There have been so many incredible breakouts and bounce-back stories in the AL East this season. In this month’s column, I’m going to highlight some of those players who showed improvements this season and what that might mean for their roles next year.
Kyle Bradish, SP
Bradish finished 2022 with a 4.89 ERA in 23 games started. During spring training, the Orioles had many options to fill rotation spots, but it was not clear who among the group would be able to consistently produce. Bradish certainly stepped up and has a 3.12 ERA through 27 games started this season.
A major contributing factor to his success has been a change to his pitch usage that has made him much more effective against right-handed hitters (4.69 FIP in 2022 vs. 3.54 FIP in 2023).
In 2022, Bradish primarily threw his four-seam upper half to right-handed hitters and his slider down and away. This season, Bradish continued throwing his slider down and away to right-handed hitters, but instead of pairing that with a four-seamer, Bradish is using a sinker. Since he is throwing the sinker inner half to right-handed hitters, he now has something he can throw hard that moves in on right-handed hitters and something that he can throw that moves away from right-handed hitters. With the sinker being 94-96 mph and the slider 87-89 mph with plus sweep, Bradish has two hard pitches that he can use to the east and west sides of the zone.
With a more defined plan of attack against both hands, Bradish has positioned himself well to be a key member of the 2024 Orioles rotation.
Yennier Canó, RP
Canó was a much-needed breakout reliever for the Orioles this season, with a 2.00 ERA in 67 innings pitched. The biggest improvement came with his control. Canó consistently showed well below average control throughout his minor league career, with consistently high walk rates. This season, Canó is in the top 3% of the league with an elite 4% walk rate. This is, in part, due to his increased trust in a revamped sinker.
This season, Canó increased his sinker usage from 40% to 55% and the movement profile was different from 2022. His revamped sinker has over five more inches of sink and is demonstrating seam shifted wake. Seam shift wake describes the effect of the seams on the movement of the ball. There are certain pitches (including sinkers) that are more inclined to experience late, unexpected movement because of induced seam shifted wake. If you’d like to check out more information on what seam shifted wake is, and how it helped the effectiveness of Canó’s sinker, you can watch this video:
In addition to better movement, Canó has much better control of his new sinker. This season, Canó’s sinker in-zone is up 10% from 2022. This has certainly helped him get his walk rate down, as he’s been able to get ahead in the count way more frequently.
Félix Bautista had the primary role of closer for the Orioles but suffered a torn UCL and missed time. This has afforded Canó the opportunity to step up. Based on how successful Canó has been in this role, I expect him to continue to get high leverage opportunities in 2024.
Triston Casas, 1B
Casas’ breakout year this season has helped him secure the 1B starting role for the foreseeable future — he is hitting .263/.367/.490, and his .857 OPS puts him in the top 10% of the league.
One major change Casas made this season is that he is showing a more aggressive plate approach. While aggressive approaches may have a negative connotation, there are many players who find success while being more aggressive. Bo Bichette, for example, is one of the most aggressive swingers in baseball and in five seasons has not had an OPS below .800. While this approach certainly doesn’t work for everyone, this season it is clicking for Casas.
My concern with this approach was that we might see an increase in his strikeout rate, which is something Casas struggled with during his development. But the good news is that even though Casas is chasing 5% more, his strikeout rate has remained only 3% worse than MLB average at 25%. And that’s because Casas is still not expanding the zone despite swinging more. When Casas does chase, he’s done a good job of not reaching too far outside of the zone, meaning he is swinging at pitches that are either:
- Along the edge of the zone (meaning there is a chance they will be called a strike).
- Within a few inches of the zone.
Additionally, despite swinging and chasing more this season, Casas is still walking at an elite 14% rate, putting him in the top 7% of the league.
Based on his proven above average plate discipline, the success Casas has had from this more aggressive approach is sustainable. Casas is setting himself up for a secured starting role next season as an above average offensive first baseman.
Clarke Schmidt, SP
Clarke Schmidt took advantage of an injury ridden Yankees rotation to prove that he can be effective as a starter. Since he started going 5+ innings on a regular basis (since May 19) Schmidt has a 3.91 ERA and a better than average 6% walk rate.
Schmidt added a cutter this season, which took him to the next level. This new pitch has become Schmidt’s most used pitch against left-handed batters. The cutter has been effective against left-handed hitters because it provides Schmidt an option for a hard pitch that will move in on their hands. The cutter is hard at 90-92 mph, gets above average cut, and has generated 7% more chase than average for a cutter.
The problem in 2022 was that he was mostly four-seam middle, curveball low and in, and sweeper middle to left-handed hitters. While the curveball was effective against left-handed hitters, they were able to get a good read on the sweeper because it is a one-dimensional pitch (meaning it primarily moves horizontally and lacks depth).
Now that Schmidt has a more effective plan of attack against both hands, he has made a strong case to be a back of the rotation starter for the Yankees in 2024.
Robert Stephenson, RP
Towards the end of the 2022 season, Stephenson was designated for assignment by the Rockies and picked up on waivers by the Pirates. After pitching 14 innings in Pittsburgh with a 5.14 ERA, Stephenson was traded to the Rays for SS Alika Williams.
It didn’t take long after joining the Rays for Stephenson to become another one of their pitching success stories. Soon after he joined the team, Stephenson started throwing a harder version of his slider. Since the game he started throwing the revamped pitch (June 18), Stephenson is tied for first (with Pete Fairbanks) among qualified relief pitchers with an elite 45% strikeout rate.
Stephenson will become a free agent at the end of this season. Depending on where he signs, he could be given ample opportunities in a high leverage role coming out of the bullpen.
Zack Littell, SP/RP
Another roster fringe success story, Littell was claimed by the Rays off waivers from the Red Sox at the beginning of May. While Littell has spent most of his career as a reliever, the Rays started using him as a starter because of injuries to the starting rotation.
In his past two starts, Littell went 7.0 and 8.0 innings, respectively. Since he began starting regularly (July 30), Littell has 3.86 ERA and an elite 1.9% walk rate. Against right-handed hitters, Littell started throwing his harder gyro slider more than his four-seam fastball, and introduced another version of a slider that is more sweepy. Against left-handed hitters, Littell increased the usage of his gyro slider and above average splitter.
Littell’s role for next season is a little tricky to predict, as the Rays have a ton of pitchers and competition for the starting rotation will be tough. There are always injuries to work around and Littell has done a great job this season, proving he can handle a consistent starting role successfully.
Davis Schneider, 2B
For the Blue Jays it’s hard not to talk about Schneider, who is off to an incredible start in his MLB debut. Through 113 PA, Schneider is hitting .326/.451/.717. While his .431 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is unsustainably high (which indicates he is getting lucky on some balls in play), Schneider’s debut remains impressive and sets him up well for next season.
Throughout his minor league career, Schneider has shown a hard-to-find combination of power and plate discipline. Both traits have successfully translated to the majors so far. His biggest weakness, thus far, is his bat-to-ball skills, and he’s had consistently high strikeout rates throughout his minor league career. This season in Triple A, however, Schneider dropped his strikeout rate to the lowest it’s been for him since rookie ball — 22%.
One contributing factor for his decreased strikeout rate could be related to a simplification he made to his batting stance pre-pitch setup. In 2022, there were many moving parts in Schneider’s pre-pitch setup. Look at the video below — watch the movement of his back foot and notice how his weight is shifting back and forth:
This season, Schneider has simplified his pre-pitch setup by reducing the movement and keeping his weight steady.
How did simplifying the pre-pitch setup help Schneider?
Shifting weight back and forth (like Schneider did in 2022) during pre-pitch can make it much more difficult for batters in terms of timing their loads. Schneider is more still now during pre-pitch and then only uses a toe tap to time his load. How much better does his swing look now?
The simpler the better. So, removing all the weight shifting in the pre-pitch process was a step in the right direction. However, there is still a lot going on with Schneider’s swing and many of the movements are inconsistent. For example, sometimes he taps his front foot during pre-pitch (in addition to his load toe tap). He also moves his bat around a lot before getting it set diagonally by his head.
To summarize: Schneider’s simplified pre-pitch process has helped him improve his timing and reduce his strikeout rate. But based on how many moving parts there are throughout his swing, I think Schneider will continue to work on simplifying it.
The Blue Jays already have first base, shortstop, and third base locked in for next season. With only one starting infield role remaining, it will be a tough competition in spring training for second base. Based on how successful Schneider has been, Schneider has made a strong case for himself to take over the starting second base role.
Kyle Bradish, Yennier Canó, Triston Casas, Clarke Schmidt, Robert Stephenson, Zack Littell, and Davis Schneider all made major strides this season. Whether it was adding a pitch or changing an approach, they have all put themselves in a position to continue their success into next season and beyond.
(Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)