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Fantasy Baseball's 2021 Breakout Hitter Will Be ...

The quest to find the next impact bat! Which potential breakout player should you target on draft day?

Winning in fantasy baseball comes from a successful draft plan, lineup management, and many winning free-agent pickups. At the same time, it is vital to find the breakout players to help push your team over the finish line.

This draft season, there have been varying opinions on the value of owning a top catcher. 

From January 1 to February 15, J.T. Realmuto has an ADP of 34 in 12-team leagues, meaning at least one player in each draft is willing to place an early bet on their catcher position. 

After his thumb injury on February 18, Realmuto slipped to 45th in the early draft rankings.

In the last full season (2019), Realmuto led the major in at bats at catcher (538), leading to the top value in runs (92), RBIs (83) and steals (9), while ranking 4th in home runs (25). His SIscore came in at 1.54, which only ranked 60th for hitters. In essence Realmuto helped a fantasy owner gain a point and a half in the standings compared to every other catcher that developed a negative outcome.

For comparison here is a look at the top five hitters ranked by SIscore in 2019 (I'm bypassing the 2020 results due to a small sample size):

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The top players at each position other than catcher offer much more impact value based on the SIscore, but many of these players were drafted inside the first two rounds in 2019.

The difference from J.T. Realmuto to Gary Sánchez (fifth-best catcher in 2019) was 3.11 league standings points at the catcher position.

If I take out the three impact scores from Cody Bellinger (10.03), Ronald Acuna Jr. (12.36) and Christian Yelich (11.65), the gap for all the other hitter positions was 4.78 fantasy points in the standings (Jonathan Villar, 4th, 8.38; Eduardo Escobar, 25th,  3.60).

The goal in each fantasy draft is to create as many edges as possible to help your chances at winning. These advantages can come in categories, volume of at bats or innings pitched. 

In the four counting stat categories (runs, home runs, RBIs and stolen bases), at bats can overcome some talent shortfalls. The key is setting a foundation of core players than adding the best players you believe can help you move up the standing later in the draft.

Typically, the best batters will hit in the top five slots in the batting order. Leadoff-type batters tend to help in runs, batting average and steals. Most of the power and RBI production come from the third and fourth hitters in the lineup.

A fantasy owner can find an edge in at bats if a catcher hits in a premium part of the batting order with even more value if he can secure playing time at another position. 

Last year Realmuto played six games at first base and eight games at DH, leading to him being almost an everyday starter with a catcher qualification. Unfortunately, he missed 10 games in September with a hip injury.

READ MORE FROM SI: 3 Pitchers Poised for a Breakout Season in 2021

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Since I've played in the high-stakes market, the goal every year is to identify a value at catcher. 

I had a great season in 2007 when I picked up Russell Martin in the 10th round in my 15-team main event in the NFBC. He hit .293 with 87 runs, 19 home runs, 87 RBIs and 21 steals. Martin played 151 games (143 starts) that season and 155 in 2008.

The highlight season for me from the catcher position came in 1999. Iván Rodríguez hit .332 with 116 runs, 35 home runs, 113 RBIs and 25 steals over 600 at bats. In no other season did he steal more than 10 bases.

Joe Mauer underperformed his expected upside for his career, but he also won fantasy owners a ton of money in 2009. Mauer started the year on the injured list (missed the month of April), leading to a favorable price point in drafts. He hit .365 with 94 runs, 28 home runs, 96 RBIs and four steals over 523 at bats.

Mike Piazza was a fantasy stud from 1993 to 2002. Over this span he hit .322 with 846 runs, 346 home runs, 1,066 RBIs and 17 steals, which worked out to about 85 runs, 35 home runs and 107 RBIs per season.

Daulton Varsho, Arizona Diamondbacks

Arizona Diamondbacks Daulton Varsho

My lead-in with all the catcher talk is geared toward my breakout hitter of the year. Since March 1, Daulton Varsho has an ADP of 177 as the 10th catcher off the board. 

Over limited at bats in 2020 with the Diamondbacks, he hit .188 with three home runs, nine RBIs and three steals over 101 at bats. Varsho took some walks (10.4%), but he did struggle to make contact (28.7% strikeout rate).

In his minor league career Varsho hit .301 with 169 runs, 37 home runs, 142 RBIs and 47 steals over 905 at bats. His approach (strikeout rate of 16.2 and walk rate of 8.7) graded above the league average. 

In his college career Varsho saw time at catcher, second base and outfield. 

Arizona plans on playing him in the outfield in 2021 while also working as its second catcher.

I see three possible edges with Varsho when adding in his catcher qualification.

First, his ability to steal bases will help fantasy teams in 5x5 roto formats tremendously. I've had some talks with fantasy owners who like Ke'Bryan Hayes for a similar reason at third base. I understand that Hayes has a clear path to full-time at bats, but 15 or more steals from a catcher is a more significant plus for me, and Varsho has more upside in power at this point of his career.

Even if the late spring training coach-speak is directed at Varsho having a rotational role, I will target him in drafts. He'll hit his way into more playing time, which points to him ranking in the top tier in at bats for catchers in 2021.

Lastly the Diamondbacks don't have the right structure in their lineup. The lack of a clear leadoff or second hitter could be a massive boom for Varsho's playing time and opportunity. If his strikeout rate comes closer to his minor league level, Arizona will have no choice but to hit him in a favorable part of their batting order. 

Varsho's father, Gary, is a former major league player with coaching experience.

In my first run of the projection this year, I gave Varsho 126 games of playing time as the Diamondbacks' leadoff hitter. He would hit .270 with 77 runs, 18 home runs, 49 RBIs and 20 steals over 526 at bats, based on my data. 

Varsho is my breakout hitter in 2021. His ability to steal bases sets him apart from the catcher inventory. I expect him to win the Rookie of the Year Award in the National League. He has a five-category skill set with explosive upside for the catcher position if Arizona gives him a full-time starting job in the outfield. I expect him to be the most valuable fantasy catcher this season. 

READ MORE: 2021 Fantasy Baseball Hub

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Take your game to the next level with an SI Fantasy+ subscription. Get insights from Michael Fabiano, Shawn Childs and the entire fantasy team all year-round.

Winning in fantasy baseball comes from a successful draft plan, lineup management, and many winning free-agent pickups. At the same time, it is vital to find the breakout players to help push your team over the finish line.

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