Recently we looked at 2017’s breakout hitters and examined whether they can repeat in 2018. Now let’s take a look at 10 pitchers. Interesting note: As I picked the 10 pitchers I wanted to write about, I realized all 10 pitched for winning teams (and all but one for playoff teams). If you want to find a surprise playoff team for 2018, find a team that has a couple potential breakout pitchers.
Severino was a top prospect with elite velocity, but after struggling in the majors in 2016, his emergence to staff ace was no less dramatic than Aaron Judge’s breakout, if only less publicized. His roll call of stats is impressive: Sixth in the majors in strikeout rate among starters, sixth in batting average allowed, fifth in strikeout-minus-walk rate. Most impressively, he improved as the season went along, dominating with a 2.10 ERA in September even as he topped 190 innings in his first full season. He posted the first sub-3.00 ERA for a Yankees starter since David Cone and Andy Pettitte in 1997 and finished third in the Cy Young voting.
He generates his upper-90s fastball with a strong lower half that suggests durability won’t be an issue in the future. Improved fastball command helped — in 2016, batters hit .307/.388/.547 against his fastball; in 2017, they hit .253/.331/.442 — but a better changeup was key as well. He threw it more often and batters hit .158 against it. His slider is a swing-and-miss weapon, so he’s now a three-pitch guy with command. The delivery is of concern — he throws across his body with a stiff front leg, resulting in a violent coil at times — but if he stays healthy, he’s going to be a Cy Young contender.
Verdict: The best bet on this list.
Chad Green, New York Yankees
Sticking with the Yankees, Green is proof that you never know where dominant relievers will come from. Acquired from the Tigers after 2015 with Luis Cessa for Justin Wilson, Green looked like a nondescript candidate for the rotation, although he had good numbers in Triple-A. He started the season back in Scranton, made five starts there and joined the big league bullpen, where all he did was post a 103-17 strikeout-walk ratio in 69 innings with a 1.83 ERA.
Green throws hard enough — average fastball velocity of 95.8 mph — but that fastball plays up even more because of his above-average spin rate and some deception in his delivery. Batters hit .114 against his fastball (lowest in the majors for pitchers who faced at least 100 batters), and his 48.2 percent K rate with his fastball matched Craig Kimbrel for tops in the majors.
Verdict: The numbers were so good that Green should again be a huge weapon for new manager Aaron Boone. One potential hitch: Green will apparently get an opportunity to start in spring training. Nothing wrong with that idea — he could still end up in the bullpen — but we’ll have to see how the stuff plays as a starter.
OK, this might seem like a weird name to include since the World Series hero is coming off his age-33 season. But it was a different Morton in 2017: The Astros had him cut loose with his four-seamer up in the zone rather than rely on his sinker, and his fastball velo shot way up and his strikeout rate increased from a career mark of 16.0 percent to 26.4 percent, resulting in 163 K’s in 146⅔ innings.
Verdict: More of the same, at least over 150 innings or so.
Brad Peacock, Houston Astros
Morton’s Astros teammate was an even bigger surprise, and like Morton, he’s a little old for this list as he’s entering his age-30 season. He has been with Houston since 2013 but entered the season with a 4.57 career ERA. Credit to the Astros for not giving up on him (he missed almost all of 2015 after a series of injuries). He started the season in the bullpen and then transitioned to the rotation in late May. He allowed two or fewer runs in 15 of his 21 starts and fanned 135 in 111⅔ innings as a starter with a 3.22 ERA.
Despite those stellar results, Peacock is the sixth man in the rotation right now. As a starter he uses a four-pitch arsenal, but as a reliever he was primarily a fastball/slider guy. There are no glaring red flags here, other than his uncertain role and a walk rate that’s a little high.
Verdict: Given the depth in the Houston rotation, I wouldn’t expect Peacock to make 21 starts again. He should be fine as a reliever and would be an asset as a multi-inning setup guy.
Wood made his first All-Star team, finished 16-3 with a 2.72 ERA and finished off by allowing one hit in 7⅔ innings in the World Series. Wood’s fastball velocity, which used to sit in the upper 80s, averaged 91.8. He started throwing his changeup more often. His rate of swings and misses outside the strike zone increased. It added up to a dominant first half, when he went 10-0 with a 1.67 ERA.
The second half was a different story, however, as all the numbers took a turn for the worse — lower K rate, much higher home run rate (two in 80⅔ innings versus 13 in 71⅔), decreased velocity and a more normalized BABIP. The Dodgers handled him carefully — he went more than six innings just five times and his season high was 100 pitches — but fatigue was certainly an issue.
Verdict: Wood is a good pitcher, but he’s not as good as that first half of 2017. Durability is a concern, and the velocity might have been a temporary uptick. I’d expect that ERA to increase at least half a run per game.
My editors might tell you this article was merely an excuse to bring up Robbie Ray yet again. His ERA decreased from 4.90 in 2016 to 2.89 in 2017, but the advanced metrics suggest he might have been the same pitcher: He had a 3.76 FIP in 2016, 3.72 in 2017. The difference: He allowed a .267 average in 2016 compared to .199 in 2017. His exit velocity allowed was about the same. Unlucky versus lucky and just split the middle in 2018?
Maybe, but he wasn’t really the same pitcher in 2017 as the year before. He increased his curveball usage from 4.5 percent to 21.1 percent, and this led to more swings (and misses) on pitches outside the zone and less damage against his fastball.
Verdict: Buy! Maybe the BABIP creeps up a bit in 2018, but a lower walk rate could mean he remains one of the best southpaws in the game.
Zack Godley, Arizona Diamondbacks
My favorite supersecret breakout guy of 2017, Godley was another guy who began the season in the minors — understandably, given his 6.39 ERA and 4.97 FIP in 2016. Godley pounds the bottom of the strike zone with a sinker, cutter/slider and curveball, but he also got a lot of swings and misses, which isn’t always the case with guys who pitch down. The only NL starter with a higher rate of swings outside the strike zone was Ray. Pitching coach Mike Butcher attributed Godley’s success to more consistent release points with all his pitches.
During the season, I compared Godley to Corey Kluber because of a similar arsenal and age at breakout. I’m not saying he’s the next Kluber — that’s a little crazy, plus he doesn’t have Kluber’s velocity — but it does mean I’m buying into his 2017 performance.
Verdict: OK, maybe I’m the high guy on Godley. Maybe hitters will adjust and lay off that curveball below the knees. Or maybe he is the new Kluber.
One trend I’m seeing: A lot of my breakout starters other than Severino threw around 150 innings, so maybe one reason they were successful is because their innings were limited. Anderson missed time with an oblique injury and finished with 141 innings and a 2.74 ERA. His consistency was impressive: He had one six-run game when he served up three home runs on a windy day at Wrigley but otherwise never allowed more than four runs.
Anyway, guess what? Anderson’s fastball velocity pumped up from 91.1 mph in 2016 to 93.1. Where are all these guys finding all this velocity? He did that without losing any of his command. Two red flags: His percentage of runners left on was ninth-best among pitchers with at least 100 innings, and he ranked fifth in lowest rate of home runs on fly balls among pitchers with at least that many innings. There was some legitimate exit velocity suppression going on, but definitely some good results that will be hard to replicate.
Verdict: His FIP was 3.58 and his xFIP (which normalized home run rate) was 4.33. ZiPS projects a 4.32 ERA. I think he’ll beat that, but his ERA might end up a run worse than last year.
Clevinger threw … 121⅔ innings. Maybe I need to re-evaluate my breakout status. Clevinger has a four-pitch arsenal with a 92-93 mph fastball and was very hard to hit (.211 average allowed). What he doesn’t have is plus control at this point in his career, with 60 walks. He also had a large platoon split, holding righties to a .570 OPS while lefties were at .819. His statistical comps on Baseball Prospectus are guys like J.A. Happ, John Maine and David Phelps — but also a young Jake Arrieta.
Verdict: He’ll have a better season than Vinnie Pestano (trades like that are how you build a 100-win team), but the control will prevent him from making a leap forward or repeating his 3.11 ERA.
After a disastrous rookie season, when he posted an 8.02 ERA in 14 starts, Berrios started the 2017 season in Triple-A, made six dominant starts there and then went 14-8 with a 3.89 ERA with the Twins. While you see 145 innings with the Twins, he threw 184 between the minors and the majors, so we know he can handle a 30-start workload. At times the stuff is electric, especially when he can bend his curveball like a whiffle ball and make batters look silly.
Verdict: The changeup is still a work in progress as batters slugged .581 off it, and his fastball isn’t a big swing-and-miss offering yet. He should be good again, but I think he’s at least another year away from better things.