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2020 Fantasy Baseball: Buying Into Six Breakout Hitters

Every season we see players break out. Some go on to build on their successful seasons while others turn out to be a flash in the pan. Knowing how to identify the legitimacy of a player’s breakout season can go a long way in helping you avoid getting burned. While we’ll get to potential busts another time, I’m here to give you some of my favorite breakout hitters you can trust going into 2020 fantasy baseball drafts. Let’s get right into it.

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2019’s Breakout Hitters: Are They For Real?

Josh Bell – OF, Pittsburgh Pirates

2019 Stats: .277/.367/.569 37 HR, 94 R, 116 RBI
Fantrax ADP: 68.47

Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell is someone we’ve been waiting for to put it all together, some years hitting for more contact, some for more power. Bell showed just what he’s capable of when he can fine-tune his approach and maximize his abilities as a hitter. At the All-Star break, Bell was sitting on 27 home runs, a .302 batting average, and a league-leading 84 RBI. The second half wasn’t as kind to Bell as he hit .233 with only 10 home runs, finishing with a .277 average, 37 home runs, 94 runs scored, and 116 RBI on the year. So, what happened to make him fall off so much in the second half? Let’s take a deeper look.

Breakout Hitters Josh Bell 2019 Statcast

Overall the underlying metrics look great as Bell had career-bests in exit velocity (92.3mph), launch angle (13 degrees), hard-hit rate (47.1%), and barrel percentage (12.7%). His expected batting average of .283 supports his actual average of .277 while his 37.4% fly-ball rate marked a career-best. Bell was also more aggressive than he had previously been with a higher swing percentage and strikeout rate. Meanwhile, his contact numbers dipped marginally. Things changed in the second half.

Bell was limited to only 55 games after the All-Star Break due to a groin injury that cut his season short. Before the injury, we saw Bell revert to his more conservative approach at the plate in the second half. His walk rate jumped from 10.8% to 14.2% while his strikeout rate dipped from 20.4% to 17.3%, coinciding with a dip in swing percentage. Not only did he swing less, but his average exit velocity went from 93.3mph in the first half to 90.5mph in the second half. It begs the question if Bell might have been playing hurt or fatigued. Bell’s second-half BABIP sat at .241 while his expected batting average of .260 and expected slugging of .467 were well above his actual numbers of .233 and .429, suggesting there was some bad luck at play. On the other hand, his first-half expected batting average of .297 fully supports the .302 batting average. I’m buying into first-half Josh Bell as he comes in at number four in my first base rankings ahead of Matt Olson, Anthony Rizzo, and Paul Goldschmidt.


Rafael Devers – 3B, Boston Red Sox

2019 Stats: .311/.361/.555 32 HR, 129 R, 115 RBI, 8 SB
Fantrax ADP: 23.18

Rafael Devers came into the league at 20 years old for a cup of coffee in 2017, hitting .284 with 10 home runs in 240 plate appearances. Devers flashed the hit tool that had him regarded as an excellent hitting prospect. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out so well in his first full season in 2018 with a .240 average and 21 home runs. A shoulder injury and lingering hamstring issues limited Devers to only 121 games that season. It might be fair to blame the disappointing season on the string on injuries after Devers went on to fully break out in 2019.

In only his second full season in the majors, Rafael Devers ranked in the top five among third basemen in SLG, AVG, RBI, runs, and stolen bases. Devers led all third basemen in doubles with 55, hitting 10 more than the next third baseman Anthony Rendon, and was top-10 in OBP and home runs. The power output really shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Devers hit 30 home runs in 2017 across three professional levels. Despite being limited by injuries in 2018, he was still on pace to hit 28 home runs. His growth as a hitter was on full display this season as Devers cut his strikeout rate by 7.7% and raised his line drive rate from 15.2% to 21.3% in 2019. Consistency was another big part of Devers’ growth in 2019, as he had a .324 average and 16 home runs in the first half and a .296 average and 16 home runs in the second half. Taking a closer look at the underlying metrics shows that the Devers breakout is real.

Rafael Devers 2019 Statcast

For the third year in a row, Devers raised his average exit velocity, ranking in the top six percent of MLB at 92.1mph. No one hit more balls at over 100mph than Rafael Devers at 176. His 6.7% of batted balls hit at 100mph or above trailed only Howie Kendrick, who saw half as many pitches as Devers on the year. Devers is consistently hitting the ball harder than most in the game. The power is real. An adjustment to his launch angle could lead to an even bigger power output and boost his nine percent barrel rate. I’m all in on Devers this season and have him right up with the top third basemen in the game. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that Rafael Devers will be the most valuable player at the hot corner in 2020.


Ramon Laureano – OF, Oakland Athletics

2019 Stats: .288/.340/.521 24 HR, 79 R, 67 RBI, 13 SB
Fantrax ADP: 95.4

Ramon Laureano broke into the majors in 2018 and made a good first impression. In 48 games, Laureano hit five home runs and stole seven bases while hitting .288. He continued that production into a breakout 2019 with 24 home runs, 13 steals, and a .288/.340/.521 slash line in only 123 games. If we take those stats over a full 162, that leads to a 31 home run and 17 steal season. Before Laureano landed on the injured list with a stress reaction in his shin, he was on a tear, hitting .392 with eight home runs and three steals in July. After missing over a whole month, he came back and continued that run with a .315 average and three home runs in September. Had Laureano stayed healthy, we could be looking at him in the Austin Meadows territory. Instead, he’s going 50 picks later and could provide nearly the same if not better production.

There’s plenty to be excited about when it comes to Laureano’s growth and potential in 2020 and beyond. While the plate discipline leaves something to be desired, Laureano did cut down on his strikeouts by 3% from 2018. His 25% line drive rate in both 2018 and 2019 is a thing of beauty. When combined with his 84th percentile sprint speed, that line drive rate has the potential to produce a solid batting average. It’s no coincidence that Laureano hit .288 in both 2018 and 2019. Speaking of sprint speed, Laureano has been extremely efficient on the basepaths. In 2019 he went 13-for-15 in steal attempts, 18-for-21 in 2018, and 24-for-29 the previous season. That’s an 85% success rate on stolen base attempts. This is one of the reasons Laureano will outproduce many players drafted ahead of him in 2020.

Ramon Laureano has all the tools to be a solid five-category contributor. The only thing missing from his game is better plate discipline. A rise in launch angle from 10.3 degrees to 14.8 degrees shows he’s even putting more effort into lifting the ball. A 28-30 home run season is not out of the question. At 25 years old, we’ve yet to see the best of Laser Ramon.

Marcus Semien – SS, Oakland Athletics

2019 Stats: .285/.369/.522 33 HR, 123 R, 92 RBI, 10 SB
Fantrax ADP 62.63

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a player that has improved more than Marcus Semien has over the last few years. After a breakout season at 29 years old, Semien finished third in AL MVP voting. I’ve always been intrigued by Semien’s potential as a power-speed combo player. This was the year it all came together. He joined a group of only six players to hit 33 home runs, steal 10 bases, and hit for at least a .285 average. That’s incredibly valuable even if shortstop is as deep as it is. But how real was the breakout and should you trust him going into 2020?

One of the biggest improvements Semien made was to his plate discipline, cutting his strikeout rate in each of the last three years. Semien ended 2019 with a 13.7% strikeout rate and a career-best 11.6% walk rate, showing a drastically improved batting eye. Anything close to a 1:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio is a fantasy player’s dream. This improvement is supported by his plate discipline metrics, cutting his swinging strike while also making gains in his contact rate across the board rate in each of the last three seasons. Semien has shown to be more selective at the plate while being able to make better contact when he does swing. Taking a look at some more underlying metric show this is no fluke.

The 88.9 mph average exit velocity and 8.5% barrel rate were career-bests for Semien. While his line drive rate sat at 20% on the season, his exit velocity on those line drives rose from 91.6mph in 2018 to 93.8mph in 2019. Semien did hit more ground balls at 41.1% but even those rose by over two miles per hour at 85.3. So had he not increased his ground ball rate, we could be looking at an average exit velocity over 90mph. But Semien has the sprint speed to support a good BABIP, so I’m not concerned about a few more ground balls. Speaking of BABIP, the .294 clip he had last season was right in line with his career .296 average.

Aside from his 2017 season in which he was limit to 85 games due to a broken wrist, Semien has played at least 155 games in four of the last five years. Even in that injury-shortened season, Semien stole 12 bases, giving him double-digit steals in each of the last five years. He was even on pace for 19 home runs, which would give him at least 15 in each of those years. Couple all the improvements to his hitting with his durability, and you’re looking at a solid draft pick that will contribute in multiple categories.


Tim Anderson – SS, Chicago White Sox

2019 Stats: .335/.357/.508 18 HR, 81 R, 56 RBI, 17 SB
Fantrax ADP: 113.88

Tim Anderson is like Marcus Semien in that he’s made improvements to his game over the last few years leading to his breakout. And similar to Laureano in the sense that you wonder what kind of numbers he could have put up in a fully healthy season. In 123 games, Anderson hit 18 home runs, stole 17 bases, putting him on pace for 23 and 22 respectively while also leading MLB with a .335 batting average. Anderson has been a speed and power contributor before, but couldn’t be counted on for anything else. That’s changed now, and there’s reason to believe it’s legit.

One of the best measures of a player’s growth as a hitter is their plate discipline. While Anderson hasn’t been the most patient with a 2.9% walk rate, he’s improved his strikeout rate in each of the last four seasons. Anderson’s strikeout rate dipped from 24.6% in 2018 to 21% in 2019. It isn’t that he’s swinging less either, his swing percentage has risen, increasing by 5% over last season. Anderson is making better contact when he does swing as shown by increases in contact percentage in each of the last four seasons, recently going from 73.7% to 77% over the last two years. That kind of gradual improvement year over year makes a breakout like Anderson’s more legitimate than just a one year wonder.

Despite those contact gains cited, I’m telling you right now there’s no way Tim Anderson is repeating a .399 BABIP let alone a .335 average. But there’s no question that Anderson is a better hitter. His xBA according to Statcast data was .294, ranking in the top 8% of the league. His lower strikeout rate combined with a career-high 23.8% line drive rate, 88th percentile sprint speed, and 88.3 mph average exit velocity is the recipe for an excellent average. Take projections with a grain of salt, but Steamer pegs Anderson for a .275 average, 21 home runs, and 17 steals next season. Compare that to someone like Andrew Benintendi who’s projected for .273, 19 home runs, and 13 steals and Anderson looks like a bargain going 13 picks later.


Bryan Reynolds – OF, Pittsburgh Pirates

2019 Stats: .314/.377/.503 16 HR, 83 R, 68 RBI, 3 SB
Fantrax ADP: 192.72

Bryan Reynolds was a second-round pick out of Vanderbilt by the San Francisco Giants in 2016. After two seasons in the Giants farm system, he was traded to the Pirates as part of a package for Andrew McCutchen. All Reynold did was hit in the minors and continued to do so when he got the call to the majors in 2019. In four professional seasons between low-A and MLB, Reynolds never hit under .300. That kind of track record bodes well for someone who came up and immediately placed 10th among all qualified hitters in batting average at .314. In today’s juiced ball environment, 16 home runs shouldn’t come as a big surprise for such a good hitter despite not being known for much power in the minors. Despite being one of last year’s top breakout hitters, Reynolds might be flying under the radar due to his team context and perceived lack of upside, but he’s going to be a great value for where he’s being drafted.

Bryan Reynolds Statcast

A look into his Statcast numbers shows the average was indeed legit with a .296 xBA, 28.7% line drive rate, 89.6 mph exit velocity, and 76th percentile sprint speed. That sprint speed is good enough for him to contribute a handful of stolen bases as well, especially if he leads off as Roster Resource projects him to. At the very least, Reynolds should be hitting in the top third of the order. In 94 games hitting second in the order, Reynolds stole all three of his bases. Should he lead off, he could very well approach double-digit steals. A 20-HR and 10-steal season aren’t out of the questions for Bryan Reynolds, and at pick 192 it won’t cost you much to find out.

Are you buying into these breakout hitters? For more of Jorge’s work check out his full archive.

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