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2023 Fantasy Baseball xwRC+ Breakout Hitters

On the hunt for breakout hitters? If so, you came to the right spot. The 2023 fantasy baseball draft season is in full swing at this point and finding breakout hitters is the best way to set your team apart. Drafting this year’s biggest stars late in drafts will instantly put you in contention for a championship. This article uses my very own tool xwRC+. If you are unsure what that I encourage you to check out this article from last season, but I will also provide a brief explanation below. In this article, I detail three players that xwRC+ believes will have a breakout season in 2023.

The season is not here yet, but why not get a head start and jump in a Fantrax Classic Draft contest? Get a jump on the season with a Best Ball league or maybe a Draft and Hold. Or put some green on the line with a new season-long league to try and conquer. There’s no better time than now to get your baseball on!

Explaining xwRC+

A couple of years ago I was in search of a good way to determine whether a player was lucky or unlucky during the season. I wanted to use this tool for fantasy baseball purposes to identify which players to target in drafts. I decided to focus on trying to predict a player’s expected wRC+.

After playing around with the data, I was able to identify six variables that correlated closely to a player’s wRC+:

The adjusted R-Squared measuring the correlation of these variables to wRC+ was about 59%. Using this model, I predicted strong 2022 seasons from Andrew Vaughn and Rowdy Tellez. However, it was wrong about Brandon Nimmo and Max Kepler. The model is not ever going to be perfect since it cannot account for player improvement but entering this off-season my goal was to make it better.

So once the season was over, it was time to get to work. After playing with some numbers, I developed an xOBP metric. This had a very strong correlation to wRC+ and helped insert a speed metric into the equation. I was having a conversation with Nick Pollack (@PitcherList), and he suggested instead of using the barrel rate provided by BaseballSavant, that I should use a player’s barrel rate per plate appearance. This made total sense and the inclusion of that variable boosted the adjusted R-Squared of the model to 63.1%.

The new model uses:

  • xOBP, barrel rate per PA, whiff percentage, sweet spot percentage, and 90th percentile exit velocity.

The goal of this model is not to be 100% correct, but to try to identify the big outliers. Which players significantly overperformed their true talent level and which players can we expect to see positive regression from? Keep reading for the three breakout hitters the model strongly believes will see improvements in 2023.

Three Breakout Hitters for 2023

Spencer Torkelson – 1B Detroit Tigers

2022 wRC+2022 xwRC+

This marks the second time this off-season that I have written about Spencer Torkelson. I previously identified Torkelson as a first baseman with the upside to finish top-five at the position. Turns out, in 2022 he had the biggest difference between his wRC+ and xwRC+. Over the course of his rookie season, Torkelson hit .203/.285/.319 and was one of the biggest disappointments. He posted a 69 wRC+ over the first part of the season before being demoted back to Triple-A. The model believes Torkelson was extremely unlucky though and should be back on fantasy manager’s radars in 2023.

Torkelson’s season should be broken down into two categories. Pre-demotion and post-demotion. After spending some time in Triple-A, Torkelson rejoined the Tigers for the final month of the season. During September, Torkelson posted a wRC+ of 95. He looked more comfortable at the plate and the results showed. Even though Torkelson was still a below-average hitter in terms of wRC+, you can see by his rolling xwOBA chart he was a much better player.

Torkelson breakout hitters

His return to the majors was right around the 300-plate appearance mark. To further elaborate on his improvements here are some of the differences in his quality of contact:

  • GB% 44.2% -> 30.1%
  • Pull% 41.1% -> 45.2%
  • Barrel% 6.8% -> 12.3%
  • EV 89.5 -> 93.1

Spencer Torkelson improved across the board upon his return. What makes his xwRC+ even more impressive is that this model is capturing his full season’s data. Even while Torkelson was struggling at the Major League level, xwRC+ believed him to be the unluckiest player in baseball. He has excellent plate discipline which helps keep his chase and whiff rates in check. Again though, the most encouraging parts were his second-half improvements. Below are his rolling hard-hit percentage and sweet spot percentage charts.

Torkelson Image

Torkelson Image

Most young players experience struggles and too often we fall into “Juan Soto syndrome”. We expect greatness from young players right from the start and write them off after early struggles. Patience is a virtue and progression is not always linear. Torkelson made all the improvements we want to see from a young player as the season went on. Since January 1, Torkelson has been going as 1B31 in drafts outside the top 300. He is a perfect late-round flier and somebody that xwRC+ believes will be one of MLB’s top breakout hitters for the coming season..

Ryan McMahon – 3B Colorado Rockies

2022 wRC+2022 xwRC+

I can’t quit Ryan McMahon. McMahon headlined the list of “my guys” before the 2022 season and was a major disappointment. On the season he hit .246 with his lowest slugging percentage since 2018 (.414). Overall, he posted a 95 wRC+ which is right around his career average of 89. Despite this, the xwRC+ model still believes in McMahon and thinks he is poised for a breakout season in 2023. His xwRC+ of 116 is over 21 points higher than his actual rate from 2022 and I will be buying in again in 2023.

When you look at Ryan McMahon’s surface numbers, they do not indicate a player that was unlucky. He posted a .311 BABIP and a 16.5 HR/FB%. Both numbers were above the league average, so should McMahon really see a 21-point increase in his wRC+? The answer requires us to dig a little bit deeper. Coors Field is known for being one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in baseball. Since 2018, there have been eight different Rockies to post a line drive percentage above 22% with an average exit velocity of 88 mph or greater. The average BABIP for those hitters is .328 which is 17 points higher than McMahon’s BABIP. McMahon’s swing is designed to produce line drives and play to the advantage of Coors Field. His sweet spot percentage is well above league average which is one of the reasons xwRC+ loves him so much.

One of the other reasons why xwRC+ is so fond of McMahon is the excellent exit velocities he posts. McMahon ranked in the 90th percentile for average exit velocity and the 92nd percentile for max exit velocity. 90th percentile exit velocity is also included in the formula and McMahon ranked 65th out of 464 hitters in 2022. McMahon hits the ball hard incredibly hard for somebody who posted a .414 slugging percentage in 2022. xwRC+ does not believe he will see a repeat of this in 2023. From 2019-2021, McMahon averaged an HR/FB% of 20.7%. In 2022, he hit the ball harder and pulled more of his fly balls yet experienced a drop in his HR/FB%. We should expect more power from McMahon in 2023.

The issue with McMahon is easy to identify, and in theory, should be easy to fix. McMahon swung at far fewer pitches in the zone in 2022. He saw increases in his pull percentage, hard hit percentage, and contact percentage in 2022, but swung at fewer pitches in the zone. If McMahon goes back to swinging at as many pitches in the zone as he did in 2022, the breakout xwRC+ is calling is bound to happen.

Since January 1, McMahon is going as 3B17 in fantasy drafts. I recently ranked him as my 3B12 and believe in the breakout xwRC+ predicts.

Matt Vierling – OF Detroit Tigers

2022 wRC+2022 xwRC+

As it turns out, two Tigers players made this list of breakouts for the 2023 season. Matt Vierling came to Detroit as part of the Gregory Soto trade. Unless you watched the Phillies (like myself) you probably did not pay much attention to him. He slashed .246/.297/.351 with an 81 wRC+. Despite his mediocre stat line, he had the eighth-biggest difference between his wRC+ and xwRC+. Then you can look at his Baseball Savant page and it becomes clear why he needs to be on fantasy radars entering 2023.

Vierling Image

Is that really Matt Vierling? Yes, yes it is. Vierling had an average exit velocity of 91.2 mph while also posting solid max and 90th percentile exit velocity numbers. He ranked 99th in terms of 90th percentile exit velocity right around Corey Seager and Josh Naylor. Thinking about Vierling, “power hitter” does not come to mind. He has only ever hit eight Major League home runs in a season, but a lot of that had to do with launch angle and swing path. In 2022, Vierling doubled his average launch angle and hit fly balls at a much higher rate. This increase in launch angle helped improve his sweet spot percentage giving another reason for xwRC+ to like him. He does not pull the ball enough to ever be a 25-home run threat, but he should see his HR/FB% increase beyond the 6.4% rate posted in 2022.

The other part of Vierling’s game that the model loves is his plate discipline. Vierling rarely whiffs on a pitch. His 19.5 whiff rate from last year ranked in the 80th percentile. Vierling is especially skilled at making contact in the zone. The one fault of Vierling is that he does not swing at pitches in the zone enough. Hopefully, Detroit’s coaches will be able to get him to increase his 59.9% zone swing rate.

An added fantasy bonus to Vierling which xwRC+ does not account for is his speed. Vierling has 97th-percentile sprint speed and should be able to add plenty of steals late in drafts. I expect Vierling to receive everyday playing time with the Tigers. xwRC+ believes he will be a big contributor and could be a steal late in drafts. He is currently going as OF124 which is way too late. Guys like Gavin Sheets, Akil Baddoo, and Jack Suwinski should definitely not be going in front of Vierling. Scoop him up in drafts now and expect him to be one of baseball’s better breakout hitters in 2023.

Are you buying in on Matt’s breakout hitters for 2023? For more great analysis check out the 2023 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit!

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  1. BabboB says

    Interesting stuff, thanks – maybe I missed it, but is xwRC+ adjusted for park factor, like actual wRC+? McMahon’s wRC+ takes a big downgrade from playing in Coors, just wondering whether that 116-to-95 comparison is actually apples to apples. (For some park-adjusted perspective, that 95 was third-best on the Rockies last season, behind Bryant at 125 and Cron at 101.)

    1. Matt Heckman says

      So right now there is no specific park adjusted factor, but overall the stats selected have a strong correlation to the actual wRC+ metric which is why they were selected. There are players on Colorado that the model thinks over performed (Yonathan Daza) which helps give me confidence all Colorado players will not always have a higher xwRC+. In terms of his 2022 stats, there have been 7 similar seasons since 2015 with an average wRC+ of 101. I think the 95 being third best last year speaks more to how bad Colorado was than the park adjustment. I like the idea of adding a park factor in though! Maybe that will be the next improvement I make

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