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: 3.68 FIP in the second half of the season
The Atlanta Braves have been in a state of rebuilding for a few seasons now and are beginning to see the fruits of their labor pay off in the form of prospects making an impact at the major league level. Among this group is underrated starting pitcher Mike Foltynewicz, who is looking to prove to the Braves organization that he should be a member of the starting rotation for the foreseeable future.
Foltynewicz arrived in Atlanta in 2015 via trade and wasted no time establishing himself as one of the top prospects in the Braves organization, making just four starts in AAA before earning a call up to be a part of the major league rotation. He struggled to establish any sort of consistency during his first stint in the majors, leading to him being shuffled between the bullpen and the rotation throughout the season with less than stellar results. His season ultimately ended when he was hospitalized with blood clots in his right arm that required him to have part of a rib surgically removed.
Due to his health scare and subsequent weight loss, the Braves started Foltynewicz in the minor leagues to provide him extra time to rehab and build up his strength. Once he returned to the major league rotation, Foltynewicz looked much improved as he produced a 4.31 ERA, 1.297 WHIP, and 111 strikeouts over 123.1 innings. Although those numbers are not particularly impressive, Foltynewicz’s statistical improvements across the board in conjunction with his 3.68 FIP in the season’s second half suggest that he is trending in the right direction going forward.
Key 2016 Stat: .269 BABIP
The Marlins roster doesn’t look as if it will undergo many changes heading into the 2017 season, meaning there are slim pickings when attempting to choose a player who will deliver a breakout season for the team. However, there is one player who sticks out in their starting lineup as someone who has yet to play up to his full potential since joining the team: Adeiny Hechavarria.
Having been the Marlins starting shortstop since 2013, Hechavarria is a known commodity at this point; he is a defensive minded shortstop whose batting statistics leave a lot to be desired. So why is he on this list? Because even though he is already 27 years old, he still has room to improve and, excluding 2016, he has shown consistent improvement in each of his major league seasons.
Some may be hesitant to jump on board with the notion that Hechavarria will turn in a breakout campaign due to his drop in production last season, but when looking at his advanced batting statistics it is clear to see that he is improving his approach at the plate and his 2016 drop in production is likely a result of bad luck. His plate discipline numbers reveal improvements in several key areas (O-Swing%, Contact%, SwStr%) that signify an improvement in batters eye and hitting approach, which likely played a role in him posting a career best 13.3 strikeout percentage. These improvements would normally result in improved batting statistics, yet, his numbers decreased due to a significant drop in BABIP, from .325 to .269, limiting Hechavarria’s effectiveness at the plate.
Expect a bounce back season from Hechavarria in 2016 in which his improved hitting approach and plate discipline spark a career year from the plate while he continues to provide excellent defense in the middle of the Marlins infield.
New York Mets
Key 2016 Stat: 2.42 ERA in 44.2 innings pitched
The Mets starting rotation is chock full of promising young arms; their rotation boasts big name starters Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey, an underrated star in Jacob deGrom, and an up-and-coming young arm in Steven Matz. With all of the hype surrounding these pitchers, it is easy to forget the Mets have another promising young pitcher in Robert Gsellman who is coming off a successful first season in the majors.
Up until last year, Gsellman was a relatively unaccomplished mid-level pitching prospect who spent the majority of his minor league career playing A-ball in the Mets farm system. Seemingly out of nowhere, Gsellman started to quickly rise through the minor league ranks which culminated in his promotion to the major leagues during the 2016 season.
Gsellman made the most of his time in the majors; making 7 starts and producing a 4-2 record with a 2.42 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 44.2 innings of work. He was able to accomplish this due to his ability to strikeout batters at an above average rate (22.7 K%) and keep the ball on the ground (54.2 GB%) which helped him to keep the ball inside the ballpark (0.20 HR/9). Gsellman also flashed an impressive pitching repertoire that is made up of a mid-90’s fastball that has considerable movement, a nasty slider that can consistently get hitters out, and a developing curve that has the potential to be a plus offering in the near future.
Gsellman has all the makings of a quality starter at the next level and having already cemented his spot in the Mets 2017 rotation, he seems primed to take the next step in his development with a breakout performance in 2017.
Key 2016 Stat: 3.08 FIP
The Philadelphia Phillies have finished near the bottom of the NL East for a number of years now but, for the first time since 2011, the Phillies seem to be trending in the right direction due to a number of promising young players that are expected to contribute heavily to the team in the upcoming season. Although there are a number of players who could potentially deliver breakout seasons in 2017 (Tommy Joseph, Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff), none of them have generated the buzz that starting pitcher Aaron Nola has this offseason.
Nola has been tabbed as the future ace of the Phillies staff ever since he was selected with the seventh overall pick of the 2014 MLB draft and he has done nothing in his career so far to make anyone believe he won’t live up to those expectations. In his short time in the minor leagues, Nola owned a stellar 2.57 ERA and 1.057 WHIP while posting solid K/9 and BB/9 numbers of 7.5 and 1.5 respectively. With nothing else to prove in the minor leagues, Nola was called up to make his major league debut only 13 months after being drafted and delivered a solid performance, going six innings and allowing just one run.
Nola’s rookie season went about as well as the Phillies could have hoped, with him turning in a 3.59 ERA and 1.197 WHIP over 77.2 innings. Everything seemed set for Nola to put together a breakout sophomore campaign but it never materialized as he struggled to gain his footing early on in the season and eventually succumbed to an elbow injury that ended his 2016 season prematurely. He ultimately ended the season having started 20 games, posting a disappointing 4.78 ERA but his 3.08 FIP and improved K/9, HR/9, GB%, and HR/FB suggest that he may not have pitched as badly as his stats would lead you to believe.
Nola is scheduled to return to the starting rotation this upcoming season fully healed from his elbow issues and he will be expected to contribute heavily to a much improved Phillies squad in 2017. Once he knocks the rust off, look for Nola to deliver a breakout performance and establish himself as the alpha-dog of the Phillies starting rotation.
Key 2016 Stat: .200 BAA
The closer position has been a sore spot on the Nationals roster for several seasons now and after the team’s failed attempt to add a closer this offseason, the new closer will be chosen in-house. The player that the Nationals are reportedly leaning towards is young flamethrower Koda Glover, who had an up-and-down performance in his first taste of major league action last season but has all the tools necessary to supply a breakout season in 2017.
Glover is not a household name by any stretch of the imagination; his designation as a career reliever make him a player that goes unnoticed by the general public but his rapid rise through the Nationals system has made him a buzzworthy name within baseball circles. Through 2 minor league seasons, he has pitched to a 2.09 ERA and 0.895 WHIP while racking up 104 strikeouts through 86 innings.
Glover’s performance in the minor leagues earned him a call up during the latter stages of the 2016 season to add depth to a depleted Nationals bullpen. His performance was quite simply not up to par as he pitched 19.2 innings and posted an atrocious 5.03 ERA backed up by a 4.72 FIP. Although Glover clearly struggled last season, when looking at his advanced stats it is easier to be optimistic about his future due to his ability to prevent hits (.214 BABIP, .200 BAA), limit base runners (1.12 WHIP), and strike batters out at a decent clip (19.3 K%).
It is not completely clear what role the Nationals will ask Koda Glover to fill in 2017 but he will thrive in whatever role they ask him to fill due to his power offerings, strikeout capability, fiery competitiveness, and ability to limit hits and base runners.