When preparing for a new season, fantasy baseball enthusiasts are always wanting to know who is going to be the next big breakout player. Drafting or picking up a player on waivers for his breakout season gives fantasy owners a feeling of superiority, a feeling of omniscience in some sense. Whether that feeling is justified or not is another question. But even if your team comes in last place, you can take ownership that you “knew” Jose Bautista would bust out for 54 HR, or that your hunch that R.A. Dickey would knuckle his way into a Cy Young Award panned out. So at The Backwards K, there is a series of posts titled “This Year’s…” where I will tell you who I think this year’s version of a 2014 breakout player will be, providing some background and analysis.Embed from Getty Images
Over the last few years the Houston Astros have developed an infamous reputation as being the laughing stock of the baseball realm and they hit an all-time low when they lost a franchise history worst 111 games in the 2013 season. So the fact that they released J.D. Martinez during 2014 Spring Training seemed like a rather ominous signal for the outlook of Martinez. If a 111 loss team did not even want to keep him, then he must be damaged goods in some way, right? Wrong! The defending AL Central champions scooped up Martinez and he ended up being a tremendous surprise for them and fantasy owners alike (those lucky enough and ballsy enough to snag him off the waiver wire). Let’s see how Martinez went from rags to riches so to speak.
Martinez came up through the Astros Minor League system and displayed some serious potential with the bat. From the time he made his professional debut in 2009 through 2011 (across four Minor League levels) before receiving his first call-up to the Majors, Martinez triple slashed to the tune of .342/.411/.551. With that kind of production and as a rebuilding team, it was easy to see why the Astros were willing to trade away their best player, Hunter Pence. When Pence was shipped off to the Phillies in the midst of the 2011 season, Martinez got called upon to see debut in the Majors and be the Astros’ regular right fielder without having even played a single game at AAA. Martinez held his own in 53 games for the Astros that season, batting .274/.319/.423 with 6 HR. But with extended looks in 2012 and 2013, he was unable to establish himself as a significant piece of the ball club, managing an OPS under .700 while also playing horrific defense.
As mentioned previously, Martinez caught on with the Tigers toward the end of 2014 Spring Training, but he began to reconstruct his swing during the off-season leading up to Spring Training. He did not just change one thing about his swing, he changed the whole thing and it led to amazing results. He began the 2014 season at AAA completely tearing the cover off the ball as he hit .308/.366/.846 with 10 HR in 17 games. This piqued the interest of the big league club and they called him up hoping that type of performance was not a mirage. Obviously he wasn’t going to continue to hit 10 HR every 17 games, but for the most part, he continued his mashing ways. After a while it became apparent that the revamping of his swing was driving his success and he was making a lot better contact when striking the ball. He may have been a little lucky with a .389 BABIP, but his batted ball profile showing an increased line drive rate and a decreased infield flyball rate indicates that his improvements were real. In addition, his average batted ball distance on flyballs and homeruns increased 9 feet from 2013 to 2014 to suggest even further that he was striking the ball well and that his boost in power was legit. The 26-year old Martinez finished the season with a line of .315/.358/.553 with 23 HR, 76 RBI, 57 R, and 6 SB. Unlike a Siegfried and Roy Las Vegas show, this Tiger performance took place without a Mirage.
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For this year’s J.D. Martinez, I am looking for an outfielder who has had great Minor League success but has failed to translate any of that over to the Majors in multiple attempts. This year’s J.D. Martinez will be Travis Snider. Snider was a 1st round pick (14th overall) by the Blue Jays way back in 2006. He advanced through the Minors pretty quickly and was even ranked as high as the 6th best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball Prospectus one year. Even though Snider tore through the lower levels of the Minors, he did not show the same type of prowess when he reached the upper levels in 2008. Yet, the Blue Jays still gave him his first taste of the bigs in that same season at the young age of 20. This may have been a mistake to promote him at such a young age, as his plate approach was not that advanced as he was posting mediocre walk rates and striking out at a very high clip in the Minors. But hindsight is 20/20. Snider then spent the 2009-12 seasons splitting time between the Minors and Majors. Every opportunity that he was being given at the Major League level was mostly wasted. The Blue Jays grew tired of waiting for the young lefty to come around, so they shipped him off to Pittsburgh during the 2012 season. Snider ended his tenure with the Blue Jays with a line of .248/.306/.429 with 31 HR in 835 games and a 27.3 K%
Even with the change of scenery, Snider still could not find any sort of groove in the playing time that he was given. From 2012-13 with the Pirates, Snider put up an even more pathetic line than he did with the Jays at .226/.295/.332 with a 25.5 K%. Snider was being given the unflattering designation of being a “quad-A” player. Finally in 2014, Snider showed signs of improvement as a part-time player with the Pirates. He drew walks at a decent rate and he cut down on the strikeouts significantly as he went down on strikes only 18.7% of the time. Also, his average batted ball distance on flyballs and homeruns jumped from 273 feet in 2013 all the way up to 302 feet in 2014. That was an enormous increase in distance and certainly nothing to scoff at, and it ranked him in the top 10 in all of the Majors for 2014.
So the improvement that he showed in his skills last year could be very indicative of a 2015 breakout, but that is only part of it. The other part is that Snider was traded from the Pirates to the Orioles in the off-season. The team and league switch is going to be very helpful for Snider’s 2015 forecast. He was likely going to be blocked from a starting job in the Pittsburgh outfield considering that they are loaded with young studs (Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco), and PNC Park where the Pirates play their home games is one of the worst stadiums in baseball for left-handed hitters. Now with the Orioles, Snider has a much clearer path to a starting job (the stronger side of a platoon at the very least) and will now call Camden Yards home, which is one of the best stadiums in baseball for left-handed hitters. That is quite the 180 degree switch that Snider has fallen into! In his prime age 27 season, it would not shock me to see Snider breakout in a similar fashion to J.D. Martinez in 2014.
2014 J.D. Martinez stats: .315 AVG, 23 HR, 76 RBI, 57 R, 6 SB, 126 K, 30 BB in 441 AB
2015 Travis Snider projection: .276 AVG, 21 HR, 68 RBI, 60 R, 2 SB, 107 K, 48 BB in 467 AB
ʞonfidence Rating: 4ʞ out of 10ʞ
Other candidates to be “This Year’s J.D. Martinez”: Avisail Garcia, Darin Ruf