The new minor league season is upon us and with it comes the hopes of finding the next breakouts. Entering 2018, not many were familiar with Vidal Brujan, Kristian Robinson, either of the Luis Garcias, and many more. While ideally we’d love to wait and see which hot starts are real, in competitive leagues we’re not afforded that luxury, so we have to act sooner than we’d probably like. I wanted to break down how I go about finding the pop up guys and what traits a player has to catch my attention.
Identifying Breakout Hitters
Age Relative To Performance: When gushing over Vladimir Guerrero Jr, what’s one of the first things you say? “…and he did all that last year as a 19-year-old!” Age is always the first thing I look at before diving into someone’s numbers. Why do we care that Washington’s Luis Garcia is starting in Double-A? Because he’s 18 and that’s a league where his average competition is 23 years old. Imagine being a senior in high school and not sucking against someone who just graduated from, say Vanderbilt. So if a prospect who’s young for his level is not only holding his own but excelling, take note immediately.
Plus Hit Tool: I debated adding “or Power” to this category, but I’m finding my philosophy shifting in the last year. If you have a 60 hit tool, you’re going to maximize your power output by way of having superior barrel control and a likely all-fields approach. I’m less interested today in the pull-heavy power players who are often susceptible to the soft stuff away and would likely get eaten alive with major league shifts. You’re not going to find an elite fantasy prospect that doesn’t have a plus hit tool. Brayan Rocchio is a guy that I’d target with regards to this blurb.
Approach at the plate: If a player can showcase above-average plate discipline, it means they have an understanding of balls and strikes and therefore a better shot of barreling the right pitches. It’s important to supplement with some live looks to ensure a player is not just being passive. But someone who can creep into double-digit walk rates is going to have a fallback as he climbs the minor league ladder as opposed to someone who’s showing some struggle in A-ball where it’s only going to get tougher.
If a prospect has a plus hit tool, is playing in an environment where he’s facing older competition, has good plate discipline and is excelling, then chances are he’s a breakout guy, or at the very least someone worth shooting up prospect lists if he was buried in the preseason.
Remember that when you’re weighing between a safe prospect with a close debut date versus one that’s light years away but has higher upside (maybe he has speed or power to go with some of the above), take the high upside guy. They make for great trade chips if you get too impatient.
Identifying Breakout Pitchers
A three-pitch mix with two being plus: Often times we’ll see a pitcher with two plus pitches, usually a fastball and either a slider or a curveball, and then lacking the ever elusive changeup. If you’re going to invest in an arm, make it one that has a deeper arsenal. A trio of pitches that grade out to 60/60/50 with a fourth fringe pitch is a great foundation that can be built upon and lead to greater success thanks to a larger toolbelt. If a pitcher is flashing this in the lower levels, pay even closer attention.
Strikeouts, lots of them: Pitcher with more than a 23 K%. I’m half kidding. Seek out the pitchers that are blowing minor league hitters away with their stuff and aren’t afraid to challenge. Avoid the pitch-to-contact guys that rely more on the soft stuff. Go to your free agent pool and pick up Marco Estrada if that’s what you want. Strikeouts are the best form of run prevention, so be sure to chase them.
Control: I’m assuming if someone has plus pitches, it’s because there’s some command of them already. But can they control it? Remember that command has to do with repeatedly getting the same movement, bite, sink, run, etc on a pitch. Control is the ability to locate it in or out of the strike zone. Often times, a pitcher has no command of a pitch and therefore even less control, so don’t assume these are mutually exclusive. If a pitcher has both command and control, that elevates their profile greatly.
Velocity: OK, now let’s tie this bow. Year after year we’re seeing the average fastball velocity increase in the majors, tick by tick. I set my arbitrary markers at 95 mph for what I’d like a young pitcher to average, give or take a few decimal points. It’s fast enough that he has a larger margin for mistakes and if he can tunnel properly with his other offerings, it’s easier to fool batters.
Those are the foundations of what I consider a breakout prospect. It’s a lot of boxes to check, but that’s why only a handful break through each year.
Here are some things to be weary of as we get deeper into the season and you begin taking a closer look at some numbers.
Hitting Environment: Is Adam Haseley putting up ridiculous numbers in the early going? That’s great, and there might be some merit to it, but remember that Reading’s home stadium is a launch pad. Similar to anyone on Lancaster. On the opposite end, the Florida State League is a pitcher’s haven.
Age: Just like someone should be applauded for playing well in a league where he’s young, we should be careful not to go crazy about a player posting video game numbers if he’s older than his competition. Why? Well, he’s supposed to be doing that.
Repeating a level: If a player is repeating a level that he already had extensive experience with, it’s not a great sign. It’s an even worse sign if they maintain the same level of production or even get worse.