This Year’s Michael Brantley Will Be A.J. Pollock

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.

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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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This Year’s Jose Altuve Will Be Mookie Betts

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.

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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.

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This Year’s Garrett Richards Will Be Nathan Eovaldi

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.

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Garrett Richards was a 1st round pick (42nd overall) by the Angels in the 2009 draft out of the University of Oklahoma and he was expected to help out the big league club sooner rather than later.  See what I did there?  He showed some glimpses of becoming a mid to top of the rotation starter while he was in the Minors, but as he advanced to the upper levels his walk rate went up and strikeout rate went down. The same trend continued when he reached the Major League level in 2011 working as a spot starter and reliever down the stretch.  Things did not get much better when he continued that same role in 2012.  From 2011-12, Richards had a 4.87 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, 5.93 K/9, and 4.34 BB/9 in 85 IP.  When a pitcher’s strikeout rate is barely higher than his walk rate that poses as a serious problem, especially when that pitcher has a fastball that sits at 95 MPH on average.

In 2013, Richards pretty much split his time evenly as a reliever and a starter and ended up showing some decent improvements in his peripherals.  Though his end of the season ERA sat at 4.16, his xFIP was at 3.58 and he gave up home runs at a decreased rate, induced a lot of groundballs, and both his strikeout and walk rates trended in a positive direction (6.27 K/9 and 2.73 BB/9).  The strikeout rate still wasn’t what one would expect out of a pitcher with Richards’ gas, but at that point any positive change in his profile was worth taking and it was a combination of all those things that made him a deep sleeper for 2014.

In his age 26 season in 2014, Richards was able to put it all together to become a complete pitcher.  His velocity saw a big bump going from 94.8 MPH on his average fastball in 2013 to 96.3 MPH in 2014.  The increased velocity and better command of his slider led to his strikeout rate skyrocketing to 8.75 K/9.  Also a big reason for his breakout year was his impressive ability to keep the ball in the park.  Richards led the Majors with a miniscule HR allowed rate of 0.27 HR/9.  Perhaps Richards was a bit on the lucky side regarding the balls that were put in play against him as his BABIP was well below the league average (especially for a groundball pitcher) at .264, but his FIP at 2.60 was nearly identical to his actual ERA at 2.61.  Unfortunately for the righty, his season came to an abrupt halt when he tore his patella tendon covering first base on a ground ball.  Though the injury was a devastating occurrence for Richards, the Angels, and fantasy owners round the world, all parties should have been very pleased with what he was able to accomplish.  Richards finished the season establishing himself as the ace of a division champion team and going 13-4 with a 2.61 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 8.75 K/9, and 2.72 BB/9 in 168.2 IP.

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This Year’s Jose Abreu Will Be Jorge Soler

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.

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Around the internet I have seen White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu referred to as “El Dolor Grande,” which is the Spanish translation of “The Big Hurt.”  For those who don’t know, The Big Hurt is the moniker that long-time White Sox broadcast announcer and the most hometown biased announcer ever, Hawk Harrelson, gave to one of the premiere sluggers of the 90’s, Frank Thomas.  Although Abreu’s plate discipline skills pale in comparison to Thomas’ (though any player’s would), Abreu certainly causes pain to many baseballs, so El Dolor Grande is a fitting nickname.  But if Thomas is The Big Hurt and Abreu is El Dolor Grande, how come Paul Konerko never got a badass nickname?  All he got was “Paulie” as if he was a talking bird or one of the worst “comedians” of the 90’s.

Abreu had established himself as one of the top hitters in Cuba and he was able to defect from his motherland and he signed a 6-year/$68 million contract with the White Sox in August of 2013.  That type of commitment in years and dollars to a player that had never seen a pitch in the Majors was very interesting, but clearly the Sox were heavily intrigued.  There was no doubting that he had massive power potential, but there were questions if he could handle Major League pitching.  Well, I don’t think there are any more doubts about that as Abreu had one of the best seasons of any hitter last year as he took home the American League Rookie of the Year Award.  Overall, Abreu hit .317 with 36 HR, 107 RBI, 80 R, and 3 SB.

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This Year’s Dallas Keuchel Will Be T.J. House

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.

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Before the 2014 season, you have to go to back to 2010 to find a Houston Astros starting pitcher that was worth owning in fantasy leagues.  That pitcher was Brett Myers who went 14-8 with a 3.14 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 180 K in 223.2 IP.  But even then, did you really want to own a player who uses his wife as a punching bag and who once also ignorantly and insensitively called a reporter the “R-word.”   (Spread the word to end the word HERE!)  Something strange happened in 2014 though, as not only one Astros starting pitcher was beginning to produce positive results, but two of them were!  Those pitchers were Dallas Keuchel and Colin McHugh.  The fantasy world seemed affected by the recency bias toward the Astros as an awful team over the past few seasons, and more specifically the Astros pitchers, so many fantasy owners shied away from touching them when they were producing early on, in fear of them turning back into big ol’ pumpkins.  But there of course were the fantasy owners who were bold enough, and perhaps knowledgeable enough, to pick up Keuchel and/or McHugh off waivers.  For now, let’s focus on the southpaw Keuchel and see how he was able to put together a breakout 2014 season.

Keuchel, a 7th round pick out of the University of Arkansas by the Astros in 2009, did not put up any numbers that “wowed” anyone at the collegiate level, as his personal best season at Arkansas consisted of a 3.92 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 5.75 K/9.  Similarly, in his Minor League career, he compiled a 3.74 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and 5.90 K/9.  And then in his 1 and ½ seasons in the Majors prior to 2014, he was a pitcher that looked absolutely lost, as he was literally one of the worst pitchers in the league during that timeframe.   Out of pitchers with a minimum of 200 IP from 2012-13, Keuchel had the third highest ERA at 5.20 and the highest WHIP at 1.54.  Part of the ugly stat line could be attributed to some poor luck as his xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching mark) during that time was 4.17, which was over a full run lower than his actual ERA, suggesting his defense was doing him no favors.  However, there was still no denying that Keuchel had a lot of work to do to become anything more than an eventual mop-up man in the Majors.

A part of Keuchel’s game that was a positive aspect in his time in the Minors but was not prevalent at all during his first 1 and ½ years in the Majors was his great control.  In the Minors his walk rate was well below average at 1.90 BB/9, but in 2012 with the Astros it ballooned to 4.11 BB/9.  Perhaps that 2012 mark can be attributed to the rookie jitters though, as Keuchel was able to trim that to 3.05 BB/9 in his sophomore season in 2013.  Even so, that was still a far cry from his Mark Buehrle-esque type of control that he had in the Minors.  But in 2014 things started clicking for Keuchel, and he was getting ahead in the count much more often, as his first pitch strike % increased from 62.9% in 2013 to 65.4% in 2014.  Working ahead in the count is obviously a lot more comfortable for pitchers, and it should lead to fewer walks issued.  In Keuchel’s case, it led to a lot fewer walks as his 2014 walk rate was very pretty at 2.16 BB/9.  Another factor in Keuchel’s breakout was the fact that he was pounding the bottom of the zone, as evidenced in this great article written by Scott Strandberg at Fangraphs.  Keuchel always was a groundball pitcher, but by pounding the bottom of the zone even harder, he took his groundball inducing ways to a whole new level.  At 63.5%, Keuchel easily led the Majors in groundball rate.  Groundballs often turn into easy outs, and if the ball is being hit on the ground a lot that means the ball is not leaving the park for 3-run dingers.  So as you can see, Keuchel’s formula to success in his age 26 season was improved control and inducing a ton of groundballs, which led him to a season of 12 W-9 L, 2.93 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 6.57 K/9, and 2.16 BB/9 in 200 IP.

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This Year’s Brian Dozier Will Be Marcus Semien

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.

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It was a breakout year for Brian Dozier in 2014 as he emerged as one of only four players to collect 20 HR and 20 SB, and he also released a hit single titled “Take Me to Church.”  What a multi-talented stud muffin!  Okay, obviously I am joking and know the difference between Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier and Grammy nominated musician Hozier.  But speaking of Hozier and his overplayed single “Take Me to Church,” a few weeks ago I was in the car and that song came on as I was passing a Church’s Chicken restaurant.  I thought it was a sign that I needed to get myself some fried chicken, but I chose not to.  “Cool story, bro.”  Yeah, I know.  Anyway…

The Bull-Dozier was never a flashy prospect as he made his way up through the Twins organization.  He was an under the radar, grinder type of player who could impact a ballgame in several different ways.  Last year, he was a bit of a surprise, but I won’t say that it was entirely unexpected, as his 2013 season wasn’t that far off in terms of per at-bat production in most offensive categories.  As a player who had 18 HR and 14 SB in 558 AB in 2013, it was not too farfetched for Dozier to have had 23 HR and 21 SB in 598 AB in 2014.  However, what was certainly unexpected was his runs total of 112, which was the second most of any player in the Majors.  Dozier’s batting average (.242) was nearly identical to his 2013 mark (.244), but his walk rate jumped from 8.2% to 12.6%.  Couple this with the fact that he spent all season hitting either leadoff or in the 2-hole for the Twins, instead of hitting all over in the lineup like he did in 2013, and those are the two main reasons for his breakout year.  So who might be this year’s version of Dozier to go from underappreciated in the fantasy world to posting a 20/20 season while scoring runs like it’s nobody’s business (except Mike Trout’s).

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This Year’s Phil Hughes Will Be Brandon McCarthy

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.

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Phil Hughes was drafted in the 1st round (23rd overall) by the Yankees in 2004 and he absolutely decimated Minor League hitters to make him one of the highest rated and most anticipated pitching prospects of the 2000’s.  Armed with a devastating curveball, Hughes made his Major League debut in April of the 2007 season as a 20-year old after the Yankees rotation was plagued by injuries.  In his second Major League start, he displayed exactly why he was so highly touted, as he was in the midst of a no-hitter after 6 and 1/3 innings before he was forced from the game with a hamstring injury.  Hughes was placed on the DL and he had a long recovery time, but he eventually returned to the Yankees and completed his rookie season showing flashes of brilliance but also showing that he had a lot of areas to improve upon.  However, in the next six seasons with the Yankees from 2008-13, Hughes failed to resemble anything that looked like a player that was once considered the top pitching prospect in the game.  Through the 2013 season, Hughes had a career line of 56 W-50 L, 4.54 ERA, and 1.32 WHIP to go along with 7.57 K/9 and 2.83 BB/9.  Despite those very mediocre statistics and coming off the worst season of his career, Hughes managed to land himself a 3-year/$24 million deal with the pitching starved Twins in the off-season leading up to the 2014 season.  Yeah, league average (or worse) baseball players get paid way too much, which makes me think that I should be playing professional baseball rather than writing about it.  If only I could throw a curveball, or hit one for that matter…

Hughes moving from Yankee Stadium to the much friendlier confines of Target Field in Minnesota was certainly a much more appealing situation, but in 2014 he actually pitched much better on the road than at home.  At Target Field, Hughes had a 4.25 ERA while giving up 11 HR.  On the road, Hughes managed a 2.78 ERA while only allowing 5 HR.  So if it wasn’t the home park that aided a breakout season for Hughes, what was it?  It was all about control.  Hughes amazingly issued only 16 free passes on the season and paired with his 186 strikeouts, he set an all-time single-season record for best K/BB ratio at 11.63 K/BB.  Also playing a positive factor might have been the reintroduction of his cutter and the scrapping of his slider.  Hughes threw a cutter regularly from 2009-11, but in 2012-13 it was nearly non-existent and he had used a slider instead.  But last year, the slider was gone and the cutter was back in full effect and at the highest usage of his career, and for the first time the cutter had a positive pitch value for him.  Overall, Hughes finished his age 28 season with a record of 16-10, 3.52 ERA, and 1.13 WHIP.  This was the first time in his career that Hughes posted an ERA under 4.00 and a WHIP under 1.25.  Better late than never, right?

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This Year’s J.D. Martinez Will Be Travis Snider

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.

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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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This Year’s Yan Gomes Will Be Travis d’Arnaud

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.

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Fun fact #1:  Yan Gomes is the first Brazilian born player ever in the Major Leagues.  Fun fact #2:  On July 30, 2013, Gomes faced pitcher Andre Rienzo, the first Brazilian pitcher in Major League history, for the first Brazil vs. Brazil matchup in MLB history.  Fun fact #3:  Only the Strong is a movie from 1993 about the Brazilian martial art of capoeira, starring Mark Dacascos, now host of Iron Chef America – a movie that I frequently watched on HBO when I was a kid.  Okay, now that I got that out of the way, let’s check out the breakout year that Gomes had in 2014.

Gomes came up through the Blue Jays organization and had an underwhelming showing at the plate when he first reached the Majors in 2012.  He was then traded to the Indians where he was blocked by Carlos Santana at catcher.  But in limited playing time in 2013, Gomes displayed above average skills at the plate as well as behind the plate.  In 88 games in the 2013 season, Gomes hit for a .294 AVG with 11 HR and 45 RBI while establishing himself as one of the best pitch framers in the league.   Such a strong showing on both sides of the ball provided the Indians the perfect opportunity to begin transitioning Santana to another position to help preserve the health of one of their most dangerous offensive players.

So in 2014, it was Gomes who saw the majority of the time behind the plate as Santana spent most of his time at the corner infield positions, starting only 10 games as the backstop for the Indians while Gomes got 121 starts.  In addition to receiving regular playing time, the other reasons for Gomes’ breakout season were improvements in his line drive rate as well as his HR/flyball rate.  The owner of a .346 BABIP in the Minors, it was no surprise to see Gomes be able to post a strong line drive rate to keep his BABIP at a very healthy mark of .326 last year.  It was also hardly a surprise that he improved on his HR/flyball rate to end up surpassing the 20 HR plateau, since he had shown that type of power in 2012 at AAA and 2013 with the Indians as a part-time player.  In retrospect, it was pretty easy to see that Gomes had breakout potential and he should have been a targeted player for many fantasy owners in 2013 drafts once the top catchers were off the board.  I know he was a target of mine!  Gomes finished his age 26 season hitting .278 AVG, 21 HR, 74 RBI, 61 R, 0 SB, 120 K, 24 BB in 485 AB.

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This Year’s Matt Shoemaker Will Be Anthony DeSclafani

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.

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Coming up through the Angels farm system, Matt Shoemaker was hardly a pitcher that showed any signs of being the type of performer he was for the Halos in 2014.  The AAA level of the Minors appeared very challenging for Shoemaker as he had compiled a 5.32 ERA and 1.47 WHIP over 397.1 IP across four different stops at AAA.  With that kind of performance at the highest level of Minor League Baseball, it was a wonder how Shoemaker even made it to the Majors.

Shoemaker began his age 27 season as a long-man as a part of the Angels bullpen, but soon was given the opportunity to start some games.  The black-bearded righty parlayed that opportunity into a terrific rookie season where he finished 2nd on the AL Rookie of the Year ballot.  So how did this pitcher who seemed destined to be a career AAA player break through to be one of the most interesting surprise players of the 2014 season?  Well, I am not entirely sure what he did differently than in the Minors, but I do know that the two keys to his success were control and his splitter pitch.  Shoemaker showed control in AAA with a rate of 2.12 BB/9, so that is something he was able to carry over to the Majors last season, and even improve upon at 1.59 BB/9.  And then there was his splitter that was just an extraordinary pitch.  As an Angels fan, I watched Shoemaker pitch a lot and his splitter just devastatingly bottomed out on so many hitters.  It was an unhittable pitch a lot of the time.  In all of baseball, it ranked as the 3rd best splitter, sandwiched in between a trio of Japanese pitchers (Hiroki Kuroda 1st, Masahiro Tanaka 2nd, Hisashi Iwakuma 4th).  Shoemaker went on to post a record of 16-4 with a 3.04 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 8.21 K/9, and 1.59 BB/9 in 136 IP.  I like to think that Shoemaker found his success living by this quote that I just made up:  “If the shoe fits, wear it.  If the shoe doesn’t fit, make it.”

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This Year’s Alex Wood Will Be M̶a̶r̶c̶u̶s̶ ̶S̶t̶r̶o̶m̶a̶n̶ Drew Pomeranz

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.

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In fear of breaking tradition that the baseball world has come to expect from the Braves, they have once again developed and produced another talented starting pitcher in the name of Alex Wood.  After being drafted in the 2nd round out of the University of Georgia in 2012, Wood made just 26 appearances in the Minors before becoming a mainstay of the Braves pitching unit in 2013.  Upon being called up as one of the organization’s top pitching prospects, Wood pitched out of the bullpen before being given a chance as a starting pitcher, and then shifted back to the bullpen to limit his workload.  Overall, his rookie season was a success as he went 3-3 with a 3.13 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 8.92 K/9, and 3.13 BB/9 in 77.2 IP.

In 2014, cracking his first Opening Day roster at the age of 23, Wood rose to the occasion like wood tends to do.  Get it?  Wood…like an erec…oh, never mind.  Anyway, the southpaw pitched extremely well as a sophomore despite being moved to the bullpen for a month in the middle of the season.  His fastball-curveball-changeup repertoire and improved control brought him great results and he finished the season with a record of 11-11 with a 2.78 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 8.91 K/9, and 2.36 BB/9 in 171.2 IP.  Wood is for real and should be on his way to a nice career.

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This Year’s Todd Frazier Will Be Brandon Belt

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.

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Todd Frazier first saw Major League action in 2011 and displayed some natural power skills by hitting 6 HR in 112 AB in a late-season call up by the Reds.  Frazier began the 2012 season in the Minors, but it was not long before he was called up for good to be the primary third baseman for the big league club.  In his official rookie season, Frazier once again showed the same type of power potential by blasting 19 HR in 422 AB while also managing to post a respectable AVG of .273.  This strong showing generated breakout buzz for him entering the 2013 season as a sophomore, but despite an increased walk rate and decreased strikeout rate, Frazier regressed to a .234 AVG and had the same 19 HR total but in 109 more AB than the previous year.  However, that .234 AVG was brought down by some poor luck on balls in play (.269 BABIP).  At every level that he played at in the Minors, Frazier posted a BABIP north of .300, and he had BABIP of .316 in his 2012 rookie season.  So a BABIP as low as .269 seemed to be a bit of an outlier, which was going to leave room for improvement for him heading into the 2014 season.  Also in Frazier’s favor for the 2014 season was the statement that new Reds manager Bryan Price made at the beginning of Spring Training that he wanted his team to run more.  This was great news for Frazier, because even though he was only about league average in speed, he did seem to have a knack for stealing some bases as he stole as many as 17 in one Minor League stop.  Under the management of Dusty Baker from 2011-13, Frazier had just 10 SB in 318 games.

Manager Price lived up to his promise about being more aggressive on the base paths, which was a big part of the 2014 breakout for the 28-year old Frazier.  The other factors in Frazier’s breakout were his bounce back in BABIP as it climbed back up to .309, and further progression in his power stroke at the Major League level where he saw a boost in his average flyball distance and HR/flyball rate.  Overall, Frazier posted a line of .273 AVG, 29 HR, 80 RBI, 88 R, 20 SB in 597 AB.  Amazingly, Frazier was one of five players to post a 20 HR/20 SB season (others were Michael Brantley, Carlos Gomez, Ian Desmond, and Brian Dozier).  What an amazing breakout season from a player that was available in the late rounds of most fantasy drafts.  So which player in 2015 will be able to go toe-to-toe and be the Ali to this Frazier and win the championship “belt”?  Well, if you did not catch on to the foreshadowing there, I think the best candidate to be this year’s Frazier is Brandon Belt.

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This Year’s Corey Kluber Will Be Carlos Carrasco

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.

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Prior to the 2014 season in a 12-team keeper league that I co-own with a friend, this friend and I both made lists of what players that we would like to keep.  We were able to keep as many players as we wanted, as long as it fit under a keeper salary cap of $140.  This was my first time co-owning a returning keeper team, so it was going to be interesting to see where we would differ on players.  One of the omissions that my co-owner had from his list was Corey Kluber at a price of $2.  I told him that Kluber was no harm at that price and that I liked his sleeper potential and we should definitely keep him, which he had no problem with.  Heck, for $2, almost anyone not named Jeff Mathis is keeper material if it is within the budget.  As you should know, Kluber went on to dominate the American League and be one of the most improbable AL Cy Young Award winners in recent memory.  Kluber was not the only player that we struck it big on, but he was certainly a key component in leading our team to taking home the championship!  So let’s take a further look at Kluber’s ascension and see who may be this year’s version of him.

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