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Mailbag: Signs A Pitcher Can Break Out

We get quite a bit of emails from readers with specific questions about their fantasy teams. Every question is read and appreciated. And if nothing else, we try to address incoming questions in one form or another in future entries. Questions that have universal application will usually be answered more specifically.

Chris asks:

Before going into any drafts this year, I'd like to get your opinion on drafting pitchers. I know you say wait till the 8th round (which I probably will after drafting Smoltz and Kazmir 3rd and 4th last year), but what exactly do you look for in a pitcher? I know that injury risk and potential career years often mean a pitcher should be avoided, but are there any telltale signs that a pitcher is due for a breakout?

One of my favorite aspects of baseball is the amount of data available on any given players career. By the time most players get to the major leagues, they've established a significant data-pool to draw conclusions from.

Unlike other major American sports--baseball is comprised of many micro battles--between individual players, that precisely allow us to quantify their skill set. This bodes well for games like fantasy baseball, where research and knowledge usually separates winners from losers, and luck only plays a marginal role.

To answer Chris' question: the best prognosticators are those that investigate a pitcher's entire track record, and look at their incremental improvements--over time.

Lets look at some areas to keep a close eye on:

Age Relative to Level

Most current and past big leaguers were successful in the minor leagues. But there's more to look at once you crack open the hood. Pitchers that excelled vs older competition throughout their pro careers; Rookie, A, A+, AA, AAA, and then, finally, MLB, are likely to have higher production ceilings, and are a much better bets to have that  "breakout" type season.

Major league pitchers in their early twenties (Gallardo, Gonzalez, Price, Gallagher etc.) can all be the next Danks, Jurjens, Litsch, Billingsley, etc. come this time--next year.

Pitching Peripherals

A pitcher that has a track record inducing many K's, many groundballs, and keeps players off the bases by not giving up the walk, have immense potential. Sometimes a pitcher is successful in these areas, but their ERA and/or WHIP hasn't translated, yet.

xFIP is a fantastic statistic that summarizes a pitchers ability to be successful in these key areas. It's good practice to know what a pitcher's xFIP is--during the season, or what their xFIP was the previous season.  xFIP does a better job predicting future ERA, than ERA itself.

For example: if a pitcher's ERA was 5.0, but their xFIP was 3.50--that year, there's a good chance their ERA will be closer to 3.50 the following season.

Pitch Velocity

Now that we have easy access to any given pitcher's fastball velocity, we can separate hard throwers from soft tossers.

It's no secret, there's a connection between those who throw the ball hard and an increased level of productivity. Ubaldo Jimenez, Felix Hernandez, Ervin Santana, Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett all lead the league in average Fastball Velocity--last season (starting pitchers that qualified), respectively.

If you go down the sortable list, you can spot some players who might not have honed all their skills yet, but have very good pitch velocity. These players are more likely to have breakout potential than those pitchers who don't throw the ball as hard.

To point out a few in chronological order: Joba Chamberlain (95 MPH), Dustin McGowan (94.8 MPH), David Price (94.2 MPH), Max Scherzer (94.2 MPH), Clayton Kershaw (94 MPH), Edwin Jackson (94 MPH), and so on.

Scouting Reports

Scouting reports reveal things like Size, Instincts, IQ, Athleticism, Pitch Variety, Delivery etc. Pitchers reported to be outstanding in these areas, are likely to sustain heavier workloads, throw harder, have more deceiving pitches, and be smarter players.

Always try to find a good scouting reports from Sickels, Baseball America, Keith Law, Goldstein, etc. and try to incorporate scouting information with performance data. Professional scouting reports can reveal breakout candidates, who haven't materialized into their potential yet. As a shortcut, you can look at top 100 prospect lists--many of the players on these lists have fantastic scouting reports.

Combining all 4 of these *indicators* gives us a solid breakout-forecasting methodology. What are some clues you look at to spot breakout candidates?

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