Make-or-break seasons: Pitchers

January, 29, 2014
1/29/14
11:50
AM ET
With Keith Law unveiling his top 100 prospects, let's look at five pitchers, once top prospects themselves, who are entering make-or-break seasons of sorts.

Pitchers, of course, are harder to predict and project than hitters. A new pitch or a new grip or a sudden ability to repeat a delivery can take a pitcher to a new level. A pitcher's park or defense -- good or bad -- also can have a big influence on his results.

Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays
Age: 27 in April
2013: 5.17 ERA, 174 IP, 185 H, 50 BB, 135 SO, -0.8 WAR
ZiPS projection: 164 IP, 4.12 ERA, 1.5 WAR

Through his first two-plus seasons, Hellickson was 27-21 with a 3.10 ERA, but hadn't won over the sabermetric community because of mediocre strikeout-to-walk rates and a fairly high total of home runs allowed. His success had been built on pitching particularly well -- or being particularly lucky -- with runners on base. In his first two full seasons, opponents hit just .194 with runners in scoring position against him.

In 2013, Hellickson lowered his walk rate and increased his strikeout rate while home runs allowed remained the same -- and his ERA rose to an unsightly 5.17. Batters hit .333 with runners in scoring position. Had his luck run out or was it just bad luck? The Rays probably can't afford to once again keep a guy with an ERA of 5.00 in the rotation all season, not with guys such as Jake Odorizzi and Enny Romero waiting for an opportunity.

What to expect: Hellickson probably wasn't as good as his first two seasons or as bad as 2013. He's not overpowering -- average fastball of 90.5 mph -- so he relies on movement and then tries to get hitters to chase his changeup or pound it into the ground. In the end, the lack of a dominant fastball probably limits his upside and he probably settles in somewhere between his 2011 and 2013 performance.

Phil Hughes, Minnesota Twins
Age: 28 in June
2013: 5.19 ERA, 145.2 IP, 170 H, 42 BB, 121 SO, -0.7 WAR
ZiPS projection: 141.2 IP, 4.64 ERA, 0.8 WAR

Hughes has been around so long now -- he debuted with the Yankees in 2007 -- that it seems a little odd to include him here, but he's here because this could be his final chance to prove himself as a starting pitcher. He's on a new team and in a new ballpark and some believe getting him away from the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium will help. After all, he served up 35 home runs in 2012 and 24 last year in just 145 innings. Indeed, over those two seasons, he allowed 39 home runs at home, 20 on the road, although his ERA splits weren't so dramatic, 4.88 in Yankee Stadium, 4.33 on the road.

What to expect: ZiPS isn't optimistic, projecting Hughes as barely above replacement level. He still pitches up in the zone too much with his fastball and no ballpark is going to fix that. Still, moving to a more favorable environment and a weaker division should help. If he stays healthy, I can see an ERA in the upper 3s ... good enough to keep his rotation job and prevent a move to the bullpen.

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Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays
Age: 25 in June
2013: 3.29 ERA, 150.1 IP, 119 H, 76 BB, 143 SO, 2.6 WAR
ZiPS projection: 171.1 IP, 3.41 ERA, 3.0 WAR

Wait, the dude went 17-4 and you're calling this a make-or-break season? Well, not exactly. Moore is going to have a long career in the majors. The question for him: Is he going to turn the corner and develop into the ace status projected after he burst onto the scene at the end of the 2011 season?

For Moore, it's all about command. He walked 4.5 batters per nine innings in 2013 and led the AL with 17 wild pitches. One effect of this is it runs up his pitch counts and knocks him out of games early. He averaged just 5.5 innings per start. Aces have to stay in the game longer. He'll turn 25 in June, so we should be looking at a guy who can pitch 200 innings.

What to expect: ZiPS still projects a starter who will walk four batters per nine innings and it's difficult to be an ace when you're walking that many batters. Moore's No. 1 comp via ZiPS is Mark Langston -- which makes perfect sense. Langston was a hard-throwing lefty for the Mariners in the '80s, a guy whose stuff was as good as any left-hander's in the game back then. He led the AL in strikeouts as a rookie in 1984 and again in 1986 and 1987. He also walked 100 batters a year his first seven seasons. He had a great career -- 50.4 WAR -- and if Moore does that nobody should complain.

Garrett Richards, Los Angeles Angels
Age: 26 in May
2013: 4.16 ERA, 145 IP, 151 H, 44 BB, 101 SO, 0.8 WAR
ZiPS projection: 139 IP, 4.47 ERA, 0.4 WAR

Nobody questions Richards' arm strength -- his average fastball clocked in at 94.9 mph in 2013 -- but the total package remains elusive. He worked out of the pen and then started 19 games last season, but the trades for Hector Santiago and Diamondbacks prospect Tyler Skaggs means Richards isn't a lock for the rotation in 2014. Despite the big heat, his strikeout rates remain low -- even in the minor leagues they were nothing special. Richards threw 1,092 fastballs in 2013 with 306 plate appearances ending with the pitch. He recorded just 17 strikeouts. His fastball has good velocity, but just hasn't been a swing-and-miss offering. His slider was a solid weapon, but he has to be able to set it up with an effective fastball.

What to expect: There just isn't a track record that suggests Richards is going to make any kind of significant leap forward. Even in Double-A in 2011, he fanned just 103 in 143 innings. He may get one final shot at the rotation if the Angels don't sign another starter, but I'm skeptical. I think he'll end up in the bullpen long term.

Jacob Turner, Miami Marlins
Age: 23 in May
2013: 3.74 ERA, 118 IP, 116 H, 54 BB, 77 SO, 1.4 WAR
ZiPS projection: 157.1 IP, 4.35 ERA, 1.2 WAR

The Tigers made Turner the ninth overall pick in 2009 out of a St. Louis high school, a big, projectable right-hander, and he reached the majors at the end of 2011. The Tigers liked his polish, but he was included in the Anibal Sanchez trade in 2012. Turner now has 30 major league starts under his belt and while he posted a solid ERA in 2013, his peripherals were less impressive. Among the 145 pitchers with at least 100 innings, Turner ranked 142nd in strikeout/walk ratio. If he's going to become something more than a back-end starter, it's time to make some improvements.

What to expect: While his overall strikeout rate was low, he actually ranked 85th in swing-and-miss percentage -- higher than Jon Lester or David Price, to name two. To me, this suggests his stuff is good enough to get more strikeouts. He needs to improve his command and maybe trust his offspeed stuff a little more, especially his curveball. He threw 67 percent fastballs in 2013, a pretty high percentage for a guy who doesn't blow it by batters. I'm not sure the breakthrough will come this season -- ZiPS isn't a huge fan -- but I still believe he can develop into a No. 3-caliber starter.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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