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Who will be the Giants’ breakout pitcher in 2023?

Will it be a new arm or a familiar ace?

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2022 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Yesterday, we looked at possible breakout hitting candidates for the 2023 San Francisco Giants and so today, let’s examine the pitching side to see who just might pop.

I think it’s safe to say that Logan Webb has emerged as an ace, even if took the bold stance of saying, “No, Alex Cobb will be the Giants’ best pitcher — and player! — in 2023.” What do I mean?


Giants: Alex Cobb (3.1 WAR)

The veteran right-hander had a career resurgence in his first season in San Francisco, gaining mid-90s velocity and racking up strikeouts with his split-change. Steamer projects his success to continue in 2023 as the Giants’ top player (11 wins, 3.47 ERA, 161 strikeouts), neck-and-neck with rotation-mate Logan Webb.

The numbers for the article are based on FanGraphs’ Steamer projections. ZiPS has Webb leading all Giants with 3.7 wins above replacement; Cobb still at 3.1. In any case, Webb and Cobb are — on paper — the two best Giants heading into 2023. So, no breakout cases to be made for either of them.

It’s no surprise that the Giants’ pitching will be a strength. That’s been the case the past two seasons, with a combined (starters + relievers) fWAR of 22 in 2021 and 20 in 2022. Yes, that’s right, the bullpen should also be a strength this season, which wasn’t quite the case last season. But I feel it’s worth pointing out that the bullpen was worse last year (2.8 fWAR) versus 2021 (5.4 fWAR) because the starting rotation threw fewer innings. For comparison:

2021: Starter IP = 831.1 (3rd in NL, 4th in MLB) | Reliever IP = 623.2 (2nd in NL, 6th in MLB)
2022: Starter IP = 783 (13th in NL, 26th in MLB) | Reliever IP = 650 (2nd in NL, 5th in MLB)

So, exposure’s a thing. The Giants addressed this by adding Ross Stripling and Sean Manaea to go with planning for a healthier season from Anthony DeSclafani and at least a a stretch of effectiveness from their top prospect, Kyle Harrison. Bundle those four with Alex Cobb and Jakob Junis and that’s a group that projects to provide more starter innings. The same people who might scoff at this probably dislike bullpen games, so consider this: the Giants are likely to have fewer bullpen games in 2023.

But who do you think will be 2023’s version of 2021 Anthony DeSclafani? Who might ascend into the vaunted 1.5+ wins above replacement for a reliever? For reference, that group last season went 26 deep:

I’m keeping this simple: just predict one breakout. A starter or a reliever. If you want to predict two or more, then by all means get freaky with it.

Math candidates

We probably all want to just say it’s going to be Kyle Harrison, right? The Giants’ top prospect — who recently received a glowing review (subscription required) from prospect curmudgeon Keith Law — has been a part of their 2023 plan since maybe the second half of last season. He’s the reason why the Giants had no reservations about letting Carlos Rodon walk or even thinking about pursuing any other big-name pitchers. He has the potential to be that guy.

ZiPS even likes him enough to project 1.6 wins above replacement for him, with an 80th percentile projection of 2.6. That’s if all things go well, which we shouldn’t expect because he’ll be a rookie and there’s always an adjustment period. Sometimes there aren’t, though. Would a truly terrific season equal a breakout season, though? It depends on your definition of breakout. Harrison has the hype and he has the skill. It’s setup to happen, to be sure.

From the reliever side, Dan Szymborski has already said his piece on R.J. Dabovich:

R.J. Dabovich is a ZiPS Special here, a pitcher with velocity approaching 100 mph but some control issues. I have plate discipline stats derived from minor league play-by-play, and ZiPS actually think that Dabovich’s walk rate in Triple-A was much higher than he deserved. His skill set coupled with the fact that his other pitch is a curveball makes me think of another reliever at a similar point in his career: James Karinchak. Sadly, Karinchak didn’t make the very top of Dabovich’s comp list (he was no. 12).

ZiPS threw a 0.6 fWAR projection on him. Cole Waites received a 0.4. There’s so much variability with relievers that your best guess is as good as a projection, perhaps. And factor in that I’ve probably set the bar too high for a “breakout.” Camilo Doval broke out last year and registered 1.2 fWAR — which is fantastic for a reliever. We might not see him hit 104 mph this year because of the pitch clock, and that could have a chilling effect in terms of his breakout potential, but I’d say a jump from 1.2 into that 1.5-2-win range for relievers would probably fall under the umbrella of “breakout.” If 2022 was the surprise, then 2023 would be the breakout that establishes him.

And if you want to say Taylor Rogers, consider that he’s already had three seasons with at least 1.5 wins above replacement to his record. The top five relievers in baseball last year (by fWAR) were all right-handed. It seems almost safer to stick with Doval jumping up another level. Though, since this is the math section, I must point out that Rogers’ and Doval’s 80th percentile ZiPS projections have them with 1.8 and 1.6 wins, respectively.

Gut candidates

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if Ross Stripling and Alex Cobb had some overlap, but Stripling’s stuff makes him closer to Jakob Junis than the Giants’ 1st or 2nd best on paper best overall player. The ZiPS projection, though, tags him with a #1 player comparison of Don Robinson, who last pitched for the Giants in 1992. The #3 comp on the list is Merrill Kelly, who has been a solid pitcher for the Diamondbacks the past few seasons. But I’m thinking about how last year was basically the most and best baseball Ross Stripling had in his pro career and feel that if he matches that it will be impressive, but not a breakout, and matching it would seem to me to be the best he could do.

At least according to ZiPS, his 80th percentile projection is about 2.8 fWAR (3.1 in 2022). In any case, he’s going to be a really nice player for the Giants to have, and I am not thinking “equaling last season” equals “a breakout 2023.” If I stick around that third-order player comparison, though, a pair of linked names did jump out at me:

Sean Manaea’s #3 comparison is José Quintana. He’s not only a great trivia answer for the 2021 Giants — do you remember that he pitched 9.2 innings for them? — but a guy whose career jumped up a level the moment he left them. In 2022, he had a 2.99 FIP in 165.2 IP with the Pirates and Cardinals. Just 0.4 home runs per 9 innings (5.3% HR/FB). A 4-win player on a 1-year, $2 million deal. Now, that wasn’t a breakout season for Quintana (he had four straight 4+-WAR seasons from 2014-2017), but as a comp for a current Giant, that would be a breakout for Manaea.

The 80th percentile ZiPS projection for Manaea doesn’t see it happening, though, with just a 2.1 fWAR. In comparing their Statcast numbers, though, I do see that they have similar fastball and changeup spin and whiff rates and even the same fastball velocities (Quintana’s is a 4-seamer while Manaea’s is a sinker). Their biggest difference is that Quintana throws a curveball while Manaea throws a slider. Manaea has thrown a curveball before, though.

I’m squinting and seeing the Giants messing around with Manaea a bit here, maybe getting him to throw that curveball some more or throw his slider differently. That tweak plus better sequencing with his fastball and changeup (the changeup, in particular, got crushed in 2022) could be a recipe for a true breakout. Quintana’s career 8.0 K/9 is right there with Manaea’s career 8.1, but Quintana seems to have reinvented himself by deemphasizing the strikeout — his K/9 last year was just 7.4, and it was tougher for batters to get the ball in the air as evidenced by that 5.3% HR/FB.

So I’m bastardizing math for the purposes of a gut prediction. Manaea is the oddest signing of the offseason. He makes some degree of sense, sure, but there’s nothing that totally jumps out at you about him. The Giants don’t seem like they sign players just to let those players do their thing. It might be exhausting for some players, but based on everything I’ve read and heard about the team these days, they always have some tweak or note to give a player to improve or optimize performance. Manaea, then, isn’t just a Kirk Rueter they’re tossing at the back of the rotation to get them 180+ innings. There’s more to it than that.

Anyway, who do you predict will be the Giants’ breakout arm this year?