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You have until noon Pacific today to sign up for HACKING MASS 2016. Do it now, or that Chuckie Carr Starting Lineup figure will end up in somebody else’s wall safe. In the meantime, Dustin Palmateer tries to use his HACKING MASS woes for good.

HACKING MASS, as you surely know, is fantasy baseball flipped on its head. The goal, unlike conventional fantasy, is to pick the worst players in the league and the catch is that the players can’t just be bad—they have to be both bad and in the major leagues, accumulating playing time. The rules make assembling a winning roster a balancing act between finding glove-first guys, aging veterans with big contracts, and long-leashed youngsters on bad teams.

Over the last two seasons, my teams have been pretty good . . . ya know, in a bad way. While I’ve watched HACKING MASS stalwarts like Jose Molina, Kyle Kendrick, Alexi Amarista, and [insert Colorado Rockies pitcher here] rack up all kinds of positive points, my championship hopes have been dashed in each respective year by a new breakout star who snuck his way onto my team—in 2014 I picked Dallas Keuchel (200 innings, 2.93 ERA) and last year I snagged Dee Gordon (653 PAs, .292 True Average). Gordon still has to prove he’s the real deal, but Keuchel answered 2014’s breakout with an even better campaign last season, reinventing himself as a perennial Cy Young contender. Either way, both players singlehandedly sabotaged an otherwise perfect collection of sub-replacement-level goodness.

Our purpose here is to use my 2016 HACKING MASS roster to find the next out-of-nowhere baseball star. We’ll run through my roster of futility searching for another diamond in the rough, including each player’s actual PECOTA Breakout Rate to add a little more substance. Let’s get started.

Catcher: Kurt Suzuki
The good news for Suzuki is that he’s used good health and the strange fascination major-league teams have with playing him to notch eight straight 300-plus plate appearance seasons. The first requirement for a surprise breakout is just showing up and being on a team willing to run you out there every day. Another point in his favor is the theory that catchers take time to come around with the bat, as much of their early development is focused on the defensive side of the game. Think Yadier Molina, who didn’t crack the .800 OPS threshold until he was 28.

Then there are the sobering facts regarding Suzuki, specifically:

· He’s 32 years old.

· He’s posted an on-base percentage on the wrong side of .300 in three of the last four years while leaving the yard just once every 25 games. His offense, besides a few blips here and there, has been in steady decline since his rookie season.

It’s tough to foresee Suzuki reverting back into a league-average bat let alone something more, and his defense isn’t that good to begin with.

PECOTA Breakout Rate: 2 percent

First base: C.J. Cron
Cron has some legitimate power, having blasted 27 home runs over his first 657 plate appearances in the majors. He’s also shown poor strike zone judgement, with 143 strikeouts and just 27 walks over that span. There are two ways Cron can develop into something more than a replacement level first baseman:

1. He can hit for even more power. This will force pitchers to be more careful with him, ultimately leading to more walks even if that’s not Cron’s gig. Among first basemen with at least 400 PAs last season, Cron’s 4.2 walk percentage ranked last, and it’s tough to be a productive first baseman without drawing more free passes. Of course, hitting for more power isn’t just something you decide to do.

2. He can swing at better pitches. Cron swung at 39 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone last year while hacking at just 64 percent of pitches inside the strike zone, and the difference between those two numbers (25 percentage points) was the 14th-lowest mark in the majors in 2015. That can’t of profile can work for a certain kind of hitter, but it probably isn’t ideal.

Neither of those options is particularly likely to occur, as hitters tend to continue doing what they’ve done in the past. But there is a clear path for Cron to turn into an asset at first base, and his ample power and acceptable contact rates make further improvement a possibility. Plus, he just turned 26 in January.

PECOTA Breakout Rate: 2 percent

Second Base: Jean Segura
After a solid rookie year in 2013 where he snagged an extra-base hit triple-double—20 doubles, 10 triples, and 12 home runs—Segura’s needed two full seasons to pull off the same feat. Last year was perhaps his most worrisome showing yet, as his strikeout rate (15.9 percent) and walk rate (2.2 percent) reached career worsts. Among qualified hitters, nobody walked less frequently in 2015.

In horse racing, sometimes horses with no business being in the race—on paper, anyway—win, but even after meticulous study of the past performances, no clue as to how it ever happened is found. That’s where I’m at with Segura. He could break out, sure, because breakouts happen. I just can’t tell you how.

PECOTA Breakout Rate: 2 percent

Third base: Aaron Hill
The best arguments for Hill as a breakout candidate are his past breakouts, which distinguish him from most of the players listed here. The guy’s been a valuable player before, with three four-plus WARP seasons during his career—though two of them came in the previous decade.

Over the last two seasons, however, his TAv cratered below .240 in hitter-friendly Arizona. The power that made him one of the best-hitting second baseman in baseball a few years back has mostly disappeared, but on the plus side his walk and strikeout rates haven’t faltered as much. His BABiP has mysteriously dipped to .268 since 2014, which signals both a potential rebound and a warning sign. The dude’s getting older—he turned 34 in March—and the combination of both declining foot speed and hard contact has likely led to the decline.

Fun Fact: Hill was traded for his HACKING MASS teammate Jean Segura in January.

PECOTA Breakout Rate 0 percent

Shortstop: Alcides Escobar
Escobar is the consummate modern-day Royal. He stinks on paper, but watch him play a few games and you come away with a new appreciation for the strange brand of baseball he delivers—Esky Magic, some like to call it.

Okay, “stinks” might be a bit harsh. When Escobar hits just a little bit—like he did in 2012 and 2014—he becomes a valuable player because he’s passable defensively at short and a solid base runner. The problem is that his offensive productivity is driven almost entirely by his batting average on balls in play, a stat which tends to fluctuate more than others.

Year

BABiP

OPS

2012

.344

.721

2013

.264

.559

2014

.326

.694

2015

.286

.614

Saying this guy is going to turn into something more than a .280-something hitter with little patience or power is like saying he’s going to lead the league in BABIP, and that’s something even Esky Magic might have trouble wrangling.

PECOTA Breakout Rate: 1 percent

Left field: Joey Rickard
The Orioles aren’t just trying to stash the Rule 5 pick on the bottom of the 25-man roster, they’re giving him a starting job in left field. After he struggled in Double-A in 2014, the Rays sent him down a level to start 2015. The move paid off:

Year

Level

Slash line

2014

Double-A

.243/.337/.296

2015

High-A

.268/.436/.310

2015

Double-A

.322/.420/.479

2015

Triple-A

.360/.437/.472

The lack of power is concerning, particularly for someone expected to play an outfield corner, but Rickard puts the ball in play, controls the strike zone well enough, and has plenty of speed. PECOTA likes Rickard’s chances to bust out better than all but 17 of the 957 hitters it projected. That probably means more than anything I can write here.

PECOTA Breakout Rate: 10 percent

Center field: Billy Hamilton

Hamilton does not hit the baseball particularly hard. The following table shows where he ranked in exit velocity in 2015 among the 375 hitters with at least 100 at-bats tracked:

Player

Avg. Exit Velocity

371) Clint Barmes

82.99

372) Ben Revere

82.73

373) Billy Burns

82.65

374) Billy Hamilton

82.45

375) Jarrod Dyson

82.17

With tremendous speed and a lack of power, Hamilton profiles as the rare breed of hitter who should put the ball on the ground often, yet his career groundball rate sits at just 42.2 percent. He also doesn’t walk, as pitchers aren’t afraid to pepper the strike zone against his powerless approach. The result is a game-changing baserunner with scant opportunities to show off his wheels (his on-base percentage sunk to .274 last season), and it’s not clear the bat is ever going to come around. The good news is that he upped his stolen base success rate from 71 percent in 2014 to 88 percent last season, and his advanced defensive stats in center are better than expected.

Hamilton’s somehow playable with a sub-.600 OPS, but will he be anything more?

PECOTA Breakout Rate: 4 percent

Right field: Eddie Rosario
The average age of the Minnesota Twins starting outfield is 23, and Rosario is both the oldest and least heralded of the trio—in fairness, the rest of the outfield features Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. At 24 years old, Rosario’s offensive game is modeled after your prototypical hacker—last year, in his major-league debut, his triple total matched his walk total at 15 apiece, and he struck out 118 times. The lack of patience wasn’t unexpected, as Rosario walked in just seven percent of his plate appearances in the minors.

Considering the faults, Rosario’s rookie season was a moderate success, mostly thanks to 46 extra-base hits in just 474 plate appearances. Toss in a dose of post-hype prospect status—he’s a two-time BP top 100 prospect—and Rosario stands to take a step forward in 2016. Can he overcome a low-walk/high-strikeout corner outfield profile to become anything more than Delmon Young? Probably not, but stranger things have happened.

PECOTA Breakout Rate: 6 percent

Pitcher: Eddie Butler
It’s customary to grab at least one Rockies pitcher on every HACKING MASS team, and Butler’s pitched 95 1/3 innings in parts of two big-league seasons with an ERA over six and a strikeout-to-walk ratio under one. This year, he’s my guy.

The projections aren’t that bad, however, considering the early struggles, as PECOTA projects Butler for a 4.63 ERA. He’s also been dealing with some shoulder issues, so there’s hope for increased velocity in 2016. Perhaps the best angle for finding another Keuchel is the lefty himself, and here’s Butler compared to Keuchel’s first 95 1/3 major-league innings:

Pitcher

Innings

ERA+

K/BB ratio

HR/9

Dallas Keuchel

95 1/3

77

1.02

1.5

Eddie Butler

95 1/3

76

0.96

1.4

Butler didn’t even break camp with the Rockies, but he figures to be up at some point. Pitchers are weird, man. Who knows. A switch to the bullpen could turn him into Wade Davis.

PECOTA Breakout Rate: 20 percent

Pitcher: Charlie Morton
Morton’s spent almost his entire career under the tutelage of pitching coach savant Ray Searage, in a pitcher’s ballpark, in front of a shift-happy and often effective defense. The results—a 4.54 ERA with a 1.86 K/BB ratio—have been less than desirable. Now he leaves Pittsburgh for Philadelphia where he’ll find no more Searage, a less friendly pitching environment, and a defense that projects, by some measures, to be one of the league’s worst. Did we mention he’s 32? These are not the hidden signs of a sneaky breakout candidate.

On the other hand, Morton has recorded the highest strikeout rates of his career over his last three seasons, he’s gotten his groundball rate up near 60 percent, and his HR/FB rate last year was 14.9 percent compared to his career 10.6 percent career mark. So there’s that.

PECOTA Breakout Rate: 10 percent

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jfranco77
4/15
Segura looks like your breakout so far!
dutt22
4/17
I think I'd lean toward Rickard if I had to choose one guy, just kind of from a new face perspective. But Segura's off to a heckuva start.
smitty99
4/15
Morton throws surprisingly hard with movement. He's starting to strike out some guys. He does lose command of his control at times leading to high sinkers and hitters smoking some of his pitches. He might break out. The Phillies' infield defense isn't that terrible. Galvis and Hernandez can play. Franco's computer numbers may be lousy but he has a strong arm and has looked OK at least. Howard is pretty awful but he's a big target at first and actually makes some nice plays on less than ideal throws to first. Might be wishful thinking but it's the time of year to hope for breakouts and other good stuff to happen for your team.
dutt22
4/19
Thought I responded to this, but maybe I forgot. The gist of what I thought I said was that, yeah, maybe I was a little harsh on Morton. I don't know. Still not a big believer, though, with all that ho-hum past performance in Pittsburgh. His velocity is up pretty significantly so far this year, so that's something interesting to keep an eye on.