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
Garrett Richards was a 1st round pick (42nd overall) by the Angels in the 2009 draft out of the University of Oklahoma and he was expected to help out the big league club sooner rather than later. See what I did there? He showed some glimpses of becoming a mid to top of the rotation starter while he was in the Minors, but as he advanced to the upper levels his walk rate went up and strikeout rate went down. The same trend continued when he reached the Major League level in 2011 working as a spot starter and reliever down the stretch. Things did not get much better when he continued that same role in 2012. From 2011-12, Richards had a 4.87 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, 5.93 K/9, and 4.34 BB/9 in 85 IP. When a pitcher’s strikeout rate is barely higher than his walk rate that poses as a serious problem, especially when that pitcher has a fastball that sits at 95 MPH on average.
In 2013, Richards pretty much split his time evenly as a reliever and a starter and ended up showing some decent improvements in his peripherals. Though his end of the season ERA sat at 4.16, his xFIP was at 3.58 and he gave up home runs at a decreased rate, induced a lot of groundballs, and both his strikeout and walk rates trended in a positive direction (6.27 K/9 and 2.73 BB/9). The strikeout rate still wasn’t what one would expect out of a pitcher with Richards’ gas, but at that point any positive change in his profile was worth taking and it was a combination of all those things that made him a deep sleeper for 2014.
In his age 26 season in 2014, Richards was able to put it all together to become a complete pitcher. His velocity saw a big bump going from 94.8 MPH on his average fastball in 2013 to 96.3 MPH in 2014. The increased velocity and better command of his slider led to his strikeout rate skyrocketing to 8.75 K/9. Also a big reason for his breakout year was his impressive ability to keep the ball in the park. Richards led the Majors with a miniscule HR allowed rate of 0.27 HR/9. Perhaps Richards was a bit on the lucky side regarding the balls that were put in play against him as his BABIP was well below the league average (especially for a groundball pitcher) at .264, but his FIP at 2.60 was nearly identical to his actual ERA at 2.61. Unfortunately for the righty, his season came to an abrupt halt when he tore his patella tendon covering first base on a ground ball. Though the injury was a devastating occurrence for Richards, the Angels, and fantasy owners round the world, all parties should have been very pleased with what he was able to accomplish. Richards finished the season establishing himself as the ace of a division champion team and going 13-4 with a 2.61 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 8.75 K/9, and 2.72 BB/9 in 168.2 IP.
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For selecting who will be this year’s Richards, I want a pitcher who has been around the league for at least a couple of years and has had little to no success. Also, what I want out of this pitcher is despite the ability to dial it up to the mid to upper 90’s on the radar gun, he has yet to show the strikeout per inning capability. There’s a few candidates that I have in mind that can fit this criteria, but there is one that strikes me as a near perfect fit. That player is Nathan Eovaldi of the Yankees.
I am sure I am not the first to think of this, but I am going to call Eovaldi “Captain EO,” ala the awesome 3D movie at Disneyland in the 80’s and 90’s starring Michael Jackson. Captain EO came up through the Dodgers farm system after being an 11th round draft pick in 2008 out of high school. He would have been a higher draft pick, but the fact that he had Tommy John surgery in high school gave organizations some pause. Eovaldi as a Minor League pitcher compared very similarly to Richards as a Minor Leaguer, as he had some decent looking numbers but never had that one season where he looked like a future ace. Eovaldi debuted in the Majors around the same time as Richards in 2011 making 6 starts and 4 relief appearances, and then after making 10 starts for the Dodgers in 2012 he was shipped off to the Marlins in the deal that brought Hanley Ramirez to Los Angeles. Eovaldi was the main piece going to Miami so it shows the type of potential the Marlins felt he possessed, but they had to have been underwhelmed with the 4.42 ERA and 1.54 WHIP he had in his 12 starts that he made for them to finish out the 2012 season. Overall in his first couple of seasons in the Majors, he was pretty similar to Richards, but slightly better, over that same timeframe as he had a 4.15 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 5.90 K/9, and 3.92 BB/9 over 154 IP.
The following year, Eovaldi missed part of the season but ended up making 18 starts in his first full season as a member of the Marlins. Just like Richards did in 2013, Eovaldi made some decent improvements from the previous two seasons as his strikeout rate went up to 6.60 K/9 and his walk rate went down to 3.39 BB/9. Also, his fastball velocity spiked up to 96.2 MPH. It was these improvements that were having fantasy baseball pundits predicting a breakout from Eovaldi in 2014. But instead of being Captain Awesome like Richards was, Captain EO finished the year with a 4.37 ERA and 1.33 WHIP, but those numbers will help to mask the type of draft value that he has for 2015. The more casual fantasy baseball players will see the less than mediocre ERA and WHIP and dismiss him as a draft option. But digging deeper into his pitching profile we can see that despite a slight dip in strikeout rate (6.40 K/9) and average fastball velocity (95.7 MPH), Eovaldi had a breakthrough with his walk rate. He was fantastic at limiting free passes at a 1.94 BB/9. Moreso, his elevated WHIP was a product of a pretty high .323 BABIP, and his 65.5% left on base % was pretty low meaning runners that reached base against him were scoring runs at an abnormally high rate. His FIP of 3.37 was a full run lower than his actual ERA and much more indicative of how he pitched last season.
So like Richards, the 25-year old Eovaldi has taken baby steps in improving to becoming a more complete pitcher, but he has just fallen behind the curve by a year. Eovaldi throws the same hard heat that Richards does, and actually they have the same exact pitch repertoire (fastball, slider, curveball, changeup). However, his changeup has not really been a pitch that he has thrown much or been that effective with. It is more of a splitter-change that he is working on developing this Spring Training, as his new pitching coach really wants him to establish it so that he has a third offspeed offering that he can go to. That new pitching coach is Larry Rothschild of the Yankees, as Eovaldi was traded over the off-season for Martin Prado. The move from Miami to the Bronx, and coinciding from the NL to AL, is not a great switch and could ultimately be a factor that works strongly against him in his effort to be here to change the world (Captain EO reference). But I still like his potential and can definitely see a situation where he experiences that same big increase in his strikeout rate. As a pitcher that can pump it up to 99 MPH and the increased efforts to develop his splitter-change, Eovaldi is on the verge of breaking out.
2014 Garrett Richards stats: 13 W-4 L, 2.61 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 164 K, 51 BB in 168.2 IP
2015 Nathan Eovaldi projection: 12 W-9 L, 3.59 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 175 K, 51 BB in 198 IP
ʞonfidence Rating: 5ʞ out of 10ʞ
Other candidates to be “This Year’s Garrett Richards”: Kevin Gausman, Carlos Martinez, Rubby De La Rosa