Szymborski’s Breakdown Candidates for 2020

Yesterday, I posted my 10 favorite breakout candidates for our abbreviated 2020 season. Now it’s time for that piece’s inevitably less-optimistic companion, the breakdowns.

As with the breakouts, precisely defining a breakdown in exact statistical terms is difficult and, I feel, counterproductive. Sometimes it’s a guy with a few dangerous leading indicators; other times, it’s a player who has already seemingly fallen off the cliff and it’s whether he can catch the ledge. Occasionally, a player reaches an age when decline is nearly inevitable; time eventually defeats all of its opponents after all.

With all that in mind, here are my “favorite” 10 breakdown selections for 2020’s 60-game sprint.

Justin Verlander, Houston Astros

Don’t get me wrong, I still think Justin Verlander is a terrific pitcher. But he’s at an age when pitchers can decline very quickly and he’s recovering from a significant groin injury. ZiPS is still convinced he’s an easy ace, but those low-percentile projections have gotten a bit scarier. Verlander’s projection for 2020 is quite close to his 2019, but the differences at the bottom are stark; ZiPS projects an 14% chance of Verlander having an ERA+ under 80; when re-projecting 2019 with a 60-game season, that number was only 5%. There’s no methodology change that accounts for these differences. As breakdowns go, this is a mild one, but it’s significant given Houston’s increased reliance on Verlander without Gerrit Cole around.

Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers

2019 already took away what was left of Miguel Cabrera’s performance, but I suspect 2020 will put the kibosh on whatever remaining hope there is of a comeback. Cabrera blamed his lack of lineup protection for the loss of his power, claiming it prevented him from getting quality fastballs. But the basic truth is that he was getting just as many fastballs as ever; the difference was that he just didn’t do anything with them. Using Baseball Savant’s definition of a fastball down the “heart” of the zone, one can see Cabrera’s ferocity at the plate drain away.

Aníbal Sánchez, Washington Nationals

Aníbal Sánchez has shown a great late kick to his career, reviving it after some injury-and-run-filled campaigns in Detroit. He’s managed this feat largely through a reboot of his repertoire. His slider, once a bread-and-butter pitch responsible for 71 strikeouts in his career-best 2013 season, has fallen out of favor. (In 2018 and 2019 combined, only six hitters were banished to the dugout by the curve sinister.) Instead he’s relied on his cutter, a pitch he used to great effect in his Atlanta comeback season. Sánchez’s NLCS Game 1 will go down as one of his late-career highlights, a 7 2/3-inning one-hitter. It also showed how Sánchez has de-emphasized traditional breaking pitches; he threw only four curves and not a single slider.

There are signs of trouble in his profile, however. He once again beat his FIP by a run, but some of his decline didn’t show up (yet) in the traditional statistics. Every pitch but his cutter saw an uptick in both velocity and launch angle, and his cutter, more effective in the overall stats, lost an inch of its horizontal break and was missed less often in 2019. I think this is the year that the delicate balance of factors falls apart.

Brett Gardner, New York Yankees

No hitter outperformed his Statcast expected slugging percentage in 2019 as much as Brett Gardner. ZiPS is largely on the same page, with the only difference being that it has Gardner as the silver medalist rather than the gold. Gardner has shown remarkable resilience, continually reinventing himself as a hitter and forestalling aging longer than anybody expected a decade ago. In 2019, Gardner focused on pulling the baseball and crushing fastballs, hitting more than a quarter of his career homers on fastballs last year alone (25 of 94). As he enters his late 30s without elite exit velocities, I’m skeptical that he’ll continue to hold up as well as, say, Nelson Cruz has. Gardner’s one of my favorites, so this paragraph brings me little joy.

Jeff Samardzija, San Francisco Giants

Simply demonstrating that his 2018 shoulder pains weren’t career-breaking made Jeff Samardzija’s 2019 a triumph. From an ERA standpoint, the Shark’s fourth season was his best in San Francisco, enough to at least slightly calm the team’s worry about their $90 million pitcher. Trouble was hidden in the FIP, however, and his 4.59 mark was his worst in a healthy season since his early career when he was still a better wide receiver than a pitcher. ZiPS thinks he “should have” allowed 35 homers rather than the 28 he actually did in 2019. If the projection system is on the money, then Samardzija’s 4.59 FIP in 2019 may have been artificially low. It’s enough extra runs to blow his ERA out of the water. Samardzija isn’t the power pitcher he once was, making his downside enormous.

Justin Upton, Los Angeles Angels

As with Cabrera, I think 2020 will establishes Justin Upton’s 2019 collapse as a permanent one. While the turf toe and the injured knee no doubt hampered his offensive numbers, the most troubling long-term trend is how little the lessons about plate discipline have stuck with him.

Even when healthy, Upton had issues hitting the ball hard in 2019, and that was his biggest strength at the plate. Pitchers discovered a long time ago that Upton is susceptible to offspeed pitches; since 2015, he’s hit .186 with a .370 slugging against offspeed stuff, a stunning change from his 2008-2014 numbers (.276 and .552). If Upton’s ability to punish mistakes doesn’t return quickly, I think he’s done.

Jon Lester, Chicago Cubs

Jon Lester ought to best his .347 BABIP handily, but he’s hittable enough at this point that I expect his home run total to creep up to compensate. The projection systems agree, with all giving Lester the worst HR/9 rate of his career for the 2020 season. Lester’s largely a junk pitcher at this point, but he’s rapidly becoming a junk pitcher without effective offspeed pitches.

Madison Bumgarner, Arizona Diamondbacks

Very few contracts this offseason have gotten worse over the last six months without an injury being involved than Madison Bumgarner’s. I was already a bit uneasy about his new deal with Arizona; Bumgarner is a flyball pitcher clearly off his peak form who is leaving one of the best parks for hiding those kinds of mistakes. The universal designated hitter is a hit to Bumgarner more than any other pitcher in baseball, and ZiPS estimates it’s enough to cost MadBum 20% of his value. And if pitcher-hitting never returns — which I believe is the most likely outcome at this point — that 20% disappears each year of his deal. Bumgarner’s not Shohei Ohtani; he’s a good hitter for a pitcher, not a good hitter period. Coupled with his risk as a hurler, Arizona lost the cherry on top of the sundae, a bit like getting a new job with a company car and finding out the car is a 1988 Ford Tempo, my first car, which you absolutely do not want.

Eddie Rosario, Minnesota Twins

Eddie Rosario was already off his 2017 and ’18 offensive performance in 2019, though it was largely camouflaged by the explosion in the league-wide home run rate. He’s made little progress in his plate discipline and last season, he was nearly 50% more likely than the average major league hitter to swing at a pitch outside the strike zone. The result was a power hitter with a great deal of inconsistency, ending a lot of at-bats with really poor contact. Sure, you can say the same about Javier Báez, but the difference between Báez and Rosario is that when the former loses 17 points of wRC+, he goes from being an MVP candidate to a regular ol’ All-Star. For a player like Rosario, without a lot of other offensive tools and little defensive value, that’s the difference between a respectable starter and chilling with the Rochester Red Wings.

Yuli Gurriel, Houston Astros

Yuli Gurriel was the hitter who got the gold medal (see Brett Gardner) in terms of actual slugging vs. ZiPS’ expectations based on the hit data. ZiPS has been projecting gloom-and-doom for Gurriel for awhile now and while it has yet to be right, it just feels as if Gurriel is a contact hitter who got incredibly lucky with the homers in 2019. Perhaps I have a bias against first basemen who don’t hit the ball very hard?

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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3 years ago

These all seem pretty likely. Who else was fringe you maybe considered adding, but didn’t make the cut for this list, Dan?