When May comes around, we can reliably count on at least three things: spring fully blooming, millennials posting a certain Justin Timberlake meme and MLB fans debating whether their new favorite players can maintain their hot starts. The phrase “small sample size” may be as ubiquitous as Mother’s Day cards this time of year, but thankfully, we have the tools to decipher the noise and figure out — or at least confidently opine on — which ones may be the real thing.
On the pitching side of things, a number of factors can contribute to a shift in career trajectory. Sometimes, it could be as simple as a pitcher just figuring it out. Other times, it could be a complete retooling of a pitch arsenal or myriad mechanical adjustments. For these five pitchers, something has clicked in one way or another, as they represent not just the newest crop of young breakout pitchers but also the potential aces of the future.
Kyle Wright, Atlanta Braves
There is no shortage of Kyle Wright breakout content on the internet these days. The fifth overall draft pick in 2017 out of Vanderbilt University, Wright quickly ascended through the minors and was expected to be part of the next great Braves rotation alongside the likes of Max Fried and Ian Anderson. While the latter two have stuck at the major league level, Wright has been up and down since his debut in 2018, and he spent extended time in the minors as recently as last year, when he pitched 24 of his 26 starts in Triple-A.
But so far in 2022, Wright is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and the minors appear to be in his rearview mirror. Thanks to a few mechanical adjustments — including a lower release point, a jump in fastball velocity and an optimized pitch mix — Wright is missing bats at a better clip than he has at any point in his professional career. Coming into 2022, Wright’s career strikeout rate was a meager 18.2 percent. In his five starts this year, he has struck out over 30 percent of batters, a mark that ranks 12th among starters who have thrown at least 20 innings.
Jesús Luzardo, Miami Marlins
It shouldn’t be a secret that the Marlins look to be a team on the rise, and much of their early success has to do with their young, hard-throwing starting pitchers. Jesús Luzardo came to Miami on a rare one-for-one deal that sent outfielder Starling Marte to Oakland at the 2021 trade deadline. While he had a different path to the majors from Wright, Luzardo had similarly high expectations, ranking as high as No. 6 on FanGraphs’ top-100 prospects list (in 2020).
Unlike Wright, though, Luzardo showed the ability to miss major league bats as soon as he reached the big leagues, working in a relief role for the A’s in 2019. He followed that up with a good-but-not-great 2020 campaign, as he went back and forth from the rotation and the bullpen, and he struggled mightily in 2021, posting an ERA north of six. This year, he looks to have figured things out, and thanks to an increase in fastball velocity and usage of his devastating slider, Luzardo is making waves down on South Beach.
Logan Gilbert, Seattle Mariners
If Logan Gilbert’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he was one of our pitcher breakout picks on opening day. But it’s a little tough to call Gilbert’s season so far a “breakout” because he pitched far better during his rookie 2021 campaign than his 4.68 ERA suggested, meaning this year could just be his luck turning around. At the same time, his ERA of 1.36 — currently fifth in the league — signals a vast improvement from a year ago for the former first-round pick.
One of Gilbert’s calling cards is the amount of extension — or the horizontal distance from the pitching rubber to his hand at his release point — he gets on his pitches. This is especially important for a fastball, as it can appear even faster to a hitter (he already averages over 95 mph), but other pitches can also benefit. Less time in the air means less time for a hitter to react, adding a layer of deception to Gilbert’s already above-average skill set. Thanks to his stellar start to the season, Gilbert was named American League Pitcher of the Month for April.
Tylor Megill, New York Mets
Tylor Megill pitched the first five innings of the 2022 season’s first no-hitter — a combined effort against the Philadelphia Phillies on April 29. In that outing, his blazing fastball was on display, generating a called strikes plus whiffs rate (CSW%) of 38 percent. Thanks to his terrific performance thus far, the imposing 6-foot-7 pitcher has earned the nickname “Cylor Megill.” His performance could not come at a better time for the Mets, who have been without Jacob deGrom, their actual Cy Young Award winner.
It may have been surprising to see Megill take the ball for the Mets on opening day even with deGrom on the injured list, given that the team also wields seasoned veterans Max Scherzer, Chris Bassitt, Carlos Carrasco and Taijuan Walker in its rotation. Nonetheless, Megill has pitched like an opening-day starter, posting a 2.43 ERA to date. One major change that has led to major success for Megill has been his transition to pitching from the stretch full time, allowing him to repeat his delivery.
Nestor Cortes, New York Yankees
If there is one thing predictable about the Yankees’ soft-tossing southpaw, it’s that Nestor Cortes is unpredictable. For proof, here is a plot of his release points, which can vary from a traditional, over-the-top style delivery to a drop-down submariner. But it’s not just the different looks that Cortes gives that baffle hitters; he will also do everything in his power to throw off a hitter’s timing. Sometimes he will quick-pitch rather than use a normal leg lift in his motion, while other times he will take so long he’ll draw raucous laughs from his opponents.
Either way, “Nasty Nestor” is proving that antics are no gimmick. In a rotation that includes veteran standouts Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Luis Severino, it is Cortes who leads the bunch with a 1.82 ERA. Despite having the lowest fastball velocity of all the pitchers mentioned in this piece — he averages under 91 mph, while the others average over 95 — Cortes is second among his fellow breakouts in strikeout percentage, with a healthy 32 percent.
Of course, even with all that has been spelled out here, it’s reasonable to say that some of these breakouts are in fact smoke and mirrors, going back to the small sample size of the first month of the season. Over the course of the year, velocity can go down, bodies can wear, injuries can happen and metrics can overcorrect. But for these five pitchers, the improved skill sets they’ve shown aligns with their results so far.
There is always room for at least some regression; Gilbert’s ERA already more than doubled from his fifth start to his sixth, and Cortes probably won’t end this season as the best strikeout pitcher of this group. But regression doesn’t mean that we are any less likely to view these players as breakouts when we get to the end of the season. Rather, these hot starts make them easier to appreciate as the season goes on.
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