Intriguing Players Receiving More Playing Time
With the baseball season being over 6 months long, the number of random developments that percolate over a season can be extreme. Between injuries, struggles, and other unexpected occurrences, it is very rare that teams end up with the same roster as they started the season with.
This is something that can be exploited in fantasy baseball. Playing time is generally not stable, so keeping a close eye on the opportunities that can be opening up for intriguing players is critical. After all, although efficiency is important for fantasy, volume ultimately drives value.
Without a large enough sample size or track record, it may be difficult to identify these players on the waiver wire. That pegs the ultimate question: what should we be looking for with pre-hype breakouts? Well, it all has to start with a reasonable expectation of more playing time moving forward. Whether there is an injury or a predecessor is struggling, you need to have confidence that the player will have enough of an opportunity to solidify himself. However, this isn't all to it. What investments were made with the predecessor? For instance, a former top prospect such as Keston Hiura, even after being demoted, is more likely to get another chance to solidify himself than a veteran stopgap; the same is true for free-agent acquisitions. Meanwhile, what investments have been made to the player of interest? The more prospect pedigree or reputation they've had the better in terms of teams being more open to trusting their abilities.
Once you are able to gauge a player's future value from a volume perspective you will also need to judge their efficiency. Sadly, this is difficult to do in a small sample size. To overcome this we will have to utilize a similar strategy to what I recommended in a recent article for mvpsportstalk.com:
For batting average, focus more on players who are accomplishing success with a low strikeout rate. This is a much more stable and easily identifiable skill set than naturally high batting averages on balls in play.
For on-base percentage, focus on the player's overall plate discipline, particularly their chase rate, which will be more stable early on than walk rate.
For power production, focus on the player's barrel rate, which is one of the quickest stats in terms of stabilizing and providing the legitimacy of one's power.
For steals, focus on the number of times they attempt to steal a base. Efficiency is difficult to gauge early on, but the more volume, the better.
For pitchers, K-BB ratios, in addition to whiff% and called-strike whiff rate, are much more useful than any statistic that incorporates batted-ball data.
In general, hitters should be analyzed in small sample sizes based on their plate discipline and barrel rate, while K-BB ratio remains the premier statistic for pitchers. In the end, factoring in prior knowledge of the player is critical in terms of telling the story of their developmental arch. If a player's minor-league peripherals are more subpar you might be more skeptical on an early breakout as opposed to a consistent performer (Jared Walsh). Meanwhile, if a pitcher has added velocity or a batter has made a swing/approach change, that context helps better explain the unexpected success.
Using this criteria let us identify some future breakouts! These five players are seeing a stable rise in opportunity and have the efficiency to get excited about. As always, let us highlight some honorable mentions:
2B Harold Castro, Detroit Tigers
Castro has recently taken the second base job over Jonathan Schoop and figures to continue to receive playing time for a rebuilding Tigers team. Currently hitting .359 with defensive versatility, he provides potential value in batting average formats as a bench piece, though batting average is really the only category he'll be contributing to.
C Austin Nola, San Diego Padres
Nola isn't a "breakout player", but I wanted to include him as someone who should be owned in more than 33% of ESPN formats. His stock was down after missing the beginning of the season due to injury, yet he's back ingrained as the Padres' starting catcher.
SPs Shane McLanahan, Tampa Bay Rays, and Luis Garcia, Houston Astros
McLanahan and Garcia each face questions from a volume perspective as well-regarded prospects coming into the season for their strikeout ability. Both have seen recent increases in their workload and may hold more value moving forward.
INF Andy Young, Arizona Diamondbacks
Young is currently serving as more of a bench piece for the Diamondbacks but with the team well out of the division race, trades could open up his path to playing time. He's been a consistent minor-league performer and has performed well in small sample sizes in all the key areas. A 97th percentile max exit velocity is also an encouraging data point.
Josh Staumont, Kansas City Royals
Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers
Tejay Antone, Cincinnati Reds
Blake Treinen, Los Angeles Dodgers
Staumont's command is always in question but his strikeout abilities make him a very intriguing fantasy reliever with the Royals now asking him to be their closer. Fulmer and Antone have been productive this season, can work multi-inning stints and will accumulate enough saves. Treinen is a more interesting case. The Dodgers have been careful working Kenley Jansen in back-to-back games and with the number of times they're ahead late in games that opens up opportunities for other relievers for saves. Treinen appears to be their preferred option in that regard, which is notable considering his efficiency alone would be enough to justify adding him. Especially if your league values holds for relievers, he is a potential addition with a lot of room to add value.
#5: SP James Kaprielian, Oakland A's
Yahoo Roster%= 23%
ESPN Rosters%= 19%
A major piece in the trade that sent Sonny Gray to the Yankees, James Kaprielian has been expected to be a part of the Athletics' future rotation for some time. However, between injuries and pedestrian minor-league numbers that optimism had waned recently.
Kaprielian's future role, according to many, appeared to be in the bullpen. Instead, the 27-year-old is getting an opportunity to showcase his abilities in the rotation:
vs Red Sox: 5 IP, 1 ER, 3 BB, 6 K
vs Angels: 5.2 IP, 2 ER, 1 BB, 9 K
vs Mariners: 7 IP, 0 ER, 2 BB, 4 K
Adding more to this, Kaprielian has had a lot of success generating swinging strikes (12.4%) and has gotten whiffs with all three of his pitches. This has never been a concern for him and figures to be a strength moving forward. Perhaps the former first-round pick isn't as much of a priority addition as the others on this list. For starters, he's relied a lot on chases with a 37.1% zone rate. Something that could hurt him from a consistency and innings pitched standpoint. Also, since his fastball is much more of a horizontal pitch that would generally correlate with fewer whiffs in the future. He has yet to have a lot of success in the zone so you will want to be careful as to which teams you are starting him against. A disciplined team like the Astros may have a lot of success against him. In the right matchup though, his elite slider and changeup combination will set him up for strong production. As we continue to look for as much pitching depth as possible Kaprielian can certainly provide that, especially in a very pitchers-friendly ballpark.
#4: 2B Nico Hoerner, Chicago Cubs
Yahoo Roster%= 29%
ESPN Roster%= 36%
At the time of my research, Nico Hoerner was actually the top player on this list. Sadly, he appears to be heading to the injured list with a hamstring injury, which is quite unfortunate, though ironic based on the topic of this article.
Expected to be the team's starting second baseman after an excellent performance in spring training, Hoerner surprisingly started the season not with the big-league team in Chicago. Upon being brought up on April 22nd he has flourished. In 84 plate appearances thus far he has posted a .338/.405/.432 slash line. Good for a 129 weighted-runs-created plus (wrc+).
Seen as a polished product when taken with the 24th overall pick out of Stanford by the Cubs in 2018, Hoerner's first two stints in the majors (87 wrc+ 2019, 63 wrc+ 2020) hadn't gone as planned. Considering that he had just over 300 career minor-league plate appearances, it is more than reasonable that he needed extra time to adjust. We're looking for contact ability when chasing batting average making his 14.3% strikeout rate and 19.6% whiff rate very encouraging. Add in the potential future value in terms of stolen bases with his 94th percentile sprint speed, in addition to his ability to succeed on elevated velocity up in the zone, and there is a lot to like about him moving forward. With him likely to become more available with this injury he's someone definitely worth adding if you can afford to stash him on your bench.
#3: SS Willy Adames, Milwaukee Brewers
Yahoo Roster%= 10%
ESPN Roster%= 9%
Although current playing time is the best measure of opportunity, there is more that goes into it than that. Not all opportunities are created equal, particularly when it comes to overall job security.
For Willy Adames, the trade that sent him from Tampa Bay to the Brewers is an excellent change of scenery for him. After posting a 124 wrc+ and .222 isolated power (ISO) in 2020, there was hope that he could continue to establish himself as a productive offensive shortstop. Instead, he's struggled to the tune of a 79 wrc+. Frankly, the struggles are all around. He's hitting for less power, striking out nearly 34% of the time, and is chasing more- not the ideal combination.
Still, there is plenty of optimism for Adames moving forward. Tampa Bay has always played as more of a pitcher's park as some hitters cannot adjust to the white roof at Tropicana Field. Adames is on record stating this and it shows up with his home/road splits:
Home: .217/.277/.344, 75 wrc+
Away: .292/.365/.493, 130 wrc+
Am I saying that Adames is going to post a 130 wrc+? Not at all - these splits should not be extrapolated - yet it is worth noting that his numbers are naturally likely to improve shifting from a difficult ballpark to a much friendlier one. Additionally, whereas Tampa Bay had Wander Franco, Vidal Brujan, and Taylor Walls all as minor-league middle infielders waiting in the wings, Milwaukee is making a noticeable investment in Adames to be their starting shortstop. He will get plenty of chances to prove himself, and I'd want him on my bench in case there really is something to his struggles at Tropicana Field. Shortstop isn't exactly a deep fantasy position, after all.
#2: SP Tarik Skubal, Detroit Tigers
Yahoo Roster%= 10%
ESPN Roster% = 8%
The Tigers have invested significantly in their pitching in recent drafts, but whereas Casey Mize and Matt Manning were top-ten draft picks, Tarik Skubal is a much more interesting story. Drafted in the 9th round in 2018, he's quickly risen up the ranks after dominating through the minor leagues. In fact, there are some (including myself) that prefer his abilities to Mize and Manning.
Thus, it was very exciting to imagine what Skubal could accomplish this season. A 27.6% strikeout rate in 32 MLB innings in 2020 was an encouraging start, and one would imagine he'd continue to build off that success. Unfortunately, he did not exactly get off to a hot start in April, posting an absurdly poor 8.28 FIP and 1.29 K-BB ratio.
Yet, those struggles may be in the rearview mirror now. With a 34.1% strikeout rate and 5.17 K-BB ratio in May, something has clicked for Skubal, and it's important he finds what it is. Perhaps, it has something to do with his role in Detroit. See, in April, the lefty was used much more as a piggyback starter, a role he did not perform well in. However, he has been a traditional starting pitcher over his past four outings, which is a role he appears to be much more comfortable in. To boot, his velocity is up on all of his pitches, which backs up this recent success. Most significant, the harder slider (44% whiff May vs 27% whiff April) is causing batters much more trouble and is a secondary offering he can rely on in order to be less fastball-centric. Add in his improved command, and I am very intrigued by Skubal's recent progress. Sure, you would like to see him face tougher tests than the Indians and Mariners, but he also held his own against the Cubs and Twins. Depending on the matchup, he's someone you want to have on your bench, while he's a must-acquire in any dynasty format.
#1: 1B/OF Seth Brown, Oakland A's
Yahoo Roster%= 3%
ESPN Roster% = 4%
The A's didn't exactly have a popular offseason. Not only did they fail to upgrade their MLB roster, but they also traded a fan favorite in Khris Davis, while shortstop Marcus Semien and reliever Liam Hendriks departed in free agency. Yet, as per usual, this team is in first place in the AL West.
How do they continue to do it? There is a lot of pressure on them to get contributions in unexpected areas, and this year is no different. To replace Davis, they were hoping to rely on Mitch Moreland to serve as their designated hitter against right-handed pitching. Unfortunately, Moreland has been sidelined with an injury, leaving them to look to Seth Brown to fill an offensive void.
Brown hasn't filled the offensive void. Rather, he's been a massive upgrade. With a 127 wrc+, he's been remarkably impressive and has solidified himself as the team's designated hitter against right-handed pitching.
Nevertheless, fantasy owners haven't been rushing to the waiver wire to pick up Brown. Why? A .221 batting average and .295 on-base percentage mean he's been more of a power-only hitter. That shouldn't persist, however. His 29.7% whiff rate and 24.8% strikeout rate aren't terrible numbers for a power hitter and his plate discipline (24.2% chase) is fine, as is his 40.6% sweet-spot rate. Now, his 53.2% pull rate makes him easily shiftable, so you'll never expect him to reach his expected statistics, yet how much of a problem is that when he's walking at a 9.5% clip and has posted a 15.9% barrel rate. When analyzing breakouts, chase rate and barrel rate are the two statistics that need to be evaluated, and for Brown, he checks those boxes tremendously. With his positional flexibility and him serving in the more frequent part of a platoon, I'm very surprised he isn't owned in more leagues. As his luck goes from awful to merely below-average, his numbers may only get better, while his minor-league numbers weren't shabby. I'm sensing a lot of Jared Walsh similarities here, and after missing out on the Angels slugger, I don't want to make that same mistake again.
All of these players have a better opportunity, whether it be a new team or more playing time than they had at the beginning of the season. Given the position of their respective teams, they'll have plenty of chances to prove themselves, and there is no reason they won't be successful. Since they pass the test you're looking for in an in-season breakout, these are players you want to at least stash on your bench, especially before their stock rises even further. If you're not early, you're late, after all.
Don't be late!