Kings of Command: Scouting 2018's breakout pitchers

Kevin Gausman continues to demonstrate ability that hints at high fantasy upside. Can he put it all together in 2018? Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The game, it's a-changin'.

This is my 18th edition of "Kings of Command" (or at least some form of it, though the title has changed over the years), and in those 18 seasons, pitching trends have endured quite the roller-coaster ride.

This analysis began in the steroid era, progressed through a pitching-rich era in the early 2010s, and has now returned to a homer-happy era. Along the way, the league's strikeout rate has risen monumentally. In 2001, the first year for which I published a list like the one you'll read below, the average major league strikeout rate was 17.3 percent. Last season, it was a record-high 21.6 percent, and in fact, 2017 was the 10th consecutive season in which a new major league record in the category was set.

Such shifting demands constant re-evaluation of what constitutes the best measure of player "skill." And when it comes to pitching, it means that what was once considered a good measure of a pitcher's strikeouts is now a well-below-average number.

A 16 percent strikeout rate once met this column's demands. Last season, 58 pitchers met the qualification for the ERA title, and only six of them -- Ty Blach, Andrew Cashner, Jeremy Hellickson, Martin Perez, Zach Davies and Jose Urena -- fell short of that strikeout-rate threshold.

Taking things a step further, 16 percent has become a comically poor measure for a successful relief pitcher strikeout rate, as the major league average for relievers alone last season was 23.3 percent. Compare that to the starters' average (20.6 percent), and it's even clearer that starters and relievers should be evaluated separately.

In addition, with pitching workloads in rapid decline this decade, and role-driven staffs becoming increasingly in vogue, not to mention there being even more advanced measures with which to measure a pitcher's true skill, I think it's time we shift the "swing-and-miss" metric off of the pure strikeout rate.

With these things in mind, I've made a few key adjustments to the Kings of Command baselines. The aim remains the same: Identify the pitchers who surrender the fewest free passes, induce the most swings and misses and command the strike zone the best. For the first time this season, however, starting pitchers and relief pitchers will have their statistics split up, and each set will have its own set of baselines.

Kings of Command baseline numbers

Pitchers who qualify for inclusion meet each of the following minimum baselines from the 2017 major league season:

Starting pitchers:
Total batters faced (TBF): 300 or more
Swinging-strike rate (SwStrk%): 10.5 percent or more
First-pitch strike rate (1stPStrk%): 60.0 percent or more
Command rate (K's per walk or K/BB): 2.50 or more
(Note: The ground ball rate component has been eliminated.)

Relief pitchers:
Total batters faced (TBF): 150 or more
Swinging-strike rate (SwStrk%): 12.5 percent or more
First-pitch strike rate (1stPStrk%): 60.0 percent of more

Last season, only 99 pitchers -- 49 starters and 50 relievers -- met all of these criteria. Included among that group were both Cy Young Award winners, Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer; the Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera relief award winners, Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel; 16 of the 18 pitchers to score Cy Young votes totaling 1,000 of the 1,020 balloting points (98.0 percent); and every one of the top 10 pitchers on our 2017 Player Rater.

The group, however, also included the nine pitchers listed below, none of whom garnered anywhere near that level of attention in fantasy baseball. These pitchers compared favorably to the former group that received so many accolades, hinting at potentially bad luck in 2017 but perhaps greater things in store for 2018.

My Kings of Command are listed in alphabetical order, along with their 2017 Player Rater finishes and fantasy point totals (using ESPN's standard scoring system), as well as a brief synopsis of what they'd need to do to break through this season. In addition, pitchers who met the column's former criteria are denoted with an asterisk (*).

Tyler Anderson, Colorado Rockies
2017 Player Rater: No. 127 SP
Fantasy point total: 133 (No. 138 SP)

Why he's on here: A Rockies pitcher? Really?! Believe it, as Anderson cracked the top 100 fantasy starters despite making only 19 starts in 2016, then followed it up with a 2017 season during which he boosted his swinging-strike rate from 11.4 to 12.5 percent, first-pitch strike rate from 64.0 to 65.0 percent and had as many performances of at least a 60 Bill James Game Score (5) despite making four less starts. Yet he somehow managed to see his ERA climb by more than a run and a quarter and his fantasy value plummet significantly. Persistent knee inflammation that cost him a pair of DL stints might've contributed, but his xFIP tells quite a story: He had a 3.64 mark in 2016 and 3.95 in 2017.

How he could improve: An improved pitch to use against right-handed hitters, who have .283/.333/.477 career slash rates against him, would help him even more than better luck in the health department. Anderson's changeup has been a work in progress and might be the key to his taking another step forward.

Patrick Corbin, Arizona Diamondbacks
2017 Player Rater: No. 54 SP
Fantasy point total: 313 (No. 41 SP)

Why he's on here: Remember his 2013? Corbin finished that season 92nd overall, and 23rd among starting pitchers, on the Player Rater, thanks in large part to huge jumps in his swinging-strike and first-pitch strike rates. Now consider this: He set a personal best with a 12.1 percent swinging-strike rate and finished 22nd among 58 ERA qualifiers in first-pitch strike rate (63.0 percent) last season, concluding the year with a 3.24 ERA and 23.2 percent strikeout rate in his final 15 starts and one relief appearance. In many ways, his underlying metrics in 2017 looked a lot like 2013's, except that his ERA was nearly two-thirds of a run higher and his WHIP more than half a point higher.

How he could improve: Recapturing some of the lost spin on his fastball is one way, as our internal pitch-tracking tool had him generating more than 400 fewer rpm with it last season than he did in 2013, which could explain how right-handed hitters teed off on it (.332/.385/.522 rates against the fastball alone). Otherwise, Corbin really only needs better luck on batted balls, as his .329 BABIP and 11.2 home run/fly ball rate were both easily greater than his career numbers in those categories.

Kevin Gausman, Baltimore Orioles
2017 Player Rater: No. 99 SP
Fantasy point total: 261 (No. 65 SP)

Why he's on here: Clearly it's because I'm in love with the guy, as this is the third consecutive year (and fourth in the past five) that Gausman has made my list. What can I say, skills are skills. Perhaps this is a poor approach, à la Lego Batman tossing countless Batarangs and then saying "first try!" when he hits. But here's the thing: I've learned all too often that when a player's underlying skills suggest burgeoning greatness, it's a terrible idea to bail on him simply because you've been burned in the past (see: Adrian Beltre, 2004). If the skills had shown any signs of fading, it'd be different, but they didn't: Gausman kept his swinging-strike rate above 12 percent for the third consecutive season, he had the highest first-pitch strike rate of his career (60.2 percent) and posted 10 quality starts, a 3.41 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 26.2 percent strikeout rate in 15 starts after the All-Star break.

Plus, I must admit, I admire Lego Batman's persistence.

How he could improve: How about merely extending his second-half performance into this year, or better yet, shaking what seems to be this developing trend as a painfully slow starter who finishes on a major tear? Or this: Regressing his career-high .337 BABIP closer to (and preferably to) the .300 league average?

Tommy Kahnle, New York Yankees
2017 Player Rater: No. 77 RP
Fantasy point total: 168 (No. 80 RP)

Why he's on here: He struck out 96 batters in relief, tied for ninth most in the game, yet that's all he earned last season?

Kahnle's breakthrough was not only completely legitimate, it supported his skill set as one of the 15 most closer-worthy pitchers in baseball (and that could be understating it). Thanks in large part to a mechanical tweak -- shortening the leg kick in his delivery -- he was able to slash his walk rate by more than half, while boosting his average fastball velocity to a career-high 97.8 mph. And yet he might not even start the year as one of the first three relievers in saves on his own team.

How he could improve: It's more about maintaining his skills gains than actually improving, but a push to capture the third-in-line role (behind David Robertson) would help him better fill the holds column, and if he can somehow work his way into next-in-line status, he'd be an Aroldis Chapman injury away from regular saves and potential top-10 fantasy closer value.

Joe Musgrove, Pittsburgh Pirates
2017 Player Rater: No. 107 SP
Fantasy point total: 170 (No. 112 SP)

Why he's on here: He had by far the highest ERA (6.12) and WHIP (1.51) as well as the lowest strikeout rate (19.6 percent) of any of the nine names on the list, so his qualification probably makes him the strongest example of a "sleeper" of any of them. In addition, he fell just 30 batters faced short of meeting the criteria as both starter and reliever last season, which shows not only how remarkable but also how versatile his skill set is. With the Pirates, Musgrove will contend for a starting role during spring training, but even in the event of his failure and installation as a reliever, he has a potential path to fantasy prominence.

How he could improve: By keeping the ball in the yard, as he had a 1.48 home runs-per-nine innings ratio and 12.0 percent home run-fly ball ratio (33rd-highest among 134 players with at least 100 innings). The move to PNC Park should be huge because in the past five seasons combined, it had the second-lowest home run factor (0.814, where 1.000 would be a neutral park). Incidentally, Musgrove's ceiling appears potentially higher in relief, where he has thrown 2 mph faster during his career and has the ability to limit his pitch selection to fastball/slider.

Drew Steckenrider, Miami Marlins
2017 Player Rater: No. 174 RP
Fantasy point total: 97 (No. 183 RP)

Why he's on here: He's the one of the nine on the list who would've fallen considerably shy of meeting the column's former qualifications, though the adjustments were designed to reward pitchers for absurdly elite strikeout ability rather than exclude them for perhaps being somewhat unlucky in the control department. Steckenrider had a 7.9 percent walk rate in the minors between 2016 and 2017, so he's better in that regard than his numbers in his 37-start debut with the Marlins suggest (11.9 percent). Although, his 2.34 ERA and 54 strikeouts in those games perhaps caught your eye?

How he could improve: A dominating spring that elevates him ahead of Brad Ziegler for the Marlins' closer role, or a trade of Ziegler, paving the way for Steckenrider to close with practically zero competition. Again, Steckenrider needs to lower his walk rate in order to be a fantasy force in middle relief, but keep in mind that his first-pitch strike rate was 68.2 percent, seventh-best of the 50 relief pitchers who met the column's criteria.

Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees
2017 Player Rater: No. 47 SP
Fantasy point total: 325 (No. 37 SP)

Why he's on here: Tanaka's ERA (4.74) and WHIP (1.24) left a lot to be desired, and then there was that silly narrative about being a "night-game pitcher," as he had a 6.99 ERA in his 10 starts in day games. That was flat-out hogwash, as he had a 3.02 career ERA during the day entering 2017, and a closer look at his numbers instead suggested he merely struggled with the command of his splitter for a period of time in the season's early-to-middle stages. Tanaka also set career highs with a 15.9 percent swinging-strike rate and 64.5 percent first-pitch strike rate, and keep in mind that he had a 3.18 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 28.7 percent strikeout rate and .125 well-hit average allowed in 15 second-half starts (playoffs included).

How he could improve: Since Tanaka appeared to recapture the feel for his go-to out pitch, the splitter, late last season, better luck alone would do the trick. His .307 BABIP, 71.5 left-on-base percentage and 14.2 percent home run/fly ball rate were all career worsts.

Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals
2017 Player Rater: No. 63 SP
Fantasy point total: 293 (No. 52 SP)

Why he's on here: Wacha has been a consistently good-but-not-great fantasy starter for years now. This is perhaps best evidenced by his being one of only 23 pitchers to have managed a sub-4.00 FIP while pitching at least 100 innings in each of the past four seasons. But from that group, only he and Bartolo Colon have never finished among the top 20 starting pitchers on the Player Rater. Using Colon as a comparison point is probably not flattering to Wacha, and it's also an entirely unfair one, as Wacha's numbers in these command categories during that four-year span are much closer to Gio Gonzalez's (from that group) than Colon's -- and in fact, they're all better than Gonzalez's, and were considerably so in 2017 alone. Yet we all surely think more of Gonzalez in fantasy terms.

How he could improve: Better health, for one, as he missed significant chunks of the 2014 and 2016 seasons to shoulder issues, but a return of the plus changeup he flashed in his first two years would also help. Per FanGraphs, it was worth 7.2 runs above average from 2013 to 2014, but minus-1.9 in the past three seasons combined.

Eduardo Rodriguez, Boston Red Sox
2017 Player Rater: No. 79 SP
Fantasy point total: 253 (No. 72 SP)

Why he's on here: He has improved his swinging-strike rate in each of his three seasons with the Red Sox and had a 3.97 FIP and 25.8 percent strikeout rate last season, after which it was revealed that he had been dealing with a chronic knee problem for the entirety of his big league career. That Rodriguez has been able to chip in strong, improving metrics despite pitching through injury for so long is testament to his fantasy potential. Unfortunately, he has finished his three seasons 84th, 146th and 79th among starting pitchers on our Player Rater.

How he could improve: A swift return from October patellofemoral ligament reconstruction surgery would be great, but even if Rodriguez must miss a month of regular-season time, he could take a step forward simply because the surgery will provide him his best odds of being fully healthy in his young big league career.

Three of note who missed the "TBF" qualification

Lucas Giolito, Chicago White Sox: His slight drop in average fastball velocity probably had a lot to do with his strikeout rate declining to a frighteningly low 19.0 percent in his seven big league starts in 2017, but bear in mind that he also had a well-better-than-league-average 11.4 percent swinging-strike rate that suggests he has considerable room for growth in the strikeout category in 2018.

A.J. Minter, Atlanta Braves: Granted, it occurred in only 60 total batters faced, but Minter's 19.4 percent swinging-strike rate was the fourth highest of anyone in baseball last season who faced at least that many batters. Injuries, including a 2015 Tommy John surgery, have kept him from tallying a lot of innings as a pro, but he already might have the most natural talent of anyone in the Braves' bullpen.

Luke Weaver, St. Louis Cardinals: Fantasy managers noticed his late-season breakthrough, but in the end his seasonal ERA was just 4.23. Weaver's underlying metrics suggested he pitched way better than that -- his strikeout-to-walk rate alone was 4.93-1 -- and he had one of the higher ground ball rates (51.7 percent) of any pitcher to meet all of the non-TBF command criteria.

Kings of Command master list of qualifiers

Listed below, with starting pitchers on the left and relief pitchers on the right in ascending order of their 2017 FIP, are all 49 starting pitchers and 50 relief pitchers who met all of the Kings of Command criteria in 2017. Those who also who met the column's former criteria are denoted with an asterisk (*):

The following 23 starting pitchers and 20 relief pitchers would have met the column's former criteria (At least 200 TBF, 16 percent K rate, 42.5 percent GB rate, 2.5:1 K-to-walk ratio, at most 8 percent walk rate), but didn't meet this year's set: