Fantasy Baseball Breakouts: The 2021 All-Breakout Team
Much like avoiding busts, picking the appropriate breakouts can win you your Fantasy Baseball leagues. If you drafted Corbin Burnes, Framber Valdez, Dom Smith, and Randy Arozarena last season, you likely finished very well. Finding those types of players can pay big dividends. Today, we will dive in on Fantasy Baseball breakouts for 2021 to find those players who can have a major impact on your team.
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Fantasy Baseball Breakouts: The All-Breakout Team
Catcher: Will Smith, Los Angeles Dodgers
NFBC ADP (Since 1/1/21): 105
The Will Smith breakout has seemingly already happened. In 333 career Major League plate appearances, Smith has smashed 23 home runs and slashed .268/.363/.574. So while this may seem crazy to call him a breakout, this could be the season where Smith cements himself as a catcher worth paying up for, much like J.T Realmuto.
Eric Cross outlined why Will Smith can be the future top player at the position for Fantasy Baseball. In 2020, Smith steadily improved his performance, despite playing in only 37 games. He showed improved discipline at the plate by being more patient. In return, he struck out less, walked more, and showed improved contact rates. Sure, it was a small sample, but this looks like the Will Smith we saw in the Minors.
Smith also has significant power. He gets natural loft in his swing and posts high exit velocities. In 2020, Smith had an average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, xSLG, and barrel rate, all above the 80th percentile. His xBA (89th percentile) and xwOBA (95th percentile) were also very impressive. He also hit the ball harder as the season progressed. With enough plate appearances, Smith could hit 30 home runs in a season.
Usually, I wouldn’t say I like drafting catchers at their price tag. But Smith is one of the catchers worth paying up for. Some may be nervous about the playing time situation and knowing the Dodgers like using Austin Barnes. The team did a similar thing with Yasmani Grandal before his bat fully worked his way into the lineup, and he played 126, 129, and 140 games for the Dodgers between 2016 and 2018. Smith likely won’t play 125 or more games, but he should be able to get 450 plate appearances, which will certainly give him a great chance to return value at his draft slot.
First Base: Nate Lowe, Texas Rangers
NFBC ADP (Since 1/1/21): 312.4
The Fantasy Baseball community chanted “FREE NATE LOWE” for years before finally finding freedom via trade to the Texas Rangers. You may look at Lowe’s career slash of .251/.322/.447 in 245 plate appearances and come away uninspired. But it is important to remember that Lowe has never seen consistent playing time in the Majors. He would get an at-bat here or there, but he looked much improved when he did see consistent playing time. In a small sample where he played every day between September 11 and September 21, Lowe slashed .333/.429/.694 with four home runs.
From a power standpoint, Lowe’s home run power is finally coming around. He struggled for his first several years of professional ball, hitting the ball on the ground too often. But, each of the last five years, we have seen Lowe steadily improve his line drive plus fly ball rate. Also, Lowe generates easy hard contact and posted a near 12 percent barrel rate and a 44.8 percent hard-hit rate in 2019 and 2020 combined. In the small sample of 2020, Lowe saw his barrel rate jump to 15.4 percent.
There are some concerns with Lowe’s playing time with Ronald Guzman set to compete with him in spring training. Guzman had a solid performance in the Dominican Winter League. I am just not overly concerned with Guzman pushing for playing time or a platoon, especially given that both are left-handed hitters. Lowe feels like a safe bet to get at least 500 plate appearances and get the everyday first base job in Texas. Nate Lowe is finally FREE and joins the Fantasy Baseball breakout team in 2021.
Second Base: Keston Hiura, Milwaukee Brewers
NFBC ADP (Since 1/1/21): 72.2
Enough with the Keston Hiura slander! I won’t stand for it. Yes, Hiura’s contact skills were not great last season. Okay, they were horrible. Hiura’s contact and zone-contact rates were the worst among all hitters. That is certainly concerning. Given the major swing and miss concerns, what is there to like in his profile? The team even signed Kolten Wong to come in and take Hiura’s spot at second base!
Well, what if I told you this was a good move for Hiura to move off the position and move to first base? Last season Hiura struggled with arm fatigue that got worse when he threw the ball. Obviously, playing second base does not require you to throw the ball very far, but moving to first base does help. But what about his bat? Is it possible that arm bothered him more than we realize and affected his ability to hit?
How excited should #MLB fans be for Keston Hiura? Out of 477 hitters on team Top 30 Prospects lists, the #Brewers’ 2017 first-round #MLBDraft pick is one of only 2 with a hit tool of 70+ and power tool of 60+: https://t.co/SXAhTtvGDg pic.twitter.com/s4h0KkdtlK
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) May 14, 2019
Let’s rewind the tape a few years. Keston Hiura was one of the most decorated college hitters in recent memory. He was labeled as the best pure hitter in the 2017 draft class when the Brewers selected him ninth overall. During 165 career games at UC Irvine, he slashed .375/.466/.581 with 22 home runs. He began to grow into more power and continued to hit for average in his Minor League career. His career MILB slash line in 965 plate appearances was .317/.382/.546. His strikeout rate during his collegiate and Minor League career was 16 and 21 percent, respectively. We have seen that number spike to 32.3 percent during his 594 career Major League plate appearances. Hiura is a better hitter than this. His career numbers speak for themselves. Sure there are reasons for concern. But there are plenty of reasons Hiura could have struggled in a weird 2020 season.
I am all in on a full Keston Hiura breakout in 2021. The skillset is there for him to be a 30 home run/ten stolen base player. He has also shown the ability to hit for average in the past. Now, give him dual eligibility at second and first base. Sign me for drafting Keston Hiura in 2021.
Third Base: Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pittsburgh Pirates
NFBC ADP (Since 1/1/21): 141.1
Is Ke’Bryan Hayes still considered a sleeper? It may be a stretch. But based on his Fantrax ADP of 171.9, it seems like many are not buying in. Some had soured on Hayes as a prospect, but he proved the doubters wrong in his small cup of coffee in Pittsburgh in 2020.
Hayes came up and slashed .376/.442/.682 with five home runs and a stolen base. He was well documented for his hit tool and speed in the minors, but the questions came about his power. Each year, Hayes seemed to add power, but the five home runs in just 24 games surprised many.
He hit the ball extremely hard, with an average exit velocity of 92.8 mph. His hard-hit rate of 55.4 percent was also very impressive. Sure, it was a small sample, but Hayes showed the ability to hit the ball very hard. If these trends continue, Hayes has a chance to be an elite player. Why?
The contact rates that Hayes posts are elite. While it was a small sample, his zone contact rate last season was 96.1 percent. If Hayes had qualified, he would have ranked first just a tenth of a percentage point ahead of David Fletcher. Hayes’s overall contact rate of 83.6 percent would have ranked just 20th. Nonetheless, Hayes can hand his hat on the fact that he posts elite zone contact rates.
Suppose Hayes can continue to hit the ball hard with elite contact rates. His stock will soar. The question remains, how legit is his power? 20 home runs annually would not surprise me. Tack on a solid hit tool and great speed, and you have the makings of a great asset for Fantasy Baseball. Hayes could be in for a huge breakout in 2021, landing him on the all-Fantasy Baseball breakout team.
Shortstop: Dansby Swanson, Atlanta Braves
NFBC ADP (Since 1/1/21): 100
The Dansby Swanson breakout has already begun, but 2021 could be the year where Swanson finally puts it all together over a full season. In 2019 his breakout was in full swing until a quad injury derailed his season on July 4, 2019, and then a heel injury kept him out for over a month. From the beginning of 2019 until July 4, Swanson hit 17 home runs and stole seven bases to go with a .274/.334/.500 slash line. He was on a 162 game pace of 31 home runs and 18 stolen bases.
Swanson got healthy in 2020 and posted another excellent season of a .274/.345/.464 slash line. He additionally hit ten home runs, stole five bases, scored 49 runs, and drove in 35. This is a crazy practice, but looking at Swanson’s 2019 season before the injury and calculating in his 2020 numbers, Swanson hit 27 home runs and stole 12 bases in 639 plate appearances. I do not think it would be crazy to see these kinds of numbers over a full 2021 season from Swanson.
Sure, you could make the argument that Swanson has already broken out. He was the seventh-best shortstop in 2020, according to Razzball’s player rater. His current ADP of 100.1 does not really reflect what Swanson is capable of. If you miss out on a shortstop early, Swanson is a terrific target who could be in for a real breakout season in 2021, therefore landing himself on the all-Fantasy Baseball breakout team.
Outfield: Nick Castellanos, Cincinnati Reds
NFBC ADP (Since 1/1/21): 86.3
Nick Castellanos came into the 2020 season with high hopes from Fantasy Baseball owners and Reds fans. After a 2019 season where he led the league in doubles, he was sure to benefit from moving his home ballpark to Great American Ballpark. After all, when he was traded to the Chicago Cubs at the 2019 trade deadline, few players had a stronger August and September. During his 51 games in Chicago, Castellanos batted .321 with 16 home runs, 43 runs scored, and 36 RBI.
Upon signing with Cincinnati, I noticed his 2019 spray chart overlayed in Great American Ballpark. You can see that above. I was confident that Castellanos was going to have an amazing season with the Reds. Castellanos began the season scorching hot start on a 12 game hitting streak. During those 12 games, he slashed .366/.447/.878 with six home runs. He finished with a line of .225/.298/.486 with 14 home runs, 37 runs, and 34 RBI.
It was discouraging to see how Castellanos faltered as the season progressed, but the underlying data is encouraging. His barrel rate, average exit velocity, EV on line drives and fly balls, and hard-hit rate all significantly increased in 2020. He was also more patient at the plate, maybe even patient to a fault, leading to a spike in his strikeout rate. This was a problem with many hitters in 2020. Castellanos ADP has fallen to 86.3 and has created a great buying opportunity for an outfielder that could be in for a huge breakout in 2021. He could hit 30 plus home runs and post a batting average north of .275.
I have said it before, and I feel comfortable saying it again, Nick Castellanos can have a similar breakout to Marcell Ozuna in 2021. With the potential impact, he lands on the all-Fantasy Baseball breakout team.
Starting Pitcher: John Means, Baltimore Orioles
NFBC ADP (Since 1/1/21): 208
2020 was supposed to be the breakout season for John Means. Unfortunately, after beginning the season on the IL with dead arm, Means’ father passed away. His first start of 2020 was rough, but he seemed to get on track in his second outing before being placed on the bereavement list. Upon returning, Means had to be placed on the COVID IL for intake testing. The season clearly did not get off to a great start.
Once Means got going in September, he did not look back. Over his final four starts in September, Means pitched 23.2 innings, reaching six innings in three of those starts. The other he pitched 5.2 innings. Over those final four starts, Means pitched to a 1.52 ERA and struck out 30 hitters. His command was also much improved as he walked just three batters over those 23.2 innings.
Means velocity has increased each season since 2018, so it will be interesting to see if the trend continues in 2021. Projections may not love Means, but there is plenty of potential for a breakout season in 2021, and I am buying all day at his price.
Fantasy Baseball Breakouts: Conclusion
Well, if you have made it this far, I applaud you. Finding breakouts in Fantasy Baseball can be a huge part of your success. But like I mentioned in my article last week, it is also important to avoid those landmines (busts). Each of these players are ones that have a strong chance at breaking out and providing a nice return on your investment. I hope this list will be helpful to you and you will have great success this season in Fantasy Baseball.
For more great rankings, strategy, and analysis check out the 2021 FantraxHQ Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit. We’ll be adding more content from now right up until Opening Day!
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