Breakouts in 2011: Hitters Part 1

Everyone loves owning a breakout player. Often times, they help in leading fantasy owners to titles. Reaching the promise land on the backs of breakout performers can cause owners to harbor irrational love for those players, and a need to own them in future seasons. The important thing is to determine which breakouts were legitimate and support sustainable success.

Alex Avila- C- 63 Runs, 19 HRs, 82 RBIs, 3 SBs, .277/.376/.477

Avila delighted owners with outstanding production from a position not noted for offense, and he looks like a good option going forward. His batting average may take a slight step back, but his .366 BABIP isn’t as outlandish as it might seem. Yes, Avila is a catcher, thus he’s not going to beat out groundballs for hits like a speedy outfielder in the Juan Pierre mold would, but his batted ball data suggests he should have a higher than league average BABIP. Avila squares the ball up and rips line drives at better than a 21 percent clip, and rarely pops the ball up at under three percent of the time. His power doesn’t stand out as flukey either, and at one year older as a more physically mature adult next year it wouldn’t be crazy to think he could club over 20 home runs.

Jacoby Ellsbury- OF- 119 Runs, 32 HRs, 105 RBIs, 39 SBs, .321/.376/.552

Where did this power output come from? Ellsbury has always been known as a speedster capable of tearing up the base paths, and should be viewed in that light in 2012. The power smells fishy. Coming into 2011 his home run per flyball ratio (HR/FB) was 5.6 percent. His ratio in his explosive 2011 campaign was 16.7 percent. He had never reached double digit home runs in a season before, including in the minors. Don’t be fooled by him playing the year at the magical age of 27, Derek Carty has already debunked the myth of 27 being a special age. Expecting him to turn into a pumpkin and fall short of 10 home runs in 2012 is too aggressive. An upper-teens home run projection seems reasonable, but don’t buy into him being an annual 30 home run threat.

Alex Gordon- OF- 101 Runs, 23 HRs, 87 RBIs, 17 SBs, .303/.376/.502

2006 was quickly becoming a distant memory, but gamers that held out hope for a player once compared to David Wright were rewarded for their patience in 2011. Gordon made a well rounded splash in fantasy baseball contributing positively to all five standard categories. Anecdotally, he completely revamped his approach and swing with Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer going into the year. Stories like these are common place in the spring, and are akin to players showing up in the best shape of their lives. In this case, the proof is in the pudding. There are little differences in Gordon’s 2010 and 2011 batted ball data, though, he did cut back on his pop-outs. The biggest difference between 2010 and 2011 was a 104 point gap in BABIP. Gordon is a line drive hitter with decent speed, so expect his BABIP to more closely mirror his .358 mark in 2011 next season than his putrid .244 BABIP from 2010. There will probably be regression in 2012, but a .280s batting average seems about right.

He has always projected to have plus power, and he should once again best 20 home runs next season. Kauffman Stadium is hell on left-handed power, so don’t expect much beyond that. As for the validity of his stolen bases and projection next year, that’s more of a mixed bag. He’s flashed stolen base skills in the minors, and when healthy in the majors, but he has also been inefficient at time, including this season. However, his efficiency got much better as the season went on. From July to the end of the season, Gordon stole 12 bases and got caught stealing three times (80 percent success rate). If his efficiency gains were a product of learning the nuances of base stealing, he could steal more than 20 bags in 2012. His stat line may vary a bit year-to-year in future seasons, but overall, Gordon is a player worth owning.

Matt Kemp- OF- 115 Runs, 39 HRs, 126 RBIs, 40 SBs, .324/.399/.586

This year’s National League MVP runner-up was a fantasy baseball juggernaut. He fell just one home run short of joining the illustrious 40/40 club, but it’s impossible to find fault with his offensive game. Looking at Kemp’s underlying statistics, he appears to be a quality top-five pick come draft time.

The first thing naysayers may point to is a .380 BABIP, and the corresponding huge leap in batting average from 2010 (.249 average) to 2011. That would be a misguided criticism. 2010 is the clear outlier season. For his career, Kemp has a .352 BABIP which is the result of hitting a truck load of line drives and almost never popping out.

Kemp has always been considered an exceptional athlete, so the power and speed explosion aren’t completely shocking. He is about as safe a bet to reach the 30/30 club next year as there is in all of baseball, though, it’s tough to call anyone a “safe bet,” for such a lofty projection. The only outfielder that should be in the conversation with Kemp for top draft nod is Ryan Braun. Derek Ambrosino, a colleague of mine over at The Hardball Times, has already done a masterful job of tackling the issue of where to select Kemp, so I’d suggest giving his article a read.

Howie Kendrick- 2B- 86 Runs, 18 HRs, 63 RBIs, 14 SBs, .285/.338/.464

Fantasy Baseball 365 colleague Mark Schruender looked at Kendrick in depth about a week ago. I agree with the bulk of his analysis, his placement of Kendrick amongst his second base peers, and his projection. I will nitpick a bit though. Kendrick’s home run production isn’t quite the head scratcher it might appear to be. In 2009, he had shown similar home run power, albeit, a little less with a 12.2 percent HR/FB compared to a 16.5 percent HR/FB this year.

Knocks on Kendrick include a lengthy injury history and a high strikeout rate. Addressing the injury issue first, he has played in 298 of a possible 324 games the last two years. His early career injury woes shouldn’t be entirely dismissed, but they haven’t reared their ugly head to the same degree recently. Kendrick’s 20.4 percent strikeout rate in 2011 was the worst of his career, but it came with his best power output in a season and a career best walk rate as well (5.7 percent). There just might be some untapped upside to be had here if he’s able to cut back on the strikeouts while retaining the power and walk gains. Relying on Kendrick as a starting second baseman in standard leagues isn’t advisable, but drafting him as a top flight middle infield option, or a reserve with some upside is.