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Who will be this year’s breakout hitter?

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The Giants are banking on a lot of old players to return to form, but which fringe player could join the frontliners?

Houston Astros Photo Day Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Sure, we don’t know what the Giants’ Opening Day roster will look like just yet, and there’s a nonzero chance that there’s some sort of turnover just before Spring Training, but let’s take a look at what’s there now and see if we can predict this year’s breakout hitter.

David Adler put together a list of candidates from around the league last January for MLB.com, but that list focused on who could break out as “sluggers”. I want to use it here just to give us all some background as we prepare to make our prediction(s). His list: Greg Bird (1B - Yankees), Byron Buxton (CF - Twins), Stephen Piscotty (RF - A’s), Jose Martinez (1B - Cardinals), Yandy Diaz (3B/1B - Cleveland), David Dahl (OF - Rockies).

If you go to the link, he gives you reasons why he chose this bunch to keep an eye on, but the list is basically: age, underlying numbers — specifically, walk rate and xwOBA — and park factors.

Here’s how they performed in 2018:

Greg Bird (25) | 82 G | 311 PA | .199 / .286 / .386 | 11 HR

Byron Buxton (24) | 28 G | 94 PA | .156 / .183 / .200 | 0 HR

Stephen Piscotty (27) | 151 G | 605 PA | .267 / .331 / .491 | 27 HR

Jose Martinez (29) | 152 G | 590 PA | .305 / .364 / .457 | 17 HR

Yandy Diaz (26) | 39 G | 120 PA | .312 / .375 / .422 | 1 HR

David Dahl (24) | 77 G | 271 PA | .273 / .325 / .534 | 16 HR

As much as Greg Bird has taken his lumps — the Yankees traded for his ostensible replacement, Luke Voit, late in the season — Buxton’s year was by far the worst. He hit 16 home runs in 2017, which is largely why he was included on this list.

Bird missed practically the first two months of the season due to ankle surgery, which no doubt impacted his would-be breakout, but Buxton’s season was marred by a myriad of injuries throughout — migraines, a toe fracture, and a wrist strain. Diaz wasn’t called up until after the All-Star Break and he was traded this offseason to the Rays as part of a three-way deal with Seattle, and Dahl had a broken foot that caused him to miss June and July.

Piscotty (+18 HR vs 2017) and Dahl (+9) had the biggest slugging breakouts of the bunch, and that was because of health and the home park factor, respectively. And everybody on the list is, of course, under 30, which is a big part of the “breakout” definition.

Oracle Park prevents any hitter from being a slugger, so let’s try to predict who can be the Giants’ breakout hitter in 2019 thinking more about health, OBP/xwOBA, and age (2019 age in parenthesis). Here are the possibilities:

Chris Shaw (25) 22 G | 62 G | OBP: .274 | xwOBA: .232

Drew Ferguson (26) **Triple-A line** 65 G | 233 AB | OBP: .436

Austin Slater (26) | 74 G | 225 PA | OBP: .333 xwOBA: .262

Mac Williamson (28) | 28 G | 105 PA | OBP: .295 | xwOBA: .301

Aramis Garcia (26) 19 G | 65 PA | OBP: .308 | xwOBA: .233

Ryder Jones (25) 5 G | 8 PA | OBP: .375 | xwOBA: .526

Steven Duggar (25) 41 G | 152 PA | OBP: .303 | xwOBA: .245

Joe Panik (28) | 102 G | 392 PA | OBP: .307 | xwOBA: .317

Alen Hanson (26) 110 G | 310 PA | OBP: .274 | xwOBA: .236

Mystery Player (under 30?)

A quick refresher on xwOBA:

Expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) is formulated using exit velocity and launch angle, two metrics measured by Statcast.

In the same way that each batted ball is assigned a Hit Probability, every batted ball has been given a single, double, triple and home run probability based on the results of comparable batted balls -- in terms of exit velocity and launch angle -- since Statcast was implemented Major League wide in 2015.

Basically, it measures the quality of contact, regardless of the result on the field.

But what does “breakout” mean? They become the best hitter on the team? They’re equally to or just a bit below the best on the team? They outperform their career averages and/or projections? They’re in the top 50% of league hitters?

Let’s go with that last one. Jose Martinez and Stephen Piscotty played the most games on that initial list. How’d they do? Well, by wOBA, they were 40th and 46th in MLB, respectively. Easily in the top 50% (there were 140 hitters who qualified for the batting title last year). The only Giant who made that cut was Andrew McCutchen. So, maybe let’s go with that as part of our definition.

Now onto the list of Giants above.

(clears throat)

That’s a bad list. Is it reasonable to judge Ryder Jones one way or the other based on eight plate appearances? No. Does it feel like we already know who Joe Panik is based on his track record? 2019 will be his sixth season. Did we see his peak in 2015 or 2017? Maybe? Probably?

Drew Ferguson’s career .848 OPS in the minor leagues is greater than Mac Williamson’s, but that’s because he has nearly 40 points on Mac in on base percentage. His age, OBP skill, and generally plus speed (65 SB in four seasons) suggest that he could very well be the breakout. Then again, his career MiLB OBP is only about 15 points greater than Austin Slater’s, and for all of Slater’s MLB OBP, he hasn’t done much — career OBP .335, career xwOBA: .270 — to get us excited about a breakout.

Now this Mystery Player of indeterminate age and unknown skill — he’s a player I can get behind. This could be the guy Farhan Zaidi hasn’t yet added to the roster. Someone who could be traded for once Bryce Harper signs somewhere or in exchange for one of the Giants many relievers. It could also be A’s castoff and offseason signee outfielder Anthony Garcia, who’s his 118 home runs across 10 minor league seasons (25 last year in Triple-A).

Mac Williamson certainly looked fantastic in a brief flash before another injury felled him. As much as I’d like to think he turned a corner, that .300 xwOBA hardly indicates an underlying breakout on the horizon. For his career, his xwOBAs have been .317, .320, .237, and then .301 in 2018. Injury might explain it, and a healthy season of his new swing could change the course of his career — and, I’m just some dude at a computer.

That’s the larger point here: we don’t really know. There’s no telling how the influx of analytics and biometric analysis sparked by Farhan Zaidi’s offseason hires will factor into the equation. While I’d like to think that more information taught by great communicators can ignite a hitting revolution, the bulk of the Giants’ roster is comprised of veterans who’ve won and know how to play the game. If they’re not set in their ways, they just might be past their physical peak. And even if all of that’s working together, there’s still the matter of the ballpark.

Poll

Who’s your pick for this year’s breakout hitter?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Chris Shaw
    (40 votes)
  • 7%
    Drew Ferguson
    (42 votes)
  • 7%
    Austin Slater
    (41 votes)
  • 39%
    Mac Williamson
    (222 votes)
  • 5%
    Aramis Garcia
    (32 votes)
  • 3%
    Ryder Jones
    (20 votes)
  • 12%
    Steven Duggar
    (71 votes)
  • 4%
    Joe Panik
    (24 votes)
  • 4%
    Alen Hanson
    (25 votes)
  • 8%
    Mystery Player
    (46 votes)
563 votes total Vote Now