In January, I wrote a three-part series on finding the next Freddy Peralta. We used some arbitrary thresholds to identify breakout pitcher candidates, and we’ll perform a similar exercise in finding the next Austin Riley. More often than not, it’s a small pool of players, but we’ll do our best to identify potential breakout hitter candidates like Austin Riley in 2021. Some may have better odds than others, so we’ll note reasons for concern and optimism.
Austin Riley Threshold
From 2019 to 2020, Austin Riley compiled 26 home runs, 65 runs, and 76 RBI with a .232 batting average in 503 plate appearances. We knew Riley provided the power, evidenced by the 11.4% barrel rate and a 111.7 mph maximum exit velocity that typically sat in the top 20% of the league. However, the batting average and on-base skills stunk with a .288 OBP, 31.2% strikeout rate, and 6.4% walk rate.
That aligned with the prospect profile indicating a below-average hit tool with a concerning 77.7% Z-Contact% and 66.9% Contact% combined in 2019 and 2020. Then in 2021, Austin Riley crushed 33 home runs with 91 runs and 107 RBI in 662 plate appearances. Even Riley’s .303 batting average based on the .368 BABIP boosted the value as No. 28 overall hitter according to the Razzball Player Rater between Julio Urias and Zack Wheeler. The BABIP jumped almost 100 points, but the line drive rate remained healthy at 25.1% in 2021 compared to a career rate of 24.8%.
Even Riley’s contact quality improved, evidenced by the 13.3% barrel rate (83rd-percentile) and 114.2 mph maximum exit velocity (92nd-percentile). Not only that, but the plate discipline improved with a 34.6% O-Swing%, 82% Z-Contact%, and 73.9% Contact% in 2021. Although Riley’s BABIP could regress, we admire the healthy line drive rate and contact quality.
Summarizing The Austin Riley Thresholds And ADP
- Hitters with an improved plate discipline in recent seasons, particularly O-Swing%, Z-Contact%, and Contact%
- Players with above-average contact quality (barrel rate, maximum exit velocity, EV on FB/LD)
- Hitters with the potential for improved batting average and on-base skills
- A hitter outside of the top-150 picks
When we examined potential breakout pitcher candidates, not all met every threshold. That said, the breakout hitter candidates likely won’t fit into all categories like Austin Riley. In 2021, Austin Riley had a 211 ADP with a minimum pick of 102 and 394 maximum. However, in the early 2022 Draft Champions leagues, Riley’s ADP sits around pick 62 over the past few weeks.
Granted, part of Riley’s impact involved health and the ability to compile 662 plate appearances with two games missed in the regular season. Let’s dive into part one of the series to find breakout hitter candidates as the next Austin Riley.
Finding The Next Austin Riley – Breakout Hitter Candidates Part 1
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (OF – TOR)
We’re cheating a bit here since Lourdes Gurriel Jr. sits right inside the top-150 picks. Gurriel just came off his best season from a production and plate appearance standpoint with 21 home runs, 62 runs, 84 RBIs, and one stolen base with a .276 batting average. In past seasons, Gurriel never topped 343 plate appearances but nearly bested the counting stats with 20 home runs, 52 runs, 50 RBI, and six steals in 2019. Meanwhile, Gurriel reached career bests in games (141) and plate appearances (541), almost more than 2019 and 2020 combined.
Throughout the 2021 season, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. typically batted towards the bottom third of the lineup. Gurriel only batted fifth nine times (6.4%) in 2021. From 2018 to 2020, Gurriel batted fourth or higher in 114 of 206 games (55.3%). With the ascent of Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Teoscar Hernández, it makes sense to see Gurriel fall down the lineup. It’s not a huge deal, but something to monitor since we prefer hitters with regular playing time atop lineups.
Gurriel’s Underlying Metrics
We notice that Lourdes Gurriel’s strikeout rate dropped to 18.9% compared to a career rate of 21.5%. Gurriel’s .305 BABIP could likely improve with a career BABIP of .320, but the 20.8% LD% with a 45.2% GB% raises some concern.
The strikeout rate dropped due to the increased contact rates for Gurriel with an aggressive approach. From 2018 to 2020, Gurriel’s O-Swing% sat at 38.1% with an 82.8% Z-Contact% and 73.5% Contact%. Then in 2021, Gurriel boasted a 37.3% O-Swing%, 86.5% Z-Contact%, and 77.6% Contact%.
For context, the league-average O-Swing% sat around 31%, but Gurriel rocked contact rates slightly above the league averages. Thankfully, the contact quality remained near-identical, with a barrel rate above 9%. However, the .350 wOBA and 120 wRC+ from 2018 to 2020 dropped to a .333 wOBA and 107 wRC+ in 2021.
Throughout Lourdes Gurriel’s career, he boasts a 10% barrel rate. In Gurriel’s two most productive seasons (2019 and 2021), he ranked inside the top-50 in exit velocity on FB/LD with 95.6 mph (No. 41) in 2019 and 94.3 mph (No. 48) in 2021. Gurriel displays the raw power with a semi-pull heavy approach with a career 40.9% pull rate and 35.8% FB%. Although Gurriel’s contact quality and exit velocity remained above average, it’s still behind Austin Riley’s 12.7% barrel rate.
Gurriel’s 2022 Outlook
The projection systems expect a similar season to 2021, with THE BAT X projecting 19 home runs, 67 runs, 67 RBI, and four stolen bases with a .262 batting average in 544 plate appearances. Lourdes Gurriel won’t tank the batting average, but it’s within the range of outcomes for Gurriel to push 25 plus home runs with more plate appearances.
As noted earlier, Lourdes Gurriel sits inside the top-150 picks in early Draft Champions leagues. However, Gurriel meets a couple of the other Austin Riley thresholds with the improved plate discipline, particularly contact rates, plus the contact quality in the barrel rate. Remember that before 2021, Austin Riley didn’t touch 600 plate appearances. However, the STEAMER 600 projection gives us a glimpse into Gurriel’s peak potential with 26 home runs, 75 runs, 84 RBI, five stolen bases, and a .269 batting average. Target Gurriel as a third or fourth outfielder with potentially more counting stats in an above-average offense.
Avisaíl García (OF – MIA)
Throughout Avisaíl García’s career, he produced power and speed. In 2021, García hit a career-best 29 home runs and 86 RBI with 68 runs and eight stolen bases. The 26.1% HR/FB% likely dips with a career rate of 17.3%. However, the raw power exists, evidenced by the 12.2% barrel rate (80th-percentile) and 116.7 mph maximum exit velocity (98th-percentile) in 2021. If you want a deeper dive into García, check out my past fantasy baseball article.
Contact Quality And Plate Discipline
Although Avisaíl García’s career 9% barrel rate remains lower than Austin Riley’s 12.7%, García possesses an elite maximum exit velocity in the top 2% of the league in six out of the seven seasons, not including 2020. So García checks the box with the contact quality.
García uses an aggressive approach with a career of 41.6% O-Swing%, yet below-average contact rates, evidenced by the career 81.2% Z-Contact% and 69.6% Contact%. In 2021, García’s 41.8% O-Swing% aligned, but the 77.7% Z-Contact% and 68.1% Contact% dropped lower than the career averages. Austin Riley’s contact rates look slightly better, but he significantly lowered the chase rate. Regardless, we know García’s skills play with the loud contact quality, even with the sketchy plate discipline. García stands out as a power and speed hitter, with Riley as a four-category hitter lacking any stolen bases.
García’s 2022 Outlook
Avisail García moving from the Brewers to the Marlins means a home park downgrade. The Brewers ranked 8th with a league-average 1.00 wOBA Park Factor, and the Marlines home park ranked 26th with 0.96. With home run park factors, Milwaukee ranked 11th (1.06) compared to 23rd for Miami at 0.87, according to EV Analytics. Although it’s a park factor downgrade, García should garner everyday playing time with the Marlins. And the projection systems reflect that.
Roster Resource projects Avisail García to bat third, and the Marlins don’t have much competition to take away playing time in the outfield. THE BAT X projections have García for 23 home runs, 72 runs, 71 RBI, and ten stolen bases with a .269 batting average. If García reached the projected 562 plate appearances, that would be the most since 2017 with 561. García goes shortly after Lourdes Gurriel Jr. around pick 165. Target Avisail García for power and speed around pick 150 with the raw power to match Austin Riley.
Jeimer Candelario (3B – DET)
Do you love line drives and quality hitters? Then look no further than Jeimer Candelario, who built upon the shortened 2020 season in 2021. Candelario finished with 16 home runs, 75 runs, 67 RBI, and a .271 batting average in 626 plate appearances. In the 22nd ranked team offense in wOBA (.306), Candelario batted in the heart of the Tigers lineup with 86.4% of his plate appearances while hitting third through fifth.
Jeimer Candelario’s batting average increased in 2020 and 2021 to .278 due to the jump in BABIP at .342. From 2016 to 2019, Candelario’s batting average stunk at .223 with a .282 BABIP. So what changed? Candelario’s line drive rate increased to 26.3% in 2020-2021 from 19.4% in the previous four seasons. Candelario also lowered the pull rate to 42.1% from 45.4%, yet the barrel rate jumped from 5.2% (2016-2019) to 9.3% (2020-2021). With an above-average hit tool, Candelario’s 87.5% Z-Contact% and 77.3% Contact% aligned with career 87.7% Z-Contact% and 76.3% Contact%.
So far, Jeimer Candelario marks several boxes, including the increased LD%, BABIP, and contact quality based on the barrel rate. We also loved that Candelario compiled a healthy chunk of plate appearances. However, the downside involves the Park Factors with wOBA (0.99) ranked 21st, right below the league average. Meanwhile, in Home Run Park Factor (0.85), the Tigers home park ranked 25th, according to EV Analytics. That’s 15% below the league average.
Candelario 2022 Outlook
One narrative surrounding the third base position – it’s a shallow position. However, Jeimer Candelario sits right after pick 200 with an intriguing group of third basemen, including Eduardo Escobar (2B/3B), Josh Donaldson (3B), and Eugenio Suárez (3B/SS). I would love to draft Candelario as a corner infielder with improved skills over the past two seasons (2020-2021).
Unfortunately, the chances are slim that Candelario breaks out like Austin Riley because of the park factors and lineup context. The Tigers lineup should take a step forward with Akil Baddoo, Robbie Grossman, and Javier Báez atop the lineup with Spencer Torkelson likely debuting in 2022.
It seems the projection systems don’t expect the batting average and BABIP improvements to sustain, evidenced by THE BAT X expecting 17 home runs, 71 runs, 68 RBI, and one stolen base with a .251 batting average. ATC looks the most optimistic from a power standpoint with 20 home runs. However, ATC still projects a .257 batting average. Overall, I like Candelario’s skills to maintain, meaning he could hit 20 home runs with a healthy batting average of .275 or higher in 2022.