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.
Hank Aaron remembered at funeral by Bill Clinton, Bud Selig, others
ATLANTA — The Hammer made one last trip to the spot where he hit No. 715.
After a nearly three-hour funeral service Wednesday that featured two former presidents, a long-time baseball commissioner and a civil rights icon, the hearse carrying Hank Aaron’s body detoured off the road bearing his name to swing through the former site of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
That’s where Aaron broke an iconic record on April 8, 1974, eclipsing the home run mark established by Babe Ruth.
The stadium was imploded in 1997 after the Braves moved across the street to Turner Field, replaced by a parking lot for the new ballpark. But the outer retaining wall of the old stadium remains, along with a modest display in the midst of the nondescript lot that marks the exact location where the record-breaking homer cleared the left-field fence.
A steady stream of baseball fans have been stopping by the site — comprising a small section of fence, a wall and a baseball-shaped sign that says “Hank Aaron Home Run 715” — since “Hammerin’ Hank” died Friday at age 86. The fence is covered with flowers, notes and baseball memorabilia.
Fittingly, Aaron’s funeral procession went by the display on the way to his burial at South-View Cemetery, the oldest Black burial ground in Atlanta and resting place for prominent civil rights leaders such as John Lewis and Julian Bond.
The police-escorted line of cars passed near the gold-domed Georgia state capitol, went under the tower that displayed the Olympic torch during the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, and headed down Hank Aaron Drive.
At the bottom of a hill, the procession took a sharp right turn toward the site of the former stadium. Aaron’s flower-covered hearse and all the vehicles that followed did a loop through the circular parking lot, which covers the footprint of the cookie-cutter stadium that became home of the Braves after they moved from Milwaukee in 1966.
It was a touching tribute that capped off several days of remembrances for one of baseball’s great players. The Braves held a memorial ceremony Tuesday at their current home, suburban Truist Park.
The funeral service touched as much on Aaron’s life beyond the field as it did his unparalleled baseball accomplishments, honoring his business acumen, charitable donations, and steadfast determination to provide educational opportunities for the underprivileged.
“His whole life was a home run,'” former President Bill Clinton said. “Now he has rounded the bases.”
Clinton said the two became close friends after Aaron endorsed him during the 1992 presidential campaign, when he pulled out a narrow victory in Georgia. Clinton had been the last Democrat to win the state until Joe Biden edged Donald Trump in November.
“For the rest of his life, he never let me forget who was responsible for winning,” Clinton quipped, drawing a few chuckles during the mostly somber ceremony. “Hank Aaron never bragged about anything — except carrying Georgia for me in 1992.”
Bud Selig, who was commissioner of Major League Baseball for more than two decades and another close friend of Aaron’s, said one of his fondest memories was being at Milwaukee’s County Stadium as a fan for the pennant-clinching homer that sent the Braves to the 1957 World Series.
“The only ticket I could get was an obstructed-view seat in the bleachers behind a big, metal post,” the 86-year-old Selig said. “The image of the great Aaron, deliriously happy, being hoisted on the shoulders of his teammates and carried off the field is indelibly imprinted in my memory.”
Andrew Young, a top lieutenant of Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil right movement and a former Atlanta mayor, said Aaron helped transform his adopted hometown into one of America’s most influential cities.
The Braves moved to the Deep South during an era of intense racial strife, Young pointed out, but having one of the game’s greatest Black players helped ease some of the tensions.
Atlanta continued its explosive growth, eventually landing such major sporting events as the Olympics, multiple Super Bowls and World Series, as well as numerous college sports championships.
“Just his presence, before he hit a hit, changed this city,” Young said. “We’ve never been the same.”
Only about 50 people attended the funeral service because of COVID-19 restrictions. Other sent videotaped messages, including another former president, Jimmy Carter.
Remembering his tenure as governor of Georgia, the 96-year-old Carter joked that after the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce gave Aaron a new Cadillac, he followed up with “a $10 tag” to go on the vehicle. It said “HLA 715,” a nod to the initials for Henry Louis Aaron.
The two became close friends and even took vacation trips to Colorado with their wives. In one pursuit, at least, Carter was the better athlete.
“Hank and I both learned how to ski together,” Carter said. “He skied fairly well. I was a little bit better than that on skis.”
A longtime Braves fan, Carter noted that he was at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium the night Aaron hit his iconic home run.
On Wednesday, the Hammer went there for the final time.
Reports — New York Yankees agree with reliever Darren O’Day on 1-year, $2.5 million deal
The deal includes player and club options for 2022 and is subject to a successful physical, according to reports.
O’Day takes the spot vacated when the Yankees traded right-hander Adam Ottavino to Boston on Monday, a move that cut $7.15 million from New York’s payroll. O’Day figures to join left-hander Zack Britton and right-hander Chad Green as the primary setup men for closer Aroldis Chapman.
O’Day, 38, was 4-0 with a 1.10 ERA in 16⅓ innings over 19 games last year with Atlanta, striking out 22 and walking five while allowing eight hits. While his fastball averaged just 86 mph, his low arm angle creates deception; right-handed hitters batted .143 (7-for-49) off him with one home run, by Boston’s Xander Bogaerts, the leadoff batter of O’Day’s final appearance of the season. Left-handed hitters were 1 for 10.
He became a free agent when Atlanta declined a $3.25 million option, triggering a $250,000 buyout.
O’Day is a 13-year major league veteran, going 40-19 with a 2.51 ERA and 600 strikeouts and 158 walks in 576⅔ innings for the Los Angeles Angels (2008), New York Mets (2009), Texas (2009-11), Baltimore (2012-18) and Braves (2019-20).
He was an All-Star in 2015, when he had a 1.52 ERA and six saves while striking out 82 in 65⅓ innings, but he missed the final two months of the 2018 season with a strained left hamstring and the first five months of 2019 with a strained right forearm sustained during spring training.
O’Day made $833,333 in prorated pay last year from a $2.25 million salary, down from a $31 million, four-year contract he signed with Baltimore ahead of the 2016 season. His wife, Elizabeth Prann, is a correspondent for HLN and CNN, formerly of Fox News.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
George Springer sees echoes of Houston Astros in Toronto Blue Jays’ young core
Springer and the Blue Jays agreed last week to a team-record $150 million, six-year contract. He joined a roster that includes young sluggers Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, The three-time All-Star outfielder was 2017 World Series MVP when he played with Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa.
“This lineup reminds me a lot of them,” Springer said, wearing a Toronto cap and jersey during a video news conference. “It is a young lineup but it’s a very talented, advanced younger lineup. From everything I’ve seen, they’re very, very ambitious. They want to win, they work hard. That’s awesome to see.”
“I think the young core is very, VERY impressive! Bichette, Biggio, Guerrero, Gurriel…” – George Springer 👀 pic.twitter.com/y8ESk9ehzN
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) January 27, 2021
Toronto went 32-28 during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, finishing third in the AL East behind the Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Yankees and qualifying for the expanded postseason. The Blue Jays were swept in two games during a first-round series by the eventual AL champion Rays.
“I think they’re right there,” Springer said of Toronto. “When you play against this team like I have, you could see the talent, could see the potential in their lineup, in their staff, in their arms. I think this team is built to win, and I think they’re going to be built to win for a long time.”
Team president Mark Shapiro said Springer was “clearly a good fit” for the emerging Blue Jays.
“His experience will add a certain level of wisdom to our players,” Shapiro said. “He’s been places where our guys haven’t been yet and knows how to handle those environments.”
In seven seasons, Springer has a .270 career average with 174 home runs and 458 RBIs, including career bests of .292 with 39 homers and 96 RBIs in 2019.
Besides Springer, Toronto also has signed right-handers Kirby Yates and Tyler Chatwood in the past week. The Blue Jays have a pending $18 million, one-year deal with infielder Marcus Semien, subject to a successful physical.
“We’ve taken the next step and we’ll see where that takes us,” general manager Ross Atkins said.
Shapiro insisted the Blue Jays still have flexibility to add payroll, likely to strengthen the rotation, but said “the bulk of our heavy lifting is done.”
Springer split time between center field and right with the Astros, but is expected to become a fixture in center for the Blue Jays. He’s also likely to lead off Toronto’s batting order.
“It’s no secret that George is a great leadoff hitter,” manager Charlie Montoyo said.
“I’m willing to do whatever it is they want me to do,” Springer said. “I’m here for the team, I’m here to win so whatever they want me to do, I’ll gladly do it.”
Springer said the Blue Jays contacted him early in the free agent process, putting him in “a very good state of mind” right from the first call.
“When you have a young talented group that’s already in place, it’s obviously very, very attractive because you know what they could potentially do,” he said.
Springer’s contract is the second $100 million-plus deal in team history. In December 2006, center fielder Vernon Wells and the Blue Jays agreed to a $126 million, seven-year contract.
Under new owner Steve Cohen, the New York Mets were said to be interested in Springer, but the outfielder wouldn’t address their pursuit.
“This is about the Blue Jays,” Springer said. “I don’t really have anything to say on that matter. I’m extremely happy to be where I am.”
“I talk to Mike as a friend probably every day,” Springer said. “It’s not my business to ask him all that stuff. I was hopeful for it but, ultimately, I’m happy for him.”
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