2018 Player Profile: Breakout Pitcher
Every year I write an article about a hurler that kinda comes out of nowhere to star in the fantasy game. You know, a guy people are kinda talking about on the fringes, but not someone anyone is really banking on for success. A guy folks know, but certainly not one they are targeting. A guy that you could say to your friend ‘I really like this guy’ and your friend just goes blah, and orders a beer. In essence, this is my attempt to be a year ahead of the curve, instead of being behind it like everyone else.
In the recent past my “breakout pitcher” has ended up being a pretty darn special performer a good deal of the time. The results since I started writing this yearly column follow.
2014: Corey Kluber (ADP: 234.8)
His first season of more than 150-innings led to a massive breakout of 18-9, 2.44 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 269 strikeouts. Oh yeah, he won the Cy Young award too.
2015: Shane Greene (ADP: 422.6)
He threw just 78.2 innings in 2014 but he was still the 2015 call. He was amazing to start the year, throwing 22 innings while allowing one run over three starts before he started to have some problems that included some numbness in his pitching hand that eventually led to surgery. Ultimately, he flamed out going 4-8 with a 6.88 ERA over 18 outings.
2016: Kyle Hendricks (ADP: 214.1)
Had an 8-7 record with a 3.95 ERA in 2015, but the predicted breakout was massive as he went 16-8 with a league leading 2.13 ERA and his 0.98 WHIP was pretty darn impressive too.
2017: Aaron Nola (ADP: 192.2)
Nola had a 4.78 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 2016 while throwing only 111 innings. In 2017 he took the next step with 12 wins, a 3.54 ERA, a 1.21 WHIP and 184 punchouts in 168 innings.
That’s 3-for-4 on the hit scale including two massive efforts that even a breakout call couldn’t have predicted. Let’s just say my track record of picking a breakout pitcher is pretty strong.
So, who will the breakout candidate be in 2018? There were many options I sifted through and, honestly, I think this was the toughest call in the five years I’ve been doing this because (A) everyone is in on pitching these days and (B) it seemed like every guy I wanted to name had a reason not to be chosen or (C) so many young arms are called up really early in their development leading to seasons of success that cause their values the next season to sky rocket in ADP (people are alllllll over young arms these days so even if they don’t really deserve it causing many to be pushed up higher than they should be in ADP rendering a breakout call as pretty chalk). A final consideration is that so many of the arms drafted in the range I consider for a breakout arm are either veterans trying to make a comeback or guys that just aren’t ready for that next step yet in their development in 2018.
Some of the contenders included the following.
Dylan Bundy (ADP: 191.75) had his best season last year and it seems that lots of folks are in in the Orioles righty after his solid 2017. He’s long been expected to be an elite performer, with the hang-up being an inability to stay healthy.
Dinelson Lamet (ADP: 208.9) was on the short list, he has an impressive arm, a solid park and an improving offense behind him, but the bouts of wildness and lack of grounders left him on the outside looking in.
Patrick Corbin (ADP: 235.1) had Tommy John surgery in 2014 and has struggled a bit since. Still, he already broke out in his second season going 14-8 with a 3.41 ERA and 178 strikeouts back in 2013. You only get one shot to break out.
Julio Teheran (ADP: 242.5) suffered the same fate as Corbin. His breakout effort was in 2013 (14-8, 3.20 ERA, 170 Ks and a 1.17 WHIP).
Sean Manaea (ADP: 250.0) struggled with health and the walk last season, and though I expect growth this season, I just couldn’t make him the name I tabbed.
Sean Newcomb (ADP: 322.7) tantalizes with the stuff that led to 108 strikeouts in 100 innings as a rookie, but a walk rate over five per nine simply disqualifies you from a breakout call.
So, who is the guy, the hurler who will outperform his draft day cost in a substantial manner offering an impressive fantasy effort in 2018?
Jameson Taillon had an impressive season and was primed for something significant in 2017. Unfortunately, a health scare (cancer) caused him to miss some time, and when he returned he really struggled to find his game. With an offseason to heal his body and mind, can Taillon return to the player he was prior to his off the field issues?
Minor League Overall Rankings for Taillon who was drafted 2nd overall in the 2010 Entry Draft.
Taillon was long looked at as an elite prospect, even through all the injuries.
Let’s talk health.
Taillon hasn’t been very fortunate with his health. Let me count the ways.
As you will notice above, he didn’t throw a pitch in 2014. The reason is that he had Tommy John surgery.
As you will notice above, he didn’t throw a pitch in 2015. Why? He injured his groin while coming back from the arm surgery and needed a hernia procedure that wiped out a second straight season for Taillon.
He was healthy in 2016 and threw 165.2 successful innings.
The 2017 season was a different story.
Taillon found a mass on one of his testicles on May 2nd. A few days later, he had tests run and then a few days later he had surgery to remove what was believed to be cancer. The infected area was removed, and it is believed that none of the cancer has spread to this date (he should be fully healthy in 2018). He missed roughly five weeks before returning in ’17.
Let’s talk stuff with Taillon. It’s pretty impressive.
Taillon has a hard, 95 mph fastball that can hit 97-98 with regularity. The pitch has good sink which dives toward the knees of right-handed batters. As great as that pitch is, his out-pitch is his hammer, over the top, 12-to-6 yacker. His curveball can be a difference-making pitch, and one that generates copious amounts of swing and misses. His third pitch is a changeup that he’s working diligently to improve.
Let’s talk production. It’s pretty impressive. Hear me out.
Taillon had an impressive 18 start rookie season. He walked just 1.47 batters per nine, posted a 5.00 K/BB ratio, had a 1.12 WHIP and had an elite 52.4 percent ground ball rate. It appears, on the surface, that things went horribly wrong in year two (3.10 BB/9, 2.72 K/BB ratio, 1.48 WHIP and 47 GB-rate), but did they actually fall off the rails, or not?
Sample sizes can be a tricky thing. So, can putting a finger on the effects of off the field illness. Imagine the toll that cancer takes on a body. Imagine the toll it takes on the mind. Imagine the toll it foists upon the family. It’s an immense, life-changing event. How can baseball mean anything at that point?
Let’s do something. Let’s take the effort of Taillon in year one and his work in year two up until the time he left the field to take of his health (I’m removing his start on May 3rd because that was the day after he learned of his cancer diagnosis). So, from 2016 to April 28th of 2017 Taillon made 23 starts, and here are the numbers.
7-4, 3.08 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 7.30 K/9, 1.94 BB/9 and a 53 percent GB-rate over 134 innings
Here’s a question for you.
How many pitchers who threw 130-innings in 2017 had a 1.15 WHIP, 7.30 K/9 and 1.94 BB/9 rate? The answer is four (Kershaw, Kluber, Sale, Samardzija).
If you add in the 53 percent ground ball rate the number shrinks from four to zero. None.
So, from his first start, until his diagnosis of cancer, Jameson Taillon produced a WHIP, K/9, BB/9 and ground ball rate that no man in baseball who threw 130-innings in 2017 could match.
The fact is that Taillon has the skills to be an impressive big-league arm. Actually, he’s already shown himself to be that guy. Is it really fair, or for that matter even accurate, to look at what he did after surgery last season (4.85 ERA, 1.54 WHIP) and consider that part of who he actually is? Even if you want to consider those starts, after all he did make them, what about we do each other a favor and remove two starts he made on July 25th and August 1st. If we take out those two starts – when he was battered into oblivion for 20 hits and 18 runs (17 earned) over 6.2 innings – then 17 of his last 19 starts still equated to a 3.53 ERA and 1.41 WHIP which is immanently better than the actual post-surgery numbers. How about we take into account the fact that Taillon walked just one batter in 5-straight games to end the season. Taillon also allowed four runs over his final three starts. We can mess around with sample sizes and prove up/down stuff with relative ease with virtually any player in baseball. I personally find it heartening that Taillon was able to flash some good numbers despite his overall down work post-surgery.
Let’s remove sample size, and just talk about his career marks.
For his career a 7.95 K/9 rate is solid.
For his career a 2.39 BB/9 rate is very, very good.
Note that his 3.33 K/BB ratio is very, very good.
For his career his 49.5 percent ground ball rate is very, very good.
For his career his 1.80 GB/FB rate is very, very good.
Note that his BABIP went from .287 as a rookie to .352 in year two. The number is obviously coming down in 2018.
Note that his career HR/FB ratio is 0.91, a better than league average mark (it was lower in year two at 0.74).
Let’s compare those career numbers of Taillon to the men who qualified for the ERA title last year. Of those 58 men...
Thirty-five had a better K/9 rate.
Fourteen had a better BB/9 rate.
Twenty had a better K/BB rate.
Eleven had a better ground ball rate.
Seven had a better GB/FB ratio.
Two had a better HR/9 rate.
Taillon’s career shows him to be worthy of roster and expecting big things from in 2018.
Taillon is locked into the Pirates’ rotation. In fact, he’s likely to be their #1 now that Gerrit Cole is an Astros. The concern is the health of course. We’re not talking just the cancer, but the totality of his professional career. Here are his season by season innings pitched counts.
2011: 92.2 innings
2012: 142 innings
2013: 147.1 innings
2016: 165.2 innings
2017: 147.2 innings
Though he’s never thrown 170-innings, the innings are there the last two seasons for him to easily thrown 180 frames this season. By that, I mean that the Pirates shouldn’t have an issue allowing him to throw 180-innings since he’s averaged 156.2 the last two seasons. His arm should be able to handle the workload, even if he hasn’t done it yet. Of course, with so many physical maladies through the years, you shouldn’t be expecting him to blow past 180-innings with ease. Just note that he should be able to.
AVERAGE DRAFT POSITION DATA
As of this writing, here is the ADP data for Taillon.
Taillon may not have elite stuff, but it’s awfully close. He has the pedigree to be a top of the rotation arm. His rookie season was sterling. His second season, interrupted by a cancer scare, was moderate at best, but there were still positives in ’17 that lead to the idea that success in ’18 is not only doable but likely to occur with Jameson. Given his current cost he’s a nice arm to target on draft day, one that has a good chance to drastically outpace the cost, and on that I fully recommend that you roster.
10-Team Mixed: Ideally you can grab him as an SP5 in this format, well before the SP7 territory that he falls into in a league of this side based on ADP. His ratios will be better than league average, and his strikeout rate is strong enough that you shouldn’t fall too far behind if you’re tossing him out there 30 times.
12-Team Mixed: An SP4 here, again he’s being drafted as a 6th according to ADP. The combination of strikeouts, lack of walks and copious grounders are the skills I want to build around. Still young, there’s an even better season in 2018 than in 2016 available from his right arm. The question is about durability, one he will need to answer this season due to his checkered track record.
15-Team Mixed: Once you start digging into the SP5s in a league this size, you’re going to be running into concerns, just how it is. Given that, I’ll obviously suggest to you that you target the skills of Taillon and call out his name.
NL-Only League: Undervalued assets can bring you championships. There’s added risk here since the workload isn’t known, but a young arm, with lots of skills, is never a bad target, especially with the moderate cost currently associated with Taillon’s name. Invest.