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.
If you are a viewer of the television show The League, I think that we would be able to agree upon the notion that Jose Altuve is quite the firecracker, a real spark plug for the Astros. If you don’t know what I am talking about, I shall refer you to here. But in all seriousness, Altuve really has proven to be a spark plug and the brightest part of a failing team the past few years. Coming up through the Minors, Altuve displayed his contact making skills that has always been an integral part in his ability to hit for a high average. He possessed a .324 career Minor League average before being called up to the Majors in the middle of the 2011 season at the ripe age of 21. Altuve never played at AAA, which either suggests that the Astros were either really desperate to be calling up their young second base prospect, or that Altuve was just that good of a player that he was ready for the Majors. Well, it was probably a combination of the two and things have turned out pretty well for both parties.
Altuve’s performances in each of the 2011, 2012, and 2013 seasons were all pretty identical. He wasn’t threatening to win any batting titles, but he was proving to be a very useful and exciting player in both real life and fantasy. Over those seasons, Altuve hit for a .285 AVG with a very good 12.2% strikeout rate, and he showed that he could be an annual threat for 30+ SB. Those seasons can be viewed as learning experiences and growth time for Altuve, considering that he skipped AAA. So last year as a 24-year old, Altuve had his coming out party where won the AL batting crown as he hit for a .341 AVG with 7 HR, 59 RBI, 85 R, and 56 SB. The batting title that he earned was aided by the fact that he significantly decreased his strikeout rate, a rate that was previously already one of the better ones in the league. Altuve trimmed his strikeout rate all the way down to 7.5%, which was second to only Victor Martinez’ 6.6%. Putting the ball in play always gives you a better chance of getting a hit, as opposed to striking out being an absolute out outcome each time. But Altuve also received some good fortune with his BABIP. At .360, Altuve’s BABIP was the second highest in the league (Starling Marte had the highest at .373). Not much had changed for Altuve in his batted ball profile from the previous years except for the fact that he got infield hits at a little better rate. So he may have been fortunate to hit for such a high average, but there’s still no doubting that he has the skills to be a .300 hitter from year to year. The stolen base total of 56 was a significant increase from the previous years when his career high was 35. While he did attempt more steals on a per rate basis than the previous years, it was also the increase in hits and being on base so much more often that truly allowed him to break the 50 SB plateau. I am not meaning to take away anything from the great year that Altuve had, but I do just want to shed some light on his 2015 outlook. However even with regression, he appears to be locked in as a surefire top second baseman at the short height of 5 foot 5 inches tall.
The player I have chosen to be this year’s Altuve is a player that I have been enamored with since the end of the 2013 season when he had just completed a stint at A+ ball in the Red Sox organization. That player is none other than Mookie Betts. Betts was drafted by the Red Sox in the 5th round in 2011 and it wasn’t till the aforementioned 2013 season that Betts’ statistical performance was beginning to turn some heads. In that season, splitting time between A and A+, Betts hit .314 with 15 HR and 38 SB while displaying both amazing contact and plate discipline skills (10.3 K%, 14.7 BB%). When a player has a walk rate higher than his strikeout rate, it makes me feel all fuzzy inside. Betts opened the 2014 season at AA where he continued to rake, and he had a consecutive games reaching base streak (carried over from the 2013 season) that reached 71 games! He soon received a promotion to AAA where he continued to make opposing teams sad as he reached base in all 23 games there before receiving his first call to the Majors.
June 29, 2014 will go down as the day that Red Sox fans began to bellow “MOOOOOOOK” after years of chanting “YOOOOOOOUK.” Betts held his own for a few weeks upon his call-up, but he was sent back to AAA when the Red Sox got Shane Victorino back from the DL. He got called up two more times in the season, and the last month and a half he was given the opportunity to establish himself as an everyday player. With that opportunity, Betts hit .302 over that final month and a half and appeared to really be settling in as a Major Leaguer. Let’s look at exactly what Betts accomplished in 2014 splitting time between second base and the outfield.
- 2014 at AA: .355 AVG, 6 HR, 34 RBI, 56 R, 22 SB, 7.9 K%, 13.8 BB%
- 2014 at AAA: .335 AVG, 5 HR, 31 RBI, 31 R, 11 SB, 14.2 K%, 12.3 BB%
- 2014 at Majors: .291 AVG, 5 HR, 18 RBI, 34 R, 7 SB, 14.6 K%, 9.9 BB%
Wow, those stats. Excuse me while I salivate. At 5 foot 9 inches tall, Betts has four inches on Altuve, but they both play with the same big time skills. Betts has strong contact and walk rates, great hitting ability, and surprising pop for a player of his size, and can be a burner on the base paths. The one obstacle for Betts in 2015 is the issue of playing time. Last year, the Red Sox signed Cuban outfield sensation Rusney Castillo to a 7-year/$72.5 million contract, and when he reached the Majors late last season, he saw all his time played in center field. In the off-season the Red Sox signed Hanley Ramirez to a 4-year/$88 million contract to become their new left fielder since he is such a hack in the infield. Then Red Sox manager Jon Farrell recently said that Shane Victorino and his $13 million 2015 salary would be starting in right field as long as he is healthy. Okay, so that would presumably leave Betts without a spot in the starting outfield given that those players are getting paid so much and Betts will make the league minimum. Well, how about the other position that Betts plays, second base? Oh, there’s just some guy named Dustin Pedroia who is occupying that spot. I hear that he is a real gym rat. So with all that said, how will Betts find the playing time? Well, the way things are going in Spring Training, Betts would seem to have a leg up on Castillo to be the Opening Day center fielder as Castillo has been battling an oblique injury and Betts is performing very well in Spring Training. In addition, in the event that Betts does not occupy a starting position from the get go, Ramirez and Victorino have not exactly been the models of health the last few years, so that would be a secondary path to playing time.
Playing time issues aside, Betts is a tremendous talent and in my eyes is one of the player with the most potential in the game right now. He has the same abilities and skill set as Altuve and there certainly is no other better option than Betts to breakout in the same fashion that Altuve did last year. I think that the Red Sox will find a way to get him into the lineup more often than not, and when he is in the lineup he should be the leadoff hitter for a very explosive Red Sox lineup. I’m all-in. My best bets are with Betts.
2014 Jose Altuve stats: .341 AVG, 7 HR, 59 RBI, 85 R, 56 SB, 63 K, 38 BB in 660 AB
2015 Mookie Betts projection: .294 AVG, 13 HR, 58 RBI, 96 R, 30 SB, 80 K, 62 BB in 541 AB
ʞonfidence Rating: 8ʞ out of 10ʞ
Other candidates to be “This Year’s Jose Altuve”: Adam Eaton, Leonys Martin