Every season, a bunch of players produce way above expectations, and we spend the entire winter arguing over whether or not the improvement was genuine. Separating the men from the boys when it comes to last year’s breakout performances can be the difference between a championship season and bitter, abject failure for your fantasy team. After all, if you ain't first, you're last.
Throughout the rest of this month, I’ll be taking a look at some of last season’s surprises, be they breakout or bust, and offering my thoughts on each player’s fantasy outlook for 2017. Here are three players whose 2016 seasons were just the beginning.
Editor's note: Be sure to also check out our 2017 fantasy baseball rankings dashboard. It's already loaded up with tons of great rankings articles and draft analysis. Aside from our tiered staff rankings for every position, we also go deep on MLB prospect rankings, impact rookies for 2017, and dynasty/keeper rankings as well. Bookmark the page, and win your drafts.
Buy the Breakout
Ryon Healy, Oakland Athletics
Healy was lightly regarded as a minor leaguer, barely mentioned by prospect mavens when they reviewed the A’s decidedly unspectacular farm system. It wasn’t tough to see why. Despite always being on the old side for his level, Healy hadn’t distinguished himself in his first three minor league seasons. In 2016, however, he began raking at Double-A, and didn’t stop even as he was promoted to the majors midseason. Healy totaled 27 homers – half of them in the majors – after hitting 32 in the three prior seasons combined.
When this kind of surge occurs, generally what you want to see is a tangible adjustment in mechanics or approach on the part of the hitter. We’ve got that here, as Healy lowered his hands in an effort to flatten out his swing path and load to a lower position – the same adjustment made by another guy who used to play third base for the A’s.
Jake Lamb, Arizona Diamondbacks
I had Lamb 16th among third basemen in our 2016 preseason rankings, higher than any of the half-dozen colleagues who participated. His solid minor league performances were backed up by some impressive MLB peripherals, even if the results to that point had been underwhelming. Ultimately, I pegged him as a solid CI option in deeper mixers, while his ADP sat in the 400s. Lamb proceeded to destroy everyone’s expectations, hitting .302/.380/.635 with 21 homers through July 17. Unfortunately, he suffered a hand injury and saw his production crater.
There’s no doubt that Lamb was adversely affected by the injury. He had a lot more trouble making contact with pitches up and in as a result, which makes sense. A hand bruise would likely compromise his bat speed, leaving him unable to turn on pitches on the inner half. Sure enough, he went from pulling the ball over half of the time to pulling it a third of the time.
It’s worth pointing out that Lamb was almost certainly due for some regression anyway. He ran a 28.8 HR/FB% before the injury, which would have tied him with Ryan Braun for the league lead in that category. Obviously, however, his health was a key factor in his stumble down the stretch. Despite that second-half swoon, he still finished eighth among third basemen per FantasyPros’ Player Rater. Owners can reasonably expect a similar performance in 2017.
Danny Duffy, Kansas City Royals
Duffy was once a top prospect. Like a lot of young pitchers who throw hard, he struggled to harness stuff. Then, like a lot of young pitchers who throw hard, he broke. He came back from Tommy John and made the majors, pitching to a 2.53 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 2014. As you can probably surmise from those ratios, his control improved. But he also threw less hard than before, and consequently his strikeout numbers were pedestrian. It was the same story in 2015, only this time he didn’t enjoy a .239 BABIP. Duffy’s ratios swelled, and he seemed fated to become another exciting young arm undone by his body betraying him.
Then, last season, Duffy recovered just over a tick on his fastball, and three on his slider. He also threw his changeup more often and got more whiffs on it than ever before. He initially made these gains in the bullpen, but they stuck when he moved into the rotation. Duffy did hit a bit of a wall at the end of the year, allowing a few too many homers. He still finished the season with solid ratios (3.51 ERA, 1.14 WHIP) and was one of just eight starting pitchers to post a 20.0 K-BB%.
The Royals certainly believe in Duffy’s breakout – they signed him to a five-year, $65 million extension last month. You won’t need to invest quite that much.