Szymborski’s 2023 Bust Candidates: Pitchers

Corey Kluber
Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Today, we we wrap up my yearly breakouts/bust series with the pitchers I’m pessimistic about in 2023 to some degree. 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 Bust Pitchers, 2022
Pitcher K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP ERA- ERA- Percentile WAR
Jack Flaherty 8.25 5.50 1.00 4.97 109 19th 0.0
Noah Syndergaard 6.35 2.07 0.94 3.83 98 32nd 2.2
Chris Flexen 플렉센 6.21 3.33 1.11 4.49 101 55th 0.7
Michael Pineda 5.01 1.54 2.51 6.13 151 5th -0.4
James Karinchak 14.31 4.85 0.46 2.29 53 70th 1.0
Emilio Pagán 12.00 3.71 1.71 4.21 116 28th -0.1
Mark Melancon 5.63 3.38 0.80 4.20 114 18th 0.1
Bryse Wilson 6.15 2.49 1.56 5.06 137 31st -0.1

All in all, this doesn’t look too bad. Karinchak was about at his typical levels, but the rest of the list didn’t generally provide much excitement. Syndergaard was the most valuable of the group, but hardly as the God of Thunder, and a league-average season was certainly a disappointment compared to what we remembered of him. Flaherty may have the been saddest bust on the list, as he was more or less a mess.

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.

Without further ado, let’s get to the picks, and may the baseball fates have mercy on my soul. As this piece was completed over the first few days of the season, all eight players were finalized before the season started. A few of these players did have awful 2023 debuts, but that’s just “luck” on my part.

Sandy Alcantara, Miami Marlins

Alcantara is still likely to be one of the better pitchers in the league, and ZiPS certainly likes him, placing him among the leaders in WAR. But ZiPS is explicitly not trying to take into account rule changes, and I think Alcantara is one of the pitchers with the most significant chances to be affected by them. That’s a common theme among several of my bust picks this year, simply because this year, it’s something that causes additional uncertainty.

In this case, Alcantara, by far, had more groundballs hit into shifts than any pitcher in baseball in 2022, with 166; only seven other pitchers were above 100. I still think he’ll be a really good pitcher, but I expect his platoon splits will rise farther than ZiPS does, and before remaining confident he’s in ultra-elite territory, I want to make sure that the changeups that lefties facing Alcantara drive into the ground aren’t sneaking through at high rates.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Sandy Alcantara
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 173 2.36 7.0
90% 156 2.62 6.5
80% 143 2.85 5.7
70% 135 3.02 5.2
60% 130 3.14 4.9
50% 123 3.32 4.5
40% 118 3.45 4.1
30% 113 3.60 3.8
20% 108 3.79 3.3
10% 98 4.18 2.4
5% 89 4.62 1.6

Robbie Ray, Seattle Mariners

I’m a bit worried about Ray’s strikeout rate. While the dip from 2021 to ’22 wasn’t a big one, his peripherals in this department took a giant splat last year, with his swinging-strike rate falling off by 30%. His contact rate was his worst as an established major leaguer, and his called-strike performance also dropped considerably. ZiPS thought his peripherals, which are a leading indicator of strikeout performance, suggested a whopping 37 fewer strikeouts than were actually reflected in the record. And this isn’t a case of ZiPS having a pattern of underrating Ray’s strikeouts; zSO predicted 1,149 strikeouts for him in 2016–21 versus his 1,152 actual strikeouts. The dropoff in first-strike percentage also tends to mean an increase in walks, though Ray should at least be better than his first start this year!

At least, that is, when he returns from his current flexor strain. If that turns out to be more serious than it looks right now, we’ll have to call this an incomplete; it would be manifestly unfair for me to claim victory in a small sample size.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Robbie Ray
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 150 2.64 5.2
90% 137 2.91 4.6
80% 122 3.25 3.7
70% 115 3.46 3.3
60% 109 3.65 2.9
50% 104 3.82 2.5
40% 99 4.01 2.1
30% 93 4.25 1.6
20% 85 4.66 0.8
10% 79 5.01 0.2
5% 74 5.37 -0.4

Corey Kluber, Boston Red Sox

ZiPS already isn’t too bullish on Kluber, so I’m in agreement with the computer in this case. I think what we have here is a perfect storm of risky indicators. He was solid in 2022 but also in a beneficial environment, with the Rays’ defense and the Trop being a good fit for him. He was never a flamethrower, but his limited velocity is getting even worse; he’s lost two mph from 2021, placing him at risk of “going Jered Weaver.” What’s more is that in a year in which there are additional incentives for putting balls in play — already less than ideal for Kluber — Fenway is the best non-Coors park for BABIP, and the Red Sox don’t have a particularly good defense. I think Kluber can still have success as the saavy, groundball veteran in a Chelcie Ross/Eddie Harris sense, but it’s more likely when he has the right support behind him.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Corey Kluber
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 139 3.25 3.0
90% 126 3.57 2.6
80% 117 3.87 2.2
70% 109 4.15 1.9
60% 104 4.36 1.7
50% 98 4.62 1.4
40% 94 4.82 1.2
30% 89 5.10 1.0
20% 82 5.53 0.6
10% 75 6.00 0.2
5% 70 6.47 -0.2

Johnny Cueto, Miami Marlins

While Cueto has never been a pitcher who has relied on high strikeout rates, dipping under six last year was quite worrisome, both in its absolute number and the dropoff from the year before with the Giants. A large part of his success was one of his best seasons for home run rate allowed — especially impressive in Guaranteed Rate Field — but ZiPS thought that even his good exit velocity numbers last year should have yielded an additional seven homers. The fact that Cueto is the second Marlin on this list reflects one of the reasons I’m uneasy about the Pablo López trade: I think the Marlins would have been a lot better off had they tried to meet their offensive needs with money instead of lopping off some of their pitcher surplus. If Cueto struggles (and in his first start on Monday, he did, and also had to leave the game with a trainer), that pitcher surplus becomes more and more iffy.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Johnny Cueto
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 130 3.15 3.3
90% 119 3.43 2.9
80% 111 3.70 2.5
70% 105 3.90 2.2
60% 101 4.06 2.0
50% 97 4.20 1.8
40% 94 4.35 1.5
30% 90 4.55 1.3
20% 85 4.79 1.0
10% 79 5.15 0.5
5% 74 5.52 0.2

Craig Kimbrel, Philadelphia Phillies

Kimbrel’s occasional implosions are a lot easier to stomach if he’s striking out 15 batters a game. He wasn’t in 2022, with easily the worst strikeout rate of his career, and that’s with the Dodgers, who seem to have a shocking ability to wring good performance out of practically anyone. Once one of the hardest pitchers in baseball to make contact again, he’s gradually degraded towards league average in this number, which isn’t exactly a formula in which he’ll find success given his penchant for occasionally getting hit very hard. While I wouldn’t overreact to his first appearance with the Phillies, I think he’s a very ordinary reliever who is getting by more on reputation than performance.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Craig Kimbrel
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 197 2.11 1.6
90% 166 2.50 1.3
80% 141 2.93 1.0
70% 119 3.48 0.7
60% 107 3.87 0.4
50% 100 4.17 0.2
40% 92 4.53 0.1
30% 82 5.07 -0.2
20% 73 5.68 -0.5
10% 60 6.89 -0.9
5% 52 7.92 -1.2

Mike Clevinger, Chicago White Sox

Clevinger got two starts in the playoffs last year, but his stint with the Padres has to go down as a major disappointment, one somewhat camouflaged by the decline in offense and being in a pitchers’ park. Losing a couple miles on his fastball may not have been fatal in itself, but it was hit quite hard last year, and none of his pitches were able to put away batters effectively on two strikes. I think he’s more of a reclamation project than a bounceback solution, and I don’t think an allegedly competitive team in a home run friendly park is necessarily the best place for that to happen.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Mike Clevinger
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 129 3.35 2.6
90% 118 3.67 2.2
80% 107 4.04 1.8
70% 101 4.25 1.5
60% 98 4.41 1.4
50% 94 4.58 1.2
40% 89 4.84 0.9
30% 84 5.12 0.6
20% 80 5.37 0.3
10% 76 5.71 0.0
5% 69 6.22 -0.5

Chris Bassitt, Toronto Blue Jays

ZiPS isn’t worried about Bassitt, at least in the short term (it has him dropping off fairly quickly in future seasons). But what ZiPS doesn’t know is that his velocity took a big dip in the spring. Last year, he was regularly in the 93–94 mph range with the occasional pitch at 95 or 96; in Florida, it was 90–92. It’s not unusual for a pitcher to dial it back a bit before the season starts, but he wasn’t just applying the brakes more often; all his fastballs were off. Bassitt’s fastest pitch this spring was 93.5 mph, below his average in more than half of his starts last year. If he were averaging 90–92 but still hitting 95–96, I’d be less worried, but I’m skeptical that he simply chose to go through a whole month without ever throwing his fastest fastball. Velocity drops tend to be red flags, so I think there’s additional risk here.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Chris Bassitt
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 163 2.62 4.9
90% 149 2.87 4.5
80% 137 3.12 3.9
70% 127 3.37 3.5
60% 122 3.50 3.3
50% 118 3.63 3.0
40% 111 3.83 2.8
30% 106 4.03 2.4
20% 102 4.17 2.2
10% 94 4.54 1.6
5% 86 4.97 1.1

Kyle Freeland, Colorado Rockies

ZiPS thought that Freeland should have allowed 12 more homers in 2022 than he actually did, a pretty hefty number. To put this into context, zHR has been part of ZiPS since 2015, and over that period, only Madison Bumgarner in 2018 has “underperformed” by at least 10 homers (10.7). This isn’t a case in which Freeland has a history of beating his peripherals here either; zHR has never missed on him by more than two homers over a season. Add in the decline in his velocity, more flyballs than ever, and a park that’s still somewhat of a pinball machine post-humidor, and I think Freeland is a very risky pitcher.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Kyle Freeland
Percentile ERA+ ERA WAR
95% 125 3.88 3.0
90% 118 4.10 2.7
80% 111 4.37 2.4
70% 106 4.57 2.1
60% 102 4.75 1.8
50% 98 4.95 1.6
40% 93 5.21 1.3
30% 90 5.37 1.1
20% 86 5.67 0.8
10% 80 6.09 0.3
5% 74 6.51 -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

Does ZiPS not take velocity into account? Also I’d pick Alek Manoah

Last edited 1 year ago by Ivan_Grushenko
1 year ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

If you’re referring to the Bassitt comment, I think he’s saying that ZiPS hasn’t taken into account the drop off in velocity from this spring. I would imagine that ST data isn’t weighted very heavily in the projection methodology. More the timing of the velo change than ZiPS ignoring it.

1 year ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Agreed on Manoah. Contrary to popular baseball belief, Manoah is not a big strikeout pitcher. Certainly not last year where he was not even average is Ks for a starting pitcher. I’m not saying he is not a good starter but he is far from elite.

1 year ago
Reply to  montreal

You don’t need to be a big strikeout pitcher when you’re excellent at inducing weak contact. He had a 12% IFFB rate which ranked 8th in the majors last year.

That’s why he’s so effective without an elite K/9. Probably won’t be sub 3 ERA again, but I don’t consider him a good fit for the list.

1 year ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

If the criteria is “a bust relative to the average fan’s perception” then yeah, Manoah is an extremely good pick. He’s not putting up another 2.24 ERA most likely. Dude got super lucky. But if it’s a “bust relative to how he actually pitched last year”, well, his xERA was that of a roughly 4-win pitcher and I think it’s reasonable to think he gets close to that again this year.