The terms "sleepers, breakouts, and busts" mean different things to different people. Sleepers and breakouts, in particular, often overlap.
I define a breakout as a player who has the potential to exceed his draft day value due to an increase in skill or situation. Below are three young arms who fit the description for 2022.
The hard-throwing lefty parlayed an electric 2021 debut into a promising, full-length rookie campaign. McClanahan was Tampa Bay's Game 1 starter in the ALDS against the Red Sox. He was extremely impressive in that start, and throughout the season as a whole.
The 24-year-old finished with a 3.43 ERA, a 1.27 WHIP, and 141 strikeouts in 123 1/3 IP. Solid, but not necessarily spectacular. By taking a peek under the hood we find some promising signs. Among starting pitchers who threw at least 120 innings last year, McClanahan ranked ninth in swinging strike rate (14.8%) and eighth in xFIP (3.23). That's a really nice foundation to build upon.
When you watch McClanahan pitch it's hard not to get carried away with his fastball. It can touch triple digits, after all. Yet it's surprisingly hittable. Take a look at McClanahan's Baseball Savant page here:
It's strange to see a pitcher with such electric "stuff" get hit so hard. Remember, though, that some of the best strikeout pitchers in recent memory also give up some hard-hit balls. Shane Bieber comes to mind.
Taking a look at Fangraph's pitch value page backs up the notion that the fastball isn't as effective as it appears to be. Instead, McClanahan's slider and curveball are his best offerings. This could have something to do with the shape of his fastball. Perhaps it just arrives to hitters straighter and more predictable than we'd prefer. This could be a problem if he loses some of that elite velocity in future years.
There are two ways I think he could improve or break out, however. The first is if the Rays simply find a way to alter the shape of his fastball. This is Tampa Bay we're talking about. They know a thing or two about pitching, and we're living in the era of player development. Players improve their skills all the time these days.
The second way McClanahan could break out is if he simply throws his fastball less frequently. According to Savant he threw it 41% of the time as a rookie. Meanwhile, he threw his slider 35% of the time and his curve 16% of the time. His changeup came in at 8%.
The slider and curve might not be as effective on a per-pitch basis if the southpaw starts throwing them more often, but it's a worthwhile experiment for him to test in his sophomore season.
Cease was a somewhat popular breakout pick last year, and he was good-not-great. He was fine. It felt like he could be even better. Progress isn't always perfectly linear, though. True breakouts can take multiple years to fully materialize. That is where we're at with Cease entering 2022.
Let's start with the good. Cease posted a 3.91 ERA in 165 2/3 innings, which was backed up by a 3.73 xERA and a 3.72 xFIP. His 226 strikeouts ranked seventh in the majors. His K% was in the 93rd percentile.
Similarly to his former teammate Carlos Rodon, Cease benefitted from the analytical approach to development from White Sox pitching coach Ethan Katz. Chicago believes in using core velocity belts and rapsodo cameras to improve a pitcher's "stuff." From 2020 to 2021 Cease's whiff rate spiked from the 40th percentile to the 94th percentile in MLB. Katz's program is working!
Unfortunately, Cease just wasn't all that efficient. His HR/9 was the 18th worst rate among qualified SPs and his BB% was in the bottom 32nd percentile. Cease has elite velocity and spin on his pitches. The hard work is done. He just needs to smooth out those rough edges and improve his command within the strike zone.
Betting on the 26-year-old to take another step forward is also a bet on Katz and the White Sox. Consider me a believer in their program.
Tampa Bay, Chicago, and Milwaukee. Are you sensing the theme here? In the era of player development we want to bet on teams who can maximize the skill set of their players. The Brewers have done just that in recent seasons.
It isn't just that Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta have all become top-tier starters. What makes Milwaukee's situation unique is they've mastered the practice of taking pitchers with elite stuff (but who have notable flaws), and then fixing those flaws.
Cease didn't take the first step towards breaking out until Chicago helped him improve the quality of his arsenal. Ashby's arsenal can already compete.
In fact, Ashby's double-plus slider had a 44.5 CSW% (called strikes plus whiffs) in 2021. Among pitches that were thrown at least 200 times, Ashby's CSW% on his slider was the fourth highest in all of baseball. Oh, and he possesses a fastball that can touch 99 mph with both sink and run.
Ashby's flaw is (at times) dreadful control. In his MLB debut last June the lefty allowed seven runs (four earned) on four hits and three walks in just 2/3 of an inning. That is the type of floor he carries moving forward.
Then the Brewers conducted their pitching magic tricks. Ashby was recalled in mid-August and posted a 3.48 ERA (2.76 xFIP) with a 39:9 K:BB in 31 IP. This stretch included another disastrous outing on the final day of the season (6 ER in 2/3 IP). It's a reminder that he could be headed for a Cease-like "developmental breakout" in '22.
Because of that, Ashby should be considered a tier below McClanahan/Cease in terms of breakout potential. Those first two guys have the upside for a top-15 fantasy campaign. Ashby is better viewed as a bet to break into the top 30-35. He's more volatile as well.
Note that Ashby is currently sixth on the Brewers' rotation depth chart, but the team has already announced that he is being stretched out as a starter this spring. He's first in line for whenever an opportunity arises.