There isn’t any one formula for discovering a breakout player. Some are rookies who immediately make their presence felt in the league, while others are early-stage veterans who find their stride. Some breakouts go from average to good, some from good to great, and still others make that career-defining leap from great to elite. First and foremost, breakout players are level-jumpers. That’s the only requirement they must satisfy.
That’s the class of players we will unveil to you in our AL and NL breakout columns this spring. Some will come off the board early in drafts, some will be in the middle rounds, and others will still be available into the double-digit rounds. No matter when they’re drafted, however, all will make a leap this season.
The obvious rejoinder to picking a guy who was the AL Rookie of the Year just two seasons ago to break out in 2017 is, “Hasn’t Correa already broken out?” You do have a bit of a point. The 22-year-old Correa carries a .276/.354/.475 slash line with career 42 homers into his third season in the majors and is widely viewed as one of the top-15 position players in the league. There isn’t much room for him to go up from here.
I’m betting, however, that Correa will find that room. As we said in the intro, breaking out isn’t just about rising the player ranks; it’s about finding a new floor of performance as well. In Correa’s case, it’s about jumping into the group of perennial MVP candidates and blowing off any semblance of a ceiling.
There’s nothing magical in Correa's numbers from either his rookie season or last year that hint at another level. This is really as simple as two factors working together. First, we know that he has an elite mix of skills; there has never been a point in his baseball-playing life where his pure talent was in question. Second, he doesn’t turn 23 until the end of September. Correa is still years from his physical peak, and he’s making progress toward it every year. Combine that fact with his already high level of achievement and best-of-the-best talent, and it’s only a matter of time before he is winning MVPs and carrying the Astros to AL contention. That time is now.
Don’t forget, too, that Correa played through ankle and shoulder injuries for large chunks of last season. If he keeps a clean bill of health all year, it’ll only be easier for him to join the elite’s elite this season. You might not have read it here first, but you will read it here nonetheless: Correa will be a top-five fantasy asset this year, and for years to come.
Looking for a pitcher who’s almost a lock to be in the top 10 at the position but who you won’t have to take as one of the first 10 pitchers in a typical draft? Look no further than Carrasco. His late-blooming nature, combined with last year’s freak injuries, are throwing too many fantasy owners off the scent. He has all the makings of a top-of-the-rotation fantasy pitcher with almost no risk, beyond that associated with every pitcher.
Carrasco became a full-time starter in August 2014. Since then, he has thrown 399 innings across 65 starts, amassing a 3.11 ERA, 2.97 FIP, 1.06 WHIP, 25.8% strikeout rate and 5.5% walk rate. In that same time frame, just eight pitchers have a wider spread between strikeout and walk rates: Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Stephen Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard, Corey Kluber, Madison Bumgarner and David Price. That’s pretty good company.
In addition to striking out a lot of batters and walking few, Carrasco keeps the ball on the ground. Last season, he was one of three pitchers with at least a strikeout per inning, a 12% or higher whiff rate, fewer than 2.1 walks per nine innings, and a ground-ball rate north of 48%; the others were Kershaw and Syndergaard. Carrasco has found multiple ways the last two seasons to put himself among the elite starting pitchers. He’ll do it in a fantasy sense this year.
Don’t let last season’s injuries worry you, either. The first was a hamstring injury suffered while covering first base, and the second was a freak broken bone in his hand after being hit by a comebacker. Those aren't expected to affect him in the future. Carrasco is healthy and ready to resume his high-strikeout, low-walk, extreme ground-ball ways. All of that will help him be a top-10 fantasy pitcher this season.
I don’t want to pat myself on the back too hard, but I do want to pat myself on the back, so I’m going to proceed with only the minimum of caution. I was an early rider on the Duffy bandwagon last season. The following is an excerpt of an in-depth look I did into Duffy on June 6 of last year-a day he was set to make his fifth start of the season, after spending the first six weeks of the year in the bullpen; in his first four starts, he had a 3.86 ERA, 3.82 FIP, 1.02 WHIP, and 19 strikeouts against two walks in 18 2/3 innings.
Duffy has always had a serious problem staying in the strike zone, entering the 2016 season with a career 10% walk rate. Among pitchers active from 2011 through '15, only seven had a higher walk rate. This season, Duffy’s walk rate is 4.7%, which has him tied with Zack Greinke and Bartolo Colon and sandwiched between Masahiro Tanaka and Taijuan Walker
Duffy made one obvious change as a starter this season: He’s pitching out of the stretch with no one on base. He got comfortable as a reliever to start the year, potentially more comfortable than he ever was in his career, and instead of forcing himself back to the windup once he made his way into the rotation, he stuck with the stretch in all situations.
That night, Duffy held the mighty Orioles offense to two runs on five hits in 6 1/3 innings, fanning nine and walking zero. He’d ultimately make 26 starts, posting a 3.56 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 1.13 WHIP and 167 strikeouts against 37 walks in 161 2/3 innings. Duffy struggled with homers, allowing 26 as a starter, and he faded down the stretch, but the gains he made last season are undeniable.
Duffy now has a full, successful season under his belt as a starter, as well as an approach on the mound that works for him. His fastball-slider-changeup combo has the potential to be among the best in the league, and he mixes in a sinker that is especially effective against righties. Add it all up, and you get the perfect equation for a breakout pitcher. Duffy has what it takes to be a top-20 starter this season.
Remember way back at the beginning of this column when we discussed Correa’s age as one of the main factors leading him to a breakout this season? The same thing applies to Buxton, who is nine months older than Correa. Still, 23 is awfully young, especially for a player with Buxton’s skill set. While his stints in the majors have fallen flat to this point, 2017 should be the year he starts to put it all together.
You know all the details of Buxton being the second pick (behind Correa) in the 2012 draft and the elite pedigree as a top-two prospect in baseball for three straight years, so I'll spare you that. I’ll also spare you the (mostly) ghastly numbers from Buxton’s time in the majors the last two seasons. Instead, let’s focus on the positives.
First and foremost, Buxton has hit at every level of the majors. He logged 268 plate appearances at Triple A between his age-21 and -22 seasons, slashing .327/.377/.563 with 12 homers, 14 doubles and four triples. He had almost the exact same number of plate appearances at Double A as a 20- and 21-year-old, amassing a line of .279/.347/.483 with six homers, seven doubles and 12 triples. The age, level and production always lined up to suggest that Buxton would eventually turn into a star.
The first evidence of that came to light after the All-Star break last season, as Buxton slashed .238/.315/.497 with nine homers and seven doubles in 167 plate appearances in the second half. His strikeout rate was still comically high at 34.1%, but that was more than three percentage points lower than the first half. His walk rate also spiked from 4.9% to 9%. An understanding of the strike zone and how pitchers want to attack you are the foundation of success at the plate, and Buxton started to make strides in both of those areas in last year’s second half.
For most young players, even those who go on to be stars, the first few seasons in the majors are filled with learning experiences and growing pains. That is certainly true of Buxton. We know, however, that he has limitless talent. We’ve seen him prove all that’s possible in the minors, and we finally started to see him having a modicum of success in the majors last year.
If I showed you the following three-year progression, what would you think about the pitcher in question?
2014: No. 3 pick in the draft, immediately becomes a top-15 prospect.
2015: Spends entire year in majors as a 22-year-old, posts a 3.75 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 1.44 WHIP and 139 strikeouts in 139 1/3 innings and totals a 22.9% strikeout rate and 11.7% walk rate.
2016: In his age-23 season, posts a 4.04 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 1.39 WHIP and 168 strikeouts in 165 innings and totals a 23.5% strikeout rate and 7.6% walk rate.
You’d probably think that the pitcher is coming along quite nicely in his career and-given his pedigree, year-over-year progression and age-is set to make a leap in 2017. If that’s what you think, then we are in lockstep on Rodon, one of the most important players on the White Sox.
The most notable progression in Rodon’s two big league seasons was his walk rate. After walking more than 10% of all batters who came to the plate against him in 2015, Rodon cut his walk rate to a perfectly reasonable 7.6% last year. That he lived in the zone more in year two was not without its drawbacks: Rodon’s home-run-per-nine rate jumped to 1.25 from 0.71, and his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio surged four percentage points to 13.8%. Even within those numbers, however, we can find some good news.
After a solid-though-not-spectacular first half, Rodon put together the best half-season of his young career after the All-Star break: 73 innings, a 3.45 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP and 77 strikeouts against 22 walks. His strikeout rate jumped to 25.3%, and his walk rate dipped even further to 7.2%. In the final 2 1/2 months of the season, he also seemed to find a new measure of command within the strike zone. Rodon’s home-run rate fell from 1.47 in the first half of the season to 0.99 in the second, and his HR/FB ratio dropped from 15.5% to 11.4. There’s some variance in there, but there’s likely more growth, notably when you consider Rodon’s age and pedigree. That should be the biggest driver in the fantasy community of confidence in Rodon this season.