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Three Hitters Set To Break Out Later Than Expected

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Finding breakout hitters can be a difference-maker for fantasy teams, especially when those hitters have had limited success at the major league level and are older than when players typically have their best seasons. Whether it be through added playing time, skill improvements, or some combination of the two, post-prime breakouts can be excellent draft values thanks to their unusually high upside. 

Although hitter’s best years can come at just about any age, a hitter is post-prime after their age-27 season for this article*. That limits the pool of players to pick from -- breakout seasons typically come in a hitter's early 20s and become sparse as players enter their 30s  -- but there are still plenty of options.

For this article, a breakout season is one in which the hitter has his most valuable fantasy season by a significant margin and is worth rostering in most leagues. That’s still a fairly subjective set of criteria, but it disqualifies players like Gregory Polanco. With that in mind, below are three post-prime breakout candidates for the 2021 season.

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Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (3B/OF, TB)

29 years old

Tsutsugo had a rough rookie season that saw him hit just .197 with a .708 OPS, but there was plenty to like under the hood. Most impressively, Tsutsugo displayed an advanced plate approach and solid contact skills, pairing a 20.8% chase rate with an 8% swinging-strike rate. Despite those skills, Tsutsugo wound up with a 27% strikeout rate that will likely fall towards 20% in 2021 based on his swinging-strike and swing rates.

In addition to his strong plate approach and contact skills, Tsutsugo demonstrated encouraging contact quality numbers as well. Although he finished the season with a below-average .363 xwOBAcon, Tsutsugo posted a 47.2% hard-hit rate and a 9.3% barrel rate. Launch angle consistency will be key if Tsutsugo is to break out in 2021 as his 25% sweet-spot rate ranked near the bottom of the league, and that may come as the 29-year-old continues to settle in against MLB pitching. Overall, Tsutsugo is a hitter with an excellent plate approach, effective contact skills, and above-average power, making an OPS above .800 plausible with upside for much more. Tsutsugo’s playing time may be inconsistent on the Rays, but he’s worth a flier at his 478 ADP.

 

Michael A. Taylor (OF, KC)

30 years old

Taylor may be more of a re-breakout candidate than a pure breakout candidate because of his relatively strong 2017 season, but he’s worth attention from fantasy managers for a possible significant jump in performance in 2021. Taylor has noticeably and purposefully adjusted his mechanics over the past two seasons to improve his timing, and the result has been an improved swinging-strike rate. To that end, Taylor’s 13.5% swinging-strike rate from 2020 was his career-best by a full point, and his 58-game streak with a swinging-strike rate below 16% is the longest of his career by far.

If Taylor can maintain those improvements, then a strikeout rate below 30% is a reasonable expectation for the second consecutive season. Given his consistently above-average contact quality, that gives Taylor a shot at an OPS around .800 in 2021. 

With that in mind, Taylor’s real opportunity for fantasy value comes on the basepaths. Although his stolen base totals have diminished over the past few seasons, Taylor hasn’t lost very much speed and is still a threat to swipe 20 bags. Particularly exciting is that Taylor joined a stolen-base-happy Royals team that led the league in stolen base attempts in 2020, allowing him to pile up stolen bases for fantasy managers. 

 

Erik Gonzalez (3B/SS, PIT)

29 years old

Gonzalez has done little to warrant excitement from fantasy owners over his five years in the major leagues, but he’s unusually suited to benefit from an improved plate approach. One of the largest factors holding Gonzalez back over the past five years has been a 38% chase rate that’s driven his high 16% swinging-strike rate and poor 4.2% walk rate. Gonzalez’s 11.6% swinging-strike rate against pitches in the strike zone over the past two seasons is nothing special, but his 19.1% swinging-strike rate against pitches outside of the strike zone is one of the worst in the league. As a result, Gonzalez has one of the largest gaps between his o- and z-swinging-strike rates, so drops in his chase rate will affect his swinging-strike rate (and in turn his strikeout rate and OBP) more significantly than it would for most hitters.

Gonzalez’s relatively high 75% z-swing means that his walk rate probably won’t get above the league-average mark, but even increasing his walk rate to around 6% can have a meaningful impact on his fantasy value. Gonzalez has quietly been active on the basepaths over his career, stealing six stolen bases per 162 games despite a paltry .283 OBP. If Gonzalez can maintain a similar rate in his age-29 season, double-digit stolen bases are within reach with a moderate OBP improvement and consistent playing time.

Encouragingly, Gonzalez’s contact quality has been decent (if a  little underwhelming), and he’s shown flashes of average or slightly above-average power that make a .360-.380 xwOBAcon a reasonable 2021 expectation, especially if he can cut his chase rate down. That contact quality combined with Gonzalez’s potential for value on the basepaths and an improved OBP gives him the upside of a poor man’s Ozzie Albies: a batting average above .280 with an OPS that flirts with .800 and 10-15 stolen bases.

Admittedly, Gonzalez has shown few signs of actually cutting his chase rate down recently, and even his best-case-scenario upside isn’t all that exciting. But Gonzalez is fighting for playing time in a crowded but not particularly competitive Pittsburgh infield, and that opportunity to latch on to a starting spot might push Gonzalez to try something new with his plate approach. Regardless, a jump to an OPS above .750 with 10-plus stolen bases (as Gonzalez has the potential to do) certainly qualifies as a breakout season for a player who’d never posted an OPS above .700 before and makes him rosterable in very deep leagues.

*All ages in this article are based on each player’s age as of April 1, 2021.

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