When preparing for a new season, fantasy baseball enthusiasts are always wanting to know who is going to be the next big breakout player. Drafting or picking up a player on waivers for his breakout season gives fantasy owners a feeling of superiority, a feeling of omniscience in some sense. Whether that feeling is justified or not is another question. But even if your team comes in last place, you can take ownership that you “knew” Jose Bautista would bust out for 54 HR, or that your hunch that R.A. Dickey would knuckle his way into a Cy Young Award panned out. So at The Backwards K, there is a series of posts titled “This Year’s…” where I will tell you who I think this year’s version of a 2014 breakout player will be, providing some background and analysis.Embed from Getty Images
Prior to the 2014 season in a 12-team keeper league that I co-own with a friend, this friend and I both made lists of what players that we would like to keep. We were able to keep as many players as we wanted, as long as it fit under a keeper salary cap of $140. This was my first time co-owning a returning keeper team, so it was going to be interesting to see where we would differ on players. One of the omissions that my co-owner had from his list was Corey Kluber at a price of $2. I told him that Kluber was no harm at that price and that I liked his sleeper potential and we should definitely keep him, which he had no problem with. Heck, for $2, almost anyone not named Jeff Mathis is keeper material if it is within the budget. As you should know, Kluber went on to dominate the American League and be one of the most improbable AL Cy Young Award winners in recent memory. Kluber was not the only player that we struck it big on, but he was certainly a key component in leading our team to taking home the championship! So let’s take a further look at Kluber’s ascension and see who may be this year’s version of him.
Kluber, or the Klubot as he is affectionately called, was originally drafted by the Padres and was considered one of their top pitching prospects before he was traded in 2010 to the Indians in a three-way deal that sent Jake Westbrook from the Indians to Cardinals and Ryan Ludwick from the Cardinals to the Padres. Kluber made a few brief and unsuccessful relief appearances in the Majors for the Indians in 2011 and then went on to have 12 largely non-glamorous starts in 2012 after a mid-season call-up. In 2013 though, he made some nice strides in his first full season in the Majors, going 11-5 with a 3.85 ERA (3.30 FIP), 1.26 WHIP, 8.31 K/9, and 2.02 BB/9. Out of all pitchers with a minimum of 140 IP in 2013, Kluber’s K-BB% ranked 16th (ahead of pitchers such as Cole Hamels and David Price) and that is what gave him such sleeper appeal going into 2014.
Kluber’s first 4 starts of the 2014 season were fairly rough as he owned a 5.40 ERA and 1.71 WHIP in that timeframe. However, in that fifth start, he gave a lesson in Klubotics as he pitched a complete game 4-hitter, allowing one unearned run with 11 K/0 BB. From that point onward, he just kept getting better and better. His success seemed to stem from an increased reliance on his cutter, which was the second best cutter in baseball with a wCT rating of 13.6 (behind Adam Wainwright’s wCT of 22.4). Kluber went on to finish the 2014 season with a record of 18-9, 2.44 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 10.27 K/9, and 1.95 BB/9 in 235.2 IP.Embed from Getty Images
So who is going to be this year’s Kluber? My money is on Kluber’s teammate, Carlos Carrasco. For some silly reason, Carrasco is nicknamed “Cookie”, but I am going to call him Car-Car, and I am going to tell you that this Car-Car is going to go vroom-vroom and make my heart go boom-boom in 2015. Once upon a time ago, Carrasco was ranked as the top prospect in the Phillies organization, and he was included as the centerpiece in a package of prospects that brought Cliff Lee to Philly in 2009. Carrasco later made his Major League debut for the Indians in that same season, but did not prove to be ready for the show as he posted an 8.87 ERA over 5 starts. The 2010 and 2011 seasons were nothing to write home about for Car-Car either, and his 2011 season came to an early end as he had to undergo Tommy John surgery.
Car-Car was an interesting sleeper pick going into the 2013 season as he was competing for a spot in the rotation, and there is a popular belief that pitchers are better than ever after returning from Tommy John. However, pitchers actually tend to struggle with their command to varying degrees in their first season back from Tommy John, and it isn’t usually till the following year where they are “better than ever.” So although Car-Car’s velocity was at its highest, he went on to struggle mightily as his command was all over the place. Fast forward to 2014, and Car-Car was once again thought of as a sleeper pick by many, as former top prospects always seem to have some shine. He began the year in the Indians rotation, but delivered unsightly results in 4 starts in April (0-3, 6.71 ERA, 1.50 WHIP). So he was shifted to the bullpen where he excelled with a 2.30 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 8.16 K/9, and 1.88 BB/9 in 43 IP. The amazing turnaround as a reliever gave the Indians confidence in inserting him into the rotation in the middle of a divisional race down the stretch. From August 10 through the end of the season, Car-Car made 10 starts where he went 5-3 with a 1.30 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 10.17 K/9, and 1.43 BB/9 in 69 IP. Say whaaaaat?! Those numbers were better than his time earlier in the season as a reliever. Usually if a reliever is transitioning to being a starting pitcher his numbers will be worse, but the fact that Car-Car’s situation was reversed is pretty amazing and extremely intriguing for fantasy owners in 2015. Overall, he finished the season going 8-7 with a 2.55 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 9.40 K/9, and 1.95 K/9 in 134 IP.
Now one may think that Carrasco’s 10-start stint to finish the 2014 season was pretty fluky, unrepeatable, and not indicative of what can be expected of him this year. Well, there are several reasons to believe in the Car-Car go vroom-vroom breakout. First, he has the former top prospect pedigree, meaning that there are valid reasons why many scouts believed in him as a potential top of the rotation pitcher. Second, he is now a couple of seasons removed from Tommy John surgery, which means he should be hitting his ultimate groove in his age 28 season. Third, his velocity has increased greatly since his return from Tommy John surgery (average fastball velocity pre-Tommy John: 92.5 MPH in 2011 / post-Tommy John: 94.9 MPH in 2013, 95.3 MPH in 2014). Fourth, a huge key to his success in 2014 was the increased trust and usage of his slider (and inversely the decreased reliance on his fastball), as he threw the slider 21.4% of the time (previous high was 10.6% in 2011) and it ranked as the 4th best slider in baseball out of pitchers with at least 130 IP. Fifth, his groundball percentage was very healthy at 52.8% in 2014. Sixth, though it is a small sample size, pitchers don’t really tend to have the type of 10-start performance that Carrasco had late last year without having turned a significant corner.
It is a fairly simple formula: strike batters outs, don’t walk batters, induce lots of groundballs, and be on the way to ace-dom. Car-Car got out of the gates slowly in that regard, but he now appears on the fast track to success.
2014 Corey Kluber Stats: 18 W-9 L, 2.44 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 269 K, 51 BB in 235.2 IP
2015 Carlos Carrasco Projection: 16 W-8 L, 2.72 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 200 K, 49 BB in 195 IP
ʞonfidence Rating: 6ʞ out of 10ʞ
Other candidates to be “This Year’s Corey Kluber”: Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison, Chris Archer, Nate Eovaldi