Juan Soto is one of a kind. As baseball fans, we don’t talk nearly enough about how incredible Soto was at 19 years old, slashing .292/.406/.517 as a rookie. But the vast majority of highly touted prospects, who are not Soto, take time to acclimate to the major leagues. Hitters are seeing pitches move like they’ve never moved before, and pitchers can’t get hitters to bite on pitches well outside the strike zone like they could in the minors. Player progression isn’t linear, and not every prospect who gets called up will have immediate success, so we shouldn’t consider every prospect who doesn’t succeed right away a bust.
A post-hype sleeper is a player who was previously a highly touted prospect, debuted in the big leagues, failed to meet expectations, but still possesses the skills necessary to break out. During the 2021 pre-season, Austin Riley was a perfect example of a post-hype sleeper. He was a former first-round draft pick who struggled to establish himself through his first two seasons with Atlanta.
There are several factors to look at when identifying potential breakout candidates. Focusing on individual performance is the most important factor, but we should look beyond slash lines and basic counting statistics, and look under the hood at more advanced data. The most important skills to look for are an understanding of the strike zone, plate discipline, and the ability to hit the ball hard. Considering the team the player is on also important because of secondary factors like lineup protection and home park factors.
Philly fans have been foaming at the mouth to fill their void at third base after the disaster that was the Scott Kingery experiment. Bohm was drafted third overall by the Phillies in 2018 and made his debut in 2020. Bohm enjoyed quick success with the Phillies, flashing decent power, great bat-to-ball skills, and an impressive eye at the plate. When the dust settled on his debut season, Bohm played in 44 games and slashed .338/.400/.481. The Phillies have been searching for their next great third baseman since they traded Scott Rolen (who should be in the Hall of Fame, but I’ll save that argument for a different article) to the Cardinals in 2002. Bohm appeared to be the heir apparent for the Phillies at the hot corner, but unfortunately, Bohm didn’t live up to the billing in 2021. He struggled defensively, committing 7 errors by the end of May, and at the plate, hitting just .247 with 7 home runs on the season. Bohm struggled so greatly that the Phillies sent him down to Triple-A in August to straighten out his issues.
Considering the expectations, it was a disastrous rookie season for Bohm. Despite laying an egg in his first full season, there are several skills that Bohm flashed at the plate in 2021 that point to a potential breakout in 2022. Most importantly, Bohm hit the ball hard consistently throughout the season. As you can see below, his average exit velocity, max exit velocity, and hard-hit rate were all well above average:
Bohm struggled to hit for power because he didn’t get the ball in the air nearly enough, posting just a 16.5% fly-ball rate. With how hard he hits the ball, Bohm is a swing change away from a big jump in power. Several young players, including Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Christian Yelich, have made swing adjustments to get the ball in the air more to create increased power potential. Bohm is absolutely not Vlad Jr. or Yelich, but the point is that some young players who hit the ball hard have historically been able to make the adjustments necessary to reach their power potential.
Bohm also showed strong plate skills throughout 2022, posting an above-average chase rate. Bohm still needs to improve his bat-to-ball skills and increase his walk rate, but the combination of borderline elite batted ball data with good pitch recognition skills is a solid offensive foundation for Bohm to build off.
Bohm is also in a perfect environment to improve this season. With the addition of Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos, Bohm will hit in one of the best lineups in baseball, meaning he’ll have better lineup protection and more opportunities to drive runs in. Bohm also gets to play half of his games in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in baseball, with Citizens Bank Park ranking sixth on Baseball Savant’s Park Factors Leaderboard.
Bohm does have some things working against him. His strikeout rate poses a potential problem, as it jumped to 26% in 2021, which was the highest rate of his professional career, and a significant jump from his minor league high of 15.7%. Bohm also struggled against fastballs last year, hitting just .190 against the hard stuff. Finally, Bohm has to play in the new pitching hotbed that is the NL East. deGrom, Scherzer, Fried, Anderson, Rogers, Lopez, and Alcantara. That is an incredible amount of filth that Bohm will have to face on a regular basis.
Bohm is not a perfect player, and his defense and bat-to-ball skills are still big question marks. But it’s hard to ignore how good his quality of contact was in his first full season. If he can hit the ball in the air more, walk more, and strike out less, Bohm has All-Star upside this season.
It’s tough to find a more polarizing prospect in the game than Jo Adell. Guys who pair blazing speed with an ability to hit absolute moonshots are rare. The Angels took Adell with the tenth overall pick in the 2017 draft, and he quickly climbed prospect lists, eventually ascending to the third-ranked prospect in baseball entering the 2020 season.
Adell struggled mightily during his first stint with the Angels in 2020, finishing the season hitting just .161 with 3 home runs in 38 games. Adell spent most of 2021 in Triple-A but got his second opportunity with the Halos in August. Although Adell didn’t break out, he was much improved in 2021, thanks to a swing change and a significant decrease in his strikeout rate. Much has been written about Adell’s improved strikeout rate. Luke Hooper of Fangraphs wrote about Adell’s strikeout rate and concluded that there is reason to believe the new and improved strikeout rate could stick. Kevin O’Brien also wrote about this topic earlier this year for Pitcher List. Instead of doing a deep dive into the numbers, let’s just keep it simple for the sake of this article and look at the visual differences in Adell’s swing. The first tweet below was Adell’s swing in 2019, and the second is from last week.
you: ugh, what do I do now that there’s no basebal-
Jo Adell: ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED??? pic.twitter.com/Tut8Yc7zRn
— Céspedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) November 2, 2019
Over the batter's eye! 😱
Jo Adell is rolling in the deep. pic.twitter.com/xFVDjc7gaE
— MLB (@MLB) March 22, 2022
Although Adell went yard with both swings, it’s easy to see the changes Adell has made. He simplified his swing, eliminating the amount of moving parts that previously all had to be timed perfectly for Adell to connect. The most notable change in Adell’s swing is the change from a leg kick to a toe tap. His hands are also much quieter and quicker to the ball. So far in Spring Training, his swing looks a lot cleaner and more efficient, which bodes well for Adell going forward.
Even with the lower strikeout rate, there are still major questions about Adell. First, Adell hasn’t shown great plate skills. The only time Adell walked at a 10+ percent clip in his professional career was in Single-A and Double-A. Between Triple-A Salt Lake City and Anaheim, Adell’s highest professional walk rate is 7.6%, which doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence in his plate discipline and feel for the strike zone. Adell’s playing time is also a question mark. The Angels outfield has become crowded, with a healthy Mike Trout, Justin Upton, fellow top prospect Brandon Marsh, and Adell. With Shohei Ohtani likely to DH in most games, Adell will have to beat out Marsh and Upton for playing time. Upton is penciled in to make $28 million in 2022 (yes, you read that correctly), so the Angels are likely to give him a shot to show he can still be the everyday left fielder. That leaves Marsh vs. Adell, with many viewing Marsh as the more MLB-ready prospect because of his steady defense and more mature approach at the plate. There is a possible situation where everything goes wrong for Adell, and he winds up starting the season in Triple-A.
The TL;DR version of Adell is that he could become one of the best young players in baseball this year – following in the Austin Riley mold of cutting a strikeout rate and vastly improving consistency at the plate – or he could spend more than half the season in the minor leagues.
Although he’s no guarantee, there’s more reason to believe in Adell now than there was when he was the number three overall prospect. He remains a boom or bust player, but with his new and improved swing, the boom is starting to become more likely than the bust.
Nathaniel Lowe (the artist formerly known as “Nate Lowe”) has been around a bit longer than Bohm, and Adell, which makes it easy to forget that he was named to the MLB Pipeline team of the year in 2018 after slashing .330/.416/.568 with 27 home runs in the minors. In his first two years in Tampa Bay, Lowe was a slightly above-average hitter, but none of his numbers jumped off the page. After being traded to a rebuilding Rangers team before the start of the 2021 season, expectations for Lowe were, for lack of a better term, low. Lowe flew under the radar on a bad Rangers team last year, but posted his best offensive season to date, even tossing in eight stolen bases, which was the third-most by a first baseman behind only Paul Goldschmidt and Freddie Freeman.
Lowe showed everything you could possibly be looking for in a post-hype sleeper last season. As you can see below, his quality of contact was impressive, his chase rate was solid, and he showed good bat-to-ball skills.
Additionally, if you look at Lowe’s spray chart below, he showed an ability to hit the ball to all fields, which makes him more difficult to shift against as a left-handed batter. That being said, Lowe may need to pull the ball more to reach his full power potential.
Lowe will also benefit from a much-improved Rangers lineup in 2022. After spending over half a billion dollars on Corey Seager and Marcus Semien, Lowe should come up to the plate with runners on base a lot more often this year. That could lead to an RBI jump, in addition to more total at-bats.
There is some uncertainty about whether Globe Life Field is a good place to hit. We don’t have good park factor data on the stadium yet because it has only been open for two years, and park factor data is based on three years of data collection. The general consensus is that it’s not a hitter-friendly park, which could negatively impact Lowe, since he needs a true power jump to have a breakout. Because he plays in the AL West, Lowe also has to play a lot of games at the Oakland Coliseum and T-Mobile Park, both of which rank in the bottom third of the park factor rankings. Lowe will also have to fight his strikeout rate. He took a step in that direction last year, cutting his strikeout rate down to 25%, but Lowe will need to maintain that strikeout rate and increase his power output to truly breakout in 2022. That isn’t an easy feat, as players often tend to strike out more when they start selling out for power.
Although there are factors working against Lowe, his batted ball quality and plate discipline last year was too good to ignore. Most of the projections systems have Lowe hitting around .260 with low-20s home runs and mid-70s RBI, but there is a world in which Lowe hits .265 with 35 home runs and 90+ RBI this year. Add in five to ten stolen bases and an above-average walk rate and you could be looking at one of the best first basemen in the American League.
In some ways, baseball players are no different from any of us; starting a new job, working with new people, and gaining new responsibilities isn’t always an easy adjustment. Some of us may thrive in new environments, not thinking anything of it, while others need time to truly feel comfortable. We can look at some underlying metrics and supporting factors for players who haven’t found quick success in the big leagues and determine whether they are likely to break out soon. Alec Bohm, Jo Adell, and Nathaniel Lowe have all shown flashes of becoming very good major-league players, they just haven’t found the consistency necessary to reach the upper echelon of MLB talent. Each of these players showed in 2021 that they have the skills to become All-Stars, it’s just a question of if they can put it all together in 2022.
Photos by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire; William Purnell/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Drew Wheeler (@drewisokay on Twitter)