What defines a breakout in Fantasy sports? You can read 10 different articles and get 10 different answers. The truth is there is no set definition. For me, I've always viewed a breakout candidate as a player with upside that you expect to vastly outperform their draft cost. But how does a player come to have upside? Every player is different.
I took a look at the biggest breakouts from 2020 to come up with reasons or traits for said breakouts. Here's what I found:
- Showed elite season(s) before: Trevor Bauer
- Annually undervalued: Jose Abreu
- Showed flashes in the past: Mike Yastrzemski
- Prospect pedigree: Kyle Tucker
- Change of Scenery: Dylan Bundy
- Underlying Data: Corbin Burnes
- New Approach: Zach Plesac
Will every breakout fall in these categories? No. Can a breakout fit into multiples of these? Sure. The main point of this exercise is to find players this year who are considered undervalued and might have one (or many) of these traits.
Scott White, Frank Stampfl and Chris Towers talk through their favorite sleepers, breakouts and busts for 2021 on the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast embedded below. Make sure you subscribe at Apple, Spotify or anywhere else you get your podcasts for more of our comprehensive draft prep coverage:
Perhaps this will make things more efficient when identifying those players. Nonetheless, here are some of our early candidates:
How do I describe my Fantasy relationship with Joe Musgrove? I considered many different celebrity/television couples, but I settled on Ryan and Kelly from "The Office." For anybody who has binged the series, you know Ryan and Kelly have the most complicated relationship on the show. In the end, however, they end up together. And if you haven't watched "The Office," stop reading this and go watch all of it. Now. Musgrove was recently acquired by the Padres, but that doesn't change what we saw over his final five starts. During that time, he maintained a 2.16 ERA with 13.7 K/9. Many people will be on Musgrove as a breakout, but that's OK. Many were on Zac Gallen last year, too.
Tyler Mahle SP
CIN Cincinnati • #30 • Age: 27
Tyler Mahle finally put it together for 47.2 innings in 2020. He finished the season with a 3.59 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP with a career-best 11.3 K/9. Had it qualified, Mahle's 13.8% swinging strike rate would have ranked 11th among starting pitchers, ahead of names like Trevor Bauer, Aaron Nola and Brandon Woodruff. Mahle changed up his pitch mix to get to this point, too, bringing back a slider he used back in 2018. It played up well with his mid-90s fastball and split-change. The arsenal and opportunity are both there. Mahle just has to seize it.
Austin Riley 3B
ATL Atlanta • #27 • Age: 25
On the surface, Austin Riley was a below league average hitter in 2020, but let's dig a little deeper. First, he improved the average exit velocity from 89.4 MPH in 2019 to 91 MPH in 2020. While he only hit .239 while slugging .415, his .262 xBA and .471 xSLG suggest Riley was unlucky in the shortened campaign. Most encouraging of all was Riley's improvement in plate discipline. While he hit 14 home runs in his first two months with the Braves, he walked in just 5.4% of his plate appearances while striking out 36.4% of the time. In 2020, Riley got the walk rate up to 7.8% and the strikeouts all the way down to 23.8%. If he can couple this new contact approach with the power he possesses, we could be in for a big 2021 season.
Rowdy Tellez 1B
MIL Milwaukee • #11 • Age: 27
First and foremost, I just want to send a big thank you to Michael Brantley for returning to the Houston Astros. Blue Jays fans might not want to hear that, but they have something here with Rowdy Tellez. While he only played 35 games, Tellez hit .283 with eight home runs. Like Riley, Tellez made massive strides at the dish. He lowered the strikeout rate from 28% in 2019 to 15% in 2020. Hopefully the Blue Jays don't mess around with platoons, either. The big man has handled lefties well, posting an .811 OPS against them this past season and an .831 mark in 2019. We would be looking at a .270+ hitter with 25-30 home runs. Let's get Rowdy!
Nate Lowe 1B
TEX Texas • #30 • Age: 26
While Nate Lowe will go undrafted in many leagues because of an ADP outside the top-300 picks, I invite you to re-think. Just last season we saw some of the biggest breakouts come from the same range in Trent Grisham, Teoscar Hernandez and Corbin Burnes. Lowe finally leaves the constraints of Tampa Bay for an everyday role with the Texas Rangers. He comes with an extensive minor-league track record, hitting 27 home runs with a .985 OPS in 2018. He followed that up with 16 homers and a .929 OPS in 2019. In Lowe you have a hitter with a strong eye at the plate who I believe can contribute in both batting average and home runs.
PHI Philadelphia • #8 • Age: 30
Last year, I became so enamored with Castellanos' potential in Cincinnati's ballpark that I began comparing him to early-round mainstays like Nolan Arenado and J.D. Martinez. Won't you join me in doubling down? Sure, it seems like it was woefully misguided at first glance, but a second glance will show you that he deserved much better than he got, with Statcast putting his expected batting average at .273 and expecting slugging percentage at .542. And that was with a career-worst strikeout rate that's easy enough to attribute to the small sample. More than anything, though, it's Castellanos' .257 BABIP in spite of his typically elite line-drive rate that suggests he was a hard-luck case all the way around. He's about where Marcell Ozuna was at this time last year in terms of expected results vs. actual results, and a comparable course correction would be unsurprising.
LAD L.A. Dodgers • #16 • Age: 27
The read on Smith at this time a year ago was a three-true-outcomes hitter who might not hit for enough average to warrant everyday at-bats, so when the Dodgers began fading him early on, it seemed like they had made their assessment known. But in part-time duty that prickly caterpillar of a profile became a breathtaking butterfly, Smith's strikeout rate going from one end of the spectrum (26.5 percent) to the other (16.1 percent). That's like the difference between Pete Alonso and Whit Merrifield. He no longer sold out so hard for power, giving him a sturdier BABIP base, and his walk rate blew up, too. And seeing as he started all but one of the team's postseason games, the Dodgers may be done fading him.
PIT Pittsburgh • #13 • Age: 25
It'll take more than 95 plate appearances to win the hearts and minds of the masses, but what I saw from Hayes in his September debut was enough to convince me I had him all wrong. Sure, his minor-league production always left much to be desired, making it easy to attribute his consistently high prospect standing to defensive prowess alone. But defensive prowess requires a level of athleticism that could then translate to the other side of the game, especially when contact skills have already been established. Bottom line is the dude crushed the ball in his first exposure to major-league pitching, making hard contact to all fields with more over-the-fence power than he ever showed in the minors. He wouldn't be the first with his profile to find the next gear immediately upon reaching the highest level.
Musgrove didn't have a single double digit-strikeout effort in his first 106 appearances but then had two to end 2020, which goes to show you what kind of heights he was reaching to end last season, when he regained the velocity on his fastball after some early triceps issues and started playing his slider off his curveball in a way he never had before. His 14.4 percent swinging-strike rate would have ranked among the top 10 qualifiers, alongside Yu Darvish, and his 3.19 xFIP was better than Trevor Bauer's. Musgrove has historically been an elite strike-thrower, allowing him to pitch six and seven innings with ease, and now with San Diego, he has the supporting cast to make it hold up.
John Means SP
BAL Baltimore • #47 • Age: 29
Means' spike in velocity (about 2 mph) was there from the start of 2020 but easy enough to overlook when it didn't make for better results. It all changed after six starts, though, when his swinging-strike rate jumped from its typically uninspiring 8.7 percent to a Gerrit Cole-like 15.7 percent for his final four starts. What it meant for his forward-facing numbers was just as notable: His K/9 went from 5.4 to 11.4 and his ERA from 8.10 to 1.52. Maybe it was just a weird blip to end a weird season, or maybe it was the logical next step for a pitcher who saw one of the biggest improvements in pure stuff and already had a mastery of the strike zone, issuing no more than one walk in any of his 10 starts.
Yoan Moncada 3B
CHW Chi. White Sox • #10 • Age: 27
I'm discounting 2020 pretty heavily for a lot of reasons, but especially for players who dealt with COVID-19. Moncada seemed to get a pretty bad version of it, admitting in the offseason he never felt like he was at full strength when he returned, and he looked like it. Moncada put up career-worst batted-ball numbers pretty much across the board and saw aggressiveness at the plate slip after his breakout 2019. That all sounds like a guy who was dealing with fatigue all season, and I'll still buy the prodigious tools in a great lineup.
HOU Houston • #44 • Age: 25
It's not a great sign that a 23-year-old had to have surgery on both of his knees to address a chronic condition, but let's not forget that Alvarez is just one year removed from 50 homers in 143 games between Triple-A and the majors. He could be one of the very best hitters in baseball, and the injury discount makes it a lot easier to swallow the risk.
LAA L.A. Angels • #17 • Age: 27
Another guy who gets a mulligan here, I'm hoping 2021 will be the year Ohtani puts it all together on both sides of his game, but the pitching side is still where I think he's most interesting. Obviously health is a gigantic question at this point, but in a league context where many teams will likely be rolling with six-man rotations, Ohtani's innings limitations may matter less than ever. And there's still ace upside here for the 26-year-old.
Keston Hiura 1B
MIL Milwaukee • #18 • Age: 25
Hiura was one of my biggest disappointments in 2020, as he failed to improve his contact issues while taking a step backwards in his quality of contact. He's got big swing-and-miss issues in his game, both in terms of plate discipline and actual contact, but it's still worth betting on the prodigious ability here, especially since Hiura was a good contact hitter in the minors. Don't forget, we're still just 143 games into his MLB career and one year removed from a .303/.368/.570 line.
MIA Miami • #45 • Age: 23
You watch Sanchez and you wonder how he could possibly be just an average strikeout pitcher given his pure stuff. The most likely outcome seems him end up settling in as a Jose Berrios type who suppresses hard contact and walks while feeling like a bit of a Fantasy disappointment, but he'd still be a must-start option. Then, there's the world where he uses the sinker a bit less and his other pitches a bit more and develops into a true front-line ace. There are innings concerns here, but that may matter less in 2020 for Fantasy than any other year in baseball history.