Breakouts in 2011: Hitters Part 2

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.

Cameron Maybin- OF- 82 Runs, 9 HRs, 40 RBIs, 40 SBs, .264/.323/.393

Having debuted in 2007 with the Tigers, many fantasy gamers doubted Maybin’s ability to shed the prospect bust status. Lost is the fact he debuted at a young age, and thus, was still young this season turning 24 on April 4th.

The biggest hurdle Maybin needed to clear for success in the majors was reducing his strikeout rate. He did just that this season, and with the adjustment, had his most successful season as a major league player. Prior to 2011, Maybin struck out in 28.2 percent of his plate appearances, a mark he reduced to a palatable 22 percent this year. Surprisingly, Maybin’s contact rate remained mostly unchanged from previous years, and well below league average (Maybin’s contact rate was 73.7 percent, and league average was 80.7 percent). He actually chased more pitches out of the strike zone last year than he had throughout his career, and had his worst swinging strike rate since his 53 plate appearance 2007 debut.

The one change that supported his strikeout improvement, and a big change at that, was an ability to get around on fastballs. According to his FanGraphs player page, he was worth 12.4 runs against heaters in 2011, a stark contrast to his negative 0.4 run value in 2009 and negative 0.3 run value in 2010. Fastballs were the only pitch he posted a positive run value against. That fact helps explain why he only saw 3.57 pitches per plate appearance. Sabermetrically inclined pitchers would be wise to pitch Maybin backwards next year, and avoid starting him off with fastballs.

He’ll need to continue to avoid strike three if he hopes to showcase his other tools, namely his speed, but the tools are worth gambling on. He stole 40 bases last year, and while the power hasn’t played yet, the biggest culprit for that is a groundball heavy batted ball profile, not his home digs. PETCO is hell on left-handed hitters power output, but plays basically neutrally on right-handed hitters. Buying into Maybin comes with some risk, but there is untapped upside left to be fulfilled.

Michael Morse- 1B/OF- 73 Runs, 31 HRs, 95 RBIs, 2 SBs, .303/.360/.550

2011 was more an extension, and validation, of Morse 2010 summer breakout. The power is real. His home run per flyball ratio (HR/FB) of 21.2 percent in 2011 was right in line with his 19.5 percent ratio in 2010. He hit both lefties and righties hard. That’s good news for full-time at-bats. As long as he receives 500 plus at-bats, 25 home runs are a pretty safe bet with a chance at besting 30 once again.

The bigger surprise when looking at Morse’s 2011 line is his .303 average. However, that also looks to be mostly real. His .344 BABIP was actually two points lower than his career mark. He doesn’t pop out at a high rate, and unlike some home run hitters, he hasn’t fallen in love with the flyball. He hit more line drives in 2011 than in 2010, and had positive run values against every pitch but the knuckleball. Overall, his profile looks like one of a hitter that can flirt with a .300 average again. He won’t offer stolen bases, but otherwise he’ll be a solid four category contributor in 2012.

Mike Napoli- C/1B- 72 Runs, 30 HRs, 75 RBIs, 4 SBs, .320/.414/.631

This offseason has been much quieter than that of last year for Napoli who found himself in the MLB transaction section on two occasions. First he was dealt from the Angels to the Blue Jays, then he was dealt from the Blue Jays to the Rangers. The result of both deals is two clubs kicking themselves for trading one of the best hitters in 2011. In fact, Napoli had the highest wOBA of players with more than 400 plate appearances.

Napoli’s power has never come into question, and his career best HR/FB in 2011 was a benefit from calling home run amplifying Rangers Ballpark in Arlington home, as opposed to home run suppressing Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Setting the bar at 30 home runs in 2012, and dreaming on more isn’t crazy.

His real growth came in the batting average department. His .320 average this year was 69 points higher than his .251 average prior to 2011. Was he lucky this year? Yes, to some extent he was. His .344 BABIP notably higher than his 2009 and 2010 rates even though his batted ball data was much the same. That said, he eliminated a lot of the swing and miss in his game and decreased his strikeout rate greatly. His 10.1 percent swinging strike rate was the best of his career, as was his 74.5 percent contact rate. Both bests helped him get his strikeout rate under 20 percent for the first time in a season in his six year career. He has always clobbered left-handed pitching, but monstrous gains against his same handed, right-handed, counterparts also deserves credit in Napoli’s career year. How his success against right-handed pitching carries over to next season will impact his overall value more than anything.

He has always walked at a high rate, making him a beast in leagues that count OBP. Expect his average to drop significantly this coming season, but make no mistake, this is a hitter that turned a corner this year. I expect him to hit north of .280 in 2012. That batting average, plus 30 or more home runs, a handful of stolen bases, and average to better than average contributions in runs and RBIs is excellent at any position. However, it is elite at catcher. Scouting reports suggest that Napoli’s advancements didn’t just come at the dish this year, but also behind it. With that in mind, don’t be alarmed if the Rangers surprise, and add a first base upgrade from Mitch Moreland. Napoli’s hitting prowess will force its way into the lineup, one way or another.

Matt Wieters- C- 72 Runs, 22 HRs, 68 RBIs, 1 SBs, .262/.328/.450

The man, the myth, the legend, Matt Wieters began cashing in on the tools that made him a blue chip prospect. Because he plays catcher, his final line is gold, and only scratches the surface of what could be on the way. His .262 average wasn’t his single season best, his .288 average in his rookie season holds that distinction. The difference between the two years was that in 2009 he had a .356 BABIP, and in 2011 he had a .276 BABIP. He hit less than one percent more line drives in 2009 than in 2011, and popped the ball up slightly more frequently. What that suggests is that he was probably quite lucky in 2009, and a little unlucky in 2011. Finding a happy medium between both marks would go a long way toward improving his average going forward.

Something that already bodes well for Wieters batting average in the future is that he reduced his strikeout rate for the second season in a row. The switch hitting catcher has a similar slash line against both left-handed and right-handed pitching, but how he’s gotten to that line is a bit perplexing. After two seasons of hitting right-handed pitchers much better than southpaws, Wieters flipped his splits. He ripped the cover off left-handed pitchers hitting .339, while flailing against right-handed pitchers with a .237 average. Having displayed the ability to hit each handed pitcher at a high rate, it may be just a matter of time before he creams both in a single season.

Speaking of creaming, the reason Wieters is highlighted as a breakout 2011 performer is because of his jump in pop. This was the first year in which he eclipsed 20 home runs. Wieters isolated power (ISO) took off from the mid-to-upper .120s, to .188 this year. Creeping into his power prime seasons, he should annually best 20 home runs for the foreseeable future. Wieters is a great catcher to own in all league formats in 2012.