Potential Breakout Pitchers for 2014


Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

This is NOT your typical “I like these pitchers to improve” article. The pitchers that follow began to throw a new pitch or use a significantly different pitch mix toward the end of the 2013 season.  

“Is this a big deal?”, you ask. It really can be. A pitcher going from two pitches to three can lead to a big increase in performance.  Or a pitcher that struggles to get opposite handed hitters out who then adds a pitch to erode the split advantage can launch a pitcher into stardom (think Max Scherzer adding a curveball in last season).  

I used the techniques described in this instructional post to search for pitchers who made a change during 2013.  The scope of the search was to compare the pitch mix of any pitcher with at least 50 IP in the first half of the season to that same pitcher’s mix in the second half of the season.  The same 50 IP requirement applied in the second half (no relievers welcome in this search).  Here are a few of the interesting results my search for breakout pitchers turned up (read carefully, not everything I found suggested good things to come).

Corey Kluber

I should clarify that I performed my search first by seeing which pitchers had the greatest change the percentage of time they threw a fastball (if you threw the fastball less, another pitch was thrown more).

In looking at Kluber’s pitch usage, you see he didn’t add a new pitch as much as he significantly changed the mix of his pitches. There’s a pretty significant increase in usage of the sinker in 2013 over 2012 as well as a steady progression within the 2013 season.  It even looks like there is some data for a spring training game popping up for 2014, and if once spring game can mean anything, the change in mix might continue.  What’s odd is that the sinker appears to be Kluber’s worst pitch!

I don’t know what to make of this. Corey Kluber has some sleeper buzz about him, but consider me a hesitant buyer at this point.  I’m going to pass on him, but monitor his pitch mix once the season starts.  If I see improved effectiveness in the sinker or a migration towards the cutter and change up, I’ll look to buy at that time.

Justin Masterson

Masterson didn’t really add a new pitch, but he is phasing out his fastball in favor of added reliance on his sinker and his slider. Justin Masterson has been a workhorse the last several years (180, 216, 206, and 193 IP the last four seasons).  But he had a WHIP of 1.50, 1.28, and 1.45 from 2010 to 2012.  A workhorse that destroys your WHIP is a bad thing.  Those historic WHIP numbers led me to be highly skeptical of Masterson’s 3.45 ERA and 1.20 WHIP last season.  He’s destined for a huge regression, right?

Not so fast.  That change in pitch mix has me believing it’s for real.  The huge improvement in his ERA and WHIP were driven by a giant leap in strike out rate (from roughly 17.5% the last three years to 24.3% in 2013).  And it looks to be directly tied to the slider.  179 strike outs in 341 pitch-ending at bats!  His slider is elite, the numbers prove it.

He’s being drafted around the likes of Clay Buchholz, Neftali Feliz, Zack Wheeler, and AJ Burnett.  I’m guessing people are skeptical of the leap he took and are looking for a fall back to some middle ground.  But I’m believing this.  Give me Masterson over that group of question marks.

Garrett Richards

Here’s our first potential “new pitch”.  Richards has dabbled with the curve in the past, but in August and September, he threw it 40 times, significantly more times than ever before in an individual month.  Like Scherzer, he’s throwing it mostly to left-handed batters, and it has proven effective to this point. Garrett Richards is not of the same pedigree of Scherzer and he’s not going to win the Cy Young this year.  But he made significant strides in his control last year (cut BB/9 from 4.31 in 2012 to 2.73 in 2013).  If he truly has added another weapon to his arsenal and can continue to improve his control, I think we’re looking at another step forward.   He should come cheap too.  He can probably be had as your last pick in a draft.

Shelby Miller

As good as he was last year, Shelby Miller lacked a weapon to get left-handers out.

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As the season progressed, he started to work a change up into his mix (Ignore the playoffs.  If you’ll remember, he was effectively shut down in the playoffs and only pitched one inning).  Neither the curve nor the change was particularly effective last year, but we can see he’s working on a tool to erode this platoon split.

This isn’t enough to make me want to act.  I want to see a hint of results before I’m ready to invest, but I’ll add him to my watch list too.  If either the curve or the change up prove to be effective against lefties, I’ll consider pursuing him in-season.  He definitely merits watching though.  With as good as he was last year, it’s hard to imagine what he could become with a third effective pitch.

Dan Straily

Dan Straily started to tinker with a curve ball in 2013.  He threw it twice in July, ten times in August, and 18 times in September.  There’s really not much data to go on for this pitch, but it’s good to see him trying.  He might be in line for 200 IP (he pitched 180+ last year across AAA and the majors), especially with the injuries to A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker.  Not to mention that his slider already is an effective pitch against lefties.  The increase in playing time, the ball park, and the minor league success are enough to have me interested.  The possible addition of a new pitch that would give him three velocities (like Scherzer added) is a huge bonus.

Andrew Cashner

We’re told that you’re not supposed to read a lot into first and second-half splits.  If there is no logical reason to do so, you are not supposed to set arbitrary break points for analyzing players.  But with Andrew Cashner, we may have legitimate reasons to look at his splits.  Take a look at his first half and second half, and then I’ll show you why I think it’s acceptable to break his season down like this:

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Now look at his pitch mix during the year.   Notice the dramatic rise in use of the sinker and slider.  Now look at the results of those two pitches.

So we have a noticeable change in Cashner’s approach.  Thus, it makes sense to evaluate his approach in the first half separately from his approach in the second half.  He’s a trendy sleeper this year, but he looks to be worth the risk.  His 2013 season stats don’t fully reflect the effectiveness he had after increasing his reliance upon the sinker and slider.