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Five Breakout Hitters for 2015: Harper, Arenado, Maybin and others

Ray analyzes five hitters who have had breakout seasons in 2015, including Bryce Harper, Cameron Maybin and others, and determines whether the breakout is for real or not.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

It wouldn't be fantasy baseball unless we were able to talk about hitters who have exceeded our expectations, and who are having breakout seasons. This year, just like every other year, we have our share of breakout hitters across baseball who are impacting fantasy rosters and fantasy leagues through the first two months of the season.

I could have included some of the impact rookies in this piece, rookies like Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant or Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson, but I decided to leave them out and include them in a different piece for this weekend or later next week. This article will be limited to players who have been in the league for a few seasons, and who are exceeding some of our wildest expectations thus far.

I will write a similar article discussing some breakout pitchers next week as well. With that said, let's take a look at some breakout hitters:

Bryce Harper, Nationals

We have been waiting for this type of breakout from Harper ever since he was called up to the big leagues, but injuries derailed him until this season. Now 100% healthy, Harper has shown us what type of hitter he will be going forward. Through 59 games, Harper is hitting .328-.464-.707 with 20 home runs, 45 runs scored, 47 RBI and 3 stolen bases in 250 plate appearances. He has improved his plate discipline dramatically, improving his walk rate from under 10% to 20%, and his strikeout rate from 26% to 20%, so he is walking as much as he is striking out this season, a characteristic of many of the best hitters in the game. The home runs should keep coming, as he is hitting more fly balls (45% vs 35%) and his hard hit % is up almost 10% as well.

Nolan Arenado, Rockies

I was high on Arenado coming into the season, ranking him as my sixth ranked fantasy third baseman in our preseason consensus position rankings. Arenado is building on his power breakout last season, as he is hitting .270-.304-.545 with 15 home runs, 31 runs scored and 47 RBI in 237 plate appearances. He has almost equaled his 2014 production in 200 fewer plate appearances.

2014: .287-.328-.500, 18 HRs, 58 runs, 61 RBI, 467 plate appearances

2015: .270-.304-.545, 15 HRs, 31 runs, 47 RBI, 237 plate appearances

His batted ball data indicates he is hitting more fly balls this season, and more of them are landing in the seats. In addition, he is hitting fewer infield fly balls and fewer line drives. The fewer line drives have depressed his batting average and his BABIP thus far, and has come at the expense of more fly balls. It appears he is trading batting average for power this season, and that is a welcome change for his owners. ZiPS projects him to hit 14 more home runs and drive in 51 more runs the rest of the season, so he is on the cusp of a 30 home run, 100 RBI season, which is definitely within reach if he can stay healthy.

Brandon Crawford, Giants

Crawford quietly put up a pretty good 2014 season, where he hit .246 with 10 home runs, 54 runs scored and drove in 69 runs. This season, he is building on that mini-power breakout, as he is slugging close to .500 and his ISO sits above .200 right now. Through 232 plate appearances, Crawford is hitting .287-.358-.498 with 9 home runs, 30 runs scored and 40 RBI, and should easily exceed his 2014 season stats.

Among all fantasy shortstops, Crawford ranks #1 in RBI with 40, ranks in the top five in batting average, and in the top three in runs scored and RBI. How is he doing it? Well, he is making harder contact this year than last based on his 34% HARD% vs 29% in 2014 resulting in a huge increase in his HR/FB% from 6.5% last season to 17% this season. That could drop going forward, but a 15-18 home run, 80-85 RBI season would put him among the top fantasy shortstop conversation in the offseason.

A.J. Pollock, Diamondbacks

I wrote about Pollock a few days ago in my Wednesday Roto Roundup, and here is the excerpt:

One of the bigger surprises of the 2015 fantasy season is the performance of Diamondbacks outfiedler A.J. Pollock. We ranked Pollock as out 51st ranked outfielder in our consensus rankings back in the preseason, and he is easily exceeding that ranking through the first two months of the season. It helps that he hits in one of the better hitting environments in the game in Arizona, and that he hits in front of possibly the best hitter in the game right now in Paul Golschmidt. Ok, maybe best fantasy hitter, but he is up there.

Back to Pollock. Looking at his stats through 56 games this season, they are almost identical to his 2014 season stats (75 games):

2014: .302-.353-.498, 7 HRs, 41 runs, 24 RBI, 14 SBs, 287 PA

2015: .321-.369-.495, 7 HRs, 40 runs, 27 RBI, 14 SBs, 236 PA

Pretty wild, huh? His walk and strikeout rates are virtually identical as well. His line drive rate, HR/FB% and Hard hit% are all up vs last season, so he is making harder contact when he does barrel the ball. ZiPS projects him to basically duplicate his season to date stats for the rest of the season, so he is on pace for 14 home runs, 84 runs scored, 55 RBI and 27 stolen bases according to ZiPS.

On the other hand, ESPN projects him to hit 20 home runs and steal 40 bases. Should he be able to meet those projections, he could be a top 10 outfielder by the end of the season. Or maybe higher.

I am not sure he can hit 20 home runs, but I could see him hitting 12-15 home runs and stealing more than 30 bases this season. And before you say he won't hit .300, he hit .300 or better in three of his minor league seasons. He is making more hard contact this year than in the past as well.

Cameron Maybin, Braves

Maybin was pretty much all but forgotten by most fantasy owners after the Padres traded for outfielders Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers this offseason. But, he was included in the big trade that sent Craig Kimbrel to the Padres on Easter Sunday, breathing new life into his fantasy value, as he was given the chance to play center field every day, and has run with it.

The former top prospect is finally healthy and is having a breakout season in his age 28 season. He is currently hitting .297-.371-.413 with 5 home runs, 24 runs scored, 29 RBI and 10 stolen bases in 13 attempts. The bump in batting average comes as a result of a big jump in his line drive rate from 17% last season to 27% this season. He may not hit for power like others on this list, but if he can keep his line drive rate in the 20-25% range, he should hit in the .270 range, and could steal 20-25 bases.

There are a few other players having breakout seasons that I missed in this piece, including Athletics catcher Stephen Vogt, Giants second baseman Joe Panik and Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas.

Who else did I miss?