Seven Young Pitchers Who Could Break Through
Hard-throwing pitchers who miss bats tend to have the highest ceilings. That's no secret. Yet many pitchers who possess those attributes struggle to throw strikes, particularly strike one.
While poor control is a flaw, it is a flaw that is easily identifiable—and thus potentially correctable.
With that in mind, I identified seven young pitchers who could break through in 2018—but only if they improve their control to truly leverage their raw stuff in more frequent advantage counts.
The criteria I used to identify breakout candidates are simple. In 2017, the pitcher must have shown (1) above-average fastball velocity (FBv), (2) a below-average first-pitch strike rate per batter faced (F-Str) and (3) an at-least-average swinging-strike rate per total pitches (SwStr). All stats were gathered at Fangraphs.com.
Rather than be bogged down by data lacking context, I scaled these metrics to the 20-80 scouting scale, where a 50 is average, a 60 is one standard deviation above-average, etc. Every pitcher who threw at least 10 innings as a starter in 2017 is included in the sample.
Running this analysis last year indicated potential for the Indians' Mike Clevinger (147 ERA+), a useful campaign for the Athletics' Andrew Triggs (100 ERA+) and that the Cardinals' Luke Weaver (110 ERA+) had experienced growing pains—and nothing more—in a rough 2016 big league debut. Of course, it also identified the Mets' Robert Gsellman (81 ERA+) and the Pirates' Tyler Glasnow (56 ERA+) as pitchers with good stuff and room to raise their ceilings by improving their control.
And if a pitcher fails to improve his control in 2018? Well, there's always room on this list next year.
1. Luis Castillo | RHP | Reds
FBv: 70. | F-Str: 40. | SwStr: 65.
ERA: 3.12. | SO9: 9.9. | BB9: 3.2. | HR9: 1.1.
Castillo blazed a trail from Double-A to Cincinnati last summer, where he showcased excellent stuff and encouraging results against big league competition. The 25-year-old is widely viewed as the most promising starter among 2017 rookies, but he still has apparent growth potential if he can throw strike one more consistently. That's a scary thought for batters standing in against Castillo, who averages nearly 98 mph and throws a changeup against which opponents hit just .138.
2. Dineslon Lamet, RHP, Padres
FBv: 60. | F-Str: 40. | SwStr: 60.
ERA: 4.57. | SO9: 10.9. | BB9: 4.3. | HR9: 1.4.
Lamet throws an outstanding, bat-missing slider, but he racks up walks and struggles against lefthanded batters--who slugged .502 against him--because of below-average control and a well below-average changeup. More first-pitch strikes and more conviction in his change (which he threw less than 5 percent of the time) could help the 25-year-old conquer his bugaboos.
3. Robert Stephenson | RHP | Reds
FBv: 55. | F-Str: 40. | SwStr: 65.
ERA: 4.68. | SO9: 9.1. | BB9: 5.6. | HR9: 1.3.
The three-time Reds No. 1 prospect zoomed to Double-A for a cameo in 2013, his third pro season, but Stephenson has struggled to throw consistent strikes since his first full year at the level in 2014. That includes 4.3 walks per nine innings in three seasons at Triple-A and 5.3 in two trials in the majors. Stephenson throws bat-missing secondary pitches--his slider and changeup draw whiffs more than 20 percent of the time--but the 25-year-old has to find a way to improve the effectiveness of his low- to mid-90s fastball, against which major league batters hit .349 last season.
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4. Sean Newcomb | LHP | Braves
FBv: 55. | F-Str: 45. | SwStr: 60.
ERA: 4.32. | SO9: 9.7. | BB9: 5.1. | HR9: 0.9.
The prospect the Braves acquired from the Angels for Andrelton Simmons after the 2015 season, Newcomb made his major league debut last June. A power curveball is his best pitch—and contributed to him being drafted 15th overall in 2014—but below-average control (4.8 walks per nine innings in the minors) has plagued him from the outset of his pro career.
5. Carlos Rodon | LHP | White Sox
FBv: 55. | F-Str: 40. | SwStr: 55.
ERA: 4.15. | SO9: 9.9. | BB9: 4.0. | HR9: 1.6.
Just because Rodon hasn't developed as quickly as former White Sox ace Chris Sale doesn't mean he's a bust. In fact, Rodon's first-pitch strike rate has climbed steadily—if incrementally—each season, and his slider remains a devastating weapon against which opponents hit just .154. However, Rodon's strike-throwing ability needs to improve dramatically if he is to ascend to front-of-the-rotation status.
6. Jose Berrios | RHP | Twins
FBv: 55. | F-Str: 45. | SwStr: 50.
ERA: 3.89. | SO9: 8.6. | BB9: 3.0. | HR9: 0.9.
Berrios' curveball produced numerous jaw-dropping GIFs last season, but in reality, his signature secondary pitch yielded a higher opponent average (.224) and lower swinging-strike rate (13.5 percent) than the other pitchers on this list. However, he has improved the quality of his breaking ball dramatically over the past few seasons. Now Berrios needs to rediscover the feel he had for his changeup in the minors to help limit damage against big league lefthanded batters, who slugged .581 against his change last year.
7. Blake Snell | LHP | Rays
FBv: 60. | F-Str: 35. | SwStr: 55.
ERA: 4.04. | SO9: 8.3. | BB9: 4.1. | HR9: 1.0.
The 2015 BA Minor League Player of the Year was weathered an up-and-down intro to the big leagues, and a big reason why is his minuscule first-pitch strike rate, which ranked seventh-worst among starters with 50 innings. More effectively spotting his fastball and working ahead of batters could make his arsenal of quality offspeed pitches—changeup, curveball, slider—play up even more. Snell finished 2017 on an encouraging note by recording a 2.84 ERA in his final 10 starts, with 8.7 strikeouts and 2.8 walks per nine innings, so things could be trending in the right direction for the 25-year-old.