I feel like I start this article the same way every year. "What defines a breakout in Fantasy Baseball?" I realize I never actually asked the people who matter most… Twitter! Unsurprisingly, I was met with a wide range of responses, which makes sense. It's subjective and can mean different things to different people.
The answer I resonated most with came from my buddy, Mike Kurland: "A player who takes a step forward that they've never taken while never having done it in the past, either."
What defines a breakout in Fantasy?— Frank Stampfl (@Roto_Frank) January 14, 2022
Something I enjoy doing is looking at the biggest breakouts from the previous season to see if there are any common traits. It won't shock you to learn many of them have a certain level of prospect pedigree or, in the case of Shohei Ohtani, an abundance of talent coupled with health questions. Of course, there will always be those that come out of nowhere like Cedric Mullins. We know he abandoned switch-hitting last offseason but even his biggest optimist couldn't see a 30-30 season coming.
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Pitchers could be a little tougher to predict, however, as names like Freddy Peralta and Robbie Ray either changed their pitch mix or added velocity. It's nearly impossible to predict that unless you hear something about it in the offseason or during spring training (see, spring training does matter). Admittedly, I'm still in the process of player evaluation, but these are my early favorites to take that next step and truly break out in 2022.
We've seen flashes from Eloy Jimenez but have yet to see what he can do when everything is clicking over a full season. That was never going to be the case in 2021 when he tore his left pectoral in spring training. He played just 55 games and apparently struggled with his timing during that stretch. He wound up batting just .249 with 10 home runs and a .740 OPS. The struggles are evident in the underlying numbers as well. Because Jimenez hits as many ground balls as he does, he relies on an outlier HR/FB ratio to produce big home run totals. The HR/FB ratio went from 31% in 2020 to just 21.7% in 2021. His average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives also went from 97.7 MPH to 95.5 MPH. Jimenez is a lot like Juan Soto in this way.
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If we eliminate Jimenez's injury-riddled 2021, he was trending towards that breakout. He hit 31 home runs over just 122 games as a rookie in 2019 and followed that up with 14 home runs and an .891 OPS in the shortened 2020 season. I'm about to enter dangerous territory here, but I see similarities between Jimenez and Vladimir Guerrero one year ago. Yes, Guerrero came with even more prospect pedigree and much better plate discipline, but Jimenez is still young enough at 25 years old to convince yourself we haven't seen his best. Also, if I had a pick for "this year's Blue Jays lineup," I would go with the White Sox.
From one former top prospect to another. Overall, Jarred Kelenic was a letdown his rookie season, but in his defense, many prospects were. It's impossible to say how much the lack of a minor league season in 2020 affected the development of these youngsters and, honestly, we likely won't know for years to come. Kelenic's first stint in the majors last season lasted just 23 games where he hit .096 with two home runs and a 28% strikeout rate. He returned to the Mariners following the All-Star break and, for the most part, was still quite bad… until September.
Chris Towers is going to hate me for this but yes, I will be looking at partial season statistics to make my argument here. Over Kelenic's final 28 games he hit .238 with seven home runs and three steals, striking out a much more manageable 25% of the time. On top of that, he walked in 10.5% of his plate appearances, leading to an .849 OPS. Statcast liked Kelenic during this stretch as well, evidenced by an 18.1% barrel rate. To put that in perspective, Bryce Harper ranked fourth in baseball with an 18.1% barrel rate. Kelenic has to hit a few more line drives, but if he can do that and build off this September, we could be looking at a 20-20 bat with a middling batting average.
Well, we've talked about every other former top prospect, why stop now? Like many others, I'll admit I was very hard on Jo Adell in recent years, but we need to remember he's still just 22 years old. Prospect growth is not linear as we've seen with many before him. It takes time, but we started to see glimpses from Adell. First and foremost, he cut down the strikeouts. He was not ready in 2020. Plain and simple. The Angels called him up and watched Adell hit .161 with a 41.7% strikeout rate in the shortened season, crushing his confidence. Shame on you, Angels! He struggled early in the minors in 2021 but then turned it on. In 73 games at Triple-A, Adell hit .289 with 23 home runs and a 29% strikeout rate. It wasn't perfect, but it was progress.
Fast forward and he's called up to the majors in August. He only played 35 games, but during that stretch he struck out in just 23% of his plate appearances. Hello, that's league average! We'll certainly take that. Like Kelenic, something clicked for Adell in September. He hit .333 with three homers and one steal. Yes, it was just nine games so take it with a grain of salt, but this is what progress looks like. If you need added incentive to draft him at his current ADP of 239, he ranked in the 89th percentile for max exit velocity and 98th percentile in sprint speed. The guy is a freak athlete and I absolutely love that he gets to pick the brains of the best hitters in the game in Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon. Since writing this back in February, Adell is on the rise! He's having a massive spring where he's gone 7-for-25 with three home runs and three steals. You might want to pull him up a few rounds from his ADP to secure you get him.
If you listened to Fantasy Baseball Today last season, you know which pitcher I'm starting with. I'll take the low-hanging fruit with Shane McClanahan. The latest Tampa Bay Rays ace showed out as a rookie, posting a 3.43 ERA and 1.27 WHIP with 141 strikeouts over 123.1 innings. Just watch any start of his and the talent is just oozing out of him. Even in games where he struggled, the stuff is still evident. We're talking about a southpaw who averages 96.4 MPH on his fastball and throws four different pitches at least 8% of the time. I haven't even mentioned the 14.8% swinging strike rate yet. That was tied for eighth among starting pitchers with at least 120 innings pitched last season.
I mentioned he throws four different pitches. The four-seam, slider and curveball are his bread and butter while he mixes in a changeup. Each of those secondary offerings induces swinging strikes at a 17% clip or better. Like most young pitchers, he isn't perfect. His fastball is hard but also very hittable. It allowed a .308 batting average and .500 slugging percentage against last season. McClanahan also lived in the zone a little too much, allowing for hard contact. It reminds me a bit of Shane Bieber when he first came up and look how he turned out. Trust the stuff and trust that the Rays need him to be their ace with Tyler Glasnow hurt. McClanahan legitimately has top-10 upside if everything comes together for him.
Let's head back out to Seattle and talk about Kelenic's running mate, Logan Gilbert. On the surface, Gilbert didn't have a great rookie season with a 4.68 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. As you know by now, surface numbers are not always what they appear to be. Despite the 4.68 ERA, Gilbert posted a 3.87 SIERA. While that may not sound impressive, it was better than fellow rookie Alek Manoah (who everybody is excited about), Blake Snell and Luis Castillo. Also, Gilbert's 19.9% K-BB rate was tied for 26th with Joe Musgrove among starting pitchers with at least 110 innings pitched last season.
The point of this all is that Gilbert was still pretty good in 2021. The key for him this season will be consistency, particularly with his secondary stuff. There were too many starts where he didn't have a feel for them. When he did have them, however, you could tell. Overall, his slider generated an 18% swinging strike rate while his changeup was 16%. The fastball is already really good. It posted a 17.5 runs above average, which ranked as the eighth best fastball among starters and was better than Robbie Ray, Gerrit Cole, and Sandy Alcantara. We also recently learned that Gilbert was working with Jacob deGrom this offseason as both call Stetson University their alma mater. Gilbert picked up a few things mechanically, is working on a firmer slider and a harder curveball. He's looked awesome this spring, too.
I hope I'm not stealing this one from Scott White but it's time to remind everybody just how good Patrick Sandoval was last season. People have clearly forgotten based on his 223.5 ADP. Sandoval was inserted into the Angels rotation on May 17 and made 14 starts. During that time he posted a 3.39 ERA, 1.18 WHIP with 86 strikeouts over 79.2 innings pitched. What do Scott and I love when it comes to pitchers? Swinging strike rate, of course. Sandoval's 15.3% swinging strike rate in these 14 starts was second in baseball behind only Corbin Burnes.
How did this happen? Mostly opportunity. Sandoval has always posted strong swinging strike rates, just was never given a real chance. Oh, and the changeup. It's filthy. It posted a .139 batting average against with a 28.7% swinging strike rate! Are you kidding? During that 14-start stretch, his changeup ranked as the best in baseball. It also helps that he has a really good slider with solid velocity from the left side. Sandoval was eventually shut down last season with a stress reaction in his back, so there is injury risk. He's also going outside the top-200 picks, so you can afford to take said risk.
Last but not least we wind up with Triston McKenzie, who I can see being a polarizing player, and rightfully so. Just take one look at the guy. He stands at 6'5 and is listed at 165 pounds, if that. The frame is enough to scare folks off, but I think there's a good amount of upside here. McKenzie is a former top prospect himself but, as you might have guessed, he's struggled to stay healthy. We've seen stretches of a talented pitcher, though. Take his shortened 2020 where he posted a 3.24 ERA and 0.90 WHIP over 33.1 innings. Sure, it's a small sample but he performed in his first taste of the majors.
And then 2021 started. Uncharacteristically, McKenzie averaged 8.29 BB/9 over his first 10 starts. That also came with his fastball velocity down at 91.4 MPH. He was banished to the minors to iron out his control, which he did. Over his final 14 starts, McKenzie averaged just 2.2 BB/9 with his fastball velocity at 92.7 MPH. There were some hiccups late, but he had a 10-start stretch with a 2.96 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and a 12.9% swinging strike rate from July to September. When everything is clicking, he's a strong WHIP pitcher with a bunch of strikeouts. He has just a .199 batting average against since the start of 2020. Don't believe me? Watch these highlights to see how bad he made the American League MVP look not once, not twice, but thrice. Like Sandoval, McKenzie is a late-round pick with immense upside.