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Can 2017’s breakout pitchers do it again this season? – SweetSpot



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.

Luis Severino, New York Yankees

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.

Charlie Morton, Houston Astros

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.

Alex Wood, Los Angeles Dodgers

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.

Robbie Ray, Arizona Diamondbacks

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.

Chase Anderson, Milwaukee Brewers

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.

Mike Clevinger, Cleveland Indians

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.

Jose Berrios, Minnesota Twins

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.

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Why Gary Sanchez isn’t catching Gerrit Cole in Game 1 for the Yankees



CLEVELAND — You will never be able to outwork Gerrit Cole, but you have to try. That is the advice that Cole’s former catchers with the Astros have for Kyle Higashioka, the New York Yankees backup who has earned the job as Cole’s latest personal receiver.

Cole has publicly stood by Gary Sanchez, the Yankees’ starting catcher, praising him for executing their chosen plan of attack and understanding the nuances of the Yankees’ diverse pitching staff. But Higashioka has earned the job of catching Cole in Game 1 of the wild-card series by virtue of pure results. And, as manager Aaron Boone said heading into the MLB playoffs, “Performance matters; results matter.”

Cole finished his first regular season with the Yankees 7-3 with a solid 2.84 ERA overall, but was 3-1 with a 1.00 ERA in his last four starts — with 34 strikeouts in 24 innings — all with the backup Higashioka behind the dish.

In February 2018, during his first spring training as Yankees manager, Boone said he was against the concept of a “personal catcher.” But that was then. Now, Higashioka will be paired with Cole for his first postseason start in pinstripes.

“I don’t necessarily love it; that said, I don’t mind it,” Boone said in explaining his inclination to pair Cole with “Higgy” before Monday’s announcement. “If you have a guy that is the clear backup that’s only playing once every four days or once every five days and they get in a good rhythm with a pitcher … Obviously, I’ve been doing it here with Higgy and Cole. Over the long haul maybe you try to avoid it a little bit, but if things are rolling, I’m not against it.”

It would be overly simplistic to say that a partnership with Sánchez will not ultimately work for Cole. Cole went 4-2 with a 3.91 ERA in eight games with Sánchez behind the plate, with 60 strikeouts in 46 innings, good numbers — but not as good as those with Higashioka.

On Monday, Cole explained why he thinks he’s clicking while pitching to Higashioka: “Probably because we’re both from Southern California. I mean, we have a lot of the same interests, and Kyle’s ability to communicate, be a really creative thinker, good pitch framer, good pitch caller. So we’ve worked out well together. That’s what I have to say about that.”

Higashioka addressed what many Yankees fans are probably wondering about in the wake of the announcement — where does this leave Sánchez? — saying, “I know Gary and I know he’s extremely mentally tough so if anything, it’s gonna just spur him on to performing even better, get back to his normal self.”

Veteran Robinson Chirinos had a comparable experience when Martin Maldonado arrived via trade in Houston, and Cole started partnering with him on a regular basis, although the Astros manager then, AJ Hinch, a former catcher himself, would split the catching workload. Chirinos admits that it can be hurtful to realize that your ace performs better or feels more comfortable with someone else behind the plate, but hopes it will be a good lesson for Sánchez that helps him mature and gain the necessary experience and knowledge to be successful in catching an ace like Cole.

“Gary is a very talented young man who doesn’t have a lot of experience catching Cole yet, so communication is key,” Chirinos said in a phone conversation with ESPN. “Gerrit is very smart. He knows what he has to do, and the only way that a catcher can do a good job is to learn how Cole thinks and what he likes and wants. You have to be there for him. My advice would be to keep up the communication. It’s about doing your job to be prepared every time he takes the mound, and he will always give you a chance to win.”

When catching someone as cerebral as Cole, Chirinos believes the best course of action is to develop an intimate knowledge of his capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, in particular when it comes to locating pitches or throwing a certain pitch for a strike.

“For example, when I started catching Cole, he told me that I needed to set up deeper inside, set up more consistently inside. He believed that I did not do a good job of commanding the inside part of the plate. And I agreed,” Chirinos said. “With the stuff that Gerrit has, and catching him where he wanted consistently, it made it much more difficult for batters inside. That was what made the hitters feel more uncomfortable, and from there on we developed a great connection.”

Sánchez’s biggest upside has always been what his bat adds to the lineup. The Yankees learned to bear with his defensive lapses in exchange for getting a generational talent at the plate. In his 2017 breakout season, Sánchez had 16 passed balls, tied for the major league lead, but more than made up for it with his bat, hitting .278 with 33 home runs.

After leading the majors once again in 2018 with 18 passed balls over 89 games, the most in baseball, Sánchez was widely disparaged for his blocking skills. While dealing with a groin injury, Sánchez finished the 2018 season batting just .186 with 18 homers. His defense was considered much improved last season, during which he was the American League’s starting catcher in the 2019 All-Star Game. Sánchez finished the season hitting .232 with 34 home runs — but his 15 fielding errors were most among catchers.

The difference this 2020 season is that Sánchez’s bat has not offset his defensive woes. Sánchez’s five passed balls are second most in baseball. Among advanced metrics, Statcast places him 54th among 61 MLB catchers in runs gained from framing, costing the Yankees three runs’ worth of strikes over the season. But worse yet, at the plate Sánchez has slashed just .147/.253/.365 with 10 home runs.

Sánchez’s struggles at the plate eventually led Boone to bench him in an effort to help him regain his stroke. He has also been working with catching coordinator Tanner Swanson on a new one-knee catching technique to improve his framing for low pitches.

One of the hardest things to do in baseball is to call a game and do it well. And so far Higashioka seems to better fit the bill for the job of catching Cole. While catchers always try to learn as much about as possible about a pitching staff, when it comes to Cole, his former catchers, Maldonado and Chirinos, said that you learn to devote as much time as he does into assessing and delivering pitches.

“Communication is key. This is the time to ask where to set the mitt for fastballs inside. That’s just an example of something that he had to tell me several times, and the only way to learn is by asking,” Chirinos said.

“Gerrit is always talking about previous games, what we should have called or shouldn’t have called,” Maldonado observed. “And Gerrit is very smart. If you talk to him about a game, he will remember every pitch he threw. So he’s not only a pitcher with plus stuff, he’s very intelligent and someone who prepares to the max. And you have to do the same.”

That’s for the future, but it’s crunch time, and the Yankees had an important decision to make ahead of the wild-card series in Cleveland: Who’s catching Cole in Game 1? Boone made his decision public Monday when he announced that Higashioka would be behind the plate. It probably didn’t help Sanchez’s case that he also hasn’t hit well at Progressive Field in his career, 3-for-19 with nine strikeouts and a lone home run.

“I hope our clubhouse always understands that ultimately the team and our success as a team come first,” Boone said before he’d made his choice. “We care about who they are and their careers. You’re constantly trying to strike that balance. Along the way come difficult decisions, decisions that players are certainly going to disagree with, and that’s okay. Hopefully, we always strike that balance … the team comes first, no matter what decisions we have to make.”

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Derek Jeter says Miami Marlins building for the long haul



MIAMI — The Miami Marlins‘ first MLB playoff appearance since 2003 is not supposed to last long.

They’re regarded as young, inexperienced overachievers who benefited from the short season and expanded playoff format. They were outscored by 41 runs this year, and no team has longer odds of winning the World Series at 33-1.

But even if their postseason ends this week in the wild-card round at Wrigley Field, the Marlins believe it’s just the beginning of a new era for the long-suffering franchise.

“For us, this is a steppingstone,” CEO Derek Jeter said Monday. “We didn’t come here to chase ‘a’ championship or ‘a’ playoff appearance. We want to be sustainable.”

Three years into Jeter’s organizational overhaul, the Marlins appear to be built to last as they’re just starting to win. They have an abundance of young pitching, a strong farm system and a modest, manageable payroll.

One year removed from a 105-loss season, the National League East runner-up Marlins will face the NL Central champion Chicago Cubs in the best-of-three wild-card round beginning Wednesday.

“To go through what we did last year, you feel like you’re in a boat in the middle of the ocean and you have no idea where land is, but you know it’s out there,” manager Don Mattingly said. “You have to have faith. That’s why it feels so good to get to this point, and this is the beginning of that, not the end.”

Attendance remains at zero because of the coronavirus, but the bandwagon is growing. Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores wore a Marlins cap at work Monday.

Few foresaw the Marlins as a playoff team, especially after a virus outbreak nearly ended their season after just three games. But a patchwork roster thanks to 174 roster moves produced the team’s first winning season (31-29) since 2009.

“There has been a lot of adversity for this group,” Jeter said. “I’m a little biased, but I don’t think there’s a team in baseball that deserves it more, because our guys have been through quite a bit.”

The Marlins navigated a marathon closing stretch — Monday was their first day off after 28 games in 24 days.

Now they can catch their breath. And in the playoffs, they’ll go about their business with little pressure, especially compared to, say, the Cubs (34-26).

“We’re playing loose; we’ve got nothing to lose,” closer Brandon Kintzler said. “We’re playing with house money. We’re a dangerous team — we’ve got starting pitching that contends with anybody in baseball.”

The rotation is indeed the Marlins’ strength, and with Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Sixto Sanchez, they have three young right-handers capable of taking over a short series.

“We know our dudes have got some stuff,” Mattingly said. “If they get on a roll, you don’t really want to be on the other side of that.”

Miami will be without right-hander Jose Urena, who broke his right forearm when he was hit by a line drive Sunday against the New York Yankees.

The Marlins’ most recent trip to the playoffs also included games at Wrigley Field. In 2003, they won the National League Championship Series there one night after a fan literally lent a hand to the Marlins’ comeback win in Game 6 by trying to catch a foul ball at a pivotal moment.

This time, because of the pandemic, there will be no fans in the stands. Mattingly figures that’s good news for his young team.

“It’s really different playing with nobody at Wrigley than with the streets going crazy and people packed into the building,” Mattingly said. “The younger guys get a little bit of a break not to have to walk in with the place packed and a hostile environment.”

Even minus spectators, however, the Marlins hear taunts from skeptics. One disparaging description — bottom feeders — stuck and raised their hackles even before the season began.

“That has been the term that has pushed us. Every time we won a game, we said, ‘Good job, bottom feeders,'” outfielder Lewis Brinson said. “We knew going into spring training nobody believed in us. We appreciate it. We love it. We want to eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, because that’s what has gotten us to this moment.”

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Jay Johnstone, a two-time World Series champion and popular prankster around MLB, dies at 74



LOS ANGELES — Jay Johnstone, who won World Series championships as a versatile outfielder with the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers while being baseball’s merry prankster, has died. He was 74.

He died last Saturday of complications from COVID-19 and also had suffered from dementia in recent years, according to his daughter, Mary Jayne Sarah Johnstone. He died at a nursing home in Granada Hills, she said Monday.

“COVID was the one thing he couldn’t fight,” his daughter said by phone “It’s really kind of shocking.”

Besides the Yankees and Dodgers, Johnstone played for the California Angels, Chicago White Sox, Oakland, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Chicago Cubs during a 20-year major league career that began in 1966 and ended in 1985. He had a career batting average of .267, with 102 home runs and 531 RBIs.

In the 1981 World Series, Johnstone had a pinch-hit, two-run homer in Game 4 that rallied the Dodgers to an 8-7 win over the Yankees. That tied the series at two games apiece, and the Dodgers won the next two games to claim the title.

In his first postseason experience, he went 7-for-9 as the Phillies got swept by Cincinnati in the 1976 National League Championship Series. He played for the Yankees when they beat the Dodgers to win the 1978 crown.

With the Angels, Johnstone preserved Clyde Wright’s no-hitter against Oakland on July 3, 1970. He caught a fly ball by Reggie Jackson to straightaway center field just in front of the wall in the seventh inning.

Johnstone possessed a sense of humor that he used to keep his teammates loose with pranks. He would nail their cleats to the floor or set them on fire. He cut out the crotch area of Rick Sutcliffe’s underwear.

Johnstone once replaced the celebrity photos in the office of Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda with pictures of himself, Jerry Reuss and Don Stanhouse. He locked Lasorda in his office during spring training.

Another time, Johnstone and Reuss dressed up as groundskeepers to drag the infield during a game. Lasorda imposed a fine on both players for being out of uniform, and Johnstone responded with a pinch-hit home run.

His daughter said Johnstone’s pranks didn’t end at the ballpark. She recalled rubber snakes in their pool and spiders by the bathtub. She said her friends loved being around her father because “he always made us laugh.”

“He wanted to find the humor in life no matter how serious things got,” she said. “That was his motto to everything: bring a smile to people’s faces. Everyone loved him.”

After retiring, Johnstone briefly worked as a radio color commentator for the Yankees and Phillies. During an interview with Yankee players Deion Sanders and Mel Hall, he got them to uncover a restaurant bread basket containing a snake, startling both players, who jumped out of their seats.

Born John William Johnstone Jr. on Nov. 20, 1945, in Manchester, Connecticut, he moved to California and grew up in West Covina. After attending Edgewood High, he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Angels in 1963 and made his major league debut at 20.

Johnstone appeared in the hit movie “The Naked Gun” as a member of the Seattle Mariners in a game against the Angels.

Besides his daughter, he is survived by his wife of 52 years, Mary Jayne Johnstone, and son-in-law Ryan Dudasik.

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