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Three NL Pitchers Set To Break Out in 2019


We're always looking for the next breakout. Cody Bellinger or Chris Taylor in 2017. Trevor Bauer or Aldaberto Mondesi in 2018. These are the kind of guys who can make a good fantasy team great or boost an average team into a playoff spot.

How do we find these players before they break out? They aren’t always the top prospects. Chris Taylor was projected to be a utility player (although he’s regressed since his stellar 2017 season). Trevor Bauer hadn’t pitched a season with an ERA under four prior to 2018. Matt Chapman was picked in the first round of the MLB draft in 2014, however, he didn’t make a top-100 prospect list until 2017.

There are two major factors that prime a player for a breakout. Those factors are opportunity and performance. Specifically, for pitchers, we like to see a high strikeout rate and low walk rate. We’ll take a look at four National League starting pitchers primed for a breakout in 2019.

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Joey Lucchesi’s Bumpy 2018

San Diego Padres 25-year-old starting pitcher Joey Lucchesi showed glimpses of brilliance in his 2018 campaign. He fired 24 strikeouts over his first 17 innings pitched and allowed just one run over those three starts. Things went downhill from there. Lucchesi was put on the disabled list as he was nursing a hip strain from mid-May to late-June. After his return to the rotation, things were shaky as he didn’t notch another quality start until August. Ending his year with a 4.08 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP was not what fantasy owners expected after his first three April starts. Here are the factors that make him a 2019 breakout.

Opportunity

The Padres have limited pitching options as two of their five starters from 2018 will not be returning in 2019. Clayton Richard was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays and Tyson Ross signed with the Tigers in free agency. That leaves experienced starters of Eric Lauer (4.34 ERA in 2018), Bryan Mitchell (5.42 ERA in 2018), and Joey Lucchesi. That was easy, moving on.

Performance

The strikeout skills are legit. Lucchesi posted an excellent strikeout rate of 26.5% in 2018. This stemming from just a two-pitch mix including a fastball (64% thrown) and changeup (36% thrown). The best pitch being his changeup, which he renamed “the churve” because it’s a mix of a changeup and a curveball. He managed a 42.4% whiff rate and a .228 batting average against on the pitch in 2018. Please note that whiff rate is not the same as swinging strike rate. A pitchers whiff rate is how many swings and misses he induces divided by the total swings.

Lucchesi posted a 7.9% walk rate which is just about league average, but there was one thing that really hurt him in 2018. The home run ball. Over 130 innings in 2018, Lucchesi allowed 23 home runs. That translated to a 20.4% home run per fly ball rate, quite the stretch from the league average of around 10%. Also, consider that the Padres Petco Park is one of the more pitcher-friendly parks in the league. His xFIP shows that if his HR/FB rate in 2018 had been league average, his ERA would have been much better at 3.45.

In order for Lucchesi to truly break out, he’ll have to sharpen his command to keep walks low and decrease the number of home runs allowed. Since we’re only dealing with a sample size of 130 innings, his HR/FB rate should regress towards 10% resulting in an improved ERA.

He only surpassed the six innings mark once in 2018. A continued excellent strikeout rate coupled with improved control will allow Lucchesi to go deeper into games and return a true breakout for his fantasy managers. If he can eclipse 180 IP he could contribute 200 strikeouts and a mid-3 ERA.

 

Chris Paddack's Growing Fame

I guess the theme is Padres starters. San Diego Padres starter Chris Paddack’s fame is growing with his terrific spring training (more on that to follow). According to MLB.com, Paddack is currently the number 34 prospect in baseball. We’ve all heard of the incredible Padres system and he may be the first to find Major League success. There has been chatter of him possibly getting the ball on Opening Day, here’s why.

Opportunity

Copy and paste from Joey Lucchesi “Opportunity” above.

Performance

Paddack has posted some pretty ridiculous strikeout rates in the minors topping 40% throughout most of his professional career. That hasn’t wavered in this year’s spring, as he’s posted 20 strikeouts, three earned runs, and just two walks over 12 2/3 innings.

Paddack doesn’t have a crazy pitch like Lucchesi. He works mainly with a fastball and changeup with a below-average curve. His fastball works up to 96 mph and he compliments it with an excellent changeup. What sets his so-called “simple offerings” apart is the control he has with both pitches and ability to hit his spots consistently.

As mentioned, his curve is below average and sits in the mid-70's. With the effectiveness of his fastball and changeup, he doesn’t need the curve to be great against Major League hitters. If he’s able to develop even an average curveball, he could be the Padres next ace (he may be anyway). Unless Lucchesi has something to say about it. Paddack’s floor is a middle of the rotation starter, but he’s being drafted as the 366th pick in NFBC leagues. If you can snag him in the later rounds of your draft, his stuff will play in any format.

 

Ross Stripling Breaking the LAD Pitching Carousel

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Ross Stripling has been lights out in his first two years and 196 1/3 innings in the Majors. Some may say he’s already broken out, but he’s not being drafted like it. He’s being taken as the 218th pick in NFBC leagues, behind teammates Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. While teammate Walker Buehler is soaking up stardom in the third round, he may be joined by Strip as a second-tier pitcher in 2020.

Opportunity

The opportunity isn’t quite as clear as the other two pitchers included here, but signs are pointing in the right direction. Manager Dave Roberts recently told the Los Angeles Times that Stripling would continue to be stretched out for a starting role.

After Walker Buehler, the Dodgers have some question marks in their rotation. Clayton Kershaw is unlikely to start opening day, though he may be ready for the first week of the season. Rich Hill and Hyun-Jin Ryu are effective but haven’t demonstrated durability. Hill hasn’t thrown more than 136 innings since 2007 (he’s 39 years old) and Ryu has thrown just 209 Major League innings since 2014. Time will tell where Maeda is slotted in, as he’s had success both as a starter and a reliever. There is some risk for Stripling, but if he starts hot, it’ll be hard to take him out of the rotation.

Performance

Padres pitchers aren’t the only theme here. A high strikeout and low walk rate are a good indicator of a breakout pitcher and all three of these guys possess both. Stripling rocked a 27% K% in 2018 with a minimal 4.4% BB%. The walk rate sat in the top 4% of the league for 2018, and now we’re wondering why he was sent to the pen in the playoffs. It would be smart to expect some regression as his walk% was 7.2% in 2016 and 6.3% in 2017, which are still both better-than-average.

Stripling has a much more complex pitch mix than Lucchesi or Paddack. He throws a four-seam fastball (39%), slider (26%), curveball (22%), changeup (11%), and the occasional cutter (2%). The changeup and curve both have solid whiff %'s of 33.6% and 36.1%, respectively per Statcast. He doesn’t throw exceptionally hard (average of 91.8 mph), which is why his pitch mix and quality of his breaking balls are the keys to his success.

Strip posted a HR/FB rate of 16.7% in 2017 and 16.4% in 2018. We already know that the league average is around 10%. Now comes the interesting stat, his 2018 ERA was only 0.03 higher than his xFIP of 2.99. This shows how dominant he was in 2018.

Stripling possesses the arsenal to become a top-20 fantasy starter and is almost a necessary pick if you’ve taken the risk and drafted Kershaw. Rotation woes in LA mean he’s likely to hit at least 150 innings and make significant contributions to ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts. He'll be a great value in 2019 drafts.

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