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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!