Szymborski’s 2021 Breakout Candidates: Hitters

One of my favorite yearly preseason pieces is also my most dreaded: the breakout list. I’ve been doing this exercise since 2014, and while I’ve had the occasional triumph (hello, Christian Yelich), the low-probability nature of trying to project who will beat expectations means that every time you look smart, you’re also bound to look dumb for some other reason. Looking back at last season’s breakout list, there were a number of selections I was happy with once the season ended — Eloy Jiménez, Dinelson Lamet, Dansby Swanson, Dylan Bundy — but then I remember Mitch Keller’s walkalicious 2020 and Victor Robles dropping 27 points of wRC+ and my cringe-sense starts to tingle. Since I’m doing separate lists of hitters and pitchers this year, let’s waste no more time with the opening spiel. To the hitters!

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays

Perhaps not the gutsiest call, but it feels to me like people have soured way too much on Vladito. A 112 wRC+ won’t win any Silver Sluggers, but we have to remember he was just 21 last season. Let’s imagine that Guerrero Jr. wasn’t part of the imperial-Vlad bloodline and was just a guy in Triple-A in 2020 (in an alternate universe where the minor league season existed). If we translate Guerrero’s actual major league performance into a Triple-A Buffalo line, ZiPS estimates that he would’ve been hitting .288/.370/.526 as a 21-year-old in the International League. Would anyone be disappointed with this line? There would be cries of Free Vlad! echoing through the streets by June. I think players like Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. have spoiled us for normal awesome prospects.

While I don’t usually fall for the whole “best shape of his life” stories in spring, I think I’ve fallen for it this time. Guerrero was carrying a lot of weight for a 21-year-old; I weighed less at 21, and my main aerobic exercise was hauling cases of beer into my house. He dropped a lot of weight this winter, so I take this one more seriously than the usual stories, which involve a guy losing 10 pounds or having some secret abs that people gush about.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .289 .368 .572 537 84 155 38 6 34 111 64 78 4 150 4.7
80% .284 .357 .540 543 82 154 36 5 31 107 58 85 3 139 4.0
70% .279 .350 .521 545 80 152 35 5 29 103 56 88 2 133 3.5
60% .278 .347 .506 547 78 152 34 5 27 99 54 93 2 128 3.2
50% .275 .342 .486 549 77 151 33 4 25 96 52 96 2 122 2.7
40% .274 .339 .472 551 77 151 32 4 23 93 50 99 1 117 2.3
30% .272 .336 .457 552 75 150 31 4 21 89 49 103 1 113 2.0
20% .267 .327 .440 555 73 148 30 3 20 87 46 109 1 106 1.5
10% .266 .324 .425 557 72 148 29 3 18 84 44 119 1 102 1.2

Alex Kirilloff, Minnesota Twins

The projection systems are low on Kirilloff, generally speaking, and it’s something I think is a mistake. From working with ZiPS over the years, I’m aware that there are certain things a projection system is going to struggle with, one of which is playing through nagging injuries. If Kirilloff had missed 100 games in 2019 with his wrist injury, the projection system would have understood that to an extent. But rather than a dramatic season-ending tear, the injury was more of the nagging type, and I think his poor Double-A numbers have a lot to do with him swinging at less than 100%.

The 2018 season is the only time Kirilloff has been healthy in a full season professionally, and he absolutely torched the ball in environments not conducive to offense. Given that he missed 2017 with Tommy John surgery, I was disappointed that the Twins didn’t get him into a game in 2020 until the playoffs. He’s too low on the ZiPS Top 100, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he hit 30 homers in 2021. ZiPS only says 3.6% for that, but I think it’s closer to 25%.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Alex Kirilloff
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .301 .352 .543 495 67 149 33 6 25 68 35 84 14 137 3.1
80% .295 .341 .515 499 65 147 31 5 23 66 31 90 11 127 2.5
70% .293 .337 .499 501 64 147 30 5 21 63 29 94 8 122 2.2
60% .289 .333 .483 501 61 145 29 4 20 60 29 98 7 117 1.9
50% .287 .330 .460 502 60 144 27 3 18 58 28 102 7 111 1.5
40% .286 .328 .445 503 59 144 26 3 16 56 27 106 6 106 1.3
30% .282 .322 .435 504 58 142 26 3 15 54 26 112 6 102 1.0
20% .281 .320 .426 505 57 142 25 3 14 53 25 118 5 100 0.8
10% .279 .317 .403 506 55 141 23 2 12 50 24 126 4 93 0.3

Kyle Schwarber, Washington Nationals

Schwarber has had some decent offensive seasons, but nothing that’s matched the crazy power potential we thought was possible after his major league debut in 2015. He’s regularly among the league leaders in exit velocity, and while he hasn’t made any great strides in terms of plate discipline, he also didn’t fall into any new bad habits while he struggled in 2020. That was a weird season for Schwarber, as pitchers had a lot of success facing him by throwing hard down in the zone. That’s an almost retro failing at this point: The league slugged .418 in 2020 against balls in the low “shadow zone” as defined by StatCast, but he only slugged .161. In fact, he’s never match that .418 slugging percentage against those pitches!

The Nats are quite aware of this problem, and given that they’re trying to address a specific weakness, this might be the best year for Schwarber to hit his upside. They should go with the reverse Willie Mays Hayes regimen and extract 100 pushups from him every time he hits a grounder.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Kyle Schwarber
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .243 .362 .543 449 78 109 21 3 36 87 80 124 3 133 3.7
80% .238 .351 .520 454 76 108 20 3 34 83 75 135 3 124 3.2
70% .235 .347 .503 455 75 107 19 2 33 82 74 144 3 120 2.9
60% .232 .343 .493 456 74 106 19 2 32 81 73 149 2 116 2.6
50% .230 .340 .484 457 73 105 19 2 31 79 72 152 2 113 2.4
40% .227 .336 .472 458 72 104 18 2 30 77 71 156 2 109 2.1
30% .226 .332 .459 460 72 104 18 1 29 75 69 160 2 105 1.9
20% .222 .325 .447 463 70 103 18 1 28 74 66 166 2 100 1.6
10% .221 .319 .429 466 69 103 17 1 26 71 63 177 1 94 1.2

Gary Sánchez, New York Yankees

I swear I’m not just trolling Yankees fans. While he technically had a breakout already in the past, Sánchez has been down in the depths enough the last couple of seasons that I think I can justify predicting a re-breakout. What it comes down to for me is that no hitter in the majors is a .159 BABIP “true talent” hitter, and most pitchers aren’t, either. On that last point, 712 pitchers have made 200 plate appearances in the majors since 1950, and 672 of them had a career BABIP better than Sánchez’s .159 from 2020.

ZiPS sees Sánchez as one of the biggest outliers in Statcast data versus reality for both batting average and slugging percentage and feels that someone with his level of power has a BABIP upside higher than his career .256. The defense will be unexciting, but I think offensively, there’s still hope that he can get back to where he was in 2017. Amusingly, Sánchez had his career-best season at avoiding swinging at bad pitches in his miserable 2020!

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Gary Sánchez
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .227 .322 .536 392 64 89 17 1 34 100 48 120 1 125 2.4
80% .221 .313 .508 394 63 87 17 0 32 95 46 128 1 116 2.0
70% .218 .309 .494 395 61 86 16 0 31 92 45 134 0 111 1.7
60% .212 .302 .472 396 60 84 16 0 29 89 44 137 0 104 1.3
50% .211 .298 .460 398 59 84 15 0 28 87 42 141 0 100 1.1
40% .208 .293 .456 399 59 83 15 0 28 85 41 144 0 98 1.0
30% .208 .293 .441 399 58 83 15 0 26 82 41 149 0 94 0.8
20% .202 .284 .424 401 56 81 14 0 25 79 39 153 0 88 0.4
10% .199 .278 .397 403 55 80 14 0 22 75 37 162 0 79 0.0

J.P. Crawford, Seattle Mariners

Crawford’s one of those tweeners who is now far too experienced to be called a prospect, but it still doesn’t feel like he’s hit anywhere near his peak in the majors. His contact numbers continue to improve year-after-year, and the 2020 gain is probably even bigger than it looked: He hit for more contact despite offering at a higher percentage of out-of-zone pitches but a lower percentage of zone pitches. I think he’s someone who could benefit from being more aggressive at the plate; he’s as good a bad-ball hitter as Tim Anderson. ZiPS might also be underrating Crawford’s defense, which has improved considerably since the Mariners just left him at short — a better situation than when the Phillies seemed more concerned with playing Scott Kingery at the position. I still think Crawford can be the three to four-win player that ZiPS saw his peak back when he was a prospect. At 26, he’s in his prime, and I think there’s another gear remaining.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – J.P. Crawford
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .255 .349 .425 487 70 124 25 8 14 65 66 99 13 114 3.5
80% .249 .342 .403 489 69 122 23 8 12 62 64 106 11 106 3.0
70% .248 .338 .383 491 69 122 22 7 10 60 62 112 10 100 2.7
60% .246 .335 .380 492 68 121 22 7 10 59 61 116 9 98 2.5
50% .243 .331 .371 493 68 120 21 6 10 58 60 119 9 95 2.3
40% .242 .327 .364 495 67 120 21 6 9 57 58 124 8 92 2.1
30% .241 .324 .354 497 66 120 20 6 8 56 56 130 8 89 1.9
20% .238 .319 .339 499 65 119 19 5 7 54 54 137 7 83 1.5
10% .233 .308 .324 503 65 117 18 5 6 52 50 144 6 76 1.0

Nate Lowe, Texas Rangers

The move to Texas is beneficial for Lowe: While the Rangers’ new park doesn’t appear to be anywhere near as hitter-friendly as the old one, it’s likely to be a better one than the Trop. He also has a much easier path to playing time with Texas, a team with a poor recent track record at developing hitters; only Ronald Guzmán provides likely competition.

Lowe has power, but it’s still inconsistent at this point. His sweet spot percentage, as measured by Statcast based on balls hit between eight and 32 degrees, is considerably higher than league-average, but he still hits way too many grounders for a guy who can get loft from his swing. When he does hit that sweet spot, he’s been one of the best in baseball, hitting .732 and slugging 1.446, the former number the ninth-best for players with 50 balls hit into play in 2019 and ’20.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Nate Lowe
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .269 .365 .529 454 71 122 26 1 30 73 67 116 6 139 3.3
80% .265 .357 .499 457 70 121 24 1 27 69 64 122 4 130 2.7
70% .263 .352 .480 460 68 121 23 1 25 67 61 129 4 124 2.4
60% .260 .348 .469 461 68 120 22 1 24 66 60 133 3 120 2.1
50% .259 .344 .460 463 67 120 22 1 23 64 58 137 3 117 1.9
40% .256 .340 .448 464 67 119 21 1 22 62 57 142 3 113 1.6
30% .255 .337 .438 466 65 119 20 1 21 61 55 149 3 109 1.4
20% .253 .333 .426 467 64 118 19 1 20 59 54 156 2 105 1.1
10% .249 .327 .403 469 63 117 18 0 18 56 52 165 2 98 0.7

Ryan McMahon, Colorado Rockies

McMahon was a legitimately solid prospect a few years ago who was ill-served by the Rockies, who jerked him up and down from the minors and from position to position, resulting in him getting spotty playing time during two key developmental seasons. In fact, his plate discipline has gone in the wrong direction, and he’s been much more of a groundball hitter in the majors than he was in the minors. Now, thanks to the Nolan Arenado trade, the Rockies have the opportunity to stick McMahon at third and leave him there, at least until Chris Owings has a hot week or something.

Going into 2018, ZiPS saw McMahon as a 115–120 wRC+ hitter in his prime — highly useful if he could play a respectable second or third base in the majors. ZiPS has completely soured on him, but I’m an optimist about players who have had to work against their team’s efforts in trying to succeed. I actually think the 90th-percentile projection is still obtainable.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Ryan McMahon
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .258 .340 .509 462 68 119 27 4 27 82 56 138 9 107 2.1
80% .256 .334 .490 465 67 119 26 4 25 78 53 148 6 102 1.7
70% .255 .330 .469 467 67 119 25 3 23 75 51 156 6 96 1.4
60% .253 .328 .465 467 66 118 24 3 23 74 51 159 5 94 1.3
50% .252 .324 .456 469 65 118 24 3 22 73 49 162 5 92 1.1
40% .251 .323 .447 470 65 118 23 3 21 72 48 166 5 89 0.9
30% .248 .317 .428 472 64 117 22 3 19 69 46 172 4 83 0.6
20% .247 .313 .414 474 63 117 21 2 18 67 44 176 4 79 0.3
10% .241 .302 .393 478 60 115 21 2 16 63 40 190 3 71 -0.2

Luis Urías, Milwaukee Brewers

Urías already made my list in 2020 and put up one of the worst results of any of last year’s breakout picks, hitting .238/.308/.294 in 41 games for the Brewers. Since I’m clearly not afraid of being aggressively wrong about a young player over and over again — I had Nomar Mazara on my list for three consecutive seasons — I don’t mind sticking up for him one more time.

As lackluster as Urías’ performance in the majors has been, we’re also talking about a middle infielder with a .397 on-base percentage in the minors, a number earned while regularly playing at a high level for his age. Given the short 2020 season — preparation for which was interrupted by a positive COVID-19 diagnosis — and his recovery from a broken wrist from winter ball, I’m willing to give him a mulligan for the season. The Brewers are also prioritizing getting him playing time at short, the position where has the most upside value.

This spring, the Brewers are going back to their original plan for Urias and put him at shortstop while Arcia, who accepted a pay cut to remain with the team over the winter, will get a look at third base.

“We need to see it,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said of Urias’ ability at shortstop. “We traded for him, and it’s something we want to do.”

Unlike with McMahon, ZiPS is mostly on board with this idea.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Luis Urías
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ WAR
90% .257 .349 .443 474 68 122 29 7 15 68 58 106 11 108 3.3
80% .253 .344 .419 475 66 120 26 7 13 64 57 113 8 101 2.8
70% .249 .338 .403 477 65 119 25 6 12 62 55 121 7 95 2.5
60% .249 .336 .395 478 65 119 25 6 11 61 54 125 7 93 2.4
50% .246 .333 .386 479 64 118 24 5 11 60 53 128 6 90 2.1
40% .243 .327 .374 481 63 117 23 5 10 59 51 132 6 85 1.9
30% .241 .324 .369 482 62 116 22 5 10 58 50 136 6 83 1.7
20% .238 .318 .353 484 62 115 21 4 9 56 48 142 5 78 1.3
10% .234 .309 .336 488 61 114 20 3 8 54 44 152 4 71 0.9





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

Thank you Dan, very cool!

itsmonika
Member

Thanks for sharing this.

Cave Dameron
Member
Cave Dameron

You’re welcome Monika.