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Let’s Project Three 2018 Breakout Players

The best thing about Spring Training statistics for fantasy owners is that you can spin them whichever way is convenient for you, the owner. If you’re heavily invested in a certain player who is struggling in Spring Training, you can always say “It’s only spring, these numbers don’t count!” Or, on the other hand, you can use a hot spring to justify reaching for a player who you believe will breakout. So yes, largely spring statistics are meaningless. Except, Jeff Zimmerman wrote an article earlier this year highlighting batted ball data to spot potential breakouts. With limited Statcast data provided at many Arizona and Florida ballparks, the ground out/fly out ratio may be the best indicator for hitters to spot those breakouts. Luckily provides the GO/AO ratio for all spring statistics, so we can put Jeff Zimmerman’s hard work to use now that 2018 Spring Training is in the books. Let’s look at three players that look poised to breakout in 2018. I’ll write a part-two portion including three or four players who had previously broken out (relatively speaking) in 2017 but are projected to regress some by the masses.

Let’s start with Brandon Nimmo, the young outfielder for the Mets. Nimmo had a hot spring and with Michael Conforto starting the season on the DL, Nimmo got the nod to leadoff and play centerfield for Opening Day. Conforto is progressing much quicker than expected and should be back before the end of the month. halting Nimmo’s playing time. Thanks to the Mets signing on Adrian Gonzalez, effectively blocking Jay Bruce from moving from right field to first base, Nimmo is left without a spot. I won’t speculate on injuries (too much) but Yoenis Cespedes rarely plays a full season and I don’t expect Adrian Gonzalez to be at first base all season.

Back to Nimmo, he hit .306 with three home runs and whooping nine extra-base hits in Spring Training. In addition to all those loud numbers, his GO/AO ratio sits at 0.87 for the spring. For context, his minor league ratio is 1.32 and so far in limited major league experience (250 at-bats) it’s 1.12. Based on Zimmerman’s conversion table, we are looking at a ground ball rate of between 42% and 43%. Throughout his minor league career his ground ball rates have ranged between 45% to 56%, let’s call it 50%. That difference in groundball rate could mean an improvement in fly ball rate to near 40%. Nimmo has never been considered a power hitter but he’s been graded with a 50 in raw power, so a change in approach may unlock 20+ home runs. His previous career high is 12 in 2016, mostly in AAA and one at the major league level. His plate discipline is already fantastic evidenced by his incredible minor league walk rates. If he were to unlock average to above average power, Nimmo could become a Matt Carpenter-type leadoff hitter for years to come.

Steven Duggar is a name I haven’t seen on many people’s radar this offseason. He performed well this spring and has impressed the coaching staff of the Giants. But alas, he was Optioned to AAA to receive everyday at-bats. The Giants believe he is the centerfielder of the future and given the health track record of players like Hunter Pence and the mediocrity of Gregor Blanco, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dugger by June (if not sooner). Duggar is a good athlete with a good hit tool and above average speed. His raw power is only graded out as average but I’ve noticed an approach change that began in High-A last year where he, like many others began elevating the ball more. He missed some time last year but also saw a solid HR/FB% at about 13% along with the increase in fly balls. This is a good sign. So let’s compare some numbers for Duggar.

In his first two seasons of minor league ball, his GO/AO ratio was 1.52 with fly ball rates typically below 30%. In 2017, again he dealt with injuries and only played in 42 games, but improved on his GO/AO ratio and fly ball rate to the tune of 0.82 and 43% respectively. This spring he’s continued elevating the baseball with a GO/AO ratio of 0.92 along with 4 home runs and six extra-base hits. His patience at the plate is incredible, much like Brandon Nimmo and his outfield defense is good enough to play centerfield for the Giants right now. He’s been a doubles machine in the minors and it’s possible those doubles start turning into home runs. I don’t see the upside in terms of home runs compared to Nimmo but I think Duggar can steal more bases, so both can be solid fantasy contributors, especially in OBP formats.

Based on all the hype in Ozzie Albies direction this offseason, you would be under the impression that he already broke out. However, he was only up with the Braves for all of 57 games and 244 plate appearances. In that short amount of time, he performed admirably with a triple slash line of .286/.354/.456 with six home runs and eight steals at the ripe age of 20 years old. Impressive to say the least, but before 2017 he had hit a total of eight home runs in 293 games. So, should we just chalk up the 15 he hit between AAA and the majors in 2017 to luck or an outlier?

How about neither, you know better than that! Ozzie was a ground ball machine in the minors which is typical for a speedster with 70-grade speed and five foot nine inch, 160-pound frame. Prior to 2017, Albies’ minor league GO/AO ratio was 1.5. Last year between AAA and the majors, it was 0.9 which matches his approach this spring at 0.85. Albies has hit over .300 with three homers and six extra-base hits this spring. I realize that Albies only played in 57 games in 2017 but I set some parameters for comparison sake to Ozzie Albies’ short time in the Majors, because why not? It’s fun. Take a look. Not bad, right? I set the walk rate above 8%, the K rate below 17%, the flyball rate above 39%, and the Hard contact above 33%. The player I want to highlight of this group is fellow five foot nine inch Mookie Betts. Let’s compare Mookie’s 200+ PA cameo at age 21 to Albies’ 200+ PA cameo last year.

Season Name Age PA BB% K% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Hard%
2014 Mookie Betts 21 213 9.90 14.60 38.60 11.50 8.20 35.80
2017 Ozzie Albies 20 244 8.60 14.80 40.30 1.40 8.20 33.20

I should point out that Betts didn’t strike out as much as Albies did in the minors but still impressive, to say the least. New SunTrust Park plays much better in terms of power for left-handed batters and yes, Albies is a switch hitter, but should bat from the left side at least 65% of the time. Hitting from the left side should help his power production. The infatuation with Albies continues to grow. If he builds on his success from 2017, there’s nothing in his batted ball profile that would prevent him from hitting 20+ home runs as he reaches his peak. The kid’s a star! I envision multiple seasons of 20 home runs and 30 steals with a great average for Albies.

Second Half Fly Ball Escalators – Part 1

The fly-ball revolution is upon us.  We all know this; it’s been happening since the second half of 2015 and has continued through 2017.  This doesn’t seem to be a fluke or blip on the radar.  Until MLB changes the ball or does something to shift favor to the pitchers, fly balls aren’t going away.  The ratings are up and there’s a great young crop of major league players who play with a ton of passion and they are embracing this revolution.

First, let’s start with the parameters I set for this statistical analysis.  It’s easier to see which hitters change their approach year to year but I wanted to focus on players who have increased their fly balls in the 2nd half of 2017.  I split the data between the 1st half and the 2nd half of 2017 with a minimum of 200 PA in each half.  I was only going to include hitters who increased their fly-ball rates by 4% of more between the 1st half and 2nd half but it would have excluded Byron Buxton (2.4% increase) and Giancarlo Stanton (3.4%).  I want to talk about both of them, so I went a little lenient to include those two.

Now that I have my crop of fly-ball escalators, I also included Infield Fly%, BABIP, HR/FB, and Hard Hit%.  I wanted to see the increase in fly balls affected these statistics and see whether of not they make sense or if luck played a role (I mean, it’s baseball, luck is always involved).  Keep in mind, not everyone is benefiting from hitting more fly balls.  Here’s the table of players I believe should benefit in 2018 with the increase fly balls if their approach remains the same, via Google Docs.

Eugenio Suarez

Suarez had a nice little breakout year in 2017 with a wRC+ of 117.  In the 2nd half of 2017 he significantly increased his FB% while decreasing his IFFB%.  That’s huge because of course infield fly balls are essentially an automatic out.  He did all that while increasing his LD% and hard hit%!  This to me looks like a conscious change for Suarez coming into 2018.  His overall numbers look pretty good in 2017 with a triple slash of .260/.367/.434 with 26 HRs (career high), and he’ll be entering his age-26 season.  All that being said, I think there’s still upside there.  Here is his slash for the 2nd half of 2017: .268/.378/.490 with a wRC+ of 126!  For reference, here are few players with similar wRC+ in 2017: Gary Sanchez (130), Nolan Arenado (129), Domingo Santana (126), and Chris Taylor! (126) (more on him later), and Brian Dozier (124).  You get the idea.  But can Suarez do it for a full season?  If he does, we are looking at a 30-100 player in 2018 hitting 4th or 5th behind Joey Votto and Adam Duvall.  In my opinion, he’s a better hitter than Duvall and should be slotted behind Votto.

Of this group of 2nd half fly-ball surgers, Suarez is one of the more intriguing for fantasy purposes.  Suarez is and has been the starting 3rd baseman for the Reds, but he’s also one of only two players on the roster who have logged significant time at SS within the last three seasons (the other being Jose Peraza) now that Zack Cozart is gone.  Nick Senzel, who finished the season in AAA, is knocking on the door and 3rd base is his main position, but they are giving him reps at 2nd (which should tell you they like Suarez at 3rd).  This creates a logjam at 2nd with Scooter Gennett but still doesn’t solve the shallow SS position.  Maybe the Reds address it or maybe Suarez plays some shortstop and on those days, Senzel moves to 3rd.  If this happens and Suarez gains SS eligibility, he could be at top 8-10 shortstop right behind Corey Seager.

Manuel Margot

Coming into 2017, Margot was a consensus top 50 prospect and was ranked 24th overall by Baseball America.  Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs graded him at a 70 speed score out of a possible 80. So far, it checks out per Baseball Savant, as he ranks 8th in average sprint speed in all of baseball.  Something else you may notice on Margot’s FanGraphs page is the potential for a 55 raw power grade.  You can’t totally ignore the 40 game power grade, but these are the types of guys who have proved to benefit the most from the “juiced ball.”  Keep in mind that Margot played all of 2017 at age 22.  This kid is still learning the game and developing power.

That being said, his batted-ball profile leaves a lot to be desired.  He made a lot of soft contact and, of course, not a whole lot of hard contact.  However, based on the 1st half / 2nd half splits, he made adjustments with not only more fly balls and line drives but harder contact.  That’s a good sign, but yet his BABIP dropped in the 2nd half.  Sure, a speedster like Margot can benefit from weakly-hit ground balls (part of the reason Billy Hamilton doesn’t hit below the Mendoza line), but the increase in line drives should have certainly increased his BABIP.  The point is, even with the slight improvement in wRC+ between the 1st and 2nd halves, he was still unlucky.

I expect Margot to continue to make improvements with the bat in 2018.  I don’t expect him to reach the 55 raw power grade, but he’s moving in the right direction.  I also expect him to improve on the bases and utilize his speed a little more while he’s still at his peak (as far as speed in concerned).  There’s an intriguing window with young players who possess speed and untapped raw power where the speed is still at (or near) its peak and the raw power begins to materialize.  Margot will be approaching that window in 2018 at age 23, so you need to jump in now before he’s fully reached that window and becomes a premier power/speed threat that is so rare in fantasy baseball these days.  Jump in now while his ADP is around 200 and you could be rewarded with around 15-18 HRs and 20+ steals in 2018.  His upside could be somewhere around Mookie Betts’ 2017 without the runs and RBI numbers.  Will he ever reach those heights?  I can’t say for sure, but it’s intriguing.  In keeper/dynasty leagues, he’s a great asset to have at his current value.

Logan Forsythe

Forsythe was hampered by injuries in 2017; he broke his toe in April of 2017 and only appeared in 119 games.  In those games he had 439 PA, and hit .224 with six HRs and three steals.  Woof.  Why is he a thing for fantasy baseball in 2018 at age 31?  Well, first the Dodgers traded Jose De Leon to the Rays for him last off-season and exercised his option for 2018. With Utley now gone, second base is his to keep or lose.  So playing time is there unless they sign another 2nd baseman this off-season.  On the plus side, he walked at a career high 15.7% clip and had some big at-bats in the post-season, carrying at least some momentum into 2018.

You would expect Forsythe’s numbers to improve in the second half due to the toe injury in April, and the numbers in the 2nd half look awfully good.  Yes, his line drive rate did drop by 2.8%, but the net positive on FB% + LD% is 12.6% and his hard-hit rate increased by 10.9% in the 2nd half!  That massive BABIP drop of 0.082 seems way out of whack to me.  That’s the reason he hit .201 in the 2nd half.  Now, I’m not saying he’s going to go nuts, but he also cut his SwStr% to 6.6% and his O-Swing% to a career-low 18.7%.  So there are a lot of potential positives with Forsythe in both the average and power departments, based on my research.  I expect the K% to go back down to about 20%, the BABIP to go up about .020 points, and the HR/FB% to be back in the double digits.  His value is going to depend on playing time.  If he platoons, he’s an NL-only bat.  If he doesn’t and gets, say, 550 PA, he could go something like .258/.339 with 14 HRs and seven steals, becoming a solid deep-league MI.

Jacoby Ellsbury

Over the last year or so I had left Jacoby Ellsbury for dead until this research piece.  All of his batted-ball data in the second half of 2017 point to improved results. While his 2nd half 107 wRC+ was an improvement on his 95 wRC+ in the 1st half, I’d argue he was extremely unlucky and it should have been much higher.

Let’s look at the positives: his K% dropped, BB% went up, FB% went up, IFFB% went down, and hard hit% went up.  So then why did his BABIP, HR/FB, and BA (albeit minimally) all go down?  I don’t know.  How’s that for an answer?  In my opinion, it can be chalked up to straight-up bad luck.

Since the Yankees are clearly moving in another direction, Ellsbury may not have a starting spot with Judge, Gardner, and now Hicks listed as starters, with Clint Frazier ready to be a full-time major-league starter when healthy.  The best chance for Ellsbury is to be traded where he can start.  Of course with his huge contract, that could prove to be difficult.  Hypothetically, though, if it happens, he’s good for 20+ steals; he was 22-for-25 last year so his speed is still there, and steals are becoming more and more infrequent.  For fantasy in 2018, he could be a solid 4th or 5th outfielder, going .270 and 10-20 next year.