2017 Bold Pitcher League Leaders

Yesterday, I unveiled my bold hitter league leaders, with the acknowledgement that these are a lot tougher to hit than the generic Bold Predictions. The pitching side of the ledger is a bit easier, but still difficult, of course. Given that there is more luck and factors outside the specific pitcher’s control involved that shape his surface results, it’s more conceivable that a non-favorite leads the league in a category.

In an effort to avoid double dipping and naming the same pitcher in two categories, there may have been a slightly better bold choice for a particular category. I opted to come up with different names in each. Also keep in mind that it is difficult to balance boldness with realistic. I eliminated many names that I didn’t think were bold, but maybe you do. I also eliminated names that have no real chance at leading in the category.

American League

ERAJames Paxton

This all hinges upon Paxton’s ability to sustain his fastball velocity spike enjoyed last season. His heater, already sitting at above average velocity, especially for a southpaw, jumped from the 94 to 95 mph range to nearly 97 mph. And while his strikeout rate surged, it still wasn’t all that much higher than the league average. It would seem there is much room for further growth, especially considering every non-fastball pitch of his generated a SwStk% of at least 16.7% last year! His mix of grounders, strikeout ability, and good control, along with elite secondary stuff and strong velocity reminds me of Carlos Carrasco.

WHIPMatt Shoemaker

After we all feared the worst for Shoemaker upon taking a liner to the head last year, he proved this spring that he was ready to roll by posting a 21/5 K/BB ratio in 17 innings. Last year, he essentially doubled the usage of his splitter beginning with his May 16 start and threw the pitch between 30% and 50% the majority of the rest of the season. Over his first six non-crazy-splitter-usage starts, he struck out a meager 13.8% of batters and posted a hilariously bad 1.91 WHIP. In his last 20 starts, his strikeout rate rocketed up to 23%, en route to a 1.10 WHIP. He’s got the strikeout ability and the excellent control, while the Angels defense figures to be fantastic, though almost entirely due to the presence of Andrelton Simmons.

WMarcus Stroman

Strategy: choose a starter on one of the top projected offenses — the Astros, Orioles, Blue Jays or Red Sox. I cheated a bit here as Stroman was actually my pick for the second straight season. Embarrassingly, Stroman failed to even reach double digits in wins. So let’s try again. I still think that one of these years, and perhaps this one, his results match the quality of his stuff. Every non-fastball he threw last year yielded a double digit SwStk%, yet he couldn’t even push his strikeout rate above the arbitrary 20% barrier! He proved he could pass 200 innings, so now he’s just a small tweak or two away from a breakout. Backed by a high-powered Blue Jays offense, the wins could be flowing.

SOLance McCullers

I fear this isn’t quite bold enough. The boldness here is actually health related, rather than performance related, but sadly I have no unique insight into the status of McCullers’ various former ailments. His curve got swinging strikes nearly 21% of the time…and he threw it about one out of every two pitches! That’s certainly taking the “throw your best pitch often” mantra I just made up to the extreme. If he can somehow manage to reach 200 innings, he has a real shot to lead the league here.

SvSean Doolittle

If I named any good closer, would he be considered bold? So let’s once again go with the same guy I went with last year, but this time Doolittle isn’t actually entering the season as “the guy”. Instead, the A’s are supposedly going to mix and match, but that never actually happens. So I’m betting on the best pitcher in the bullpen getting the first shot and never letting go.

National League

ERAAaron Nola

It seems pointless to type letters that don’t eventually spell Clayton Kershaw, but that’s what this fun little exercise requires me to do. Ground balls, strikeouts, and avoidance of the base on balls. That’s all we can ask a pitcher to do and that’s exactly what Nola did last year. But it led to a terrible 4.78 ERA, thanks to an inflated BABIP and ridiculously low LOB%. Neither of those metrics should be as far from league average again, though admittedly Nola does need to induce more pop-ups.

WHIPJacob deGrom

Reports from spring are that deGrom’s velocity has returned, which cost lead to a bounceback in strikeout rate. Surprisingly, his WHIP last year was a solid, albeit unspectacular 1.20, which means there’s serious potential for improvement. He continues to display excellent control, though will need to cross his fingers when the ball is put into play because the Mets defense figures to be bad again.

WJon Gray

Rockies, Cubs, Nationals, Dodgers. Those four figure to be the top offenses in the NL, so it makes sense to find a starter from one of those teams. I’m typing this after gray made his start, so I know he now has one less opportunity to lead the league in wins. But here’s a guy that posted a SIERA nearly a full run below his ERA, no doubt partly due to Coors Field, though it was seemingly due to a lack of bullpen support or ability to strand runners. Even with Coors’ strikeout suppression magic, Gray has major punchout skills and the Rockies actually have a strong defensive unit.

SOTaijuan Walker

Last week, I boldly predicted that Walker would post a sub-3.50 ERA. How can he do that? By leading the league in strikeouts, of course! He’s already got the fastball, had the splitter until last year, and perhaps now will incorporate a slider? A move to the National League and facing the pitcher a couple of times a game should boost his strikeout rate and now healthy, could finally live up to hos top tier potential we all know he has.

SvRaisel Iglesias

Yes, health is now a question mark, but performance shouldn’t be. He’s a high strikeout guy pitching in front of a good defense and part of the boldness here is that the Reds haven’t actually announced a full-time closer. But alternative Michael Lorenzen pitched ahead of Iglesias in yesterday’s game, while Drew Storen is coming off a 5.23 ERA and whose velocity was down during the spring as he allowed 10 runs in 6.2 innings. There aren’t any obvious alternatives, so as long as Iglesias’ elbow holds up, he should hold the job all season.





Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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I'm Your Huckleberry
5 years ago

The Paxton prediction is still bold, but it’s actually been a pretty popular one. I called him a dark horse candidate for Cy Young in this article:

http://www.inningspitched.com/how-to-revitalize-your-career-james-paxton/

Brett Miller predicted a Cy Young over in the community section:

http://www.fangraphs.com/community/james-paxton-is-going-to-win-the-2017-al-cy-young/

And PitcherList.com had to ban their writers from making Paxton-related bold prediction because they thought they would probably all include one.

I’ve thrown around the Carrasco comp in conversations, less as a comp between them as pitchers and more as a comp between where Paxton is at now and where Carrasco was a few years ago: the “obvious” breakout candidate.

I did a really thorough analysis of him in the first article I linked above. The highlights are:

Obviously the fastball velocity uptick

Overhauled mechanics that I think will help him with his health issues

Career best curveball movement

Cutter (basically a new pitch for him) led baseball in both Whiff/Swing and Swing%, huge margin between Paxton and second place in SwStr%

Change had the lowest Contact% of any lefty in the game

From July 22 onward, posted a 9.4 K/9 to go with a 1.2 BB/9, a 3.19 ERA and a 2.45 FIP

Yesterday I was at Media Day for the Tacoma Rainiers (Mariners’ AAA affiliate) and got to chat about Paxton with pitching coach Lance Painter, who was the one who “fixed” Paxton (particularly his arm slot) last year. He raved about how much Paxton’s confidence has improved in the last year. In the past, some people have talked about Paxton lacking the right confidence and mentality and having a tendency to melt down when facing adversity, so it’s encouraging to hear he’s come a long way in that department.

I’ve never had a breakout pick I was as confident in as James Paxton. I’m CONVINCED he’s a Cy Young candidate.