Buzzless Breakout Candidates: Pitchers

Written by: James Schiano (@FreePeteAlonso)

Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365

Spring Training is a beautiful thing. Prospects get exposure while veterans shake off the dust from another offseason. Everyone’s teeming with optimism and basking in sunshine; Opening Day is right around the corner. What a wonderful time of year.

Understandably, the attention of the media and fantasy baseballers goes to established stars and the next big thing(s). Spring Training can often generate a hype train that goes off the rails. While the rest of your league goes gaga for mainstreamed players, there is a lot of value to be found if you look at the players in-between the two aforementioned stages of their career.

Often, these guys were once highly touted prospects, but for some reason or another, they haven’t progressed as anticipated. Injuries, inconsistent playing time, lack of an adjustment or something even more random could mire a player in mediocrity even after they were the next big thing of Spring Training’s past.

To find these types, you must be able to single-out certain strengths that are difficult to improve upon that go along with a player’s rectifiable deficiencies. An archetype of this notion might be a pitcher (often younger than 30-years-old) with a high strikeout rate who induces plenty of swinging strikes but struggles with control. For hitters, they often excel in plate discipline but lack power.

For example, Blake Snell was completely incapable of consistently controlling any of his secondary pitches and Christian Yelich was a good hitter with middling power until last season. Either could have been acquired in a dynasty league for far-less than an arm and a leg. A season later, following an AL Cy Young and an NL MVP, they’ve become two of the most prized assets across-the-board in fantasy baseball.

Here, I’m going to highlight three pitchers who fall into this category and are not generating much buzz or hype as Opening Day nears.

Kevin Gausman

It feels like Gausman has been appearing on ‘Breakout’ lists for a lifetime, but this time it’s for real, I promise. Once the Orioles’ top prospect in a strong farm system (he was ranked ahead of Dylan Bundy, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Josh Hader), Gausman flashed a plus-plus fastball, above average changeup and nasty slider as he tore up the SEC at LSU. He followed suit with success in the minor leagues. There have been flashes of brilliance, but sustainability has been fleeting at the big league level.

Following 4.5 seasons of mixed-bag results, the O’s shipped him to Atlanta last season at the trade deadline. After taking a step backwards in 2017 and the start of 2018, Gausman looked reborn with the Braves, earning an impressive 2.87 ERA and 5-3 record in August and September. Besides getting away from the daunting bats of the AL East, the biggest change after Gausman’s move to Atlanta was the rate at which he threw his fastball.

In Baltimore, he regularly his threw fastball for nearly 70-percent of his pitches. It’s a good fastball, don’t get me wrong, but that is way too often to throw any one pitch at the MLB level. Here is an excerpt from a Baseball Prospectus profile on Gausman in May 2013:

“[Gausman] wielded both a slider and a curve throughout his scholastic career, but he has focused his attention on the former since inking with Baltimore, making solid strides with the offering over the past 10 months. He will routinely sit in the low-80s with the offering, but can juice it up to the mid-80s with tighter action more closely resembling a cutter. When clicking, the pitch comes with heavy tilt and is tough to pick up against his fastball trajectory, helping it project as a third plus or better weapon once he finds more consistency in command and execution” (Faleris and Sayre).

No pitcher who boasts three plus offerings at the ripe age of 23 should ever be throwing their fastball at such a high rate, especially not five years later. In its place, Gausman ramped up the use of his splitter, a pitch he started throwing early in his big league career. It accounted for 36.3% of his offerings in September, which would have been a career high if extrapolated over an entire season. In turn, his FB% dropped significantly as the season wore on.

gausman 1

Adjusting one’s repertoire often causes their peripherals to take a hit, but Gausman saw improvement across the board as his underlying skills matched his impressive counting stats during his ten Braves starts.

gausman 2

Gausman has all the talent in the world and finally seems to be committed to becoming a complete pitcher with level pitch usages. It looks like he’s surrounded by a coaching staff who knows how to help him reach his massive potential, and I expect the hard throwing right hander to build on his strong second half and become a key cog in Atlanta’s rotation.

Luke Weaver

Weaver’s first extended taste of the big leagues left little doubt as to why he was one of the most highly touted prospects in a loaded Cardinals system that included Alex Reyes, Marco Gonzales and Jack Flaherty. A former first round pick possessing a 55/60 changeup that played nicely off a strong fastball, Weaver struck out 10.74 (!!) batters per 9 versus 2.54 walks and had a 2.93 xFIP in 13 appearances (10 starts) during his rookie campaign in 2017. These aren’t just good numbers; they’re ace-like numbers.

A popular breakout pick, Weaver floundered last season as his once impeccable control left him altogether and the league caught up to his mostly two-pitch arsenal. The right hander’s walk rate jumped up to 3.56 per 9 while the K/9 fell to 7.99. He had trouble locating his curveball, which allowed hitters to tee-off on his once vaunted change. Its hard-hit rate jumped up from 16.3% in 2017 all the way to 32.1% in 2018. That’s astronomical! This article from The Athletic outlines the predictability of Weaver’s sequencing last season.

His struggles culminated in being bounced from the Cardinals’ rotation in August and then traded to the Diamondbacks along with catcher Carson Kelly and infielder Andy Young for Paul Goldschmidt in December.

The situation might seem grim, but through his struggles Weaver showed signs of becoming a more well-rounded pitcher in 2018. He made a concerted effort to improve his curveball and make it a bigger part of his repertoire. The focus of his offseason has also been on improving the viability of the pitch.

2017 2018
CU% 11.5 12.7
vCU 79.7 81.3
RPMs 2129 2218

It’s easy to lose control of a pitch when it’s faster and spinning more. If he can maintain these peripherals while honing the curve, he has a chance to be really special. It can’t hurt being a part of a Diamondbacks organization who has developed one of the best infrastructures for pitching in the league (also, hello, humidor). Former All-Star Dan Haren is a team advisor and Zack Greinke is a walking, talking encyclopedia on the art of pitching. I’m confident in Weaver regaining the form that once put him on track to be elite.

And you wouldn’t know it, Ray is also on Weaver as a high-value active player this season.

Zach Eflin 

While his breakout will be far more substantial than circumstantial, an underrated aspect of adding value to a pitcher is when his team improves. The Phillies should be much improved in 2019, adding Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, David Robertson and Andrew McCutchen this offseason. At worst, Eflin will simply have a better chance to win every time he toes the rubber compared to last season.

A former first round pick by the Padres in 2012, Eflin was part of the package the Phillies received for Jimmy Rollins in 2014. Strikeouts and general velocity were lacking in Eflin’s profile, but his strong control and legitimate, four-pitch repertoire at an extraordinarily young age helped him ascend through the Phillies system nonetheless.

His first stint in the big leagues was not good at all: a 4.4 K/9 and a 5.36 xFIP in 11 starts (63 IP). Of course, sitting in the low 90s without a wipeout breaking pitch makes it difficult to get outs, but his issues stretched far beyond stuff.

He had a flare- in his knee August of 2016 and was shut down for the season. Later, it was discovered he had a chronic condition called patellar tendinopathy in both knees. This not only made it nearly impossible to pitch, but Eflin later revealed he hadn’t walked or gotten out of bed without pain for more than a decade. Yikes.

With two fresh knees and a new lease on life, Eflin immediately felt a difference he described as “night and day”. We all know how important your lower half is while pitching, yet Eflin found success without ever using his legs.

During Spring Training two seasons ago, he told Todd Zolecki of that “instead of standing like a two-by-four out there, I actually feel like I have some leverage and am actually able to get something behind the ball.”

Look at the stark difference between his follow through pre- and post-surgery. The left image is from a July 2016 start versus Atlanta and the right from May of this past season against the Giants. His stride is far deeper, back leg torqued, and his back is moving far more with the motion. The left looks like soft-toss compared to the right.

Screen Shot 2019-03-23 at 8.00.44 PM

The new leg action produced serious results. Eflin had his highest K/9 at any level last year at 8.65 while maintaining a BB/9 of 2.6, on par with his career average. He amassed 11 wins in 24 tries and career lows in Hard Hit%, opponents’ exit velocity, xFIP and xwOBA. A look under hood reveals these improvements were very very real.

eflin 2

Eflin was missing more bats than ever before and saw his fastball velocity climb by nearly 2 mph. The right-hander appears to be locked in to the 5th rotation spot, and another season removed from surgery has him primed to become a front-line starter.

All three of these pitchers have a notable pedigree, have dealt with their fair share of struggles and are now in a more advantageous situation than they have been in previous seasons. All offer incredible value in redraft leagues and can be had for pennies on the dollar in dynasty owners. With top-of-the-rotation potential, Gausman, Weaver and Eflin should be on everyone’s radar.

Next week, I’ll highlight like hitters who deserve more shine than they are currently receiving.

Follow P365 staff writer James Schiano on Twitter! @FreePeteAlonso

Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365

Featured image courtesy of photographer Chris Carlson and the Associated Press

Leave a Reply