Every season, without fail, the MLB sees breakout performances from a handful of players who either perform at unexpectedly high levels or produce at a rate that is impossible to ignore. Breakout players come in a variety of forms; they can be top prospects, spring training stars, overachievers, or established players but one way or another at least one of these players surfaces each year for every team. To this point there is no exact science in predicting who the breakout players will be each year, however, it is possible to make educated estimations with the use of player statistics and metrics in conjunction with expert opinions on the subject. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what players from each team, broken down division by division, can be expected to deliver breakout performances in the 2017 MLB season:
Key 2016 Stat: 1.08 WHIP in the second half of the season
Since 2012, the Orioles bullpen has perennially been one of the strongest bullpens in the MLB, in large part due to their ability to continually find overlooked players and convert them into bullpen contributors. One such player is Mychal Givens who, since being converted from shortstop to relief pitcher in 2012, has wasted no time in establishing himself as one of the more valuable arms in the Orioles bullpen.
Since the first time Givens stepped on the mound for the Orioles it was apparent that he was going to be something special; his sidearm delivery, blazing fastball, and solid arsenal of complementary pitches make him a nightmare for opposing batters. The performance that he put together his rookie season showed all of this to be true, as he pitched to a 1.80 ERA and racked up 38 strikeouts in 30 innings of work.
Givens’ sophomore campaign was not nearly as successful; if you look at his stats at surface level they look fairly unimpressive, however, if you dig deeper it is clear to see that he performed significantly better in the latter stages of the season. The stats that Givens produced in the season’s second half (2.88 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, .186 BAA, 12.06 K/9) are indicative of what he should be expected to produce going forward.
Boston Red Sox
Key 2016 Stat: .295/.359/.476 slash line in 105 major league at bats
The Red Sox roster is loaded; they boast arguably the league’s most formidable batting order, which is set to be even better in 2017 with the addition of top prospect Andrew Benintendi. At this point, projecting a breakout season for Benintendi isn’t a novel idea by any means but don’t let that dissuade you from believing the hype surrounding the 22 year old phenom.
Benintendi got his first taste of big league action after being called up late last season and immediately showed that he belonged, slashing a healthy .295/.359/.476 over 105 at bats. What makes his performance even more impressive is the fact that he underperformed in several key statistical categories when compared to his minor league averages; most notably strikeout percentage, walk rate, and isolated power. As he gets more major league at bats Benintendi should be able to improve all of these areas, thus providing a boost to his hitting statistics across the board.
Benintendi’s impressive performance last season has him locked in as the Red Sox starting left fielder for the upcoming season and has vaulted him to the forefront of the 2017 AL Rookie of the Year conversation. By all accounts, Benintendi seems prepared to live up to the expectations placed upon him and follow up his performance from last season with something even greater.
New York Yankees
*Missed the entire 2016 season due to injury
Key 2015 Stat*: .268 ISO
The Yankees are in a weird place entering the 2017 season; they are in the beginning phases of a youth movement in which their top prospects are slowly starting to take on significant roles with the major league team. Of the prospects slated to join the starting lineup for the Yankees in the coming season, perhaps none of them are set to have as successful a season as first baseman Greg Bird.
Bird came onto the scene during the 2015 season when he was pulled up late in the year to aid a struggling Yankees offense and delivered by producing a slash line of .261/.343/.529 to go along with 11 home runs and 31 RBI’s in 157 at bats. What’s more, his advanced stats emphasized that Bird has all the traits of a prototypical power hitter in the MLB; raw power (.268 ISO), susceptibility to striking out (29.8 K%), and the ability to draw a significant amount of walks (10.7 BB%).
Everything was set for Bird to put together a breakout performance in his second season, but before he even had the chance to play a single spring training game he was shut down for the entirety of the 2016 season due to a torn labrum he had suffered in the offseason. Now a little over a year removed from his shoulder surgery, Bird is looking better than ever which is a positive sign that he will finally live up to the potential that he has flashed throughout his time with the Yankees organization.
Tampa Bay Rays
Key 2016 Stat: 11.15 K/9 in the second half of the season
Look at every pitching staff in the MLB and you are likely to find a pitcher who came up in the Tampa Bay Rays farm system; Jason Hammel, Scott Kazmir, James Shields, David Price, Matt Moore, and Jeremy Hellickson are all prominent examples of pitchers who were developed by the Rays organization. For this reason, it should be no surprise that Rays have yet another promising young pitcher in Blake Snell who is on the verge of establishing himself as one of the premier young arms in the game.
Snell entered last season as the Rays top prospect, coming off a remarkable season in which he pitched at three different minor league levels en route to earning Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year award. Although he started the season in AAA, his superb major league debut forced the Rays to eventually make a spot in the rotation for Snell midway through the season.
Snell made sure the Rays didn’t regret their decision; through 19 starts he put up a respectable 3.54 ERA while amassing gaudy strikeout numbers in the process, evidenced by his second half K/9 of 11.15. As imposing as Snell’s performance was, it was largely overshadowed by the fact that he was plagued by control issues the entire season that led to frequent short outings and astronomical base on balls numbers.
It is reasonable to expect improvement from Snell in his second major league season for several reasons; he is only 24 years old, he possesses elite stuff, his control can’t get much worse, and the Rays organization has a track record of success when it comes to developing young pitching talent. If Snell starts to show better command of his pitches, and he should, then we are looking at a potential 2017 All-Star.
Toronto Blue Jays
Key 2016 Stat: 3.71 FIP
The Toronto Blue Jays boasted one of the strongest starting rotations in the league during the 2016 season, finishing the season ranked inside the top five in rotation wins, losses, innings pitched, ERA, and WAR. The surprising part is that the team accomplished all of this despite a disappointing season from their Opening Day starter, Marcus Stroman. The Blue Jays will be looking for strong contributions from Stroman during the 2017 season and it seems that the pint sized pitcher is finally ready to take on the role of ace for the Jays going forward.
Stroman broke through with the Blue Jays in 2014 when he was provided the opportunity to replace injured starting pitcher Brandon Morrow in the major league rotation and responded by posting a 3.65 ERA, 2.84 FIP, and 1.171 WHIP over 130.2 innings of work. Since then, he has been hyped up as a potential breakout candidate every season and, for a number of reasons, he has failed to live up to the lofty expectations placed upon him.
Betting on Stroman has burned many writers before but when looking at his statistics from the second half of last season (3.49 FIP, 3.01 xFIP, 17.0 K-BB%), as well as his immaculate outing in the WBC Championship game, it is difficult to not peg him for a breakout season in 2017.