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Risky OF Plays: Long Injuries and Breakouts

When you’re looking to the next baseball season, one of the first things you want to do is identify potential sleepers. Where can you get positive value from a player whose draft cost will be lower than what you project as his final value? The strategy is all well and good, but two categories of players make your job harder. First, what do you do with seemingly good players who were injured for most (or all) of the year? Second, how do you rank players who had a big breakout? Which category has more risk when it comes to 2017 and beyond? What type of player do you put more money behind?

I decided to dive into the outfield ranks and find some players from each category. One thing to note: my breakout guys aren’t just rookies — though I could have done an entire article on the likes of David Dahl, Trea Turner, and more. You kind of expect a top-rated prospect or young phenom to do well. But the guys who are a bit older and come out of nowhere generate more doubt with fantasy owners. That’s where you may get a bit more profit in keeper leagues, but it also seems to add to the risk factor. With that said, let’s get started on the breakouts.

Khris Davis was never considered a top prospect, but he displayed power early and kept getting chances. You could argue his breakout was in 2015, when he hit 27 HR in just 392 AB, but injuries, a low contact rate, and playing time concerns tempered fantasy expectations. In 2016 he proved doubters wrong and cranked 42 long balls. His power is legit, and he doesn’t have any platoon issues. His fly ball rate has been steady for three seasons, and he’s put up an impressive HR/FB ratio in three out of four years. It seems he’ll be a contender for the home run crown for years to come.

What don’t I like about his game? Well, his contact rate still isn’t great, and his swinging strike rate has increased every season to 16.6%. When you factor that he set a career high in O-Swing% this year, I worry about his ability to avoid a cratering batting average. His contact rate dipped in the second half for the last two seasons, and because his lack of speed and line drives means his batting average is also BABIP dependent, he hit just .235 in the second half of 2016 when his BABIP dipped. You’ll take it because he also hit 23 home runs during that time, but factor in an average lower than .245 when making your projections and pricing, just to be safe.

Adam Duvall did his best Jay Bruce impression this season — apparently it’s a mandate for the Reds that they finish the season with an outfielder who has 30 home runs and a blah batting average. Given that Duvall is entering his late 20s, the breakout is a bit more unexpected. Like Davis, he wasn’t a high-profile prospect when he reached the bigs. However, even his small sample sizes in 2014-15 showed power metrics that were above average. The issue was whether he could avoid the swing-and-miss and develop plate discipline.

It turns out he did pretty well on that front in 2016. His contact rate was pretty consistent after a rocky April, and he ended up at 70% for the year — not good, but staying out of the scary sixties. He hits a lot of fly balls, and his hard hit rate is above average, so the slugger profile fits pretty well. I also like that he improved his walk rate in the second half, though that may simply be pitchers working around him more and respecting his power. However, I’m not sure I’m sold on a full repeat in 2017. His contact rate is quite low, and his HR/FB% fell to more pedestrian levels in the second half, along with his batting average. If you can get him cheap, it’s okay, but I wouldn’t pay full price while expecting him to repeat or improve.




Nomar Mazara made a lot of noise early on, hitting over .300 with 9 HR in the first two months. His batting average certainly cooled in the second half (.239), but his power stayed pretty level all year. At just 21, he was a solid prospect, but not necessarily an elite one. What are the chances that he’ll make adjustments and continue to provide positive value?

As much as I like him, I have to give my usual caution about young prospects: there are warts, so temper expectations. For starters, he struggled mightily against lefties, so a platoon situation early in his career could cap his value, though at least he’s on the higher AB side of a platoon. His power and approach against righties should warrant playing time, and I bet the Rangers will try him against lefties in 2017 to see if he can work through it.

Another cause for concern is a bit of a ground ball tilt. Despite a HR/FB% solidly above average, he ended up with a 49% ground ball rate, including 55% in the second half. His contact rate and LD% also dipped in the second half as pitchers started figuring him out. His GB% was higher against lefties, so again, he has to prove he can make adjustments. He could easily repeat his 2016 numbers, improve on his breakout… or fall apart if he fails to make corrections. That said, Texas has a solid team, and Mazara’s potential for .270, 30 HR is real, so he’s worth the gamble.

Yasmany Tomas is a perfect example for Mazara, as someone who had to make adjustments after pitchers reacted to him. After tanking in the second half of 2015 in terms of contact and BB/K, Tomas made great strides in 2016. He reversed the trend in those metrics, and then he improved his HR/FB and FB% to greatly boost his power output. He also increased his hard hit rate, giving him a good chance to hold on to this level of batting average and power output.

There are a few nitpicks about Tomas, but nothing that would stop me from investing. Despite an okay contact rate, he swings at a lot of pitches out of the zone, and his swinging strike rate (16%) went up from 2015 and is well above the major league average. He may have plugged the hole in his swing as far as his average is concerned, but there’s a small chance, if he suffers some early bad luck in 2017, it’ll cause him to press and we’ll see a decline. The other quibble is with his rather low fly ball rate (31%). That’s enough for 30 homers when he had a HR/FB of 25% in 2016, but with any regression there, I’m forced to cap my projections at 25 home runs. Even so, I like his bat, and this breakout is more legit than illusion.

*****

Okay, the guys who played in 2016 are easier to assess. But what about those outfielders who didn’t warrant rostering due to injuries? I’ll freely admit before starting that I’m not an injury expert, but there is still some assessment that I can do for the following batters.

Kyle Schwarber has to come first here. World Series heroics are going to stick in people’s minds, and he’s already going to be taken in every keeper league. Looking at a lot of pitches while recovering and working hard may help him avoid some of the rust in 2017, but let’s not forget he struggles with contact. However, he takes walks too, so it’s not a complete lack of plate discipline — he’s more a three true outcomes guy, like Adam Dunn but with better batting average potential. Also, the fact that he did come back for the playoffs and held his own gives me strong hope that his bat won’t lag behind next year. I wouldn’t give any discount on him, and his health isn’t much of a risk when he was nearly back this year.




Michael Brantley is a different story. He started on the DL, came back for a very short while, and then went out again with the same injury, plus a new one. He also battled some nagging injuries in 2015. I didn’t expect Brantley to repeat 2014, but his metrics make him a very solid option who should continue to reach more than 15/15 with a high batting average floor. The issue is that with such a long, lingering injury that started at the end of 2015, he’s still not ready to play. We’ve seen Schwarber come back and handle major league pitching. Brantley didn’t do that in the second half, and a shoulder issue worries me more than the knee injury from Warbird. The shoulder is more likely to affect his swing and overall performance when he gets back. The risk is very high, but I suppose if he enters spring training “healthy,” the reward floor is higher than a sophomore season from Schwarber.

A.J. Pollock is another guy who got off the DL for about two weeks before going right back on and ending his season. Also like Brantley, his breakout year was likely a career year. But just because he may not fully repeat, that doesn’t mean his skill set isn’t capable of producing. The good news is that his second injury, a groin strain, isn’t likely to affect him moving forward. Recovering from the broken elbow may slow him down a little in 2017, but then again, he hit .300 during his 20 at bats in August, along with 4 SB. What’s more telling is the very low LD% in his 2016 stats, plus a dip in contact rate from 2015, especially the second half. He has a full offseason to rest up, along with spring training to work out the kinks. I’m not going to be surprised if he goes 15/30 with a .290 average next year. Maybe his average and power are a bit lower if there’s early rust, but his skills will carry him as long as he’s healthy, so I consider him low risk.

David Peralta missed a lot of time too, making for a lot of bad luck in Arizona. He had two separate issues (back, wrist), unlike Brantley being unable to get over one major injury. Still, both of Peralta’s injuries aren’t minor in my book. Back and wrist are both going to affect how he swings the bat. When he did play in May and June, his contact rate plummeted from his 2015 and April 2016 levels, and his hard hit rate dipped as well.

A whole offseason of rest should do him some good, but I’m more wary of him in 2017, especially given his struggles against lefties even when he’s healthy. Going into 2016, Peralta profiled as having a bit more pop than Pollock, perhaps, but Pollock would be better in the other 5×5 categories. Long-term, Peralta should figure things out if healthy, but the risk is higher than the reward for me until I see a very solid and healthy spring training from him.

*****

So when all is said and done, which group of players am I more likely to target? For redraft, I’d probably opt for the injury risks; they were out of sight, out of mind in 2016, compared to players who broke out and will be fresh in the minds of fantasy owners. For the long-term, Brantley scares me with the recurring/year-plus injury, but the others are likely great investments.

That said, if I’m competing for 2017 in a dynasty league, I’ll take Davis and Tomas over Pollock and Schwarber, because I’m confident in the guys who were good in 2016 and have a decent chance of repeating due to their skills. The only way I pick the injury risks over the breakouts in dynasty is if I can get the injured guys for ten cents on the dollar. As always, understand your format and your team. These two groups are higher risk, so make sure you have a solid foundation elsewhere before you target either type.

 

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Kevin Jebens
Fantasy baseball player since 2000; winning leagues ranging from 12-team H2H to 18-team experts 5x5. Has written for various baseball blogs, including the 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.

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