9 Breakout Pitchers for 2020 Fantasy Baseball
Fantasy owners are constantly in search of breakout pitchers. These players are often the commodities that end up being largely responsible for fantasy championships come September. Just ask anyone who had Blake Snell in 2018 or, to a lesser extent, Hyun-Jin Ryu or Lucas Giolito last season. Pitchers who offer owners a huge return on investment are pure gold.
The trick, of course, is figuring out who they are beforehand. I looked at some of the stickier stats among pitchers, namely swinging-strike rate and strikeout-minus-walk-percentage. I also looked at the expected stats these pitchers “should have” given up last year in several different categories. Based on these metrics and a few other factors, here are some of my favorite 2020 breakout starting pitchers.
Below are some thresholds that pitchers reached in 2019. There were roughly 150 pitchers in each category. In most cases, the “elite” represents the top 10 percent or so of starters, followed by the “great” at around 15-20%, and finally the “good”, coming in at about the top 25-30% of pitchers. I wanted to focus primarily on K-BB% and swinging-strike rate. These tend to be the stickiest stats as far as their correlation to the more common fantasy categories, specifically ERA and WHIP. 10 pitchers had at least 90 innings pitched and posted elite level rates in both swinging strike percentage and K-BB rate. Nine of the 10 are being drafted among the top 17 starters off the board in current Fantrax ADP. The tenth is the first potential breakout candidate on my list.
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Nine Breakout Starting Pitchers for 2020
Matthew Boyd looked like one of the top breakout pitchers of 2019 after the first two months of the season. After Memorial Day, however, the wheels started to fall off. He posted an ugly 5.67 ERA from June 1 on. The home run was his bugaboo, as he surrendered an MLB-high 1.89 home runs per nine innings. Still, he had the 16th best SIERA among the pitchers in this group and finished with an elite whiff rate of 31.2 percent. If he continues to feature his elite slider (.189 xBA) and has a little better luck with his four-seam fastball, he can have a stretch of dominance that lasts much longer than two months. He is currently being drafted 45th among starters. There is enough in his profile to suggest that he can perform at a much higher level than that in 2020.
Brandon Woodruff went from middle reliever to big-time starter in short order before missing two months of the season. He posted elite numbers in four of the nine categories in 2019. Of the 142 pitchers with at least 90 innings last year, Woodruff finished in the top 15 in FIP, xFIP, and SIERA, indicators that his season was no fluke. Woodruff has excellent command and limits dangerous contact. He posted the best barrel rate (4.1 percent) and sixth-best average exit velocity among the 154 pitchers who threw at least 1500 pitches. I think a few more sliders and a few less changeups can turn Woodruff into a dominant starter. His ADP is low enough (SP30) where he can still bring a massive ROI to the owner who believes he is ready to take the next step in his career.
You can argue that 2019 was Lance Lynn’s breakout season, as he finished inside the top 20 among starting pitchers in both Points and Roto value. There are just 15 pitchers who registered at least a “good” rating in all nine metrics I analyzed. The other 14 are all being drafted within the top 20 at the position. Lynn is currently going 36th. Owners are not buying into Lynn’s superb 2019 season, which seems strange considering that he has only posted an ERA higher than 4.00 in one of seven seasons in which he has made at least 29 starts. I think there could be even another level here, particularly if he continues to abandon his sinker, which is by far his worst pitch. Pitchers in Texas scare people off. I get that. But I think Lynn is an excellent value at his current price.
Andrew Heaney had the same ugly 1.89/9 HR rate as Matthew Boyd last season. That was after posting the 13th highest HR/9 rate in 2018. For his career, he has served a homer up in less than six innings on average. That is presumably what is giving owners pause. Heaney is currently being selected 50th among starting pitchers. But there’s something here with Heaney, as his elite whiff and swinging strike rates can attest. He also finished seventh last year in average exit velocity allowed. New pitching coach Mickey Callaway has quite a bit of success with Cleveland during his tenure there in the same position. I am hoping he can figure out how to get the most out of the former Marlin. Heaney should provide owners with a solid WHIP and makes for a solid flier in the middle rounds of drafts.
Kenta Maeda has some strangely conflicting numbers in his profile. His SwStr% was 14.60% last season. That was higher than those of Chris Sale, Matthew Boyd, and James Paxton, among plenty of others. Yet he struck out fewer than 10 batters per nine innings, leading to deflated K% and K-BB% rate. His xFIP and SIERA were above 4.00, but his xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA were all top-12 among pitchers profiled. I think the “good” is largely sustainable. Maeda has two elite offerings in his changeup and slider. Over the last two years, hitters are batting just .172 and .174 respectively against those two pitches. If he can exhibit better command of his fastball (and if the Dodgers give him a full allotment of starts for once), Maeda has the tools to finish much higher than his current SP56 ADP would leave you to believe.
Like Maeda, Canning induced plenty of swings and misses, but they did not translate into a ton of strikeouts. Canning had a higher whiff rate than Jacob deGrom, a lower xBA than Patrick Corbin, and a lower xwOBA than Shane Bieber. However, like his teammate, Heaney, the longball was a problem. Canning was great at keeping the ball in the yard in the minors, so I am hopeful that last season’s troubles in that area were the result of some nerves and last year’s baseball. Canning’s slider and curve both qualify as elite-level pitches. If he can maximize his fastball and throw more first-pitch strikes, he can put a ton of hitters away with his other pitches. At his current price as the 62nd starting pitcher off the board, Griffin Canning is another Angel hurler who has plenty of upside and could be one of the top breakout pitchers of 2020.
Others Who Are Interesting
Here are a few other potential breakout pitchers I think could take the next step under the right circumstances and are basically free in drafts.
Adrian Houser is following the Brandon Woodruff path from decent reliever to potential standout starter. He is not a K-BB% or SwStr% darling. But the man knows how to create weak contact with his devastating sinker. He finished inside the top 10 in average exit velocity, average launch angle, and barrel percentage permitted. His sinker had 22.6 inches of drop last year, nearly two inches more than the MLB average. It helped Houser induce groundballs at a 55.4 percent clip. Nearly half of all batted balls against Houser were classified as weak or topped per Statcast. Houser should be a mainstay in the Milwaukee rotation but is listed as a reliever in many leagues. When compared to starters, he is being drafted 85th, well beyond the 20th round in 12-team leagues. That is far too low for someone with Houser’s solid portfolio.
As of now, Drew Pomeranz is slated to begin the year in a setup role for the San Diego Padres. That is normally not a role that lends itself to much fantasy acclaim unless your league counts holds. Even if that is the case, Pomeranz could hold (see what I did there?) some rather significant value. He was lights out upon relieving for Milwaukee late last season. He posted a 45:8 K: BB ratio in just 26.1 innings for the Brew Crew. The Padres signed Pomeranz to a four-year deal back in November. It sure sounds like the club has big plans for him. The former first-round draft pick is currently going outside the top 400 picks, so there is virtually no risk of taking him. It is worth drafting him to see if he can back into a few saves or a few starts.
I know, I know, we have been down this road more than once before. Kevin Gausman tantalizes at times and then gives up seven runs. We’ve all been there. Just hear me out for 30 seconds. Gausman finished ninth in SwStr% last season. The eight pitchers who finished ahead of him are all being drafted in the first five rounds of 12-team leagues. Gausman is going in the 37th round. Yes, you read that correctly. Thirty. Seventh. Round. He lowered his hard-hit rate against by over five percent last year while increasing his strikeout rate by more than that same margin. This deep in drafts, you are mostly throwing stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks anyway. You might as well invest (and I use that word loosely) in someone who has some pedigree and degree of skill on his side.
Who are your favorite breakout pitchers for the 2020 fantasy baseball season? Drop some names in the comments below. We promise not to share them with your competition.
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