In the last of this series of breakout players in 2017, I am going to take a look at National League hitters. I was surprised that there wasn’t a big breakout season for surprise teams like the Diamondbacks and Rockies. Those teams have been helped more by solid pitching than they have been helped by breakout players. Players like Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado are playing up to their career standards, so they don’t warrant a spot on this list.
Thank you to everyone who has been following along as I have been typing these up. I am always open to suggestions for more pieces, whether it be in the comments or by sending me a personal e-mail (sportskibble at gmail com).
The numbers in parenthesis are through games of 9/26. The numbers mentioned in the synopsis are not completely up-to-date, but they wouldn’t change so much that my analysis would be different.
Michael Taylor, Nationals (.270/.316/.476 (101 OPS+), 17 home runs, 27 walks, 131 strikeouts)
The numbers do not jump out at you as a true breakout star, but given where the 26-year old was before this season, the Nationals have to be ecstatic with his progress.
In 791 plate appearances between 2014-2016, Taylor hit .228/.281/.363 (72 OPS+) with 252 strikeouts. While he still strikes out at an insane rate (and never takes walks), the increase in his fly ball rate has increased the home run production, as his slugging percentage is 100 points higher than his career mark entering the season. Taylor is a flawed player, but before this season, he was essentially a kid who played strong defense but didn’t add much of anything on the offensive side of the ball.
It should be noted that Taylor only started receiving regular playing time after the early season injury to Adam Eaton, an injury that left the Nationals scrambling a bit to find a replacement for their just-acquired center fielder. Taylor has been able to fill in admirably, and this could be the start of an even bigger breakout.
Marcell Ozuna, Marlins (.309/.374/.545 (144 OPS+), 36 home runs, 63 walks, 143 strikeouts)
With the Marlins in a state of flux as an organization and Giancarlo Stanton‘s insane season, it can be easy to overlook just how great the 26-year old Ozuna is playing in 2017.
In baseball circles, Ozuna’s talent has been talked about for years, and he hasn’t been terrible before this breakout (103 OPS+ in 2,005 plate appearances entering this season). However, his coming out party as a superstar is now, and if the Marlins told teams that they were open for a full sale of players, Ozuna would be near the top of everyone’s list.
Ozuna is striking out at around the same as ever, but has increased his walk percentage (9.6%; 7.1% last year), and is swinging at more of the pitches he sees within the strike zone (this is the first year in his career where he has swung at pitches in the strike zone more than 70% of the time). He has actually hit less fly balls, but more of the fly balls he is hitting are going over the fence – a healthy 23.7% of his fly balls have led to him jogging around the bases.
All the numbers aside, we are likely just watching the maturation of a star player. If the Marlins deal Stanton, Ozuna instantly becomes the franchise’s most marketable star (by baseball standards, as they never do a good job of marketing their stars)
Michael Conforto, Mets (.279/.384/.555 (145 OPS+), 27 home runs, 57 walks, 113 strikeouts)
Before suffering one of the most horrific looking injuries of the 2017 season (we will hope Conforto can make a full recovery), Conforto was starting to show off the offensive skill that made him one of the Mets’ top prospects when he came up during the 2015 season.
After a big start to his career at the end of that 2015 season, Conforto slumped badly in 2016, even spending some time in the minors. His final triple slash of .220/.310/.414 showed that he was still displaying some plate discipline, but the rest of his game had taken a tumble. Sophomore slump, or did he have a weakness that pitchers were exploiting?
It doesn’t matter now, because Conforto was on his way to placing himself among the top young outfielders in the game before his injury. He kept his strikeout rate steady, while increasing his walk rate to 13%, which is why Conforto was an acceptable lead-off hitter earlier in the season, despite his lack of elite speed. Just like I have noticed with a few other hitters, Conforto didn’t have any kind of increase in his FB%, but showed off more power thanks to a career high in his HR/FB%. This can be explained by the increase in home runs throughout baseball this year. He also seems to have changed his approach a bit, as he hit the ball to center field 39.7% of the time, an increase of 7.1% over 2016. The more a hitter can show the ability to hit the ball anywhere, the harder it is to shift on said player effectively.
His future is highly dependent on whether or not he can fully come back from his injury. While doctors have said that he should get back to his old self after an extensive rehab and recovery, there is no way of knowing until he physically gets back on the field.
Travis Shaw, Brewers (.273/.347/.519 (123 OPS+), 31 home runs, 57 walks, 136 strikeouts)
With so much that goes on over the winter, one trade that received a fair amount of press but was far from a headliner saw the Red Sox send Shaw over to the Brewers for reliever Tyler Thornburg (the trade was bigger than this, but the three other players sent to the Brewers are still in the minor leagues). Thornburg, like so many pitchers, went down with an injury, while Shaw exploded as the starting third baseman for a Brewers’ squad that has been full of surprises. He has increased his OPS by 151 points over 2016, thanks mostly to his power surge, but also due to a nice increase in his walk rate.
He is another hitter who is actually hitting more ground balls, but is hitting for more power due to his HR/FB. It makes me wonder if we are going to see some crashing in the numbers when 2018 comes around, but that is a different topic for a different day. It doesn’t hurt that his soft contact percentage has fallen by over 6% this year, as well.
Sometimes with breakout seasons, we see a spike in BABIP. This doesn’t always mean that a player is going to crash and burn in subsequent years, as players can continue to develop and improve in other areas that won’t make them as dependent on BABIP. In the case of Shaw, his BABIP this year is a respectable .314, so he hasn’t been on reliant on that type of luck.
I don’t know if Shaw is going to be a consistent 30 home run guy, but he did hit 13 in 65 games during his rookie year, before declining last year. This is likely a bounce back, and I think he will remain an above average offensive third baseman in the years to come.
Domingo Santana, Brewers (.276/.369/.502 (126 OPS+), 29 home runs, 72 walks, 171 strikeouts)
As I was saying about the Brewers….
Once a “player to be named later” given up by the Phillies in a deal with the Astros for Hunter Pence, the Brewers acquired Santana in 2015, as part of a big package that netted the Astros Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers during their run to the playoffs. (If the Mets’ deal for Gomez had gone through, where would Santana be today? Who knows?)
The 24-year old was fine in his major league career before this season, putting up a .239/.331/.423 (102 OPS+) line in 486 plate appearances. While this is nowhere near what he has done this year, that is a solid line for a kid who wasn’t even 24 years old yet. This year, he has completely exploded, thanks to an increased walk rate (12.2%, good for 24th in baseball), and the third best HR/FB rate in the game, behind guys named Stanton and Aaron Judge. His 12.2% soft contact rate is 11th lowest in the game.
He doesn’t rate out all that well defensively, but his bat has done more than enough to carry his defensive game. Whether his defensive value will increase over the years is something we will need to watch for. Offensively? It looks like he is only just beginning.
Tommy Pham, Cardinals (.310/.411/.530 (147 OPS+), 23 home runs, 66 walks, 114 strikeouts)
The late-bloomer is a bit older than many on my lists (29 years old). He didn’t make his MLB debut until 2016, a full ten years after he was drafted in the 16th round by the Cardinals. One can only assume that many teams had a chance in those ten years to get their hands on Pham, whether through trade, or the Rule 5 draft. It isn’t surprising that Pham was never selected in the Rule 5, but I love stories of players like Pham getting completely ignored by everyone, only to come out of the woodwork to have a big MLB season.
A lot of what is going into his season is explained by his .374 BABIP, which is second in baseball. He hits a lot of ground balls (52.1% GB rate), and many of those ground balls have found the hole this year. His hard contact rate is down, while his soft contact rate is up. Given that he hits a low percentage of fly balls, it should be of no surprise that he has a 26.8% HR/FB rate.
While there is obviously some luck involved, it should also be noted that he has increased his walk rate, while reducing his strikeout rate. That should make him a useful MLB player in the future, even if he may not reach these heights again.
Zack Cozart, Reds (.302/.388/.557 (144 OPS+), 24 home runs, 60 walks, 76 strikeouts)
While I have mostly kept these lists to those under 30, Cozart is a special case at the age of 31.
Entering this season, the shortstop put up a .246/.289/.385 triple slash while playing his home games in one of the best home ballparks in baseball. He tallied 58 home runs in 2,521 plate appearances. There wasn’t much of anything to suggest that he suddenly was going to blossom into one of the top hitting shortstops in the league.
It would be impossible for a player to blossom like this and not be able to find reasons why. For Cozart, the obvious reason is plate discipline. His walk rate has jumped from 7.3% last year to 12.0% this year. After lingering in the 28-31% range in swings on balls outside the strike zone before this season, he has put up a respectable 24.3% rate this year. Cozart has made an adjustment. It is a bit of a later adjustment than you would expect out of a hitter, but it isn’t unprecedented.
The best part for Cozart is the timing. His defense has always graded out well-above average, and the increase in his production will only boost his value on this year’s free agent market. With an influx of young shortstops into the game over the last several seasons, the market for Cozart won’t be quite as extreme as you would think. However, he will get paid. Even if he hits somewhere between his career norm and his career year this year, he will be a valuable player and a big upgrade for somebody.
Chris Taylor, Dodgers (.287/.354/.499 (123 OPS+), 21 home runs, 50 walks, 142 strikeouts)
A team doesn’t put up a big season without some breakouts mixed in. The 26-year old sported a .598 OPS in 318 plate appearances before this season (with Seattle and the Dodgers)
Acquired by the Dodgers from the Mariners for Zach Lee, the Dodgers have already won the trade. The Mariners waived Lee in December of 2016, just months after this trade was completed. He is now pitching for the San Diego Padres.
Because of the limited sample size heading into 2016, it isn’t easy to really figure out why Taylor has suddenly become a key cog in a well-oiled machine. Like many on these lists, he has increased his HR/FB percentage, though his isn’t over 20% like most of the others (16.3%). He has also increased his hard contact percentage from 26.1% last year to 32.1% this year. It should also be noted that he struggled a bit when facing fastballs in the past, but has improved that to a positive number this year. If pitchers notice that you are having a tough time with fastballs, they will just continue to pump them by you. Taylor has likely adjusted, and is now making pitchers pay if that is their philosophy.
Taylor is 27, which is traditionally where players reach their peak performance. Whether this is the start of a career transformation or if he will just go down as a player who had a career year for a special team remains to be seen.