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Finding Breakout Pitchers Using Stuff

Earlier this week I debuted a piece outlining a different way of looking at plate discipline. The idea centers around two different metrics Command and Stuff. Command shows how much better than average a pitcher was at locating pitches based on expected whiff, in-zone, and out-of-zone swing rates. Stuff is a measure of how hitters interact with those pitches while accounting for that location. The research I presented in the first piece showed that Stuff has more correlation with success so this piece will focus on potential breakout pitchers with excellent Stuff but poor command of it.

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Using Stuff To Find Breakout Pitchers

Looking back at 2018, using this method to predict breakouts would have been a bit of a mixed bag. Below are all pitchers with above-average stuff and below-average Command who threw over 2000 pitches.

Jake Arrieta0.0682.935
Walker Buehler0.0562.975
Bartolo Colon0.0542.926
James Paxton0.0472.942
Lucas Giolito0.0452.884
Rich Hill0.0252.793
Charlie Morton0.0242.985
Joey Lucchesi0.0152.829
Ivan Nova0.0072.936
Cole Hamels0.0032.912
Vince Velasquez0.0022.943
Tyler Anderson0.0012.895

Walker Beuhler took the step up to Ace but he was not exactly coming at a discount. Paxton falls into a similar category, he was already an upper-tier pitcher so his inclusion on this list may have only caused me to push him up slightly. Charlie Morton had an incredible season largely due to a drop in walk rate. The interesting thing is that his Command figure rose in 2019 despite a minimal change in his Stuff results. The biggest difference is an improvement in expected out of zone swing rate. Buying into his stuff paid off significantly for his owners.

The prize of the list was easily Lucas Giolito. The big right-hander had a dominant 2019 season and his elite stuff was always tantalizing for fantasy owners. His issue was plainly just throwing strikes. The numbers show Giolito had elite stuff but if he could improve his Command he could take the jump. He improved his command significantly in 2019, going from 2.88 to 3.18. Similar to Morton the jump was due to better location of his out-of-zone pitches as his expected swing rate jumped by almost 5%.

Who Are 2020’s Breakouts?

Yu Darvish0.0952.908
Trevor Bauer0.0462.973
Lance Lynn0.0432.859
Chris Bassitt0.0322.985
Madison Bumgarner0.0312.888
Adrian Houser0.0302.944
Drew Smyly0.0272.994
Steven Brault0.0262.733
Josh James0.0252.959
James Paxton0.0242.990
Ivan Nova0.0112.958
Jordan Yamamoto0.0092.982
Joey Lucchesi0.0032.833

Looking at 2019 we see a few different pitchers who fit the mold of guys we saw in 2018. The chart is once again all pitchers with above-average Stuff and below-average Command. However, the list includes a few names with fewer than 2000 pitches I think are interesting.  Darvish is similar to Paxton or Beuhler with truly top-end stuff despite relatively shaky command. He is not a sleeper by any means but the overall line does not paint an accurate picture of his 2019. Darvish was incredible down the stretch and I am sure his Command was much improved in the second half despite this lower figure. I am all in on Darvish this season.

Bauer could play the role of Paxton this season. He is a high-end talent with some question marks. His are less injury-related than Paxton but his inclusion on this list gives me hope he can bounce back.

Lynn seems to be similar to Morton and if he can make a small improvement in Command he may be set up for a massive season. His 2019 was incredible for his owners and I expect 2020 to be no different.

However, the role of Giolito is an interesting one. There seem to be a few names that stick out to me as ideal candidates. The first one is Josh James. James was a popular sleeper last season when he was injured in camp and lost a shot at the fifth starter role. He was solid out of the bullpen but his control was atrocious. He never got another shot in the rotation. This season he may be the beneficiary of an injury to Brad Peacock. James has some of the best stuff in all of baseball and this number supports it. I will be all in on buying the upside as James could be a fantasy ace if he can command his incredible stuff a little better.

Another popular sleeper is Adrian Houser. Similar to James, Houser has bounced around the rotation and the bullpen in his career. His walk numbers do not make him seem to be a pitcher with spotty command but he struggled to locate for whiffs despite his above-average stuff. I think there is significant upside here as increasing his whiffs could lead to K% approaching 27% and a K-BB that nears 20%. Houser is a prime candidate to take the leap.

One of my personal favorite late-round dart throws is Chriss Bassitt. I am firmly in the camp that the Athletics right-hander is a star in the making. His 2019 was quietly excellent and this was despite a truly awful sinker he threw as his primary pitch. He also threw a four-seam fastball that got excellent results on contact despite overall average metrics. He locates up in the zone with the fastball extremely well and supports it with a few other solid secondary pitches. His stuff appears to be above average mainly driven by the ability to generate in-zone takes. The potential for a pitch mix change along with his already good Stuff makes him the ideal candidate for this kind of a jump. He is essentially free currently in drafts and is definitely being overlooked.

While he does not really fit into the breakout group I need to mention Drew Smyly. Smyly was pretty awful in 2019 with a ghastly HR/9 rate which led to an ERA over six. However, Stuff loves him and sees him as a pitcher with legitimate upside. The homers should come down due to the move to San Francisco. Smyly has always been a pitcher with great stuff and spotty Command according to his 2015 and 2016 numbers. However, the walk rate exploded in 2019 to levels he had never seen before. Another year removed from his mess of injuries, Smyly could be a pitcher to keep an eye on early and jump on with any signs on improvement.

For more great rankings, strategy, and analysis check out the 2020 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit. We’ll be adding more content from now right up until Opening Day!

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1 Comment
  1. Cory says

    I realize this was written a week ago, but what about the reports that are stating that Bassitt’s only shot at a spot in the rotation is Puk starting in the minors? And how much of a “star in the making” can he really be when he just turned 31? You have my curiosity piqued in him, especially when noticing his numbers in 2019 (despite his 4.40 FIP). Just curious about your thoughts on these two things.

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