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Extremely Deep Sleepers: Hitters Edition

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Who will be this year’s Tommy Pham or Luke Voit? Honestly who knows, but these guys look like the most likely suspects to “breakout of nowhere”.

USA TODAY Sports/Peter Rogers Illustrations

For the past couple of years we have seen players like Luke Voit, Jesus Aguilar, Tommy Pham, and Whit Merrifield seemingly appear out of nowhere and start to make names for themselves in the fantasy industry. Whether it was due to playing time, injuries, or even just raw ability, these players were left off many experts’ sleepers lists and you can’t necessarily blame them. If a player is a 27-year-old journeyman who will likely start the season in the minors, you shouldn’t have these players on your draft list and be telling other people to draft them as well. In this post, I will try to go over some of these potential breakout candidates who could “come out of nowhere” and help your fantasy team down the stretch. You should probably skip on most these players on draft day, and there are probably only two players on this list I would even consider taking in your upcoming drafts.

Also, I’ll be doing a giveaway over on Twitter for some autographs on past “out of nowhere breakout players”, which includes R.A. Dickey, Rich Hill, and Charlie Morton, so if you like autograph memorabilia, come on over.

*Note that the hard contact rates quoted in this post are those from Baseball Savant.

Catcher

Michael Perez, Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays don’t have many options at the catcher position, so as long as they don’t sign another catcher this offseason, Perez should be their catcher on Opening Day. With a top 15 pop time and one of the best arms in the league, Perez’s defense should keep him in the lineup, but it’s his offense I’m most excited about. With a revamped swing, Perez has become a heavy line drive hitter, which gives him the ability to post a BABIP well above .300. Although he doesn’t have tremendous raw power, he could still be a 20+ home run threat at the major league level due to a healthy fly ball rate. He will be aggressive at the plate but still keeps his strike zone tight. This should help him lower the 23.8% strikeout rate he posted at the major leagues last season, which should make him a safe pick for fantasy. Due to his relatively high floor, I’m fine with taking Perez at the end of any twelve team drafts, just as long as the Rays keep from signing another catcher this offseason.

First Base

Jose Miguel Fernandez, Los Angeles Angels

Fernandez is already 30 years old, but this will only be his third season as a professional in a major league organization. With a healthy contact rate and an aggressive approach at the plate, he should post a strikeout rate below 14.0% this season. His aggressiveness at the plate combined with his high contact rate will likely lead to a below average walk rate. Last season he had line drive rate above 23.0% at both Triple-A and the majors, which gives him the potential of a .300 player. He doesn’t hit many fly balls but with his high amount of batted ball events and 36.6% hard contact rate, we could see Fernandez hit 25+ home runs at the major league level. With his versatility and the Angels lack of depth, Fernandez could carve out a spot in the Opening Day lineup.

Peter O’Brien, Miami Marlins

O’Brien was seen as one of the best power-hitting prospects coming up through the minor leagues, but there have been concerns about his plate discipline, poor contact ability, and potentially low BABIP. Although he still profiles as a swing-and-miss type player, he has improved his plate discipline and quality of contact stats. Across all three levels last seasons, O’Brien had a line drive rate above 22.0%, which included a very impressive 28.9% line drive rate as part of the Miami Marlins. With a hard contact rate above 50.0% last season and more fly balls than ground balls, there is no question that O’Brien has the potential to hit 35+ home runs at the major league level. This amount of power is hard to come by off the waiver wire. Due to his low contact rate and tremendous batted ball profile, O’Brien has one of the biggest disparities between his floor and ceiling among his other colleagues in the league. Worst case scenario we are probably looking at a Daniel Palka type player, but the best case scenario is that of a less patient Aaron Judge. With his amount of upside, O’Brien may be worth keeping an eye on in 2019.

Second Base

Erik Gonzalez, Cleveland Indians

Gonzalez has never hit 15 home runs, so it may be a little surprising that over his 275 career plate appearances he has a hard contact rate of 41.6%. The reason for his lack of power is likely due to the horrendous career 22.0% fly ball rate he has at the major league level. Although his lack of fly balls is quite disappointing, his ability to hit line drives should make him a high BABIP player. With his improved contact rate last season, his strikeout will likely stay below 26.0%. I wouldn’t recommend taking Gonzalez in any of your drafts, but if he can carve out some playing and improve his fly ball rate, then he could become an fantasy All-Star.

Luis Rengifo, Los Angeles Angles

Rengifo made a name for himself last season as he made his way through three levels and had a batting average over .300 in two of those levels. He also has a patient approach at the plate, which when combined with his above average speed, helped him steal 41 bases between all three levels. His emergence as a breakout prospect is likely due to cutting down his infield fly ball rate. Now he doesn’t feature a lot of power, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see 10-15 home runs from him as long as he keeps the ground ball rate below 50.0%. As I stated earlier in this post, the Angels don’t have much depth in their infield, so we could see Rengifo emerge as the Angels’ second baseman at some point this upcoming season.

Third Base

David Bote, Chicago Cubs

Bote was an unsung hero for the Cubs’ fans last season, and the name probably doesn’t ring many bells for people outside of Chicago. With a 52.8% hard contact rate over his 210 plate appearances last season, I am very intrigued in his future endeavors. With that hard contact, however, came a lot of ground balls. With that being said, I expect his ground ball to regress more towards his minor league numbers, but I also expect some regression to his hard contact rate as well. He does have above average speed according to Baseball Savant, but we haven’t seen him run much throughout his professional career. With a contact rate below 70.0% in the majors, Bote profiles to have a high strikeout rate. This added with a below average line drive rate could lead to a batting average below .250. If his hard contact rate stays around 50.0% while adding more lift to the ball, however, we could be looking at a potential star in the making.

Shortstop

Tyler Saladino, SS, Milwaukee Brewers

Saladino has never been much of a power guy, well at least not until last season. Last season Saladino had a tremendous 43.2% hard contact rate, which supposedly had a lot to do with a change to his swing after he was traded to Milwaukee. Apparently, the White Sox had him get rid of his leg kick, but the Brewers pointed out that his power numbers were better with it. This is likely why his hard contact hard soared to near elite levels in 2018. With that hard contact rate came a 25.0% line drive rate and 42.4% fly ball rate, which are both career highs for him. Sadly, this newfound power may come with some more swing and miss tendencies. Since coming over to the Brewers, he had a career-low 70.7% contact rate, which is 10.1% lower than his career average. Now with that power also comes some speed. With a 28.6 sprint speed, an aggressive approach on the basepath, and a team that is known for letting their players run, Saladino could be on pace to steal over twenty bags in 2019. With the emergence of Orlando Arcia in the playoffs and an infield loaded with power bats, Saladino will likely struggle to get everyday at-bats with the Brewers, but if something were to change, then I may just head over to the waiver and add the 29-year-old utility-man in hopes of a breakout season.

Outfield

Austin Dean, OF, Miami Marlins

At first glance, Dean’s .221/.279/.363 slash line and 79 wRC+ over his first 122 plate appearances as a major leaguer are quite unimpressive. Luckily for fantasy owners looking for a steal on the waiver wire, this poor start overshadows some encouraging peripherals. With a 20.9% line drive rate and 34.1% hard contact rate, Dean’s horrific .241 BABIP as a major leaguer looks unsustainable. At Triple-A last season he owned an even more impressive 25.3% line drive which led to a .360 BABIP, but I would expect his BABIP to be somewhere in between the two. With his ability to make consistent contact added with an improved BABIP should lead to a respectable batting average from the now 25-year-old outfielder. Now that 34.1% hard contact rate should also help him hit some dingers in 2019. Sadly, his ground ball to fly ball ratio will likely be around 1.50, and his pitcher-friendly-home-park will likely suppress some of his power. Even with those factors going against him, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him put up a home run total in the high teens or even in the low twenties. Not only can Dean hit for power and average, but he could also be a good source for stolen bases. With his above-average speed, we could see double-digit steals. Sadly, since eighteen steal season back in 2015, it seems like Dean has become a lot more conservative on the basepath. He is currently listed as the starting left fielder for the Marlins, so he should get a decent amount of playing in 2019. If he becomes more aggressive on the basepath, then we could see him emerge as a viable fantasy option to man your outfield.

Jake Cave, OF, Minnesota Twins

Cave quietly put up a respectable season offensively for the Twins in which he .269/.316/.481 over his 309 plate appearances for them. His success last season was due in main part to an incredible 25.7% line drive rate and 38.2% hard contact rate that led to a .368 BABIP. With a 33.0% strikeout rate last season, Cave needed that high BABIP to be a serviceable major league outfielder. Now although I expect that strikeout rate to regress under 30.0%, he still profiles as a high strikeout player due to a 71.5% contact rate and likelihood to chase out of the zone. Luckily for him and any fantasy owners willing to take a shot on the 25-year-old, he has had line drive rates around 25.0% throughout his minor league career. This ability to drive the ball should continue to lead to high BABIP’s throughout his major league career, but I’m expecting his BABIP to be more around .330 rather than the .368 it was this past season. With a ground ball to fly ball ratio around 1.5, Cave may struggle with his power at times. Even with this groundball rate, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him put up 20+ home runs this upcoming season. He is currently the starting right fielder on the Twins’ depth chart, so Cave could be a player to watch and pick up if he gets off to a hot start.

Pablo Reyes, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates

Reyes is an unknown prospect in the Pirates system, but his skills show the potential of a fantasy star. Now he only had 47 batted ball events last season, but in that short amount of time, he hit 48.9% of those batted balls with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph. With a ground ball to fly ball ratio close to 1:1, this raw power could lead to 20+ home runs at the major league level. Now Reyes doesn’t walk much, but the nice thing about him compared to other players with below average walk rates is that he is still quite patient at the plate. With 23.1% chase rate and 43.2% swing rate, his low walk rate is most likely due to the amount of balls he sees inside the zone and his high contact rate. That high contact rate should also help lead to a strikeout rate somewhere around 15.0-18.0%, which is fantastic since he is a potentially low BABIP player. I say that due to the below average line drive rates he posted last season, but luckily his speed could help that BABIP out. Currently, it doesn’t look like Reyes will have the playing time to be a buy-low candidate on draft day, but if something changes. If he can grab everyday at-bats, then I would go to waiver wire and add the 25-year-old outfielder to my roster.