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Real or Fake? Analyzing 5 breakout hitters for 2021 fantasy baseball

Advanced stats can help us determine if a hitter’s performance is sustainable over time.

Pete Rogers Illustrations

One of the most important exercises a fantasy baseball manager needs to do is discerning fluky performances from sustainable ones. It’s not always easy, but we are here to help you make some tough decisions!

We will examine five breakout hitting performances of the 2020 season and use statistics and Statcast data to determine whether they were real or fake.

Dominic Smith, 1B/OF, Mets

With regular at-bats, Smith finally delivered on the promise that made him a first-round pick back in 2013. He slashed .316/.377/.616 with a 165 wRC+ and 10 home runs in 50 games, a little over 30 per-162 contests.

While there is a rather sizable difference between Smith’s .405 wOBA and his .374 expected wOBA (xwOBA,) his performance was no fluke, as his expected batting average was .304 (in the top 5% of the league) and he finished with a .568 expected slugging percentage (top 6%.)

Smith took a step forward thanks to substantial gains in barrel percentage (from 7.5% in 2019 to 13.3% in 2020) and hard-hit rate (34.8 to 46.7) and is now a mainstay in the Mets’ lineup. His .368 BABIP indicates that he played a little bit over his head, but Smith is legitimate.

Verdict: REAL

Ryan Mountcastle, 1B/OF, Orioles

Mountcastle, a big-time prospect in the Baltimore Orioles’ system, took the league by storm after slashing .333/.386/.492 with five homers and a 139 wRC+ in 35 games. Is he for real, though?

He was below-average in exit velocity (he ranked in the 26th percentile with 87.4 mph) and barrel percentage (43rd percentile) while sporting a very high 16.2% swinging strike percentage (SwStr%.)

We can safely conclude that his .333 batting average was a fluke based on his .398 BABIP. He sported high BABIPs in the minors but with not too many liners (19.4% in 2020) his AVG is bound to go down. His above-average sprint speed (78th percentile) could help him, though.

Mountcastle is a free-swinger (42.0% O-Swing%) that can be a successful hitter in the majors, but to truly take a step forward he needs to do a better job laying off the bad pitches. With his current profile, he can be a .285-.290 guy, but he is not a .330+ AVG batter. His contributions in the power department and in the run-scoring stats are relatively modest, so be careful not to overpay for him on draft day.

Verdict: FAKE

Alex Verdugo, OF, Red Sox

Alex Verdugo is a fine defensive outfielder, and he’s not a bad hitter. However, when you check his .308/.367/.478 line in 2020, you see a .356 wOBA. That figure, if we consider his quality of contact, walks, and strikeouts, leaves us with a poor .291 xwOBA. The .065 differential between the two numbers was the third biggest in MLB.

In reality, Verdugo didn’t hit the ball very hard: he had an 87 mph average exit velocity (20th percentile,) plus a bottom-third ranking in hard-hit rate at 34.4%.

He is still young and can evolve into a legitimate mixed-league asset. But he’s not quite there right now. Not until he hits the ball harder and lifts it consistently (52.2% ground ball rate).

Verdict: FAKE

Wil Myers, 1B/OF, Padres

More like full-blown breakout, Myers was a resurgent story in 2020. He slashed .288/.353/.606 with a 154 wRC+, his best numbers since his debut season back in 2013. With 15 home runs in just 55 games, his per-162 pace was around 40.

Myers’ success was validated by his Statcast profile. He ranked in the 82nd percentile in exit velocity and hard-hit rate, 93rd percentile in xwOBA, 84th percentile in xBA, 95th percentile in xSLG, and 93rd percentile in barrel percentage. Basically, he crushed the ball and did it consistently.

And while he didn’t quite show it in 2020, his 85th percentile sprint speed and past success in the category indicates that he can steal some bases, too. This, my friends, was a real breakthrough.

Verdict: REAL

Jake Cronenworth, 2B, Padres

Seen as a secondary piece in a trade between the San Diego Padres and the Tampa Bay Rays, Cronenworth managed to put on a show in his debut season. He was considered for the National League Rookie of the Year award and slashed .285/.354/.477 with a 125 wRC+, four homers and three steals while covering several positions in the Friars’ infield.

As difficult it may be to believe, Cronenworth was actually very unlucky. He finished with a .350 wOBA, but his expected wOBA was .383. That last number was the 14th highest in MLB.

With a compact swing that produces lots of liners (25.2% in 2020) Cronenworth figures to see a lot of time in San Diego’s left field. In some leagues, he will be eligible at SS, 1B, and OF. Get him at a discount and enjoy the ride.

Verdict: REAL