MLB: National League Starting Pitcher Breakouts

Today, we will take a look at the breakout pitchers in the National League.  A few days ago, I took a look at their American League counterparts.

Remember that this list does not include pitchers who began their careers this year.  That is why a pitcher like Kyle Freeland is not featured on this list.  He has obviously been a major reason the Rockies are where they are, but he didn’t pitch one inning in MLB in 2016.

Jose Urena, Marlins (3.62 ERA in 151.2 innings with 56 walks and 104 strikeouts)

In his first 145.1 innings in the big leagues (2015-2016), Urena compiled a 5.76 ERA (4.69 FIP; 68 ERA+), a not-so-great start for a pitcher who was ranked as the #4 prospect in the system (by BaseballAmerica) before the 2015 season.

All of that has changed in 2017, as Urena (now 26 years old) has put together his first solid MLB campaign.  Is it enough for the Marlins to rely on him going forward?

Yesterday, when I posted about the American League pitchers, I noted how a few pitchers started using their sinker more often to get better results.  Urena has been the opposite of that.  Last year, he threw his sinker 39.9% of the time.  In 2017, he has used it on only 4.1% of his pitches, while increasing the use of his four-seam fastball.  He has lessened the use of his fastball in general, while increasing the usage of his slider and change.  He has scrapped a curveball that he rarely used anyway.

As you would expect, less usage of a sinker means a dropping ground ball rate.  However, his rate last year (47.7%) wasn’t exactly inspiring anyway.  Getting away from a pitch that wasn’t producing a desired result is smart.

That said, Urena still isn’t striking enough hitters out.  His FIP of 5.06 shows a pitcher that has pitched with some luck on his side.  This makes sense:  Lower ground ball rate, a lack of strikeouts, and a walk rate that isn’t good for a pitcher with his lack of strikeouts is scary.  He will need to develop something that makes hitters swing and miss more if he wants continued success.

Aaron Nola, Phillies (3.60 ERA in 155 innings with 45 walks and 167 strikeouts)

Like Severino yesterday, Nola is a pitcher that started strong in 2015, regressed in 2016, and has come back strong in 2017.  It should be noted that Nola was not nearly as bad in 2016 as Severino was, but still posted a lowly 87 ERA+ in 111 innings.

If you look at advanced metrics when picking players for your fantasy baseball team, Nola was probably high on your sleeper list this season.  His FIP in 2016 was a solid 3.08, as he allowed only 10 home runs in those 111 innings, while posting a 9.8/2.4 K/BB ratio.  Nola was good.  Almost too good to be considered for this list, but the traditional numbers (4.78 ERA) probably led to many wondering if he was going to live up to his potential.

Most of his peripheral statistics in 2017 are similar to what they were last year:  A 9.7/2.6 K/BB ratio.  A FIP of 3.25.  His HR/9 went from 0.8 to 0.9.

A four-pitch pitcher, Nola has changed some stuff up this season.  He uses his 4-seam fastball more often, his sinker less often, and has nearly doubled his usage of his curveball.   A pitcher who was better than his numbers indicated last year still changed some of his approach, and the results have been encouraging.  His ground ball rate has gone down with the change in his philosophy, however.

The Phillies’ rebuild hasn’t gone exactly according to plan yet, but Nola has been one of the bright spots.

Jimmy Nelson, Brewers (3.49 ERA in 175.1 innings with 48 walks and 199 strikeouts)

Pitchers will break your heart over and over.   The 24-year old Nelson was a main cog in the Brewers’ surprise 2017 season until he recently injured his arm (partially torn labrum), which will cost him the rest of the season.

Entering the 2017 season, Nelson had already thrown 436 innings, compiling a 4.38 ERA (4.44 FIP; 93 ERA+) and 7.3/3.6 K/BB ratio.   He went through the struggles many young pitchers go through, showing off glimpses of dominance, while frustratingly making mistakes that MLB hitters routinely punish.

Prior to 2014, Nelson had risen into the Top 100 Prospect lists, getting as high as #83 on the MLB list (he was #96 on the BaseballAmerica list).  The talent was always there for a breakthrough, and it finally showed itself this season.

His strikeout rate obviously spiked this season, while he reduced his walk rate considerably as well.    He is using his curveball more, his sinker less, and has thrown a few more “show-me” change-ups.  He has evolved nicely into one of the best young pitchers in the game, but shoulder injuries always give you a moment of pause.    Hopefully it is just a bump in the road, and not something that will significantly impact his career.

Chase Anderson, Brewers (2.88 ERA in 122 innings with 39 walks and 112 strikeouts)

It is obvious why the Brewers have emerged as one of the surprise teams in 2017, right?   Two young pitchers taking giant strides forward is always a good way to increase your win total.

A key piece in the deal that sent Arizona shortstop Jean Segura before the 2016 season, Anderson entered 2017 with a 4.26 ERA (4.50 FIP; 96 ERA+).   He had a 7.1 K/9 and 1.66 HR/9 in 2016, and nothing about his career numbers screamed big future potential.  #4-5 starter?  Certainly.  A pitcher who would be able to compile an under 3.00 ERA in over 120 innings?  You could have received decent odds if you predicted that.

In the year of the home run, Anderson is probably one of the few pitchers who has reduced his home run rate, dropping it from 1.66 all the way down to 0.89.  Part of that is courtesy of an increased rate of ground balls, but he is still far from a ground ball pitcher (38.5% this season).    The simple explanation is that when he allows those fly balls, fewer of them have gone over the fence (6.7% reduction in his HR/FB rate).

A decade ago, pitchers started throwing cut fastballs more often in a way to energize their careers.  I haven’t seen as much of that lately, as the game is always evolving.   However, increased cutter usage appears to have changed Anderson’s career for the better.   While many pitchers have increased their usage of a change-up, Anderson has reduced his rate on that pitch (24% last year; 16.7% this year) while increasing the use of his cutter (5.7% last year; 12.9% this year).  His fastball has also ticked up by 2 MPH over last year, which also helps immensely.  He still generates less ground balls than what you would think is ideal (especially since his strikeout rate is not spectacular), but you can’t argue too much about the results.   Hopefully, he can keep up the pace.

Zack Godley, Diamondbacks (3.00 ERA in 144 innings with 47 walks and 152 strikeouts)

Quick:  Name the Diamondbacks’ players who have been the leaders in this year’s resurgence.  You would not be wrong to bring up names like Zack Greinke and Paul Goldschmidt.   They are the two biggest names on the team, after all.

It is cliche to say, but I will say it any way:  It takes a roster of 25 to turn an also-ran into a playoff team.    Godley is probably the most surprising player on the entire team.

In 74.2 innings last year (some appearances as a starter, some as a reliever), Goldley compiled a god awful 6.39 ERA (4.97 FIP; 70 ERA+).   He put up a 1.487 WHIP, allowed 1.6 HR/9, and struck out 7.2/9.   Nothing in his resume at all suggested he would be much of a big help in 2017, but that is why baseball is the best game in the world:  Pitchers like Godley strike out of nowhere.

He has increased his K rate, reduced his walk rate, and has given up less home runs.  That will always be a good recipe for success.

Godley doesn’t throw 4-seam fastballs (under 1%) – he features a cutter/sinker combination, increasing the usage of the sinker this season while reducing his reliance on the cutter.   He has also spiked the use of his curve.   The system has worked:  Last year, his cutter/sinker combination produced negative value.  This year, the pitches have both produced positive value.  The reduction on his cutter usage has turned it into a better pitch.

Kids (well, at 27, he isn’t a kid by big league standards anymore) like Godley are what make baseball fun.   A pitcher without a big resume tweaks a bit of this, and a bit of that to emerge as one of the biggest pitching stories of the year.

Robbie Ray, Diamondbacks (2.74 ERA in 151 innings with 64 walks and 206 strikeouts)

Godley is a pitcher that came out of nowhere.  Ray is a pitcher that had a lot of hype surrounding him in the past.  He finally has started to live up to his full potential.

Acquired by the Diamondbacks in a 3-team trade with the Tigers and Yankees (the Tigers will forever regret that deal), Ray was able to sneak into the Top 100 prospects back in 2014, and it was easy to see why.  While his minor league walk rates were nothing special, his strikeout rates were impressive.  A left-handed pitcher showing him real strikeout potential will always get noticed, and he has never disappointed in that department in the big leagues.   He did strike out 218 batters in only 174.1 innings last year, though his ERA spiked at 4.90 (that came with a more impressive 3.70 FIP, however).

What has changed?  The most obvious number to look at is the hit rate.   His 9.6 hits/9 last year was very high for a pitcher with his strikeout ability, and that number has fallen all the way down to 6.4 this season.

One of the themes we have seen more of in baseball is pitchers starting to throw “backwards”.  That essentially means that they are relying less on their fastball and more on their secondary stuff.   In the case of Ray, he has increased the usage of his curve ball tremendously (from 5.3% to 22.1%) while reducing his reliance on his fastball from 71.1% to 59.3%.  The type of fastball he uses has also changed, as he is much more of a 4-seam pitcher than the sinkerball pitcher he was before this year.   By reducing the rate of his fastball, he has also made it more valuable, as shown by Fangraphs’ Pitch Value metrics.

Ray is not going to win the Cy Young Award, but he has developed into a high strikeout, left-handed weapon with what has to be considered true ace potential.  He is 25 years old.

Taijuan Walker, Diamondbacks (3.32 ERA in 143.2 innings with 54 walks and 130 strikeouts)

Imagine having three pitchers putting up their best season of their careers all in one year?   That is exactly what has happened in Arizona.

You have probably seen the name “Taijuan Walker” many times through his years in Seattle, where he compiled a decent 4.18 ERA in 357 innings between 2013-2016.   He made his debut at the age of 20, so those numbers are actually good for a pitcher of his age.  He just hadn’t yet completely broken out.

When the Mariners came calling for Jean Segura this past winter, Walker became the main cog the Diamondbacks wanted back in the deal (the deal was a 5-player trade overall).   Arizona likely does not regret the deal at all.

This is not to say that Walker has been great – his FIP of 4.09 shows a pitcher that is likely pitching with some luck on his side.   His walk rate has actually spiked this season without a big spike in his strikeout rate.   The category where he has really shined is in the reduction in home runs, despite moving from a park that leans towards pitching to a park that leans more towards offense.   His GB% has gone up by 3%, which is hardly significant, but is still a step in the right direction.

He has added a slider to his list of pitches, while reducing his reliance on his change-up.   The slider has produced negative value, but his fastball value has increased at a strong rate.

I think there is still a lot for Walker to work on, including the need to reduce the walks and increase the strikeouts even more.   The numbers are solid, but you still find yourself wanting to see more.  He is still young enough to develop into a top-of-the-rotation type of pitcher, though he would still have plenty of value as the pitcher he already is.


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