Breaking Out is Hard to Do

Every season brings with it a new crop of breakouts; some are real, while some are mirages. Oftentimes, a “breakout season” ends up being that player’s career year, and I think we saw that with several players this year. What I’m going to do today is just briefly touch on three players that I think played themselves into unreasonable expectations for 2015.

Danny Santana

I really like Santana. In fact, I really like everyone I’m writing about in this column, I just see significant gaps between their actual skill level and perceived 2015 fantasy value. Santana is pretty much the posterboy for this mindset, as I was thoroughly impressed by the 23-year-old this year. I think he has a future as a very valuable utility knife, he’s just not a top-five — or likely even top-ten — fantasy shortstop.

Santana was indeed a top-five fantasy shortstop from the moment he took over as the Twins’ leadoff hitter at the beginning of June — he was ranked No. 10 overall for the season, but was easily top-five from June on. His lowest on-base plus slugging in any given month this year was actually in June, when he put up a .773 OPS. Aside from that month, he was well into the .800s all year.

The problem is, Santana probably won’t be a top-ten fantasy shortstop next year, because he was pretty clearly playing well over his head this year. Through 692 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A, Santana hit two home runs. This year in the majors, he hit seven in 430 PA.

I believe in the speed, and think he can be a 20-25 steal guy annually, although I’ll be curious to see if he can replicate the success rate of his 20-for-24 mark from this season. From 2011-2013, Santana stole 71 bases, but was also caught stealing a somewhat startling 39 times.

I’m clearly not buying the power, and he’ll likely never pile up the runs like he did this year, either. While his .319 batting average this year was very impressive, this is a career .273 minor-league hitter in 2,352 PA. His batting average on balls in play in the majors was .405. Furthermore, his ugly plate discipline (4.4% BB-rate, 22.8% K-rate) is uninspiring, to put it mildly.

I think most of you came into this column knowing that Santana isn’t quite the player he looked like this year, but keep in mind when planning for 2015 that he played above his actual talent level in nearly every category this season. Santana is a classic regression candidate in just about every way possible.

Josh Harrison

The 27-year-old Harrison is much the same story as Santana, in that he likely played above his head in many ways this season. It’s not that he’d never shown power before, it’s that he had never shown much over-the-fence power. Harrison has always produced his fair share of doubles and triples, keeping his isolated power well above .100 for most of his minor- and major-league career.

However, coming into 2014, Harrison had never hit more than seven homers in any given year of his professional career. Whether Harrison’s 2014 approach is sustainable or not is one question, but it’s certainly fair to look at his 13 homers — nearly twice his previous career high in the majors or minors — as a bit of a fluke.

Furthermore, if/when his .353 BABIP from 2014 regresses, he doesn’t have the plate discipline to compensate. Harrison’s 4.0% walk rate this year was actually a massive improvement from his career 2.6% walk rate coming into the season, and it was still awfully low. This all, of course, means fewer opportunities to steal bases and score runs.

Like Santana, I think Harrison has a long, productive major-league career ahead of him as a super-utility type, but I fear we’ve seen his best season.

Johnny Cueto

I’m not going to get too long-winded about Cueto, as Mike Petriello wrote a great column on him just a couple weeks ago. I’m just going to throw my own two cents in. Seeing as Cueto has maintained a sub-3.00 ERA for four years now, I’m obviously not referring to his season as a “breakout” — Cueto’s breakout came in 2011, and it was legit. It’s hard to doubt that he’s a truly elite fantasy commodity, but it doesn’t take a genius to know that we’re probably not going to see his career-high 8.94 K/9 strikeout rate again.

Cueto didn’t really do anything all that different to explain why a guy with a career 7.30 K/9 in nearly a thousand innings coming into 2014 suddenly started striking out a batter per inning. Which is why I just can’t trust it at all. As Mike pointed out in the above-linked column, Cueto generated a ton of whiffs with his change this year, but his overall 9.8% swinging strike rate wasn’t far off his career mark of 9.1%.

Batters swung at 35.6% of Cueto’s pitches outside the zone, a career high, and he threw more first-pitch strikes (62.9%) than ever before. However, just like the change-up whiff rate, both of those marks were very minor improvements on the numbers he’s been putting up for the last few years. I guess I can explain why Cueto suddenly spiked his strikeout rate; he was just a little bit better than he usually is in a few different ways, and the sum of those parts was a career-high strikeout rate.

This year was pretty much the idealized version of an already-great pitcher. I just can’t quite see him ever again having as much fantasy value as he did in 2014.

We hoped you liked reading Breaking Out is Hard to Do by Scott Strandberg!

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Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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