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
Coming up through the Angels farm system, Matt Shoemaker was hardly a pitcher that showed any signs of being the type of performer he was for the Halos in 2014. The AAA level of the Minors appeared very challenging for Shoemaker as he had compiled a 5.32 ERA and 1.47 WHIP over 397.1 IP across four different stops at AAA. With that kind of performance at the highest level of Minor League Baseball, it was a wonder how Shoemaker even made it to the Majors.
Shoemaker began his age 27 season as a long-man as a part of the Angels bullpen, but soon was given the opportunity to start some games. The black-bearded righty parlayed that opportunity into a terrific rookie season where he finished 2nd on the AL Rookie of the Year ballot. So how did this pitcher who seemed destined to be a career AAA player break through to be one of the most interesting surprise players of the 2014 season? Well, I am not entirely sure what he did differently than in the Minors, but I do know that the two keys to his success were control and his splitter pitch. Shoemaker showed control in AAA with a rate of 2.12 BB/9, so that is something he was able to carry over to the Majors last season, and even improve upon at 1.59 BB/9. And then there was his splitter that was just an extraordinary pitch. As an Angels fan, I watched Shoemaker pitch a lot and his splitter just devastatingly bottomed out on so many hitters. It was an unhittable pitch a lot of the time. In all of baseball, it ranked as the 3rd best splitter, sandwiched in between a trio of Japanese pitchers (Hiroki Kuroda 1st, Masahiro Tanaka 2nd, Hisashi Iwakuma 4th). Shoemaker went on to post a record of 16-4 with a 3.04 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 8.21 K/9, and 1.59 BB/9 in 136 IP. I like to think that Shoemaker found his success living by this quote that I just made up: “If the shoe fits, wear it. If the shoe doesn’t fit, make it.”
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So for picking who will be this year’s Shoemaker, I am looking for a mostly unheralded prospect who can replicate the type of control and strikeout potential as Shoemaker. The pitcher that I am going with is Anthony DeSclafani of the Reds. DeSclafani was originally drafted by the Blue Jays in the 6th round of the 1999 draft. He was then traded to the Marlins in the 11 player trade that sent Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes to the Blue Jays. He was never thought of as a MLB top prospect, but was ranked as the 5th best prospect in the Marlins organization heading into 2014. But after pitching 33 horrible innings in his Major League debut last year, DeSclafani was sent packing to the Reds in exchange for Mat Latos. So what does this soon to be 25-year old righty possess that could help him be this year’s Shoemaker?
In his Minor League career, DeSclafani has a decent but unspectacular 3.85 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. But that comes with a very good walk rate of 2.01 BB/9. Although a small sample size, he showed an even better walk rate of 1.36 BB/9 in 33 IP in his Major League debut last year with the Marlins. So he’s got the control part down of being the next Shoemaker, but how about the strikeout potential? DeSclafani’s Minor League strikeout rate sits at 7.73 K/9, which is pretty decent, but obviously Minor League numbers don’t always directly transfer over to the Majors. But splitting his time at AA and AAA before reaching the Majors last year, he had shown improvement in the area with 8.53 K/9 in 102.1 IP. He did so with a fastball-slider-changeup combo, but he made need a fourth pitch to be able to keep up that type of performance. But the good news is that DeSclafani pitched in the Arizona Fall League this past fall with the purpose of developing that fourth pitch, a curveball. He seems to be pleased with the results and he even earned Player of the Week honors in the AFL. If that pitch can develop into a quality pitch then DeSclafani has the makings of a potential deep sleeper for 2015.
However, even if DeSclafani does show improvements with the curveball, there are a few factors working against him that could prevent a true breakout. The first factor obviously is whether or not he makes it into the starting rotation. The Reds currently have Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake, and Tony Cingrani filling out the first four spots in the rotation, but with a decent Spring Training performance, DeSclafani should be able to grab the fifth spot. If not, then he should definitely be first in line to fill in should an injury arise. Secondly, now with the Reds, he pitches in a home stadium that is very friendly to the home run, which could inflate his ERA. Lastly, the Reds ranked 28th in the Majors in runs scored last season. So it is going to take a big turnaround (and more) from that offense for DeSclafani to sniff anything close to Shoemaker’s 16-4 record (as Shoemaker pitched for the highest scoring team in the Majors). But just based on true performance and peripheral statistics, DeSclafani could certainly be the one to make the shoe fit this year.
2014 Matt Shoemaker stats: 16 W-4 L, 3.04 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 124 K, 24 BB in 136 IP
2015 Anthony DeSclafani projection: 10 W-8 L, 3.86 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 130 K, 30 BB, in 154 IP
ʞonfidence Rating: 2ʞ out of 10ʞ
Other candidates to be “This Year’s Matt Shoemaker”: Kendall Graveman, Burch Smith