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Second-Year Hitters Ready to Break Out for Fantasy Baseball

Seiya Suzuki - Fantasy Baseball Rankings, Draft Sleepers, MLB Injury News

Second-year players who excel in the big leagues attract attention every season as they use their rookie season experiences to refine their skills during the offseason and make significant strides in their sophomore year. By examining their 2022 stats, we can identify trends and areas for improvement, while projections from reputable sources such as Steamer, ZiPS, ATC, and The BAT can help gauge their potential performance in 2023.

Let's take a closer look at some of the intriguing second-year hitters who have the potential to become future stars in the league. We can identify players poised for a breakout season through a thorough analysis of their performance in 2022, minor league stats, and 2023 projections.

After you are done here, be sure to check out our other fantasy baseball breakouts and fantasy baseball sleepers articles as well.

Be sure to check all of our fantasy baseball lineup tools and weekly lineup resources:

 

Vinnie Pasquantino, Kansas City Royals

Savvy fantasy baseball managers already know the "Italian Nightmare" - Vinnie Pasquantino. This is evidenced by where he's being picked in drafts, as the eighth first baseman off the board around pick 84. However, that might need to be higher as the 25-year-old out of Old Dominion has shown plenty of signs that he can break out (even more) in his second year in the bigs.

Pasquantino slashed an impressive .295/.383/.450 with ten homers, 25 RBI, and 25 runs scored over his first 258 at-bats in the MLB last season. He started extremely slow upon his call-up in late June, slashing .208/.313/.347 with three homers before the All-Star break, which led some managers to bail on him.

He then proceeded to post near-elite numbers after the All-Star break, slashing .328/.409/.489. Ultimately, his surface metrics looked great, but a few advanced metrics indicate him reaching even further heights in 2023. His 8.8% barrel rate was well above the league average, while his 47% hard-hit rate ranked among the best in the entire league. He also did a great job keeping the ball off the ground, posting a low 41% groundball rate last season.

Looking at his minor league numbers only solidifies our confidence in Vinnie P building off his successful rookie season. He consistently posted a high batting average, a high slugging percentage, a high walk rate, and a low strikeout rate.

That's what he has done so far in the majors, and there's no reason to think he won't continue improving with what he has shown us. A 25-homer season with a high average and on-base percentage feels more than attainable. I'm all in on "Pasquatch."

 

Adley Rutschman, Baltimore Orioles

Rutschman, much like Pasquantino, took his time getting rolling during his first MLB season. He posted an uninspiring .722 OPS with five homers before the All-Star break, but his .861 OPS with eight homers post-All-Star break was closer to what the fantasy masses were expecting of the highly-touted catcher prospect.

He's the highest-drafted player on this list by a wide margin, as he was selected first overall by the Orioles in the 2019 draft. He's a switch-hitter who excels defensively, but what we're most intrigued by from the prospect is the power upside he flashed in the minors and during his brief stint in the majors last season.

The 25-year-old (this is becoming a theme) posted 23 homers between Double-A and Triple-A in 2021, and while he only hit 13 in the MLB (over 470 at-bats), his .191 ISO and .354 wOBA were more than respectable. Scouts gave him a 60/60 in the "raw power" category, and we've already seen this come to fruition.

His average exit velocity (87.9 MPH), hard-hit rate (36.8%), and barrel rate (7.9%) could all stand to improve, but he showed a high level of discipline for a rookie with a 98th percentile walk rate (13.8%) and an 88th-percentile Whiff rate in his first taste of the bigs.

The projection systems aren't expecting a giant leap from the second-year catcher, pegging him for 13-18 homers and a batting average at or below .260. I'd be on board with those projections if we expected Rutschman to maintain his hitting profile from last year.

There's an above-average chance that we'll see his barrel and hard-hit rates improve as he continues to get acclimated to MLB pitching, which gives him a higher ceiling than he's being given credit for. 20+ homers and serving as a plus in the average and OBP categories are squarely in the cards for him this season, and this is likely our last chance to snag the exciting prospect at a discount in drafts.

 

MJ Melendez, Kansas City Royals

Melendez joins Pasquantino as the second Royals player on this list, so you'd think Kansas City fans would be ecstatic to get this season started. They should take a quick peek at the starting rotation they're set to begin the season with before getting too excited. That doesn't mean Melendez can't keep the good times rolling from his debut last year, though.

The 24-year-old second-round pick in 2017 burst onto the scene in 2022, swatting 18 homers and driving 62 RBI over 460 at-bats for the perpetually-struggling Royals. His batted ball profile looked great, as he posted high marks in hard-hit rate, average exit velocity, barrel rate, and xwOBA. However, his game had some drawbacks, as he posted a low .217 average (.237 xBA) and struck out far too often (24.6% K%).

Looking back at his minor league metrics gives us some reason for optimism that he'll regress to his career mean in the batting average department. He slashed .293/.413/.620 with a .437 wOBA in his last full season at Triple-A in 2021. His strikeout issues have been persistent throughout his career, so while we can hope MLB coaching can correct some of his plate discipline issues, that's not something we can necessarily count on.

Melendez's power is real, and the projection systems back it up as they expect him to hit between 18 and 25 homers in his second MLB season. Some systems are more optimistic than others, but his minor league and MLB numbers suggest he'll post an ISO closer to .200 rather than the .176 ISO he produced last season. If that's the case, 20+ homers are well within the range of outcomes for Melendez, and that's especially important because he qualifies at a very shallow, top-heavy position at catcher.

 

Jeremy Pena, Houston Astros

While some may argue that the 25-year-old shortstop has already broken out, the promising young player still has room to grow. Pena played the most games of any sophomore on this list, logging 521 at-bats in his rookie season.

Last season, he slashed .253/.289/.426 for a .715 OPS, hitting 22 home runs with 63 RBI, 72 runs scored, and 11 stolen bases. Although his advanced metrics did not stand out, a 9.7% barrel rate was highly encouraging, and his 95th-percentile Sprint Speed indicates that his stolen base potential is sustainable. However, there are still areas for improvement, including his launch angle and hard-hit rate, which are below average.

Pena's high batting average in the low-A minor league system in 2018 and 2019 drew attention to the shortstop. His brief stint at Triple-A in 2021 (.587 SLG, .387 wOBA, .311 ISO) impressed the Astros, leading them to move on from Carlos Correa before the 2022 season.

During the regular season, Pena exceeded expectations, but his impressive playoff run cemented his place in MLB history. Pena accumulated five doubles, four homers, eight RBI, 12 runs scored, and a 1.005 OPS during the playoffs, winning both the ALCS MVP and the World Series MVP awards. He became the youngest position player to win the World Series MVP award.

Projection systems anticipate slight improvements from Pena this season, with most predicting increased stolen bases and a significantly higher walk rate. However, they see his average and home run totals either remaining steady or decreasing slightly. If Pena can improve his launch angle, increase his hard-hit rate, and maintain his stolen base potential, he could reach new heights in a dangerous Astros lineup in 2023.

 

Seiya Suzuki, Chicago Cubs

Suzuki is the oldest player on this list at 28 years old, but he also has the advantage of having the most experience playing professional baseball. He was drafted in 2012 and made his debut in the Nippon Professional Baseball league in 2013 at the age of 19.

He made five All-Star appearances in his six seasons playing in Japan, blasting 38 homers and a .317/.433/.636 slash line in his final year with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. He made his debut in the MLB with the Cubs last season, and while he started hot (.934 OPS with four homers and 14 RBI in April), he fizzled down the stretch and finished with an uninspiring stat line.

That being said, his advanced metrics were almost all above average, except his poor 24.8% strikeout rate. He barreled up a lot of balls (11% barrel rate), posted a respectable 41.3% hard-hit rate, and wound up with a tidy .327 xwOBA. He excelled against left-handed pitching, posting a .848 OPS with four homers, six doubles, and two triples against southpaws last season.

Projection systems have Suzuki improving on his slugging (and ISO) percentage and posting higher counting stats than last year, thanks to an entire season of at-bats. The ceiling is even higher for the seasoned second-year player as his batted ball profile and past success in the NPB indicate there could be much more meat on the bones with the outfielder in 2023.



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