Byron Buxton, Gerrit Cole Lead American League Fantasy Breakout Candidates
Breakouts are the third and final leg of the Staples Series tripod. They’re similar to sleepers, but they are different for one key reason: Sleepers are essentially just undervalued players. Breakouts are possible superstars. Even if they fall short of that threshold, one trait characterizes breakout players: They all have career years and establish a new baseline level of expected performance.
We used an average draft position range of 50 and 150 to find our breakouts. We also did what we could to balance likelihood and meaningfulness of a breakout with each player’s prior performance. Did Andrew Benintendi, for example, already break out? What about Carlos Martinez? They could definitely ascend to another level, but, for the purposes of our breakouts columns, we considered players like that ineligible.
Byron Buxton, OF, Twins (ADP: 56.28)
Everyone is aware of Buxton’s ceiling. He took a huge step toward it in the second half last year when he hit .300/.347/.546 with 11 homers and 13 steals in 228 plate appearances. Expand that over the 600 or so plate appearances we can expect him to get this season, and you get 29 homers and 34 steals.
Buxton is the one player in this column who fits the exact definition of breakout. By season’s end, we could be talking about him as a top-20 fantasy player. Playing with pace stats is always a risk, but those numbers have been expected of Buxton since the Twins made him the second overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft. He graded as a true five-tool player then, and throughout his time in the minors. The tools didn’t diminish, even as he sputtered to start his MLB career. We’ve seen Buxton for about two full seasons across three years, so that makes it easy to forget that he’s still just 24 years old. It’s no exaggeration to say that, when his career is up, he could fall anywhere between Andruw Jones and Ken Griffey Jr. That’s as great a range as a centerfielder could hope for at this stage of his career.
Buxton is a star in the making. He may still not be fully formed after this year, but only because he could still have more growth ahead of him. He’ll put a bow on the first part of that process this season, however. He’s a potential league-winner.
James Paxton, SP, Mariners (ADP: 77.67)
The only thing that has prevented Paxton from breaking out already is his health. He was well on his way to a true breakout campaign last year, but pitched just 136 innings because of forearm, oblique, pectoral and finger injuries. When he was on the mound, he was great, pitching to a 2.98 ERA, 2.61 FIP and 1.10 WHIP with 156 strikeouts. His xFIP and SIERA were a touch higher, but we’re not going to get caught up on those advanced metrics being about one-third of a run worse than his ERA, considering how good he was everywhere else.
Paxton has dealt with injuries in all three of the last four seasons. He was limited to 87 innings in 2014 and 73 2/3 frames the following year, simply unable to stay healthy. He tossed 171 2/3 innings between Triple-A Tacoma and the Mariners in 2016, and that’s when he first flashed his ace potential in earnest. It was just as easy to see then as it is now.
Paxton features a devastating combination of four-seamer, cutter and curveball that gives him a diverse repertoire and makes him a significant challenge to attack. His four-seamer sits at 95-96 mph, and produced a gaudy 11.7% whiff rate last year. The cutter became an important pitch for him over the last two years, giving him something he can frontdoor against righties and backdoor against lefties. The curveball, meanwhile, is a legitimate out-pitch, registering a 17.7% whiff rate over the last two seasons, and an outrageous 67.9% ground-ball rate last year.
In short, Paxton is a strikeout artist who manages his walk total, keeps the ball in the park, and induces a ton of ground balls. If he can get to 170-plus innings this year, he’ll easily be a top-20 starter with a top-10 ceiling.
Gerrit Cole, SP, Astros (ADP: 82.46)
Scoff if you must. Tweet me to tell me that Cole has already broken out, and that I’m taking an easy way out here. I’ll tell you that you’re wrong. Cole has been comfortably better than the league-average starter since entering the majors in 2013. He has given his fantasy owners relatively worry-free top-25 seasons for the balance of his career. He has never been a true ace. That is possible this season. If that’s not a breakout, I don’t know what is.
Go look at the back of Cole’s baseball card. He has one season with a sub-3.00 ERA. He has two seasons with an ERA better than 3.50. He has struck out a batter per inning once in his five years, and he had a 3.65 ERA with a 1.21 WHIP that season: Always good, but never great. Cole can change that this year, and it has a lot to do with his new team.
Every now and again, an organization earns a reputation for building certain skills in its players. After the success the Astros have had with homegrown starters Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, and the way they revived Charlie Morton, they’ve gained a reputation as pitcher whisperers. If they’ve proved one thing, it’s that they’re not afraid to encourage a pitcher to dramatically change his pitch mix. McCullers threw his curveball nearly 50% of the time last year. Morton, too, threw his curveball at a career-high rate last season his first with the Astros. Cole could benefit from similar coaching this season.
Cole essentially hasn’t changed his pitch mix from the day he broke into the majors. He throws a four-seamer, sinker, curve, slider and changeup, and the usage rates of each pitch haven’t dramatically increased or decreased in any year. That’s despite the fact that we have evidence that the sinker is a bad pitch. Hitters have a .289 batting average and .408 slugging percentage against it, and it get whiffs just 5.7% of the time. On the other had, the curve, the same pitch the team has nurtured in McCullers and Morton, has held hitters to a .231 batting average and .327 slugging percentage, and has a 14% whiff rate.
Throwing more curves and fewer sinkers is easier said than done, and it’s not like he’d make a 1-for-1 trade with those two pitches. They aren’t exactly pitches you’d lean on in the same situations. Still, we can draw some conclusions about what the Astros have gotten out of their pitches in recent seasons, and the way they may bring that influence to bear on Cole. There’s reason to believe that this change of scenery will serve him well. He has always had ace potential. He may finally find it this season.
Jose Berrios, SP, Twins (ADP: 103.09)
In the fantasy game, we always want to have empirical evidence to back up our analysis. None of us is a scout employed by an MLB team, and as well as we know the game, having the numbers to go along with our touts is critical.
Sometimes, however, you just have to believe. I’m a bit more willing to bet on obvious high-level talent without the evidence to back it up than some of my colleagues in the industry. This year, I find that leading me to Berrios.
Berrios had a fine season last year, totaling a 3.89 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 1.23 WHIP and 139 strikeouts in 145 2/3 innings. Striking out fewer than a batter per inning was a bit of a disappointment, as were the 4.29 SIERA and 4.51 xFIP. Even with Berrios’s pedigree and youth, that doesn’t exactly portend a breakout, especially considering the trainwreck of a 2016 season that came before it.
And yet, I am perfectly willing to bet that water finds its level with this one. I may have to turn in my sabermetrics club membership card after this, but sports aren’t played on a spreadsheet or in a box score. Player growth is not linear. Berrios was the 32nd overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft. He flew through the minors, racking up a 2.51 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 250 strikeouts in 229 2/3 innings at the Triple-A level. He tasted success in the majors over an extended period for the first time last year, and is entering his age-24 season. The numbers might not back this up. Sometimes, you need to not care about that. This is one of those times. Trust the talent, and the undeniable history of non-linear player growth. Berrios is a legitimate breakout candidate this season.