Recently we looked at 2017’s breakout hitters and examined whether they can repeat in 2018. Now let’s take a look at 10 pitchers. Interesting note: As I picked the 10 pitchers I wanted to write about, I realized all 10 pitched for winning teams (and all but one for playoff teams). If you want to find a surprise playoff team for 2018, find a team that has a couple potential breakout pitchers.
Severino was a top prospect with elite velocity, but after struggling in the majors in 2016, his emergence to staff ace was no less dramatic than Aaron Judge’s breakout, if only less publicized. His roll call of stats is impressive: Sixth in the majors in strikeout rate among starters, sixth in batting average allowed, fifth in strikeout-minus-walk rate. Most impressively, he improved as the season went along, dominating with a 2.10 ERA in September even as he topped 190 innings in his first full season. He posted the first sub-3.00 ERA for a Yankees starter since David Cone and Andy Pettitte in 1997 and finished third in the Cy Young voting.
He generates his upper-90s fastball with a strong lower half that suggests durability won’t be an issue in the future. Improved fastball command helped — in 2016, batters hit .307/.388/.547 against his fastball; in 2017, they hit .253/.331/.442 — but a better changeup was key as well. He threw it more often and batters hit .158 against it. His slider is a swing-and-miss weapon, so he’s now a three-pitch guy with command. The delivery is of concern — he throws across his body with a stiff front leg, resulting in a violent coil at times — but if he stays healthy, he’s going to be a Cy Young contender.
Verdict: The best bet on this list.
Chad Green, New York Yankees
Sticking with the Yankees, Green is proof that you never know where dominant relievers will come from. Acquired from the Tigers after 2015 with Luis Cessa for Justin Wilson, Green looked like a nondescript candidate for the rotation, although he had good numbers in Triple-A. He started the season back in Scranton, made five starts there and joined the big league bullpen, where all he did was post a 103-17 strikeout-walk ratio in 69 innings with a 1.83 ERA.
Green throws hard enough — average fastball velocity of 95.8 mph — but that fastball plays up even more because of his above-average spin rate and some deception in his delivery. Batters hit .114 against his fastball (lowest in the majors for pitchers who faced at least 100 batters), and his 48.2 percent K rate with his fastball matched Craig Kimbrel for tops in the majors.
Verdict: The numbers were so good that Green should again be a huge weapon for new manager Aaron Boone. One potential hitch: Green will apparently get an opportunity to start in spring training. Nothing wrong with that idea — he could still end up in the bullpen — but we’ll have to see how the stuff plays as a starter.
OK, this might seem like a weird name to include since the World Series hero is coming off his age-33 season. But it was a different Morton in 2017: The Astros had him cut loose with his four-seamer up in the zone rather than rely on his sinker, and his fastball velo shot way up and his strikeout rate increased from a career mark of 16.0 percent to 26.4 percent, resulting in 163 K’s in 146⅔ innings.
Verdict: More of the same, at least over 150 innings or so.
Brad Peacock, Houston Astros
Morton’s Astros teammate was an even bigger surprise, and like Morton, he’s a little old for this list as he’s entering his age-30 season. He has been with Houston since 2013 but entered the season with a 4.57 career ERA. Credit to the Astros for not giving up on him (he missed almost all of 2015 after a series of injuries). He started the season in the bullpen and then transitioned to the rotation in late May. He allowed two or fewer runs in 15 of his 21 starts and fanned 135 in 111⅔ innings as a starter with a 3.22 ERA.
Despite those stellar results, Peacock is the sixth man in the rotation right now. As a starter he uses a four-pitch arsenal, but as a reliever he was primarily a fastball/slider guy. There are no glaring red flags here, other than his uncertain role and a walk rate that’s a little high.
Verdict: Given the depth in the Houston rotation, I wouldn’t expect Peacock to make 21 starts again. He should be fine as a reliever and would be an asset as a multi-inning setup guy.
Wood made his first All-Star team, finished 16-3 with a 2.72 ERA and finished off by allowing one hit in 7⅔ innings in the World Series. Wood’s fastball velocity, which used to sit in the upper 80s, averaged 91.8. He started throwing his changeup more often. His rate of swings and misses outside the strike zone increased. It added up to a dominant first half, when he went 10-0 with a 1.67 ERA.
The second half was a different story, however, as all the numbers took a turn for the worse — lower K rate, much higher home run rate (two in 80⅔ innings versus 13 in 71⅔), decreased velocity and a more normalized BABIP. The Dodgers handled him carefully — he went more than six innings just five times and his season high was 100 pitches — but fatigue was certainly an issue.
Verdict: Wood is a good pitcher, but he’s not as good as that first half of 2017. Durability is a concern, and the velocity might have been a temporary uptick. I’d expect that ERA to increase at least half a run per game.
My editors might tell you this article was merely an excuse to bring up Robbie Ray yet again. His ERA decreased from 4.90 in 2016 to 2.89 in 2017, but the advanced metrics suggest he might have been the same pitcher: He had a 3.76 FIP in 2016, 3.72 in 2017. The difference: He allowed a .267 average in 2016 compared to .199 in 2017. His exit velocity allowed was about the same. Unlucky versus lucky and just split the middle in 2018?
Maybe, but he wasn’t really the same pitcher in 2017 as the year before. He increased his curveball usage from 4.5 percent to 21.1 percent, and this led to more swings (and misses) on pitches outside the zone and less damage against his fastball.
Verdict: Buy! Maybe the BABIP creeps up a bit in 2018, but a lower walk rate could mean he remains one of the best southpaws in the game.
Zack Godley, Arizona Diamondbacks
My favorite supersecret breakout guy of 2017, Godley was another guy who began the season in the minors — understandably, given his 6.39 ERA and 4.97 FIP in 2016. Godley pounds the bottom of the strike zone with a sinker, cutter/slider and curveball, but he also got a lot of swings and misses, which isn’t always the case with guys who pitch down. The only NL starter with a higher rate of swings outside the strike zone was Ray. Pitching coach Mike Butcher attributed Godley’s success to more consistent release points with all his pitches.
During the season, I compared Godley to Corey Kluber because of a similar arsenal and age at breakout. I’m not saying he’s the next Kluber — that’s a little crazy, plus he doesn’t have Kluber’s velocity — but it does mean I’m buying into his 2017 performance.
Verdict: OK, maybe I’m the high guy on Godley. Maybe hitters will adjust and lay off that curveball below the knees. Or maybe he is the new Kluber.
One trend I’m seeing: A lot of my breakout starters other than Severino threw around 150 innings, so maybe one reason they were successful is because their innings were limited. Anderson missed time with an oblique injury and finished with 141 innings and a 2.74 ERA. His consistency was impressive: He had one six-run game when he served up three home runs on a windy day at Wrigley but otherwise never allowed more than four runs.
Anyway, guess what? Anderson’s fastball velocity pumped up from 91.1 mph in 2016 to 93.1. Where are all these guys finding all this velocity? He did that without losing any of his command. Two red flags: His percentage of runners left on was ninth-best among pitchers with at least 100 innings, and he ranked fifth in lowest rate of home runs on fly balls among pitchers with at least that many innings. There was some legitimate exit velocity suppression going on, but definitely some good results that will be hard to replicate.
Verdict: His FIP was 3.58 and his xFIP (which normalized home run rate) was 4.33. ZiPS projects a 4.32 ERA. I think he’ll beat that, but his ERA might end up a run worse than last year.
Clevinger threw … 121⅔ innings. Maybe I need to re-evaluate my breakout status. Clevinger has a four-pitch arsenal with a 92-93 mph fastball and was very hard to hit (.211 average allowed). What he doesn’t have is plus control at this point in his career, with 60 walks. He also had a large platoon split, holding righties to a .570 OPS while lefties were at .819. His statistical comps on Baseball Prospectus are guys like J.A. Happ, John Maine and David Phelps — but also a young Jake Arrieta.
Verdict: He’ll have a better season than Vinnie Pestano (trades like that are how you build a 100-win team), but the control will prevent him from making a leap forward or repeating his 3.11 ERA.
After a disastrous rookie season, when he posted an 8.02 ERA in 14 starts, Berrios started the 2017 season in Triple-A, made six dominant starts there and then went 14-8 with a 3.89 ERA with the Twins. While you see 145 innings with the Twins, he threw 184 between the minors and the majors, so we know he can handle a 30-start workload. At times the stuff is electric, especially when he can bend his curveball like a whiffle ball and make batters look silly.
Verdict: The changeup is still a work in progress as batters slugged .581 off it, and his fastball isn’t a big swing-and-miss offering yet. He should be good again, but I think he’s at least another year away from better things.
Sources — Boston Red Sox, Enrique Hernandez agree to 2-year, $14 million deal
Hernandez, originally acquired from the Miami Marlins as part of a seven-player trade in December of 2014, was a key cog for the Los Angeles Dodgers over these last six years because of his infectious energy, defensive versatility and production against left-handed pitching.
Hernandez, 29, is a career .240/.313/.425 hitter, making him slightly below league average, but can provide premium defense as a middle infielder and in the outfield. From 2016 to 2020, Hernandez compiled 5.7 FanGraphs wins above replacement.
One of his greatest highlights with the Dodgers came in October, when he hit the game-tying home run in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series.
MLB Network was first to report the deal.
ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez contributed to this report.
Davey Johnson hospitalized with COVID-19, former New York Mets spokesman says
Former New York Mets manager Davey Johnson is in a Florida hospital with COVID-19, according to former Mets spokesman Jay Horwitz.
Horwitz said he spoke with Johnson briefly on Friday.
— New York Mets (@Mets) January 22, 2021
Johnson, 77, was a four-time All-Star second baseman and managed the Mets to their most recent World Series title in 1986.
He played for Baltimore (1965-72), Atlanta (1973-75), Yomiuri (1976), Philadelphia (1977-78) and the Chicago Cubs (1978), winning a World Series title in 1970 and making the final out of the Orioles’ 1969 Series loss to the Mets. He hit .261 with 136 homers and 609 RBIs, getting picked for All-Star teams from 1968 to ’70 and again in 1973.
Johnson managed the Mets (1985-90), Cincinnati (1993-95), Baltimore (1996-97), the Los Angeles Dodgers (1999-2000) and Washington (2011-13), leading his teams to a 1,372-1,071 record and six first-place finishes. He also managed the U.S. to a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics and fourth place at the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Hank Aaron was one of the five best MLB players ever
So much of Henry Aaron’s baseball legacy is attached to three numbers — 715, 755 and whatever Barry Bonds’ career home run total ended up at — that we too often overlook his all-around brilliance on the field. Put it this way: If you turned his 755 home runs into outs, he still finished with more than 3,000 hits. Or another way: He played 23 major league seasons and was a 25-time All-Star (there were multiple All-Star Games early in Aaron’s career).
Even though he is widely regarded as one of the top five players in MLB history, Aaron has remained underrated among the all-time greats. He played most of his career in the shadow of Willie Mays, his contemporary who was the more visually breathtaking player thanks to Mays’ defense in center field. Many still consider Babe Ruth the greatest right fielder. So Aaron ranks merely as the second-best player of his generation and the second-best right fielder of all time.
When experts and fans talk about the best hitters in the game’s history, they usually talk about Ruth and Ted Williams and Bonds, or even singles hitters like Tony Gwynn, before Aaron’s name comes up. No player, however, played with such sustained, consistent excellence for so long as Aaron.
Showing up every day isn’t glamorous, but it’s one way you topple Ruth and hit 755 home runs. As a rookie with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954, Henry Aaron fractured his ankle in early September, ending his season at 122 games. Maybe he wasn’t quite Cal Ripken as an Ironman, but Aaron didn’t miss many more games after that. From 1955 to 1968, he played 2,157 out of a possible 2,214 games, missing an average of just 4.1 games per season. In 1969 and 1970, then 35 and 36 years old, he fell all the way down to 147 and 150 games.
Along the way, he never had even a single bad season. His only MVP award came in 1957, but Aaron finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting 13 times during an era in which the National League was packed with future Hall of Famers vying for the award and finished in the top three in three different decades. Here’s one way to look at his high level of play for nearly two decades:
Most 6-WAR seasons
Tris Speaker 14
Most 7-WAR seasons
Lou Gehrig 11
Mays is right up there with Aaron, but even Mays faded in his late 30s. Mays’ last 30-homer season came at age 35 in 1966. From age 36 on, he hit 118 home runs. Aaron hit a career-high 47 home runs at age 37, and from age 36 on he hit 201 home runs.
That’s another testament to Aaron’s consistency. Forty-seven other players have hit at least 47 home runs in a season — 15 of them more than once — but Aaron is still second all-time in home runs. Since he finished his career in 1976, four players have hit more home runs through age 30 than Aaron. None of them could keep it going in their 30s:
Up to age 30
Alex Rodriguez: 464 HR, 85.0 WAR
Ken Griffey Jr.: 438 HR, 76.2 WAR
Albert Pujols: 408 HR, 81.4 WAR
Andruw Jones: 368 HR, 61.0 WAR
Henry Aaron: 366 HR, 80.7 WAR
After age 30
Rodriguez: 232 HR, 32.5 WAR
Griffey: 192 HR, 7.6 WAR
Pujols: 254 HR, 19.4 WAR
Jones: 66 HR, 1.7 WAR
Aaron: 389 HR, 62.4 WAR
In 1955, in his second season in the majors, at just 21 years old, Aaron hit .314 with 27 homers, 105 runs and 106 RBIs, his first great season. In 1973, at 39 years old, he hit .301 with 40 home runs — in just 120 games. But Aaron wasn’t just a slugger. He finished with a .305 career average, hitting .300 14 times, even though many of his peak seasons came in the 1960s, in the most difficult hitting conditions since the dead-ball era. In an interview with MLB Network just last month, Aaron said the thing he was most proud of was that “I didn’t strike out.”
Indeed, he never struck out 100 times in a season and finished with more walks than strikeouts. Keep in mind that Ruth, playing in an era with far fewer strikeouts than even Aaron’s era, led his league five times in strikeouts. Ruth fanned in 12.5% of his plate appearances, Aaron in just 9.9% of his. Maybe that’s why Aaron was such a good clutch hitter and RBI guy. He hit .324 in his career with runners in scoring position, and in “late and close” situations when the game is most on the line, he hit .318/.407/.576 — better than his overall line of .305/.374/.555.
Tim Kurkjian remembers the impact of Hank Aaron, which extended far beyond the baseball diamond.
Bonds might have passed Aaron on the home run list, but Aaron is still the all-time leader in RBIs and total bases. Using the unofficial list at Baseball-Reference.com (RBIs are considered official only since 1920), Aaron’s 2,297 outpace Ruth’s 2,214. Pujols stands at 2,100, but 2021 will likely be his last season.
Years ago, Aaron stepped into the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball booth. At one point, there was a runner on second base with no outs. Joe Morgan asked Aaron how often he tried to move the runner along to third — expecting, perhaps, Aaron to say he played the game the “right way” and hit the ball to the right side. Aaron let out a big, hearty laugh. “Never,” he said. “I always tried to knock the guy in.”
The total bases record might be even more unbreakable. Aaron has 6,856 — well ahead of Stan Musial’s 6,134. If another player came along and replicated Musial’s numbers, he would still need to hit 181 home runs to break Aaron’s record.
Aaron wasn’t just a dominant hitter, but also an outstanding fielder and baserunner. He won three Gold Gloves, and while fielding metrics from his era are informed estimates, Baseball-Reference rates him ninth among right fielders in runs saved at plus-98 for his career. He stole 240 bases with an excellent success rate, and when he hit 44 home runs and stole 31 bases in 1963, he became just the third player to go 30-30 in the same season (after Ken Williams and Mays). Joe Torre, his longtime teammate with the Braves, said he never saw Aaron make a mistake on the field. To top it off, while he appeared in just three postseasons (the 1957 and 1958 World Series and 1969 National League Championship Series), he hit .362/.405/.710 with six home runs in 17 games.
He’s fifth all-time among position players in career WAR:
Ty Cobb: 151.0
You can add Ted Williams to the conversation (121.9 WAR despite missing several prime years due to World War II and the Korean War) — although Williams wasn’t the fielder or baserunner that Bonds, Mays and Aaron were. So, yeah, top five is accurate, probably ahead of Cobb once you make a timeline adjustment, and you can judge what you want to do with Bonds.
What about playing at the same time as Mays? OK. Sure. Mays’ greatness did seem to make Aaron a little underappreciated, even back in their playing days. Not everyone from that time necessarily agreed, however. Here’s a quote from Hall of Fame third baseman Pie Traynor in 1964: “I’ll take Hank Aaron any day over Mays. Give me a guy who’ll go out there and play every game, never get tired, doesn’t complain and won’t faint on you. … You don’t hear much about Hank, yet he’s just as good a fielder, runner and a steadier and better hitter.”
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