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2019 Barrel Breakouts: Who's For Real and Who's Next?


As pitchers and catchers get even closer to reporting and most fantasy leagues prepare for their drafts, everybody is looking for a leg up on the competition - a way to get in on a guy before everybody else does.

In this article, we're going to look for a way to identify hitters who improved in 2019 in a way that suggests legitimate growth. One of the ways to do that is through looking at barrels.

Barrels have become a trendy Statcast metric. It basically just means the amount of time a batter hits the ball on the barrel - or sweet spot - of the bat. The more times a batter barrels the ball, the more good contact he's getting, which usually means the better the results. The other two metrics connected to barrels are Brls/BBE%, which factors in the percentage of barrels on a batter's batted-ball events, and Brls/PA%, which registers barrels for all of the batter's plate appearances. How do we decide which one to use?

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Dissecting Barrel Data

Dan Richards produced a great article looking at the predictiveness of these Statcast metrics and discovered that Brls/BBE% is more predictive of itself across seasons since there are significantly more plate appearance results than just batted-ball events, so Brls/PA% is subject to more fluctuation across seasons. What's more, Brls/BBE% is proven to be more predictive of both HR/FB% and ISO than Exit Velocity on FB/LD.

Taking all of that into consideration, it would make sense to assume that players who made significant strides in their Brls/BBE% in 2019 would be likely to carry that growth over into 2020. Since Brls/BBE% is such a strong indicator of HR/FB% and ISO, looking at the players who improved the most in Brls/BBE% between 2018 and 2019 would show guys whose power growth was legitimate. In order to identify the hitters who experienced this much growth, I simply took the Statcast Brls/BBE% leaderboard from 2019 for players with a minimum of 100 batted ball events, identified their Brls/BBE% in 2018 and then calculated their growth.

It's rudimentary statistics work, but the hope is to find out which offensive breakouts last year seem likely to carry over into 2020.

(As a caveat, these are just guys who improved the most last year, so perennial Brls/BBE% standouts might not appear since they didn't experience any growth. Also, 2019 rookies will not appear on this list since they have no 2018 MLB batted ball events and thus can't experience any growth). 

 

Most Improved Barrel Rates from 2019

Player Max Exit Velo Avg Exit Velo Barrels Brls/ PA% Brls/ BBE% 2019 Brls/ BBE% 2018 Brls/ BBE% Growth
Jason Castro 110.5 91.5 26 9.5 17.2 6.8 10.4
Mitch Garver 109.7 91.1 35 9.7 15.5 5.6 9.9
Miguel Sano 114.2 94.4 47 10.7 21.2 11.8 9.4
Howie Kendrick 112.4 91.6 33 8.9 11.4 4.8 6.6
Jorge Soler 115.7 92.6 70 10.3 16.9 10.3 6.6
Carlos Correa 112.8 89 28 8.7 13.5 7 6.5
Rougned Odor 113.1 89.4 47 8.1 13.6 7.2 6.4
Chance Sisco 107.4 89 11 5.6 10.4 4.3 6.1
Austin Meadows 115.4 90.4 50 8.5 12.5 6.4 6.1
Nelson Cruz 117 93.7 65 12.5 19.9 13.8 6.1
Yandy Diaz 114.3 91.7 26 7.5 10.4 4.4 6
Dansby Swanson 108.4 89.8 37 6.8 10.1 4.1 6
Derek Dietrich 111.7 86.9 21 6.9 11.8 6.1 5.7
Josh Bell 116.2 92.3 53 8.6 12.7 7 5.7
George Springer 114.3 89.8 53 9.5 14.3 8.9 5.4
Jordan Luplow 108.8 89.3 20 7.7 12.1 6.8 5.3
Josh Donaldson 114.2 92.9 62 9.4 15.7 10.4 5.3
Gary Sanchez 118.3 91 52 11.7 19.1 13.9 5.2
Roberto Perez 112.8 88.3 30 6.7 11 5.9 5.1
JaCoby Jones 112.8 91.3 22 6.6 10.7 5.9 4.8

Instead of going through all 20 of the names above, I'll take a look at a few of them who I find particularly interesting or who haven't been given as much virtual ink so far in the lead-up to this season.

 

Jason Castro (C, LAA) - ADP: 341

Jason Castro's 2019 was lost in the shuffle because his teammate, Mitch Garver also broke out over more at-bats. However, Castro is worth mentioning, especially at a shallow position. Castro only had 38 batted balls in 2018, so I used his 2017 numbers when he had 250 batted balls. In 2019, Castro showed impressive exit velocity and lead the league in Brls/BBE% growth. His Hard-Hit% also improved 14%, and he showed growth in xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA over his 2017 numbers. His K% did jump as he sold out for more power, pulling the ball more and hitting more fly balls.

Now that Castro has the starting job in a strong Angels lineup, and if he gets 120-150 more at-bats than last year's 275, Castro could be a 20-HR bat at the catcher position and is currently going well outside the top-300 in online championships. If you're going to wait on a catcher, he could be a great target in two-catcher leagues or AL-Only formats.

 

Miguel Sano (3B, MIN) - ADP: 120

After missing more than half of 2018 with multiple injuries and getting embroiled in domestic abuse allegations, it was easy for many in the fantasy community to write off Miguel Sano. However, he had always shown a propensity for hard contact and a consistent ability to find the barrel.

After the injury-shortened 2018, Sano made noticeable improvements, finishing second in the league in barrel %. His ISO jumped from .199 to .329, which was a huge gain from him career-best .262 in 2016, and he dropped his soft contact % from 15% to 9%. In short, Sano absolutely crushed the ball last year, putting him in the company of sluggers like Joey Gallo and Aaron Judge.

Add to that a career-high Pull% of 55.4%, and you see a massive jump in HR plus huge jumps in xSLG and wxOBACON. Yes, he still had a terrible K% - a career-worst 36.2% - so his batting average will likely never be high, but it's time to take Sano seriously as a perennial 35-40 HR bat hitting in the middle of a dangerous lineup.

If we approximate his ATC projections of .245, 35 home runs, 80 runs, and 90 RBI, Sano's RotoBaller Expected Draft Value (rbEDV) suggests that he should be taken around pick 90. Currently, a power-focused player valued at pick 90 would finish with a .261 average, 31 home runs, 79 runs, and 87 RBI. While Sano likely won't hit for that high an average, he should easily top that home run total and could even accrue more RBI, which makes his current ADP a great value.

 

Jorge Soler (OF, KC) - ADP: 85

Even though I might rather have Sano at his current cost than Soler at his, the metrics show that Soler's breakout was for real. After battling health and high expectations for years, Soler finally secured a consistent spot in a lineup and played a full 162-game season. He led the league in barrels and was in the top 2% in overall barrel% and xSLG. His Hard-Hit% improved by 8%, and he raised his launch angle from 10.9 to 15.4, which helped him climb to 48 home runs.

What's more important is that he experienced this power jump without any change to his BB% and while dropping his K% by 0.8 points. His reduced O-Swing% and improved Z-Contact% suggest a young hitter whose increased playing time is leading to a better understanding of the strike zone and more consistent quality contact.

His HR/FB% will likely decrease from the 28.1% he had in 2019, and he has had multiple years of a Brls/BBE% hovering around 10, which would suggest a slight regression to his norm in 2020, but he's another 35-40 HR bat who will have a higher average and OBP than Sano. That's five solid categories and deserving of a rbEDV of a pick in the mid-60s, which would need him to finish with a line of .259, 33 home runs, 83 runs, 93 RBI and six stolen bases. While he'll likely only earn around three stolen bases, it would be easy to see him hitting more than 33 home runs or knocking it close to 100 runs again.

 

Carlos Correa (SS, HOU) - ADP: 96

You'd be forgiven for not realizing that Carlos Correa is still only 25 years old. After bursting onto the scene as a 21-year-old, the shortstop seemed to plateau. A big reason is that he hasn't played a full season in each of his last three years. However, the underlying metrics have remained strong, with consistent K%, BB%, and exit velocity. What changed last year was that Correa found the barrel more and upped his launch angle to 12.4. The result was career-highs in SLG% with .568 and Hard-Hit% with 44.9%. He also came close to matching his career-high Pull%, which could lead to him taking advantage of the short porch in left at Minute Maid.

Health will always be a concern for Correa since he's had multiple back injuries over the last two years; however, he is still young enough to tweak his training regime to help cope with unnecessary stress and add strength where needed. With the massive improvements in quality of contact, Correa could be in for a true post-hype breakout this year. If Correa is able to reach the 30-home run, 85-run, 90-RBI projection averages with a .270 batting average, that makes him a low-80s pick by rbEDV. It's a risk inside the top-100, but if you have safety in other places in your lineup, it's not a bad risk to take. Especially since shortstop is so deep this year that it's like you'd be able to find a replacement if he did miss time.

 

Rougned Odor (2B, TEX) - ADP: 218

This is going to be a long one, but I promise it will be worth it. Odor just turned 26 a few days ago, which seems shocking since he broke into the Majors in 2014. Yes, he's struggled with strikeouts and has hit just above .200 in two of the last three years, but people continue to talk about him as if he's a finished product. At 26, he's actually just entering his prime.

He has also improved his BB% from 4.9% to 8% to 9% over the last three seasons. It's not a game-changing shift, but it's real progress, especially when paired with an O-Swing% that has dropped from 38.3% to 35.4% to 33.1% over the same span. His K% may have been high last year, but Odor is actually showing a better understanding of the strike zone. When he does make contact, he is doing so with more power, increasing his barrels each of the last three seasons before this outburst last year. Pair that with an 86th-percentile Hard-Hit% and a nearly five-degree increase in launch angle, and you have a bat that looks like it can provide consistent power.

In fact, Odor has hit 30 home runs and stolen at least 10 bases in three of the last four seasons. You're not going to get that from very many players, and certainly not any going this late in the draft. Remember that while Odor has two horrible batting average seasons in recent years, he also hit .253 in 2018, .271 in 2016, and .261 in 2016. I think it would be safe to assume that Odor will regress back closer to his career K% of 23.7%, which isn't much higher than the MLB average of 21.7% last year.

With more contact and more powerful contact, Odor could put together another 30-10 season with a batting average around .230, which, if you remove his batting average from the equation, is enough to give him a rbEDV around pick 110 (23 home runs, 14 stolen bases, 77 runs and 74 RBI). To reach that value he'd need a .261 average, which he likely won't get, but he'll also hit more home runs than that value accounts for, so how much you're willing to penalize him will depend on how your roster is constructed early. If you have a solid average floor, Odor could be a steal going as late as he is.

 

Nelson Cruz (DH, MIN) - ADP: 86

This is just another excuse to talk about the ageless wonder. Really, my words won't do justice. Just feast your eyes:

Just so much red. Even in his age-39 season, Cruz saw ridiculous spikes in barrel%, xSLG, and wOBA. His numbers across the board have remained consistent across the years, and there's no reason to expect that to change now.

You can keep expecting him to breakdown, but there's an injury risk for every player. At some point, you have to take a player who seems primed for 35-40 home runs while hitting in the middle of a seemingly dominant lineup. Based on rbEDV, I'd be comfortable taking Cruz in the early 70s.

 

Yandy Diaz (3B, TB) - ADP: 234

In his first season with the Rays, Diaz was a Fantasy Baseball Twitter darling and a popular breakout pick after he hit .298 with seven home runs and 18 RBI in March and April. Injuries limited him to only 12 games in the second half of the season, but the quality of contact was very real.

However, expectations for a power breakout need to be kept in check. Diaz got way more of the barrel last year than he had in years past, but his exit velocity, Hard Hit%, xOBA, and woBACON remained relatively unchanged. He's always hit the ball hard. He also had a launch angle of 5.4 degrees last year, which is part of the reason why the ball never seems to leave the yard with any consistency.

Diaz will hit around .270-.280 and help you in OBP leagues because he walks a lot, but don't draft him expecting a major power outburst. His ceiling will likely be around 20 home runs with no stolen bases. That's not a profile that is hard to find at this juncture in the draft.

 

Dansby Swanson (SS, ATL) - ADP: 256

We've been unfair to Dansby. Ever since he was drafted first overall and then was the headliner in the act of thievery the Braves pulled off against the Diamondbacks, we all placed expectations on him that were perhaps outsized.

The truth is that Dansby Swanson will likely never be a fantasy game-changer, but he is becoming a valuable fantasy asset. His Hard-Hit% has increased each of the last three years, along with a decrease in GB%, and a rise in Z-Swing%. What that says to me is that Swanson is becoming a slightly more aggressive hitter who is making better quality contact with his all-fields approach. His jump in barrel% and exit velocity suggest that he is beginning to evolve as a hitter as he enters his prime.

His underlying metrics even suggest more growth, with a .271 xBA compared to a .251 average and a .480 xSLG compared to his .422 actual slugging percentage. It's very likely that we could see Swanson become a 20-10 threat with a .270 average hitting near the bottom of the Braves order, which should provide him with the opportunity for 70+ RBI and 80+ runs with guys like Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies hitting behind him. That's closer to a rbEDV in the low 200s, and I'd take that from a guy currently being drafted behind Jon Berti, Luis Arraez, and more than two rounds later than Kolten Wong.

 

Josh Bell (1B, PIT) - ADP: 94

Not that you need another reason to draft Josh Bell, but you found it here. Bell's barrel% jumped 5.7% in his age-27 season, along with a 3.8-degree increase in launch angle (to 13 degrees), a .136 increase in xSLG, a .077 increase in xwoBACON, and a 8.1% increase in Hard Hit %. His Statcast profile was elite almost all the way across the board, while he still managed to keep his K% under 20%, better than the MLB average.

Perhaps more interestingly from a power standpoint, his Pull% improved by just under 9% and his FB% increased five-percent at the expense of his GB%. All this helped contribute to a career-high 37 home runs. While the upper 30s may be tough for him to duplicate given his 23.9% HR/FB, Bell seems to have cemented himself as a 30-HR threat. His RBI totals will likely be suppressed in a bad lineup, but 30 home runs, 85 runs, and 90 RBI seems feasible, to go along with a .270 average.

He'll likely only chip in one or two stolen bases, but he's proving to be a good value in drafts at 94th overall since a player with that profile has a rbEDV in the early 80s since he'll trade away some speed for a better average.

 

JaCoby Jones (OF, DET) - ADP: 465

We'll end on some deep league fun. As of right now, Jones seems locked into a starting role, and potentially a leadoff spot, on the Tigers. Since he debuted in 2016, he's had only one season with over 100 games and has never been a reliable fantasy contributor.

However, last year he tied his career-high with a .235 average, which was supported by a .250 xBA. His jump in barrel% led to a career-high .195 ISO, .430 SLG, and 11 home runs in only 88 games. The only other time he's reached 11 home runs in his Major League career he needed 129 games to do so. In fact, all of Jones' metrics last year improved enough to warrant taking a second look.

Most projection systems have him for over 550 at-bats but only see 15 home runs. I'm not sure I agree. I think that's more of a floor for Jones if he gets that many at-bats, which he seems likely to get barring injury. With the improvements to his quality of contact, I could see Jones flirting with 18-20 home runs and 12+ stolen bases to go along with 70 runs hitting at the top of a lineup.

Granted, that will come with a .240 average and middling RBI totals, but a potential 20-10 player should certainly be going inside the top 400. If you're in a deep league or an AL-only format, taking a gamble on Jones may pay off handsomely.

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