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February 24, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Pitchers' Breakout Bunch

by Jay Jaffe

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Last time around, we used the Breakout Rates found in the 2009 PECOTA projections to identify a handful of promising young hitters with high potential for taking major steps forward this year. Doing the same for pitchers is a trickier business. A pitcher's Breakout Rate is based on the likelihood that he'll improve his Equivalent ERA by 20 percent relative to the weighted average of his performance over the past three years. Alas, pitcher development is a less predictable enterprise than it is for hitters, who generally peak between ages 25 and 29, which creates a few problems in identifying true breakout candidates.

The primary difficulty is that the up-and-down nature of most pitching careers means that pitchers of any age might post high Breakout Rates, particularly when their recent performance includes injury-related ineffectiveness. Among the small handful of pitchers with at least a 30 percent rate are grizzled vets Randy Johnson, A.J. Burnett, Jeremy Bonderman, and Ervin Santana, and that's after weeding out the small workloads (either due to injury-related attrition or to relief roles) and Ugueto Effect equivalents. Even after eliminating the noise, the Breakout Rates among our meaningful set of hurlers wind up being about half those shown by the hitters.

What follows here are eight pitchers with less than 300 major league innings under their belts whose raw PECOTA projections (as opposed to the ones in our Depth Charts) forecast at least 80 innings with a 4.60 EqERA or better. That's just a tick below the defined league average of 4.50, but the spread of possibilities means that such hurlers might still have a nearly 50 percent chance of an above-average performance.

Andrew Miller, Marlins (109 IP, 4.59 EqERA, 47% Breakout Rate)

Chosen sixth in the 2006 draft by the Tigers, Miller was traded to the Marlins in last winter's Miguel Cabrera deal, and thrust into Florida's rotation from the outset of his age-23 season. Pummeled initially (posting a 9.12 ERA in April), he leveled out to a 4.44 ERA over his next 14 starts, but was was sidelined at the All-Star break due to knee tendonitis, and confined to bullpen duty in his September return. Although he's put up a 5.80 ERA in 181 2/3 big-league innings, his strikeout rate (7.5 per nine) and ground-ball rate (48 percent) bode well if he can cut down on the walks (5.2 per nine), and receive enough help from his defense to lower his .335 BABIP. PECOTA likes his chances, obviously, foreseeing a solid season split between the bullpen and the rotation.

Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (164 2/3 IP, 4.56 EqERA, 44% Breakout Rate)

Buchholz's September 2007 no-hitter pushed the already high expectations for him through the roof; he ranked the highest of any pitcher on last year's Top 100 Prospects list. Breaking camp as Boston's fifth starter, Buchholz yielded a 3.71 ERA through his first six starts, but mechanical woes and confidence issues led to him being bombed for a 9.21 ERA in 42 innings sandwiched around a two-month stint in Triple-A. He's fallen behind fragile free agents Brad Penny and John Smoltz on Boston's fifth-starter depth chart, and probably won't reach his projected workload in the majors, but if he's physically and mentally sound, the pitcher who dazzled in 2007 should re-emerge.

Anibal Sanchez, Marlins (89 IP, 4.58 EqERA, 24% Breakout Rate)

Speaking of September no-hitters, it's been all downhill for Sanchez since he spun his 2006 gem. A torn labrum cost him more than a year at the big-league level, and after a 3.52 ERA through his first four starts coming back last year, he was tagged for a 7.22 ERA over the final six. His high strikeout rate (8.7 per nine) suggests the ability remains, but the system obviously has concerns about his health, as do the Marlins themselves.

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (157 IP, 4.35 EqERA, 23% Breakout Rate)

Drafted one pick behind Miller, Kershaw ranked fifth on last year's prospect list, and dazzled observers in spring training-all before celebrating his 20th birthday. Recalled last May, he scuffled in his first major league stint before undertaking a Double-A refresher course. Upon returning, the young southpaw exhibited much-improved control (67/28 K/BB ratio in 69 innings) and impressive poise, finishing with a respectable 4.26 ERA that would have been considerably lower with average defensive support. Only the speed of his ascent curbs PECOTA's optimism for him to maintain or better last year's level, since his baseline includes relatively high translated ERAs from his low minors work.

John Danks, White Sox (169 IP, 4.03 EqERA, 20% Breakout Rate)

By any conventional sense of the term, Danks already broke out in 2008, pitching the White Sox into the postseason in the Game 163 tiebreaker to cap a season in which he finished fifth in the AL with a 3.32 ERA. His projection is weighted down by the brutal translations of his 2006 performance and an ugly rookie campaign, but the addition of a cut fastball to his arsenal last year boosted his ground-ball rate and prevented homers, and typifies the non-linear gains which developing pitchers often deliver. PECOTA remains bullish.

Jonathan Sanchez, Giants (127 2/3 IP, 4.50 EqERA, 19% Breakout Rate)

After years of being sidetracked by control and injury issues, Sanchez cracked the Giants' rotation and demonstrated his promise by striking out just shy of one batter per inning. Alas, his walk rate remained high, and he struggled with the dramatically increased workload, suffering a mild shoulder strain which triggered a 7.47 ERA in the second half. PECOTA still sees a lot to like, though it remains concerned about his durability.

Max Scherzer, Diamondbacks (158 IP, 3.81 EqERA, 16% Breakout Rate)

Another 2006 first-rounder, Scherzer tossed 4 1/3 innings of no-hit, seven-strikeout ball in his big-league debut last April. He pitched well thereafter both as a starter and a reliever, whiffing 10.6 per nine with a better than 3-to-1 K/BB ratio, though a roster crunch and shoulder inflammation forced him to spend much of the summer in Triple-A. PECOTA loves him, with a raw forecast good for 14th in the majors in VORP, but his role may prevent him from reaching such heights. He's the leading candidate for the fifth starter's slot, but could probably close right now with his mid-90s fastball and work-in-progress secondary stuff.

Justin Masterson, Red Sox (107 1/3 IP, 4.28 EqERA, 16% Breakout Rate)

Thrown into the fire of a pennant race due to injuries, Masterson held his own as a swingman. Despite shaky control, the 23-year-old side-armer put up a 3.67 ERA in nine first-half starts, then whiffed 7.6 per nine on the way to a 2.36 ERA as a reliever. His delivery was hell on righties (.196/.274/.298) and generated enough ground balls to rate him fourth in double-play frequency among AL pitchers. Boston's added depth means a return to the bullpen for him, and while he probably won't match last year's .245 BABIP, PECOTA sees him as a valuable commodity in the more old school swingman's role.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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