Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Breakout Predictions For 2011

As the days count down to baseball season, the time has come to start making predictions for the upcoming season. The first entry will focus on Ronnie and me each choosing a breakout player. For our purposes, breakout will be defined as a player making the jump into stardom.

John's Pick
Jay Bruce - OF 
Cincinnati Reds

Long heralded as a top prospect, Jay Bruce has been a bit of a mystery since being called up in 2008. Now, keep in mind that Bruce was only 21 when he made his big league debut, and he will turn 24 in a couple of weeks. When you take his age into account, the past three years haven't been disappointing at all, but he is capable of much more. Prior to his call-up, Bruce had drawn rave reviews since being drafted 12th overall in 2005, and Baseball America even ranked him as their top overall prospect. 

Bruce had a strong rookie season, but he ran into the dreaded sophomore slump the next year. Not only did he struggle at the plate, but he also suffered a fractured wrist which caused him to miss the end of the season. After struggling to begin the year, Bruce exploded onto the scene in the second half of 2010. In 210 second-half plate appearances, Bruce amassed a .306/.376/.575 line (AVG/OBP/SLG). 

One of the key steps in the development process for a left-handed hitter is to learn to hit left-handed pitching. Hitters that struggle in that department often struggle to find consistency in the big leagues because opposing managers will continuously throw lefty relievers at them in the final innings of games. For the first time in his career, Bruce was very productive against left-handed pitching. From 2008-2009, Bruce hit .200/.288/.297 against lefties, but in 2010 he saw those numbers jump to .277/.352/.547. 

Along with the improvement against lefties, Bruce also notched a 7.1% increase in his line drive rate from 2009 to 2010 (13% to 20.1%) and continued to improve his walk rate. These are all tell-tale signs of a coming breakout campaign. 

The final piece of evidence is the natural progression of Bruce's recovery from his wrist injury. It is common knowledge among the sports medicine community that most hitters take a full 12 months to recover from serious wrist injuries. If you take a look at the date of injury and add the 12 necessary months, Bruce's explosion in August and September makes perfect sense. It coincided almost exactly with him reaching that 12 month recovery period. For a more in depth look, this FanGraphs article compares the distance of Bruce's fly balls pre-surgery, during the 12 month recovery period, and post-recovery. 

As you can see, all the signs point to Jay Bruce having a massive breakout year in 2011. I would not be surprised if he posted a .280/.360/.550 line to go along with 40 homeruns. The crazy thing is that 40 homeruns may not even be his ceiling. Cincinnati fans have a lot to look forward to in the coming years.

Ronnie's Pick
Carlos Santana - C 
Cleveland Indians

Catcher is a deep position this year with an abundance of current, future, and wannabe stars, but Carlos Santana leads the pack. To put his skills into perspective we should keep in mind that Santana was a better prospect than both Matt Wieters and Buster Posey at one point and was ranked higher by the all-knowing Keith Law in his 2010 prospect list. [Editor's Note: The Dodgers brilliantly traded Santana to the Cleveland Indians for Casey Blake solely because the Indians were willing to pick up Blake's salary. One of baseball's most unbalanced trades in the past decade.] 

What sets Santana apart from all other catchers, not named Joe Mauer, is the tremendous plate discipline that he has demonstrated in his brief time in the majors. In 150 plate appearances, Santana compiled 37 BB to just 29 K's for a .406 OBP.

In fact, Santana reached base via walk in 20 percent of his plate appearances. Factor in the ability to hit for power and a decent average and you have a top five catcher with a lot of potential for more. My projection for Santana sits at .285-23-70 with a .387 OBP and a .500 SLG percentage. When all is said and done, Santana is not a player you want to miss out on.

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