Are 2019’s Breakouts This Season’s Busts? A Review

Back in late March, I discussed six of 2019’s biggest breakouts, as defined by gain in end of season dollar value as calculated here. Obviously, reviewing how these six players ended up performing in 2020 is pretty silly considering we only played 60 games, amounting to just 37% of a regular full season. I’m going to do it anyway, because it’s still fun for me to look back to see how I did on the many calls I made. So let’s find out how the six 2019 breakouts performed in terms of generating fantasy value and whether I was right or wrong in calling them REAL (2020 EOS $$ was within $10 of 2019 EOS $$) or a BUST ((2020 EOS $$ was $10 or more below 2019 EOS $$).

2019 Breakouts & 2020 Earnings
Player 2018 EOS $$ 2019 EOS $$ Diff $10 Decline 2020 EOS $$ Call Correct?
Rafael Devers $2.90 $32.20 $29.30 $22.20 $15.10 REAL
Jorge Soler $0.00 $24.20 $24.20 $14.20 ($1.30) BUST X
Ketel Marte $2.40 $26.20 $23.80 $16.20 ($4.30) BUST X
Ronald Acuna Jr. $17.80 $38.40 $20.60 $28.40 $26.30 REAL
Austin Meadows $0.00 $19.90 $19.90 $9.90 ($7.60) REAL
DJ LeMahieu $9.00 $26.00 $17.00 $16.00 $24.90 BUST

Not surprisingly, this was not the season to make calls on whether 2019 breakouts were for real or not, as I got just two of six correct!

Rafael Devers had the big breakout many were expecting to occur in 2019 and the question was how well he would follow it up. While he remained a solid enough contributor, his value fell by more than $17, making him a clear BUST. The biggest disappointment came from his strikeout rate, which skyrocketed a full 10 percentage points, supported by a spike in SwStk%. He was able to offset that somewhat with a surge in HR/FB rate, so his home run output wasn’t hampered by the additional strikeouts. A declining walk rate is also a bit worrisome, so the hope is he turns those plate discipline trends around in 2021.

I figured Jorge Soler would end up pretty close to that $10 decline number, but that was assuming good health, of course. While I mostly bought his power spike from 2019, there’s always concern of injury with Soler, who only recorded more than 400 plate appearances twice over five seasons. Sure enough, he ended up recording just 174 plate appearances this year, which made it impossible to accrue strong fantasy value. Like Devers, Soler’s strikeout rate spiked, rising above 30% to a career worst mark. That led to just a .228 batting average, which means he was absolutely worthless since his counting stats were capped by the loss of playing time. Heading into 2021, the same risks and rewards are going to be present again.

Ketel Marte was one of the most surprising 2019 breakouts and I think the knee-jerk reaction from most was that he would be a 2020 bust. Those knee-jerkers were right, at least over the 195 plate appearances he recorded this season. The crazy thing is that he didn’t even remain a solid fantasy player, he actually posted negative fantasy value! That’s what happens when you combine for just three homers and steals. We all wondered how he would follow up in the power department, but did anyone think his HR/FB rate would plummet all the way from 19% in 2019 to just 3.8% this season?! I sure didn’t. He also attempted just one steal, so it’s not like he offset some of the power loss with speed. Now it’s anyone’s guess what you’ll get from him next season. Was 2019 a complete fluke, and if so, what’s his current true talent power level?

Man, even Ronald Acuna Jr. couldn’t avoid disappointing over a short season small sample. While it would have been a lot to ask to repeat that $38.40 earnings from 2019, his fantasy value dropped by about $12, losing his owners money that paid top three prices for him. There are several reasons for the disappointing fantasy season. The most obvious is the increase in strikeout rate combined with the big drop in BABIP. That resulted in just a .250 batting average, taking a bite out of his value. He was also coming off a season in which he recorded a whopping 715 plate appearances. Injury this season led to him recording 202 plate appearances, which equates to just 545 over a full season. Last, he failed to match his 37 stolen base pace this year, even with a perfectly acceptable eight. He established a high bar in 2019, reminding us how tough it is to remain consistently elite in fantasy.

Unfortunately, Austin Meadows tested positive for COVID-19 during Summer training and his stat profile suggests he was never at full strength. It is of course possible that this was simply a 152 plate appearance slump, but we’ll never know for sure because the disease provides for a sensible explanation. His strikeout rate skyrocketed and HR/FB rate plummeted, while he became an extreme fly ball hitter. Nothing really looked like the Meadows of old, so he’ll be a question mark next year. That spells potential profit, so don’t shy away, but be aware he might find himself on the strong side of a platoon, as opposed to earning every day at-bats.

It’s not often that a merely decent Rockies hitter leaves Colorado and becomes an elite hitter. But that’s exactly what DJ LeMahieu has done. He has clearly taken advantage of his new home park, as his home HR/FB rate in Yankee Stadium has been an insane 30.7%, while his away mark has been just 10.7%. Is that the biggest HR/FB rate home/away split ever?! That’s just nuts. He hasn’t even had to sacrifice contact to tap into this power he has never shown before. It’s easy not to believe this is real and there’s downside risk in this profile, driven by a low fly ball rate, for example. He’s probably going to be too pricey to be worth the risk, especially at age 32 now. And if he doesn’t re-sign with the Yankees, then he’s almost a lock to be dramatically overvalued.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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Joe Wilkeymember
3 years ago

Agreed with LeMahieu being overvalued if he doesn’t go to New York or Denver. His FB+LD splits for pull/straight/oppo in 2020: 10/15/47 (14%/21%/65%), career (Statcast era) is 153/407/600 (13%/35%/52%). The wOBA-xwOBA for RH oppo air balls in Yankee Stadium last year was .138, more than 30 points higher than the next best stadium. In the Statcast era for RH oppo FB+LD, Coors has a +.105 wOBA-xwOBA, Yankee Stadium has a +.085, and the next closest is Minute Maid Park at +.025. LeMahieu would have to change his approach significantly to be as valuable as he has been in these two stadiums.