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
Michael Brantley was a 7th round selection by the Brewers in the 2005 draft and he then was included in a part of a package of prospects as the “player to be named later” going to the Indians in the trade that sent C.C. Sabathia to the Brewers as a rental in 2008. Brantley reached the Majors as a September call-up in 2009, but it was not until the 2011 season when he became more of a permanent fixture in the Indians lineup. While Brantley was proving to be a very useful real life baseball player, he was rather ho-hum for fantasy as a low power hitter with a little speed and decent batting average. However, in 2014, Brantley delivered a performance that made the baseball community change the way that he was viewed.
Coming up through the Minors, Brantley was a player that displayed a good feel for the strike zone and had a superb ability to put the ball in play as he struck out just 8.9% of the time as a Minor Leaguer. He put that skill to great use in his breakout season last year as he struck out just 8.3% of the time. The career best strikeout rate allowed him to hit for a career high .327 AVG. However, the average was not as much of a surprise as his sudden power surge was. Brantley seemingly came out of nowhere to hit 20 HR, which was twice the amount of his previous career high of 10 in 2013. As a Minor League player he never even hit double digit HR in a single season, but 2014 was his magical age 27 season (the age that is widely considered to be a hitter’s prime) and all bets were off. In addition to the power, he also chipped in 23 SB, also a career high. But having stolen as many as 50 bases in a single season before between AAA and the Majors in 2009, it’s been expected of him to be more of a stolen base threat at the Major League level. Brantley’s season went down as one of the biggest breakthroughs of the 2014 season and in addition to the .327 AVG, 20 HR, and 23 SB, he produced 97 RBI and 90 R to be a true five category stud. Whether or not that level of production is sustainable is another story, as right now I am just here to tell you who could be this year’s Brantley.
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27-year old A.J. Pollock of the Diamondbacks appears poised to take some big steps forward in his career and that possibly could mean a 20/20 season. A former 1st round pick of the Diamondbacks in 2009, Pollock profiles pretty similarly to Brantley. In the Minors, Pollock was a .300 type hitter with very little power and good speed. He debuted in the Majors in 2012 and then began to see regular playing time in 2013. In 2014, it seemed as if he was in the midst of a breakthrough season but then he suffered a hand injury that shelved him for a while. Let’s look at his stats from 2013 and 2014.
- 2013: .269 AVG, 8 HR, 38 RBI, 64 R, 12 SB, 17.0 K% 6.8 BB% in 137 games
- 2014: .302 AVG, 7 HR, 24 RBI, 41 R, 14 SB, 16.0 K%, 6.6 BB% in 75 games
Those are some very good improvements from 2013 to 2014, but in 2014 his batting average was led by a .344 BABIP. Is that something sustainable? Well, probably not, but his line drive rate at 14.2% was very low and I would expect that to at least jump a few percentage points, which should help to offset some of the expected BABIP regression. Though Pollock isn’t a strikeout machine, he is not the master of contact either like Brantley was last year, but he makes enough contact to give himself a chance to hit for a .300 AVG. Similar to Brantley, Pollock never showed double digit HR power in any year in the Minors, but as a developing player entering his age 27 season and playing his home games in a hitter friendly stadium, I think that Pollock can maintain the type of power that he showed last year.
Pollock is penned in to the leadoff spot for the Diamondbacks and that is likely not going to change over the course of the season. Hitting in the leadoff spot will give him optimal run scoring potential, but it is not going to provide him with many RBI opportunities. So because of that, Pollock is very unlikely to give the same type of value that Brantley did last year, but he still remains a top breakout candidate and my top candidate to breakout in a somewhat similar fashion to Brantley. Pollock could put up a line of .300 AVG, 20 HR, 25 SB, 70 RBI, and 95 R. That might be wishful thinking, but I think Brantley would have something to tell you about what is and what isn’t wishful thinking.
2014 Michael Brantley stats: .327 AVG, 20 HR, 97 RBI, 94 R, 23 SB, 56 K, 52 BB in 611 AB
2015 A.J. Pollock projection: .289 AVG, 16 HR, 50 RBI, 85 R, 25 SB, 101 K, 45 BB in 591 AB
ʞonfidence Rating: 4ʞ out of 10ʞ
Other candidates to be “This Year’s Michael Brantley”: Kole Calhoun, Kolten Wong, Adam Eaton