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  • If you're looking for players ready to make star turns, Matt Chapman and Mike Clevinger are among the most promising options.
By Michael Beller
March 06, 2019

Fantasy baseball draft prep season has reached the Staples Series stage. Unfortunately, this is not marked by the Staple Singers belting out tunes about Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. Instead, it’s when we unveil three columns that are hallmarks of draft prep season for any fantasy sports: breakouts, sleepers and busts.

We’ll kick things off with breakouts. Breakouts can emerge from obscurity, but your average breakout player has already established himself as a major leaguer before he makes the leap. The one trait every breakout player shares is that he establishes a new level during his breakout season that becomes a new normal. That’s what differentiates this class of players from sleepers, which are simply undervalued players. Breakouts are undervalued, too, but they make a star turn, whereas sleepers simply provide an easy profit.

Matt Chapman, 3B, A’s

Nolan Arenado’s glove played at a high level the day he stepped foot on an MLB field. He showed promise with the bat his rookie year, but hit just .267/.301/.405 with 10 homers. He made significant strides in year two, slashing .287/.328/.500 with 18 homers while winning his second straight Gold Glove. In his third year, he became the superstar we know today, posting his first 40-homer, 130-RBI season.

Does that path remind you of anyone? Perhaps someone whose name is at the top of this section? Chapman, too, debuted as a glove-first third baseman with plenty of offensive promise, hitting .234/.313/.472 with 14 homers in about half a season as a rookie in 2017. He found another gear last season, hitting .278/.356/.508 with 24 homers and winning a Gold Glove. Now in his third season, Chapman is ready to make a leap like Arenado, once his high school teammate in southern California.

Everything in Chapman’s advanced profile suggests there’s more in his bat than he already got out of it last season. He cut five percentage points off his strikeout rate while maintaining a high walk rate at 9.4%. His hard-hit rate jumped by more than seven percentage points. His HR/FB ratio climbed to 15.2% from 13.9%. He commanded the strike zone better than he did as a rookie, lowering his o-swing rate to 23.5% from 28.5%. Add in his first-round pedigree and a .517  slugging percentage in just shy of 1,400 plate appearances as a minor leaguer (including a .566 slugging percentage with 23 homers in 289 Triple-A plate appearances), and it’s easy to project more growth in Chapman’s future.

Chapman hinted at additional power last year. He smacked 42 doubles and had a .230 isolated slugging percentage. The only other player in the majors with an ISO of .230 or better and at least 600 plate appearances who didn’t hit 30 homers was Miguel Andujar, who finished the season with 27. The belief here is that some of those doubles turn into homers for Chapman this year. With a steady walk rate and prime spot in a powerful lineup, the rate and counting stats aren’t going anywhere. Chapman is my best bet to be a breakout player in 2019.

Mike Clevinger, SP, Indians

I detailed my love for Clevinger in our starting pitcher primer, but had to include him here anyway. Clevinger has already compiled strong campaigns in his first two full MLB seasons. In 2017, he pitched to a 3.11 ERA and 1.25 ERA with 137 strikeouts in 121 2/3 innings. Last year, he was even better posting a 3.02 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 207 strikeouts in 200 innings. Add those two seasons up, and you get a 3.05 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 344 strikeouts in 321 2/3 innings over the last two years.

Clevinger was even better over the final three and a half months of last year, coinciding with a series of conversations he had with Trevor Bauer detailed in an excellent story on the latter by Ben Reiter. We won’t go over it in full here, and instead will just give you the numbers. After implementing the changes suggested by Bauer’s tape study, Clevinger amassed a 2.90 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 127 strikeouts against 37 walks in 108 2/3 innings. His strikeout rate before Bauer’s tweaks was 21.9%. After the tweaks, it was 28.6%. If we see that version of Clevinger all season, he’s going to be a top-10 pitcher.

Michael Conforto, OF, Mets

Conforto spent the first half of last season coping with the fallout of the shoulder injury that cost him about two months in 2017. He was terrible before the All-Star break, hitting .216/.344/.366 with 11 homers in 346 plate appearances. Something clicked for him during that midsummer rest, and he looked like the superstar the Mets have been waiting for him to become for years. Conforto slashed .273/.356/.539 with 17 homers and 52 RBI in 292 plate appearances in the second half last year, inspiring confidence that he can be that player for a full season in 2019. The something that changed could very well be related to the health of his shoulder.

There was little difference in Conforto’s approach between the halves. He had z-swing rate of 66.5% in the first half, and 66.9% in the second half. He swung at pitches outside the strike zone more often after the break than he did before. What changed wasn’t his aggressiveness, but rather his performance. Conforto had a whiff rate of 13.7% on pitches inside the strike zone in the first half. In the second half, that fell all the way to 8.9%. He slugged .510 on pitches in the zone before the All-Star break. After the break, that jumped to .860. Put simply, Conforto did more damage on the same types of pitches he was missing in the first half, and that suggests that the shoulder finally started to heal. A fully healthy Conforto for an entire season can be a top-20 outfielder.

Luis Castillo, SP, Reds

Like Conforto, Castillo is another young player with a ton of promise who turned a corner in the second half last year. The 26-year-old righty went into the All-Star break with a 5.44 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 21.5% strikeout rate and 7.8% walk rate in 103 1/3 innings. In the second half, he pitched to a 2.44 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 26.3% strikeout rate and 5.3% walk rate in 66 1/3 frames. Castillo didn’t have any health issues that we can highlight to help explain his turnaround, but he made the sort of substantive change that can forecast a dramatic shift in performance.

Castillo throws a four-seam fastball, sinker, slider and changeup. Here were those pitches usage rates before and after the break, according to Brooks Baseball. The first picture is before the break, and the second one is after.

Castillo traded a whole lot of four-seamers for changeups and sliders after the break. That makes a ton of sense when you know his whiff rates for each of those pitches.

To be fair, almost every pitcher in the majors is going to have a lower whiff rate with his fastball than with his breaking and offspeed stuff. What this shows more clearly, though, is that Castillo trusted his slider and changeup to a degree he never had previously in his career, and that the trust opened up his game in ways we had yet to see. With that confidence going into 2019, Castillo is primed to realize his potential across a full season.

Tim Anderson, SS, White Sox

A lot of people look at Anderson and see a finished product. Those people will tell you that he has fantasy value because of his 20-20 ability, but that the poor plate discipline and the ugly rates are always going to be a staple of his game. Others see a player who made obvious improvements from year one to year two, and again from year two to year three, is still just 25 years old, and, yes, already has one 20-20 season under his belt. You can probably guess that since Anderson is in this column, I fall in the latter camp.

First, let’s hit the surface numbers. Anderson hit 20 homers and stole 26 bases last year. The season before, his first full year in the majors, he left the yard 17 times and racked up 15 swipes. In 99 games in his rookie season, he had nine homers and 10 steals. In short, if Anderson plays a full season, a 20-20 campaign is a near-guarantee.

Despite the impressive counting stats, Anderson hit just .240/.281/.406 last year, with a 24.6% strikeout rate and a 5% walk rate. He had a 14.1% whiff rate and 41.6% o-swing rate. So long as he keeps chasing bad pitches with such frequency, he’s going to be a maddening player whose 20-20 production is undermined by the rest of his offensive profile. However, there’s reason to believe that profile is changing, if not completely, than at least enough to mitigate its worst effects.

Anderson still struck out too often and chased too many pitches out of the zone last year. Yet, all his plate discipline metrics trended in the right direction. He cut 2.1 percentage points off his strikeout rate, 1.1 points from his whiff rate, and 1.2 points off his o-swing rate from the previous season. His 5% walk rate wasn’t anything to write home about, but was more than double his walk rate in 2017. He swung at 69% of pitches in the strike zone, up from 67.9% the prior year. He made contact on 86.2% of those pitches in the zone, another slight improvement from 2017.

Again, Anderson has to make big strides regarding his plate discipline to achieve his full potential. But we’re still talking about a player who turns 26 in June who was a first-round pick in 2013, has a 20-20 season to his name, and has already shown an ability, albeit limited, to improve his plate discipline across his first two and half MLB seasons. I’m betting he can make the necessary changes to a strong enough degree to be a breakout player at the shortstop position this year.

Nick Pivetta, SP, Phillies

Pivetta was alongside Mike Clevinger as one of our pitchers to watch in our starting pitcher primer. He, too, needs to be mentioned here, though we will borrow liberally from that column to describe why he’s primed for a breakout.

What’s the surest way for a pitcher to dominate an offense? It’s to miss bats. Pivetta did that last season with a 27.1% strikeout rate and 12% whiff rate in 2018, ranking 13th in the former and tied for 16th in the latter. He finished with a spread of 19.7 percentage points between his strikeout and walk rates, which ranked 14th in the league. The pitchers ahead of him? Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, Patrick Corbin, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Blake Snell, Corey Kluber, Luis Severino, Germán Márquez and teammate Aaron Nola. Carrasco and Márquez were the only two of those 13 who didn’t make the All-Star Game. Eleven of the 13 got at least one Cy Young vote, including the top-six vote getters in the AL and top four in the NL. It turns out that striking out a lot of batters and walking few is a reliable formula for success.

Pivetta’s problems came when hitters actually did make contact. He allowed 24 homers in his 164 innings, tied for 24th-most in the league. Among pitchers who allowed at least 20 homers, only Ivan Nova threw fewer innings. His 1.32 HR/9 was MLB’s 15th-highest, while his 15.8% HR/FB ratio was worse than all but five starters. All those homers served to undermine what could have been an excellent season.

If Pivetta is going to realize his potential and make the jump from promising to good-to-great, he’s going to have to do a much better job keeping the ball in the ballpark. Luckily, his elite ability to miss bats isn’t the only factor he has working in his favor to reduce his home-run rates. Pivetta’s 46.7% ground-ball rate ranked 15th in the league last year. He was one of six pitchers in the top 15 in both strikeout and ground-ball rates, joining Nola, Corbin, Carrasco, Márquez and Charlie Morton. All of this strongly suggests that Pivetta can ward off the long ball this season. If he does, he’ll be, at worst, at top-30 pitcher.

Eloy Jiménez, OF, White Sox

Over the last few seasons, we’ve seen Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña, Aaron Judge, Kris Bryant, Corey Seager, just to name a few, experience approximately zero growing pains in their rookie seasons. Jiménez may have to spend a few weeks in the minors to start the season, but once his defense magically gets better on or around April 12, he will be in the majors to stay. He’s ready to add his name to the list of players in the first sentence of this paragraph.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also highlight Vlad Guerrero Jr. here, but we’ve already discussed him from both real-life and fantasy standpoints multiple times this offseason. Jiménez has received comparatively little attention, so it’s time for him to get his due. He split last year, his age-21 season, exactly evenly between Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte last year, logging 228 plate appearances at each stop. He hit .317/.368/.556 with 10 homers at Birmingham, and then was even better at the highest level of the minors, slashing .355/.399/.597 with 12 homers at Charlotte. What’s more, Jimenez struck out in just 13.2% of his plate appearances in Triple-A ball, suggesting his plate discipline profile can translate immediately to the majors. Jiménez is a can’t-miss prospect and he may be the best player on the White Sox on the day he is promoted.

David Dahl, OF, Rockies

Dahl has been part of the fantasy consciousness since 2016, making it hard to remember that this is just his age-25 season. Injuries have robbed him of any consistency he might have developed over his first three years in the league, but when he has been healthy he has shown glimpses into the player he can be. He has racked up 508 plate appearances in his career, hitting .293/.341/.518 with 23 homers and 10 steals. He’d get about another 100 plate appearances in a full season, and, remember, he was fighting through one injury issue or another in a portion of those plate appearances. With Coors Field at his back, it’s not a stretch to say he has 30-15 potential over a full season. The Rockies finally cleared the decks for him to be an everyday player, and he should start the season as the No. 5 hitter in the order, behind Charlie Blackmon, Daniel Murphy, Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story. If Dahl can just stay upright for a full season, we could be looking at a 30-homer, 15-steal, 100-RBI, 80-run season.

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