Every year a few new faces shake up the establishment to gain entry into baseball’s elite club of aces. Last year it was highly touted prospect Matt Harvey who wowed baseball fans after an exciting 10 start debut in 2012. Max Scherzer made the leap from solid starter to CY Young winner, and rotation mate Anibal Sanchez tossed his hat in the CY Young conversation by posting an ERA more than full run lower than his previous career average. A little further down the line, Hisashi Iwakuma, Homer Bailey, and Patrick Corbin made impressive strides.
Breakthroughs, whether it be from solid starter to ace or from average starter to top 30 material happen every year. It’s part of what makes baseball so fascinating. Here’s a list of the top ten breakthrough pitching candidates from each league.
1. Homer Bailey, Cincinnati Reds. While he emerged as a solid starter in 2013, posting a 3.49 ERA and 3.7 fWAR, Bailey has been improving for some time. If he can maintain most of the velocity spike that saw him average 94 miles per hour in 2013, I think the former top prospect can make the leap to CY Young candidate. There are few pitchers in baseball that can match his solid four pitch mix, and his 2013 swinging strike rate of 10.7 percent was on par with hurlers such as Stephen Strasburg, Felix Hernandez, and Chris Sale.
2. Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cubs. Over the last two seasons, the only thing about the Shark that doesn’t scream ace is his 103 ERA-. Other metrics put him in the realm of the game’s best. The former Notre Dame standout wide receiver has a fastball that sits in the mid 90’s, an excellent slider and splitter, and combines a high strikeout rate with a strong ground ball rate. It wouldn’t be surprising for a pitcher of his age and athleticism to improve his walk rates from the 8.2 percent mark he’s pitched to over the last two seasons. Prospect Insider has touted Samardzija before, and former Mariners executive Tony Blengino is high on the Cubs hurler as well.
3. Andrew Cashner, San Diego Padres. The big Padres flamethrower has a fastball that regularly reaches the upper 90’s, and occasionally triple digits. His strikeout rate was down as he moved to the rotation full-time in 2013, but with his repertoire expect it to bounce back up. Cashner’s combination of strong command and very high ground ball rates make him a good candidate for a breakout in what looks to be his first season without an innings cap.
4. Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates. Cole took off once the Pirates removed the kid gloves, and he posted a 1.55 FIP in five September outings with 39 strikeouts. With an upper 90’s fastball, a good slider and developing change, it will be exciting to see what the big right-hander can do in a full season of work.
5. Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals. It seems a little disingenuous to call Wacha a breakout candidate after his postseason performance. Still, he has just nine regular season starts under his belt. Currently, he’s a two pitch guy with a mid 90’s fastball and a 70 grade changeup. If he develops his curveball, watch out.
6. Zack Wheeler, New York Mets. Wheeler might have trouble impressing Mets fans who were spoiled by Harvey’s phenomenal 2013 season. Nevertheless, he’s a very talented pitcher in his own right, as his top prospect pedigree indicates. He’ll need to throw more strikes and do a better job commanding his mid 90s fastball, but the stuff is certainly in place for the 23-year-old right-hander to make a big stride in 2014.
7. Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves. The 23-year-old Teheran recently signed an extension with the Braves after a solid 2013 which saw him post a 3.20 ERA and 2.4 fWAR. He added a curveball and two seam fastball to his repertoire prior to the 2013 season, and it paid dividends. Given another season with these pitches under his belt, he could take the next step.
8. Tyson Ross, San Diego Padres. For pitchers that threw at least 120 innings in 2013, Ross’ contact rate of 75.3 percent was No. 7 in baseball, sandwiched between Harvey and Sale. Control has historically been an issue for Ross, but he had a respectable walk rate of 8.7 percent in 2013. He has a fastball that averaged over 94 miles per hour, and a slider that possessed a stellar 24.8 percent swinging strike rate.
9. Tyler Chatwood, Colorado Rockies. The 24-year-old Chatwood’s walk and strikeout rates of 13.9 percent and 8.6 percent, respectively, were far from impressive. Still, he saw significant improvements in his xFIP for the second consecutive year, and his ground ball rate of 58.5 percent would have been the third highest in the major leagues if he had thrown enough innings to qualify.
10. Nathan Eovaldi, Miami Marlins. Eovaldi had the hardest average fastball of any pitcher to throw at least 100 innings in 2013, clocking in at 96.2 miles per hour. The 24-year-old’s secondary stuff leaves something to be desired, but he managed to bump up his strikeout rate from 14.8 percent in 2012 to 17.3 percent in 2013. If he maintains his velocity bump of two full mph, Eovaldi could improve on the 90 ERA- he managed last season.
1. Alex Cobb, Tampa Bay Rays. If not for an unfortunate line drive off the bat of Eric Hosmer, Cobb might not qualify for this list. While he was limited to 22 starts, he posted a 73 ERA- and 76 xFIP-, both top ten marks. He doesn’t have an overpowering fastball, but Cobb has a plus curveball and a splitter that generates a chase rate of over 50 percent.
2. Ivan Nova, New York Yankees. While Nova got battered around in 2012, his strikeout rate saw a major increase. He maintained that strikeout rate in 2013, but managed to keep the ball in the park. The Yankees right-hander scrapped his slider, and relied more heavily on his curve while also throwing more two-seam fastballs. Doing so allowed him to post a ground ball rate of 53.5 percent, a major increase from the 45.2 percent mark he managed the previous season.
3. Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians. The big right-hander was very good in 2011, then struggled in 2012, and had a strong 2013 season. A big reason for Masterson’s improvement was increased reliance on his slider, which was almost unhittable in 2013. That allowed him to strikeout hitters at a career-high 24.3 percent rate. He’s a ground ball machine who eats up righties, and his slider has become an out pitch against lefties as well.
4. Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics. Gray was very impressive after the A’s called him up in July, authoring a 74 xFIP- in 64 innings. His size might have allowed him to slide in the 2011 Draft, but he manages to get a good plane on his fastball, and his curveball is a bona fide out pitch. If he becomes more confident in using his changeup against left-handed hitters, he could emerge as the A’s top starter.
5. Rick Porcello, Detroit Tigers. It might not be fair to call Porcello a breakout candidate, as most advanced metrics deemed him an excellent pitcher in 2013. He scrapped his mostly ineffective slider in exchange for a curveball, and bumped his strikeout rate up to 19.3 percent, after four years of seeing it range from 12-14 percent. Combine that with his usual low walk rate of 5.7 percent, and a ground ball rate of 55.3 percent, and Porcello had a 3.19 xFIP, which was only nominally higher than that of his teammate Scherzer. With an improved Tigers defense, look for Porcello’s 2014 ERA to be closer to his already strong peripherals.
6. Kevin Gausman, Baltimore Orioles. In the aftermath of the Ubaldo Jimenez signing, it appears unlikely that Gausman will start the season in the Orioles rotation. However, it’s only a matter of time before the club realizes he’s one of their best two or three arms. He offers mid to upper 90s heat with excellent control, though his command was shaky in his 47.2 inning debut. His changeup is already a top line pitch, and if his slider improves, he could emerge as an ace.
7. Danny Salazar, Cleveland Indians. Salazar was very impressive in his 10 start debut, striking out 30.8 percent of hitters. His fastball will hit triple digits, and his splitter is devastating. The 24- year-old would be well served to utilize less predictive pitching patterns, but his stuff is excellent and he throws plenty of strikes.
8. Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays. Moore took something of a step backward from his 2012 season. While his ERA improved, his peripherals all declined, and he was plagued by elbow issues, causing his average fastball velocity to fall to 92.4 miles per hour from 94.4 the prior season. If he can put his elbow troubles behind him and smooth out his control just a little, his raw stuff could carry him to an excellent 2014.
9. Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays. The 25-year-old made big strides in 2013, as he walked only 7.2 percent of hitters, after posting a 12.7 percent walk rate across eight minor league seasons. He possesses an electric fastball and an excellent slider. Archer needs a weapon against lefties, who hit .257/.329/.471 against him in 2013. If his changeup comes along, the Rays could have a pretty special staff.
10. Dan Straily, Oakland Athletics. Only seven pitchers had a higher swinging strike rate than the 11.1 percent mark the A’s right-hander managed in 2013. The former 24th round pick appears to have finally found a changeup grip that works for him, and he started getting more whiffs and grounders since that time. His walk rate of 8.9 percent is on the high side, but his minor league numbers suggest he might be able to cut down on free passes. He’s a fly ball pitcher with a favorable park and a good outfield defense, and he manages to miss bats pretty frequently.
Despite major advances in scouting and statistical analysis, baseball still doesn’t lend itself easily to prediction. Each season there are at least a few hitters and pitchers who remind fans and personnel that they don’t know everything. Sure, being able to dig beyond ERA helps, but there’s still plenty of randomness in baseball. It’s what makes the sport at once both amazing and frustrating.