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Breakout starting pitchers for 2020 fantasy baseball

Zack uses K-BB% to predict breakouts.

Getty Images/USA Today/Pete Rogers Illustrations

Wins. ERA. WHIP. Strikeouts. Those are the only things you should care about for starting pitchers. That is, if you are playing fantasy baseball.

I looked at standard, advanced, batted ball, and plate discipline stats across every single pitcher in 2019. The stat for wins had no other stat that was more than 50% correlated with it (besides counting stats like games played). Not even K/9, ERA or WHIP.

Look at your K-BB% leaders from 2019 among qualifiers:

  1. Gerrit Cole
  2. Justin Verlander
  3. Max Scherzer
  4. Jacob DeGrom. (Do I need to continue?)
  5. Shane Bieber
  6. Lucas Giolito
  7. Walker Buehler

K-BB% is heavily correlated to ERA (57%) and WHIP (70%). Swinging strike % is an excellent metric as well but is only 40% and 47% correlated to ERA and WHIP respectively.

Other metrics such as K/9, line drive %, HR/FB, and every single batted ball and plate discipline metric all have a correlation of under 50% with respect to ERA and WHIP.

K-BB% is king.

Now let’s get into the history portion of this tutorial…

Let’s just get an obvious point out of the way: strikeouts have risen dramatically in recent years. As a result, the number of pitchers with a K-BB% of at least 18% has risen. I’ve used 18% as my arbitrary line in the sand.

From 1990 through 2014 (25 years), there were only six pitchers with a K-BB% at least 18% but produced an ERA of 4.00 or above. We are talking single season and at least 80 IP. Let’s go through them:

1995 – Sid Fernandez (18.0% K-BB, 4.56 ERA). This was a split season between a terrible portion in Baltimore and a very good portion in Philadelphia. His struggles were with the long ball but could not play a full season the next year even though he continued some success over 11 starts, posting a 3.43 ERA and 11.0 K/9 in 1996. This is an example of a very talented pitcher who has tapped out his physical resources.

1996 – Francisco Cordova (18.1% K-BB%, 4.09 ERA). Cordova’s season was mainly as a reliever in 1996. He was converted into a starter the next year and played only five seasons in total. He followed this season up with two decent seasons but never possessed the strikeout ability as a starter.

2003 – Randy Johnson (20.0% K-BB%, 4.26 ERA). Again, the case of a post prime season that was riddled with injury. The Big Unit was so immortal he mustered up one more elite season after this, but this is an example of the K-BB% skill set being so strong during one’s prime that it remains elite even when other elements are faltering.

2006 – Jake Peavy (18.1% K-BB%, 4.09 ERA). This was a season sandwiched in between two elite years prior and two elite years afterward. His prime was short-lived, but in 2006 his swinging strike rate was still 12.2%. After 2008, the swinging strikes fell below 10% as he fizzled out.

2008 – Josh Beckett (19.0% K-BB%, 4.03 ERA). This was a Red Sox season which he was past his prime yet produced the best K-BB% of his career. The swinging strike % was down to 8.7% which was a steep decline from his Marlin days.

2009 – Ricky Nolasco (19.2% K-BB%, 5.06 ERA). This was his second full season coming off an incredible rookie campaign. Close your eyes, Snell owners. His swinging strike rate was 10.4% which was not far off from his career average. Open your eyes, Snell owners. The issue was that over the next three seasons his fastball velocity fell from 92.5 mph to 92.0 mph to 91.5 mph to 91.0 mph. He was pretty much finished after that and bounced around over the next few seasons, never posting any quality numbers. He was always a pitcher that relied heavily on breaking pitches and those get easier to hit when your fastball velocity declines. Close your eyes, Kershaw owners. It’s frightening when someone like Kershaw has a drastic decline in velocity and must resort to throwing more offspeed pitches. If you have recently become a fantasy baseball fan, google Felix Hernandez.

Over the next five years, between 2015 and 2019, it happened 40 times! Some players have done it multiple times.

Honorable mention goes to Tyler Glasnow in 2018, with a 4.27 ERA but just missing with a 17.7% K-BB%.

We have a couple of categories:

  1. The sun setter (Big Unit, Beckett, Sid Fernandez)
  2. The flash in the pan (Nolasco)
  3. The blip in their prime (Peavy)
  4. The legit breakout (Glasnow)
  5. The reliever compiling the requisite innings (Cordova). We will ignore these for the most part.

Let’s take a closer look at the recent years.

2015

1. Raisel Iglesias (19.2% K-BB%, 4.15 ERA). Mostly a starter that year but turned into a lights out reliever. He’s a mix of a legit breakout and the reliever factor. Overall, this gives us confidence that the K-BB% is positively correlated to excellent fantasy production.

2. Michael Pineda (20.2% K-BB%, 4.37 ERA). We will come back to Pineda because he makes two more appearances on this list.

2016

3. Michael Pineda (20.4% K-BB%, 4.82 ERA). Wait for it. He’ll be back.

4. Chris Archer (19.5% K-BB%, 4.02 ERA). Wait for the K-BB% to improve and the ERA to get worse.

5. Vince Velasquez (19.4% K-BB%, 4.12 ERA). This was probably his best year to date, and for someone who strikes out so many batters, has not repeated a K-BB% over 18% due to the control issues. His fastball velocity has maintained itself and his secondary offerings have increased in velocity. However, his swinging strike rate has never been elite, and he has not attempted to alter his pitch mix over four seasons. More than likely he makes his way to the bullpen.

6. Aaron Nola (19.1% K-BB%, 4.78 ERA). We saw him break out over the next two seasons. Despite his regression in 2019, he is a legitimate breakout performer that indicates K-BB% should be focused on. It is worth noting that in 2019, he had a 17.5% K-BB%, a swinging strike rate better than his 2017 season, and his highest velocity to date. This was the signs of a legitimate breakout and I expect his 2020 to be closer to the near Cy Young 2018 season.

7. Robbie Ray (18.9% K-BB%, 4.90 ERA). This was a legitimate sign of a breakout which did occur in 2017. However, there was some regression in 2018 and 2019 as he reappears on the list in 2019 and almost made the list in 2018 with a 3.93 ERA. Stay tuned.

2017

8. Danny Salazar (23.0% K-BB%, 4.28 ERA). Salazar has not been able to stay healthy enough since 2017 to make an assessment. He had some relief appearances and still walked 10% of the batters. What he lacks in control, he makes up for in stuff. He only threw four innings in 2019 but his average fastball velocity was down about 10 mph, so he carries enormous injury risk and reliever risk going forward. He will be 30 years old on Opening Day, Cleveland has incredible depth at starting pitcher, and he has not been healthy for three years. He is not someone to target in standard leagues.

9. Chris Archer (22.2% K-BB%, 4.07 ERA). I told you his ERA would get worse as his K-BB% improved. The problem is the long ball. His swinging strike rate has maintained but he’s suffered a 1 mph dip in velocity in his awful 2019 season. I see him sun setting.

10. Jeff Samardzija (20.4% K-BB%, 4.42 ERA). This was the start of a serious decline, partly due to injury and partly due to skill set. He was one that never reached his full potential. Looking at the drastic decline in K%, stick a fork in him with respect to his 2020 outlook. He falls somewhere in between a flash in the pan and a sun setter.

11. Masahiro Tanaka (20.4% K-BB%, 4.74 ERA). He did have a decent rebound in 2018, which was a risky bet despite the nifty K-BB%. However, home runs are his nemesis, and by the end of 2019 his ability to strike batters out has diminished as a result of a decline in velocity and swinging strike rate. I am not certain that he has stopped trying to throw his sinker. However, according to Fangraphs, his sinker usage is nonexistent in favor of a four-seam fastball. Stick a fork in him for 2020, as he has been sun setting for years.

12. Kenta Maeda (19.0% K-BB%, 4.22 ERA). Maeda is going to pop up again. Stay tuned.

13. Jose Quintana (18.5% K-BB%, 4.15 ERA). Quintana outperformed his peripherals on several occasions and was a very durable pitcher that typically did not produce enough strikeouts to make this list. He was an above average pitcher for a span, but is sunsetting here. The K-BB% is really an anomaly for Quintana.

14. Trevor Bauer (18.2% K-BB%, 4.19 ERA). Legitimately broke out in 2018 as many expected, but regressed enough in 2019 so he could reappear on the list. Stay tuned.

15. Lance McCullers (18.0% K-BB%, 4.25 ERA). He was on his way to a breakout in 2018 with an increasing swinging strike rate at 13.5% with an excellent K/9 and a 3.86 ERA. He does carry some reliever risk, but he could be a legitimate breakout candidate again in 2020.

2018

16. Nick Pivetta (19.7% K-BB%, 4.77 ERA). A sleeper for many in 2019 that crashed and burned. The swinging strikes and velocity were only down ever so slightly, but he threw a lot more curveballs. Batters were making more contact out of the strike zone than before. Perhaps he can improve by throwing more fastballs, but he is a flash in pan as of now.

17. Shane Bieber (19.6% K-BB%, 4.55 ERA). A legitimate breakout.

18. Joey Lucchesi (18.6% K-BB%, 4.08 ERA). He produced a similar season in 2019 with less strikeouts per inning. He was on the cusp of this list in terms of K-BB% and ERA so I believe he can continue to be a league average pitcher. For fantasy purposes, he is replaceable in standard leagues.

19. Noe Ramirez (18.5% K-BB%, 4.54 ERA). Reliever.

20. Domingo German (18.5% K-BB%, 5.57 ERA). Legitimate breakout to start the year and regressed. Overall improved substantially. Stay tuned for 2019.

21. Andrew Heaney (18.0% K-BB%, 4.15 ERA). Making the list two years in a row is not necessarily good. Ask Chris Archer. However, stay tuned for my take on 2019.

2019

If you have read this far, you are probably wondering who the breakout candidates for are 2020...

22. Chris Sale (29.6% K-BB%, 4.40 ERA). We know Sale can be a super elite pitcher. We know that this is the highest K-BB% by far for any pitcher with an ERA over 4.00 since 1990. However, the only super elite pitcher in the last 30 years to have an ERA over 4.00 while posting a K-BB% over 18.0% is Randy Johnson at the age of 40. There was something going on health-wise. Chis Sale is no sure bet to return to elite form, however his upside is colossal.

23. Blake Snell (24.3% K-BB%, 4.29 ERA). Snell dealt with injuries, but his velocity was not an issue when he was on the mound. His swinging strike rate was 17.7%, which is preposterous, and he was generally unlucky. He is one year removed from a Cy Young and has the pedigree. This was a blip in his prime and I expect a return to elite form in 2020.

24. Matthew Boyd (23.9% K-BB%, 4.56 ERA). He has never had a good ERA because he doesn’t limit his walks and gives up more than his share of home runs. His velocity was significantly up in 2019 and a swinging strike rate of 14.0% was a career high. He was also limiting contact better than ever. Of all the pitchers I profiled, he was one of the only ones to increase the number of fastballs he threw. We will find out very soon if Boyd is a mainstay in the Tigers rotation. Matt Manning, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Alex Faedo and Joey Wentz should be up at some point in 2020. Moreover, Michael Fulmer should be back and could be excellent. Finally, Boyd’s splits were off the charts—3.87 ERA vs. 5.51 ERA in the first and second half respectively. Also, for everyone citing the division as an asset for pitchers like Bieber, Clevinger, Berrios, etc., look at this stat: Boyd vs. the AL Central—5.87 ERA; Boyd vs. everyone else—3.47 ERA. What gives? He gave up 39 homers. If he could have cut it down to a respectable 30, he would have had a maximum ERA of 4.13 in 2019. Boyd, despite the many warning signs, is a breakout candidate.

25. Robbie Ray (20.2% K-BB%, 4.34 ERA). He has a K-BB% in excess of 18% in each of the previous four seasons. His swinging strike rate is elite. His issue is walks. The only flaw in his arsenal is diminished velocity in 2019, but this should not correlate into the biggest weakness in his performance—control. He did replace the changeup with the curve in 2017, which helped. However, he has reverted to his sinker more with the reduced velocity. His best season was one in which he utilized his curveball and fastball combination the most. Over the last two seasons, he has mixed more of the sinker and slider in. Like Boyd, at 28 years old, he is at a crossroads. Fantasy owners are not paying an enormous price for his upside. I am a buyer, in the hopes that he had a two-year blip in his prime.

26. Matt Strahm (19.7% K-BB%, 4.71 ERA). This year’s Pivetta.

27. Carlos Carrasco (23.5% K-BB%, 5.29 ERA). At 33 years old entering 2020, there is a risk that he sun sets. His fastball usage and velocity were down, but his swinging strikes were still elite. He does have the health concerns and likely a different prioritization of baseball in his life. Ignoring the health scare as I hope he is fully recovered; I believe he is not ready to decline yet. However, comparing the risk to his price tag, I will stay clear of Carrasco this season.

28. David Price (21.0% K-BB%, 4.28 ERA). The injury risk is enough to tell me he’s been sun setting. Although his swinging strike rate rebounded from 2018, his velocity has declined too much. The variance in velocity from his fastball to changeup has declined from 12 mph to 8 mph. However, he is utilizing the changeup more than ever and basically ignored his curve. I believe 2019 was Price’s season like Randy Johnson had in 2003.

29. Drew Pomeranz (20.4% K-BB%, 4.85 ERA). Velocity was the best it has been in four years, and set a career high in swinging strike rate. However, did most of the damage as a reliever in Milwaukee. He’s a reliever.

30. Freddy Peralta (20.4% K-BB%, 5.29 ERA). Awful as a starter and throws almost 78% fastballs, as he is a two-pitch pitcher. Fastball velocity was up almost 3 mph, however, and the swinging strike rate was 13%. There is room in the rotation in Milwaukee as of now. He’s likely a reliever or an opener, but there is some upside here.

31. Wilmer Font (18.5% K-BB%, 4.48 ERA). Mainly a reliever.

32. German Marquez (19.4% K-BB%, 4.76 ERA). His velocity and swinging strikes have climbed and his he still 25 years old on Opening Day. His home-road splits are a legitimate concern which limit his upside, but this could be a blip in his prime. His upside is an SP2.

33. Domingo German (19.2% K-BB%, 4.03 ERA). German makes it back-to-back years on the breakout list even though he made significant strides in 2019. Some would say he had a mini breakout already, and even fell off a bit in the second half. His swinging strike rate is 14.9% and 13.0% the past two seasons which is incredible, but he did experience a dip in velocity last season. He could be set to improve once again in 2020.

34. Kenta Maeda (18.9% K-BB%, 4.04 ERA). Maeda barely makes the list but could be a mainstay due to his huge swing and miss ability and consistent velocity. He may have been misused in LA, as he has made 34 relief appearances over the last three seasons. It is interesting to note that he has performed better as a reliever. He does not really fit the mold of a breakout, rather he is a rich man’s Joey Lucchesi.

35. Trevor Bauer (18.8% K-BB%, 4.48 ERA). He had a better K-BB% and K% than his 2017 season in which everyone tabbed him as a breakout candidate. His swinging strike rate is 12.2% which is still excellent, and he has shown no signs of diminished velocity. His peripherals appear superior than 2017, yet he’s taken steps back in all measures from his ridiculous 2018 season. I foresee a “re-breakout” in 2020, but not to the extent of 2019. I’ll bank on a 3.40 ERA and about 225 strikeouts. Good for a Round 3-4 pick you can get in rounds 6-7.

36. Noah Syndergaard (18.4% K-BB%, 4.28 ERA). His velocity and swing and miss are still awesome despite minor drops. Health is the only thing that scares me, but he should bounce back nicely and provide some draft day value, albeit small. He’s still too established to be considered a breakout.

37. Kevin Gausman (18.2% K-BB%, 5.72 ERA). He’s got a 14.8% swinging strike rate. This is good. His velocity is down from his time with the Orioles, but he still throws 94 mph and has pedigree at 28 years old. On the other hand, he fared much better as a relief pitcher. His role depends on where he signs, and it is difficult to rely on him for a breakout given all the opportunity he has been afforded.

38. Max Fried (18.0% K-BB%, 4.02 ERA). Fried posted a very good swinging strike and showed that he can miss bats. He surely has upside to post an ERA under 4.00 but cannot see him as a truly elite arm.

39. Michael Pineda (18.7% K-BB%, 4.01 ERA). Pineda squeaked his way onto this list for the third time with an ERA of 4.01. He’s shown big potential in terms of strikeout ability. He’s dealt with injuries which erased his 2018 season and he’s been on the list in both 2015 and 2016. He just missed in 2017 with a 17.3% K-BB%. In 2016, he had his worst ERA at 4.82 but also struck out 207 in 175 23 innings (the only season besides his rookie year that he had over 9.0 K/9). He has also shown a decline in fastball usage throughout his career. Despite this, in 2019, he had the second highest swinging strike mark of his career and he went back to more fastballs while using his changeup more frequently at the expense of the slider. However, we saw a dip in velocity that was quite substantial when compared to when he last pitched in 2017.

40. Andrew Heaney (21.5% K-BB%, 4.91 ERA). Heaney makes the list in consecutive years battling more injuries and a higher ERA. He posted a career high 14.1% swinging strike rate and his velocity was better than ever. I am calling for a legitimate breakout from Heaney in 2020.

Honorable Mention

41. Dinelson Lamet (24.0% K-BB%, 4.07 ERA). Just missing the innings by 7 IP to qualify for the list. Coming off Tommy John Surgery, his fastball velocity was 96.1 mph in 2019 vs. 95.1 mph in 2017. Swinging strikes were up to 14.0% from 11.8%. Love everything about this. He is a legitimate breakout candidate next season.

42. Griffin Canning (17.2% K-BB%, 4.58 ERA). Just missed the K-BB% by 0.8% to qualify for the list. Canning consistently posted more than a strikeout per inning and is a legit breakout candidate next season.

Bonus Material

Minor league pitchers with a K-BB% over 18% in 2019 that could make a big MLB impact in 2020 (min 40 IP in Double-A/Triple-A):

  1. Tarik Skubal – 37.2%
  2. Brendan McKay – 30.2%
  3. Jose Urquidy – 26.5%
  4. Cristian Javier – 25.9%
  5. Daulton Jefferies – 24.8%
  6. Tyler Ivey – 24.5%
  7. Zach Plesac – 23.5%
  8. Lewis Thorpe – 23.3%
  9. Alex Faedo – 23.0%
  10. Justin Dunn – 21.5%
  11. Matt Manning – 20.9%
  12. Deivi Garcia – 20.8%
  13. Mitch Keller – 20.2%
  14. Nate Pearson – 19.2%
  15. Cory Abbott – 19.1%
  16. Sixto Sanchez – 19.0%
  17. Ian Anderson – 18.6%
  18. Aaron Civale – 18.5%
  19. Dustin May – 18.1%
  20. Casey Mize – 18.0%

In summation, my Top 10 Breakout Candidates for 2020:

  1. Dinelson Lamet
  2. Andrew Heaney
  3. Dustin May
  4. Lance McCullers
  5. Spencer Howard (not mentioned yet, however 34.4% K-BB% in High-A and 23.8% K-BB% in Double-A in limited innings with a minuscule ERA)
  6. Robbie Ray (re-breakout)
  7. Domingo German (further breakout)
  8. Matthew Boyd (further breakout)
  9. Max Fried
  10. Griffin Canning