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Three Post-Hype Pitchers Set To Break Out

tarik skubal fantasy baseball rankings draft sleepers waiver wire starting pitchers MLB DFS injury news

Once upon a time, prospects were seen as unproven commodities that we asset in trades for established big-league players. Now, they're the exciting new kid on the block that we center our attention around. As we look for the "next big thing," it's easy to look towards prospects, and embrace the concept of the unknown- why wouldn't you want to dream on the upside they provide?

That being said, not all prospects produce immediately at the big-league level. However, instead of expecting some sort of learning curve, we tend to take the other extreme, dismissing these players and moving them significantly down their draft board. Mike Trout, Alex Bregman, and Corbin Burnes are among several high-end players who needed some major-league seasoning before fully developing into the players they are today.

Players who were once hyped but become forgotten are known as "post-hype" sleepers. The labeling is actually quite simple- the hype has passed these players, causing them to go under the radar. Today, we'll be looking at three pitchers who fit this criterion. Once seen as top prospects, the shine on them has gone away as they've dealt with struggles and/or injuries at the maj0r-league level. However, if you look past this, you might be able to identify a contributor who can either vastly outperform his average draft position (ADP) or gain stock in a dynasty league.

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Tarik Skubal, Detroit Tigers

Most former top prospects were taken at the top of their respective draft and had been hyped-up for several years. However, that's not the case with Tarik Skubal. The 25-year-old's stock went down significantly after he missed most of the 2016 season and all of 2017 at Seattle University after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and he eventually was drafted in the ninth round in the 2018 draft by the Tigers.

Skubal's final year of college didn't go as planned. He allowed a 4.16 ERA and had a very high 15.5% walk rate, which isn't ideal playing in a smaller conference. However, as he made his debut in the minors, it became clear that his struggles were merely an adjustment after coming back from Tommy John surgery.

Seriously, the lefty was as lights-out in the minors as it gets. Between Single-A and Double-A in 2019, he posted an absurd 36.5% strikeout rate in addition to a 29% K-BB ratio and a 2.11 FIP. This led to Skubal being ranked as the 42nd-best prospect by MLB Pipeline, while he moved up to 24th prior to the 2021 season- he posted a 27.6% strikeout rate in his first 32 innings in 2020.

Coming into the year, expectations were high for Skubal, but it got off to a rocky start. Over the first month of the season, he allowed a 6.14 ERA and 8.37 FIP, while his strikeout (17.3% K) and walk (13.3% BB) numbers were subpar. Furthermore, at this point, Detroit was shuffling him back and forth from being in the rotation and being used in a bulk role following an opener, which likely led to him being in a tough position to succeed.

From the beginning of May, though, Skubal was back in the rotation for the rest of the season, and the results were very encouraging. His strikeout rate (27.5%) and walk rate (6.2%) were each above average, while the top ERA indicator in terms of future predictiveness, skill interactive ERA (SIERA), rated him well at a 3.58 SIERA. Had it not been for a 1.91 HR/9, his ERA would've been much better than the 4.03 number he posted.

The good news? Home run rates can be very volatile for pitchers, especially earlier in their careers. You'd expect Skubal to continue to improve when it comes to the optimal location, particularly when considering his case. As you can see, he made multiple pitch-mix changes as the season went on:

From ditching his split-finger to introducing a sinker and changeup, there's a lot of tweaking that Skubal did as the season went on, which may have also played a role in his lackluster command. In most cases, the use of a sinker wouldn't be optimal, but it can work in Skubal's case. As the season went on, his ability to induce ground balls improves significantly:

With more ground balls induced, Skubal should do better when it comes to limiting home runs. It's almost a given that his 13.9% barrel rate allowed comes down significantly, especially with this tweak, which could be huge for his ERA. After all, with a walk rate under 4% from the beginning of July on, he's in a position to post a strong WHIP, while he should accumulate enough strikeouts via his arsenal and by accumulating innings. Thus, it comes down to good ol' gopher ball. I'm willing to bank on regression back to the mean, but are you? Skubal's  NFBC redraft ADP (196.36 since the beginning of February) is likely fair, but he's a great target in dynasty leagues and has a lot of upside for where he's going currently in drafts. Simply put, it's clear this isn't your average ninth-round pick.

 

Triston McKenzie, Cleveland Guardians

The Guardians have an excellent track record when it comes to developing pitchers. Thus, since Cleveland selected him as the 42nd overall pick in the 2015 MLB draft, he has been expected to establish into a productive big-league contributor for them.

Now, McKenzie wasn't seen as a top prospect immediately. That being said, based on his early minor-league production, it became extremely hard to overlook him. In 2017, for instance, he posted a 32.8% strikeout rate and a 24.8% K-BB ratio in addition to a 2.67 xFIP. Add in the fact that he was able to pitch 143 innings, and his stock rose significantly.

By 2018, McKenzie was MLB Pipeline's 24th overall prospect. Suddenly, expectations were for him to become an ace. Unfortunately, he missed fewer bats at Double-A in 2018, while he missed the entire 2019 season due to multiple injuries. Suddenly, he had gone from one of the top prospects in the sport to a fringe top-100 prospect.

This wasn't the end of the road for McKenzie, though. Rather, he was able to revitalize all the hype that he once had earned. His MLB debut in 2020 was nothing short of spectacular; he posted a 33.1% strikeout rate, 7.1% walk rate, and a 3.25 SIERA in 33.1 innings pitched. From not pitching at all in 2019 to missing bats at a high level at the big-league level just a year later, his stock truly took a 360-turn for the better.

So, problem solved, right? Clearly, McKenzie built off the momentum he created by his strong 2020 performance in 2021? Not exactly. With a 31.2% strikeout rate, he was still able to miss bats. Unfortunately, that's about all that was going right for him:

  • 20.2% BB, 6.38 ERA, 5.60 FIP, 1.58 WHIP, 14.3% Barrel Allowed, 5.32 SIERA

What happened to McKenzie's command? This is a pitcher with just a 7.6% walk rate in the minors who was seen as having above-average command. Yet, his walk rate was about as poor as it gets, and when he threw the ball in the zone, it got hit hard. If McKenzie stayed on your fantasy team during these struggles, I certainly commend you for your patience.

Once again, though, the 24-year-old responded well in the face of adversity. He was sent to the minors in June, but upon returning to the MLB level, he was a completely different pitcher. His walk rate (6.2%) for the rest of the season was almost one-third of what it was previously, while his barrel rate allowed (7.7%) was essentially cut in half.

Put it all together, and McKenzie posted a 4.10 ERA and 3.94 SIERA in that span. In other words, he essentially became the pitcher many expected him to be at the beginning of the season. So, what changed? As it turns out, it may just come down to his fastball velocity.

TRISTON MCKENZIE FASTBALL VELOCITY AND IN-ZONE RATE PER MONTH

  • April: 91.2 MPH, 38% Zone Rote
  • May: 91.5 MPH, 39.1% Zone Rate
  • July: 92.8 MPH, 46.8% Zone Rate
  • August: 92.8 MPH, 52.8% Zone Rate
  • September: 92.4 MPH, 49.8% Zone Rate

From this perspective, it clearly looks that the extra juice on McKenzie's fastball, in addition to a breath of fresh air in the minors, got him back to commanding the strike zone as he knows how to do. Add in the fact that the batted-ball trajectory he allows (a lot of balls in the air) will lead to a lower batting average on balls in play (BABIP) allowed, and the WHIP is now strong with the improved command. Meanwhile, he still struck hitters out at a 25.2% rate during this span and was much less hittable with the added velocity.

It may be a risk to assume that McKenzie holds his velocity, but this was the velocity he expected him to have coming into the year. If there truly is a correlation between a lower walk rate and added velocity (more confidence), then you could be getting a steal in the late rounds in redraft leagues. If that's the case, he's certainly a young pitcher who needs to be on the radar of both contending teams and rebuilding teams in dynasty leagues, as his stock should be significantly higher after this year.

 

Jesus Luzardo, Miami Marlins

Of these three pitchers, the one with the most hype heading into the season was undoubtedly Jesus Luzardo. The lefty had an NFBC main event ADP of 76, according to Rotholic.com, which is quite the investment for an unproven commodity. This simply speaks to how well-regarded he was as a prospect.

Similar to Skubal, injuries played a great role in the diminishment of Luzardo's draft stock. He underwent Tommy John surgery right around the time of the 2016 MLB draft, leading him to fall into the third round. That's where the Nationals, a team known for taking a chance on injured players, were happy to scoop him up. As it turns out, that was a strong investment.

Luzardo did not pitch much through 2017 as he recovered from the injury, but his stock took off in 2018. In 109.1 innings between High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, he posted a 29.8% strikeout rate, a 22.4% K-BB ratio, and a 2.94 FIP. Remember, he did this as a 20-year-old! Unfortunately for the Nationals, this breakout did not come with them. Rather, it was with the Oakland A's, who acquired him, along with reliever Blake Treinen, in exchange for relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. Once again, a team acquiring Luzardo got an absolute steal.

By 2019, Luzardo ranked as the 12th-best prospect and the second-best pitching prospect in the entire sport, according to MLB Pipeline. Even though he dealt with injuries in 2019, he still was able to make his MLB debut out of the bullpen and added onto that with 59 innings in 2020. With him holding his own at the next level despite being just 22-years-old, the expectation was that Luzardo would take the next step into ascending into an ace for Oakland next season.

Sadly, things did not go as planned for him last season. In his first six starts, he struggled to the tune of a 5.79 ERA, and then was placed on the injured list after hurting his hand raging from a video game. Upon returning, he was placed in the bullpen, where he spiked his ERA further to 6.87. By the middle of June, Luzardo was sent to the minors, where he'd spend the rest of his time as a member of the A's.

That's because Oakland, who was trying to make a postseason push, had to make the difficult decision to trade him. A few days before the trade deadline, he was sent to the Marlins in exchange for center field player Starling Marte in a transaction that shocked many- it was surprising to see the A's move on from Luzardo so quickly.

That being said, this appeared to be a nice fresh start for him. Luzardo's pitch mix was suboptimal with Oakland, but he still had multiple strong pitches in his arsenal. While his fastball and sinker were hit hard, each allowing weighted on-base averages (wOBA) over .420, his curveball and changeup each had a 35% whiff rate or higher. Upon becoming a member of the Marlins, we saw his pitch usage improve significantly:

  • With Oakland: 59.2% Fastball, 21.1% Breaking Ball, 19.3% Changeup
  • With Miami: 46.4% Fastball, 33.4% Breaking Ball, 20.2% Changeup

Luzardo's curveball was used significantly more with the Marlins, which is a very positive development. With a 42.4% whiff rate and a .227 expected wOBA allowed, it was clearly the best pitch in his arsenal and was identified as such even when he was in the minors.

Unfortunately, Luzardo still struggled (6.44 ERA) with Miami, but his swinging-strike rate (13.6%) improved significantly. Mainly, it was the walks (12.1% BB) that came back to bite him, but this is not something he has generally struggled with. To be honest, this seems like the typical result for a pitcher who makes a notable change in their pitch mix.

With that in mind, I expect Luzardo to be much more efficient next season, especially since he was a full offseason to make adjustments, rather than doing so on the fly. The Marlins have done a nice job maximizing the talents of their young pitchers, and Luzardo could be the next in line. There's a chance he bottoms out, but there is also a reasonable possibility he becomes close to the pitcher he was expected to be. At the late stages of redraft leagues, or as a buy-low in dynasty leagues, you can't do much better in terms of upside. Let's not give up on such a talented player so quickly!



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