5 breakout pitchers to watch in 2022

Detroit Tigers

The breakout players of 2021 included pitchers such as Julio Urías, Carlos Rodón, Logan Webb, Freddy Peralta and Trevor Rogers. Who will be the next wave in 2022?

MLB.com picked out a group of young pitchers to keep an eye on. All of them have the potential to have a big year this season.

Here are five breakout pitcher candidates for the 2022 season:

Alek Manoah, RHP, Blue Jays
Key stat: 10.2 K/9 IP in 2021

Manoah flashed his upside last season in an impressive rookie campaign — but he has the potential to become a true ace. He entered 2021 ranked behind highly regarded prospects Nate Pearson and Simeon Woods Richardson within the Blue Jays’ organization, though it was Manoah who ultimately made the biggest impact. Following an impressive showing in Spring Training, the 23-year-old Manoah went 3-0 with a 0.50 ERA and 27 strikeouts in three starts at Triple-A Buffalo. He then got his chance in The Show — and he never looked back.

Manoah struck out seven over six scoreless innings in a dazzling MLB debut at Yankee Stadium, and he went on to post a 3.22 ERA and 127 strikeouts over 111 2/3 innings. In doing so, Manoah became just the fourth pitcher aged 23 or younger to average at least 10 strikeouts per nine innings in his debut season. The others: Mark Prior (2002), Kerry Wood (1998) and Dwight Gooden (1984). Not bad company for Manoah, who is primed to take another leap in 2022.

Shane Baz, RHP, Rays
Key stat: 35.3% whiff rate in 2021

The third player the Rays received (Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows were the others) when they traded Chris Archer to the Pirates in July 2018, Baz made his MLB debut last September and was so impressive in three appearances that Tampa Bay felt comfortable starting the 22-year-old in Game 2 of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox. Baz didn’t pitch well in his first playoff game, but his regular-season performance raised expectations entering 2022.

While climbing prospect rankings, Baz drew high marks for his upper-90s four-seam fastball and hard, biting slider, but his command was called into question. In his 49-batter debut, however, Baz showed excellent command, dotting the edges of the zone and walking only three batters while striking out 18. His whiff rate (misses/swings) was 35.3%, a figure that placed Baz fifth among starting pitchers (min. 100 swings), behind Jacob deGrom, Glasnow, Corbin Burnes and Shane Bieber. With Glasnow sidelined following Tommy John surgery, Baz could take on the mantle of staff ace this season.

Alex Lange, RHP, Tigers
Key stat: 48% slider whiff rate in 2021

Lange, a former LSU ace and first-round pick, was converted into a reliever by the Tigers after they got him from the Cubs in the Nick Castellanos trade at the 2019 Deadline. The 26-year-old got his first MLB callup last season, and he was actually great down the stretch, posting a 1.45 ERA with about a strikeout per inning over his final 17 appearances after returning from a stint in the Minors.

But he’s a breakout candidate because of his stuff and his approach to using it. Lange’s fastball averaged 96.4 mph in 2021 with good running action, breaking 3.1 inches more than an average four-seamer. His out pitch is his sharp, mid-80s breaking ball, which drops 8.9 inches more than average, and he mixes in a changeup that has above-average movement, too. Hitters whiffed on nearly half their swings against Lange’s two secondary pitches last season.

The most interesting thing, though, is how he wants to pair his fastball with his breaking ball. Statcast classifies that breaking ball as a slider, but as Lange told FanGraphs’ David Laurila, he thinks of it like a curveball — because of spin axis. Lange “mirrors” his fastball and breaking ball, spinning them in perfectly opposite directions, which makes it hard for the hitter to tell them apart. Aces like Shane Bieber have used fastball-curveball spin mirroring to great effect. Lange’s breaking ball profiles like a slider, but he mirrors it with his fastball as if it’s a curve. 

Here’s how Lange explained it to FanGraphs: “You’re not seeing the dot [that a hitter sees on the baseball with a traditional slider’s ‘football’ spin] … I’m right over the top of it, right over that four-seam, just trying to come straight down over the top and create that front spin. Any differential in the spin, I believe the hitter is going to be able to see. If I’m able to create as much of a mirror image, the front spin to the backspin of the curveball, as I can, if I can tunnel those together and create the illusion that it’s the same pitch, and it’s thrown hard, and there’s no real pop to it, I think that’s when it’s most effective.”

Ranger Suárez, LHP, Phillies
Key stat: -21 run value with sinker in 2021 (T-6th-best for any pitcher on any pitch)

Suárez hadn’t started an MLB game since 2018, but after a 1.12 ERA in 27 games as a reliever to start ’21, he made his first start on Aug. 2. He went three impressive innings, and continued to build up from there. Along the way, he made 12 starts, posting a 1.51 ERA and allowing just one home run. He threw a shutout on Sept. 25 against the Pirates and went seven scoreless innings in his final start of the year on Oct. 1, putting two exclamation points on two stellar months as a starter.

His best pitch all year by run value was his sinker, with a -21 mark and an impressive -2.9 per 100 pitches. He also had a 39.8% whiff rate on his changeup, his second-most-used pitch behind the sinker, and a .176 batting average and .216 slugging percentage against his third-most-frequent pitch, his four-seamer. Notably, these pitches continued to work for him as a starter, as opposed to struggling due to more exposure. That’s an important key in the reliever-to-starter journey, and one likely to continue for Suárez as he gets the chance to further contribute to the rotation in ‘22 and beyond.

Austin Gomber, LHP, Rockies
Key stat: 33.8% hard-hit rate allowed in 2021 (85th percentile of MLB)

The most widely discussed piece of the return the Rockies got in their trade of Nolan Arenado to the Cardinals, Gomber raised eyebrows with his rookie campaign, even if the final numbers don’t tell that story.

The 28-year-old left-hander posted a 4.53 ERA (105 ERA+) over 23 starts for Colorado in 2021. But prior to suffering lower back pain over his final four starts — his season was ultimately cut short due to the discovery of a stress fracture in that region — Gomber’s ERA was 3.79. And if you go beyond that and strip out, for the moment, three awful road starts over which he surrendered 18 runs over 7 2/3 innings (21.12 ERA), he had a 2.31 ERA over the remaining 16 outings (89 2/3 innings). Incredibly, Gomber’s ERA in nine Coors Field starts was 2.09. Overall, his hard-hit rate of 33.8 percent was among the top 15 percent of qualified pitchers in baseball, according to Statcast.

As much as the Arenado trade was criticized for the return Colorado saw for a then-eight-time Gold Glove Award winner and five-time All-Star, Gomber could end up becoming a huge part of the Rockies’ future. A breakout 2022 campaign would certainly go a long way toward making that a reality.

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