February 21, 2017
PECOTA's Breakout Bets: Hitters
“Breakout” can mean different things to different people. It can mean a prospect or untested young big leaguer establishing himself as a valuable regular. It can mean a relative unknown becoming an impact player. It can mean a well-known star making the leap to full-blown superstar, perhaps even following up a “breakout” one year with an even bigger “breakout” the next. Your own definition may vary, but in PECOTA’s case “breakout” is all about out-performing track records.
PECOTA assigns each player a “breakout rate” for the upcoming season based on their odds of beating their established level of recent performance by at least 20 percent, with historical player comps serving as an important factor. Because the entire system is based on regressed-to-the-mean, 50th percentile projections, breakout rate identifies the players most likely to leave that in the dust for their 70th, 80th, and 90th percentile upsides.
Stars like Mike Trout, Anthony Rizzo, and Francisco Lindor have relatively high breakout rates for 2017, but it’s not because PECOTA projects them to significantly improve upon their already great 2016 seasons (for Trout, that would presumably mean learning to pitch and winning the Cy Young award or something). Instead, the system pegs them as the players most capable of rising above their 50th percentile projections.
Below you’ll find 10 position players assigned a high breakout rate by PECOTA. I think it makes sense to focus on untapped upside, so I’ve removed established stars like Trout and Rizzo from the mix and also limited the pool to players projected to have at least 500 plate appearances.
By almost any definition, Russell is a prototypical breakout candidate. He debuted at age 21 as a solid regular. Last season, at age 22, he added power, cut down on his strikeouts, and seamlessly shifted from second base to shortstop while making his first All-Star team. Based on his 50th percentile projection PECOTA sees Russell having a similar 2017 season, but in the 70th, 80th, and 90th percentiles the system identifies him as being capable of making a big jump in offensive production by adding a little more power and by upping his career .240 batting average into the .270 range. As if the Cubs needed more firepower.
Bregman had a strong 49-game debut despite starting his career 2-for-38. He recovered to hit .313/.354/.577 in his final 175 trips to the plate and PECOTA views him as a ready-made star at age 23. He’s projected to be a three-WARP player and the breakout potential comes from a belief that poor strike zone control as a rookie will stabilize with a bit more experience, which makes sense given that Bregman walked more (76) than he struck out (68) in 146 minor-league games (and also hit .300 with 24 homers). Astros shortstop Carlos Correa understandably gets most of the attention in Houston, but there’s also big-time upside right next to him in Bregman.
Benintendi placed third on BP’s top 101 prospects list, but PECOTA's love makes that lofty ranking seem like hatred in comparison. Benintendi moved quickly through the minors, batting .312/.392/.540 before debuting just 13 months after the Red Sox drafted him seventh overall. He thrived in the majors at 21, hitting .295/.359/.476 in 34 games. PECOTA’s projection isn’t so much a breakout pick as a belief in Benintendi doing that over a full year. In addition to the good hitting, PECOTA sees him being a plus-plus-plus defensive left fielder, which is interesting for a rookie spending half his time standing in front of the Green Monster (and next to a pair of plus-plus-plus outfielders).
Buxton has totaled 11.2 Fielding Runs Above Average through 138 career games and PECOTA pegs him at 16 FRAA for 2017. The beauty of being that great in center field is that it only takes a little offense to make you an all-around stud. PECOTA sees exactly that for Buxton at the 50th percentile, projecting him to hit .244/.296/.434 with 17 homers. He’s been a mess at the plate for nearly all of his big-league action so far, but a monster September has Twins fans dreaming on his power/speed combo. PECOTA remains somewhat skeptical in the short term due to iffy plate discipline, but at the 70th percentile and above Buxton is a five-WARP star.
PECOTA thinks Swanson will join Benintendi in being an immediate star, projecting the former no. 1 pick as a three-WARP player as a 23-year-old rookie. Swanson looked great at the plate in his 38-game debut with the Braves last season, but his early defensive numbers were a little rough. PECOTA actually projects Swanson’s fielding to be slightly ahead of his hitting in his first full season, but the breakout potential hinges on how quickly his power and plate discipline adapt to big-league pitching. On a totally, completely unrelated note: It has been 439 days since Arizona traded Swanson, plus Ender Inciarte and Aaron Blair, to Atlanta for Shelby Miller.
Polanco has made slow but steady progress offensively since debuting in 2014 at age 22 and he’s graded out as a very good defensive corner outfielder the entire time. He appeared to be on the verge of a breakout during the first half last season, but then struggled through shoulder and knee injuries in the second half. PECOTA thinks last year’s power development will stick and sees the potential for Polanco to make a jump in batting average, which would be enough to bring him to an All-Star level at 25. And if it doesn’t happen, we can all point to the fact that his top three comps were Hermida, Tarasco, and Francoeur.
WARP has long viewed Kiermaier as one of the most underrated players in baseball and now PECOTA thinks he has a chance to add above-average offense to otherworldly defense. Last season Kiermaier upped his power and plate discipline, but it went largely unnoticed because he hit just .246 and missed two months with a broken hand. If he continues to be plus-20 runs in center field Kiermaier is a star no matter what, but PECOTA sees untapped offensive upside in the 27-year-old. At the 60th percentile he’d reach 6.0 WARP and at the 70th percentile or higher he’d be among the MLB leaders in WARP, combining amazing defense with an .800 OPS.
Miguel Sano, Minnesota Twins
I’ve written thousands of words per year about Sano since he was 16 and the questions haven’t changed: Can he make enough contact to hit better than .250? Can he contribute defensively? What we know for certain is that when he makes contact the ball goes a long way and he loves getting into deep counts looking for pitches to crush. Homers and walks will always be plentiful, but he’s hit .249 through 196 career games and, as Matthew Trueblood wrote earlier this month, Sano’s strikeout rate is so absurdly high that PECOTA has a tough time finding reliable comps. As a .240-hitting DH he’d be a good regular, but as a .270-hitting third baseman he’d be a star.
Similar to Russell, the 50th percentile projection for Odor is more of the same—a three-WARP player with excellent power, good up-the-middle defense, and poor strike zone control at age 23—but the upper-percentile ranges think he has a chance to nearly double his walk rate and increase his batting average without losing any thump. Or, put another way: Odor is about 25 walks per year from being an all-around stud and PECOTA thinks he has a chance to get there. He’s clearly a special talent, with last season’s 33 homers topping the previous MLB record for a 22-year-old second baseman by 50 percent.
Puig already broke out once, in 2013-2014, but back-to-back disappointing, injury riddled years have lots of people questioning whether he can be an impact player again. PECOTA still believes in the 26-year-old, projecting a 90-point OPS improvement and attaching a decent breakout rate that would nearly get him back to his early production levels. That’s probably a hard sell for Dodgers fans, but this is an example of PECOTA possibly providing insight by viewing a player through his track record only, as opposed to narratives and perceptions. Plus, he did hit .293/.366/.480 after June 1 last season, albeit between disabled list stints and minor-league demotions.