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.
In fear of breaking tradition that the baseball world has come to expect from the Braves, they have once again developed and produced another talented starting pitcher in the name of Alex Wood. After being drafted in the 2nd round out of the University of Georgia in 2012, Wood made just 26 appearances in the Minors before becoming a mainstay of the Braves pitching unit in 2013. Upon being called up as one of the organization’s top pitching prospects, Wood pitched out of the bullpen before being given a chance as a starting pitcher, and then shifted back to the bullpen to limit his workload. Overall, his rookie season was a success as he went 3-3 with a 3.13 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 8.92 K/9, and 3.13 BB/9 in 77.2 IP.
In 2014, cracking his first Opening Day roster at the age of 23, Wood rose to the occasion like wood tends to do. Get it? Wood…like an erec…oh, never mind. Anyway, the southpaw pitched extremely well as a sophomore despite being moved to the bullpen for a month in the middle of the season. His fastball-curveball-changeup repertoire and improved control brought him great results and he finished the season with a record of 11-11 with a 2.78 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 8.91 K/9, and 2.36 BB/9 in 171.2 IP. Wood is for real and should be on his way to a nice career.
A sophomore this year that has the abilities to be this year’s Wood is Marcus Stroman. Unfortunately for baseball geeks like me (but fortunately for Stroman himself), Stroman is on the Blue Jays, not the Astros. If he were on the Astros, baseball writers across the country would have their minds blown and have a field day with the headlines talking about this new superhero like character named Astroman! But anyway, like Wood, Stroman was a collegiate product and was drafted in the 1st round (22nd overall) out of Duke University in the same 2012 draft as Wood. Stroman spent his Minor League career slaying it to the tune of a 3.23 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 10.62 K/9, and 2.43 BB/9 in 167 IP before being summoned upon by the big league club in May of 2014. Also like Wood, Stroman was utilized out of the bullpen upon being called up. However, the Blue Jays wised up pretty quickly and put him in the rotation after he made just 5 relief appearances.
After the All-Star Break, Stroman found a two-seam sinker grip that he really liked and he ran with it. This became his primary pitch in lieu of the four-seam fastball, and he became a machine at inducing groundballs at a 58.5% rate after the All-Star Break. If he had induced grounders at that rate for the whole season, he would have only been behind Dallas Keuchel (63.5%) in the category. Stroman’s stats after the All-Star Break were very fresh at 7-4 with a 3.38 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 7.45 K/9, and 1.75 BB/9 in 77.1 IP. Overall, he finished his rookie season at 11-6 with a 3.65 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 7.65 K/9, and 1.93 BB/9 in 130.2 IP. Going forward, with this new found sinker pitch, I think that the second half Stroman is more of the type of pitcher that we can expect in 2015 as he perfects the pitch even more.
Not only has Stroman established himself as a rising star in the pitching realm, but he has tremendous upside. His advanced control for a player his age is amazing. Combine that with his 6-pitch arsenal (four-seam fastball, two-seam sinker, curveball, cutter, slider, and changeup) and I am fairly certain that we have only seen a small part of Stroman’s potential. His 7.65 K/9 last year can be very much improved upon given that his mark in the Minors was 10.62 K/9. The only real question mark that I think surrounds Stroman and his ability to have an All-Star caliber career is his size. At 5’9”, Stroman is average height for a man, but for a professional Major League starting pitcher, he is practically a midget and there are going to be concerns about his durability. However, I am a firm believer in Stroman and actually think he could produce Klubotic type stats and be This Year’s Corey Kluber, but I have inserted him as This Year’s Alex Wood instead. A starting pitcher who has strikeout upside, walks few batters, and can be amongst the league leaders in groundball rate? Mmmm, that wood we were talking about earlier be arising! Man crush!
2014 Alex Wood stats: 11 W-11 L, 2.78 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 170 K, 45 BB in 171.2 IP
2015 Marcus Stroman projection:
15 W-7 L, 3.05 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 176 K, 49 BB in 195 IP
9ʞ out of 10ʞ
Other candidates to be “This Year’s Alex Wood”: Jesse Hahn, James Paxton, Drew Pomeranz
***UPDATE (3/10/15): Marcus Stroman is out for the year with a torn ACL. Devastating blow for the youngster and the Blue Jays alike. He was definitely one of my favorite players for this year, but now he most likely won’t be pitching again till 2016. So let’s choose a new player to be this year’s version of Alex Wood. Out of the other candidates listed above, I think that they all have a pretty equal chance of being this year’s Wood, but each of them has their flaws that would lead me to shy away from them. Surely none of them get me as excited as Stroman does… err… did. Hahn’s spot in the Oakland rotation (after being traded from San Diego this off-season) is pretty secure, and he has a terrific curveball that he finishes hitters off with. But given that his career high in innings pitched in a single professional season is just 115.2 IP, I think that Oakland will baby him and he will be capped at an innings limit around 150. Paxton for the Mariners owns a career 2.66 ERA and 1.13 WHIP over 98 Major League innings, but he has benefited from a low .255 BABIP that doesn’t match up with his batted ball profile and he has had some durability issues the past two seasons. So that leaves Pomeranz, another Oakland pitcher, to be this year’s Wood.
Pomeranz was originally drafted by the Indians in the first round of the 2010 draft, and he was off to a blistering start to his professional career as he had a 1.97 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 11.08 K/9 in his first 18 starts between A+ and AA in the Indians farm system. However, he was shipped off to the Rockies in the trade that netted the Indians Ubaldo Jimenez right before the trade deadline in 2011. He later debuted in the Majors that same season as a member of the Rockies before ever having pitched at AAA, but his performance showed that he definitely needed some more seasoning in the Minors. The pitching starved Rockies had other plans for their #1 pitching prospect though, as he ended up spending the majority of 2012 as a part of their rotation. He was simply overmatched, so the Rockies chose to keep him back in the Minors for the better part of the 2013 season. Though his home/road splits were pretty even as a Rockie, he most likely was affected in some way by having to pitch half his games in the thin air of Colorado. As a pitcher who relies on a big 12-6 curveball as his main offspeed offering, Pomeranz may have been doomed as a Rockie from the get-go. This article written by Dan Rozenson at Baseball Prospectus shows research that concludes that curveballs lose effectiveness at Coors Field, and that a slider would be the best offspeed pitch to use. Before being traded to the A’s in December of 2013, Pomeranz completed his days with the Rockies with a 5.20 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, and 7.57 K/9 in 136.2 IP.
Going from the Rockies to the A’s would always be a great thing for any pitcher, considering Oakland’s stadium is very pitcher friendly. Last year in his first season with Oakland, Pomeranz opened the year pitching out of the pen where he established his presence with a 1.98 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 11 K in 13.2 IP over the first month of the season. His strong performance to begin the year combined with Dan Straily getting knocked around led to Pomeranz being inserted into the rotation in early May. He ended up making 10 starts on the season and had very pleasant results as over those starts he went 4-3 with a 2.58 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and 8.60 K/9 in 52.1 IP. He did miss some time with an injury though after he punched a chair with his non-throwing hand after getting rocked in an outing. At least it was a non-pitching related injury.
The big lefty faces some stiff competition for a rotation spot despite the fact that the A’s lost Jon Lester and Jason Hammel to free agency and traded away Jeff Samardzija. Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir are the locks for the rotation, Jesse Hahn likely can be penciled in, and then there’s Pomeranz, Jesse Chavez, Sean Nolin, Kendall Graveman, and Chris Bassitt competing for two spots. The good thing is that even if Pomeranz doesn’t begin the year in the rotation, he should be next in line when the opportunity does arise. Control has been an issue for Pomeranz as evidenced by his career walk rate of 4.13 BB/9, but last year he sat at 3.39 BB/9. Further improvement or maintaining that type of control will go a long way to whether or not he can have a breakout season. He has shown that he can succeed now that he is out of Colorado, but as primarily a fastball-curveball pitcher, he also may need to develop another pitch or two to have a full breakout since he has struggled in his career his second and third times through the lineup. If in Spring Training Pomeranz is using his changeup more or developed a different pitch, then that will be something worth noting.
2014 Alex Wood stats: 11 W-11 L, 2.78 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 170 K, 45 BB in 171.2 IP
2015 Drew Pomeranz projection: 10 W-7 L, 3.37 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 137 K, 57 BB in 147 IP
ʞonfidence Rating: 1ʞ out of 10ʞ
Other candidates to be “This Year’s Alex Wood”: Jesse Hahn, James Paxton, Jimmy Nelson