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 MLB.com 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.
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.