MLB: American League Offensive Breakouts

In the year of the home run, it was hard to completely narrow this list down.   There are other players who probably deserve their spot on this list, but I didn’t see their seasons as being quite at the level of some of the players I am pointing out below.

Remember, breakouts do not include players in their first MLB season.  I consider those who have played partial seasons (Aaron Judge and Joey Gallo below, for example), but those are extreme cases.   I am looking more for those players who have struggled to some level in the past, but have emerged as legitimate MLB players in 2017.

Note:  I have written these up over the course of the past few nights.  While I have updated the numbers in parenthesis to reflect games through 9/20/17, I have not updated the numbers within the synopsis.  Nothing is going to drastically change that much to make the points any less valid.

Tim Beckham, Orioles (.279/.329/.460 (111 OPS+), 22 home runs, 35 walks, 160 strikeouts)

In a rare trade between divisional rivals, the Rays sent Beckham, once a top prospect (was as high as #15 in baseball on the Baseball Prospectus Top 100), to the Orioles on July 31st this season.    The trade netted the Rays a teenage pitcher named Tobias Myers, so it will be a long time before we see whether or not the Rays received good value here.

Beckham was a disappointment with the Rays, hitting a combined .238/.288/.431 in 446 plate appearances before 2017, and only .259/.314/.407 this season.

Moving to Baltimore always seems to bring out the home run in everyone, and Beckham is no different, as he has slugged .556 since the deal, with 10 home runs in 211 plate appearances.

When searching for a reason for his resurgence, my first thought was that he must have a spike in his HR/FB %, but that is not the case.  For Tampa, his rate was 20.7%, while it is actually lower for Baltimore (20.4%).

However, he has been hitting more fly balls since the trade, and has started using more of the field – since joining the Orioles, he has hit the ball to the opposite field 28.3% of the time, after doing that only 16.3% of the time while with Tampa.   His contact percentage, especially on balls outside the strike zone, has also gone up.

Like Aaron Hicks (who would be on this list if not for his injuries), the question becomes:  Is this a former top prospect who has finally figured something out, or is this just random noise?    There are obviously red flags – that K/BB ratio is rather terrifying – but when a kid who always had talent suddenly starts playing well, you have to take notice.

Jonathan Schoop, Orioles (.296/.341/.516 (126 OPS+), 32 home runs, 33 walks, 134 strikeouts)

The Orioles have quite the collection of home run hitters, and Schoop has emerged as one of the best.  Still only 25 years old, Schoop showed signs of a breakout in 2016, when he hit 25 home runs and slugged .454 in 162 games.   However, his lack of walks led to a pedestrian .298 OBP, leaving his OPS+ at a below-average 98.

A small 2% increase in his walk rate coupled with a BABIP increase from .305 to .332 has allowed his OBP to rise to a more respectable level, while his power has power has continued to develop.   His ISO (SLG – AVG) of .223 is 36 points higher than his 2016 campaign, and his hard contact% has jumped from 26.6% to 35.0%.    This isn’t rocket science:  He hits the ball harder, has swung at less pitches outside the strike zone (7.3% decrease), and has begun to hit more fly balls.

Schoop is a developing star, in my opinion.  I don’t think 2017 is a fluke, and if more plate discipline is coming in years to come, it is hard to imagine him being anything less than one of the top offensive second basemen in baseball for many years to come.

Just like Manny Machado, if Schoop isn’t signed to an extension over the next few years, he could enter free agency as a top-notch hitter under the age of 30.  He is still far enough away where the Orioles may be able to get him at a reasonable rate, but they haven’t been a franchise known for making those types of moves.

Aaron Judge, Yankees (.277/.412/.591 (158 OPS+), 45 home runs, 116 walks, 199 strikeouts)

I have written a few articles about Judge this year already – once during his insane hot streak, and once during his incredible fall right after the All-Star Break.  Will the real Aaron Judge please stand up?

He already has.   Judge is a huge specimen.  He stands at 6’7″, and is built more like an NFL tight end or NBA power forward than he is your typical MLB right-fielder.   He is incredibly athletic for a kid of his size, and has been able to translate his raw athletic ability into a legitimate MLB hitter.   I am actually underselling him a bit, because he has been more than legitimate this year:  He has been an MVP-caliber player.

There are always going to be some warts with a kid like Judge.  He will always be prone to the strikeout, and based on this year and his minor league career, you should always expect some valleys among the peaks.   It is how long he stays in those valleys that will dictate whether he can stay in the .270-.280 range, which (with his ability to take walks and hit home runs) will always put him somewhere in the MVP discussion.

At one point this year, with his BABIP hovering near or over .400, there was discussion over whether or not the number was inflated, or was the result of his insane exit velocity.  That number has normalized a bit since then (.355), but his very low soft contact rate (11.6%) leads you to believe that he should be able to maintain a solid batting average for as long as he can make consistent enough contact.

There will be plenty of skepticism surrounding Judge in Spring Training, 2018.   I don’t think what he is doing is a fluke, but he is such a unique player that is impossible to predict that with any kind of certainty.

Jose Ramirez, Indians (.315/.370/.575 (141 OPS+), 27 home runs, 47 walks, 66 strikeouts)

I admit it:  I am cheating.   Ramirez’ real breakout came in 2016, when his OPS rose from .631 to .825, which led to a rise in OPS+ of 45 points to 114.

Now, he has jumped from a surprising breakout player to an MVP candidate in the space of a year.   After slugging 46 doubles last year, he already has 50 this year to go along with his 27 home runs (11 in 2016).   Often times, when a young player hits a lot of doubles, it leads to home runs in subsequent years.   Ramirez has taken that a big step forward:  He hasn’t replaced his doubles with home runs.  He has replaced his singles with home runs.   He has also doubled his triples output from 3 to 6.   Ramirez has become a superstar.  A superstar capable of playing second, shortstop, third base, and even the outfield (though he hasn’t been asked to play the outfield this year)

His ability to make contact was always apparent in his minor league career, but not the power.   He has never been ranked as a Top 100 prospect in baseball on any of the major lists.    Prior to the 2013 season (after he hit for a high average in 2012), John Sickels of ranked him #9 in the entire Indians system, and he even commented that he was ranking him higher than most!   Anyone who says they have figured out minor league baseball players is lying.

While I don’t think he is going to actually win the MVP Award, he should improve from his 17th place finish last year to perhaps as high as the top five this year.

Eddie Rosario, Twins (.290/.327/.511 (119 OPS+), 26 home runs, 32 walks, 99 strikeouts)

The Twins have (obviously) played over their heads in 2017, and Rosario has been front and center in their playoff push.

2017 has been a bit of a coming out party for Rosario, who ranked on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 100 Prospects list as far back as 2012 (he made another appearance in 2014).  He never cracked the Top 100 on any other major list.

Every aspect of Rosario’s game has improved in 2017, including an increase in his walk rate and a decline in his strikeout rate.    His 117 WRC+ ranks him 10th among all left-fielders in baseball, which isn’t MVP-worthy, but does show that he hits enough to be a perfectly capable corner outfielder for a team that relies a lot on cheaper, younger players for their success.   His 2.3 WAR actually puts him ahead of more-heralded players, such as Andrew Benintendi.

Rosario is not great defensively, and is poor at stealing bases.   Since he is a corner outfielder, he will need to show in 2018 that his power surge isn’t a fluke in order to remain a net positive at the position.

Avisail Garcia, White Sox (.333/.381/.503 (137 OPS+), 17 home runs, 29 walks, 104 strikeouts)

Acquired in a three-team deal with the Red Sox and Tigers during the 2013 season (the trade that netted the Red Sox Jake Peavy), Garcia took a little while to get his career going, but now (at age 26), he has blossomed into a legitimate contributor on a team that is in the middle of a full rebuild.

Entering this season, Garcia had gone to the plate 1,551 times in his career, compiling a .258/.310/.385 (92 OPS+) line.   This type of offense is acceptable for a shortstop, but Garcia was compiling these numbers while playing a corner outfield position.   If not for his youth and the White Sox commitment to a rebuild, an argument may have been made to pull the plug, or at least reduce his playing time significantly.

The White Sox, however, showed some patience in continuing to throw him on the field, and it has paid off handsomely.   His batting average currently ranks him second in the American League, while his OPS+ is good enough for 9th.

There are a few red flags – his .396 BABIP is insane, and will likely regress in the years ahead.   That said, if he is only now starting to tap into his power, he can maintain his value by hitting more home runs, even if his batting average were to go into a decline.    Both his strikeout rate and his walk rate have declined, though his K rate has declined by a wider margin.

Garcia’s peripherals are not that far off from his career marks, which lends one to believe that this season has some random noise attached to it.   There isn’t anything obvious to explain his surge, other than an inflated BABIP.    All players who suddenly break out after years of mediocrity come with a big giant “skepticism” sign attached to their chests.   Garcia is entering his prime, however, so this could still be the start of something meaningful.

Andrelton Simmons, Angels (.280/.332/.428 (105 OPS+), 14 home runs, 44 walks, 64 strikeouts)

Before we go any further, you are correct:  These numbers don’t jump out as being particularly special.  They are very good for a shortstop, but worthy of a spot o a breakout list?   You can argue against that for most players…

Most players are not Andrelton Simmons, a defensive whiz who entered the season with a career .261/.308/.363 (86 OPS+) line over 2,482 plate appearances.  If not for his extreme defensive ability, there would have been every reason for a team to start looking at him as more of a utility player than a starter on a big market team.   The defensive game is what has allowed the 27-year old to be a well-above average player despite his inability to contribute much on offense.   In 2015, while with the Braves, Simmons was able to compile a 3.1 fWAR despite a .265/.321/.338 triple slash.  It takes a special kind of defensive talent to pull that off.

This is the first full season where Simmons has been a positive on offense.  He is doing it while maintaining his superior defense.  While it is not quite enough to put him on the list of MVP favorites, his ability at the plate and in the field has been a big contributing factor in the Angels’ surprising 2017 campaign.   Defense is wonderful, especially up-the-middle. No longer being a black hole at the plate makes you that much more wonderful.

The best part for the Angels is that this may not be a fluke.  His .291 BABIP is not extreme, and is in line with his career norm.   The reason for his better numbers can be traced to a few things:  He has increased his fly ball rate (more power!) and has increased his hard contact rate by nearly 6% over 2016.

While 24-year old Sean Newcombe (dealt to the Braves in the Simmons deal) has pitched well enough in his first taste of the big leagues this year, Simmons’ coming out party has likely made it more than worth it for the Angels.  Simmons has finally become a threat in all aspects of the game.

Joey Gallo, Rangers (.210/.333/.538 (121 OPS+), 38 home runs, 71 walks, 179 strikeouts)

The man who sounds like he can be a lawyer (or famous Broadway actor) in “My Cousin Vinny” has certainly made a name for himself on the baseball diamond this year.

I have always been fond of the “old-school slugger” types – those hitters who never hit for much average, but crushed home runs, struck out a ton, and often walked in bunches.  Gallo is that type of hitter, though it is hard to label anyone as anything at the tender age of 23.

Entering this season, Gallo appeared in 53 games, hitting .173/.281/.368 with 76 strikeouts in 153 plate appearances.   While this year’s strikeout rate is not great, he is no longer striking out in nearly 50% of his plate appearances, which would be an impossible rate to maintain for a productive MLB player.

He has stabilized the strikeout rate while making a lot of hard contact (46.3% hard contact rate, which leads all of baseball).   It is likely easy to see why Gallo has become the big home run hitter everyone thought he could be:  He leads the league in both hard contact rate and fly ball rate (54.4%), which has allowed 29.2% of his fly balls to go over the wall, which is 4th in baseball.  (Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Domingo Santana are the top three.  I will let you decide which name doesn’t appear to belong with the rest)

This didn’t come out of nowhere.  While Gallo has played in hitter friendly minor league parks, the 153 career minor league home runs in 485 minor league games was at least hinting at his extreme power game.

The question becomes whether or not he can actually improve on this season – is there more batting average in Gallo’s bat?  If there is, and he maintains everything else, forget old school slugger and think more MVP candidate performance.  I don’t think he will ever get to that stratosphere, but I don’t see a reason to suspect he won’t be one of the game’s most feared power bats over the next decade.





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