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A trio of breakout pitchers to target in 2018

Every year we get breakouts and breakdowns, so it should come as no surprise that we got plenty of both in 2017. Some of the breakouts were unique thanks to the (allegedly) juiced baseballs, seeing plenty of guys hit for more power than they seemed capable of. And while we saw an unprecedented power surge across the league, strikeouts continued to rise sky-high, allowing some pitchers to benefit from this style.

Three guys who had some of the best breakout years in the sport this season are Aaron Nola, Jimmy Nelson and of course Luis Severino, starter for the Yankees in their Wild Card bout (and subsequent victory) with the Twins. It’s a mixed bag, one post hype prospect, another who took an extra year to find his ace gear, and one who split time starting and in the pen before finding his feet.

Jimmy Nelson was never quite a can’t miss prospect, but he remained a decent one in a barren Brewers system during the early 2010’s. In 2014 he got his first real taste of the majors and was barely able to keep his ERA under 5.00, thanks to a low 18.3% strikeout rate (his fault) and a high .344 BABIP (bad luck). While his luck regressed, his strikeout rate didn’t and for the next two seasons he saw his ERA stay in the mid 4.00’s – far from an effective pitcher.

However, as his ERA dipped down this past season to 3.49, Nelson figured something out about getting more whiffs. He got hitters to strikeout 27.3% of the time (one of the largest jumps in the league) while decreasing his walk rate to just 6.6%. He did this by ramping up his curveball usage, from 12.7% to 20.0%. While it’s true he threw the pitch that much two years ago, that was the first time he had thrown it, and clearly had not controlled it well yet.

His curve was worth -0.7 runs its first season in 2015, -2.1 in 2016, and this year it was a positive pitch at 9.1 runs above average – one of the better curves in the entire game. While it’s been easy to sleep on Jimmy Nelson, his new curveball has become an elite pitch, and with it, he’s become an elite strikeout pitcher. His breakout is as real as it gets.

For the Philadelphia Phillies, when they drafted Aaron Nola they knew they were getting a polished college prospect, which they expected to rise through the ranks quickly. And of course, Nola found much success at every level and was able to reach the majors at just 22 years young. His good sinker and plus curve were used against both handed hitters with an advanced approach, and it was expected for him to continue his success through the years.

His first full season in 2016 was tough, with a 4.78 ERA. But the underlying numbers were good – a strikeout rate of 25.1%, a walk rate of just 6.0%, a heavy ground ball rate over 55%, and the tables were set for Nola to impress in 2017. In what might just be a case of simple regression to the mean, Nola produced a 3.54 ERA this year, and his peripheral numbers stayed awesome once again. His FIP of 3.08 in 2016 helped predict his breakout, and his 3,27 mark this year again suggests he was better than what his ERA is telling us.

Nola was kept off the radar thanks to bad luck, but now that he has hit reset on it, he’s back to being one of the brightest young pitching stars in the game.

The Yankees performed perhaps the fastest rebuild in the last few decades. They sold off a few players to turn what was already a strong farm system into an elite one. Luis Severino was thought for a while to be a future cornerstone of a Yankees rotation down the line, and although he impressed in 2015 with some late season starts, his 2016 numbers had some writing him off. He even split time out of the bullpen, growing concerns about his future ceiling (and even health).

This year, Severino’s 29.4% strikeout rate is sixth in the entire majors, with a 2.98 ERA and 3.07 FIP, showing luck has little to do with the immense success of Severino in 2017. For maybe the first time in his career, he’s not just controlling his pitches, but commanding them as well, shown by a career best 6.5% walk rate and 13.0% whiff rate. His fastball, changeup and slider combination has turned into a lethal one, with every pitch providing immense positive value by weighted runs above average.

The hype around Severino has existed for a while, and now that he’s got his feet under him with a great season, he is ready to realize his full potential. There’s a reason he was one of the more coveted pitching prospects, and he’s getting ready to show why.

*****

Those in keeper leagues have missed their chance to buy low on Severino, but you still might be able to get him at fair market value. Nola will also cost you more than he would have at the start of 2017, but you might get somewhat of a discount since he has not reached that “ace status yet.

As for Nelson: he will probably be the easiest to acquire of the trio given the past years struggles, lack of name brand pedigree, and now surgery which ended his season early. His owner might even think they are selling high, but in reality they might be selling themselves short if they are banking on him not being able to repeat those numbers in the future.

All three pitchers should be targeted this offseason and moved up your draft board for 2018.

 

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.
James Krueger

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