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: 1.75 home ERA
When discussing the Houston Astros the main topics of conversation usually center around the team’s potent offense and star shortstop Carlos Correa, however, their up-and-coming starting rotation is an overlooked aspect of this team that deserves more attention. We know what to expect from the Astros offense at this point, but their starting pitching is notable because consistent contributions from their pitching staff is what could ultimately take this team to the next level. The performance of Joe Musgrove will not make or break the team in 2017, but a breakout year for the young pitcher may be the key component to stabilizing a historically shaky rotation.
The beginning of Musgrove’s professional baseball career was marked by inconsistency; after being selected by the Blue Jays in the 2011 draft, he struggled to gain his footing in his first few seasons and before he had the chance to settle in he was shipped off to Houston to start his career anew. Musgrove made the best of his fresh start by producing a 2.81 ERA through 13 starts in his first full season with the organization and followed that up with a 1.88 combined ERA the following year.
After a hot start to his 2016 season, Musgrove earned a mid-season promotion to the major leagues in which he posted a 4.06 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and an uncharacteristically low 3.44 K/BB. Although Musgrove clearly struggled adjusting to major league competition in his first major league season, he exhibited an increased comfort level when pitching at home which led to him delivering a 1.75 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 0.50 HR/9, and 19.7 K-BB% in his six starts at Minute Maid Park. While part of the disparity between his home and away statistics is no doubt caused by the pitcher-friendly nature of Houston’s stadium, it would be remiss to ignore the dominance he displayed at home.
With a half-season of major league experience under his belt, Musgrove’ enhanced confidence will allow him to maintain similar home numbers and better away numbers which should lead to a breakout season for the 24 year old right-hander.
Los Angeles Angels
Key 2016 Stat: 21.5 Soft%
The Los Angeles Angels organization has been busy this offseason attempting to reload their roster so they don’t end up wasting the prime of Mike Trout’s career. An important area in which the Angels need to improve in the coming season is starting pitching; their group of starters was ranked near the bottom of the league last season in rotation ERA and WAR, prompting the team to rid themselves of several veteran pitchers in the offseason and replacing them with young pitchers from within their organization. One of these pitchers is Tyler Skaggs, who will be counted on to finally live up to his potential and provide the Angels with quality innings from the middle of the rotation.
Skaggs is a pitching prodigy; since being drafted in the first round of the 2009 draft, he has consistently proven himself to be far too advanced for minor league competition which put him on a fast track to the major leagues early on in his career. Between 2009 and 2012, Skaggs compiled an impressive 2.98 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 0.67 HR/9, and 9.93 K/9 which led to a late-season call up to the big leagues during the 2012 season. Through the next few seasons Skaggs turned in several less than impressive performances before succumbing to injury during the 2014 season that required him to undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the entirety of the following season.
Skaggs returned in 2016 after a lengthy rehab process and was determined to prove he possesses what it takes to succeed at the major league level. His performance did not inspire much confidence, however, as he was highly inconsistent and ended up with a stat line that reflected as much with a 4.17 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, and 4.17 BB/9. Despite his inconsistencies, Skaggs continued to do three important things that bode well for the future; he generated an impressive amount of soft contact (21.5 Soft%), limited home runs (0.91 HR/9), and struck out batters at a solid rate (22.8 K%).
Skaggs consistency issues last season can likely be attributed to his coming back from injury, but having now worked out all the kinks he is primed to put forth the best season of his career due to his ability to generate soft contact, keep the ball inside the ballpark, and rack up strikeouts.
Key 2016 Stat: 1.19 WHIP
The Oakland Athletics are in rebuilding mode at the moment, the only issue is that their farm system is fairly average at the moment which leaves them with only a handful of prospects who can step up and contribute at the major league level this season. Of these players the team is most likely to lean on starting pitcher Sean Manaea, who finds himself near the top of the A’s rotation and will be counted on to build on his promising rookie season by delivering an even more impressive sophomore campaign.
Manaea is a special breed of pitcher because he possesses a rare combination of command and strikeout capability that is not seen often in young pitchers. This combination of skills led to his quick ascension through the minor leagues in dominant fashion; he posted a 2.85 ERA and whopping 10.8 K/9 through three minor league seasons, prompting his promotion to the major leagues near the start of the 2016 season.
Manaea struggled in the early stages of his first major league season, pitching to a less than spectacular 5.24 ERA in the season’s first half and paired it with an unsightly 1.39 WHIP. The second half of the season was a completely different story, however, as Manaea found his groove down the stretch and ended the season with a respectable 3.86 ERA and 1.19 WHIP through 144.2 innings of work. The major takeaway from Manaea’s rookie season was that he demonstrated excellent command which will serve him well in the future, especially if he brings his strikeout numbers back up.
Manaea’s impressive rookie campaign has left many wondering one thing: how sizable will his breakout season be in 2017? If his improved command is legitimate and he can manage to bring his walks down and strikeouts up, then Manaea’s numbers this season should be sizable enough to lock him in as the Athletics ace going forward.
Key 2016 Stat: 37.3 Hard%
The Mariners were fringe contenders last season as they missed out on the playoffs by just a few games. They enter the 2017 season seeking to get over the hump with the assistance of several new faces on their roster who are set to make a significant impact in the team’s playoff chances. With the Mariners lacking a true x-factor in their outfield corps last season, strong contributions from right fielder Mitch Haniger could be just what the team needs to break through into the playoffs this season.
Haniger has made the rounds in his MLB career to this point; he started his career with the Brewers after being drafted by them in the first round of the 2012 draft, then he was dealt to the Diamondbacks in 2014, and was traded again this past offseason to the Mariners. Spending time with eight different minor league affiliates for three organizations would take a toll on most players but instead of letting it affect his performance, Haniger went out and produced an excellent .290/.370/.490 slash line with 187 extra base hits through five minor league seasons.
Haniger has only seen a partial season of playing time at the major league level in which he slashed a meager .229/.309/.404 and only manufactured eight extra base hits in 109 at bats, however, his newly improved swing mechanics should pay dividends as he receives more run in the major leagues. In spite of his struggles during the 2016 season, Haniger still managed to demonstrate power potential by hitting the ball hard (37.3 Hard%) and producing a solid ISO of .174. On top of that, Haniger displayed a disciplined batters eye by only swinging at 22.6 percent of balls outside the strike zone which could eventually lend itself to more walks and less strikeouts.
If Haniger starts to utilize his batters eye properly and sees a rebound in BABIP this season, then his penchant for hard contact should generate a spike in his power numbers and carry him to a breakout performance in 2017.
Key 2016 Stat: 91.3 Z-Contact%
The Texas Rangers have embraced a youth movement within their organization due to their stable of exciting prospects that have worked their way into significant roles on the major league roster. The team will begin the season with four players under the age of 24 in their starting lineup and each of these players will play a vital role in the outcome of the Rangers 2017 season. Among these players is former top prospect Jurickson Profar who, despite being underwhelming so far in his career, has the skill set to produce at an All-Star level if he plays up to his full potential.
Profar has been with the Rangers organization for seven seasons now and has yet to live up to the endless potential that he displayed early on in his career when he was considered one of the top prospects in all of baseball. His minor league statistics won’t blow anyone away (.277/.364/.444 slash line, 157 extra base hits, 57 stolen bases, and 261 runs in six seasons), but Profar’s skill set has always been apparent every time he steps on the field. He possesses the ability to hit for average, exhibits an elite batters eye and plate discipline, can draw an unparalleled amount of walks, and is no slouch on defense either. Profar’s initial taste of the majors left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth due to his poor play but there was still hope that he would figure things out, unfortunately recurring shoulder injuries effectively derailed his progress and forced him to miss the entirety of the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
Following his extended recovery, Profar returned to the diamond but was a shell of his former self as he struggled to a .239 batting average while striking out 19.9 percent of the time and shuffling between shortstop and the outfield. The only positives to come of his performance last season were that he looked serviceable on defense from the outfield, he continued to draw walks at an above average rate (9.8 BB%), his ability to make contact was elite (70.9 O-Contact%, 91.3 Z-Contact%), and displayed consistent plate discipline which resulted in a tidy 27.5 O-Swing% and 6.8 SwStr%.
Profar’s plate discipline and contact rates are far too good to be producing the paltry numbers that he has put up the past few seasons. Expect Profar’s top-notch skill set to finally bear fruit, leading to the breakout season everyone has been waiting on since 2009.