A pitcher taking the next step can do wonders for a team. With the departure of David Price in Toronto, Aaron Sanchez took the next step and turned in a performance worthy of Cy Young consideration. This helped the Jays make the playoffs for the second straight season. Jake Arrieta’s 2014 breakout campaign allowed him to play a pivotal role in the Cubs first World Series win since 1908. Predicting pitcher breakouts is not easy; there are a lot of factors at play ranging from pitch repertoire, sequencing, and many other factors that may not be in control of the pitcher. Five potential breakout pitchers for 2017 include James Paxton, Aaron Nola, Jharrel Cotton, Sean Manaea, and Carlos Rodon.
Paxton has always shown some upside having strung along a 3.43 ERA and 3.32 FIP in 50 starts across four seasons. He has struggled to remain healthy. Throughout the 2016 season, Paxton showed his best form.
Paxton averaged the fastest fastball velocity for left handed pitchers at 96.7 MPH. It was almost 3 MPH faster than the lefty ranked second, Robbie Ray. Among pitchers with 100 innings pitched, Paxton had the fifth best FIP-, 17th best SIERA, and 21st best strikeout-walk percentage. Furthermore, Paxton threw strikes. This was evident in his first pitch strikes rate 62.4%. The Mariners pitcher posted an elite 4.7% walk rate. Throughout the season, Paxton was unlucky with a .347 BABIP and a strand rate hovering close to 66%. Paxton’s average exit velocity on line drives + flyballs was slightly above average. Couple that information in with a Deserved Run Average (DRA) of 3.09, it is fair to say Paxton pitched fairly well and should have an impressive 2017 campaign.
One of the reasons for Paxton’s success? He changed his release points:
Moreover, Paxton’s cutter became one of his main pitches. Having reluctantly thrown it in years past, Paxton’s cutter was his second most used pitch and was greatly effective. Among pitchers who threw 200 cutters, Paxton’s had the best whiffs per swing rate. Batters kept swinging, and they kept missing. It also boasted the lowest wOBA in his arsenal.
The big change in Paxton’s cutter aside from the 1 mile increase in velocity: Less rise (In 2014, Brooks Baseball classified the cutter as a slider). Moreover, as the season wore on, Paxton also got more rise in his fastballs leading to a greater induction of pop-ups.
Paxton showed significant growth during the 2016 season. He has the tools to post a low 3 to high 2 ERA and establish himself as the Mariners ace. He will look to do that come April.
Aaron Nola (Philadelphia Phillies)
Nola is a fastball-curve pitcher who had a good start but things went haywire in June. He doesn’t throw hard; instead relies on good control and strong command. Nola had a bloated 4.78 ERA which does not match his peripherals. With a 3.08 FIP, xFIP, 3.29 SIERA, and a 2.33 DRA. Nola pitched much better than what his results show.
Nola was a victim of a poor batting average on balls in play and poor sequencing luck. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, Nola had the 12th highest BABIP and the second worst Left on Base percentage. Nola’s release points and movement remained relatively consistent until July. He did lose a mile of velocity in July and showed signs of fatigue. He was diagnosed with a low grade sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). As the season wore on, Nola lost fastball command leading to poor results.
Nola’s peripherals look good and his command should be more consistent with another year. He illustrated many above average skills to identify him as a potential ace. The Phillies will discover just how good Nola can be this season.
Jharrel Cotton (Oakland Athletics)
Cotton was acquired by the Athletics in the trade that sent Rich Hill and Josh Reddick to the Dodgers. Cotton’s a small guy, standing at 5-11. He pitched 29.1 innings, to the tune of a 2.15 ERA. This was largely due to a generous sub .200 BABIP.
Cotton throws his fastball around 92 MPH on average. It isn’t a game breaking pitch like Chapman’s but his changeup very well might be. It’s been heralded by scouts as being a plus plus changeup. The pitch was above average in groundball percentage and in obtaining swinging strikes. It has a strong combination of fastball – changeup velocity differential and above average drop leading to an impressive change. Furthermore, Cotton’s cutter hits 89 MPH on average.
Cotton always has consistently shown strong strikeout and walk numbers in the minors posting a K-BB% slightly over 20% in his final year in AAA split across the Dodgers and Athletics organization. He posted a 2.82 ERA and 3.41 FIP in 38.1 innings before being called up from AAA.
When Cotton came to the MLB, he pounded the zone with strikes. He threw first pitch strikes at an elite rate to go along with an elite walk rate. We shouldn’t expect him to pitch to such extremes this season as he must undergo the rigors of a full season and adjust to the league. Nonetheless, Cotton looks to have a good pitch mix and grasp of the strike zone.
Sean Manaea (Oakland Athletics)
The other Athletics starter, Sean Manaea was acquired in a trade from the KC Royals. The hulking soon to be 25-year-old threw 144.2 innings last season posting an above average ERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA, and K-BB%.
There’s even more to like about Manaea. He threw first pitch strikes 64.8% of the time and had a swinging strike rate of 11.8%. Both his changeup and slider posted above average groundball rates and swinging strike rates.
The Athletics starter enjoyed a good start to his MLB career. He showed signs of being an above average starter and has the repertoire to do just that.
Carlos Rodon (Chicago White Sox)
As soon as Carlos Rodon stepped onto an MLB mound, his slider was elite. The slider gets double the average horizontal movement and generates an elite number of swinging strikes. The big question for Rodon was whether he would develop a third pitch, most likely a changeup. He didn’t start trusting it until the second half the season where Rodon posted a 3.45 ERA, much better than his first half 4.50 ERA. The improved confidence in the pitch allowed Rodon to throw it more often to right handed batters when he had two strikes. The southpaw’s changeup is a good one. It gets more drop and fade than the average changeup.
Looking at these two heat maps of Rodon’s changeup shows that Rodon got the pitch closer to the lower of the zone and avoided the middle more often during the second half of the season.
Rodon’s second half brought an increase in strikeouts and a decrease in walks. The ERA was supported by a 3.49 FIP. Furthermore, with notoriously poor pitch framer Dioner Navarro gone (albeit only called 7 games), Rodon should have more help from his catcher in picking the corners for additional strikes.
Rodon needs to continue trusting his changeup and work on his command. The changeup has shown above average whiff and groundball rates. There’s a lot to like about his repertoire. He improved his walk rate from a 4.59 BB/9 to a 2.95 BB/9, which is an additional good sign. However, among pitchers with 160 innings pitched, Rodon posted the lowest first pitch strike rate. Part of his growth will depend on improving in this department to get ahead of the count. He’s got the stuff to step into the shoes left behind by Chris Sale as the White Sox’s lefty ace.
These five pitchers are potential breakout candidates this season. Each is unique in their methods and each has the tools to be above average MLB starters. This is not an exhaustive list of breakout pitchers; missing are the likes of Marcus Stroman, and perhaps Robbie Ray. Paxton, Nola, Cotton, Manaea, and Rodon all have the skills to take the next step forward and are all potential pitching breakout candidates.
*Heatmaps from Baseball Savant