Not too long ago, Tom had the great idea for the bloggers to list their breakout candidate for 2018 in his Twins Weekly article. So I spent days...nay, hours...nay, minutes(!) scouring some of my favorite baseball resources looking for the dark horse breakout candidate that nobody would ever think of. Minutes (!!), looking for the dark horse breakout candidate that would take me from a blogger-in-training to a Schefter-esque insider. Minutes (!!!), looking for the dark horse breakout candidate that would leave readers wondering if I am some crazy baseball sorcerer or just plain crazy. After awhile I thought to myself: "What are you doing?? Just listen to your gut." So here is where I fell. My breakout candidate for 2018, the 2016 and 2017 TD MiLB Pitcher of the Year, is 23-year-old LHP Stephen Gonsalves. So much for a "dark horse", eh?
Gonsalves had a terrific 2017 where his most notable improvement was his command finishing almost a full walk less per nine innings than his career average (2017: 2.54 BB/9 v. 2013-2016: 3.47). Over 46 tracked fastballs (PITCHf/x has only tracked 71 total pitches), his average velocity sits at just 89.72 mph, which means control is going to be a key factor for him to have any success. Surprisingly, and despite his lack of velocity, he finished the 2017 MiLB season with a 9.65 K/9 pitching 87.1 innings at AA and 22.2 innings at AAA and a 10.78 K/9 in 74.1 innings during the 2016 season at AA. In that same timeframe he did struggle with his command posting a 4.48 BB/9, so we could say that 10+ K/9 was a result of being "wildly effective" a la Edwin Jackson. An improvement in command over a two-year period is another reason why I see him taking the next step this year.
Gonsalves batted ball data in minors suggests that he is a flyball pitcher, which isn't a huge deal as Target Field is a pitchers park and...well...you know...Buxton/Rosario/Kepler. But what impressed me even a little more is that hitters don't hit him well. At levels where he made 15+ starts his LD% are as follows: 17.2% (2015 High A), 13% (2016 High A), 18.1% (2016 AA), and 19.2% (2016 AA) which are all below the MLB average of 21%. Admittedly, I know this is a little bit of apples and oranges using a MLB average to analyze minor league numbers, but I do think it gives you a gauge of where he's at. Again, Target Field tends to treat fly ball pitchers well especially with our defense...another positive sign that this could be his year.
For me the make or break variable for Stephen Gonsalves will be the development of his slider and curveball. Below you will find a graphic from Brooks Baseball that uses a standardized score to rate Stephen's velocity and movement against other pitchers who fit similar criteria. Unfortunately, this is a very small sample as they only tracked 71 pitches over Gonsalves' 2016 Arizona Fall League appearances. To briefly explain this chart, a negative number means he is below average and a positive number means he is above average.
You might notice that his slider and curveball weren't great in this limited sample. There is no PITCHf/x data for him other than this and no other resource (fangraphs, baseball ref, etc.) keeps very great MiLB SABR stats. In a recent interview with Seth Stohs, Stephen said that he was able to work on his slider so much in 2017 that "it is almost as good as his change up". If this is true and if he can carry this into 2018, then Stephen already has three solid pitches in his arsenal. In that same interview, he said that he has been working with former big leaguer David Wells this season who was known for his curveball:
If Wells can help him develop his curveball into a reliable 4th pitch, then I think Stephen will be primed to make the next jump. As I said before, I think his slider and curveball are his biggest question marks coming into the season and will ultimately define if he spends most if his time in Minneapolis or Rochester this year.
So what does all this mean for 2018? I think Gonsalves is part of the Spring Training battle for a back end rotation spot but ultimately starts the year at AAA. He will perform well at AAA to the point where he will be the guy called on to fill in during DL stints or for a spot start here and there. Eventually, he makes his way to the MLB roster and doesn't look back. I think he provides a boost to the back end of the rotation that may not be RoY/Cy Young worthy, but that consistently gives you a chance to compete every 5th day.
What do you guys think? Who are some other breakout candidates? Anyone have a breakout candidate from a lower level in the Twins organization who may rise quickly in 2018?