Are 2018’s Breakouts This Season’s Busts? by Mike Podhorzer March 5, 2019 A year ago during Fantasy Baseball Week at The Hardball Times, I researched whether last season’s breakouts were solid investments the following year. Spoiler alert: they are actually terrible investments. Of course, that’s as a group. That means that not every breakout from the previous season is going to fall flat the following year. So let’s discuss some of the big breakouts from 2018 and decide whether each ends up as part of the poor investment bust group or they hold onto their gains. I excluded pitchers from this analysis, since we could more easily discern between those who were the beneficiaries of excellent fortune (Dereck Rodriguez) and those whose skills surged, supporting the breakout (Patrick Corbin). I also excluded hitters coming off injury in 2017, those that have shown this kind of performance in the past (you can’t break out more than once!), hitters who recorded fewer than 300 plate appearances in 2017, and hitters who were already really good, but took things up another notch (Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez). In order to avoid overly punishing a hitter for being putrid, as opposed to simply bad, I changed any hitter’s end of season (EOS) $$ value to $0 if it was in the negatives. I don’t care whether Chris Davis “earned” -$15.40 or -$3, it’s all the same — he hurt your team! Finally, I needed to create criteria on how to define “bust”. I ultimately went with a 20% decline in EOS $$ for 2019 as the benchmark. If I believe the hitter will earn that much, I’ll deem him “REAL”. If I think he’s likely to fall short of that earnings level, I’ll deem him “BUST”. Note that I am completely ignoring ADP, as that’s very league dependent. There are a whole lot more breakouts than this, of course, but we’re going to discuss seven of the biggest. 2018 Breakouts Name 2018 EOS $$* 2017 EOS $$* Diff 20% Decline Trevor Story $35.10 $4.40 $30.70 $28.08 Christian Yelich $44.30 $18.90 $25.40 $35.44 Javier Baez $34.50 $9.90 $24.60 $27.60 Jesus Aguilar $21.10 $0.00 $21.10 $16.88 Jose Peraza $15.60 $0.00 $15.60 $12.48 Stephen Piscotty $14.40 $0.00 $14.40 $11.52 Alex Bregman $28.10 $14.20 $13.90 $22.48 *Using the default FanGraphs Auction Calculator settings Trevor Story Story actually posted a nearly identical wOBA during his 2016 debut, plus a higher ISO and HR/FB rate. So this breakout wasn’t driven by stronger offense, but rather fueled by two other primary factors — a full season’s worth of PAs and going gung-ho on the bases. Story had stolen 23 bases in the minors twice before, so this wasn’t completely out of nowhere after just seven swipes in 2017. You may not have realized this, but Story is FAST. He actually ranked 17th in Statcast Sprint Speed last year. But it’s a bit surprising to see a hitter steal so many bases on a team that plays half its games in one of baseball’s most hitter friendly venues (though obviously it’s been done before). I think there’s a real risk of regression in strikeout rate after such a dramatic improvement, plus a decline in steals despite elite speed. That said, there’s not a whole lot of downside when hitting in the middle of the order and playing half his games at Coors. Verdict: REAL Christian Yelich Who would have ever guessed that Yelich would post the third highest HR/FB rate going back to 2002, which is as far back as our batted ball data goes?! The amazing thing is that his 35% mark only resulted in 36 homers, even with a better than league average strikeout rate. That, of course, is due to his pathetic fly ball rate, which sat at just 23.5%, hilariously representing the second highest mark of his career. The knee-jerk reaction to that HR/FB rate spike is to expect regression…and lots of it. But what if I told you that he led baseball in xHR/FB rate, barrels per true fly ball rate, and average fly ball distance (among full-time players)? Would that make you think twice about auto-regressing his power? Even if his HR/FB rate and homer total do decline, he’s a BABIP machine and is a lock to lift your batting average. I don’t think he quite reaches that 20% decline dollar value, as even though the power was supported by the skills, I highly, highly doubt he could repeat those skills. Verdict: BUST Javier Baez I think most expected an offensive explosion from Baez one of these years, and it came during his third season. The difference here was an every day job for a change, more than doubling his stolen base total, and boosting his HR/FB rate for a second straight seasons to get over the 20% hump. On the downside, his plate discipline remains atrocious and he posted the second highest SwStk% among qualified hitters. The only reason that didn’t lead to a significantly higher strikeout rate is because he just kept swinging and swinging and swinging until he finally made contact. His Swing% ranked second among qualified batters. I think there’s some real downside risk in his BABIP, which would take down his batting average, his poor basestealing success rate raises the risk of a stolen base decline, and man, that plate discipline is downright ugly, making me nervous that pitchers adjust and throw him nothing good to hit. Verdict: BUST Jesus Aguilar This was less of a breakout and more of a first extended opportunity for a late bloomer to prove his worth. And boy did Aguilar prove it. I don’t care about his weaker second half as split stats have failed to prove predictive. He has always hit in the minors, though never with this much power, and nothing that he did appears fluky. My only concern is that a long slump could give Eric Thames another chance to take back his job. Thames is no bench player and more than good enough to hold down first base all season long. The real problem here is that without stolen bases or the likelihood of a strong batting average, the bar is high when you’re primarily a homer and RBI guy. With strong fantasy competition at his position, it’ll be hard to earn nearly $17 without coming close to a repeat. Verdict: BUST Jose Peraza So Peraza broke out last year (well, at least in fantasy leagues, as his wOBA was still a weak .319), but it wasn’t driven by what we would have expected, steals. He actually stole the same number of bases as in 2017 over 165 additional plate appearances. Instead, he nearly tripled his home run total, moving him from the limited power/good speed category into the power/speed blend group. I didn’t see that coming. In his entire minor league career, he hit just 11 homers! Sadly, not only does xHR/FB rate suggest that his career high HR/FB rate wasn’t real, but his fly ball rate also spiked to above the league average. That’s not what you want from your speedy middle infielder with little power. So don’t think another double digit homer mark is a guarantee. Lastly, he’s going to be stuck near the bottom of the order, capping all his counting stats. He’s not scoring 85 runs again. So owners have to hope he continues to contribute in batting average, which I believe he will, and suddenly remembers his minor league running days and picks up the stolen base pace, which is hard to project. Verdict: BUST Stephen Piscotty After three straight seasons of underperforming his xHR/FB rate, Piscotty exploded, as his results finally matched the underlying skills. There was really nothing fluky I could point to as a reason for regression. Of course, since this was his so-far career year, the prudent move would be to expect a bit of regression. The concern is that he doesn’t steal bases and has been rather neutral or majorly negative in batting average. xBABIP hints at some BABIP upside, though, which could offset any HR/FB rate loss. I think any regression he experiences will be marginal and he’ll still be able to reach that fairly modest earnings level. Verdict: REAL Alex Bregman The former top prospect made good on his promise in his second full season. The most impressive thing here wasn’t his homers and power, or the steals he pairs with it, but rather his contact ability. He posted the second lowest SwStk% among all qualified hitters and ranked 12th in strikeout rate among 140 hitters. When you combine that contact ability with the rest of his ample skill set, there’s no way else to react than to drool. It’s just an awesome profile. And the power of fly balls is on full display here (well, and strikeout rate), as Bregman hit just five fewer homers than Yelich with a HR/FB rate less than half. That means there’s a whoooooole lot of room for growth and 40 homers wouldn’t be crazy. In fact, according to my projections, just a 19% HR/FB rate would result in 40 dingers. Yes, you have to figure some regression here and there, but even with the assumption of regression, he remains an elite fantasy hitter with a genuinely high ceiling. Verdict: REAL Do you think these 2018 breakouts repeat or go bust? Which other 2018 breakouts do you have a strong opinion on?