After letting ourselves dream of spring training and taking a look at potential big years from position players who may surprise us it is time to roll up our sleeves and look at the pitchers. As we all know predicting pitching success or failure has a much lower success rate than hitters. What makes a pitcher have that one great year and then have an ERA over 4.00 the rest of his career? Or what makes a perennial all-star suddenly fall off the radar for a season or two. Many times it is reasons we as fans will never find out – a hidden injury, personal problems, PED’s. Let’s try to take a look at the numbers and see who will emerge from the crowd this season in the pitching ranks:
Anthony DeSclafani (SP, Cincinnati Reds)
After a winter trade from the Marlins in late 2014 DeSclafani started 31 games for the Reds in 2015. After a hot start he cooled down a bit down the stretch as he had never thrown close the 185 innings he threw before when he was in the minors. A look at the base numbers 4.05 ERA and 1.35 WHIP may not be that impressive but peek a little deeper and you can see why the Reds were happy to unload Mat Latos for him a year ago. He keeps 45% of the balls put in play against him on the ground (very important in cozy Great America Ball Park), walks less than 3 batters every 9 innings and strikes out over 7 batters every innings. Those are almost top numbers individually but all three combined are very rare. All of this showed in his last 11 starts of 2015 when he increased his strikeout rate to 9 batters every 9 innings and struck out 7 times as many batters as he walked. Although he has some risk in his home ballpark all of the indicators are there for major improvement.
Raisel Iglesias (SP, Cincinnati Reds)
Yes, another Reds pitcher, things are looking up for the Big Red Machine. This Cuban defector was signed almost as soon as MLB deemed him eligible in June 2014. Due to his experience pitching in Cuba he started the 2015 season in the majors and made 16 starts for the Reds in 2015. Just like with DeSclafani a quick look at his surface stats will cause you to move on – but let’s look why he is on this list. 47% of the balls put in play against him are on the ground. Combine that with him striking out almost 9 batters every 9 innings (122 in total) and walking less than 3 batters every 9 innings and you can see why the Reds have a talented 1-2 punch coming into the 2016 season. Raisel showed this best in the second half of the season where his ERA was 2.88 and his WHIP 1.03. Again, temper your expectations due to Great American Ballpark, but otherwise the sky is the limit.
Collin McHugh (SP, Houston Astros)
Many people expected his breakout to come in 2015 – they may have been a year early. After a promising 2014 McHugh came into 2015 as a strong #2 starter on a playoff caliber team. The end result ERA and WHIP did not support that promise but his underlying stats showed why 2014 was no fluke and instead a promise of better things to come. Along with major second half improvement McHugh showed impeccable command by walking almost 2 batters every 9 innings and his second half numbers showed him striking out 8 batters every 9 innings. Combine that with him keeping 45% of balls put in play against him on the ground (it helps that he has super strong defense behind him in Correa and Altuve) and you are looking at a potential ace on a team that already has Dallas Keuchel.
Tyson Ross (SP, San Diego Padres)
Maybe the best pitcher no one has ever heard of Tyson Ross still may not be that big of a surprise to many readers. 2 years of strong numbers are supported by underlying stats that suggest a next level is possible. What stands out the most is him striking out almost 10 batters every 9 innings while keeping a whopping 62% of the balls put in play against him on the ground. If he can improve on his walk rate (almost 4 batters every 9 innings), you are looking at less batters on base and a possible dive of his ERA below the 2.75 range. Do not forget that he pitches in spacious Petco Park one of the best pitcher’s parks in the majors.
The players addressed above were all starters, but what about relief pitchers? Sometimes their fortunes can change not only by an improved skill set but also by a new or different opportunity that their organization is affording them. Relief pitchers to watch include Carter Capps (Fla), Wade Davis (KC), Justin Grimm (ChC), JJ Hoover (Cin), Daniel Hudson (Ari), Jeremy Jeffress (Mil), Shawn Kelley (Was), Will Smith (Mil), Hunter Strickland (SF) and Arodys Vizcaino (Atl). I would not be surprised if many of these pitchers produce an eye-opening season.
Injury Related Breakouts:
Keep an eye on the following players whose 2015 numbers were depressed due to missing significant time with injury. A healthy 2016 should produce career highs for all of them: Patrick Corbin (Ari), Jose Fernandez (Mia), Hisashi Iwakuma (Sea), Garrett Richards (LAA) and Marcus Stroman (Tor).