Szymborski’s 2022 Breakout Candidates: Hitters

© Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

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 for every time you look smart, you’re also bound to look dumb for some other reason.

Let’s start things off with a brief look at last year’s breakout hitter list and see how they fared.

On the plus side, nobody really embarrassed me. Alex Kirilloff came closest, but in his defense, he was playing with a wrist injury that eventually required surgery.

So, let’s get straight to this year’s list. Just to reiterate, this is most assuredly not simply a list of players ZiPS really likes. Now, in some cases, ZiPS does like them, but like any parent, I frequently disagree with my creation. Also, all 32 players highlighted in this series (the pitchers will run tomorrow) were selected prior to Opening Day; the compressed spring training schedule resulted in these articles running a week later than usual. In any case, changing my mind on players due to the first series of the season would be a very bad idea.

Jarred Kelenic, Seattle Mariners

Kelenic’s .181/.265/.350 line as a rookie was dreadful, with very few positives to be found in his major league numbers. Yes, he hit the ball harder than showed up in his stats, but even the .415 slugging percentage ZiPS thinks he “deserved” in 2021 is hardly the mark of an offensive superstar.

So, why am I optimistic? This isn’t something we’ll really be able to evaluate until years down the road, but I think players like Kelenic were especially hurt by the missing 2020 season. He was a very young, elite prospect on the verge of making the majors after 2019, but he missed an entire year of games against real minor league competition. I think it’s vital for an elite prospect to be challenged constantly, and with a short professional career, Kelenic didn’t have a lot of experience to fall back on; the alternate site just wasn’t a substitute. (For similar reasons, I think there’s a real chance that Adley Rutschman would be even more advanced if not for 2020.)

Now, Kelenic hit a lot better in his second stint in the majors, at .209/.291/.402. That’s hardly exciting, but it was a galaxy removed from the .096/.185/.193 line he posted in his first 92 plate appearances. As the season went on, he got better and better at swinging at pitches in the strike zone, a skill that is less fraught with sample size issues.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Jarred Kelenic
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ WAR
90% .280 .355 .583 475 75 133 34 7 32 102 53 20 157 4.6
80% .257 .329 .524 479 72 123 29 6 29 94 49 17 134 3.2
70% .245 .316 .489 481 69 118 28 4 27 87 47 14 121 2.4
60% .234 .303 .458 483 66 113 26 5 24 81 45 12 109 1.6
50% .229 .297 .432 484 65 111 23 3 23 76 44 12 101 1.1
40% .223 .290 .416 485 62 108 22 3 22 73 43 10 95 0.7
30% .214 .279 .390 487 61 104 20 3 20 69 41 9 85 0.0
20% .202 .265 .370 489 58 99 19 3 19 65 39 8 76 -0.5
10% .187 .245 .327 493 54 92 17 2 16 56 35 6 59 -1.8

Tim Anderson, Chicago White Sox

Some may consider this cheating, as Anderson is arguably already a star. So why is he here? Simply put: I think he could get even better. There’s a common belief, and certainly an earned one, that Anderson is a “see ball, hit ball” player. He is, but something that has been under-appreciated about him is that he’s steadily improved the quality of pitches he swings at. Comparing 2019-20 to last season for all qualifying hitters, there’s no hitter who more successfully shrunk the difference between their zone swing and out-of-zone swing percentages. Anderson didn’t do that by becoming more passive at the plate, either, and he posted the best exit velocity of his career in 2021. I think Anderson may have a 25-30 homer season in him and that’s without sacrificing the gaudy batting averages.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Tim Anderson
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ WAR
90% .324 .355 .564 534 98 173 35 3 29 75 24 38 146 5.1
80% .313 .343 .528 536 94 168 33 2 26 70 22 26 134 4.1
70% .305 .334 .493 537 91 164 31 2 22 65 21 22 123 3.4
60% .302 .330 .482 537 90 162 30 2 21 62 21 20 119 3.2
50% .296 .325 .462 537 88 159 28 2 19 60 21 19 113 2.7
40% .292 .321 .447 537 87 157 27 1 18 58 21 17 108 2.4
30% .288 .316 .435 538 86 155 26 1 17 55 20 16 103 2.1
20% .284 .311 .421 539 85 153 24 1 16 52 19 12 98 1.7
10% .276 .302 .394 540 81 149 23 1 13 49 18 10 89 1.1

Jo Adell, Los Angeles Angels

Should we like Adell as much as we did a few years ago? Probably not, given that his 2019 Pacific Coast League debut was mediocre and his ’20 big league debut for the Angels was a nearly unmitigated disaster. But he was considered a marvelous prospect at that point, and even before the shortened 2020 season, he had missed significant time with a variety of leg injuries.

Adell’s .289/.342/.592 line for Triple-A Salt Lake last year finally represented the type of performance that was long expected of him at that level. His .246/.295/.408 triple-slash for the Halos wasn’t amazing, but it also showed that he wasn’t quite dead yet. Baseball is a game of constant adjustment, and Adell at least seems to have gotten back on track, whereas a lot of previous prospects with similar experiences, like Lewis Brinson, sadly did not. I’m still not crazy about him in a corner outfield spot, but I think there’s some star potential remaining, which is good enough for me. ZiPS translated his minor league line in 2021 as a .770 OPS, which absolutely plays if he can still roam center field or be a plus defender in a corner.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Jo Adell
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ WAR
90% .291 .349 .566 440 61 128 28 6 27 96 36 15 144 3.0
80% .273 .326 .529 444 59 121 26 5 26 90 32 13 128 2.1
70% .258 .312 .492 445 55 115 24 4 24 84 31 10 115 1.2
60% .251 .301 .472 447 54 112 22 4 23 80 29 9 107 0.8
50% .241 .291 .444 448 53 108 20 4 21 76 28 8 97 0.2
40% .232 .281 .421 449 50 104 19 3 20 72 27 7 88 -0.3
30% .223 .272 .396 449 48 100 18 3 18 67 27 6 80 -0.9
20% .211 .258 .368 451 47 95 16 2 17 62 25 6 68 -1.5
10% .196 .241 .329 453 42 89 14 2 14 55 23 5 54 -2.4

Steven Kwan, Cleveland Guardians

ZiPS certainly likes Kwan. His 2021 season alone propelled him to 61st on the system’s Top 100 prospects, making him the ranking’s seventh-best center fielder (he checked in at No. 57 on the prospect team’s Top 100). But there’s a chance that ZiPS is actually underrating Kwan, despite a projection for a two-win rookie season. With so much time missing due to 2020, the ’19 season represents a larger percentage of performance for prospects three years down the road. ZiPS was not a fan of Kwan at that point in his career, translating his 2019 in the minors to a .246/.300/.327 big-league line.

But what if 2021 really represents Kwan’s current level of ability? ZiPS translated that season to .293/.354/.460 in the majors, making it one of the best minor league performances from anyone anywhere last year. If ZiPS is guessing wrong on the proper mix of his professional experience, Kwan may already be a three-to-four win player right now.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Steven Kwan
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ WAR
90% .301 .364 .496 419 62 126 23 7 15 52 40 13 130 3.2
80% .297 .358 .470 421 59 125 22 6 13 48 38 10 122 2.8
70% .293 .351 .442 423 59 124 20 5 11 45 36 8 113 2.3
60% .288 .345 .427 424 58 122 19 5 10 44 35 8 108 2.0
50% .287 .343 .426 425 58 122 19 5 10 43 34 7 107 1.9
40% .285 .341 .409 425 57 121 18 4 9 41 34 7 102 1.7
30% .279 .332 .396 427 56 119 18 4 8 40 32 6 96 1.3
20% .275 .325 .389 429 55 118 17 4 8 39 30 5 93 1.1
10% .267 .315 .367 431 54 115 16 3 7 37 28 4 84 0.6

Gavin Lux, Los Angeles Dodgers

It’s hard to have too much pity for the Dodgers given how good they’ve been developing players, but so far, Lux hasn’t been one of their shining success stories. Over parts of three seasons (and a tiny sliver of a fourth), he now has about a season’s worth of playing time in the majors. Would we normally write off a good prospect after one bad year in the big leagues? Lux is only in his age-24 season and his .234/.317/.368, 1.1 WAR performance in 539 plate appearances, while not actually good, is far from some epic disaster.

People seem very quick to dismiss Lux. Now, he’s not the hitter Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was this time last year, but let me present a similar theoretical. Imagine Lux had put up that full season line for Triple-A Oklahoma in 2021 and not for the Dodgers. Reversing the minor league translation would give him a .262/.366/.423 line in the minors. That might not be ideal for someone in the Pacific Coast League, but we wouldn’t discard that player even if that line represents the exact same level of performance Lux actually posted. Luckily, Lux plays for an organization that’s not inclined to simply give players immutable labels and turn to the next plan.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Gavin Lux
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ WAR
90% .279 .357 .525 469 79 131 28 9 23 92 56 10 134 4.5
80% .265 .342 .473 471 76 125 25 8 19 81 54 8 118 3.5
70% .256 .333 .451 472 74 121 24 7 18 76 53 7 109 2.9
60% .249 .325 .433 473 73 118 22 7 17 73 52 7 103 2.5
50% .243 .318 .414 474 71 115 21 6 16 70 51 6 96 2.1
40% .237 .310 .399 476 70 113 20 6 15 68 49 5 90 1.7
30% .231 .302 .379 477 68 110 19 5 14 63 48 5 83 1.2
20% .221 .289 .354 480 66 106 17 4 13 59 45 4 73 0.6
10% .211 .276 .325 483 64 102 16 3 11 54 42 3 62 -0.2

Keston Hiura, Milwaukee Brewers

Do spring training stats matter? Dan Rosenheck of The Economist conducted perhaps the most famous evaluation of the question back in 2015, and I can confirm his conclusions on my end. Hiura had a very strong spring training, going 11-for-28 with seven extra-base hits, including four homers. Now, that alone wouldn’t be enough to sway me, but the fact remains that Hiura has at least played well in the majors in the past; it’s very easy to forget given his recent struggles, but he hit .303/.368/.570 for a half-season in 2019. I don’t expect him to become Juan Soto or anything, but if he can just get his contact rate back into the low-60% range instead of the low-50s, I think his power potential still plays. This pick, more than any other on this list, could blow up hilariously in my face, but I don’t think expecting Hiura to be just normal-awful rather than legendarily-awful is a far-fetched hope.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Keston Hiura
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ WAR
90% .276 .354 .524 435 65 120 30 3 24 76 42 14 131 2.3
80% .254 .332 .471 437 62 111 26 3 21 68 40 11 111 1.2
70% .244 .322 .447 438 60 107 25 2 20 64 39 9 103 0.6
60% .236 .312 .427 440 59 104 23 2 19 62 37 9 95 0.2
50% .227 .303 .414 440 58 100 21 2 19 60 37 8 89 -0.2
40% .217 .291 .389 442 56 96 20 1 18 56 35 7 80 -0.7
30% .208 .281 .368 443 55 92 18 1 17 54 34 6 72 -1.2
20% .200 .271 .351 445 53 89 17 1 16 51 32 6 64 -1.7
10% .183 .253 .313 447 50 82 14 1 14 46 30 3 50 -2.5

Max Kepler, Minnesota Twins

ZiPS had Kepler as one of 2021’s biggest BABIP underperformers, with a .225 actual BABIP compared to a .280 zBABIP, with the latter number constituting the highest of his career. He hits the ball decently hard — though not at elite levels — and with some better fortune for a change, his offensive upside is even higher than his 122 wRC+ from 2019. With a .260 BABIP, he’s a borderline star. I still think there’s a reasonable chance that he can become a wRC+ 130 hitter with more than 30 homers a year. For a player who doesn’t seem to get talked about much anymore, I think that would constitute a breakout.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Max Kepler
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ WAR
90% .265 .358 .550 449 77 119 32 6 28 80 61 13 145 4.6
80% .255 .347 .510 451 76 115 29 4 26 74 59 10 131 3.8
70% .249 .339 .499 453 75 113 28 5 25 71 57 9 126 3.5
60% .244 .333 .485 454 73 111 27 5 24 70 56 8 121 3.1
50% .240 .328 .462 455 73 109 26 3 23 67 55 8 114 2.7
40% .237 .324 .450 456 72 108 25 3 22 65 54 7 110 2.5
30% .232 .318 .435 457 70 106 24 3 21 63 53 7 104 2.1
20% .229 .312 .423 459 69 105 23 3 20 62 51 6 100 1.8
10% .220 .299 .397 463 67 102 22 3 18 57 47 5 89 1.1

Kyle Higashioka, New York Yankees

When Higashioka makes contact, it goes a long way. His career barrel percentage (12.5%) is in the top decile of the 683 players with at least 300 plate appearances over the Statcast era, and he’s just ahead of players such as Soto and Bryce Harper. That’s an unusually high rate of crushing pitches for a dude with a career wRC+ of 62. The main culprit is that he’s been a phenomenally low BABIP hitter in the majors, at .203; for reference, pitchers combined for a .217 BABIP in 2021. I have a hard time believing a player with as much power as Higashioka has is actually worse at hitting pitches that become base knocks than the average pitcher is.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Kyle Higashioka
Percentile BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ WAR
90% .239 .298 .509 230 32 55 14 0 16 48 19 0 115 1.7
80% .225 .282 .476 231 30 52 13 0 15 44 18 0 102 1.3
70% .220 .274 .453 232 29 51 12 0 14 41 17 0 94 1.1
60% .211 .266 .427 232 28 49 11 0 13 39 17 0 86 0.8
50% .206 .258 .408 233 27 48 11 0 12 37 16 0 78 0.6
40% .202 .254 .399 233 27 47 10 0 12 36 16 0 75 0.5
30% .192 .242 .376 234 26 45 10 0 11 35 15 0 66 0.2
20% .191 .238 .357 235 25 45 9 0 10 33 14 0 60 0.0
10% .183 .230 .345 235 24 43 8 0 10 30 14 0 55 -0.2





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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sotostan
2 months ago

The Kwan pick aged like fine wine.

Beer
2 months ago
Reply to  sotostan

Or Beer.