(Photo by David Berding/Icon Sportswire)
There are always breakouts that come off your waiver wire each year. Some gain the confidence of the fantasy baseball community immediately (Rhys Hoskins) and some are riddled with skepticism (Scooter Gennett). Let’s take a look at a few more of these breakouts and try to determine where we should value them in 2018.
Paul DeJong (2B/SS, St. Louis Cardinals)
Paul DeJong gets plenty of attention but it is almost always to point out he won’t sustain what he did in 2017. Analysts easily cite his .349 BABIP and poor plate discipline (4.7% walk rate and 28.0% strikeout rate) as clear indicators he won’t repeat. It’s true that a .349 BABIP is too high and his batting average in 2017 of .285 is probably destined to be closer to .265, but is that enough to write him off as a top 10 shortstop?
I don’t agree with the idea that his plate discipline is prohibitive. The strikeout rate improved each month, ending at about 25%, which would be in line with his minor league strikeout rate. The walk rate also improved and should ultimately get up to the 5%-7% range. While neither of those are elite they also aren’t anywhere near guys like Joey Gallo (36.8% K rate) or Trevor Story (34.4% K rate) who are legitimately crippled by their strikeouts. It was his rookie season and he was only given 48 games at AAA, so we should expect him to still be developing his approach at the plate. Let’s not forget the DeJong was rushed through the minors having only 56 games at A ball and skipping A+ entirely.
So those are the negatives, now for the positives. Paul DeJong has a ton of power. xStats uses a metric called Value Hit percentage. VH% represents the percent of plate appearances that result in a “near automatic extra base hit”. Leaders in this stat are JD Martinez and Giancarlo Stanton. Paul DeJong is 20th for all players with over 200 plate appearances, just ahead of guys like Josh Donaldson, Nelson Cruz, Cody Bellinger, and Miguel Sano (let me take this opportunity to remind you this was DeJong’s rookie season). Basically, he hits a ton of fly balls and line drives and he hits them hard consistently.
DeJong came up late May and did fine for two weeks before getting send down for a few days mid-June, but once he came back up on June 15 he was started nearly every day for the rest of the season and the vast majority of that time came at SS. From June 15 to the end of the season DeJong provided the 5th most value for shortstops (again…rookie season here). His 24 home runs from that point on were the highest at the position with Francisco Lindor (21) and Jonathan Schoop (21) the only others over 20. It’s basically what we expected from Trevor Story only without the crazy, bad plate discipline and he’s doing it without needing the Coors Field boost.
So I believe we have the leading SS in power production who was batting 3rd every day in the Cardinals lineup at the end of the season. People naturally don’t believe in him fully because other Cardinals players who have broken out have just as quickly flamed out (Allen Craig, Aledmys Diaz, Kolten Wong). I caution you to not write him off for being guilty by association and instead evaluate him on his own merits. He’s being drafted as the 16th SS off the board but I believe he could produce like a top 10 SS. If you miss out on the top SS’s don’t worry, Paul DeJong will be available and give you something like 80/35/95/0/.265 at the very back end of drafts.
Eddie Rosario (OF, Minnesota Twins)
You may not have noticed but Eddie Rosario was the 26th best outfielder in 2017. 79/27/78/9/.290 is a very nice line for someone who was unowned in all but the deepest of leagues. Several things changed for Rosario over the year, but one important factor has been he moved from hitting 7th or 8th in the Twins lineup and starting 4-5 times a week to hitting 4th or 5th and starting every day. In the first half of the season he received 295 plate appearances and put up a combined 63 runs and RBIs; in the second half of the season he received 294 plate appearances and put up a combined 94 runs and RBIs.
The Twins have been up to something because a lot of their players have been improving quite a bit over the last year. Jorge Polanco, Byron Buxton, and Eduardo Escobar have all shown improved stats as well. Rosario has always had the exciting tools but has struggled to turn them into consistent production. His biggest drawback has been the plate discipline and that was also the area in which he showed the most improvement in 2017. His walk rate jumped from around 3% the past two years to nearly 6% while the strikeout rate dropped from 25% to 18%. Correspondingly his contact rate also jumped 5% up to 78%.
From a batted ball perspective, things remained mostly the same if you look at the full season of work. However, if you look at the first half/second half splits it highlights some very big changes. Major jumps in fly ball percentage and hard hit percentage are clearly responsible for the jump in ISO from .171 in the first half to .266 in the second half. I always like to run batted ball information against what xStats says and in this case it totally buys the power production but is a little skeptical of the .290 batting average. The good news here is that xStats just didn’t believe the first half .287 batting average, which was the Eddie Rosario that was hitting a ton of ground balls. We didn’t like the Rosario as much anyway so that’s totally fine. The second half batting average of .292 was much more believable as he was crushing the ball at that point.
Why all these things finally came together for Rosario, we don’t really know. It does seem that the plate discipline improvements have allowed him to get to all his power that he’s only flashed before. In April there was news saying Paul Molitor thought Rosario was trying to do too much and that they were going to try to calm down the leg kick a little. Sometimes talented prospects press too much in their early career and that actually prevents them from making good on their tools. Given Rosario will only be 26 on opening day, I believe we can expect the improved version to continue. Eddie Rosario is getting drafted as the 40th outfielder off the board but if you believe in the stat line, which I do, he will provide value similar to Domingo Santana or Andrew McCutchen who are the 24th and 25th outfielders.
Aaron Altherr (OF, Philadelphia Phillies)
Altherr might not entirely belong in the “2017 breakouts” group as he didn’t really make an impact on fantasy seasons. Only playing 107 games and getting somewhat inconsistent playing time didn’t help. A bulk of his time was missed due to a hamstring injury in August. What he DID do was hit 19 home runs in those 372 at-bats (a 28 home run pace over 155 games). Mostly what Altherr did was breakout in the sense that we can finally see what he’d be capable of over a full year. The Value Hit stat that I referenced with Paul DeJong above (“near automatic extra base hit”) shines even more favorably on Altherr. Altherr ranks 7th in all of baseball for hitters with over 200 plate appearances behind only JD Martinez, Giancarlo Stanton, Matt Olsen, Aaron Judge, Paul Goldschmidt, and Randal Grichuk. Obviously, you can see the quality of contact Altherr made last year was top tier.
Underlying stats suggest a .270 batting average is about right where he belongs. His history says 10-15 stolen bases is possible over a full healthy season. We know the power is real. The biggest problem? Playing time. The Phillies signed Carlos Santana that pushes Rhys Hoskins out to left field. Odubel Herrera has a virtual lock-down on center field. That leaves Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams to fight for right field. Altherr has been working on his “injury prone” tag for a couple years now and Nick Williams has more prospect pedigree. So we can’t go grab Altherr and bank on him producing value. He’s going to be more of a “Watch List” add and see how the playing time sorts out. The talent is there to hit .270 with 30 home runs and 10 steals over a full season and that’s real sleeper value. Unfortunately, circumstances force us to hold off a bit until we see the opportunity present itself.