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A Statistical Analysis Finding Breakout Pitchers

The term breakout is used so often fantasy managers are probably tired of hearing about it. Everybody is looking for the next Corbin Burnes or Gerrit Cole. The ability to find diamonds in the rough is what separates the good fantasy managers from the great. I was curious if there was a way to identify which pitchers were primed to have a breakout.

There is no way to guarantee a breakout since these are real-life people enduring real-life events; however, after some research, I was able to identify a common denominator between some of the game’s best pitchers. The game’s best starters (Burnes, Cole, deGrom) and game’s best relievers (Clase, Iglesias, Pressly) all have common attributes. This article first dives into the math behind the traits predicting breakout pitchers and then identifies pitchers that are ready for a breakout in 2022!

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The Math for Finding Breakout Pitchers

Many are not big fans of math, so I will try to keep this part brief. While analyzing pitching stats from 2021, I noticed a trend in which pitchers were more successful. I wanted to make sure to not limit my sample pool to just starters since players like Burnes were relievers in the big leagues before they were considered starters. The Brewers have done this twice with both Burnes and Peralta, two of the best pitchers in baseball now! While looking at the best relievers and starters in the game I noticed that all of them were “nasty”. While this does not come as a real surprise, these pitchers all had some of the best velocity and movement in the game.

The three variables that I wanted to focus on were fastball velocity, fastball spin, and breaking ball spin. Using data provided by Baseball Savant, I created a list of pitchers labeling the percentile they would fall in for each of those three categories. Savant uses curveball for their “breaking ball spin” which not all pitchers throw. I created percentiles for those who do not throw a curveball using a slider instead. I defined being “elite” in one of these three categories as being 70th percentile or above. In each category they were in the 70th percentile or above, they received a 1. As I mentioned earlier, Burnes, Cole, deGrom, Clase, Iglesias, and Pressly all received 1’s in each category. In total, out of 474 pitchers, only 37 received a 1 in each category.

The next step was to determine if there was any sort of statistical significance to this relationship. Having nasty stuff is great, but if it does not lead to success then fantasy managers need to look elsewhere for breakout pitchers. I decided to use ERA as my determinant for significance. You can use a variety of measures, but ERA is a clear indicator of success on the field.

The total population average ERA was 4.18. The population standard deviation was 1.379. The 37 pitchers who were “nasty” had an average ERA of 3.49. In order to tell if these ERA’s were statistically different, I used the Central Limit Theorem. Under the assumption that being elite in these three categories did not influence the ERA of the pitcher, I performed a hypothesis test. (For those of you interested in my math and the steps feel free to reach out!) The result was looking for the probability of our Z score being less than -2.77. This probability is equal to 0.0028. Since P is less than .05 we can reject the assumption and conclude that being elite in all three of those categories will lead to a lower ERA.

I continued by comparing those who were elite in three categories to those that were only elite in two. A total of 81 pitchers were elite in two of the three categories. Combining this with the 37 pitchers from before, this gave us a new population of 118 pitchers. The combined average ERA of those 118 pitchers was 3.77. Using the same process as before I assumed that being elite in all three categories compared to two would have no effect on ERA. After completing the statistical analysis, I received a P value of 0.067. While not as significant, it is still close to 0.05 and is less than 0.1. I concluded that I could reject the assumption at the 90th percent confidence level. Put another way, I am 90% confident that being elite in 3 categories compared to 2 will provide a pitcher with a lower ERA.

The full list of 37 pitchers can be seen in the chart below. Further on in this report, I am going to dive into 4 pitchers on the list that should be on fantasy manager’s radars for 2022.

The BAT58880258010.287
TOTAL (AVG)58986268530.29

Breakout Pitchers to Target in 2022:

Camilo Doval-RP San Francisco Giants

Doval made his major league debut for the Giants back in April. Despite some early success, Doval found himself back in AAA for much of the season. He was promoted again in August and became a key cog in the Giants’ bullpen down the stretch and into October. Doval is only 24 years old and looks to be arguably the best pitcher in their bullpen already. He ranked in the 99th percentile in fastball velocity, 98th in fastball spin, and 76th in breaking ball spin.

Although fantasy managers tend to focus on starting pitchers during drafts, relievers should not be ignored. Doval has an opportunity to be the closer for San Francisco. He will have to fend off Tyler Rogers and Jake McGee, but that should not be too difficult. McGee is already 35, so there are questions as to how many more innings his arm can take. Rogers is a solid pitcher and somebody that the Giants like a lot. However, he only strikes out 6.11 batters per 9. In 19 save chances Rogers only went 13/19. Teams often shy away from using pitchers who lack the ability to get swings and misses in the closer role. Anybody looking for saves should have Doval on their radar. Ryan Kirksey wrote an article for Fantrax outlining why Doval could save at least 20 games for the Giants in 2022.

He is currently going as RP15 according to Fantrax ADP. The breakout happened right in front of everybody’s eyes and yet he still is going outside of the top 10 at the position. After his promotion in August, Doval fired 16 scoreless innings for the Giants. He held opponents to a .143 batting average and a .161 slugging percentage. Doval struck out 13.2 batters per 9 and walked just 1.7. Everybody is looking for the next breakout pitcher, but you can make the argument that Doval’s breakout has already happened. The time to get Doval is now, and his price going after Mark Melancon is more than affordable.

Tyler Wells- RP Baltimore Orioles

It is difficult to bank on a breakout pitcher coming from Baltimore. They have struggled to find consistent pitchers, but Wells looks like he is the real deal. Wells made his debut in 2021 and fired 57 innings to a 4.11 ERA. While the ERA looks less than ideal, it is possible that Wells was unlucky. Both his xERA and FIP were lower than that. In addition to this, he fits our criteria discussed earlier, so in theory, he should be performing better. Wells ranks in 78th percentile for fastball velocity, 88th in fastball spin, and 76th in breaking ball spin. This meets the standards to hope for a breakout pitcher.

Although Wells put up a less than stellar ERA during 2021, he showed significant underlying statistics. Wells had a double-digit K/9 rate and kept his walks under 2 per 9. He showed the ability to control the strike zone while also putting hitters away. If anything, Wells was throwing the ball in the zone too much early in the season. Over the first half of the year, Wells was giving up 1.7 HR/9 which was inflating his ERA. During the second half not only did opposing batter’s slugging percentages drop, but the HR/9 dropped to 0.6. Wells showed improvement throughout the season. Combining the improvement with his stuff, makes Wells a prime breakout candidate for 2022.

Wells is basically free in drafts. Currently going as RP50 he possesses as much upside as just about anybody. Although Baltimore might not win many games in 2022, he is the best reliever in that bullpen. Wells should earn the closer role either during spring training or early in the season. A likely closer, with nasty stuff should be on every manager’s radar as a breakout candidate in 2022. Wells is going around guys like Cole Sulser, Kendall Graveman, and Hector Neris. Wells has far more upside than all three of those pitchers and should be being drafted way higher than he currently is.

Dylan Cease- SP Chicago White Sox

I kept debating whether Cease fit the criteria for a breakout player. He is already somebody that is firmly on fantasy managers’ radars in 2022. He performed well in 2021 and was a former top prospect. Nonetheless, I still decided he needed to be on this list. In terms of a breakout for Cease, it will not surprise me if he ranks inside of the top 7 starting pitchers in all of fantasy next season. At just 26 years of age, Cease can keep getting better and I firmly believe he takes that next step in 2022.

In terms of stuff, Cease firmly fits the criteria we are looking for. His fastball ranks in the 92nd percentile for velocity, 97th percentile for spin, and his breaking ball ranks in the 86th percentile for spin. The stuff is elite and you can argue that it always has been. The biggest flaw for Cease in the early parts of his career was control. Cease struggled to consistently limit walks. He also was failing to put people away with his elite stuff. In 2021 that all changed. The walks dropped below 3.7/9, the strikeouts jumped way up to 12.28, and the home runs dropped to 1.09 per 9. He had a career year in 2021 but that doesn’t mean he won’t continue to get better.

One of the biggest changes in 2021 was his curveball usage. He threw the pitch almost twice as much as he did in 2020, added more spin to the pitch, and saw his whiff percentage jump to 40.5%. That pitch combined with his elite slider, helped his strikeout rate to skyrocket. Although his fastball always had elite velocity and spin, Cease never had much success with it. In 2021, the pitch went from a +8 Run Value (bad for pitchers) to -2. Cease improved his breaking balls which then helped his fastball live up to the expectations.

Cease is currently going as SP25 in drafts. He has the same elite stuff as Cole, Burnes, and deGrom. There is no reason that Cease cannot continue to develop into one of the game’s premier pitchers. Cease should be being selected firmly inside of the top 20 pitchers and getting him at his current ADP is a steal. Looking for him to become the next great breakout pitcher in 2022.

Drew Rasmussen- P Tampa Bay Rays

With each day that passes, I think that Drew Rasmussen receives a little bit more attention from the fantasy community. My colleague Corbin Young has been writing a series of posts that have looked into breakout pitchers for 2022 and goes into detail about why Drew Rasmussen will have a breakout 2022 campaign. Since, Corbin already wrote an excellent piece about Rasmussen, I will avoid going into too much detail. You can check out his piece here!

Drew Rasmussen has elite stuff. He ranks in the 95th percentile for fastball velocity, 89th percentile for fastball spin, and 74th percentile in breaking ball spin. The biggest concern with Rasmussen is his opportunity. He pitched in 35 games last season, with only 10 starts. He has never thrown more than the 76 innings that he threw last season. The workload concerns me but Rasmussen has all of the stuff to have a breakout season for the Rays. The Rays also have a history of getting the most out of their pitchers. Those drafting Rasmussen should keep in mind that expecting more than 120 innings could be a stretch. This breakout is based purely on stuff and the fact that Rasmussen was excellent down the stretch last season. Across 59 innings, he posted a 2.44 ERA and a very solid 3.7 strikeout to walk ratio.

Rasmussen is currently going as SP78 in drafts. Although it is not certain that he will be a starter for Tampa an ADP of 257 is too low for his skillset. Being drafted after players like Josiah Gray and Jesús Luzardo undervalues his skill set. Even if he is used as a reliever for part of the season, Rasmussen will still provide value to your fantasy team. Those two specific players going ahead of him do not come with the same guarantee. The floor for Rasmussen is a very solid reliever/swing man for Tampa. The ceiling is a breakout starter who could push for a spot inside of the top 40 starting pitchers.

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