Fantasy Baseball: How legit are these 12 surprise breakout hitters, from Josh Bell to Jorge Polanco to Hunter Pence?

I'm going to preface this column with a similar disclaimer to the one I used in the pitcher version: There's not a thing wrong with rostering any of these hitters.

By now, they've all been productive enough for long enough that you don't have to squint terribly hard to see it continuing, at least to a degree that's still useful. There's a case to be made for all 12 of them, and when you have a need, you only get so many of these opportunities to fill it.

So this exercise is less about adding and dropping and more about understanding what your level investment should be, whether in making a trade or considering who to drop for that next hot hitter emerging on the waiver wire.

I've short-handed the process somewhat by assigning each of these players a rating on my legitimacy scale, which ranges from "confident" to "hopeful" to "skeptical" to "doubtful." Hint: Only the "doubtfuls" are the ones I'd feel OK dropping if something better came along. I realize my hand may be forced for some of those further up the legitimacy scale, but it's less than optimal.

Understand that when discussing the legitimacy of these hitters, it's less about the exact numbers and more about the likelihood they'll remain an integral part of your lineup all year. Kind of goes without saying Tommy La Stella won't hit 35 homers this year.

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Josh Bell PIT • 1B • 55
2019 season
BA.324
HR10
OPS1.050
AB142
K36

Josh Bell has always been the physical specimen with the glowing scouting reports and the impressive batting eye. He just needed to put the ball in the air more. He started down that path a year ago, which hurt him in the short term, but the commitment is paying off now. He's not just elevating the ball but doing so with authority, boasting an average exit velocity akin to Joey Gallo and Christian Yelich. And that it hasn't come at the expense of his existing skills makes this year's production seem like a natural buildup point. There will be some small regression, in all likelihood, but not enough to topple his MVP-caliber production.
Legitimacy scale: confident

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Yandy Diaz TB • 3B • 2
2019 season
BA.267
HR9
OPS.895
AB135
K25

The problem for Yandy Diaz is that the data only sort of backs up the narrative. If he could learn to elevate the ball better, the theory went, his hard-hitting tendencies would translate to home runs, and it's true his fly-ball rate is up this year. But he's still hitting mostly ground balls. The overall launch angle is still substandard. Regardless, the home runs have come — he hit more Saturday (two) than he had in  299 major-league plate appearances prior to this year. So maybe his issue was as much the absurdly low 4.8 home run-to-fly rate last year, which is up to 24.3 this year — high, yes, but not outrageously high for someone who hits the ball as hard as he does. Even if it lands at a happy medium, his exceptional plate discipline assures he'll be in a good place.
Legitimacy scale: hopeful

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Hunter Dozier KC • 3B • 17
2019 season
BA.318
HR9
OBP.413
OPS1.034
AB132

There were no glowing scouting reports or popular theories regarding Hunter Dozier. He was just that dude who might have to play some because the Royals didn't have anyone better. Needless to say, he has exceeded expectations in most every facet so far — and in ways that are logically explained. The home runs? His fly-ball and hard-hit rates are exactly what you'd expect to see from a power hitter, something akin to Trevor Story last year. The batting average? He's owed some regression there, but he puts bat on ball, striking out at about the rate Christian Yelich did last year. The on-base skills are where he really stands out — the walk rate is something close to elite. No, the total package won't be quite this good, but it'll be good.
Legitimacy scale: hopeful

Mitch Garver C •
2019 season
BA.333
HR8
OBP.425
OPS1.159
AB75

We've grown so accustomed to the impact prospect that we expect every new face to be his best possible self right away, but at catcher especially, where the defensive demands are far greater than any other position, it's not always true. So now it's a surprise that second-year player Mitch Garver is looking more like the guy who had a .928 OPS in his final minor-league season, homering 17 times in 372 plate appearances. His actual numbers are of course comically high, but those who'd suggest it's a total mirage, just the product of a big weekend, have been proven wrong about four times over now. He faces competition from Willians Astudillo and Jason Castro, who are both also off to good starts, but his piece of the pie continues to grow at a position where at-bats are the least of our concerns anyway. Garver is the one with the staying power, both offensively and defensively.
Legitimacy scale: skeptical, but mostly because of the playing time

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Alex Gordon KC • LF • 4
2019 season
BA.296
HR8
OPS.923
AB142
K21



As a 35-year-old four years removed from his last Fantasy-relevant season and seemingly just playing out the string of a bloated contract, Alex Gordon continues to defy expectations, but explanations remain elusive. The clearest change in terms of profile is that he's striking out much, much less — like, Michael Brantley levels — which is certainly good, but there hasn't been a huge jump in fly-ball or hard-hit rate to explain the rise in power. In fact, his reduced line-drive rate is actually robbing him of potential on balls in play. There have been reports of Gordon altering his batting stance last August, but it's not like he finished last year comparatively strong. Especially given his age, I remain content in my disbelief.
Legitimacy scale: doubtful

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Tommy La Stella LAA • 2B • 9
2019 season
BA.272
HR10
OPS.947
AB103
K8

Perhaps no player on this list has done as complete of an about-face as Tommy La Stella, a 30-year-old who has proven to be so devoid of power in both the minors and majors (the latter mostly coming in a reserve role for the Cubs) that it's like he was an exaggerated throwback. So yeah, his fly-ball rate is way up this year, which is the surest way to improve one's home run output and almost certainly by design, but  ... well, he has as many home runs in just his two-homer games (six) as in the previous two years combined — and in a third of the at-bats! Clearly, it's hard to believe, but if it can become enough to move him into an everyday role, no longer sitting against left-handers, his contact rate is so outrageously high that he might make a Fantasy impact regardless. He has a .198 BABIP, for crying out loud.
Legitimacy scale: doubtful, but he's fun

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Brandon Lowe TB • 2B • 8
2019 season
BA.288
HR8
OPS.886
AB132
K51

It pains me to put Brandon Lowe on the lower half the legitimacy scale given that he's a preseason sleeper of mine gone good, but the Lowe I foresaw wasn't one who struck out 35 percent of the time. To put that in perspective, just 30 percent is he-might-not-be-able-to-survive-this bad. But 35? That's the sort of rate that gets us asking if Joey Gallo will ever be more than a .200 hitter. And Lowe doesn't hit the ball like Gallo does. He has good power — his 22 homers in 380 minor-league at-bats last year showed us that — and it's especially valuable at second base, but his success so far is built on a .405 BABIP. My hope for him is that such a rate doesn't have to be his norm — he showed much better plate discipline in an even longer big-league stint last year — but skepticism is warranted.
Legitimacy scale: skeptical

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Hunter Pence TEX • DH • 24
2019 season
BA.316
HR7
OPS1.047
AB79
K16

Describing Hunter Pence as a breakout hitter when he's a 36-year-old with an All-Star track record is awkward, to be sure, but after he was chased away from a Giants team desperate for offense, he set out to reinvent himself this offseason, working with hitting guru Doug Latta of look-what-Justin Turner-became fame to optimize his swing. And he has done nothing but crush the ball since arriving at Rangers camp. It was easy enough to dismiss this spring, but now that he's carried it over to the regular season, he's rightfully finding his way into more and more at-bats. It's a long shot, but I'm at least curious to see where it goes.
Legitimacy scale: doubtful 

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Jorge Polanco MIN • SS • 11
2019 season
BA.327
HR8
OPS1.013
AB150
K24

Jorge Polanco already had a number of things working for him coming into this year, such as a low strikeout rate and a high-BABIP profile, the result of his line drive-oriented approach. Not only has he built on those strengths, but he's added new ones, upping his fly-ball rate right as he enters his mid-20s for a power explosion that few saw coming. And yet it hasn't cut into his line-drive rate. He just stopped putting the ball on the ground, in what may be the most optimal way possible, and seeing as he's also striking out less than ever, I have a hard time seeing how it all goes wrong. Even his .342 BABIP isn't necessarily unsustainable for him. It was .345 last year, for goodness sake.
Legitimacy scale: confident

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Dwight Smith BAL • LF • 35
2019 season
BA.286
HR8
SB4
OPS.844
AB147

Dwight Smith, son of former Braves pinch-hitter (and occasional national anthem singerDwight Smith, is the first ever major-leaguer from my high school, so I'll own my bias. It's there. Nonetheless, there are signs of legitimacy in his performance. He has always had a knack for putting bat on ball, so he hasn't needed an outlandish BABIP to achieve his batting average, and while the home run pace may be a little out of character, there's nothing in the batted-ball profile that suggests it's totally out of line. He could stand to lose a few of the homers if he runs a little more, going 4 for 4 in stolen bases so far. Not like the bottom-feeder Orioles have anything to lose by sending him.
Legitimacy scale: skeptical

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Daniel Vogelbach SEA • DH • 20
2019 season
BA.248
HR10
OBP.394
OPS.981
AB109

The timing of this particular take could be better seeing as Daniel Vogelbach is mired in an 9-for-58 (.155) slump, but his BABIP during that stretch is also below .200. As long as the Mariners keep running him out there, I'll keep the faith, and well, why wouldn't they? He's so good at getting on base and has been such an efficient power source that he still boasts a .981 OPS in spite of his slump. The slump will eventually end. It's not like he strikes out at such a high rate or hits line drives at such a low rate that batting average should be a longstanding concern, and his minor-league stats are something to swoon over. There are defensive limitations and platoon concerns that might rob him of chances with some other organization, but on the rebuilding Mariners, now appears to be his time.
Legitimacy scale: somewhere between skeptical and hopeful

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Christian Walker ARI • 1B • 53
2019 season
BA.292
HR8
OPS.943
AB144
K50

A 30 percent strikeout rate is too high for anybody and would normally make a newcomer like Christian Walker a no-go for me. But the players who've shown they can beat it are the ones who hit the ball so impossibly hard that they make every connection count — guys like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. Walker, when he makes contact, makes especially loud contact. In fact, FanGraphs has him with the highest hard-hit rate in all of baseball — ahead of even Joey Gallo, who's considered an outlier in his own right. Judging by the numbers Walker put up in the minors the past two years, homering 50 times in 217 games, he was so ready for this opportunity.
Legitimacy scale: hopeful

Senior Fantasy Writer

Raised in Atlanta by a board game-loving family during the dawn of the '90s Braves dynasty, Scott White was easy prey for the Fantasy Sports, in particular Fantasy Baseball, and has devoted his adulthood... Full Bio

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