A year ago Kyle Boddy took over Reddit, or at least the Reds forum on Reddit, to answer some questions about his new gig and the Cincinnati Reds in general. One of the questions he was asked was about a potential underrated or breakout candidate for the 2020 season. His answer was Tejay Antone. To put that prediction in baseball terms: Kyle Boddy hit a ball into the Ohio River. Antone, who had a good, but not insane year in 2019 between Double-A Chattanooga with the Lookouts and Triple-A Louisville with the Bats wasn’t exactly the guy most would have expected to go out in 2020 and pitch lights out. But, that’s what he did, posting a 2.80 ERA in 35.1 innings with 45 strikeouts and a 1.02 WHIP.
This week, it was that time of year again and Boddy, now with a new gig in the organization (though still on the pitching side of things), headed back to Reddit’s Reds forum and answered questions from readers for a few hours. Once again he was asked about a potential breakout player for the upcoming season. The pick this time around was right-handed pitcher José De León.
There are some similarities between Tejay Antone and José De León when it comes to why they could break out. What was it that led to Antone’s break out? There were certainly a lot of factors that went into it, but it started with what happened in the second half of 2019 when his slider took a big step forward. It went from a good pitch to a plus pitch. The next thing was what happened in the offseason between 2019 and 2020, and that’s when Antone saw his velocity go from the 89-92 MPH range while touching higher at times to sitting 94-96 as a starter and touching 99. Velocity isn’t everything, but it helps mask plenty of things and improves secondary offerings. Of course, Antone was also throwing that hard with plenty of movement, too.
For José De León, he’s always had that secondary offering that’s a plus pitch. His change up has long been a plus offering that he’s leaned on to get hitters to swing and miss. Where he’s taken a step backwards since injuring himself and needing Tommy John surgery is that his fastball velocity didn’t return immediately. When he first came back he was 89-92 and would touch 95 on a rare occasion. In today’s game, that’s below-average velocity.
But this year, and we saw it in spring training for a brief period of time when he was on the mound, that he was now sitting at 95. He didn’t see much action this year in the Major Leagues with the Reds, and the results certainly weren’t great – he was either good in his outing, or he was very, very bad in his outing when he was on the mound in limited action during the regular season – but when he was on the mound he was again showing a mid-90’s fastball that averaged 95.3 MPH and topped out at 98.
Both guys were coming back from Tommy John surgery, but had pitched the year before. Both guys were in possession of a plus secondary offering and both guys found velocity that pushed them into the mid-90’s and touching the upper 90’s.
With that said, there are still some differences between the two guys. Antone was a bit younger when he had his breakout. He was 26-years-old last season. José De León will be 28 for most of next year (he’ll turn 29 in August of 2021). Antone hasn’t ever really struggled to throw strikes in his career. For De León, that hadn’t been a problem before he underwent Tommy John surgery. But in 2019 he walked 33 batters in 60.0 innings between his time in the minors and majors. This season we didn’t have a minor league season to look at, but he walked 11 batters in 6.0 innings for the Reds, and he’s walked 10 batters in 17.0 innings in the Puerto Rican Winter League (he also has hit 3 batters, but has allowed just 8 hits and struck out 31). The sample size post surgery is small, and it’s really small in 2020 – but it’s fair to say he’s been struggling with control since returning.
It’s the control that seems like it could be the difference maker for a guy like José De León. If he’s able to throw strikes often enough, that fastball and change up combination should play, and play well. But if he’s not capable of throwing the ball in and near the zone enough, big leaguers can and will lay off of those pitches and it’s going to let them eliminate their swing zone and that’s not a good thing for pitchers. For De León to have an Antone-like breakout, the control and strike throwing ability will have to return to where it was pre-injury. The other pieces seem to be there for a breakout to occur, particularly if it’s going to be in more of an Antone-like role of a spot starter/long reliever who can face 6-9 hitters at a time.