Spring K% Starting Pitcher Breakout Candidates

We have been told ad nauseam that spring training stats mean nothing. For the most part, this is true. As soon as you begin reading an article quoting a pitcher’s spring ERA or a hitter’s batting average, you could safely skip any analysis the author provides. But two years ago, with the help of Matt Swartz, I discovered that a pitcher’s strikeout percentage actually does carry some significance with regards to his regular season performance. Knowing this, we could look to the spring stats to identify which starters are punching out batters at a significantly higher rate than they have in the past. These make for an interesting group of breakout candidates.

Usually, I search for an article that describes some sort of change that could explain the strikeout rate surge. If I can’t find anything, it would seem flukier. This is not an exhaustive list, but a cherry-picked group of the more interesting names.

Drew Hutchison – 44.4% Spring K%

Hutchison has been getting a decent amount of fanfare, some of which was from me as I boldly predicted that he would earn 12-team mixed league value this year. The intrigue here is that his fastball velocity has spiked after returning from Tommy John surgery. He was already a decent pitching prospect who possessed solid skills, so with the promise of a strikeout rate surge from the increased zip on the heater, he’s someone to take seriously. However, don’t go nuts as this is a tiny sample size. He has thrown just 9.2 spring innings. That would be minuscule during the regular season, but given that this is spring training, it’s an even flimsier sample size with which to draw conclusions from.

Jarred Cosart – 32.7%

To the casual fan, it would have seemed that Cosart had a dazzling debut last year with the Astros, having posted a microscopic 1.95 ERA over 60 innings and 10 starts. But his strikeout rate was a pathetic 13.4% and he actually walked two more batters than he struck out. So has anything changed? Indeed something has. Apparently, new Astros pitching coach Brent Strom has taught members of the pitching staff a spike curve. I cannot tell you if this pitch has been generating a ton of swings and misses in the spring, but it would certainly be a coincidence that Cosart’s strikeout rate has surged, he learned a new pitch, and the pitch isn’t actually behind all those Ks. Cosart already has the ground ball rate going for him, so improving his strikeout potential would put him back on my fantasy radar.

Tanner Scheppers – 23.7%

Scheppers is moving into an injury ravaged Rangers rotation and getting the opening day nod. Despite owning a fastball that averaged over 96 mph in his first two seasons, his strikeout rates have been below 20%. One reason is because he has simply leaned too heavily on the pitch, reducing his ability to generate a whole lot of swings and misses. As a starter, he can’t throw his fastball 80% of the time (well, unless you’re Tony Cingrani or Ross Detwiler), so mixing in his off-speed stuff more frequently could help offset any strikeout rate degradation he would see upon moving from relief to the rotation. Maybe he’s already doing that in the spring. With a strong ground ball rate and good control, he has an exciting mix of skills.

Josh Tomlin – 22.6%

In August of 2012, Tomlin underwent Tommy John surgery. He returned last last season to pitch about 30 innings in the minors and then battled Carlos Carrasco for the fifth spot in the Indians rotation. Luckily for my reputation and my fantasy teams, Carrasco was the winner of that battle and Tomlin was sent to Triple-A yesterday.

But, Tomlin has flashed career best velocity, as often happens with TJ returnees (see: Hutchison above). His career strikeout rate is just 13.2%, so his spring mark is quite the jump. He never averaged even 90 mph on his fastball, so you have to figure that getting over that hump would be huge. Since he has always possessed impeccable control, a strikeout rate jump could do wonders for his results and potential fantasy value. He would seemingly be a poor man’s Tommy Milone, which doesn’t suggest significant upside, but would have value in AL-Only leagues and streaming potential in mixers. This of course all assumes he’ll find his way into the rotation at some point as a result of either injury or ineffectiveness.

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Mike Podhorzer produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. He also sells beautiful photos through his online gallery, Pod's Pics. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

3 Responses to “Spring K% Starting Pitcher Breakout Candidates”

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  1. siggian says:

    FWIW, Hutchison’s extra oomph predates his injury. Apparently, he made a mechanical adjustment and gained a couple of miles of hour on his last two starts or so.

    Whether that mechanical adjustment and his TJ surgery are connected is a matter of speculation

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    • Skin Blues says:

      Yeah I remember him throwing gas right before he was injured, and more than a few people suggested the sudden bump in velocity was related to the elbow injury. No way to know for sure, but for what he’s going to cost in an auction, he’s worth a flier.

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      • Fredward says:

        Speaking of velocity bumps, but on another subject didn’t Wacha seem to hump up at the end of the year last year? I was half expecting him to be on the spring Tommy John list.

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