Primer: I started working on this prior to the All-Star break, so this post is long overdue. I still firmly believe in these breakouts and their abilities in the future, regardless of any mid-summer struggles. With that being said, I now present Believe Breakout: Pitcher Edition. This mini series will feature three pitchers and three hitters who have broken out in 2022. I will analyze what has lead to the breakout thus far and why I believe their performance is sustainable moving forward. Here we go.
Shane McClanahan is the first pitcher headlining this crop of breakouts. The former first-round pick looked very strong in his pro debut last season. In my opinion, McClanahan has firmly solidified himself as one of the top pitchers in all of baseball. On the surface, his stat line is on pace for Cy Young level recognition: 11-5, 2.28 ERA, 134.1 IP, 165 K, 26 BB. Digging deeper into McClanahan overall, his profile looks even better.
Among all qualified starting pitchers, he still ranks in the top 5 in FIP (2.64), xFIP (2.29), SIERA (2.52), K% (32.2), wOBA (.236), xwOBA (.250), xBA (.201), xOBP (.246), Hard Hit % (30.2), Whiff% (35.6), SwStr% (16.6), and CSW% (34.4). Just to name a few. McClanahan has quite a unique profile for such a power arm. He has an innate ability to miss bats as shown through the elite Whiff% and SwStr%. What separates McClanahan from the rest is that he couples this bat missing stuff with impressive command and the ability to induce large quantities of weak contact on the ground. He has the highest GB% among starting pitchers with at least a 24.4 K%. Only three of these pitchers are above 47.0 GB% while McClanahan sits atop at 50.9%. Despite generating ground balls on 50% of his batted balls allowed, his 83.4 MPH Avg Exit Velo on GBs is the ninth lowest among pitchers with at least 250 BBE. Simply put, McClanahan induces ground balls at a high quantity at extremely low exit velocities. The consistent ability to generate whiffs and cause hitters to produce suboptimal launch angles is a rare pairing for a starting pitcher. All of this on top of the fact that he is in the 89th percentile in BB% and ranks in the 83rd and 80th percentiles in various command models. McClanahan has been utterly dominant so far and has the makings to continue on this path for years to come.
Is this level of production sustainable? Short answer, yes. I strongly believe this is the case due to his mixture of elite stuff, improved pitch shapes, improved command, and better optimized pitch usage.
An overview of Shane McClanahan’s pitch arsenal: via the Pitch Leaderboard
|MPH||RPM||Active %||Measured||Inferred||Spin Diff||Ext (ft.)||V-Rel pt.||H-Rel pt.||VB||HB||VAA||HAA|
Here’s how this arsenal grades out (20-80 scale) according to PitchingBot.
The Athletic’s Stuff+ model largely agrees (100 being league average).
He ranks 7th among all SP in the Athletic’s Stuff+ model and is in the 91st percentile of all pitchers. Same story with the PitchingBot’s Stuff grade as he ranks in 97th percentile of all pitchers and is one of only nine SP with a Stuff grade of at least 65. The PitchingBot gives McClanahan an overall grade of 65 which ranks 21st out of 706 total entries. His Command grade ranks much lower relative to other SP, but it is still strong considering how prolific his stuff is.
McClanahan’s stuff was already good in 2021. There are few slight distinctions that have allowed him to take off this year.
His fastball has always stood out due to velocity. While the velocity has remained constant in the pros, the pitch’s movement profile has shifted ever so slightly. He was able to increase the spin efficiency from 96.8% to 99.1%, thus leading to a greater maximization of vertical movement on the pitch (16.3 -> 17.6). It’s hard to know exactly what led to this increase, but it is likely some combination of grip, finger pressure, and wrist orientation.
At its current state, McClanahan’s fastball is a relatively unique pitch from a left-handed perspective. Since the beginning of 2021, only five other left-handed pitchers have been able to achieve greater than 99.0% spin efficiency on their fastball while maintaining a 10:42 spin axis or lower. His teammate, Jeffery Springs, is the most similar in terms of movement (18.1 VB, 10.3 HB), but McClanahan throws more than 5 MPH harder on average. The combination of above-average vertical movement, elite velocity, and the unique pairing of horizontal movement all from a 3/4 arm slot provides the makings for a truly unique pitch for a starting pitcher.
This subtle improvement in VB is significant for multiple reasons. The first of which being that the improved vertical break is important for inducing whiffs and missing barrels, particularly up in the zone. There is also greater room for error in the zone that his velo no longer could provide by itself.
In addition, this adjustment is especially important because it coincides with the improvement and success of his changeup. While he added around an extra inch of VB on his fastball, McClanahan was also able to kill an inch of lift on his changeup. He’s used a new “Split-Change” grip which has been effective in doing so.
He was able to kill an inch of lift (11.1 -> 10.2 VB) while maintaining similar run (15.6 -> 15.9). In this adjustment, McClanahan did sacrifice 1.6 MPH (89.2 -> 87.6). However, he was able to increase the velo differential to his fastball and improve the shape of the pitch, leading to a substantial increase in stuff quality on the changeup.
|Velo Difference||Spin Difference||VB Difference||Long VB Difference||HB Difference|
The difference in vertical movement from the fastball has been shown to be a key indicator of changeup success. The Drivelines and Treads of the world have done numerous studies showing that vertical break separation to the fastball had the greatest significance to increased GB% and Whiff%.
McClanahan was able to widen this vertical movement gap with both the fastball and changeup adjustments (5.2 in -> 7.4 in). The increase in fastball backspin allows for better success with the pitch on its own but also contributes to the success of the changeup.
The curveball was already elite. The slider was hard and well-above average. Adding on the improvements the fastball and changeup provides for one of the most well-rounded arsenals in the game today.
To add to an embarrassment of riches, McClanahan has improved his command along the way and improved the sequencing of his pitches. He effectively locates fastballs up in the zone and changeups down and away, all with the curveball and hard slider tunneling off of both pitches. His walk rates are near the top of the league. He has above-average total command grades, which is more impressive given how good his stuff is. He now has much better optimization of his pitch usage.
|Fastball %||Curveball %||Changeup %||Slider %|
He’s throwing his best pitches more and is commanding them well. This makes the fastball even more effective, especially when he has 97 in his back pocket with good ride and run. All in all, Shane McClanahan has turned himself into one of the premier starting pitchers in the game today. His improvements to already elite stuff, improving command, and better-optimized pitch usage provide him with the basis to maintain his current trajectory.
Clay Holmes was acquired by the Yankees at the 2021 Trade Deadline and has been one of the best relievers in baseball ever since. His initial breakout took place between the months of August and October of 2021. He was very good last year after being traded and drove himself into the upper echelon of relievers. This year, Holmes has been next level good at times. He went from a near 5.00 ERA and rocking over 5 BB/9 in Pittsburgh to now stepping into New York’s closer role and allowing only 2 earned runs through his first 37 innings pitched in 2022. One of these earned runs came in his first outing of the year. He went 31 innings before allowing another earned run.
*Note: Since I started writing this, he has had two recent outings where he’s given up 3 ER (all on a HR) and 4 ER. These have both really inflated his counting stats (FIP, xFIP). Nonetheless, Holmes has allowed an earned run in only 6 of his 48 total appearances (the same as Edwin Diaz who’s appeared in 47 games).
Despite the two hiccup appearances, Holmes is STILL one of six qualified relievers to have an ERA, xERA, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA all below 2.60. He is in the 99th percentile in xwOBA, xwOBACON, and Barrel%. Holmes leads all relievers in GB% (82.5) by a large margin. His average launch angle is -10.4, the lowest by nearly 7 degrees. His strikeout numbers don’t stand out but he’s been the best reliever in baseball in terms of producing suboptimal batted ball outcomes. Holmes has allowed eleven fly balls in 49 innings. He’s allowed five fly balls since May 26. Four flyouts and a home run. These are absurd numbers, especially for a reliever who is used as frequently and in high leverage situations.
Is it sustainable? Before answering this question, I’ll analyze how Clay Holmes reinvented his pitch arsenal.
Holmes always had a pretty good sinker and backed it up with a hard slider. Last year, his sinker velo ranked in the 84th percentile (96.1 MPH) and the horizontal movement (15.3 in) ranked in the 50th percentile. Both of those numbers have improved this year: 92nd percentile velo (96.9 MPH) and 80th percentile HB (16.8 in). The pitch comes in from a very steep VAA which plays into his ability to induce ground balls at a high rate. In fact, it’s in the 96th percentile in terms of steepness among all sinkers. It’s the hardest pitch thrown in this upper echelon of steep sinkers. Only one other sinker has more run while thrown at a steeper VAA. The pitch is a bit of an outlier in that sense.
The improvement to his already unique sinker has contributed greatly to his success. However, the emergence of his slider has taken Holmes to the next level.
Last year, he threw the pitch at 87.7 MPH and it was more of a bullet slider with some drop. This offseason he developed a sweeping slider which many other Yankees have begun adding to their own repertoires. Some call it a sweeper. Others call it whirly. Regardless, it has revolutionized the landscape of pitching and pitch design. There’s a lot of good articles and videos that go more in-depth on the sweeper and seam-shifted wake.
Holmes fully bought into the sweeper phenomenon and has added nearly 10 inches of sweep while maintaining the same amount of drop and only sacrificing 2 MPH of velocity. Only seven others since 2021 have been able to throw a sweeper with at least 12 inches of HB at 85 MPH or harder. His new pitch has a 25.4 SwStr% which is in the 93rd percentile of all sliders.
Holmes created a dominant one-two punch which has led him to become one of the better relievers in baseball. Now there is nearly 30 inches of horizontal separation between his sinker and slider.
The PitchingBot loved Holmes prior to the All-Star break. The Athletic’s Stuff+ model still has him graded as one of the best in all of baseball.
|137.6 (99th percentile)||95.1||103.9|
The sinker has been nearly unhittable. He throws it more than 80% of the time and it’s still dominant. Adding a firm sweeper to complement it is scary for opposing hitters.
The low Command grade would be the only area of concern. However, Holmes is able to get away with it because of how good his stuff is. Edwin Diaz and Josh Hader both have 50 command grades and have still been dominant relievers. As long as he’s in the zone, his stuff will take care of the rest. I believe the newly built arsenal and maintenance of average command should allow Holmes to maintain as one of the better relievers in the MLB.
Kyle Wright may not be the first name that comes to mind in terms of 2022 breakouts. However, his stuff, command, and overall performance improvements deserve recognition. According to the Pitching Bot, he is the leader in both the greatest Stuff and Command differences between this year and last. He’s been a top 35 SP in terms of FIP, xFIP, SIERA, and fWAR. Assuming on average every team has roughly 5-6 starting pitchers per staff, that’s at least 150 starting pitchers in the league at a given time. Having a starter fall anywhere in the top 35 of that sample is extremely valuable. He’s gone at least 6 innings while allowing 3 runs or less in 15 of his 22 starts so far. He’s had 3 really tough outings, but otherwise has been very consistent and reliable for a quality start. Wright’s been nowhere near Cy Young level good, but he’s turned himself into a very high-end, middle of the rotation type of arm on a deep pitching staff for a contending team.
He grades out pretty well according to The Athletic and Pitching Bot.
The ascendance of Wright’s curveball has been a difference maker. His curveball is now one of the elites among SP. In 2022, the pitch ranks in the 92nd percentile in CSW% and the 85th percentile for SwStr% when compared to other starters. The depth and sweep had always been strong, but he’s added nearly 4 MPH to the pitch since his debut in 2019.
Only 2 other curveballs in baseball meet his same thresholds:
MPH ≥ 84.4, Drop ≥ 9 inches, Sweep ≥ 10 inches
This is all coming from a lower release height (5.6 on average). It’s a truly unique pitch. The rest of his arsenal tunnels really well off the pitch too (particularly the FB which helps make up for it’s shape). The fastball falls in the dead zone with regards to movement (12.7, -11.6) but has been thrown up to 97 with a very flat approach angle (-4.2). The sinker and changeup combo is also strong. His sinker has similar velo to the 4 seam and features good horizontal movement (16.8 in). The changeup has tremendous VB separation from the fastball (12.1 in) to go along with 16 inches of run. His slider doesn’t grade out particularly well metrically but also isn’t thrown very often (only 6% of the time).
I tried to line the two pitches up at about the same distance from the plate. I think this does a good job illustrating the strong tunnels that Wright creates with his arsenal. The first pitch is an 84 MPH curveball that breaks to the opposite side of the plate. The second is a 92 MPH sinker in on the hands.
He’s another. The sequence goes CB, CH, FB. All starting on the outside corner from roughly the same spot. One day I’ll learn how to create a Pitching Ninja overlay. For now, the semi-accurate screenshots will have to do.
Wright’s arsenal is pretty strong in terms of depth and stuff profiles. He does a good job of maximizing the cohesiveness of this arsenal through strong tunnels. The fastball is thrown primarily to lefties but has a tendency to get hit around a bit. That seems to be a main area of concern with the profile.
By no means do I expect Kyle Wright to ascend to ace status. He doesn’t need to anchor a pitching staff. The Braves already have a very deep starting group (Fried, Strider, Morton, Odorizzi, w Soroka coming back, and Anderson regaining his footing in AAA). However, Wright is a very strong complimentary piece to a rotation. Wright has a deep arsenal that features three plus pitches to go along with a low launch 4 seam up to 97 with a flat VAA. Improvements to the 4 seam shape would take Wright to that next level, but it doesn’t seem likely due to the present feel for supination. It also isn’t particularly necessary as the velo and flat shape could help it play up. All in all, Kyle Wright has a strong base to provide for sustained success moving forward.
Honorable Mentions: (Other breakouts who I believe are sustainable)
Stay tuned for the hitter edition.