Are Last Season’s Breakouts This Season’s Busts?

On Monday, we launched Fantasy Baseball Week on The Hardball Times, and I started things off by researching 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 last season and try to figure out whether they end up as part of the poor investment bust group or hold onto their gains.

I decided not to include any pitchers since we could more easily discern between those who were the beneficiaries of excellent fortune (Gio Gonzalez) and those whose skills surged, supporting the breakout (Luis Severino). I also excluded hitters coming off injury and those that have shown this kind of performance in the past. There are a whole lot more than this, but here are 12 of the biggest breakouts. Like I did with my THT article, I changed any hitter’s end of season (EOS) $$ value to $0 if it was in the negatives. I don’t care whether Aaron Judge earned -$3 or -$25, it’s all the same — he was bad!

2017 Breakouts
Player Name 2017 EOS $$ Val 2016 EOS $$ Val $$ Gain
Aaron Judge $40.50 $0.00 $40.50
Marcell Ozuna $31.70 $7.30 $24.40
Tommy Pham $24.30 $0.00 $24.30
Domingo Santana $20.90 $0.00 $20.90
Whit Merrifield $20.40 $0.00 $20.40
Travis Shaw $18.50 $1.00 $17.50
Avisail Garcia $16.70 $0.00 $16.70
Eddie Rosario $16.40 $0.00 $16.40
Scooter Gennett $16.10 $1.00 $15.10
Chris Taylor $14.80 $0.00 $14.80
Justin Smoak $14.40 $0.00 $14.40
Marwin Gonzalez $14.00 $0.00 $14.00

Aaron Judge

Man, oh man, what a year for Judge. Yes, I get it, his high strikeout rate coupled with a .357 suggests serious batting average downside, especially if he experiences any sort of reasonable regression off that crazy 35.6% HR/FB rate. But wait! His xBABIP was actually .329, which validates that he owns legit high BABIP skills, and his xHR/FB rate was 36%! He’s not going absurdly high at about 19th overall, so…

Verdict: BUY

Marcell Ozuna

This was the breakout we all knew he was capable of, but there are red flags here. First, there’s no chance he BABIPs .355 again. His xBABIP was only .314, and he has posted a mark in the teens every season since 2014. So his BABIP skills have remained quite consistent. Next, while his xHR/FB validates a power outburst, it didn’t exactly support this magnitude of a burst. An 18.1% xHR/FB rate is still strong, but it’s well below his actual 23.4% mark, and you kind of those 30+ homers to justify an ADP of 47.

Verdict: BUST

Tommy Pham

Have you joined the Pham Club yet? This was one of the most out of nowhere seasons we have seen in a while. He has been hanging around the Majors since 2014, but never received a full-time opportunity. He was also already 29! Not only did he delight with power and speed, but he displayed strong plate discipline and brought his strikeout rate back in line with his minor league days. You might assume his .368 BABIP was the result of a heaping of good fortune, but you would be wrong. While no one has such skills, his xBABIP still sat at a robust .348. And he did this over small samples the previous two years as well. Oh, and his power? 22.5% xHR/FB rate. Once again, his xHR/FB rates have sat above 20% since 2015, so this power isn’t new. It was just never given a chance to be put on display.

Verdict: BUY

Domingo Santana

So many questions here. First, how on Earth did he wake up one day and decide to steal 15 bases? That’s the most he has ever swiped in a season over his professional career. I highly doubt that happens again. Next, how can you expect him to sustain a high-20% HR/FB rate when his xHR/FB rate was just 21.1% last year? Although a 23% or so HR/FB rate is nothing to be ashamed of, it will take a real bite out of his value. Last, the Brewers still have four starting worthy outfielders! Whether you want to tell yourself that Ryan Braun is going to play first, freeing up every day at-bats for Santana, I can’t imagine Eric Thames become a full-time bench player. That means that the logjam is going to curb playing time, and the team ain’t sitting Christian Yelich or Lorenzo Cain. Probably not Braun either, unless for health reasons. At his price (91 ADP), there’s far too much downside.

Verdict: BUST

Whit Merrifield

I posted my Pod Projection for Merrifield yesterday, so you can remind yourself exactly what I’m forecasting and why. Needless to say, he’s a…

Verdict: BUY

Travis Shaw

Shaw went from corner guy with a meh bat to a perfectly legitimate offensive contributor. Between the BABIP and the HR/FB, everything more or less checks out, though I would expect some marginal regression. But what of those 10 steals and no caught stealings? The Brewers obviously ran often last season, will it continue? Shaw possesses below average speed and banking on double digit steals again would be silly. The thing here is that outside the steals that were an obvious fluke, nothing else stands out as at risk for major regression. Instead, there might be small regressions over multiple categories that result in just an ordinary fantasy contributor. A 93 ADP is a hefty price to pay when he could easily be just a two category guy.

Verdict: BUST

Avisail Garcia

Garcia rode a .443 April BABIP to fantasy relevance and finished the season with a gaudy .392 mark. And while that’s obviously not going to be repeated, xBABIP hinted at some serious hidden upside, as he posted marks between .331 and .340 in 2015 and 2016. That said, his xBABIP remained virtually the same in 2017, so this was a straight example of lady luck touching down often. Since he hits too many ground balls to be much of a home run contributor and only steals a handful of bases, you’re praying that he could keep up that strong batting average. But we know that’s unlikely to occur. Without the .300+ average, he’s not much more than a replacement level shallow mixed league option.

Verdict: BUST

Eddie Rosario

Rosario was probably one of the quieter breakouts, but realize that he was only three homers and a steal away from going 30/10! Two skill improvements led to the breakout — he cut down on his strikeout rate, bringing it below 20% for the first time, and his HR/FB rate spiked (like everyone else). The strikeout rate reduction was thanks to his improvement on laying off pitches outside the zone and making significantly better contact when he did swing. The power spike doesn’t look completely real, however, as his xHR/FB rate was only 13.6%, which represented just a small jump over his 2015 and 2016 marks. I’m thinking there’s definitely some regression coming here, but an ADP of about 122 seems to be baking that in already.

Verdict: BUY

Scooter Gennett

Remember when Scooter Gennett hit four home runs. No, silly, not for the entire season, in ONE GAME! That’s the story you’re going to be telling your grand kids. Why he won’t come close to smelling a repeat:

1) A .339 BABIP was a fluke (.309 xBABIP)
2) He can’t hit lefties (.296 wOBA vs southpaws in 2017, .245 over his career)
3) While his xHR/FB rate did spike, it didn’t spike nearly enough to justify a 20%+ HR/FB rate; plus, he’s never shown these kinds of power skills, so you have to also figure the underlying metrics driving xHR/FB rate are going to regress as well

A 206 ADP is fairly cheap, but if we’re defining a bust by comparing their potential 2018 earnings vs their 2017 earnings, then…

Verdict: BUST

Chris Taylor

What was up with middle infielders busting out last season?! Taylor joined the party, nearly going 20/20. xBABIP does support an inflated BABIP, though not quite as high as .361, of course. And his HR/FB rate wasn’t so outrageous, and mostly supported by his xHR/FB rate. He strikes out too frequently for his level of power, which means there’s real batting average downside here, especially if his HR/FB rate regresses dramatically and his BABIP drops into the low .300 range. A nearly 93 ADP is absurdly expensive given such performance risk. But, he “only” earned about $15 last year and because he possesses both power and speed, he has real downside cushion. I’m not buying him at his price, but…

Verdict: BUY (he’s not going to lose $10 of fantasy value)

Justin Smoak

It figures that soon as I jump off the Smoak show, he breaks out. The power was always there, so skills growth there wasn’t what fueled his performance. Instead, it was an incredible improvement in strikeout rate, as he cut it from a career worst mark above 30% to a career best of about 20%. While he did make better contact than he had since 2012, he has shown these contact skills before. In 2012, he posted very similar plate discipline metrics and struck out slightly more than he did in 2017. So this isn’t unprecedented. Of course, then his strikeout rate rose for four straight seasons until last year’s breakout. A bet on Smoak is a bet on his strikeout rate. Since he never posted scary SwStk% marks, I’m calling him a…

Verdict: BUY

Marwin Gonzalez

So I’m the low man on Marwin this year, after he went from respectable utility player to fantasy star. But good fortune was abundant in his performance, making anything close to a repeat a remote possibility. First, his xBABIP was just .287. That’s a significantly lower figure than his actual .343 mark. He was shifted and grounded into that shift more often than ever and he hit too many pop-ups. His xHR/FB rate was actually below his 2016 mark, yet his HR/FB rate spiked. So there are serious performance related concerns to begin. Finally, there’s the playing time and position questions. The Astros are loaded and there are a number of alternatives to steal at-bats if Gonzalez does indeed get off to a slow start and fail to pull out of it in short order.

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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