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Friday, May 16, 2014
The next wave of potential aces

By David Schoenfield

Jose Fernandez is having his Tommy John surgery Friday, but if you're a fan of pitching and low-scoring baseball, the good news is there are more young guns on the way. Here are five starters making big impressions so far as breakout pitchers for 2014.

1. Garrett Richards, Angels

I'll admit: This one has caught me by surprise. Richards has always had a terrific arm but never put up good strikeout rates in the high minors or majors because of lack of command and quality secondary pitches. Last year, splitting time between the bullpen and rotation, he fanned 101 in 145, a nice total for 1989, but not so great for 2013. But he's put it all together through eight starts as Keith Law and Eric Wedge discuss in the video above, holding batters to a .186 average with just one home run allowed and striking out 54 in 52 innings. When he gets ahead in the count, his slider has become a wipeout pitch as batters have struck out 25 times in 44 plate appearances ending with that pitch (with just four hits for a .095 average).

2. Nate Eovaldi, Marlins

One of my top breakout candidates entering the season because of his explosive fastball, Eovaldi has averaged 96 mph with his heater, second-highest among qualified starters (just ahead of Richards' 95.8). Like Richards, however, Eovaldi had a mediocre strikeout rate in 2013. He's still primarily a fastball/slider guy, mixing in an occasional curve and changeup, but improved fastball command has resulted in a big drop in his walk rate and a higher K rate on his fastball (from 12.5 percent to 20.1 percent). He got roughed up Thursday night, raising his ERA from 2.86 to 3.62, but if he can develop a third pitch and keep throwing strikes (12 walks in nine starts), watch out.

3. Yordano Ventura, Royals

This is the guy with the best fastball velocity among starters at 96.5 mph (and touching 100 more than once). He's 2-3 with a 2.40 ERA and a 53/16 SO/BB ratio in 48 ⅔ innings. Unlike Richards and Eovaldi, Ventura doesn't throw a slider, instead relying on a changeup and curveball; that's helped him limit left-handers to a .217 average. Listed at 6-feet, 180 pounds, Ventura doesn't have your classic power pitcher's build, so the concern is whether he has the durability to hold up as a starter. But that may not be a legitimate issue beyond the usual concerns about a 22-year-old rookie who throws in the upper 90s. A 2010 study by Glenn P. Greenberg in the SABR Fall 2010 Baseball Research Journal found:
Height was not correlated to durability in seasons in which players were healthy, but that fact does not end the analysis. For us to be able to say that height does not correlate to durability at all, short pitchers would have to throw as much and stay off the disabled list as much as taller pitchers. The data for players on the disabled list at any time during 1994 through 2007 can be seen in table 5. There is no statistically significant correlation for games started or innings pitched; the highest r-square being .002 and the lowest p-value being .096. However, there is a correlation between height and games -- a negative one: greater height correlates to fewer games pitched.
4. Sonny Gray, A's

Gray burst on to the scene late last season with 10 regular-season starts and then that 1-0 win over the Tigers in the ALDS, so his rise has been perhaps a little more predictable. Still, as primarily a fastball/curveball pitcher, I wondered how the league would adjust against him, having seen him once or twice. So far, it's Gray who has made the adjustments, as he's 4-1 with a 2.17 ERA in eight starts, including a .222 average allowed and just 11 extra-base hits (three home runs). Batters are hitting .152 with no extra-base hits against the curveball, but he's also mixing in about eight changeups and eight sliders a game, just enough to keep those pitches as potential weapons.

5. Wily Peralta, Brewers

Another right-hander with a big arm, Peralta has averaged 95.2 mph with his fastball -- placing him fifth in average fastball velocity (Gerrit Cole is fourth; Fernandez sixth). As a rookie in 2013, Peralta found that the fastball alone wasn't enough as he went 11-15 with a 4.37 ERA and 129 strikeouts in 183 ⅓ innings. His strikeout rate hasn't jumped up, but he's cut his free passes in half -- from a 10.5 percent walk rate to 5.3 percent. Pounding the strike has worked as he's 4-2 with a 2.05 ERA (although that's helped by five unearned runs). His slider is his knockout pitch and batters are hitting .204 against it without an extra-base hit.

Which one do you like best? I'd probably put Gray and Ventura 1-2 because of a deeper arsenal of pitches. Gray seems to have that classic feel for pitching and knowing how to set up hitters. Richards and Eovaldi would be next; both have shown tremendous strides this year. Peralta's strikeout rate is the worst rate of the group, so I'd put him fifth. But all have the ability to develop into aces.