A lot has happened since I last wrote about breakouts back in January. Spring Training is off and running, the World Baseball Classic just started and, oh, I've done a lot more research! With more research comes new data points and more players to either target or fade. Today I'll be focusing on six more breakout candidates for the 2023 season.
As I routinely point out, I believe breakout candidates have more upside or even league-winning potential compared to sleepers. Regardless of the semantics, you'll want to target as many sleepers and breakouts in the middle-to-late rounds of your drafts. I'll point out that I cheated a bit as you'll see later on in the column, including a "Re-Breakouts" category. If a player has broken out already in their career, can they break out again? My answer is yes, and if you listen to Fantasy Baseball Today, you've probably heard Chris Towers make this point as well.
Before I get into Breakouts 2.0, be sure to check out Breakouts 1.0, which I just updated with new information and average draft positions.
Arguably the top prospect in all of baseball, Gunnar Henderson made his debut with the Orioles late last season. In 34 games, he hit .259 with a .348 OBP, four homers and one steal. The Statcast data was pretty impressive, too. Henderson posted a 92.4 MPH average exit velocity, 53.7% hard-hit rate and ranked in the 91st percentile in sprint speed. The big power and speed was supported in the minors last season, too, where Henderson launched 19 home runs to go along with 22 steals.
As expected, the soon-to-be 22-year old is not a perfect player. The 26% strikeout rate and 60% ground ball rate in the majors are, initially, a cause for concern. Here's why I'm not that worried. Henderson had a great feel for the strike zone, chasing pitches outside the zone just 23% of the time. His swinging strike rate was also just 10.3%. Both marks were much better than league average. As for the ground balls, it hasn't really been an issue for Henderson at any level in the minors. I think Henderson could hit 20-25 home runs with 10-15 steals as a rookie this season at a pretty awful third base position.
One player I've come around on recently is Wander Franco. Now I will admit that I prefer both Corey Seager and Oneil Cruz, but if they're both gone, Franco is the next name I'm looking to. Last year was pretty much a lost season for Franco as a quad injury popped up in April and then a broken hamate bone in July. Franco was limited to just 83 games in his second season. Now maybe this was small-sample flukiness, but Franco looked like was already breaking out last April before the injuries popped up.
Last April, Franco hit .313 with four homers, eight doubles and three steals in just 20 games. It was also supported by a 90.7 MPH average exit velocity and a 48% hard-hit rate. That small sample is a 30-homer, 22-steal pace over 150 games. Obviously that's a dangerous game to play, but I truly believe that was the only month Franco was healthy. Like Henderson, Franco is not a perfect player. He's been much better against left-handed pitching so far in his career and the overall batted-ball quality has been lackluster. I just think we get caught up and forget Franco is still just 22 years old. The sky is the limit for him.
In some ways Sean Murphy already broke out. He's coming off a pretty big season where he finished as the fourth-best catcher in H2H points leagues and seventh-best in 5x5 Roto. I think there's another level for Murphy, however. First off, he made incredible improvements in plate discipline, striking out just 20% last year. Murphy was never below 25% before that. He also consistently barrels up the ball, posting a 10.5% barrel rate or better three straight seasons. And then we get to the home/road splits.
- Career at Oakland Coliseum -- .213/.319/.368, 17 HR in 159 games
- Career everywhere else -- .256/.334/.484, 29 HR in 166 games
So now we're taking Murphy out of a cavernous ballpark and adding him to a lineup that scored the third-most runs in baseball last season? Yes, please! The one drawback to joining the Braves is that Murphy's playing time will come down. Last season he saw 612 plate appearances, which led all catchers. Murphy won't see as much time at DH but will clearly play a lot. The Braves gave up a bunch of assets in the trade to get him. If it all works out the way I think it will, Murphy could put up a Will Smith-type season with the Braves.
Am I buying too much into spring training? Perhaps. Alec Bohm took a huge step forward last season, batting .280 with 13 home runs, 79 runs and 72 RBI. He lowered his strikeout rate from 26.6% in 2021 to 17.4% in 2022. He also raised the launch angle as we've been begging him to. Bohm posted a career-high 30.5% fly ball rate, which pairs well with his hard contact. Bohm has always hit the ball hard, posting an average exit velocity up over 90 MPH in each of his three seasons. Now we just need to unlock that power. It may be happening.
Ball Go Boom Pt. 1 by Alec Bohm pic.twitter.com/KMYhgfb6MK— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) March 6, 2023
Bohm is up to three homers in 17 at-bats this spring and as highlighted by Scott White in his spring training roundup, Bohm added 10-15 pounds of muscle this offseason. Watching a few Phillies games this spring, I've also heard their broadcast talk about how manager Rob Thomson wants Bohm to pull the ball more this season. So we have added muscle to go along with more of a pull-heavy approach? That kind of feels like a breakout on the horizon. If it works out, Bohm could hit .280 with 20-25 home runs in the middle of a good Phillies lineup. If you miss out on the top-tier third basemen (and Jordan Walker), I'd target somebody like Bohm later on.
Admittedly, this is a weird one for me. I was all the way out on Blake Snell last season as he's been terribly inefficient and banged up the past few years. I looked like a genius after his first seven starts last season and then that was gone. Over Snell's final 17 starts, he posted a 2.53 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 12.9 K/9, and a 15.3% swinging strike rate. Those are borderline top-12 starting pitcher level numbers. What fueled that stretch? He traded changeups for more sliders and threw more strikes.
Snell gets in trouble when he thinks too much. He has a mid-90s fastball with a 22% whiff rate and two breaking pitches with whiff rates over 43%. Snell should really ditch the changeup and lean into his breaking pitches more. There's also a lower floor here as Snell has struggled with health. He hasn't thrown more than 128.2 innings since his Cy Young 2018 campaign. Of course this is anecdotal, but players sometimes magically find a way to stay healthy in contract years. Perhaps that will be Snell this season. I like targeting Snell as my SP3 in the 10th round of drafts.
Want to hear something crazy? Last season, Trevor Rogers had a higher ADP than Alek Manoah, Yu Darvish, Shane McClanahan and Carlos Rodon. That didn't work out so well. The reason why he was drafted above those names is because he comes with incredible upside. For his first 19 starts last season, we were dead wrong. During that span, Rogers had a 5.85 ERA, 1.60 WHIP with way too many walks and not enough strikeouts. He was placed on the IL with back spasms in late July but, upon returning, something clicked.
In Rogers' final two rehab starts, he allowed just five hits and one run with 17 strikeouts over 12 innings pitched, one of those being a no-hit outing. In his first three starts back with the Marlins, Rogers posted a 2.95 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 10.8 K/9 and a 12.7% swinging strike rate. He left his fourth start early with a strained lat and ended his season back on the IL. Obviously it was a very small sample, but we know there's talent and Rogers is off to a nice start this spring. Rogers went from a top-100 pick last season to well outside the top-200 now. That's the type of talent you want to buy back in on.