Every year, there are players who end up taking the leap from mediocre to good or good to great. Every year, people try to guess who they are. I thought I may try my luck at it and see how it turns out come October. I’m not necessarily looking at rookies who’ll make big impacts in year one. Rather, I’m looking for guys that can be foundational pieces after living on the fringes. There are a lot of different factors that can go into who has a breakout season and who doesn’t. Sometimes it comes down to luck while other times you can see the makings of a star. Here are my picks for potential stars in 2021.
Tejay Antone, Cincinnati Reds
Some may say that Antone had his coming out party last season. That makes sense, but it may not constitute a true breakout campaign given the sample size. Tejay wasn’t someone you’d see on any prospect lists either so some may try to brush it off and call it a fluke. In my opinion, what the Red’s righty did was no fluke.
Tejay threw 35.1 innings with an ERA of 2.80 while striking out 11.5 batters per nine and allowing only five hits per nine. He ended the season tied for third on the team in WAR with Tyler Mahle as Bauer and Luis Castillo were the only two ahead of them. He had a great year and I think he will put everyone on notice in 2021.
The thing that made Antone so good was his breaking pitches. His slider and curve rated out to be two the better in baseball. His curve may have been the best as batters hit a paltry .054 against it. Batters were 2-37 against the deuce while striking out 20 times. He only threw the pitch 16.7% of the time but it was devastatingly good. I expect Tejay to use it more going forward.
The scary thing is that he may get better this year with the heater. His fastball was hit decently well despite the metrics showing it to be great. Antone’s numero uno ranked in the 86th percentile in fastball velocity while the spin on the pitch was upper echelon as it was in the 98th percentile. Despite that, it got hit much better than his slider and curve. Given how good his breaking stuff was it makes sense, but if Tejay were to make an adjustment with his fastball he could be scary good.
I’m not sure what the adjustment for Antone will be. The most rational thing would be for him to throw his curve more often. I definitely see that happening this season as it was just too good of a pitch for it not to be throw at least 25% of the time. If he can locate the fastball better more often then that would be a big help to him breaking out as well. Even if the numbers on the fastball look similar, more curveballs should be enough to make Tejay shine.
With Antone being coached by Kyle Boddy and Derek Johnson I can only expect him to get better. Boddy is the founder of Driveline and has been at the forefront of everything pitching for the past decade while Johnson has solidified himself as one of the better pitching coaches in baseball. I trust these two to be able to press the right buttons to make Antone’s 2020 numbers look like a down year.
Tyler Mahle, Cincinnati Reds
Mahle has gotten better each and every year of his career with last year being far and away his best season. It was only 10 starts, but he was incredibly tough to hit (6.4 H/9) while he struck guys out at a career-high rate (11.3 K/9). He’s made a few adjustments and it looks like he’s just now starting to put it all together. A full season of him being at his best makes Mahle a prime breakout candidate.
The two things that make me a big believer in Tyler is his fastball and slider. The velocity on the number one was above average while the spin was well above average. It’s really the placement and movement that made it such a great offering. Mahle lives at the top of the zone. It may not sound like a great idea, but it’s worked given how much swings have changed so that low balls are punished. The horizontal movement on the pitch has always been great and last season the vertical movement followed suit. The riding movement Mahle was able to get on the pitch helped him get guys to pop up on the off-chance that they did make contact. That showed itself in that batters were under his pitches nearly 40% of the time.
Mahle used a curve prior to 2020 but opted to go with a slider and it worked out wonderfully. Realistically, it was his best pitch. Batters hit just .180 against the breaking pitch as it garnered a whiff % of 41.5 while getting a K in 25 of the 68 plate appearances he used it in. Mahle’s heat map shows he used it as a front door breaker more than anything. Given how it was below average in terms of break, but above average in spin that makes sense. If he can make an adjustment to get righties to chase down and away then it might be even better.
Tyler’s split-change was much better in 2020 as well due to how he used it. Mahle didn’t use the offering much against righties but instead decided to deploy it when going against southpaws. He didn’t use it down and away like you would think, though. Tyler relied on the pitches’ horizontal movement to fool batters into giving up on the pitch as it looked inside. Mahle used it almost like a Greg Maddux front door two-seamer. It worked out well as batters hit .174 against it.
Like Antone, Tyler has grown a lot under the tutelage of Cincinnati’s coaching and development staff. Mahle is still very young and has the chance to solidify himself as the Red’s number three pitcher behind Castillo and Gray. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of adjustments Mahle makes as he had a relatively high walk total. If he can throw more quality pitches he has a chance to be an All-Star. If not, I think Reds fans will still be happy with his 2021 numbers.
Sean Murphy, Oakland Athletics
Murphy falls into the same category as Antone where his 2020, or even his 2019, could be called a breakout. Given how small of a sample size we’ve been given and how he’s been overshadowed I think people have yet to realize how good this guy is. The guy I think that’s been in the spotlight besides Murph is Dodgers’ catcher Will Smith. They came up at the same exact time and have both performed very well. Smith is a legit star while Sean isn’t too far behind him in value. I think people will see that in 2021.
Catchers don’t have to clear the same kind of hurdles other position players do to be called great. It’s in large part due to how much more demanding backstop is defensively. While Murphy’s numbers may not scream “superstar” when compared to other guys, his number holds up very well when looking at other catchers. The first thing that I notice is the kind of power Sean has displayed. All of his advanced data shows he hits the ball hard. Murphy was in the 91st percentile in both hard-hit % end exit velocity while his barrel % was in the top 20% of the league in 2020. Sean has a career .491 SLG which is good enough to be in the top five since joining the A’s.
Murphy’s defense is pretty elite as he has one of the fastest pop times down to second in the league. His framing rates out to be above average as well and many have lauded him for how well he controls the game behind the plate. Someone with his defensive acumen and power production should be looked at as a top-tier catcher and I think this is the season everyone starts to notice that.
A couple of things that make me believe Sean may still have some room left to improve is in his whiff and chase rates. He has struck out a ton despite having a slightly above average whiff %. Someone with his swing-and-miss profile shouldn’t be striking out 26.5% of the time. Breaking pitches have given him the most trouble so if he begins to lay off them more often he may be able to depress his K%. How often Murph chased out of the zone significantly dropped from 2019 to 2020, showing he’s willing to make adjustments. More so than anything, that makes me believe Sean will put in the necessary work to go from a .240 hitter to something elite for a catcher.
Zach Eflin, Philadelphia Phillies
Eflin is really interesting to me because of how overshadowed he is. He’s steadily gotten better with last season being a career year. Yet, he’s been overlooked on the Phillies thanks to Nola and Wheeler to go along with the ascension of pitching prospect Spencer Howard. Zach has improved nearly every year and still has time to get better given his age (27). If he can take the leap from back-end starter to solid rotation piece, Philly may have something special brewing on the mound.
Some of the numbers that stick out to me are his hard-hit % and expected ERA. Zach’s hard-hit % has been in the 70th percentile or higher each season since 2018. Pairing that with an above-average xERA in all those years makes it seem like Elfin’s career 4.63 ERA isn’t indicative of his talent. Eflin also doesn’t walk many batters, leading to a lot of his number with a ‘x’ in front of it looking great.
The main reason I feel like Elfin could be on his way to a big season is how his strikeout numbers jumped up from previous years. Zach struck out 28.6% of the batters he faced in 2020 which is 10% higher than his career average; his career-high mark prior to 2020 was 22.5% in 2018. The two main reasons for the success were the elevated whiff rates and low batting averages against his curve and four-seamer. His breaker has always been his go-to pitch with two strikes and it worked out incredibly well last season as Elfin’s curve registered a whiff% of 43.9% and an average against of .100.
Zach opted to use a sinker/two-seamer more often in 2020 and it helped his four-seam fastball be more effective. He threw the pitch in on lefties a lot and used it as a front-door, put away offering. It’s odd seeing a fastball being used like that, but it worked. Eflin’s four-seam whiff% was up by 11.4 points compared to 2019 as hitters hit only .167 against the pitch last season. He made adjustments to the frequency and location of both pitches, helping Zack start to reach his potential.
Something worth noting is the movement on his sinker/two-seamer. The vertical and horizontal break on the pitch has always been near the top of the league but it has been hit relatively well. If Zach is able to place the pitch on the corners more often it could be an extremely effective weapon. Given how Eflin has gotten better every year I wouldn’t put it past him to make the necessary corrections to do so again.
Griffin Canning, Los Angles Angles
My belief in Canning is more about my affinity for the former UCLA star than anything else. I’m not going to dive into numbers surrounding the guy’s success or look for a crumb that may lead to something bigger this time around. All I have to say is that I have a feeling about Canning. Griffin was Angel’s second-round selection in 2017 and has been the guy many view as the team’s up-and-coming ace. Canning struggled in year one but made strides in 2020 before the season’s end.
Over the course of his final five starts, Griffin pitched 28.2 innings with 33 Ks and an ERA of 3.14. Canning got on a roll in the second half, or month rather, of last season and it is cause for my optimism. The young righty has the talent to be the top arm in Anaheim and last season he showed it. The team seems to love how more self-assured Canning has become as he’s starting to accept the responsibility of being “the guy” as far as the pitching staff goes. If he can continually progress, the Angles may live up to their billing.