Five MLB Breakout Pitchers For The 2023 Season
With the flip of the calendar to the new year and the end of the NFL regular season, the focus for many turns to baseball.
With a little less than three months until the beginning of the season, now is a great time to look at potential breakouts for 2023. Each year young pitchers take steps forward—last season it was the Braves' Kyle Wright and the Guardians' Triston McKenzie. While it’s impossible to pinpoint every breakout, we can look at late season trends to spot potential growth and study projection systems like Steamer or ZIPs to see how a pitcher's skills translate to expected production. The following pitchers fall into the grouping of younger starters with varying degrees of major league experience who look primed for a breakout season.
Nick Lodolo, LHP, Reds
Entering the 2022 season Lodolo ranked as the 36th-best prospect in baseball, but by season’s end he looked like he might be a top 30 starting pitcher entering 2023. After three starts to begin the season, Lodolo landed on the 60-day injured list with a back injury. Upon returning in early July Lodolo made 16 starts over the remainder of the season, producing a 3.35 ERA, a number backed by strong ERA estimators (3.78 FIP and 3.55 xFIP). During that 16-start period Lodolo struck out 30.1% of batters he faced and held opposing hitters to a .224 batting average with a .312 BABIP.
While Lodolo’s home park and team certainly limit the upside of his numbers he’s a highly touted young lefthander with excellent stuff and strike-throwing ability. He mixes four-seam and two-seam fastball variations, sitting 93-96 mph on each. His low-80s curveball is a hellacious sweeper that generates whiffs on 46% of the swings against the pitch. Lodolo shows the ability to navigate lineups with a strong combination of bat-missing and groundball-generating abilities. A step forward in 2023 could cement him as a top 30 starter in the game.
Hunter Greene, RHP, Reds
It was an up-and-down rookie season for Greene. He struggled initially with command and relied too much on his upper-90s fastball. Greene adjusted by leaning in to his plus slider and jumping its usage early in May. He struggled initially to find results but over June and July found a happy medium. While his ERA over that period was 4.78, the ERA estimators told a different tale. His 3.64 FIP and 3.61 xFIP ranked 30th and 34th among 69 eligible starters over that period. Following Greene’s start on Aug. 1, he was placed on the injured list due to a shoulder strain. Greene returned to the Reds rotation in mid-September, making four strong starts to finish the season. Over that four-start stretch, Green struck out 37 batters to just seven walks over 23 innings while allowing just two earned runs.
In order for Greene to take a step forward in 2023 he’ll need to maintain health first and foremost. Beyond that, if Greene can showcase the command and sequencing he showed over his 15 starts between June 1 and Oct. 3, he, like his teammate Lodolo, could rank among the top 30 starters by season’s end.
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Joe Ryan, RHP, Twins
It's reasonable to consider Ryan’s inclusion on this list to be fairly silly considering the quality of his 2022 season. Ryan made 27 starts for the Twins in 2022, producing a 3.55 ERA over 147 innings. Ryan struck out 25% of the batters he faced while allowing walks in 7.8% of plate appearances and holding hitters to an opposing batting average of .210. While Ryan is an extreme flyball pitcher, this shouldn’t be viewed as a bad thing, as his 16.1% infield flyball rate was third in the major leagues among pitchers with a minimum of 140 innings. That is a key area of Ryan’s ability to limit home runs, as he’s able to induce both popups and whiffs with the flat vertical approach on his four-seam fastball.
For Ryan, entering the conversation as one of the top 30 starters in the game will come down to improvement on two fronts. First, he must prove he can go deeper into games and consistently get out of the sixth. Ryan went six or more innings 11 times in 2022 and averaged a little over five innings per start. The ability to go deeper into starts will allow Ryan to rack up the necessary value to rank among the top 30 starters in the game. The other area of potential improvement is with Ryan’s secondaries. Among Ryan’s secondaries, his slider, curveball and changeup all registered below-average run values per Baseball Savant and Fangraphs Pitch Info pitch values. Ryan’s slider shows promise but improvements to any of his secondary pitches could pay dividends.
Aaron Ashby, LHP, Brewers
After making his debut with the Brewers during the 2021 season, Ashby ranked 37th on the preseason Top 100 list entering 2022. Ashby spent time between starting and relief duty during the 2022 season. He missed time in late June with forearm inflammation and missed a month with shoulder inflammation from late August to mid-September. Ashby showed flashes of dominance for stretches but things would often unravel the second time through the order. In fact, Ashby’s ERA the second time through the order of 5.14 ranked 29th worst among 152 pitchers. If Ashby is to solidify himself as the next pitcher to make a successful jump from the Brewers bullpen to the rotation he must prove he can hold his command deep into starts.
Despite his issues in 2022, Ashby has many traits that translate to success. He generates ground balls at a high rate, with a 56.9% groundball rate in 2022. Beyond his groundball-inducing skills, Ashby proved he could miss bats at an above-average rate, striking out 26.2% of batters he faced as a starter. The ingredients are there for a breakout from Ashby in 2023 if he can prove more economical through his starts.
Justin Steele, LHP, Cubs
Had it not been for a back injury would Steele already be considered a top 30 starter? In all likelihood no, but his 2022 performance prior to the back injury was enough to raise a few eyebrows. After a rocky first nine starts, Steele clicked into gear in late May, producing strong numbers over his final 15 starts. Over that stretch Steele pitched to a 2.25 ERA over 84 innings, striking out 24.4% of batters he faced while generating grounders at a rate of 54.1%. Over that three-month stretch Steele ranked as a top 25 starter according to fWAR. Steele has an excellent slider and a pair of fastball shapes that drive whiffs at a greater than 50% rate. This allows him to succeed despite a lack of premium velocity on his fastball.
While the back injury may have robbed Steele of a chance at ending his season with an exclamation point, he enters 2023 primed to have a big role in the Cubs rotation.