The nature of baseball, at any level, is that production can come from anywhere at any time. Some guys get hot, with or without a pedigree that indicates they should. Some parlay that over a full season. Others over a full career. The 2022 MLB season was not unique in that idea.
As noted in my exploration of one-hit wonders from several weeks ago, baseball has a track record of guys stretching out a hot streak over an entire season. Sometimes it manifests with respect to a certain element of their game (power, defense) that may not have been there before. Other times it’s just the whole package. The trick is sustaining it beyond that breakout campaign.
In a general sense, we know the warning signs. A high BABIP with maybe less-than-ideal contact quality for a hitter. Perhaps the home park comes into play and a player moves elsewhere. On the bump, it could be the defense behind a pitcher preventing hard contact from putting heavy blemishes on an otherwise solid box score. Etcetera. The goal here isn’t to examine the nuances that come into play when projecting if a breakout is legit beyond that season. It’s to look at some of the cats who had said breakout and whether they, as an individual, are sustainable in being relied upon moving forward.
Here are five of them.
When the four free agent shortstops hit the market this winter, the general consensus was that Dansby Swanson was the weakest option of the four. That idea was largely due to less of a sustained track record compared to the other three, as well as his projectability given the changes in his output over the last couple of seasons (more power, less contact). The fact that the 2022 season was an outlier didn’t do him favors as far as projectability.. The underlying trends, though, don’t feature as much variation for Swanson as one might think.
The SLG and OPS were pretty close between the two, and there wasn’t a significant change in his approach as K% and BB% were within about a percentage point of 2021. The concerns for Swanson are the same that they’ve been over the last several years now. He doesn’t make a ton of contact, especially given how patient he is at the plate (49.4 Swing%). And how buoyed was he by a .350 BABIP? Given that there wasn’t a big change in type or quality of contact from his .297 mark the previous season, there’s certainly a possibility for regression. It’s hard to tell due to the lack of changes elsewhere. It’s not as if he made more hard contact or hit more line drives. It was super similar to 2021.
Even supposing that Swanson does have a BABIP, and subsequently an average, on-base, etc., regression in 2023, it doesn’t make him any less valuable. The power is legit. Moving to Wrigley isn’t going to hurt that even a little bit. Plus, one area where Swanson could, quietly, thrive is in regard to steals. He stole 18 bags last year. The Cubs were top five in stolen bases, certainly an increase from previous years, where they were fairly conservative on the bases. With the new rules that favor an increase in stolen base attempts, Swanson could be an easy 20/20 type in 2023.
Verdict: Probably Legit
Among the elite starting pitchers — and he now certainly fits the bill — Dylan Cease is a wildly interesting case moving forward. The 2022 season was a breakout. Full stop. He was a bright spot in an otherwise lost year for the Chicago White Sox, on a few different levels. But in reality, Cease’s 2022 wasn’t that different from his previous years. The concerns moving forward are also not any different than they were prior.
A strikeout rate of around 30 percent and a whiff rate of around 16 were extremely similar between the two seasons. As was the walk rate hovering around 10 percent. But a 1.11 WHIP and a .261 BABIP certainly aided him in his quest toward a 2.20 ERA and 3.10 FIP, all of which were outliers. Is it repeatable? Maybe.
The heavy increase in slider usage was the biggest factor for Cease in his leap to the game’s elite arms last season. He threw it 43 percent of the time, generating whiffs at almost a 23 percent clip and a CSW% at almost 36. Opposing hitters came in at an average of just .128 against the pitch. The formula will likely be the same for Cease in 2023.
The walks, however, will always remain a concern until they’re not. The BB volume is high (3.82 per nine easily led the league). The soft contact and strikeouts generated by the slidepiece will help him compensate. But until those walks are under control, it’ll always feel like Cease is holding back an avalanche. No matter how good the slider looks.
Verdict: Tentatively-But-Probably Legit
Power and speed are sexy concepts as it relates to Major League hitters. Those get the most play when discussing most players, fantasy baseball or otherwise. Luis Arráez doesn’t possess either of those things. He hit eight homers and stole four bases. But what can he do? points at Pete
Almost nobody forced their way on base more than Arráez last year. His .316 average took home the American League batting title and his .375 OBP ranked 11th among all qualifying hitters in Major League Baseball. His .331 BABIP wasn’t even a little bit of an outlier. It was actually his second-lowest of the last four years. In the absence of power and steals, the contact and on-base combined with versatility still maintain a very high stock for him moving forward.
If there’s one thing to keep an eye on, it’s that he pulled the ball at a higher rate than ever last year (35.1 percent). Does that make him more predictable? Does the elimination of the shift even make that relevant? At the end of the day, hitters hit. Arráez has such a high volume of contact and low volume of anything that would be considered a detriment that it’s hard to expect anything different.
Verdict: Steadily Legit
Does baseball need a feel-good story from the… New York Yankees? It probably doesn’t matter. Nestor Cortes makes it impossible not to invest emotionally in his path to big league stardom. A former Oriole, Yankee (!), and then Mariner, Cortes scratched across 14 starts in the Bronx in 2021. Then came 2022.
The 2022 iteration of the 27-year-old journeyman culminated in a 2.44 ERA, 2.70 FIP, 9.27 K/9, & 2.16 BB/9. The introduction of the cutter the previous season gave way to heavy usage in 2022, when he tossed it at a 30 percent clip. That pitch resulted in a 27.2 CSW% and a HC% of only 24.4. He didn’t generate a lot of groundball action off the pitch — not necessarily ideal for Yankee Stadium — but when you’re surrendering that little hard contact, it doesn’t necessarily matter.
Cortes still has other elements of his arsenal in play, though. His four-seamer isn’t a high-velo pitch, but it does the job with its movement, while the slider keeps hitters honest in the face of the hard stuff. Yes, he has a short track record, and Cortes doesn’t have the overpowering stuff. But he has the movement and the deception to maintain his success in 2022.
Verdict: Too Fun to Not Be Legit
Prior to 2022, where he was part of two different clubs, Brandon Drury had been on four other teams in the preceding years, bouncing around in terms of level and opportunity. His highest fWAR season came in 2017, at 1.8. Is it possible to trust a journeyman after a breakout?
The star of Drury’s 2022 was the power. He ISO’d .230 and hit 28 home runs. It wasn’t his highest hard contact rate of his career (at 35.1), but he had a lot more fly ball going for him than he did in 2019. If there’s an encouraging trend for Drury, it’s that he did a lot of his damage against offspeed pitches, while also cutting down his Swing% against that pitch type to a pretty incredible degree. In fact, he was more choosy overall, swinging at just a 45.9 percent clip. Increased patience and more power output? Great news.
Oh, but the bad news. Drury spent the first half of ’22 playing in a bandbox in Cincinnati. He mashed for a very bad Reds squad, hitting 20 of his 28 homers there. In San Diego following the trade deadline, his quality of contact remained the same and his flyballs went up, but all production went down. Patience regressed. Brandon Drury was a good story in 2022. We do, however, need to see it over a longer term before we can declare it legit. We’ll see what he does hitting in a strong lineup in Anaheim.
Verdict: Maybe but Probably Not Legit
There were, of course, others to consider. Alejandro Kirk, Ryan Helsley, Jeremy Peña, etc. But when discussing the legitimacy of breakout players, it’s probably best to look at established vets more so than a prospect who had a large upside coming in or a reliever who knowingly hucks 102. In the matter of “Is It Legit?”, guys who broke out after laboring for several years or have been on the precipe of doing so are the ones we’ll keep an eye on in ’23.
What about Andres Gimenez?