The season is finally here. After months of draft preparation, hours of pouring through stats, reading articles and listening to podcasts, it only took one Ian Happ home run for the hype train for early season breakouts to pull back into the station. Some of these hot starts from hitters will fade into irrelevance as soon as their next 0-for-12 stretch hits and another waiver period passes. Others will be legitimate, and knowing the difference could be the key to finding fantasy baseball success in 2018.
Predicting breakouts is somewhat an art of futility and an always constant reminder that even some of the best analysts are still just playing a glorified guessing game. Piecing together bits of information to try and draw a conclusion that fits a narrative… usually their narrative. I’m guilty of this myself. As much as I try to stray from my potential bias, I’m attached to them as they are to me. For example, Freddie Freeman, a target of mine this year, started off the season on fire. He has a 1.267 OPS, has walked 8 times in his first 20 plate appearances, and has been called out on strikes just once.
It’s easy for me to play confirmation bias with Freeman, saying I may have been right about my favorable pre-season rank. It’s also easy for me to use a different explanation when talking about Xander Bogaerts. “It’s the first week of the season”, I can almost hear myself saying to someone who might be calling me out for my harsh criticism of Bogaerts this off-season and his incredible 10-hit start to 2018. The important tool that I hope to pass on here and in all my writing is being your own analyst in Baseball is important. It’s also a lot of fun. Below are a few recommendations of watch list items as you are looking for breakout players for your fantasy rosters this season.
Plate Skills Improvements
Not all hitters in baseball can be Joey Votto. That being said, a good knowledge of the strike zone and a meticulous approach at the plate can be extremely rewarding. Counting stats matter in fantasy baseball. If a player is going to make an impact in runs and RBI he will need to be hitting in a favorable lineup spot. Big league managers want high on-base hitters toward the top of their lineups to score more runs. Swinging at good pitches has a lot to do with how productive a hitter can be. A conscious effort toward taking more walks and being more selective at the plate can pay immediate dividends. An improvement in plate skills is easily tracked. BB/K rate, O-Swing%, and BB% all very easily accessible on fangraphs.com. A chain reaction of positive effects seems to fall into motion when a hitter makes noticeable improvements to his plate discipline.
Watch List Players: Eugenio Suarez, Andrelton Simmons
Hit Tendency Changes
Tendency changes can be a number of different things. The two I want to focus on here are launch angle and pull percentage. If you have watched a baseball game this year you probably have heard the broadcasters over using the word launch angle. We have seen players like Yonder Alonso and Ryan Zimmerman revitalize their careers with the impact of hitting more fly balls. Some players like Christain Yelich, Josh Bell, and others have great contact rates and above average exit velocities, but waste that power by driving the ball into the ground more than they should.
Other hitters use attempt to manufacture power by getting around on pitches early and pulling the ball for increased power. A spike in pull percentage can indicate a drastic change in approach and lead to quick power results. This is a cheaters way of creating power and also exposes hitters to future losses in contact percentage and batting average. Even with the potential losses in those statistics, hitters like Elvis Andrus have used this technique to increase their slugging percentage.
Watch List Players: Jonathan Lucroy, Josh Bell
A player’s opportunity in any given season is hard to track. This, unlike a stat, is strictly circumstantial and could depend on a variety of factors. A team’s depth, manager, situation, and health all play a role in whether a particular player will get a greater opportunity than they have in the past. Obviously, that player would still have to outperform others on the team to be rewarded with playing time but sometimes players just need a break in circumstances to make the best of an opening.
Watch List Players: Ketel Marte, Mitch Haniger
This one is much harder to spot, and because of that, it doesn’t get as much play in fantasy circles. Hands up, hands down, toe tap, no toe tap, addition of a leg kick, elimination of a leg kick, one handed follow through, two handed follow through, quieting down movement in the box, open stance, close stance, the list goes on and on. Outcomes for these adjustments are hard to quantify without seeing a sizable sample, but keep your ears perked up for these and then use game logs on baseball reference or fangraphs to see if there is a correlation with production.
Watch List Players: Brandon Drury, Colin Moran
The players that have the best opportunity to take a natural step forward are the young well-rounded hitters. These are hitters that have a good approach, balanced batted ball tendencies, and are void of general weaknesses. These hitters have a strong foundation of skills and an improvement to any one of them could catapult them into a new level of recognition. This is by far the hardest breakout to recognize because it’s slower than the others listed but also this is the one that creates superstars, future first round picks and players that help you win your leagues. As a point of reference, this type of candidate for a natural growth breakout should have a BB/K rate above .40-.50, a contact% above 75-80%, an average exit velocity above 87 MPH, and a GB/FB rate between .75 and 1.25.
Watch List Players: Alex Bregman, Andrew Benintendi