There are a number of ways to define a “breakout season.” In compiling the list in today’s piece, I went looking for players who have been in the league for two-to-three years, are young enough to have development left, and have established a certain level of performance. There are players such as Billy Butler, Philip Hughes and Tim Lincecum who I expect to have strong ’08 seasons, but who don’t have enough career preceding them to fairly call them breakout candidates. There are players such as Dustin McGowan, Jeremy Hermida and Corey Hart who I’m bullish on, but who can fairly be said to have broken out in ’07. Veterans like Carl Crawford, Felix Hernandez, Jeremy Bonderman and Robinson Cano look poised to improve, but don’t seem to quite fit the category.
What do true breakout players look like? Well, a little like this…
- Rickie Weeks: I heart Rickie Weeks, who looked like he improved in 2006, but actually took a big step forward last season. Consider that prior to ’07, Weeks had drawn 68 walks and struck out 194 times in 841 career PAs. (All references to walks in this piece are to unintentional passes.) Both his plate discipline and power had been stable from ’05 into ’06, but a 40-point jump in BA made it look like improvement. Last year, however, Weeks walked more often, struck out less often, and hit for more power than ever before. He also went 25-for-27 on the basepaths and grounded into just three double plays all year.
Now, that’s the sunniest view of Weeks’ season. What that doesn’t show is that on August 1, the Brewers sent Weeks, hitting .212/.330/.363 and not showing improvement defensively, to Triple-A for two weeks. This was, in part, a reaction to the team’s summer malaise, which Weeks was a part of but not the sole reason for. Even with his low batting average, Weeks’ walk rate, K/BB and isolated power were career highs or close to it, showing growth. Weeks was recalled nine days later, and was one of the best players in the NL down the stretch: .273/.442/.553, 38 walks drawn in 197 PA, 15-for-15 stealing bases.
If you just look at Weeks’ seasonal OBP and SLG, you end up missing the impact of an unusually low batting average, the improvement in his core skills, and the way he played after the demotion. Weeks is 25 now, and ready to be one of the best second baseman-at least at the plate-in the National League.
- Dioner Navarro: Affectionately known as “Bandwagon” for my insistence that everyone will be on his in 2008. Navarro has been a completely different player since being traded to the Devil Rays in 2006. At the time of the deal, Navarro had a career OBP of .360. With Tampa Bay, his OBP is .292. That kind of drop-off at 22 and 23 is alarming, and deserves investigation. When you look deeper, you see that Navarro’s decline has been concentrated in his strikeout rate, up about 15 percent, with a concomitant drop in his walk rate.
Navarro was one of the worst players in baseball in the first half of 2007, batting .177/.238/.254, with a 36/13 K/BB in 229 plate appearances. To the Rays’ credit, they didn’t bury him, allowing him to remain the regular catcher throughout the season. They were rewarded with a significant improvement in the second half: .285/.340/.475, with a better K/BB (31/17 in 209 PA) and the best power of his career.
- Ryan Zimmerman: Zimmerman may seem like an odd choice for the list, given how well he’s played in his first two full seasons. However, Zimmerman’s raw stat lines have been held down by his home park, RFK Stadium, which just killed power, especially right-handed power. Zimmerman’s home/road splits do not reflect this gap-he’s slugged .501 at RFK in his career, .435 on the road, but a guiding principle of performance analysis is that an individual’s home/road splits, even over two years, do not mean that player isn’t being affected by his home park. We know what RFK did to run scoring and power, and moving to a new park should enable Zimmerman to convert some of his doubles to home runs. Throw in development-he’s 23 this season-and you have the recipe for a breakout. David Wright might well have been the most valuable player in the National League last season; Zimmerman will be a better player than Wright in 2008.
- Ervin Santana: Santana still has the power stuff that helped him throw 204 innings of above-average ball for the Angels in 2006. As a flyball pitcher who fights his command at times, Santana runs the risk of blowups when he’s both walking people and allowing homers. Much has been made of his home/road split (3.14 career ERA in Anaheim, 7.14 elsewhere), and while Santana certainly is helped by Angels Stadium’s dimensions, which lower his home-run rate, the gap between those two numbers overstates the difference in his performance.
Santana was sent to the minors just after the All-Star break, following a five-start stretch in which he allowed 32 runs, 46 hits and seven homers in 26 innings. After he returned, however, he was back to his inconsistent self: seven starts, including three quality starts and three others in which he allowed at least five runs. Overall, his line was comparable to his 2006 performance, and most notably, he had a 39/15 K/BB with just three homers allowed in 40 innings. Throw in a dominant relief outing against the Red Sox in the Division Series, and it’s not hard to see that, at 25, Santana can put up the best season of his career this year.
- Jason Kubel: While playing in the Arizona Fall League in 2004, Kubel, then 22 and considered one of the best hitting prospects in the game, suffered a devastating knee injury that cost him the entire 2005 season. Although he came back and played in ’06, he wasn’t remotely the same hitter. Most notably, Kubel’s post-injury strikeout rate has been much higher-147 in 835 PA, versus 193 in 1770 PA prior to the injury. That’s not just a result of playing at higher levels: that’s evidence of damage to the engine.
What we saw in ’07 was Kubel finally get back to the hitter he was before the injury. In the season’s first two months, Kubel struck out 33 times and walked 11 in 165 PA. In the next two months, those numbers were 21/10 in 148 PA: a big drop in strikeout rate and K/BB. Over the last two months: 25/18 in 153 PA. Kubel, a disciplined hitter coming through the minors, regained that discipline in ’07. His batting average and power followed. He’s 26 this season, and may actually be the Twins‘ best hitter during it; better than Morneau, better than Mauer.
- Melky Cabrera. Cabrera went backwards in ’07, but not by enough for concern. Remember that he is just 23 years old and has more than 1100 plate appearances in the majors, with average to average-plus defense (good physical tools, but very raw, takes bad routes) and a very good 129/96 K/BB. He is a mature player offensively, patient at the plate and fair on the bases (25-for-35 stealing in his career). One interesting quirk is his G/F ratio, which is 1.63 for his career and was a whopping 1.81 last season. Cabrera is listed at 5’11” and 200 pounds. He’s not Willy Taveras, but rather a player who should be developing power and learning how to drive the ball, rather than hitting the ball on the ground 60 percent of the time.
I’m reminded of Alex Rios, who doesn’t look a thing like Cabrera. Rios was largely disappointing in 2004 and 2005, hitting just 11 homers in more than 900 at-bats, with an isolated power of 117. The problem: Rios was hitting the ball on the ground too much, a 1.82 G/F in those two seasons. Starting in ’06, Rios put the ball in the air more than half the time, and became a star. When you look at Cabrera’s body, his established control of the strike zone, and his ability to hold his own at a young age, you recognize that all it’s going to take is for him to start elevating the ball. Cabrera may not get there in 2008, but he’s going to pop 80 extra-base hits and slug .500 in a season very, very soon.
- Nate McLouth: It’s not clear whether McLouth can make enough contact to warrant being called a breakout candidate. However, in his career he’s 34-for-36 stealing bases, including 22-for-23 in 2007, and that’s a key skill for any speed player. Moreover, he nearly doubled his walk rate in ’07 and hit for more power. That makes the strikeout rate (more than one every five PA) palatable, if just barely. McLouth’s steady improvement over the past two years indicates that he is a good enough player to be an asset as a center fielder and leadoff hitter at his peak. One key split is that McLouth was much better after moving into a semi-regular role on June 17 (.268/.365/.502) than he was as a bench player prior to that (.221/.293/.294).
- Ian Kinsler: Starting with McLouth, we get into players who aren’t quite as strong candidates. Kinsler made small improvements across the board in ’07, hitting more fly balls, walking a bit more, stealing more bases at a better rate and playing better defense. Given a full season-Kinsler has missed 74 games in two seasons-he could put up Dan Uggla‘s numbers, with much better defense and a higher OBP.
- Dan Johnson: Still an Athletic for the moment, Johnson should be able to reclaim a share of the first base/DH job even with Daric Barton knocking on the door. Unlike a number of players in this piece, Johnson was actually much better in the first half of 2007 than the second, and was a fairly poor player down the stretch at that. Johnson’s high strikeout rate has not come paired with great power, but rather as a side effect of deep counts that have led to walks, but with such a low batting average that his OBP remains unimpressive. He’d be a better fit in a different park.
Now, with both Weeks and Navarro, it’s fair to wonder whether emphasizing a subset of performance is the correct way to analyze them. After all, if a full season isn’t always enough to ascertain player quality, is six weeks or three months an appropriate window? In these two cases, the players’ youth, their core skill sets and the way in which their late-season work fits with their career curves make me believe those smaller samples indicate improvement, rather than merely being a statistical blip. Navarro doesn’t have Weeks’ upside, and I would suggest that both his .285 second-half BA and 190 ISO are a bit over his head. As a switch-hitting catcher with good defensive skills and the ability to post a .360 OBP, however, he’s a tremendous asset. Navarro, still just 24 years old, is in line to be an above-average player, a five-win guy, for the next three seasons.
Other players I want to mention include Rich Hill, Edwin Encarnacion, Stephen Drew, Jayson Werth, Yadier Molina and Wily Mo Pena. For various reasons, these players are strong candidates to improve their performance dramatically in 2008.