Baseball is back. Whether you’ve drafted already or are about to draft, you, like me, are probably chomping at the bit to get some data to tell us if we should buy into the hype of all the players who are “in the best shape of their lives.” Our first opportunity to get this data is in spring training, but analyzing the stats we get from these games can be a dangerous game. Between the small sample size, the lower average quality of opponents, and the fact that the games are exhibitions, it’s hard to tell what is real and what is not. Simply looking at the guys with the most homers and RBIs often won’t tell you much. We can, however, look one level below the surface to see if popular breakout candidates will get their long-awaited opportunity and make the most of it or if the warning signs for bust candidates have continued to trend in the wrong direction. Here are four players I think we should be paying attention to in spring training and a key stat for each that can give us the first hint of a breakout.
Mitch Keller, SP, PIT (ADP: 232)
Key Factor: Use of Offspeed Pitches
Mitch Keller‘s pro debut did not go as planned. He put up a nasty (in a bad way) 7.13 ERA across 11 starts lasting only an average of 4.1 innings per start. Despite that, he’s become somewhat of a trendy breakout pick. The underlying numbers show that Keller didn’t deserve to give up so many runs. His 3.19 FIP and 12.19 K/9 last year hint at a strong fantasy upside to the young pitcher. But how can we know if Keller is ready to begin to tap into that potential this year?
Keller’s next step as a pitcher will be making better use of his excellent offspeed stuff. Last year, Keller had about a 60/40 mix between his fastball and his two offspeed offerings, a slider and a curveball. Hitters went 13/75 (.173 BA) with 31 Ks against his slider and curveball combined and a whopping 41/89 (.461 BA) with 22 Ks against his fastball. For some reason, opposing hitters were able to completely key in on Keller’s fastball and do the majority of the damage against it. It’s not like Keller’s fastball is a mid-80s meatball, though. His fastball averages over 95 mph and has, while admittedly not devastating, decent movement. The reason why hitters were able to smack around his fastball so easily likely stems from his control of secondary pitches and the Pirates’ organizational pitching strategy. Keller threw his curveball for a strike 44% of the time, a fairly respectable number for a curve. His slider, however, was thrown for a strike just 28% of the time. Because he couldn’t reliably throw his offspeed pitches for strikes and because of the Pirates’ general “pitch-to-contact” approach, batters were able to key in on the fastball when they got ahead in counts. Keller stands to benefit from the reformation in the Pirates organization that will allow them to take a more modern approach to pitching. However, taking advantage of this opportunity will have to start with Keller throwing his offspeed pitches for strikes at a higher rate and in a wider variety of counts. If we see Keller pounding the strike zone and throwing sliders and curveballs in 1-0, 2-0, and 3-2 counts, it would be a good indication that he has both gotten the green light to use his offspeed stuff in a wider variety of situations and has increased his confidence in his control of them.
Carlos Martinez, SP/RP, STL (ADP: 191)
Key Factor: Pitch Count/Innings Pitched
From 2015 to 2017, Carlos Martinez averaged 14 wins, 192 strikeouts, and a 3.24 ERA across 193 innings. Those types of numbers would generally be worthy of being one of the top 25 pitchers off the board. But C-Mart spent all of last year in the bullpen after shoulder weakness kept him from starting the season on time, and, while he says he wants to return to the rotation, questions remain as to whether he’s capable of that or if there is still a spot in the rotation for him. So, what will be the first indication that he’s ready?
I’m looking first at Martinez’s pitch count to know if he’s truly ready to take on a starter’s workload again. Because reliable pitch counts are often tough to come by for spring games, I’ll be using innings pitched as a proxy. Out of all the possible variables to look at like velocity, strikeouts, or general performance, I’m choosing pitch count because I believe the biggest thing that Martinez has to prove is that his shoulder can handle another 180 IP season. No matter how good his spring is, if his shoulder can only handle 60 IP, there isn’t much profit to be had at his current ADP. Current innings projections are anywhere from 70 IP to 160 IP and that uncertainty is being reflected in the draft price. A fully healthy Carlos Martinez ready to start on Opening Day likely goes much higher while the version of Carlos Martinez resigned to a late-inning reliever role probably goes a few rounds later. Any sign that he’s ready, or nearly ready, to start again would indicate that there is some serious profit potential here. Historically, Martinez built up from 2-3 IP in his first spring start all the way up to 5-6 IP in his final two. If we see him get close to or match that, it would be a sign that Martinez could be ready to start from the first turn of the rotation. We will need to look at when he makes his first spring start, how many spring starts he gets, and how far he goes in each of those starts. We also need to consider the most likely alternative to Martinez for the final spot in the Cardinals’ rotation, Korean free-agent signee Kwang-Yun Kim. Is it possible that a strong spring from Kim could push the Cardinals to be more cautious with Martinez or that a poor spring makes them more aggressive? That remains to be seen, but, before we can have that conversation, Martinez needs to make the Cardinals make that choice by showing he is ready to throw six innings every fifth day.
Adrian Houser, SP, MIL (ADP: 261)
Key Factor: Strikeouts
Adrian Houser was one of the Brewers’ most pleasant surprises last year putting up a 3.72 ERA and 117 strikeouts across 111.1 innings. The majority of his success, however, came as a reliever posting a 1.47 ERA across 30.2 innings compared to a 4.57 ERA across 80.2 innings as a starter. Nevertheless, the potential of Houser’s newfound success, backed by a solid lineup and supported by a solid Brewers bullpen that will be regaining Corey Knebel very shortly, has many people highlighting Houser as an intriguing late-round pick with high upside. But, Houser had trouble sustaining success in the minors before his Tommy John surgery in the middle of the 2016 season. In 2018, his first full season post-Tommy John, he put up an ERA close to 5 in 21 starts in the minors. How do we know if 2019 was a flash in the pan or an indication of Houser finally tapping into the potential that made him a second-round pick in 2011?
Strikeouts are the factor that I’ll be paying the most attention to when it comes to Houser’s performance this spring. Houser put up just a 9.6 SwStr% even though he kept his K-rate above 25%. That is a concerning sign that Houser is closer to a 7-8 K/9 pitcher as a starter rather than the 9-10 K/9 guy that he was last year. Looking at qualifying starters from 2019 who were closest to Houser’s SwStr%, you find guys like Wade Miley (7.5 K/9), Miles Mikolas (7.0 K/9), Julio Teheran (8.4 K/9), and Merrill Kelly (7.8 K/9). Granted, this is slightly anecdotal, using only one stat and comparing five pitchers, but the link between SwStr% and K% is well known and Houser’s track record in the minors did not indicate that kind of strikeout potential, so I think it’s reasonable to be very cautious. One point in his favor is that Houser was a Statcast darling last year, ranking in the top 10% in exit velocity and in the top 20% in xwOBA and xSLG. But I have to wonder how those numbers will look if Houser’s K-rate falls and more balls get put in play. If Houser shows a sign that last year’s bump in strikeouts was real and continues to put up a K/9 north of 9, it would be an indication that Houser could live up to the potential Statcast believes he has this year. However, if he doesn’t get the punchouts, it could be a sign that his performance last year as a starter was a true measure of his skill.
Brad Hand, RP, CLE (ADP: 118)
Key Factor: James Karinchak
I’m going way out on a limb here, I know. Brad Hand has been an extremely reliable reliever over the past four years and is coming off a year with 34 saves, a sub-3 FIP, and a 4.67 K/BB ratio. And to make the performance of some other pitcher the key factor in whether Hand will bust when that other pitcher has thrown just over five innings at the major league level? I’ll admit that it sounds a little crazy, but I’ll preface my analysis by saying that the small sample size that we get from closers allows for a lot of strangeness and volatility to happen year over year, so predicting chalk is, statistically, a bad move when it comes to closers. Indians fans surely remember that Hand did not close out the year strong in 2019. From June 25th on, Hand posted a 6.65 ERA in 23 innings and blew five saves in 17 chances before being shut down with “tired arm” after just 57.1 innings, his lightest workload since 2013. Is it safe to assume that Hand will bounce back or is there something more sinister at work?
With such a small sample size in spring training, it’s hard to make anything but the most general conclusions about relievers until we begin playing games that count. However, the Indians saw what happened to Hand last year and made it a point to get some help for the back-end of the bullpen. One of them comes from in-house in the form of James Karinchak, a man who struck out a legendary 74 of 125 (59%) batters faced across three stops in the minors. The other comes from the Corey Kluber trade in the form of Emmanuel Clase, who will likely be competing for a late-inning role as early as Opening Day. Karinchak leveraged his minor league success to a brief, 5.1-inning stint at the major-league level in which he struck out eight and walked just one. If he continues to put up such ridiculous numbers, it would only make sense to have him share duties with Hand to be sure that both pitchers are available for a potential October run even if Hand doesn’t continue to stumble as he did in the second half of 2019. If Hand does stumble, however, there are two young talented eager arms waiting in the wings. Hand’s leash is not as long as it used to be and the spring will be our first glimpse at how much faith the Indians have in their reliever prospects.
Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by JR Caines (@JRCainesDesign on Twitter and @caines_design on Instagram)