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February 24, 1999

Breakout and Flameout Review

How well did we pick them in 1998?

by Joe Sheehan

With spring training shifting into second gear this week with the arrival of position players, Baseball Prospectus will start looking carefully at the 1999 season. Over the next two weeks, we'll bring you our take on who is going to have breakout seasons, and who is more likely to be found in the breakdown lane.

Just under a year ago, our staff looked at the 1998 season and tried to answer the same questions. Well, since we strongly believe in accountability in MLB front offices, we thought it would be a good idea to hold ourselves accountable by looking back at our predictions.

The original article ran on March 25, 1998. Four staff writers picks three players each to "break out" and "flame out". Using the customary 5-3-1 scoring system, here's a rough ranking of what their picks were:

Breakouts:

Shawn Green
Jason Kendall
Todd Walker
Alex Gonzalez
Manny Ramirez
Bill Mueller
Steve Reed

At first glance, that's a pretty impressive list. Of the seven players, four (Green, Kendall, Walker and Ramirez) had the best years of their career. Green, Kendall and Ramirez were really classic breakout candidates: young players moving into their peak with two or more years of experience under their belt. If you're looking for your own candiates, that's the category to choose from.

Walker, who had struggled with a switch to third in 1997, moved back to his natural position at second base after the Knoblauch trade, and hit about as well as had been expected in his rookie year. He'll be high on my list to break out this year, as he continues to improve against left-handers and adds power.

Mueller and Reed each started the year with the Giants. Reed was exceptional for four months, but struggled after coming up with a circulatory problem shortly after his July trade to the Indians. Nevertheless, his year placed him among the best, if not the best, middle reliever in the game. On the whole, it was not a breakout year, but it was a near-miss. For Mueller, the same holds true. He established himself as an above-average third baseman with a good mix of skills; kind of a poor man's Jeff Cirillo. But he did not take any great strides forward.

The one true whiff on this list is Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez continued to disappoint people who see his mix of defense, speed and power and think he can be a force. While he continued to play good defense, his offensive stagnation continued, and it's probable that this is as good as he's going to be.

Now for the flip side: the Flameouts:

Andres Galarraga
J.T. Snow
Livan Hernandez
Fernando Tatis
Bip Roberts

Who knew? Could even John Schuerholz, who we castigated mercilessly in both Baseball Prospectus 1998 and on this Web site, have predicted that Andres Galarrage would become an even better hitter, at 37 and moving down about 4,000 vertical feet?

Galarraga had an exceptional season, serving a slice of humble pie to those detractors who felt his age and road performance were sure to make him "Schuerholz' Folly". Not all players follow the typical career path, and Galarraga deserves all the accolades he's received.

For analysts, the success of Galarraga--and relative success of Eric Young and Walt Weiss in their post-Coors year--poses an interesting question, one that we do not have enough data to yet look at carefully: is there a lasting, positive impact of extended success in Colorado that can be expected to counteract the impact of leaving the great hitting environment?

It's easy to look at the road statistics for Rockie hitters and dismiss the claim that the park actually makes players better hitters over and above the park effect. But last year we saw three players leave that environment and have seasons on par with--even exceeding--their level of performance. Is there a post-Denver effect? Ellis Burks may provide an additional example this year, but it will probably take decades before we can look at this with any confidence. But in looking at individual players moving from Coors into other environments, it's something to keep in mind.

The rest of our flameout list is a mixed bag. Snow reverted to his 1996 form, and Bip Roberts was an injury-prone, unproductive pain in the butt for two teams. Livan Hernandez was worked so hard by Jim Leyland, he inspired a new statistic, Pitcher Abuse Points. But he stayed in the rotation and provided average performance, so it's hard to say he flamed out.

Fernando Tatis had the mirror image of Steve Reed's season. Reed was devastating for four months in the National League, then was traded to the AL and was much less effective. Tatis, handed the third base job by the Rangers, was a miserable hitter for four months before being traded to the Cardinals. In the National League, he was a big part of the Cardinals' successful September, despite being overshadowed by the hot streak their first baseman was having. On the whole, the year was average, but the second half hot streak will probably place Tatis on many people's "breakout" lists in 1999.

Over the next two weeks, you'll see an assortment of names bandied about as 1999's candidates for a breakout or flameout season. In putting together your own lists, remember certain basic principles:

  • Young players are more likely to improve, while older players are more likely to decline.

  • Young players with major league experience are the ones most likely to show dramatic improvement. Players in this category in 1999 include Shannon Stewart, Johnny Damon, Eric Milton, Darin Erstad, Andruw Jones, Mark Kotsay, Jason Schmidt and Travis Lee.

  • Players who have large improvements over or declines from established performance levels tend to return towards their established performance level.

    1999's big stories included Sammy Sosa, Kenny Rogers, Jeff Kent, Scott Brosius and Greg Vaughn. All of these players will slip back towards their career averages, and a couple of them will probably decline dramatically.

  • There are no absolutes. Mr. Galarraga has taught us that.
So... who are the people to watch for--and avoid--for any particular team in 1999? For that, you'll have to look for our divisional reports, starting this week. Enjoy the sights and sounds of spring!

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Steve Reed,  Fernando Tatis

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