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Breakout Candidates for 2021 – Infielders

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Last year, I took a look at five infielders, three outfielders, and five starting pitchers with the potential to break out in 2020. Among those names were success stories in Brandon Lowe, Dansby Swanson, Max Fried, and Dinelson Lamet. Rowdy Tellez was also well on his way to becoming another success story prior to sustaining a knee injury that limited him to 35 games.

Using metrics such as xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average), wOBA, hard-hit rate, barrel rate, and others, we can better identify players that may make that step forward in 2021. Using that methodology, as well as some traditional stats, here is one breakout candidate for 2021 for each infield position. All stats, unless otherwise noted, are pulled from the player’s Baseball Savant page.

Catcher

Danny Jansen

xwOBA: .339

wOBA: .295

Hard hit %: 35.5%

Once a highly regarded prospect, Jansen has struggled to hit in his Major League career, slashing just .208/.297/.370 with a 79 wRC+. 2020 wasn’t much better, as he slashed .183/.313/.358 with an 86 wRC+. Still, there were plenty of signs he showed in 2020 to believe he could be ready for a step forward in 2021.

Though his average exit velocity dipped to a career-low in 2020, he posted above-average marks in both barrel rate (8.6%) and hard-hit rate (35.5%). Additionally, while his strikeout rate rose slightly, it was still above average. He complimented that with an impressive 14.3% walk rate that ranked in the 88th percentile of the league. This was supported by a significant drop in chase rate to a career-best 19.9%.

That stellar plate discipline combined with good quality contact led to each of his StatCast expected metrics outperforming his actual numbers. Jansen had a .244 xBA, .437 xSLG, and .339 xwOBA, along with a career best .366 xwOBACON. Additionally, he saw an uptick in xwOBA late in the season that corresponded with better bottom-line results. In the months of September and October, he slashed .224/.321/.490. That late-season surge provides some added optimism going into 2021.

While his average launch angle of 16.3 degrees was still quite high, he made a change in his batted ball profile that could lead to future success. He dropped his popup rate to 7.5%, a mark right around the league average, after being at 11.9% in 2019 and 15.4% in 2018. He also upped his line drive rate to 30.1%, though that did come at the expense of a lower fly ball rate. If Jansen can raise his fly ball rate without popping up more, he could see a power surge in 2021.

The other concern for Jansen in 2020 was his spray chart. After being a pull-heavy hitter in 2018 and 2019, he pulled the ball just 29% of the time in 2020. If he can return to pulling the ball more, that could also lead to an uptick in success in 2021.

Given his quality of contact and above-average plate discipline, if Jansen can make those slight adjustments, he may finally live up to his former top prospect status in 2021.

Others to watch: Max Stassi

First Base

Evan White

xwOBA: .277

wOBA: .257

Hard hit %: 52.5%

The Mariners saw enough in White to give him a $24 million deal prior to making his debut last year. While he struggled to a .176/.252/.346 slash line with a 66 wRC+ in 2020, there were some promising signs for his future.

His biggest flaw was blatantly obvious: he did not make enough contact. His 41.6% strikeout rate and 38% whiff rate were in the first and fourth percentiles of the league, respectively. This led to his xBA being in the third percentile of the league. Interestingly, his chase rate of 24.3% was better than the league average, and he was rewarded with an above-average 8.9% walk rate. The clear issue was his swing and miss tendencies, and he will need to improve on that in 2021 in order to be successful.

However, when White does make contact, he strikes the ball with authority. His 14.1% barrel rate and 52.5% hard-hit rate rank in the top 10% of the league, and his 91.7 MPH average exit velocity is also borderline elite. His .432 xwOBACON also supports the fact that he makes quality contact.

If there’s one place White’s batted ball profile could stand to improve, it would be lowering his 44.4% ground ball rate. While around league average in both ground ball and fly ball rates, if he can trade a few of the ground balls for more line drives or fly balls, his power could be further showcased.

Simply put, White has elite power and could become a star if he can make contact more often. Now that White has seen some Major League pitching, look for him to make the adjustments necessary to make more contact and showcase that elite power in 2021. For fantasy owners, White provides a ton of bargain bin power upside, even though he could be a drag on your batting average.

Others to watch: Nate Lowe, Bobby Dalbec

Second Base

Keston Hiura

xwOBA: .304

wOBA: .299

Hard hit %: 39.6%

Hiura is much like White in that he doesn’t make enough contact. Hiura’s already poor strikeout rate rose even further in 2020 to 34.6%. Like White, a lot of the issue was due to a too-high whiff rate, with Hiura ranking in the third percentile of the league. Unlike White, however, Hiura also struggled with chasing too much, with a 30.4% chase rate a bit worse than the league average. This led to Hiura’s walk rate of 6.5% being below league average.

Still, Hiura hit the ball with authority when he did make contact. His barrel rate of 14.2% ranked in the 91st percentile of the league, and his 39.6% hard-hit rate and .423 xwOBACON were both solid. His 87.4 MPH average exit velocity was a significant step back from the 91.4 MPH average he posted in 2019. In actuality, all of his batted ball metrics were a step back from 2019, though none were particularly concerning, and all except average exit velocity ranked better than league average.

Hiura’s 2019 season was very good in itself, as he posted a 140 wRC+. A breakout for him wouldn’t necessarily mean establishing himself as a star for the first time, but rather proving that his 2019 was not an anomaly. Even if his 2020 batted ball metrics are closer to his true talent level, a simple improvement in plate discipline would likely lead to a breakout season. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if Hiura can return his batted ball metrics to his 2019 levels, he could break out even without significantly improving his plate discipline. A third route would involve moderate improvements in both his batted ball metrics and plate discipline. Given the multitude of routes Hiura could take to a breakout, he may be the best bet on this list to shine at a consistent level.

Others to watch: Nick Solak

Shortstop

Willi Castro

xwOBA: .343

wOBA: .387

Hard hit %: 31.9%

Castro was acquired by the Tigers from Cleveland in 2018 in exchange for Leonys Martin and Kyle Dowdy. Though he’s never been seen as a top prospect, it seems possible the Tigers may have struck gold in acquiring him. He made his debut in 2019, posting an unimpressive 63 wRC+ in 30 games. 2020 brought better things for Castro, as he slashed .349/.381/.550 with a 150 wRC+ in 36 games (140 PA). Though some may consider it a small sample size anomaly for Castro, who had a career .718 OPS in the Minor Leagues, there are signs to believe his emergence is legitimate.

While his StatCast expected metrics weren’t quite as good as his actual numbers, he still posted a .299 xBA, .498 xSLG, and .343 xwOBA. His .453 xwOBACON was particularly notable, especially given his 85.3 MPH average exit velocity that ranked in just the 6th percentile of the league. His hard-hit rate was slightly below average at 31.9%, though he did post an above-average 9.6% barrel rate.

His average exit velocity was partially hurt by his 6.4% weak hit percentage, a mark that was twice the league average. Given that he only had 94 batted ball events, just a few weakly hit batted balls can significantly impact the overall average. Still, his batted ball profile is not all bad. His line-drive rate of 31.9% is higher than the league average, and those are the type of batted balls that often yield good results. While his fly ball rate is still rather low at 18.1%, he does pop up less than the league average at just 6.4%. Additionally, Castro uses the entire field effectively and is not a pull-heavy hitter.

Plate discipline is a bit of a concern with a 27.1% strikeout rate and 5.0% walk rate that are both worse than the league average. Still, Castro hits the ball with enough authority when he makes contact to partially mitigate this concern.

Another positive sign with Castro was his 2019 Minor League success. He slashed .301/.366/.467 in 525 AAA plate appearances prior to his promotion, hitting 11 HR and stealing 17 bases. Given this success, it seems reasonable to believe his 2020 success was not an anomaly, and rather, a sign of things to come in 2021. Castro will likely be afforded regular plate appearances for the rebuilding Tigers in 2021, and could certainly provide a pleasant surprise for Tigers fans and fantasy owners alike.

Others to watch: Orlando Arcia

Third Base

Alec Bohm

xwOBA: .343

wOBA: .375

Hard hit %: 46.8%

A player with a top prospect pedigree, Bohm had plenty of success in his 180 PA sample in 2020, slashing .338/.400/.481 with a 139 wRC+. His StatCast profile was littered with above-average marks, with only his average launch angle being worse than the league average. At just 4.8 degrees, Bohm could certainly benefit in the power department by raising his launch angle, cutting back on his 54% ground ball rate, and raising his 15.1% fly ball rate. That’s the key for Bohm in 2021, a necessary step if Bohm is going to match his 21 home run output in the Minor Leagues in 2019.

Launch angle notwithstanding, Bohm makes quality contact, hitting the ball hard 46.8% of the time and barreling the ball 10.3% of the time. This led to an above-average .391 xwOBACON even with the launch angle issues. Bohm brings back memories of the Miami version of Christian Yelich, a fantastic pure hitter that was just a launch angle change away from becoming one of the best hitters in the game.

Per FanTrax, Bohm is currently being drafted as the 11th third baseman off the board. Given his unusually high floor provided by his contact skills, Bohm could provide a ton of value in 2021. A breakout would further enhance that, and the signs are all there to believe it could happen. By this point next year, we may be talking about Bohm as among the best third baseman in the league.

Others to watch: J.D. Davis, Edwin Rios

Kyle Berger

Reds contributor for Max’s Sporting Studio. Follow on Twitter @KB_48