Are 2019’s Breakouts This Season’s Busts?

Two years 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 2019 and decide whether each turns out to be a poor investment bust or ends up holding onto their gains.

I excluded pitchers from this analysis, since we could more easily discern between those who were the beneficiaries of excellent fortune (Mike Soroka, Dakota Hudson) and those whose skills surged, supporting the breakout (Lucas Giolito). I also excluded hitters who were injured in 2018 and bounced back in 2019, those that have shown this kind of performance in the past (you can’t break out more than once!), hitters whose fantasy breakout was primarily driven by an increase in playing time, rather than performance per plate appearance, and hitters who were already really good, but took things up another notch (Cody Bellinger). Last, in order to avoid overly punishing a hitter for being awful, as opposed to simply bad, I changed any hitter’s end of season (EOS) $$ value to $0 if it was negative.

In a change from last year, I am redefining how I classify “bust”. Previously, I calculated a 20% decline in EOS $$ value. If I believed the hitter would earn at least that much in the upcoming season, I deemed him “REAL”. If I thought he was likely to fall short of that earnings level, I deemed him “BUST”. Now, I’m going to use a $10 absolute dollar value decline, as that makes much more sense. If a player earned $10 less than you paid, it doesn’t matter whether you paid $100 for him or $20 for him — he still lost you $10 of your $260 budget. Note that I am completely ignoring ADP, as that’s very league dependent. I chose $10 because it’s a large enough decline to account for the fact that fantasy owners are unlikely to actually pay a 2019 breakout what he actually earned, and are already factoring in some level of regression.

There are a whole lot more breakouts than this, of course, but we’re going to discuss six of the biggest.

2019 Breakouts
Player 2019 EOS $$ 2018 EOS $$ Diff $10 Decline
Rafael Devers $32.20 $2.90 $29.30 $22.20
Jorge Soler $24.20 $0.00 $24.20 $14.20
Ketel Marte $26.20 $2.40 $23.80 $16.20
Ronald Acuna Jr. $38.40 $17.80 $20.60 $28.40
Austin Meadows $19.90 $0.00 $19.90 $9.90
DJ LeMahieu $26.00 $9.00 $17.00 $16.00

Rafael Devers

According to the FanGraphs auction calculator using the default settings, Devers was the biggest fantasy breakout of 2019, earning a whopping $29.30 more than he did in 2018. Sure, he recorded 213 more plate appearances, but he also raised his wOBA from a weak .310 to a strong .377. So while the playing time boost helped, it was more a spike in performance that led to this fantasy breakout. What’s interesting is that his HR/FB rate barely jumped, while his fly ball rate actually declined. The driver of this breakout was pretty clear and came from two skills surges — a significant improvement in strikeout rate and rebound in BABIP. My unpublished xK% equation validates the strikeout rate improvement, and while he did marginally cut down on the swings and misses, it was mostly fueled by a drop in looking strike rate, partially offset by an increase in foul strike rate. Is that actually sustainable? I don’t know.

After debuting in 2017 and BABIPing a sweet .342, that mark dipped to just .281 in 2018, and then rebounded back up to .339. My xBABIP equation suggests his 2017 debut mark was a complete fluke and easily saw the 2018 regression coming without an improvement in underlying BABIP skills (which ultimately never manifested). In 2019, xBABIP does validate an improvement in BABIP skills, but a .311 mark remains well below his .339 actual mark. As you could imagine as a left-handed batter, Devers grounds into the shift often. Furthermore, his other BABIP skills don’t really stand out, so he is more deserving of a slightly above league average mark than dramatically better than league average.

While I think his batting average is due to fall back below .300 and it’s going to be extremely difficult to 244 runs scored + runs batted in again, his power appears secure, plus he’ll chip in a handful of steals. I think a $10 drop in value is too much.

Verdict: REAL

Jorge Soler

I guess we always knew Soler had this in him, but I personally didn’t think this would ever happen on the Royals. Their home park is so pitcher friendly that it really diminished his chances of enjoying this kind of breakout in my mind. Oops. Since he only recorded 257 plate appearances in 2018, I had to decide whether to include him here given my minimum 300 PAs rule. Since this was more a performance thing than a staying healthy for a full year thing, I chose to include him. His FB% bounced back above 40%, while his HR/FB rate surged to a new career high of 28.1%. My xHR/FB rate equation mostly buys that HR/FB rate spike.

I think this is going to be pretty close. He’s basically a two-category guy (HR and RBI) and maybe barely positive in runs scored, and has been injury prone in the past. I’m going to err on the side of caution on this one as the few fantasy contributions he does make has been diluted by the leaguwide increase in those contributions.

Verdict: BUST

Ketel Marte

Gosh, I did not see this coming! If I knew before the season that Marte would enjoy a fantasy breakout, I would have been totally sure that it was due to a stolen base spike, not a home run spike. Marte has now increased his HR/FB rate for three straight seasons, starting with a ridiculously low base of 1.1% back in 2016. He nearly doubled his HR/FB rate in 2019 from his 2018 level. Guess what…xHR/FB rate believes his 2019 mark was completely for real. Surprised? That doesn’t mean he’s automatically going to repeat, but it does increase the chances since he apparently didn’t just benefit from gusts of wind that happened to come at just the right time.

Aside from the nearly doubled HR/FB rate, Marte also posted a career high BABIP of .342 after a pair of sub-.300 seasons. My xBABIP confirms that BABIP as well, and also suggests he was unlucky to have posted those sub-.300 seasons in the first place.

This is a tough one, because seemingly everything went right here, and my xMetrics all validate the performance. However, it would be silly to completely forget about his pre-2019 performances. Even though he has the speed, he has been reluctant to steal, so you can’t expect more steals at this point. While the 2019 skills support a repeat, the odds are that he fails to do so, and experiences enough regression all around that…

Verdict: BUST

Ronald Acuna Jr.

I wasn’t sure whether he fell into the “already good, but took it up a notch” group, but given that he’s now a consensus top three pick, I decided to include him here. While part of this fantasy breakout was due to more plate appearances over his 2018 rookie campaign, it was mostly thanks to his 228 combined runs scored + runs batted in, along with 37 steals, 21 more than 2018. I wouldn’t bet on 228 R + RBI again, though he shouldn’t be far off, but the big question is about the steals.

You never know when a power hitter who also steals bases is going to decide to slow down his running game as to not risk injury. You figure a guy with little power like Mallex Smith will continue to swipe bags because he’s not doing anything else, but how long will Acuna keep running? That said, there’s enough of a buffer here and five category contributions, he doesn’t need to steal 30+ again to ensure he earns at least $28 again. This is an easy call.

Verdict: REAL

Austin Meadows

Meadows is another-sub 300 PA guy in 2018, but I kept him anyway because his wOBA increased from .332 to .380 and HR/FB rate spiked from 11.5% to 19.3%. This wasn’t all an increased playing time thing. My xHR/FB rate perfectly validates his surge, while xBABIP confirms he’s a legit .320 BABIP guy. With his handful of steals buoying his value, this is another easy call, as $10 is a pretty low bar to clear.

Verdict: REAL

DJ LeMahieu

Who would have guessed that departing Coors Field would be the catalyst to a fantasy breakout?! LeMahieu did his normal thing, but now, with lots of power. His HR/FB rate almost exactly mirrored the trajectory of Meadows’, so that’s the focus of whether he’ll come close to a repeat or bust. His xHR/FB rate actually validates the surge, but he’s going to have a real hard time coming anywhere close to that 211 total of runs scored and runs batted in. My Pod Projections are higher than all projection systems on his BABIP, and resulting batting average, as his xBABIP consistently sits in the mid-.300 range, which is well above what the systems are forecasting.

That said, given his age (he’ll be 31 this year), history, and batting average dependent profile, it won’t take much for him to turn back into a bottom tier middle infielder. So…

Verdict: BUST

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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2 years ago

Interesting article. While you give plenty of evidence that the underlying metrics support his 2019 breakout, you decided to slap a bust label on Ketel Marte anyway by just referring to regression, which theoretically applies to all these hitters. The evidence you listed suggests a real verdict may have been more appropriate for Ketel. And there is always the possibility that Ketel Marte swipes another 5-8 bags . . .

2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Podhorzer

I wouldn’t say out of nowhere. From June-Sept of 2018 he showed legitmate and pretty sustained growth in batted ball distribution (less groceries) and power growth (more hard hit balls)

2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Podhorzer

Sure. For a young, maturing player getting everyday MLB PAs for the first time I think changes to approach do matter though.

2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Podhorzer

This is a common theme, dating back to Jose Bautista and earlier (eg. Brady Anderson). How do we know whether a swing change, batted ball distribution changes, or any other change is going to persist from year to year? Ok, Bautista pulls a bunch of fly balls now. Does that mean he’s gonna continue to hit a ton of bombs? Will that batted ball distribution continue?

It’s “easy” to identify the luck based performances… High BABIP, spike in HR/FB% unsupported by changes in batted ball distributions. However, when it comes to non-luck based regression, there is more speculation than we care to admit, given the data that we have available. I would assume that teams have more than just outcomes-based data (ie. where the batted balls went, and at what speed), and can model how swing trajectories may have changed. But we don’t have that data to use.

I think it’s a fair objection to the Marte verdict. All evidence available suggests his stats were supported by his underlying skill change. Can we go further than that? Any conclusion other than REAL is speculative/intuitive, based on what data we’ve been presented.

wOBA Fett
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike Podhorzer

Even if we do assume regression for him, it seems like that’s already baked in where he’s going. His current ADP is 45.2, which seems like great value even if his power totals regress a bit, just due to his position eligibility. He produced like a second-rounder last year, which is obviously a price I’m not willing to pay, but at his going rate, I’m buying.