MLB: American League Starting Pitcher Breakouts

The first in a series of posts, where I will be looking at some of our breakout players of 2017.   Some of them are surprises, some of them were once big prospects who has simply found their stride.

I am going to start with the American League starting pitchers, where I found five pitchers I thought were worth mentioning.  I considered also writing about Mariners’ lefty James Paxton, but as I was digging through his numbers, I didn’t see anything that indicated that 2017 was a breakout over 2016.   He has now been a solid pitcher two years running.

Luis Severino, Yankees (2.93 ERA in 184.1 innings with 218 strikeouts and 49 walks)

We will start with the most obvious of them all.  Severino showed a lot of promise in 2015, before completely imploding in 2016.

The ugliness of his 2016 season (when he was in the rotation) was not overstated.  He didn’t win a game, posted a 8.50 ERA, 1.783 WHIP, and allowed 11 home runs in 47.2 innings.   His .378 BABIP was high, but wasn’t so outrageous that it would fully explain the implosion.   This wasn’t a case of statistics not painting the full picture.  He was really, really, bad.

He was terrific when the Yankees placed him in the bullpen (0.39 ERA; 0.771 WHIP), but his K/BB ratio was actually worse than when he was a starter, and the BABIP was incredibly low (.157).

I think a combination of factors has contributed to his massive 2017 breakout:   The increased use of his change-up is often cited as one reason.  He used the pitch 9.9% of the time in 2016, but has increased that usage to 13.5% this year.  He has also slowed down the pitch (87.2 MPH this year; 88.9 this year) while increasing the velocity on his fastball.   The more separation you can get between your pitches, the harder it is for hitters to adjust to what you are throwing.  It can be as simple as that.    I also do think that dominating MLB hitters out of the bullpen last year helped him gain some confidence.  A talk with Pedro Martinez this off-season was likely another contributing factor.

The most encouraging sign for Yankees’ fans is that there isn’t anything obvious in his advanced metrics that points to 2017 being a fluke.  His numbers actually make sense.  His FIP (3.10) is in line with his actual ERA, as one example.

Severino was a top pitching prospect for the Yankees for a few years before his strong 2015 campaign.   Some pitchers below came out of nowhere – Severino was a highly touted guy coming off of a terrible year.


Mike Clevinger, Indians (3.21 ERA in 112 innings with 127 strikeouts and 56 walks)

The 25-year old was trusted enough to make four postseason appearances in 2016, but 2017 has represented his breakout after a rough regular season last year.

Acquired from the Angels for Vinnie Pastano, Clevinger is poised to make that seemingly minor transaction into one of the better under-the-radar steals of the last few seasons.   After a rough rookie season that featured a 5.26 ERA in 50 innings for the World Series bound franchise, Clevinger has improved in every aspect of the pitching game, though the walk rate is still a bit high.  He comes in without much fanfare for the simple reason that the team he plays on is loaded with talent, which puts him more in the category of a useful part than the main attraction.

The reasoning for his breakthrough may not be quite as easy to find.  He features the same four-pitch mix he used last year, though he has doubled the usage of his curve (still ranks as his 4th most often used pitch, though).  His most-often used pitch (a low-90s fastball) has been used 5% less than it was last year, so those two factors could at least tell a part of the story.

Most of his numbers line up well with what he did in his brief 2016 campaign, however.   The one red flag that pops up is the 9% increase in his LOB%,.  That number tends to correct itself over time.  Of course, Clevinger can improve as a pitcher, which would negate any correction in that percentage.

The Indians don’t need Clevinger to win a title.  However, he could be an important component of the post-season bullpen with his ability to strike hitters out while giving some length.

Jose Berrios, Twins (3.84 ERA in 136 innings with 128 strikeouts and 42 walks)

Want to find one reason for the Twins’ stunning run to the playoffs in 2017?  Look no further than the development of Berrios.

In 2016, the now 23-year old was likely shell-shocked after putting up these numbers:  8.02 ERA (53 ERA+) in 14 starts with 35 walks and 49 strikeouts in 58.1 innings. He also allowed 12 home runs.  All of that adds up to a pitcher that was far from unlucky:  His FIP was a ghastly 6.20.    As Yankees’ fans watched in horror over their young stud getting destroyed before their very eyes, Berrios was finding ways to actually be worse.

While it doesn’t happen for everyonefor many players, the talent eventually rises to the top.   Berrios has been fantastic for most of the 2017 campaign, and if the Twins make it to the playoffs and have a chance to set their rotation, he would probably get heavy consideration to make that start (the smart money would still be on Ervin Santana)

While Severino has increased the usage of his change, Berrios has used it less often this year, tossing it only 8.4% of the time (14.4% in 2016).   He has counteracted that by going to his curve ball at a much increased rate (30.3% this year; 21.6% last year), which likely has helped greatly during his first strong campaign.

He induces an equal amount of ground balls to fly balls, and has done a better job of keeping the fly balls in the park.  (some of that is skill, some of that can be luck).  Berrios was a top prospect in the Twins’ chain, so his comeback year should not be considered a huge surprise.  It is more of a sigh of relief.

Brad Peacock, Astros (2.98 ERA in 121 innings with 153 strikeouts and 54 walks)

The 29-year old Peacock has pitched in the big leagues in some capacity since 2011 (though he was in the minors for all of 2012).   In those appearances, he tossed 263.2 innings, compiling a 4.57 ERA (4.93 FIP, 86 ERA+) with only a 7.9 K/9.

Everything has changed in 2017.  While he barely made my list because of his advanced age, it is hard to ignore the overwhelming season he has put together.  Some of it has been out of the bullpen (13 of his 32 appearances), but he has excelled as a starter as well as a reliever, putting up a 3.22 ERA in 100.1 innings as a starter with a 11.4 K/9.

Traded twice in his career in deals that involved good players (from Washington to Oakland in the deal that netted the Nationals Gio Gonzalez and from Oakland to Houston in the deal that netted Oakland Jed Lowrie), Peacock never was able to get much going in his big league career until now.  So, what gives?  A change in philosophy, of course!  Peacock used to be a 4-seam fastball pitcher, relying on that pitch over 50% of the time before this season.   This year, he throws that pitch only 28% of the time.  He relies much more on his sinker than he ever has before, tossing that pitch 23% of the time.  He also has increased his usage of his slider.

Peacock was drafted in the 41st round all the way back in 2006, and here is a report on him from 2011, courtesy of John Sickels.   Peacock is just another example of why pitchers don’t have development clocks.

J.C. Ramirez, Angels (4.15 ERA in 147.1 innings with 105 strikeouts and 49 walks)

Another “older” entry on this list at 29, Ramirez is actually done for the season due to forearm irritation.   Before the injury, however, he was one of the biggest surprises of the 2017 season, even if his numbers don’t match up with many pitchers above.

Ramirez never started a big league game before this season, instead throwing 108 games out of the bullpen between 2013-2016 with the Phillies, Diamondbacks, Mariners, Reds, and Angels.   In those 108 games, he compiled a rather pedestrian 5.13 ERA (79 ERA+), which would explain his constant movement to different teams.

While a 102 ERA+ is nothing to get overly excited over, turning a mediocre career reliever into an average starter is an incredible accomplishment.  So, how has it been done?   He added a pitch, that’s how.   With many of the pitchers above, a change in pitching pattern seemed to be a big reason for their jumps.  For Ramirez, it has been the development of a curve ball, a pitch he went from using never to a pitch he used 16.2% of the time this season.   Like Peacock, he also changed from using 4-seam fastballs to sinkers.

Advanced metrics don’t paint a pretty picture.  His FIP is only 4.70, and his K/BB rate is hardly anything special.  He stranded a high rate of runners this season (75%), and the increase usage of his sinker hasn’t really led to a lesser home run rate or a special ground ball rate.

All that said, squeezing 147.1 innings of solid pitching out of a failed reliever like Ramirez is still one of the best not-told-often stories of 2017.





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