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Outfielders Ready to Break Out Late

Finding value is crucial on draft day and finding just one or two players later in drafts that provide better numbers than projected can give you a significant edge on the competition as you bid for fantasy glory.

All too often, we look for the new shiny object in drafts thinking they’ll come up to the Majors and dominant straight away. While some do, we need to remember that development isn’t linear and while some players will be stars at 22, some players take a bit longer to show their real talents.

That’s where we will be focusing our attention now, looking at three outfielders who are aged between 26-29 years old and are set to break out after having a so-so career to date.

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Michael Conforto (OF, NYM)

27 years old

Conforto entered 2019 with some question marks over his health having managed only 109 games in 2016 and in 2017. Despite those concerns, Conforto played in 151 games last year which followed a 153 games season in 2018. Those health concerns should be allayed by now. Conforto currently has an ADP ~119 in NFBC drafts so word seems to be out that Conforto can hit.

Last year’s career-high 33 homers and .257/.363/.494 slash line might make you think the breakout has already happened, but a little scratch beneath the surface will reveal even more fantasy goodness awaits.

The above chart shows the number of barrelled balls for Conforto in each of the last four seasons, where he managed to have 48 barrelled balls last year. His barrel rate has improved to the point he ranked 44th overall among 250 qualified hitters last year, with a barrel rate of 11.9% according to Statcast. That was one spot behind Anthony Rendon and J.D Martinez (both had 12%).

If we take a peek at Conforto’s expected numbers from last year also, it shows us he was a tad unlucky so there is scope for improvement just based on better fortune at the plate.

.257 .262 .005
.494 .504 .010
.358 .367 .009

That .367 xWOBA (expected weighted on-base average) is in the 87th percentile of all qualified hitters and his .504 xSLG (expected slugging percentage) is in the 80th percentile. A little bit more luck should see Conforto hit 35+ homers in a full season.

Conforto’s walk-rate aids his power as it allows him to be more selective at the plate. His walk rate (BB%) in the last three seasons has been 13.0% in 2017, 13.2% in 2018 and 13.0% in 2019 so is consistently elite. Last year, Conforto ranked 17th in walk-rate among all hitters with at least 500 plate appearances. In leagues that count OBP or walks, Conforto’s value is even greater.

The final piece of Conforto propaganda is his ability to chip in with some stolen bases too. His somewhat middling 27.5 MPH average sprint speed last year (ranked tied 226th out of 568) still saw him steal 7 bases in 9 attempts. Over the course of a full season, hitting double-digit steals isn’t beyond the realms of possibility either.

Hitting in the heart of the Mets lineup, Conforto tallied 90 runs and 92 RBIs last year as well and that isn’t going to change so Conforto can contribute among all counting stats without negatively impacting your batting average. His high walk-rate makes him even more valuable in OBP leagues and even in standard leagues, Conforto should be able to return top-100 value even without a breakout, which now he’s in his peak years, is very much on the cards.


Kyle Schwarber (OF, CHC)

27 years old

Schwarber has become a “Statcast Darling”, one of those annoying phrases chucked around in fantasy sports which catch on and is liberally used to emphasize points. But the salient fact is, Schwarber’s Statcast profile is a thing of beauty.

Only three players had a higher hard-hit rate and higher exit velocity; Miguel Sano, Nelson Cruz and Aaron Judge. There’s no questioning Schwarber’s power….. it’s elite. Given those numbers, why am I suggesting he’s due for a breakout rather than thinking he's already had one? Simply put, he should top his career-high 38 homers he hit in 2019 with ease (over a full season).

Schwarber currently has an ADP ~139 in NFBC drafts, 36th among outfield eligible players. For someone who keeps company with the top power hitters in the game, he should be going earlier in drafts.

Here’s a comparison of power numbers between Schwarber, Sano, Cruz and Judge over the last three years.

Player HR/AB HR/AB rank SLG SLG rank
Kyle Schwarber 14.67 4th .492 4th
Miguel Sano 14.27 3rd .505 3rd
Nelson Cruz 13.07 2nd .562 2nd
Aaron Judge 12.58 1st .572 1st

In its simplest terms, despite having a comparable average exit velocity and hard-hit rate, Schwarber’s results haven’t quite matched up to the others.

The reason I believe Schwarber will be a top-5 power hitter in the next year or two also lies in his improvements over the last three seasons which we can see below.

Year K% AVG vs LHP OPS vs LHP wOBA vs LHP
2017 30.9% .171 .648 .290
2018 27.5% .224 .654 .299
2019 25.6% .229 .756 .316

Year on year growth in reducing his strikeout rate and improving against left-handed pitching as he is now entering his peak years should see Schwarber hit for more power. His batting average against left-handed pitching isn’t anything to shout about but he’s no longer a “must sit versus lefties” candidate and the power output has improved. Cutting down his strikeouts without diminishing his power has also been a big factor in his development and his career 13% BB% is also a positive sign that he is selective enough at the plate to fully harness his power.

If 2020 was a full season, I’d take the over on Schwarber’s home run total even if it was set at 45. Remember, development isn’t linear and Schwarber has improved in each of the last three seasons to now be established as a dangerous hitter and one who could lead the league in home runs and heavily outperform his current ADP.


Byron Buxton (OF, MIN)

26 years old

Byron Buxton’s current NFBC ADP is ~156. That may seem a bit high for someone who cannot stay healthy and has averaged 87 games since 2016. It was 87 games which Buxton managed last season too, following on from just 28 games in 2018. So this pick is purely based on the hope that Buxton stays healthy. If he does, we can expect him to outperform his current ADP dramatically.

Let us start by looking at his speed. Last year, Buxton had an average sprint speed of 30.3 ft/sec. Tim Locastro and Trea Turner were the only players who had better. Since his Major League debut in 2015, Buxton has never finished outside the top-3 in average sprint speed. In the 87 games he managed last year, Buxton had 14 stolen bases and back in 2017 when he played 140 games, he stole 29 bases. Throughout a full season, there’s no reason to think Buxton wouldn’t steal 30 bases.

The next reason to believe Buxton is due for a big breakout is the improvements made over the last three seasons. Below shows all the areas in which Buxton has made improvements at the plate;

Year GB% FB% LD% Barrel% Hard hit% K% wOBA ISO
2017 42.6% 22.3% 9.4% 5.6% 32.3% 29.4% .312 .160
2018 49.2% 22.2% 19.0% 1.6% 27.0% 29.8% .170 .044
2019 29.6% 27.2% 28.6% 8.3% 38.7% 23.1% .340 .251

Buxton is hitting fewer groundballs, more flyballs and more line drives. He’s also barrelling the ball more often and hitting it harder. He’s striking out less too. As we’ve said regularly, development isn’t linear and Buxton is only just entering his peak years. Even if he just maintains these gains without improving further, 20 home runs should be achieved in a full season.

We now have a 20 homers, 30 steals outfielder who is now in his peak years and that’s a projection which is purely borne from what he’s done so far, not what he could do going forward. Last year, Buxton also had a career-high batting average (.262), which shouldn’t come as a surprise given the improvements he made. Even if that maintains, it’s a serviceable average in today’s game.

The Twins also boast one of the most dangerous offenses and even if Buxton hits lower down the order, 80+ runs and RBI shouldn’t be a problem. Out of those 87 games last year,  Buxton hit ninth in the order in 72 of them. He still scored 48 runs and drove in 46.

The delay to the season could benefit Buxton more than most. It will have given him more time to condition himself and reduce the impact of the injuries he’s suffered. That’s still not a guarantee he’ll stay healthy regardless of how long a 2020 season is. Fewer games could also mean fewer chances for Buxton to get hurt. Clutching at straws perhaps, but I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.

In an era where stolen bases are fewer and farther between, finding someone with an ADP over 150 who can steal 30 bases and help across all other counting stats is like gold dust. The injury risk is factored into the cost at this stage but in a season that will have so many question marks and anomalies, the gamble on his health will return high dividends if it comes off.

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