Szymborski’s 2024 Booms and Busts: Pitchers

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

With the start of the season a little over two weeks away, it’s time for one of my most beloved/hated/dreaded annual traditions: making my picks for breakouts and busts. For those of you who haven’t read one of these pieces in the past, these are my picks for the players who are the most likely to change the general consensus about them over the course of the 2024 season. And since we’re talking about generally low-probability outcomes — this isn’t a list of players with better or worse projections than last year — there’s no exercise with more potential to make me look super smart… or dumb. For every Jordan Montgomery or Dylan Cease who makes the breakouts list, there’s a Yusei Kikuchi or Sam Howard pick that I definitely wish I could forget I made!

As usual, let’s start with a quick table of the triumphs and humiliations of last year’s picks.

Szymborski Breakout Pitchers – 2023
Pitcher K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP ERA ERA- WAR
Hunter Greene 12.2 3.9 1.5 4.25 4.82 105 2.0
Brandon Pfaadt 8.8 2.4 2.1 5.18 5.72 130 0.3
Graham Ashcraft 6.9 3.2 1.4 5.06 4.76 103 1.5
Tanner Scott 12.0 2.8 0.3 2.17 2.31 53 2.8
Josiah Gray 8.1 4.5 1.2 4.93 3.91 89 1.6
Roansy Contreras 7.2 4.2 1.4 5.19 6.59 148 0.1
Dustin May 6.4 3.0 0.2 3.23 2.63 62 1.2
Brayan Bello 7.6 2.6 1.4 4.54 4.24 93 1.6

Szymborski Bust Pitchers – 2023
Pitcher K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP ERA ERA- WAR
Sandy Alcantara 7.4 2.3 1.1 4.03 4.14 94 2.9
Robbie Ray 8.1 13.5 0.0 5.96 8.10 198 0.0
Corey Kluber 6.9 3.4 2.8 7.11 7.04 155 -0.8
Johnny Cueto 6.7 2.6 2.9 7.02 6.02 137 -0.7
Craig Kimbrel 12.3 3.7 1.3 3.81 3.26 74 1.1
Mike Clevinger 7.5 2.7 1.1 4.28 3.77 87 2.2
Chris Bassitt 8.4 2.7 1.3 4.28 3.60 85 2.6
Kyle Freeland 5.4 2.4 1.7 5.30 5.03 100 1.2

It wasn’t a great year for breakouts, as the only one I’d really call a true win was Tanner Scott, who was one of the elite relievers in baseball. While some of the pitchers that didn’t really break out had silver linings — Hunter Greene pitched better than his actual ERA and Brandon Pfaadt had a kick-ass postseason — I can’t say that our collective opinions of any of the other pitchers changed drastically in 2023. Except maybe Roansy Contreras, in the wrong direction. The busts went quite a bit better — for me, anyway — with arguably six of the eight considered disappointments for their teams in 2023. But it’s certainly less satisfying to have your pessimism be confirmed rather than your optimism.

The Breakouts

Edward Cabrera, Miami Marlins
The fact that Edward Cabrera walks a lot of batters is, of course, a Very Big Deal. But there’s so much talent bubbling underneath the surface that it’s hard to not feel that if something clicks, he could be one of the top 10 pitchers in the league. Despite his frequent command problems, Cabrera misses bats, and not just by blowing away batters with velocity. Sometimes, these inconsistent young pitchers with velocity have trouble getting strike three – Nathan Eovaldi was a classic example of this early in his career – or batters don’t actually chase them out of the strike zone. These aren’t Cabrera’s problems, and he isn’t getting hit hard, either. His biggest problem has been falling behind in the count; his first-strike percentages in the majors have been dismal, and that’s an important number in terms of predicting future walks. But at least both he and his team are quite aware of this. The fact that he’s missed a lot of time due to injuries could also explain his command issues. For all of this organization’s flaws in other areas, it has a strong record of developing pitchers with similar profiles to Cabrera. With more experience, he should be able to figure things out at the big league level.

Alas, Cabrera’s case is complicated by a shoulder impingement that was diagnosed recently following an MRI. It remains to be seen how much time he’ll miss, though it seems certain he’ll start the season the IL. I like him enough that I’m still keeping him on this list; hopefully, his prognosis won’t get worse upon further evaluation.

Griffin Canning, Los Angeles Angels
Aside from Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout, the 2023 Angels were rarely watchable. So you’ll be forgiven if you didn’t realize that Griffin Canning quietly had a successful return last season from a stress fracture in his back that had kept him out of action for nearly two years. Not only was he a competent mid-rotation starter, he actually added a tick to his fastball and had a career best strikeout rate. As the season went on, hitters chased him out of the strike zone more frequently than in previous years, which is necessary for a pitcher like Canning, who will never dazzle anyone with pure velocity.

Canning still has a tendency to leave a pitch hanging in the wrong place – especially with his curve – but in his second full season back, I’m hopeful he can make progress there. I think there’s a real shot he ends the season considered a solid no. 2 starter instead of an afterthought.

Graham Ashcraft and Hunter Greene, Cincinnati Reds
Screw it, I’m taking them again! Since I’m sort of cheating by having the same reasoning two years in a row, I’ll make them split a single breakout pick. Both still have two wipeout pitches, but each still has an issue holding him back. Greene had trouble at times last season when he left his four-seamer over the middle of the plate; despite his heater’s 98.3 mph average velocity, nine of the 19 home runs he allowed came on four-seamers in the heart zone. Meanwhile, Ashcraft struggled to strike batters out. Both pitchers have made significant tweaks to their repertoires. Ashcraft added a changeup, and Greene started throwing a curveball and a splitter in the offseason. They can’t both not break out again, right? If it doesn’t work out, I may take them for a third year simply out of stubbornness.

Nick Pivetta, Boston Red Sox
No name at the top of 2023 stuff leaderboard may be more surprising than Nick Pivetta’s, especially if, like most people, you didn’t pay a lot of attention to the Red Sox in the second half of last season. Pivetta lost his starting job in mid-May, went to the bullpen and added a sweeper. The new pitch turned his season around and he returned to the rotation for good in September, making five starts to close the season. In those final five outings, he recorded 38 strikeouts and just five walks across 30 innings. Most encouragingly, Pivetta pitched seven scoreless innings in each of his final two starts. He had the fourth-biggest jump in Stuff+ from the first half to the second half. And you can see it in the results.

ZiPS is less optimistic about Pivetta than I am. I’m going to call ZiPS wrong on this one, and hope I won’t have to eat those words in six months.

Hunter Brown, Houston Astros
With his six-pitch repertoire and top-prospect status, Hunter Brown was an exciting addition to the Astros rotation last year. At times, he looked worthy of the hype — he struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings — but overall he was a bit of a disappointment, as he posted a 5.09 ERA in 31 outings (29 starts). That said, there are signs that he was a bit unlucky: Opponents had a high BABIP against him, and he allowed home runs at a much higher rate (1.50 HR/9) than he had at any point as a professional. Additionally, considering he threw nearly 30 more innings (155.2) than in any previous season (126.1), he may have just been gassed at the end of the year. Through his first 23 games (22 starts), which spanned 125.1 innings, he had a 4.16 ERA and 3.92 FIP. Over his final eight games (seven starts), he posted an abysmal 8.90 ERA and 6.26 FIP, with more than a third of the home runs he gave up (nine of 26) coming during that final stretch.

MacKenzie Gore, Washington Nationals
Of the three true outcomes, home runs have always had a weird relationship with pitchers. Strikeout and walk rates tend to be stable numbers, so it’s typically meaningful whenever they fluctuate drastically, whereas home run rates are extremely volatile. So volatile, in fact, that xFIP, a stat that has one of the more bizarre central conceits — “Let’s just assume that every pitcher has the same ability to prevent homers.” — actually has predictive value relative to stats that take a pitcher’s home run rate as gospel. As a result, “Let’s look for a pitcher who is pretty good but allows too many damn homers,” has proven to be a sneaky good way to predict breakouts, such as Corbin Burnes and Dodgers-era Andrew Heaney. MacKenzie Gore misses bat and he’s made great strides in improving his command, so I’m betting that he’ll wrangle the round-trippers too.

Shintaro Fujinami, New York Mets
OK, it’s admittedly scary to put Mets in the breakout category, especially a Met who had an ERA above seven his first season in the majors. Shintaro Fujinami’s seven starts last year were an unmitigated disaster, but he pitched a good deal better from the bullpen. Now, his 5.14 ERA as a reliever isn’t exactly cause to hang the Mission Accomplished banner, but the .209/.319/.351 line he allowed in relief comes out to a fairly respectable runs created ERA of 3.70. Given that, his velocity, and his history in Japan, I’m willing to give him a mulligan for 2023. A good reclamation project for the Mets.

Kyle Nelson, Arizona Diamondbacks
Have you seen his slider? The double whammy of a very high home run rate (12 in 56 innings) and a high BABIP (.324) served to keep Kyle Nelson’s ERA relatively high in what could very well have been his breakout season. And even then, all it took was a brutal September to dive bomb his seasonal numbers. If Nelson finishes with an ERA above four in 2024 over at least 30 innings, I’ll eat a full order of Cincinnati chili, and as those that are familiar with my can attest, that’s not something I relish doing. No, I’m not promising something crazy like eating my hat or a 1995 Ford Taurus.

The Busts

Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees
Let’s get two things out of the way first: This has nothing to do with the sudden MRI for his elbow, and this doesn’t mean I think Gerrit Cole will be a lousy pitcher. But there are some warning signs in his 2023 profile, despite his winning the AL Cy Young, and I think all the projection systems have been picking up on it. A sudden drop in strikeout percentage is usually a blaring klaxon, and it was supported by a similar decline in his plate discipline stats; the contact rate against Cole was his highest since he played for the Pirates. And whereas he had a couple weirdly high home run seasons while pitching well, that metric was oddly low in 2023 and it was not matched with changes in exit velocity or fly ball/groundball tendencies. In other words, his low home run rate hid several indicators of a looming decline, and we can’t count on that coverup to continue. I still think Cole is a top 10 pitcher, but it’s hardly a guarantee that he’ll be a five-win pitcher again this season.

Blake Snell, Someone Eventually
Hey, if I’m going to pick one Cy Young winner, why not go for the pair? Blake Snell will keep striking out tons of guys, but he gives up a lot of free bases, and one of the key factors that kept his ERA so low was some fairly extreme splits with runners on vs. bases empty, and that isn’t a long-term characteristic. Also, his .256 BABIP allowed won’t be easily repeated. Sidestepping the WAR vs. RA9-WAR fights after about five months of them, Snell’s not likely to be the best pitcher in the league in 2024. And it doesn’t appear that teams are jumping at the opportunity to pay him as if that were the case, either; I doubt his agent, Scott Boras, would be publicly expressing Snell’s willingness to sign a short-term contract otherwise. Snell’s a very good pitcher, but he’s just not this good.

Bryan Woo, Seattle Mariners
I’m a fan of Bryan Woo, and he certainly had a terrific rookie season for a pitcher with almost no experience in the high minors. He advanced so quickly that I didn’t even have a preseason projection for him last year! But despite the success and little grumbling from any of the projection systems, I’m not quite sure he’s a finished product yet. One worry is how fastball reliant he was. Lefties absolutely torched Woo in the majors last year, and it’s easier to simply dismiss that when it’s not from a pitcher without a killer offering to fight against the platoon disadvantage. At least he’s certainly aware that he needs to develop his changeup more. If Bryce Miller’s splitter works out, maybe Woo should consider cribbing his notes.

Matt Manning, Detroit Tigers
I buy the Tarik Skubal dominance, but with Matt Manning, not so much. Low strikeout pitchers can survive in the majors, but the ones who do are generally the ones who keep the ball down and don’t get hit very hard. Manning doesn’t really do either at this point. The numbers ZiPS uses aren’t the same as Statcast’s xStats, but Manning’s 5.00 zFIP was nearly as bleak as the xERA that Statcast produced (5.48). I’d say “when in doubt, learn a splitter,” but that’s mostly because of my long-term stanning of Kevin Gausman. I’m generally optimistic about the Tigers this year, but I think Manning’s ceiling looks pretty low from here.

Emilio Pagán, Cincinnati Reds
I’ve already talked about Emilio Pagán this offseason, but it wouldn’t show a lot of guts if I didn’t put the pitcher I deemed “my least favorite signing of the offseason” on my busts lists, now would it? If anything Pagán is the exact reverse of the Burnes-Heaney rule I talked about in the breakouts. It’s true that last year, he set career worst marks in contact rate against, average exit velocity, and strikeout rate, but he also had the lowest home run rate of his career, allowing five homers instead of his normal baker’s dozen or so. And he’s going to play his home games in a bandbox (the Great American Ballpark) for the first time ever. Pagán had the fifth-lowest batting average against in the majors on barrels/solid contact hits last year, and compared to the four pitchers ahead of him (Alexis Díaz, Will Vest, Trevor May, and Devin Williams), Pagán allowed those types of contact at nearly twice the rate. As a whole big leaguers batted .614 on barrels and solid contact hits in 2023. Pagán is likable and generally popular with fans, and I’m certainly not rooting against him, but he has a history of being worse than Bill Murray at stopping gophers.





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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jfisher6844
2 months ago

Breakout for Kutter Crawford? His statcast data is right in line with the studs

Manco
2 months ago
Reply to  jfisher6844

Kutter’s FA isn’t good. When his off-speed or cutter is off game, he can quickly devolve.

proiste
2 months ago
Reply to  Manco

Why do you say Crawford’s fastball isn’t good? It’s not that fast, but Stuff+ loves it, and Statcast had it in the 82nd percentile for run value last season. I think there’s a better argument it’s his best pitch than his worst

JimmieFoxxalorianmember
2 months ago
Reply to  Manco

Because Kutter’s obsessed with cutters

Jason Bmember
2 months ago

Well his name isn’t Slurve Crawford!