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Who will be the Giants’ breakout hitter in 2023?

Will it be a new face or a familiar player?

Detroit Tigers v Seattle Mariners - Game One Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons why the failure to land a big fish this offseason hurt the San Francisco Giants’ brand, but the immediate on-field effect would seem to loom larger: who will anchor the lineup?

As discussed in the most recent McCovey Chroncicles podcast, Mitch Haniger was always seen as a complimentary piece (to Aaron Judge, at least), and now, paired with Michael Conforto, it sure seems like they’re the two new guys the Giants will be counting on to strengthen and lengthen their lineup. But would a pair of potentially 2-win players be what the team actually needs or is their a breakout candidate already in their midst?

I want to be clear in my definition before going deeper into this post: I’m talking about who has the potential to post, say, a 120 OPS+ or better. Last season, 24 (qualified — 3.1 PA/g) hitters in the NL hit that mark:

That’s not a traditional “breakout candidate” criteria, I’ll grant you, but for the purposes of this post, I’m asking, “Who will breakout and be a great hitter?” I’m considering “great” to mean a player who’s at least 20% better than the league average.

And one more thing: Joc Pederson cleared the 120 OPS+ mark in 2022 with 144 on a line of .274/.353/.521 (.874 OPS). He just happened to not qualify for the batting title (433 plate appearances). ZiPS projects just a 112 OPS+ next year, but I don’t think we should get caught up in whether or not he will be a “breakout” in 2023 because last season was his breakout and we’re trying to predict who will be this year’s surprise. A negative regression year for Pederson will not be a surprise, and if he still manages to put up an equivalent season to 2022, then it will not be a breakout.

All that said, let’s go —

Math candidates

Based on ZiPS, these are the hitters projected to have an OPS+ of 110 or greater: J.D. Davis (113), Michael Conforto (112), Joc Pederson (112), Mitch Haniger (110), and Mike Yastrzemski (110). We’ve already knocked out Pederson from the label, so let’s focus on the other three.

Michael Conforto’s career OPS+ is 124, Mitch Haniger’s is 123, so I would not presume that a 120 or greater season (by OPS+) would represent any sort of breakout. Anything they did approaching that number would be best labeled as “a return to form,” as both dudes are coming off big injuries.

Mike Yastrzemski is older than both Haniger and Conforto and will be 33 by the end of the season. He’s statistically in his post-prime phase anyway, and since a 136 OPS+ combined in 2019 and 2020, he has an OPS+ of just 101 since turning 30. But his 80th percentile ZiPS projection — if almost everything goes right for him this year and he’s able to have one last great year — suggests a 127 OPS+. Would that still constitute a breakout after 2019 and 2020? I don’t think so.

So, let’s stay on this 80th percentile list for a moment. Two batters jump out as players who could break into last year’s top 10 by OPS+: J.D. Davis (134) and Joc Pederson (132).

J.D. Davis’ best season by OPS+ was in 2019, when he hit .307/.369/.527 (.895 OPS/137 OPS+) in 453 plate appearances. And in the three seasons since, he’s posted a 117 OPS+. He would not seem to be the math breakout candidate I’m looking for, but if he is able to come close to that 2019 or even stick to his career OPS+ and line (116; .265/.350/.439), he will be an incredibly valuable player for the Giants, defensive liabilities excepted.

Wilmer Flores (130), Mitch Haniger (130), Michael Conforto (129) LaMonte Wade Jr. (124), and David Villar (123) also stand out on this 80th percentile list. Those OPS+es would represent career years for Flores and Wade Jr. Could we plausibly call Wilmer Flores’ age-31 season his breakout season? And hasn’t he already established himself as a key part of the lineup?

Gut candidates

A glance at ZiPS doesn’t quite do the math portion of this analysis justice, and I didn’t even mention Joey Bart as a possible breakout — which even FanGraphs did in this piece Brady mentioned in his writeup on the catching position last week — but I am trying to narrowly define breakout here for the purpose of predicting who will be the “face” of the lineup.

That’s not really been the front office’s m.o. when it comes to roster construction, of course, and even in 2021, Belt, Posey, and Crawford were a part of a huge machine. There wasn’t just one guy you could point to like we would’ve done had the Giants signed Judge or Correa; and finding that one guy in lieu of either of them is more my point here.

Because I think there can be a guy. Not one whom the team must rely on for all their offense, but more as a straw that stirs the drink. Call it a... gut feeling. Somebody’s going to step up and be this year’s Joc Pederson... to go with Joc Pederson. And, probably either Haniger or Conforto. And so it’d be this guy plus 2-3 more that would really form the core of the lineup, along with the super platooning.

The ZiPS projection only has two players with 20 home runs: Yastrzemski and David Villar. Of all the players I’ve talked about so far, only three have projections of 500+ plate appearances: Mike Yastrzemski, Wilmer Flores, and David Villar. Last year, the Giants had five players with a 120 or better OPS+: Joc Pederson (144; 433 PA), J.D. Davis (140; 158 PA), Austin Dean (136; 9 PA); Jason Vosler (127; 111 PA), and David Villar (120; 181 PA).

Now, technically, David Villar has already hit my breakout player criteria, but I’m calling those 181 plate appearances too small a sample and predicting him as this year’s breakout hitter. Who do you think it will be?