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:
Chicago White Sox
Key 2016 Stat: .375 BABIP
The White Sox organization has committed themselves to a full blown rebuild this offseason; they decided to capitalize on the value of their star players Chris Sale and Adam Eaton by trading them for a plethora of top-tier prospects who have the potential to be impact players down the road. The rebuild has left the team banking on a number of young players to deliver breakout performances and no player seems more prepared to do so than shortstop Tim Anderson.
When the White Sox drafted Anderson in the first round of the 2013 draft, they received a projected five-tool prospect who had the potential to be an impact player early in his career. He immediately showed why he was held in such high regard by dominating in the minor leagues; his minor league batting average of .301, 62 career doubles, consistently improving fielding percentage, and 49 stolen bases during the 2015 season all showed glimpses of Anderson’s five-tool potential.
After four seasons spent in the minor leagues, Anderson earned a promotion to the big leagues last season and produced a slash line of .283/.306/.432 while adding 22 doubles, 6 triples, and 9 home runs in 410 at bats. More importantly, his advanced statistics highlighted Anderson’s development in becoming a true five-tool player; his .283 batting average in conjunction with a .375 BABIP illustrate an ability to hit for average, his career high 9 home runs and .149 ISO signify developing power ability, his improvements in the field are highlighted by his 6 DRS and 6.3 UZR, a 68 arm strength rating grades out as above average, and an impressive 7.0 Spd shows his speed is not to be doubted.
Anderson is expected to take a step forward in 2017 and establish himself as one of the key players on the White Sox roster. With his track record of consistent success and ability to impact all phases of the game, there is no reason to believe Tim Anderson’s progression will slow down any time soon.
Key 2016 Stat: .333 AVG versus left-handed pitching
The Cleveland Indians are fresh off their first World Series appearance since 1997 but don’t expect them to be satisfied with their performance entering the 2017 season. The team returns essentially the same roster as they had a season ago, leaving few options when searching for a breakout player but one player who looks ready to deliver his best season to date is outfielder Brandon Guyer.
Guyer has been in the league for a decent amount of time at this point in his career; he broke through with the Rays in 2011 and in his four full seasons with the team he slashed .260/.338/.393 while chipping in 37 doubles in a total of 639 at bats. Nothing that Guyer does from this point on is really going to be much different than what he has always done, but what he can do is be a better version of himself by accentuating what he does best while limiting what he doesn’t do well.
After being acquired by the Cleveland last season, Guyer put together one of the better performances of his career due in large part to how he was utilized by the team. The Indians found that Guyer is most effective when deployed as part of a platoon in which he can handle the duties against left-handed pitching while someone else deals with the right-handed pitching. The statistics speak for themselves as Guyer’s splits against left-handed pitching (.333 AVG, .461 OBP, .553 SLG, .220 ISO, .350 BABIP) were far superior to his splits against right-handed pitching (.218 AVG, .302 OBP, .329 SLG, .112 ISO, .262 BABIP).
With Guyer set to platoon with Lonnie Chisenhall in right field this upcoming season, it should be no surprise if Guyer delivers an unconventional breakout season by producing the best numbers of his career despite being relegated to a part-time role.
Key 2016 Stat: 23.5 K%
Since 2011, the Detroit Tigers have fielded some of the most formidable starting rotations in the MLB which have been anchored by a consistently strong top-half of the rotation. Next season is shaping up to be no different; the top-half of the rotation boasts star pitcher Justin Verlander, rookie sensation Michael Fulmer, and underrated veteran Jordan Zimmermann. The difference this year is that there is a player lurking in the back of the rotation who has the potential to take the rotation to the next level: Daniel Norris.
Norris, the former 17th overall prospect in baseball, has had a tumultuous career up to this point as he has had trouble living up to the expectations placed upon him since being taken in the second round of the 2011 MLB Draft. In his five minor league seasons, he owns an uninspiring 25-30 record over 93 starts and has pitched to a mediocre 4.17 ERA and 1.398 WHIP, all of which illustrate the struggles that Norris endured throughout his time with the Blue Jays organization.
A trade to the Detroit Tigers in 2015 provided Norris a much needed change of scenery that immediately payed dividends in terms of his development as he quickly pitched his way onto the Tigers roster midway through last season. Finally given the opportunity to show what he can do at the major league level, Norris shined in his 13 starts by producing a 3.38 ERA and showcased the skill set that made him such a prized prospect early on in his career. What was most telling was the fact that he posted a spectacular 23.5 K%, which would have ranked him within the top 30 in that category for starting pitchers had he reached the innings threshold.
Norris is currently slated to be the fourth starter in the Tigers rotation but if he continues to pitch with the improved command he displayed down the stretch last season and supply the breakout performance that he is capable of delivering, then there is no reason why Norris can’t move his way up into the top-half of the Tigers rotation going forward.
Kansas City Royals
Key 2016 Stat: 5.8 BB%
The Royals starting rotation has been a work in progress for several years now but the group seemed poised to take a step forward before the tragic passing of staff ace Yordano Ventura in the offseason. The team’s rotation now looks pretty shabby; any rotation containing Jason Hammel, Jason Vargas, and Nate Karns is hard to feel confident about, but the Royals can at least take solace in the fact that Opening Day starter Danny Duffy looks to be the real deal and seems prepared to take his game to the next level with a breakout year in 2017.
Duffy has been with the Royals his entire career and since being drafted in 2007 has steadily climbed the ladder within the organization by putting up consistently solid numbers at every minor league level. His career minor league statistics are nothing to sneeze at; appearing in eight minor league seasons, Duffy posted an impressive 2.87 ERA and 1.143 WHIP while piling up 508 strikeouts through 433 innings pitched. When he finally earned his chance to pitch in the big leagues in 2011 it did not go as well as hoped, leading him to be shuttled between AAA and the MLB for a few seasons while bouncing between the starting rotation and the bullpen.
Although Duffy failed to establish himself early on, he started to see improvement as he continued to log more time in the starting rotation. His progression was most evident last year, a season in which he started a career high 26 games and pitched to a 3.51 ERA while logging career bests in nearly every statistical category. Most notably, Duffy’s 1.14 WHIP, 5.8 BB%, and 25.7 K% exemplify how he was able to significantly improve his historically shoddy control without sacrificing his ability to generate strikeouts at a high clip.
The Royals expressed a vote of confidence in Danny Duffy this offseason by handing him and extension and naming him as the ace of their staff, now it is on Duffy to show that their faith in him is justified by turning in the breakout campaign that everyone knows he is capable of providing and if his performance last season is any indication then he is well on his way to doing so in the coming season.
Key 2016 Stat: 93.2 Z-Contact%
Choosing a breakout player on the Minnesota Twins is a crapshoot simply because the team has so many enticing options; Miguel Sano was a breakout candidate last season, Eddie Rosario has all the tools to deliver a breakout year, Max Kepler provided a preview of his potential breakout last season, and Byron Buxton has been ready to break out for a few seasons now. While arguments can be made for each of them, the player who people should be taking more seriously as a potential breakout candidate is shortstop Jorge Polanco.
Polanco signed with the Twins as an international free agent in 2009, when he was just 16 years old, and since then has slowly moved his way through the farm system while awaiting his opportunity to contribute at the major league level. It was apparent early on that he possessed a consistent approach at the plate which allowed him to make contact with the ball at a high rate. This consistent approach led Polanco to produce a .286/.346/.411 slash line through seven minor league seasons and ultimately earned him a call up to the major leagues during the 2014 season.
Polanco’s first few stints on the Twins roster did not last very long but when Trevor Plouffe hit the DL last season, it opened the door for Polanco to showcase his skills. He made the most of his opportunity by putting together a solid slash line of .282/.332/.424 while adding 24 runs and 27 RBI’s in 245 at bats. At first glance, nothing truly sticks out about Polanco’s numbers but when looking at his plate discipline and batted ball statistics it becomes more apparent why he has such potential. His plate discipline numbers are truly something to marvel at; he posts above average numbers in nearly all plate discipline categories but where Polanco really shines is making contact where his O-Contact% of 72.8 and Z-Contact% of 93.2 illustrate just how often he makes contact with the ball. Making contact with the ball is only part of the story, however, as the quality of contact is just as important and a line drive percentage of 30.3 paired with a medium contact rate of 57.8 percent show that Polanco drives the ball fairly well off the bat.
Polanco is destined to fly under the radar in 2017 due to all the hype surrounding his higher regarded teammates, but with Polanco’s advanced approach at the plate he is destined to produce batting numbers in the upcoming season that will open people’s eyes.