Are 2021’s Breakouts This Season’s Busts? A Review

Let’s continue reviewing my preseason calls and predictions by checking in on six hitters that broke out in 2021. In 2021, these hitters all earned more than $20 in value greater than what they earned in 2020. To qualify as “REAL”, they merely had to earn within $10 of their 2021 earnings. If their 2022 earnings declined by at least $10 from their 2021 marks, they would be deemed a “BUST”. Let’s find out how this group performed.

2021 Breakouts
Name 2020 EOS $$* 2021 EOS $$* Diff $10 Decline from 2021 2022 EOS $$* Verdict
Shohei Ohtani $3.48 $32.89 $29.41 $22.89 $26.40 REAL
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. $10.46 $36.95 $26.49 $26.95 $22.40 BUST
Cedric Mullins II $0.00 $25.80 $25.80 $15.80 $21.70 REAL
Jorge Polanco $0.00 $23.52 $23.52 $13.52 $1.20 BUST
Tyler O’Neill $0.00 $23.07 $23.07 $13.07 $5.80 BUST
Austin Riley $1.00 $23.34 $22.34 $13.34 $21.90 REAL

This was an interesting group to begin with, as it included a mix of positions, hitters with only power, and hitters with a blend of both power and speed contributions. Overall, half the group earned within $10 of their 2021 value to qualify as REAL, while the other half failed to and getting slapped with the BUST label.

Shohei Ohtani

Ohtani was the biggest breakout of the group, earning a whopping $29.41 more in 2021 versus 2020. He also earned the second highest fantasy value in 2021 on the list. I was admittedly nervous here given the many risks — potential injury given that he pitches too, a return to a low 30% FB% which would curb his home run total, a realization that attempting so many steals increases his injury risk and so he runs less. He managed to avoid injury again and ended up recording 666 PAs, which is a full, healthy season. He also held onto most of his FB% gains, which helped tremendously considering his HR/FB rate slumped to the second lowest mark of his career and well below his career average. Finally, he did run significantly less, plus was far less successful when he did attempt a steal.

Although the steals were more than cut in half and all his counting stats were down, the leaguewide decline in home runs meant that his home run contributions fell less as a percentage of the overall pool. So he was still able to maintain most of his value. I think his 2022 is a much better baseline to expect moving forward, and given his poor stolen base success rate, perhaps he gets back into the mid-teens next year.

Original Verdict: REAL | Actual Verdict: REAL

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Last year, Guerrero enjoyed the massive breakout we were all anticipating occurring at some point, as his power blossomed, along with an increased FB%, while his walk rate jumped into double digits. Unfortunately, he couldn’t quite hold his gains this season. His walk rate fell right back below 10%, his FB% dropped back to just over 30%, and his HR/FB rate declined to just below 20%. It looked like typical regression after a career year, but at age 23, I would imagine 2021 won’t necessarily prove to be his career year.

So Guerrero ended up finishing with just 32 homers compared to the 48 last year and his runs scored and RBI numbers were also well down to below 100. Furthermore, a drop in BABIP, along with the drop in HR/FB rate, pushed his batting average back below .300. All this regression is pretty normal and there are no red flags to be found. Everything simply went right in 2021 and it’s just difficult to replicate. Given the strong strikeout rate combined with the power, he will continue to be a potentially strong batting average contributor, but a low LD% prevents him from being a consistent lock.

Original Verdict: REAL | Actual Verdict: BUST

Cedric Mullins II

Mullins may have been the most surprising of the 2021 breakouts on this list, but that didn’t make him a guaranteed bust in 2022. The biggest question really came down to his power. With the changes to Oriole Park, how would that affect Mullins’ HR/FB rate? Well, we now know what happened — he went from posting a 22% HR/FB rate at home in 2021 to just a 9.1% in 2022. But that wasn’t the only reason his HR/FB rate slipped back into single digits to a career low. He actually struggles big time hitting home runs in away parks! In 2021, he posted just an 8.5% HR/FB rate there, and he was even worse this season, posting just a 6.3% mark! So yes, he benefited significantly less from his home park in 2022, but he also hasn’t been any good in away parks. I guess that confirms that he was just a home park wonder in 2021 and without those cozy confines anymore, I wouldn’t expect a HR/FB rate rebound.

The good news, and what kept him in the REAL category, is that he still showcased his speed, swiping 34 bases. So even though his home run total was nearly cut in half and his batting average fell, those steals were enough to finish almost perfectly in between his 2021 value and that arbitrary $10 decline mark. While I wouldn’t bet on another 34 steals as I’m typically bearish on high stolen base totals being repeated, everything else looks pretty repeatable this time.

Original Verdict: REAL | Actual Verdict: REAL

Jorge Polanco

So far, it’s been a shocking list of players who have not gotten injured! But my injury luck couldn’t last, as Polanco was limited to just 445 PAs due to injury this season. That loss of playing time resulted in just over a buck in earnings, a far cry from the $23+ he earned in 2021.

While he did suffer some regression, he actually was still pretty solid. He posted another double digit HR/FB rate for just the second time in his career, his walk rate more than doubled, and his FB% rose even higher to another career high. It seems clear to me that this newfound power is legit, but his strikeout rate has been rising along with his FB%, both of which are hurting his batting average. He also slowed down on the basepaths so wasn’t much of a power and speed threat. At age 29, I think the underlying skills still look pretty good and he might very well be undervalued next year. While I don’t think he’ll be the difference maker he was in 2021 again, some deeper league profit could be there for the taking.

Original Verdict: BUST| Actual Verdict: BUST

Tyler O’Neill

Yup, the bad injury luck has taken hold as O’Neill recorded the fewest PAs on this list. Obviously, it would be quite difficult to come anywhere near his $23 of earnings in 2021 over just 383 PAs. The good news is that he cut down on his whiffs and brought his strikeout rate down to a career best. It’s now just below average, but far from alarming, where he sat at times in previous years.

Unfortunately, his power severely faded, as his HR/FB rate and ISO dropped back to his 2019 and 2020 stints, which was quite a surprise to me. Who would have thought he would steal as many bases and he hit home runs?! While it’s possible his 2021 proves to be his power peak, I still think he’s better than this and is capable of another 20%+ HR/FB rate and .200+ ISO. Furthermore, his BABIP collapsed, which wasn’t much of a surprise considering I said I was “figuring some major regression”, but I think he regressed more than expected.

Given his combination of power and speed and likelihood that a full, healthy season next year would come along with at least a partial rebound in performance, he could be a nice, undervalued pick in drafts.

Original Verdict: REAL | Actual Verdict: BUST

Austin Riley

Riley’s 2021 breakout was mostly fueled by a massive BABIP spike, which I felt was highly unlikely to be repeated. It wasn’t, but he still managed to post a well above average mark, thanks to a better than average LD%. All his other skills were pretty much right in line with his 2021, so this was a truly nice follow-up.

I expected more regression in his BABIP and thought there was significant downside. Enough downside that a weak batting average would make him a Hunter Renfroe clone as a power-only contributor. Obviously, that didn’t happen and his 38 home runs, which ranked fourth in baseball, were far more valuable this year than his 33 last year, even though it was only a difference of five. Given his high maxEV and Barrel%, his power looks pretty legit. I’m still unsure how confident I am that he maintains a .300+ BABIP, but I don’t think the downside there is severe enough to avoid him at his expected high price in drafts next year.

Original Verdict: BUST| Actual Verdict: REAL

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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3 months ago

Mullins over Guerrero, got it. Wait…