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: 30.8 K% in second half of the season
The Diamondbacks have been on the cusp of contention for a few seasons now, but have yet to put everything together to make a serious run at the playoffs. In an effort to get their team over the hump, the front office acquired Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller last offseason to strengthen a starting rotation that has held them back in previous years. Needless to say the acquisitions did not pan out; Greinke struggled to the tune of a 4.37 ERA while Miller imploded and ended the season with a 6.15 ERA. If the Diamondbacks have learned anything from this it’s that sometimes the best option is to bank on improvement from within and they have one pitcher who can help achieve that in Robbie Ray.
Ray is sort of a one track record; his only plus skill is that he has a knack for striking batters out, fortunately he does it so well that he doesn’t need to expand his game much to be an effective major league pitcher. His time in the minor leagues illustrated just how much his game revolves around strikeouts and nothing else, as his 8.9 K/9 displays promise but his 4.22 ERA, 1.417 WHIP, and 4.1 BB/9 all leave much to be desired. These statistics inspire little confidence that Ray will ever be able to be anything more than a back of the rotation arm at the next level, but during his time in the majors he has shown glimpses of dominance that give credence to the notion that he has the potential to develop into a front-line starter down the road.
Although his first major league season was nothing short of a disaster, Ray responded in a big way in 2015 by pitching to a 3.52 ERA and racking up 119 strikeouts in 127.2 innings. His performance made him a potential breakout candidate going into last season but instead of taking a step forward, Ray scuffled to an 8-15 record while posting a 4.90 ERA and 1.47 WHIP. Despite his struggles, Ray started to come on in the second half of the season as he produced better numbers in several notable areas but most impressive was his 30.8 K% which ranked fourth in the league in the season’s second half.
It can’t be denied that Ray’s numbers during the 2016 season were not up to snuff, however, his 3.59 SIERA and 3.45 xFIP suggest his season may have been plagued by a bout of bad luck. When taking this into account in conjunction with Ray’s impressive performance down the stretch in 2016, it seems a breakout performance could be in the cards for Ray this coming season.
Key 2016 Stat: 24.2 Soft%
The Colorado Rockies home stadium (Coors Field) has earned a reputation as one of the most hitter friendly ballparks in all of baseball due to the high altitude producing inflated batting statistics. These conditions have caused the Rockies pitching staff to struggle year in and year out, consequently the team finds itself perennially ranked near the bottom of the league in all pitching categories. This could be the season that all changes though, as the Rockies have several pitchers who have proven themselves capable of producing in spite of the harsh pitching conditions of Coors Field. Although most of the attention has been focused on young hurler Jon Gray, it is Tyler Anderson who seems primed to deliver a breakout season for the Rockies in 2017.
Despite being a first round selection by the Rockies in 2011, Anderson is a player that has flown under the radar for most of his career due to his understated pitching style. Anderson’s game revolves around his ability to command the strike zone and induce weak contact which, while being a highly effective form of pitching, is not conducive to the flashy highlights or gaudy statistics that tend to garner national attention. However, the dominance that Anderson has displayed at the minor league level is something that simply cannot be ignored; in four minor league seasons he produced a 25-12 record, 2.38 ERA, and 1.101 WHIP, while allowing a minuscule 0.5 HR/9.
With nothing left to prove at the minor league level, Anderson was promoted to the big leagues last season and all he did was deliver one of the best rookie performances of the season while no one was watching. In 19 starts, Anderson pitched to a 3.54 ERA and consistently displayed the fantastic command that made him so effective in the minor leagues. What’s more, he was able to pitch effectively when taking the rubber at his home ballpark because of his proficiency at inducing ground balls (50.9 GB%) and producing weak contact (24.2 Soft%).
Tyler Anderson was bred to pitch at Coors Field; his ability to generate soft contact and keep the ball on the ground effectively negate the hitter friendly nature of the ballpark and pairing that with his exceptional command makes Anderson a player to watch going forward.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Key 2016 Stat: .249 ISO
The Los Angeles Dodgers fell short of their World Series hopes last season, losing in the NLCS to the eventual world champion Chicago Cubs. The team enters this season with the expectation that they will contend once again, but if they hope to get over the hump they will need at least one of their players to step up and deliver a breakout performance. Although one can point to several new players on the roster who could step up for the Dodgers, it is incumbent starting catcher Yasmani Grandal who will ultimately provide the break through performance that has been expected of him for some time.
Grandal has been in the major leagues since 2012, meaning we already know about all there is to know about him; he is a prototypical power hitter in that he hits home runs, strikes out a bunch, generates walks, and tends to struggle with his batting average. What is peculiar about Grandal is that during his minor league career he was known to hit for average and provided little in terms of power statistics, a far cry from the type of player he is today.
The key for Grandal going forward will be finding a happy medium where he can produce the power numbers without having his batting average flirt with the Mendoza Line. His performance last season doesn’t seem to indicate any progress on this front, however, Grandal found a groove down the stretch that bodes well for his production going forward. In the second half of the 2016 season, Grandal batted .245, slugged 15 home runs, got on base at a .356 clip, and powered his way to a ridiculously high .276 ISO (which ranked 15th best in the league during that span).
A concerted effort to display more patience at the plate along with an improved swing from the right side of the plate should go a long way in establishing more consistency for Grandal going forward. If he can recapture the form he displayed down the stretch last season then Grandal should be able to put together a breakout season that solidifies him as one of the best power-hitting catchers in the MLB.
San Diego Padres
Key 2016 Stat: .346 BABIP
The San Diego Padres don’t seem to have a lot to look forward to this season as they have been tabbed by many as the consensus worst team in baseball, however, what they do have is a number of young exciting players that make the team worth watching. Among this group is right fielder Hunter Renfroe, who has positioned himself as the player to watch on the Padres roster due to his promising major league debut at the end of last season. All signs point to a breakout season for the young slugger and he, more than anyone on the Padres roster, seems ready to deliver.
Coming out of college Renfroe was widely considered one of the top prospects in his draft class, which made it no surprise when he was selected by the Padres with the 13th overall pick. The young slugger quickly justified his draft position by producing a .271/.308/.459 slash line in his first minor league season. This jump started Renfroe’s rapid ascension through the Padres system, culminating in his promotion to the major leagues during the latter stages of the 2016 season.
Though he only played in 11 games during the 2016 season, Renfroe opened some eyes to what he is capable of. In 36 plate appearances, Renfroe slashed .371/.389/.800, jacked four home runs, generated a .429 ISO, and posted a career low 13.9 K%. While it is difficult to draw conclusions from such a small sample size, Renfroe’s ability to step in late in the season and produce against major league competition should not be ignored. The most important takeaway from his short stint in the major leagues is that Renfroe has all the tools to be a successful major league hitter; he displayed tremendous discipline at the plate by laying off balls out of the strike zone (35.7 O-Swing%), his ability to get the bat on balls in the strike zone was elite (91.3 Z-Contact%), and his knack for getting hits when he puts the ball in play (.346 BABIP) will pay dividends going forward.
Hunter Renfroe’s successful stint in the majors last season left many baseball fans excited about what the future holds for the young slugger. Entering his first full big league season, Renfroe’s advanced hitting approach will put him in an ideal position to deliver a breakout season that provides hope to a Padres fan base that desperately needs something to look forward to.
San Francisco Giants
Key 2016 Stat: 90.0 Contact%
The San Francisco Giants streak of three straight World Series titles on even numbered years was snapped in 2016, meaning there is a good chance the team breaks their streak of missing the postseason every odd numbered season since 2003. In order to break this streak, the Giants will likely need one of their players to provide the team with a spark in the form of a breakout performance. The Giants roster is slim pickings when attempting to find a breakout player as they boast one of the more veteran-laden rosters in the MLB, however, Joe Panik is a player that sticks out as someone destined to put together a breakthrough campaign.
Panik is a jack of all trades, master of none; his skill set allows him to provide a bit of everything (batting average, power, on base skills, defense), but you’d be hard pressed to find a skill of his that clearly stands above the rest. It is this well-rounded skill set that led the Giants to select him with the 29th overall pick in 2011 and subsequently why he has excelled during his time with the organization. During Panik’s six minor league seasons, he produced a .294/.363/.401 slash line while adding 252 runs and 232 RBI’s which led to his major league promotion during the 2014 season.
It didn’t take long for Panik to prove himself at the major league level; through his first two seasons, he slashed .309/.364/.419 and provided 90 runs and 50 extra base hits while providing stable defense in the Giants middle infield. This past season was a different story as Panik posted a meager .239 batting average that seemed to be bogged down by his significant dip in BABIP from .330 in 2015 to .245 last season. There were several positives to take away from Panik’s 2016 season; he displayed refined plate discipline that led to an improvement in his strikeout (8.9 K%) and base on ball (9.5 BB%) numbers, he provided steadier defense (7.4 UZR) at second base, and his contact numbers remained impressive as ever as he posted an incredible 90.0 Contact% that was good for 5th best in the major leagues.
Panik’s well-rounded skill set is a valuable commodity that allows him to stuff the stat sheet and impact all phases of the game if need be. He will put this skill set on full display in 2017 by delivering the best performance of his career in every statistical category and in the process establishing himself as one of the most underrated young stars in the game.