Szymborski’s 2023 Breakout Candidates: Hitters

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve reached the point in the offseason when it’s time for one of my favorite/most hated preseason traditions: my attempt to predict breakouts and busts. Since any breakouts or busts beyond what a projection system suggests are naturally going to be low-probability outcomes, there’s a high probability of me looking pretty silly — something writers try to avoid. Let’s start by looking back at how smart I was last year…or how foolish:

Szymborski Breakout Hitters, 2022
Player BA OBP SLG wRC+ wRC+ Percentile WAR
Jarred Kelenic .141 .221 .313 55 16th -0.1
Tim Anderson .301 .339 .395 110 43rd 2.0
Jo Adell .224 .264 .373 77 28th -0.3
Steven Kwan .293 .373 .400 124 84th 4.4
Gavin Lux .276 .346 .399 113 74th 3.0
Keston Hiura .226 .316 .449 115 81st 0.8
Max Kepler .227 .318 .348 95 15th 2.0
Kyle Higashioka .227 .264 .389 83 55th 1.5

First, the bad news. Kelenic and Adell were both just awful, and I would definitely call 2022 a giant miss for both players as they enter their post-prospect period. I suspect there’s more hope to still be had for Kelenic than Adell, but I wouldn’t exactly call myself prescient about either. Kepler’s breakout didn’t happen at all, and his power all but disappeared. Anderson I’ll call an incomplete because of injury, and while Higashioka did match his entire previous career in WAR, that was largely due to defense, which I can hardly claim credit for predicting. Hiura did hit far better than he had recently, but he also didn’t exactly get a ton of playing time with the Brewers, who appeared to have lost interest in him. There were a few triumphs, however: Kwan and Lux both had excellent seasons, especially the former.

Now, let’s turn to this year’s picks, as I throw myself upon the tender mercies of fortune.

Bryson Stott, Philadelphia Phillies

Stott struggled at times in 2022 and while he did show flashes of brilliance, he mostly didn’t look like a former first-round pick and top 100 prospect, at least early on. Because his first full professional season was ruined by COVID-19 shutting down the minors, he had to advance very quickly through the minors in 2021 just to get himself in a position for a full-time job in the majors last year. Stott couldn’t steal a hit through the first couple months of the season, and through the end of May, his hard-hit rate was a brutally low 22.9%. His 38.4% mark after May wouldn’t be confused with that of an elite power hitter, but it enabled him to hit some home runs, and with his BABIP also improving to “normal” levels, he was quite strong in the second half of the season. I think it’s possible to read too much into first half/second half splits, but I really think he’s much closer to the hitter he was in the second half (106 wRC+) than the first (58 wRC+).

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Bryson Stott
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 32 20 .298 .356 .474 123 3.8
90% 29 18 .284 .347 .453 116 3.4
80% 25 15 .268 .334 .424 104 2.7
70% 23 13 .259 .327 .403 98 2.3
60% 21 12 .253 .318 .390 94 1.9
50% 20 11 .245 .310 .378 87 1.6
40% 19 10 .236 .302 .364 82 1.3
30% 17 9 .229 .293 .350 77 0.9
20% 16 8 .220 .284 .336 70 0.6
10% 14 6 .207 .270 .311 62 0.0
5% 12 5 .191 .257 .293 52 -0.6

Gleyber Torres, New York Yankees

Is this cheating? If so, well, I’m doing it anyway. Torres had a bit of a comeback season in 2022, but his line still didn’t match up to where he was at ages 21 and 22 before his clunker of a junior year. People sometimes forget that he’s still young — 2023 is his age-26 season — and I think a player can have multiple breakouts if there’s a long enough stretch of mediocrity in-between. Torres’ velocity numbers exploded last year, with a huge jump in his exit velocity data, and given that he has been a young superstar before, I still think there’s some of that left in him. I swear, I’m not just trying to wishcast his very optimistic long-term ZiPS projections pre-2020 back into existence!

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Gleyber Torres
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 38 35 .307 .374 .550 150 5.8
90% 35 32 .296 .362 .517 142 5.1
80% 32 28 .279 .350 .493 129 4.2
70% 30 26 .272 .339 .469 121 3.7
60% 28 24 .264 .332 .451 117 3.3
50% 26 22 .259 .324 .437 110 2.9
40% 25 21 .250 .314 .421 105 2.4
30% 23 19 .239 .307 .410 98 1.9
20% 22 17 .230 .295 .386 91 1.4
10% 20 14 .219 .283 .361 82 0.7
5% 18 13 .205 .277 .340 73 0.1

Seiya Suzuki, Chicago Cubs

Suzuki didn’t exactly disappoint in his first season in the United States, but for those who were expecting instant stardom, it was a bit of letdown. But his NPB résumé doesn’t get memory-holed just because he has a full season in the United States; historically, projections get much less accurate if you remove NPB or KBO data after a player’s first full year stateside. You’d have made a big mistake last year if you wrote off Ha-Seong Kim based on an unimpressive rookie campaign and I think you’d be making a similar mistake if you just assume that one of Japan’s best hitters in 2021 can’t be a star here. It won’t be enough to put the Cubs on equal footing with the Brewers or Cardinals, but I think Suzuki still has a lot of star potential. This assumes, of course, that a month of rest resolves his oblique issue and that it isn’t an ongoing problem this season.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Seiya Suzuki
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 33 33 .323 .406 .615 170 4.8
90% 30 31 .312 .394 .593 160 4.3
80% 27 27 .297 .378 .554 148 3.6
70% 26 25 .286 .369 .526 139 3.0
60% 24 23 .275 .360 .503 132 2.6
50% 23 21 .267 .352 .488 127 2.3
40% 22 20 .258 .343 .474 119 1.9
30% 21 18 .252 .334 .454 113 1.5
20% 19 16 .243 .326 .431 105 1.1
10% 17 14 .229 .312 .403 95 0.4
5% 15 12 .217 .297 .378 85 -0.2

Oneil Cruz, Pittsburgh Pirates

Will Cruz’s contact rate improve? He’s never going to be Luis Arraez, but Cruz is still young enough that there’s hope he can get that whiff rate into more respectable territory rather than being even with Javier Báez’s career numbers. ZiPS allows me to request different projection scenarios, and one I did this winter out of curiosity was to see which players would get the most benefit from a contact rate five percentage points better than projected. No player in baseball got a bigger boost than Cruz, with each percentage point greatly increasing his ability to leverage his impressive physical tools. Just getting him up to a 72% rate, still safely below-average, was enough to push him into superstar territory. And that kind of offensive boost would help cushion the blow if he needs to move to another position, which, sadly, looks increasingly likely. Cruz’s upside is just so massive that I can’t not put him here.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Oneil Cruz
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 28 38 .288 .355 .567 146 5.5
90% 26 34 .277 .343 .531 136 4.8
80% 23 29 .261 .327 .492 122 3.9
70% 22 27 .249 .316 .473 114 3.3
60% 20 25 .240 .307 .452 107 2.8
50% 19 23 .232 .299 .433 101 2.4
40% 18 21 .224 .291 .417 94 2.0
30% 17 20 .215 .282 .399 89 1.6
20% 16 17 .206 .272 .375 79 0.9
10% 14 16 .191 .255 .346 68 0.2
5% 12 13 .176 .245 .329 59 -0.5

Jesús Sánchez, Miami Marlins

My colleague Ben Clemens picked Sánchez as a breakout candidate based on just how freaking hard he can hit the ball, and how average exit velocity wasn’t truly capturing that ability. That’s one of the reasons to like him, but what also encourages me is that he was while in the minors in 2022, Sánchez showed considerable progress in drawing walks (sadly, the Pacific Coast League had public StatCast data but the International League did not). What I found especially maddening last season was that while Sánchez’s July wasn’t a good showing (.587 OPS), that was partially fueled by a .193 BABIP and significant improvement in his plate discipline. Sánchez drew as many walks in July as he did in April through June combined. That wasn’t just a mirage, either — both his out-of-zone swing percentage and contact rate also showed significant positive changes:

Remember, things like plate discipline are predictive in far fewer plate appearances than, say, hitting singles is. Given that progress, and with the Marlins not seriously contending at that point in the season, I would have liked to have seen the team stick with him. He didn’t have much more to prove in the minors.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Jesús Sánchez
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 25 29 .300 .369 .542 144 4.3
90% 23 27 .290 .355 .515 135 3.8
80% 21 24 .276 .340 .483 123 3.1
70% 19 22 .266 .329 .461 114 2.4
60% 18 20 .256 .320 .442 107 2.0
50% 17 19 .247 .313 .427 102 1.7
40% 16 17 .240 .303 .413 96 1.3
30% 15 16 .231 .295 .399 89 0.9
20% 13 15 .222 .285 .382 84 0.5
10% 11 12 .205 .272 .352 73 -0.1
5% 10 10 .190 .254 .326 61 -0.8

Jordan Walker, St. Louis Cardinals

Walker ranked 12th on the ZiPS Top 100 Prospects despite rather lackluster mean projections for the next few years. As I noted at the time, the reason he ranked so highly wasn’t his average outcome, but just how crazy-good the upside scenarios were. I know spring training makes a liar out guys sometimes, but damn if Walker hasn’t looked like a legitimate major league hitter, even ignoring (as much as you can) an OPS over 1.000 and six extra-base hits in 28 spring at-bats. It’s bent the curve just enough that I’m a believer in one of those upside scenarios coming into play. It doesn’t hurt that the Cardinals are one of the best organizations in baseball at giving players chances when they deserve it while also putting those players in roles that maximize how good they are.

ZiPS Percentiles – Jordan Walker
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 36 21 .296 .355 .483 130 4.0
90% 34 18 .283 .341 .456 121 3.3
80% 30 16 .265 .327 .426 109 2.6
70% 28 14 .254 .316 .409 102 2.1
60% 27 13 .246 .309 .394 95 1.7
50% 25 12 .237 .299 .380 89 1.2
40% 23 11 .230 .292 .361 82 0.8
30% 22 10 .222 .285 .348 77 0.4
20% 20 9 .213 .274 .330 71 0.0
10% 17 7 .197 .260 .308 62 -0.6
5% 16 7 .183 .244 .286 49 -1.6

Riley Greene, Detroit Tigers

One of the components included in ZiPS is its own version of xStats (which I give the ultra-creative moniker zStats) with more bits of data used. No player in 2022 underperformed his zBB, zSO, and zHR stats, which are derived from Statcast and plate discipline data, more than Greene did. All told, ZiPS thinks that Greene underperformed in strikeouts by an incredible 31 Ks in 2022, second only to Bo Bichette (who I can hardly stretch into calling a breakout candidate). Greene’s home run underperformance was fourth in baseball (6.7 homers, behind only Gary Sanchez, José Abreu, and Ronald Acuña Jr.), and he “should have” had five more walks than he actually did. These components aren’t as predictive for hitters as they are on the pitching side, where their predictive value exceeds actual performance by a considerably margin. But they’re as predictive as actual stats, and combining zStats and the real numbers provides something considerably more predictive than either of them individually. Just convince Greene to get a little more loft in his swing, as he’s trying to do, and suddenly, there’s enough upside that he might wipe out the disappointment if Spencer Torkelson doesn’t bounce back.

ZiPS Percentiles – Riley Greene
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 34 25 .312 .381 .519 149 5.4
90% 32 22 .299 .367 .496 141 4.8
80% 29 19 .285 .355 .468 129 4.0
70% 26 17 .273 .343 .446 120 3.5
60% 24 15 .260 .333 .425 112 3.0
50% 22 14 .253 .323 .406 104 2.4
40% 20 13 .243 .315 .386 97 2.0
30% 19 11 .234 .304 .372 91 1.6
20% 17 10 .224 .295 .357 84 1.1
10% 15 8 .211 .281 .332 73 0.3
5% 13 8 .199 .263 .309 66 -0.1

Andrew Vaughn, Chicago White Sox

Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I think the way the team has handled Vaughn has greatly hindered his development. He was brought up to the majors very aggressively without ever really getting the hang of hitting minor league pitchers, and the team has jerked him in and out of the lineup. Chicago’s roster construction also hasn’t helped, resulting in him playing a lot in the outfield, a position he clearly couldn’t handle. And I really mean clearly, on the level of Todd Hundley’s brief experiment. He was a trooper about the whole thing, but he’s finally (hopefully) going to exclusively play first base, his college position.

Vaughn’s 113 wRC+ strikes me as quite impressive given how much has been working against him. He hits the ball very hard (48.4% hard-hit rate in 2022) in a park (the grotesquely named Guaranteed Rate Field) that is conducive to home run hitting. Now that he can just concentrate on hitting, I think he can do far better, and I can’t help but be moved by how monstrous those high-percentile projections are in ZiPS.

ZiPS Percentiles – Andrew Vaughn
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 38 46 .320 .390 .624 173 5.7
90% 36 41 .308 .381 .587 159 4.7
80% 33 36 .296 .363 .539 145 3.8
70% 31 32 .287 .356 .523 138 3.2
60% 30 30 .276 .345 .500 130 2.7
50% 28 28 .267 .336 .482 124 2.2
40% 27 26 .261 .328 .466 117 1.7
30% 25 24 .253 .321 .443 110 1.3
20% 24 22 .244 .311 .420 100 0.6
10% 20 19 .229 .296 .394 89 -0.3
5% 19 17 .216 .287 .364 82 -0.8





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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steveurkel2055
11 months ago

Torkelson,Greene,Carpenter= 100 homeruns this year. book it

TKDCmember
11 months ago
Reply to  steveurkel2055

I think there’s a “bold predictions” post each year. I think I’ve already found the boldest. Hell, picking three players from almost any team to hit 100 homers is pretty bold (excluding Angels, Yankees, Braves, and maybe a couple others)

steveurkel2055
11 months ago
Reply to  TKDC

I should have added the caveat that they each play at least 125 games

soddingjunkmail
11 months ago
Reply to  steveurkel2055

too late! already booked!

VinnieDaGooch
11 months ago
Reply to  steveurkel2055

No way in hell. I could squint and see 75

MikeSmember
11 months ago
Reply to  steveurkel2055

Complete list of teams who had three guys combine for 100 HR in 2022:

  • Yankees (Judge, Rizzo, Stanton; 125)

That’s it. The whole list.

Only 23 guys in all of MLB hit as many as 30.

The three guys you named hit 19 between them last year.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
11 months ago
Reply to  MikeS

Torres could replace either of Rizzo or Stanton, and they’d still crack 100!

Aaron Judge is very good at baseball.

advisor1
11 months ago
Reply to  MikeS

And one guy hit half of them…

James Wheatonmember
11 months ago
Reply to  steveurkel2055

Did you do that?

fartinyourface
11 months ago
Reply to  James Wheaton

Carl should arrest him for this take

montrealmember
11 months ago
Reply to  steveurkel2055

More chance of Tork & Carpenter not making the team than breaking out. Tork having a horrible spring.

bada87bingmember
11 months ago
Reply to  montreal

Tork is leading all of spring training in barrels. He is definitely having a promising spring if you take more than a cursory glance.

Last edited 11 months ago by bada87bing
Cool Lester Smoothmember
11 months ago
Reply to  montreal

Carpenter’s definitely making the team.

What else do they have, haha?

VinnieDaGooch
11 months ago

There is a chance they go with Austin Meadows, Greene, and then a Vierling/Badoo platoon. With Haase sometimes in the OF. It seems Carpenter is in competition with Baddoo for poor fielding LH 4th OF.

fartinyourface
11 months ago
Reply to  steveurkel2055

Lol

PDR297
11 months ago
Reply to  steveurkel2055

I love this and support it

airforce21one
11 months ago
Reply to  steveurkel2055

This reminds me of the year a guy in my fantasy league drafted Chien-Ming Wang in the first round and then proceeded to “rub it in” after the pick

Cecil Rhea
11 months ago
Reply to  steveurkel2055

Alvarez+Tucker+Altuve= 100 HR’s this year. Book it!