Fantasy: Nine Breakout MLB Pitcher Candidates For 2020
Speculating on young arms to round out your fantasy pitching staff is sometimes profitable but always fun. It only takes one success to cancel out all the misfires.
The arms I like to focus on are unestablished—often young—pitchers who have bat-missing stuff and a realistic big league rotation opportunity.
Pitchers like this could be one tweak—or one extended opportunity—away from breaking through and establishing themselves. Perhaps the pitcher needs improved pitch sequencing. Perhaps he needs to modify his fastball usage or improve command of the pitch. Sometimes a breakthrough is as close as throwing strike one more frequently.
Those are areas that pitchers tend to improve with age and experience, and that growth potential represents upside if you know where to look.
That’s why I studied all pitchers who threw at least 10 innings as starters in 2019. I assigned them percentile rank scores (where higher is always better) for fastball velocity, chase rate (O-Swing), zone contact (Z-Contact), first-pitch strike rate (F-Strike) and swinging-strike rate (SwStr).
Based on these criteria, I picked nine starting pitchers who I believe combine low cost and high value potential.
This year’s crop of potential breakthrough starters includes the Dodgers’ Julio Urias and the Padres’ Dinelson Lamet, for whom hype is building already. They are coming off draft boards within the first 150 picks, so you probably won’t get much of a discount on them.
The other pitchers should come relatively cheaply. Embrace their volatility.
1. Julio Urias, LHP, Dodgers
Velocity: 89% | O-Swing: 67% | Z-Contact: 89% | F-Strike: 10%
30 IP: 3.26 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 13.3 SwStr (87%)
Projected role: No. 4 starter | Age: 23
Urias made his major league as a 19-year-old in 2016, a season he entered as the No. 4 prospect in baseball. Four years later he is still unestablished, owing to shoulder surgery in 2017 and a domestic violence suspension in 2019. Urias enters 2020 penciled into the Dodgers’ rotation and stands poised for a big season because of a velocity bump to pre-injury levels (95 mph) and a strong slider (15 percent) and changeup (21 percent) that both generate swinging strikes.
2. Dinelson Lamet, RHP, Padres
Velocity: 94% | O-Swing: 77% | Z-Contact: 72% | F-Strike: 41%
73 IP: 4.07 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 14.0 SwStr (91%)
Projected role: No. 3 starter | Age: 27
Lamet looked sharp in the second half of 2019 as he returned from Tommy John surgery, particularly in August and September when he generated an elite swinging-strike rate of 14 percent. His high-80s slider is one of the best breaking pitches in baseball, and he allowed a .116 average when throwing it last season. Lamet throws his slider more than his fastball or changeup, an over-reliance that opens the door to vulnerability against lefthanded batters.
3. Jose Urquidy, RHP, Astros
Velocity: 65% | O-Swing: 55% | Z-Contact: 96% | F-Strike: 63%
34 IP: 4.24 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 12.2 SwStr (79%)
Projected role: No. 4 starter | Age: 24
Urquidy pitched sparingly—and under the name Jose Luis Hernandez—in 2018 as he returned from Tommy John surgery. The reins came off in 2019, when he totaled 154 innings, counting the postseason. Urquidy had always been known as a four-pitch starter with guile, but he began sitting 93 mph and touching 97 last season, which helped him compile one of the highest swinging-strike rates in the minors. The effectiveness of his changeup (.163 average) and slider (.200) against major league batters indicate his rotation upside.
4. Griffin Canning, RHP, Angels
Velocity: 75% | O-Swing: 61% | Z-Contact: 84% | F-Strike: 25%
88 IP: 4.18 ERA, 4.26 FIP, 13.9 SwStr (91%)
Projected role: No. 5 starter | Age: 23
Canning had a first-round arm coming out of UCLA in 2017 but fell to the middle of the second round. He raced to Anaheim at the end of April last year and is the first pitcher from his draft class to return meaningful major league value. However, he didn’t pitch after mid-August because of elbow inflammation. Canning is a true four-pitch starter with good velocity and bat-missing breaking stuff. He averaged 94 mph in his debut and should be able to deploy his outstanding curveball and slider—even his changeup plays—more effectively as he learns to work ahead of batters.
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5. Dylan Cease, RHP, White Sox
Velocity: 96% | O-Swing: 32% | Z-Contact: 75% | F-Strike: 34%
73 IP: 5.79 ERA, 5.19 FIP, 11.1 SwStr (67%)
Projected role: No. 4 starter | Age: 24
Cease garnered attention as a prospect with his quick arm, high-end velocity and innate feel to spin a power breaking ball. He showed as much in his big league debut last season. The caveat with Cease has always been syncing his delivery, commanding his fastball and throwing strikes. If that ever comes together for Cease, he could be lethal thanks to his plus mid-80s slider (15 percent swinging-strike rate) and dramatically improving changeup (14 percent). Refining his curveball will be essential to give him a secondary weapon in a lower velocity register.
6. Tony Gonsolin, RHP, Dodgers
Velocity: 68% | O-Swing: 47% | Z-Contact: 94% | F-Strike: 34%
28 IP: 2.89 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 12.3 SwStr (80%)
Projected role: rotation depth | Age: 25
Gonsolin played both ways at St. Mary’s but quickly adapted to becoming a full-time pitcher in pro ball. He reached the majors in his fourth pro season and enters 2020 as the No. 82 prospect in baseball. The Dodgers’ seemingly endless supply of rotation options makes Gonsolin a risky gamble for his starts, but he is a sound long-term play based on his wide repertoire. Not only did he throw four offerings with positive pitch value in his debut, but his unique split-changeup give him a different look.
7. Randy Dobnak, RHP, Twins
Velocity: 68% | O-Swing: 92% | Z-Contact: 71% | F-Strike: 37%
19 IP: 1.86 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 13.0 SwStr (86%)
Projected role: No. 5 starter | Age: 25
Undrafted out of Division II Alderson Broaddus (W.Va.) in 2017, Dobnak not only reached the majors in 2019 but started a Division Series game. The Twins signed him out of the United Shore League after just six starts, and he became the first player from that small independent league to reach the majors. Dobnak’s mid-80s slider played effectively as a chase pitch in his major league debut, generating a .222 average and 26 percent whiff rate, and he sets up the pitch well with his sinker and four-seam fastball. While his ceiling is modest, his floor is high.
8. Austin Voth, RHP, Nationals
Velocity: 53% | O-Swing: 35% | Z-Contact: 84% | F-Strike: 49%
41 IP: 3.48 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 12.3 SwStr (80%)
Projected role: No. 6 starter | Age: 27
Drafted in 2013, Voth made progress toward the majors before backsliding in 2017. He recovered to make an unremarkable big league debut in 2018 before making an eye-opening 43-inning run in 2019. The caveat: Voth spent time on the injured list last summer with a shoulder injury, though he returned in September to record a 2.35 ERA with a strong 15 percent swinging-strike rate. He enters 2020 out of minor league options, but if he’s healthy, Voth’s 93 mph fastball and high-spin curveball headline a sneaky four-pitch mix.
9. Patrick Sandoval, LHP, Angels
Velocity: 57% | O-Swing: 24% | Z-Contact: 95% | F-Strike: 9%
34 IP: 5.24 ERA, 5.08 FIP, 13.1 SwStr (87%)
Projected role: No. 7 starter | Age: 23
Sandoval’s outstanding changeup and high-spin curveball helped him strike out 11 batters per nine innings at Double-A and Triple-A last season. His strikeout rate held up in the majors (nearly 10 per nine) following his August callup. The issue for Sandoval, who grew up in Orange County, is that batters tend to see his 93 mph fastball well, which resulted in a .286 opponent average and .932 OPS in his big league debut. The problem was compounded by a poor first-pitch strike rate. If he can minimize his fastball and emphasize his strengths, Sandoval has attributes worth speculating on.