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Buy or Sell: 2021 MLB Offensive Breakouts

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Last season brought with it plenty of offensive breakouts, ranging from a 30-year old, career-minor leaguer raking in the majors for the first time, to a former top prospect reaching the potential he teased before his call-up. Each breakout is interesting in its own way, and I’m here to uncover the roots of the results and examine whether or not they are sustainable. 

To weed out the breakouts, I had to set some standards. To qualify for my offensive breakout list, each player had to have posted a 2021 wRC+ that was 35% better than his career average wRC+ and 25% better than his previous career-best wRC+ (minimum of 10 games played to qualify as career-best). Additionally, no brand-new rookies were allowed, meaning that a player had to appear in at least five major league games prior to 2021 and record at least 250 plate appearances in 2021 to qualify. That left us with a list of 11 offensive breakouts, each of which needs to be explored in depth. 

All stats via Fangraphs

Frank Schwindel – Chicago Cubs

Difference: +234%

2021: 152 wRC+ | Career (2019): -81 wRC+ | Previous Best (2019): -81 wRC+ 

One of the biggest surprises of the 2021 season was the late-career emergence of the right-handed hitting first baseman, Frank Schwindel. After destroying minor league pitching for more than six years, Schwindel was claimed off waivers by the Chicago Cubs (from the Oakland A’s) in mid-July of 2021. Following the Trade Deadline where the Cubs traded off a number of stars, an opportunity presented itself to Schwindel in the form of an everyday role at first base, filling in for the departed Anthony Rizzo. The 29-year old took that chance and ran with it, performing like one of the best hitters in the league during his two months in Chicago, batting .342 with 13 home runs. With such a short track record of success, it might be difficult to believe in Schwindel continuing his breakout in 2022, but there are some supportive metrics that suggest he could still be a great hitter, even if he doesn’t continue at the pace he set last season.

The first aspect that stands out about Schwindel’s profile is that he pairs elite power with an aversion to striking out (15.8% K%). His 85th percentile, 112.5 mph max exit velocity, according to Baseball Savant, denotes his ability to give the ball a ride and is a positive sign for his power going forward, as max exit velocity is one of the best predictors of raw power. Usually, when a player is attempting to add or maintain power, it comes as a detriment to their strikeout rate; a result of an all-or-nothing approach. Pairing top-of-the-line power with a low strikeout rate is something you don’t find in players often because it requires them to maintain their contact approach and good eye while also continuing to hit the ball hard and not holding back on swings. That combination puts Schwindel in good company:

Max Exit Velocity 112+ mph & K% < 16% (min. 250 PA)

PlayerMax EVK%
Manny Machado119.6 mph15.9%
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.117.4 mph15.8%
Juan Soto116.6 mph14.2%
Anthony Rizzo115.2 mph15.1%
Harold Ramirez114.8 mph15.5%
Freddie Freeman113.6 mph15.4%
Yandy Diaz113.5 mph15.7%
Jesse Winker113.4 mph15.5%
Jean Segura113.1 mph13.8%
Odubel Herrera113 mph15.7%
Tommy Edman112.9 mph13.7%
Albert Pujols112.9 mph15.2%
Jose Ramirez112.6 mph13.7%

There are some obvious underperformers on this leaderboard, but they all seem to be a result of those players hitting too many ground balls. Schwindel’s 26.9% flyball% was above the league average rate of 22.5% in 2021. While he is guaranteed to regress, I believe Schwindel’s power to be legit while his plate discipline should keep him afloat. Statcast’s Swing/Take runs give Schwindel +21 runs, exemplifying his ability to identify balls and strikes out of the pitcher’s hand. Keeping strikeout rates under control can keep players from experiencing extended slumps because they are still putting the ball in play and getting on base even when they’re not notching base hits. He was obviously lucky in terms of BABIP (.348), which portends batting average regression, and can be seen in the difference in his 2021 AVG (.326) and xBA (.270). I think Schwindel takes a hit in batting average to around .260-.270 (2022 Steamer projection: .270 AVG), which would still make him a serviceable player with an everyday role and the continuation of his power stroke and plate skills. The only thing to be wary of is the fact that Schwindel came out of nowhere last season, giving him an inherently low floor.

Verdict: Buy

Best Case Scenario: Nelson Cruz

Worst Case Scenario: Maikel Franco

Byron Buxton – Minnesota Twins 

Difference: +82%

2021: 169 wRC+ | Career (2015-20): 87 wRC+ | Previous Best (2020): 119 wRC+

It has long been known that Buxton has one of the highest potential ceilings of any MLB player, but not only has he not been able to stay healthy enough to display that ceiling for a full season, but he has also only shown spurts of excellence up until last season. Before his injury, Buxton was looking like the AL MVP frontrunner, batting .426 with eight home runs (265 wRC+) through April, and showed no ill effects in his September return, hitting .283 with nine home runs (158 wRC+). That incredible offensive breakout was supported by career-highs in key Statcast metrics (average exit velocity [92.5 mph], max exit velocity [115.6 mph, 96th percentile], barrel rate [17.9%], hard-hit rate [53.8%], and xwOBA [.407]) and can be attributed to an increased emphasis on a pull-heavy approach (53.8% pull rate). His performance will assuredly have managers buying in once again, despite the injury risk he presents (<350 PA every year except for 2017 [511 PA]). Detractors will point to his unsustainable HR/FB (28.8%) and ground ball (40.1%) rates as reasons to not buy into his power breakout. The speedy center fielder relies on more than just power to reach first-round production when he is on the field. 

A lot of Buxton’s value as a player is derived from his speed, which plays a huge part in making him one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball, but defense doesn’t help you win fantasy leagues (other than securing extra playing time for elite fielders). His 99th percentile sprint speed of 30 ft/s gives him automatic 20+ stolen base potential, making him appealing in roto leagues year-after-year, but in 2021, he held himself back on the basepaths, swiping just nine bases in his 254 plate appearances. It remains unclear whether he stopped stealing as much to remain healthy or if it was a matter of strategy on the part of the Twins, but nonetheless, I think Buxton’s stolen base potential is much lower than many will be expecting when drafting him early on. 

As one of the top power-speed threats in the game, Buxton could be a steal at the right draft price if he can stay relatively healthy throughout 2022 while performing at even a fraction of his 2021 production. I’m not willing to take the risk in the top 50 on someone with as much injury history as Buxton, and there is no guarantee he maintains the gains he saw last year. Steamer projects Buxton at .268 AVG/31 HR/15 SB, and while the pace seems spot-on, it’s difficult to imagine him reaching the 567 plate appearances they project him for, making him the biggest boom-or-bust pick in the entire draft. 

Verdict: Sell

Best Case Scenario: Fernando Tatis Jr.

Worst Case Scenario: Austin Slater

Cedric Mullins – Baltimore Orioles

Difference: +64%

2021: 136 wRC+ | Career (2018-20): 72 wRC+ | Previous Best (2020): 95 wRC+

Mullins made one of the league’s most notable alterations to an approach at the plate, bringing credence to his massive breakout. He gave up on switch-hitting and focused solely on swinging the bat from the left side of the dish. That change paid massive dividends for the blossoming star, culminating in a ninth-place finish in AL MVP voting as a result of his breakout 30-30 season; the only one of its kind in 2021. Batting from his more comfortable side allowed the 27-year old to get more balls in the air (+6.3% in FB% from 2020 to ’21) and hit the ball with more authority (+7.3% in hard-hit% from 2020 to ‘21), resulting in his massive power breakout (pre-2021 ISO: .118 | 2021 ISO: .228). Even with those notable improvements backed by a significant change in his approach, Statcast’s expected metrics point to Mullins coming short of his 2021 production and are supported by his Steamer projection. 

The Baltimore center fielder was an overperformer in wOBA, finishing with a 28-point difference between his expected and actual marks. Additionally, he outperformed his xSLG by a whopping 70 points and his xBA by 19 points. These metrics aren’t welcoming to the possibility of Mullins continuing his breakout pace in 2022, but they still put him in a position to be a fantasy asset because of his ability to swipe bases. 

Steamer projects Mullins’ BABIP luck to subside, resulting in a .259 AVG, but also have him pairing that serviceable average with 25 home runs and 26 steals; numbers that would make him a coveted target in roto drafts this spring. The projections say that Mullins will maintain his decent BB/K numbers as well, but I don’t see him being as valuable of a selection in points leagues because of the decreased emphasis on stolen bases in that format and Mullins’ underwhelming projections in OPS (.773) and wRC+ (108). With an ADP of 28.62 in NFBC drafts through January 8th, Mullins is going as the 10th outfielder off the board, ahead of the likes of Teoscar Hernandez, Aaron Judge, and Randy Arozarena. That might be too high of a price to pay for a player coming off a career season. If you can snag him in the fourth or fifth round of 12-team drafts, he will be worth the price, but any earlier and you might be paying too much for production that you can find later on in the draft with more stability.

Verdict: Sell

Best Case Scenario: Bo Bichette

Worst Case Scenario: Jonathan Villar

Rafael Ortega – Chicago Cubs

Difference: +61%

2021: 120 wRC+ | Career (2012-19): 59 wRC+ | Previous Best: (2016 &18): 59 wRC+

The breakout of Ortega may have slipped under the radar for most fantasy managers as he got his chance in the final two months of the season and had heavy platoon splits. The left-handed hitter crushed right-handed pitchers to the tune of a .321 AVG and a 139 wRC+, but was unplayable against same-handed pitching, batting .128 with a 34 wRC+. Those splits will hold him back from accruing plate appearances in 2022 as it is unlikely the Cubs deploy him against lefties considering his history against them. Nonetheless, his 2021 performance was eye-opening. In just 103 games and 330 plate appearances, Ortega batted .291 with 11 home runs and 12 steals, finally reaching the output he showed in the minors (six seasons in AAA of at least a 104 wRC+ and 300 PA). However, there is little supporting this breakout and I would stay far away in fantasy drafts.

First off, Ortega had his long-awaited breakout in his age 30 season, leaving little time for him to improve upon that performance and putting him at a spot in his career where players usually begin to decline, giving credence to the idea that 2021 will be the best season of his career. On top of that, almost every key Statcast metric reveals that Ortega overperformed last season. He had a 40-point difference in his xBA and actual BA, an 83-point difference in his xSLG and actual SLG, and a 45-point difference in his xwOBA and wOBA. Ortega also didn’t stand out in terms of barrel rate (5.7%) and hard-hit rate (34.6%), limiting his overall power ceiling. These metrics should dampen the excitement surrounding Ortega’s breakout and should help fantasy managers come to terms with the reality of what he might produce in 2022.

His biggest setback going forward will be adjusting to his assured regression in BABIP (.349 in 2021 vs .301 career), which will bring his batting average closer to the .249 Steamer projects him for. Ortega is also unlikely to continue mashing homers at the rate he did last year, giving him few avenues to provide value for fantasy teams. His high percentage of pulled fly balls (46.5% pull%, 41.3% FB%) combined with his lackluster batted ball metrics don’t usually portend power production and should hurt his average as much as his inevitable regression does. Even if he does receive a significant amount of playing time platooning in center field, being a member of the newly rebuilding Cubs will hold him back from accruing the counting stats you’d expect from a leadoff hitter. I am going to be avoiding Ortega in drafts this spring, but if you’re desperate for steals in the late rounds of 15-team roto drafts, the 16 steals he’s projected for could come in handy.

Verdict: Sell

Best Case Scenario: Randy Arozarena

Worst Case Scenario: Michael A. Taylor

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – Toronto Blue Jays

Difference: +59%

2021: 166 wRC+ | Career (2012-20): 107 wRC+ | Previous Best (2020): 110 wRC+

This one doesn’t require much research, as Guerrero Jr. was the top prospect for a reason. He exploded in 2021, finishing second in AL MVP Award voting by way of a .311 AVG, 48 bombs, and a 1.002 OPS. His breakout was the result of a strong offseason workout regimen that helped him lose 42 pounds. On the field, the young first baseman heeded the requests of every analyst and started hitting the ball in the air more. 

During Guerrero Jr’s first two underwhelming seasons in the Majors, his power numbers were held back by a 51.3% groundball rate. The fix seemed easy enough though: If Guerrero Jr. could just increase his launch angle, he would have a monster season. He did just that, lowering his groundball rate to 44.8% and increasing his fly ball percentage by 5.1% from the previous two seasons, helping him double his career home run total of 24 heading into the season. 

Going forward, there is no reason to believe that Guerrero Jr. will slow down. Not only was he in the 90th percentile or higher on Baseball Savant in average exit velocity (99th percentile), max exit velocity (99th), hard-hit% (98th), xwOBA (98th), xBA (98th), xSLG (98th), and barrel% (90th), but he also improved his plate discipline, posting an 82nd percentile, 15.8% K% and an 87th percentile, 12.3% BB%, resulting in the eighth-best BB/K rate (0.78) by a qualified batter. Those Statcast metrics support his breakout and bode well for his future output. On top of that, having elite plate discipline will keep Guerrero Jr. productive during slumps and should continue to make him one of the most elite hitters in the game. His Steamer projection of .309 AVG/43 HR/120 RBI is unmatched and makes him a clear first-round candidate in fantasy drafts. The only thing holding him back in roto leagues next year will be his lack of production in the stolen base department, but his bat more than makes up for it, and his placement in the middle of one of the best offenses in the MLB makes him even more appealing.

Verdict: Buy

Best Case Scenario: Freddie Freeman (w/ more power)

Worst Case Scenario: Giancarlo Stanton

Luis Robert – Chicago White Sox 

Difference: +57%

2021: 157 wRC+ | Career (2020): 100 wRC+ | Previous Best (2020): 100 wRC+

It may seem odd to suggest that Robert had a breakout season last year after finishing second in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2020, but he improved so much in his small sample that it was enough to secure him a spot on this list. In his age-23 season, the center fielder improved his average by more than 100 points from 2020 with the help of some insane batted ball luck (.394 BABIP) and massive improvements to his plate discipline. While his BABIP surely breeds regression in 2022, his .297 xBA, according to Statcast, was still elite, meaning his batting average floor is still incredibly high if he can continue to work on the improvements he made last season. 

The alterations Robert made to his plate approach were the key to the young outfielder unlocking new heights. One of the biggest knocks against him during his debut was his massive strikeout rate (32.2%, 6th percentile), but in 2021, he cut it down to 20.6% by being more aggressive at the dish (+3.9% swing% from ‘20 to 61.5%) and making more contact in the zone (68.3% zone contact% in ‘20 to 83.2% in ‘21). Statcast’s swing/take runs also buy into Robert’s better pitch selection, awarding him +24 runs in that category after he earned zero swing/take runs in 2020. The right-handed hitter’s improvements in these areas should quell the doubts surrounding his contact ability and make him an exciting draft pick going forward. 

Robert didn’t just improve his batting line by making more contact though, he made louder contact as well. He already had impressive Statcast sliders, but Robert improved in almost every metric that the system tracks. With a 99th percentile, 117.7 mph max exit velocity, and a .455 xwOBAcon, there is no doubt that Robert has the ability to become one of the premier power hitters in the league. Even though he doesn’t walk much (6.5% career BB%), he does provide steals as well (15 career steals in 523 PA) and could be one of the most impactful power-speed options if he can remain healthy throughout the season. 

I am a believer in Robert and I think he could have a monster season in 2022 that could look very similar to the season Teoscar Hernandez put up last year (.296 AVG/32 HR/12 SB). Steamer agrees with that sentiment, projecting him for a .285 AVG, 30 HR, and 14 SB, which would be worthwhile production in the first few rounds of roto drafts. His surging ADP (18.49 in NFBC drafts through January 8th) is not ideal, but with one of the highest ceilings in the MLB, a position at the top of a stable offense, and the glove to keep him in the lineup every day, Robert will be worth the draft-day price. One more season of this caliber will make him a first-round lock for years to come.

Verdict: Buy

Best Case Scenario: Ronald Acuna Jr.

Worst Case Scenario: Ramon Laureano

Tyler O’Neill – St. Louis Cardinals

Difference: +52%

2021: 144 wRC+ | Career (2018-20): 92 wRC+ | Previous Best (2018): 116 wRC+

The son of a bodybuilder, O’Neill has always had the raw skills to be a force on the diamond, but he finally put everything together in the second half of 2021, helping the Cardinals win 17 straight games in September/October to secure a spot in the NL Wild Card game. Now, O’Neill will be counted on to lead the St. Louis offense alongside corner infielders Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, an offense that struggled at times last year and could fall apart if O’Neill doesn’t build upon his breakout season. There are stats that support that breakout, but it seems highly unlikely to continue at the pace he set last year as a result of some concerning rates in key categories.

The left fielder broke into his power by finally coming through on the potential he showed in the minors and on Statcast. He sported impressive marks in batted ball metrics such as barrel rate (97th percentile, 17.9%) and xSLG (97th percentile, .583), pointing to a continuation of his home run output, and paired that slugging prowess with blazing speed (98th percentile, 29.7 ft/s), making him one of the premier power-speed threats when he makes contact and gets on base. That is where O’Neill’s struggles begin and the outlook starts to appear less sunny.

The right-handed hitter strikes out too much (31.3% K% in ‘21, 34.0% prior) and that is unlikely to change without an overhaul to his approach, as he whiffs on 34.7% of his swings. A strikeout rate that high usually coincides with a low batting average, and considering O’Neill’s sat at .286 last year, there is massive regression incoming. His Steamer projection backs up a massive drop in average as well, giving him a similar line to what Adolis Garcia put up in 2021. His xBA was only seven points lower than his actual batting average, but he carried an astonishing .366 BABIP that is unlikely to hold up and explains Steamer’s .253 batting average projection. Breaking pitches were also a bugaboo for the free-swinger last season. He batted an unsightly .234 against that pitch classification and if opposing pitchers start attacking him with more sliders and curves (a common approach in the new age of baseball), O’Neill would assuredly have to make an adjustment. With guaranteed playing time in left field and a secure spot in the middle of the Cardinals lineup, the soon-to-be 27-year old will likely mash about 30 home runs, but if he can’t cut back on the swing and miss in his offensive game, he won’t come close to providing the value necessary to make him a worthwhile pick in the first few rounds.

Verdict: Sell

Best Case Scenario: Pete Alonso (w/ some speed)

Worst Case Scenario: Bobby Dalbec

Nicky Lopez – Kansas City Royals

Difference: +51%

2021: 106 wRC+ | Career (2019-20): 55 wRC+ | Previous Best (2019): 56 wRC+

Although Lopez wasn’t a star last season, his breakout at the plate made him a league-average hitter after he was almost unplayable during his first couple of seasons in the bigs. He batted an even .300 and added on 22 steals; 10 of which came in the month of August alone. This made him an underrated asset in roto leagues last year once he got his bat going in June (.317+ AVG every month from Jun-Sep), despite his complete lack of power (two HR, 21 2B, & .078 ISO in 565 PA). However, Lopez’s 2022 outlook is not rosy.

The left-handed-hitting second baseman’s main value comes from his stolen base and batting average production. Lopez walks at a league-average rate (8.7%), making his production even more reliant on his two standout abilities. Therefore, if any sort of regression takes action on his batting average output or his stolen base success and aggressiveness changes, he could become completely useless in fantasy. Following that point, there are plenty of Statcast metrics that not only reveal Lopez’s weak bat, but also point to his batting average dropping precipitously next season.

A first percentile, 0.7% barrel rate is the first indicator of the lack of punch in Lopez’s bat, but he also sports a second percentile, .304 xSLG, and a fourth percentile, 26.9% hard-hit rate. Unless Lopez adds 50 pounds of muscle this offseason, it is likely that he will continue to have trouble hitting pitches for extra bases. To pile on even more, he calls Kauffman Stadium his home, the third-worst power-inducing park for left-handed hitters in the majors last year, and is part of one of the weakest offenses in the MLB (third-lowest team runs total in the AL). On the contact side, a 13.1% strikeout rate (21st in MLB, minimum 100 PA) points to a batter with a penchant for making loads of contact, but Lopez’s .239 xBA and .267 Steamer-projected average (as a result of a .347 BABIP and those dastardly batted ball metrics) say otherwise. If his batted-ball luck subsides and he continues to walk at a league-average rate, he will lose stolen base opportunities as well, shutting down his only other form of production.

Ultimately, Lopez was bound to be a player taken at the end of drafts anyways because of his lack of impact in more than two fantasy categories. With the understanding that he’s not a guarantee to even come through with modest production in either of those categories, he becomes nearly undraftable. He may even lose plate appearances if Adalberto Mondesi remains healthy and Bobby Witt Jr. gets called up and produces, taking away playing time in the infield and making Lopez an even less appealing option. His amazing work on defense should be accounted for and likely allows him to keep his spot on the major league roster if his offense does collapse, but the value that he produces with his ability to put the bat on the ball will go to waste if his batted-ball luck subsides, his power production continues to be insufficient, and he loses playing time to more exciting players. 

Verdict: Sell

Best Case Scenario: Raimel Tapia

Worst Case Scenario: Joe Panik

Austin Riley – Atlanta Braves

Difference: +49%

2021: 135 wRC+ | Career (2019-20): 86 wRC+ | Previous Best (2020): 88 wRC+

The anticipation surrounding a possible breakout season was sky-high for Riley after he exhibited a more patient approach at the plate in 2020, dropping his K% 12.6% from ‘19 to 23.8% in ‘20, and increasing his walk rate 2.4% to 7.8% in ‘20 as well. Fantasy managers, including myself, remained skeptical because he didn’t put up results indicating that the change was impactful, recording a sub-optimal .716 OPS in 206 plate appearances. Riley was making the right alterations to induce an offensive breakout though and had a monster season for the World Series Champion Atlanta Braves in 2021.

Maintaining his upgraded approach at the plate (7.9% BB%/25.4% K%), Riley exploded for a .303 AVG/33 HR/107 RBI season, raising his OPS to .898 in ‘21, a 182-point jump from his 2020 mark. Becoming more accustomed to major league pitching is surely one of the main reasons he was able to revamp his plate discipline, but he also made a notable alteration to his offensive approach that impacted his results just as much. The right-handed hitter dropped his whiff rate 8.6% from 2019 to ‘20 and brought it down 1.8% more to 28.3% in 2021, helping him make more contact and avoid strikeouts. He also stopped swinging on the first pitch of at-bats, sporting a first-pitch swing% in 2021 that was 11.1% lower than he had in the shortened season. Being more patient on the first pitch afforded Riley the opportunity to wait for better pitches to hit with more authority and allowed him to see more pitches per plate appearance, resulting in more walks and fewer strikeouts. He made the changes he needed to make and he reaped the benefits.

What makes the third baseman appealing heading into this season is that his strong projection is supported by promising expected stats on Baseball Savant and that he was able to handle all three pitch classifications, leaving few avenues for pitchers to attack him next season. Steamer projects an equally impressive season from Riley in 2022 (.274 AVG/33 HR/99 RBI), and even though his batting average won’t be touching .300 as it did in 2021 (.279 xBA), regression to the mean in that category would still leave him with above-average production. As long as Riley continues to avoid the whiffs and make solid contact, he should have no problem reaching that projection. Performing adequately against all pitches types will also have a positive impact on his 2022 output. Riley did just that in 2021 with a .290+ AVG and .500+ SLG against fastballs, breaking pitches, and offspeed pitches, and will continue to have success with his current approach, as he sustained a .345+ xwOBA against all three pitches types. Riley has an answer to any sequence a pitcher may choose to attack him with. The blight on third basemen in fantasy circles has left Riley as a top-tier option and with the help of being in the middle of an offense that just won the World Series, he should reach his high draft-day expectations with elite, four-category production.

Verdict: Buy

Best Case Scenario: Rafael Devers

Worst Case Scenario: Ryan Mountcastle

Brandon Crawford – San Francisco Giants

Difference: +46%

2021: 139 wRC+ | Career (2011-20): 93 wRC+ | Previous Best (2015): 113 wRC+

Entering his age-34 season, I don’t think many were pegging Crawford to have a massive offensive breakout, especially considering that he had never been an offensive force in the past, peaking at a .782 full-season OPS in 2015. That was six years ago, but Crawford showed that even in the later stages of his career, he could still learn new tricks and become one of the most valuable shortstops in the league, recording the fourth-highest fWAR (5.5) by a shortstop last season, trailing only Carlos Correa (5.8), Fernando Tatis Jr. (6.1), and Trea Turner (6.9) in that category. His WAR output was definitely helped by his Gold Glove-winning defense at shortstop (99th percentile, +15 OAA), but he also provided value by batting nearly .300 and setting a career-high in home runs on top of that. That spike in offensive output was a result of Crawford making some palpable changes at the plate that bode well for his offensive production in the near future. 

It is always important to note a player’s discipline at the plate, considering it is the aspect of their offensive game they have the most control over; whether or not to swing. Crawford set a career-high in BB/K rate (0.53), walking (10.2%) more than half as many times as he struck out (19.1%). Those individual marks are both above the league average and reveal Crawford’s improved pitch recognition, giving him a comfortable baseline to build off of. Crawford absolutely built off of his plate discipline last year, batting a career-high .298, but without the supportive underlying metrics to make 2022 fantasy drafters feel at ease. Not only did his BABIP hit a career-high at .334 (career: .299), but even though he set a career-high in xBA (.259), it was still nearly 40 points lower than his actual mark. Both of those marks suggest that Crawford will struggle to maintain a high batting average in 2022, and Steamer agrees with that notion, projecting him for a .253 AVG that is much more in line with his career .254 mark than what he put up in 2021. Although batting average was one of the major keys to his impressive production in 2021 and most likely won’t be this season, he bumped up his power with a number of beneficial changes to his approach.

The biggest change Crawford made to his offensive game was adding power that is backed up by a number of factors. He belted a career-high 24 home runs, resulting in a career-high slugging percentage (.522) that was reinforced by career-best marks in multiple Statcast categories including xSLG (.492), barrel rate (11.5%), and xwOBAcon (.405). Each of these metrics points to Crawford maintaining his power in 2022 and speaks to his ability to impact the ball when he makes contact. Additionally, he has increased his hard-hit rate each year since 2018, giving even more credence to his continued power improvements. Those solid power metrics were the result of an increased attempt to hit the ball in the air more often to reach his fullest slugging potential. 

That approach change began after his offense hit rock-bottom in 2018 and ‘19 and reached its peak results in 2021. Crawford sported a career-low 8.2-degree launch angle in 2018 and a career-worst 28.4% flyball rate the following season. That marked the beginning of his ascent to being an above-average offensive contributor. The veteran shortstop raised his launch angle to 14.7 degrees and his flyball rate to 41.4% in 2021, helping him get more balls in the air and out of the ballpark. I am buying into his power breakout because of that obvious attempt, and subsequent alteration of approach to hit more home runs. I could see Crawford batting around .260 with more than 20 home runs next season on a Giants squad that had the best record in the Majors in 2021. He could be a solid value after pick 150 if you miss out on the top and mid-tier of shortstops, as he has been one of the most durable players in the league since his first full season. Crawford will provide great power production at his position and will throw in a few stolen bases for good measure, but his ceiling is ultimately limited because of his age and you shouldn’t buy in thinking he will provide the batting average he provided last year, but he will still be a great value because of where you can get him in the draft.

Verdict: Buy

Best Case Scenario: Kris Bryant

Worst Case Scenario: Joc Pederson

Luis Urias – Milwaukee Brewers

Difference: +35%

2021: 111 wRC+ | Career (2018-20): 76 wRC+ | Previous Best (2019): 82 wRC+

The Padres looked like they had won the deal that sent Urias to the Brewers along with Eric Lauer in exchange for Trent Grisham and Zach Davies in 2020 when it looked like Grisham was morphing into a star and Davies was a more than serviceable starter. In 2021, the tables flipped and it looks as though the Brewers might walk away with the better side of the trade following Urias’ breakout and Lauer’s ascension into relativity, while Grisham couldn’t remain on the field and Davies played for a different team. Speaking of Urias’ breakout, it wasn’t the biggest, but it was a welcome sign after he didn’t produce at all in his first two tastes of the majors. In his first full season, however, he showed what kind of impact he could make on the field and improved throughout the season, lending confidence to the idea that his breakout was in fact just a leap to his actual baseline after some time adjusting to major league pitching.

The right-handed hitter set career-highs in almost every offensive category and became a mainstay in the Brewers lineup throughout the year. His breakout seemed to partially be a result of a slight change to his batting stance and load. Urias stands out at the plate because of his great eye, which helped him walk at an 11.1% rate, putting him in the 78th percentile, according to Baseball Savant, and awarding him an exceptionally high floor. Urias is no Juan Soto, but having that kind of discipline in his age 24 season proves that he is a special talent.

Players under 25 to post a double-digit walk rate in 2021 (min. 400 PA)

PlayerBB%
Juan Soto22.2%
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.12.3%
Fernando Tatis Jr.11.4%
Jonathan India11.3%
Luis Urias11.1%
Trent Grisham10.2%
Tyler Stephenson10.2%

Being in the company of such promising talents bodes well for Urias’ future. In addition to possessing an elite eye, he also manufactures quite a lot of pop out of his 5’9” frame. The 23 home runs Urias smacked last year are nothing to scoff at, but his 80th percentile, 111.5 mph max exit velocity suggests a higher power ceiling. That ceiling may not be reached next season, but he has a secure floor nonetheless as he didn’t significantly outperform any of his expected stats. 

The main reason to buy into Urias continuing his offensive breakout next season was the fact that he improved so much in the second half, hinting at a higher level of production if he can maintain it for a full season. In the first half, he posted a league-average 100 wRC+, .746 OPS, and a 0.45 BB/K ratio, but reached another offensive level in the second half, recording a 127 wRC+, .850 OPS, and a 0.73 BB/K ratio, output similar to Justin Turner’s 2021 campaign. Second-half results are usually more predictive than first-half results, though it’s easy to believe that Urias will be able to maintain that pace for a full season because it wasn’t BABIP induced and coincides with him coming of age. Entering his age 25 season, the infielder should only improve at the plate, generating most of his value from his power and plate discipline. Solid plate skills typically denote a player that is more suited for points leagues, and while I don’t disagree with that notion, I do think Urias will be just as valuable in roto leagues as a result of his low ADP (169.08 in NFBC drafts through January eighth) and underrated bat. 

Verdict: Buy

Best Case Scenario: Carlos Correa

Worst Case Scenario: Enrique Hernandez

Jake Crumpler

UCSC Literature graduate with an encyclopedic knowledge of the MLB. Bay Area sports fan.

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