Now that I've finally recovered from my duel battle with a fever and March Madness (solution: More Cowbell), I can return to making regular posts. Baseball season starts in less than one week, and everyone is wondering who this years' breakout players are. Projection systems such as PECOTA and ZiPS use millions of data points to predict future production based on past results. However, a lot can happen to a baseball player physically and mentally between seasons, and some look towards spring training to get an inkling of who's gonna bust out. Traditionally, spring training results are seen as the combination of small sample size and not caring. Hitters are trying to get their timing back (after all, hitting is timing) and in general swing a lot more than they would in a real game- leading to depressed on base percentages and a lot of strikeouts.
However, a tidbit I picked up reading a Baseball Prospectus article today was that there is some support for spring training results predicting regular season success. Specifically, a high slugging percentage in spring games has some correlation to "breakout seasons" by hitters. So I trotted over to the trusty statistics at mlb.com to check out who has been slugging up a storm in 2007. I picked an arbitrary cutoff of 45 plate appearances, and here is the Top 15 Sluggiest Players in spring training:
Taking a look at some of these players: Raul Ibanez had a solid yet quiet season for the last place Mariners, hitting 33 homers and 33 doubles. He'll turn 36 this season so I wouldn't expect a huge breakout, but its a good bet he could equal that production this season. Khalil Greene had a fairly average season last year, which follows an equally average season in 2005. I'm doubtful that this strong spring showing indicates a return to the form he showed in his first full season, when he hit .273/.349/.446. Despite the depressed rate stats the last two seasons, Greene has hit exactly 15 home runs in each of his three full seasons, so he's got that going for him, which is nice.
Scott Hairston has gotten a lot of at-bats for the Diamondbacks in spring training, and marks the first player on the list that I've never heard of. According to this article, Hairston stands a chance of making the Opening Day roster for the DBacks, after a very strong performance in AAA last season. While his career minor league OPS of .972 would be much more useful at second base, if he can keep up that level of production as a corner outfielder, its good news in Arizona. Derek Lee, Chase Utley, Aramis Ramirez, Vernon Wells, and Adam Dunn aren't really candidates for "breakout seasons" as they are established hitters; however, Lee had a bit of a down year in 2006, so maybe this indicates a turnaround.
Brad Eldred gets the award for the least likely to replicate the numbers in the regular season. Stuck behind Sean Casey and his bellyfullofguts, Eldred likely won't see more than 70 AB in the majors in 2007. And in those 70 AB, Eldred might strike out in 30 of them. Baseball Prospectus notes that Eldred might have a shot with a decent hitting coach as a DH, but in the National League his utility might be in pinch hitting. Yawn.
Ryan Zimmerman and Brad Hawpe are both looking to prove that their rookie and sophomore seasons, respectively, were not flukes. This sort of disqualifies them from the "breakout season" search, as they've already had this- it's unlikely that either player will match his 2006 slugging percentage. This is also sort of true for Ian Kinsler, who wins the "2006 starter I've never heard of" award- if Kinsler can keep up a .800+ OPS as a second baseman, that is very valuable for the Rangers. Michael Cuddyer, in addition to having a funny name, also had a "breakout" season in 2006, increasing his EqA to .296 from .267 in 2005; perhaps the strong spring indicates a continuation of this performance.
This narrows down the "breakout" candidates on this list to Brandon Phillips and Johnny Estrada. At age 34, Estrada is unlikely to refind the power he had in 2004, though a change of scenery to Milwaukee could do the trick. Phillips, meanwhile, could be an interesting case. The Reds' second baseman had an above average campaign in 2006, his first full season in the majors. Nothing in Phillips' past suggests slugging prowess: in seven minor league seasons, he slugged .418, though his best year came at a high level- AAA Buffalo in 2004 (.430). PECOTA thinks that Phillips' 2006 should be a typical level of production for the 24-year-old, but perhaps there is some room for improvement, based on his spring-training numbers.
Congratulations to Brandon Phillips, who shall be The Immaculate Inning's First Annual Breakout Candidate. For winning, Phillips receives a lifetime supply of Clearasil products. Enjoy!