras
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 137 3.04 3.3
90% 130 3.20 3.1
80% 118 3.52 2.6
70% 112 3.71 2.3
60% 107 3.88 2.0
50% 103 4.05 1.8
40% 98 4.25 1.5
30% 93 4.46 1.2
20% 88 4.74 0.8
10% 79 5.28 0.2
5% 71 5.85 -0.4

Dustin May, Los Angeles Dodgers

May had a relatively successful late-season return from his Tommy John surgery, and though he looked a little rusty a few times, his blazing fastball and his ability to keep hitters from smacking his pitches very high or very hard both remained quite intact. Last time he was healthy before last fall, there was a lot more competition for innings in the Dodgers’ rotation than there is now. He’ll get every opportunity to succeed in Los Angeles this year, and while I imagine the team will still be careful, he should end up with 120–130 innings if nothing goes wrong with his arm. I think he can beat all the projections by a couple strikeouts per nine.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Dustin May
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 176 2.36 2.9
90% 162 2.56 2.6
80% 142 2.93 2.2
70% 131 3.18 2.0
60% 123 3.39 1.7
50% 117 3.55 1.6
40% 113 3.69 1.4
30% 106 3.91 1.1
20% 102 4.09 1.0
10% 94 4.44 0.6
5% 87 4.75 0.3

Brayan Bello, Boston Red Sox

In the list of Greatest Decisions Ever Made, you’ll never find “picked a guy currently out with a forearm strain to have a breakout season.” But I’m still going to do it anyway, since it appears that Bello will be back from his current malady at the end of April. From FIP to xFIP to xERA to zERA, all the various run estimators that don’t use actual runs widely agreed that his rookie 4.71 ERA was highly misleading and that his pitching deserved better than that. ZiPS is convinced that he should have had eight more strikeouts and five fewer walks than his peripherals suggested, meaning that there’s even more room for his FIP to improve, or at least stay the same when he inevitably allows a few more homers than just the one in 57 1/3 innings. Bello can throw 98 and already changes speeds like a veteran; if his arm is OK, I think he’s could be just a little slider refinement away from being Boston’s best starting pitcher.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Brayan Bello
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 150 3.01 3.9
90% 138 3.27 3.5
80% 128 3.54 3.0
70% 122 3.71 2.8
60% 117 3.85 2.5
50% 113 3.99 2.3
40% 108 4.19 2.0
30% 102 4.42 1.7
20% 96 4.71 1.3
10% 88 5.12 0.7
5% 80 5.64 0.1

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

Seeing that I have 6 of these 8 in my Ottoneu league, you can bet that I am hopeful your hit rate is a bit higher this year (not that it was poor last year)