2023 Fantasy Baseball Breakouts 2.0: Draft Sean Murphy to catch you, Gunnar Henderson and more

A lot has happened since I last wrote about breakouts in January. Spring training is up and running, the World Baseball Classic has just started, and oh my, I’ve been doing a lot more research! With more research comes new data points and more players to either target or eliminate. Today I will focus on six more candidates for the 2023 season.

As I regularly point out, I believe breakout contenders have more potential to rise or even win a championship compared to decks. Regardless of the semantics, you’ll want to aim for as many layers and breakouts in the mid to late rounds of your drafts. I’ll point out that I cheated a bit, as you’ll see later in the column, including a “Rejects” category. If a player has already broken out in his career, can he break out again? My answer is yes, and if you listen to it Fantasy baseball today, you’ve probably heard Chris Towers emphasize this as well.

Before I get into Breakouts 2.0, be sure to check it out Breakouts 1.0which I just updated with new information and average draft positions.

Arguably the top prospect in all of baseball, Gunnar Henderson debuted with the Orioles late last season. In 34 games, he hit .259 with a .348 OBP, four homers and one steal. The Statcast data was also pretty impressive. Henderson posted an average exit velocity of 92.4 MPH, a hard hitting percentage of 53.7% and ranked in the 91st percentile in sprint speed. The big power and speed was also supported in the minors last season, where Henderson launched 19 home runs to go along with 22 steals.

As expected, the soon-to-be 22-year-old is not a perfect player. The 26% strikeout rate and 60% ground ball rate in the majors is initially cause for concern. Here’s why I’m not that worried. Henderson had a great feel for the strike zone, chasing pitches out of the zone just 23% of the time. His swinging strikeout rate was also just 10.3%. Both marks were well above the league average. As for ground balls, they weren’t really a problem for Henderson at any level in the minors. I think Henderson could hit 20-25 home runs with 10-15 steals as a rookie this season at a pretty awful position at third base.

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One player I recently discovered is Wander Franco. Now I’ll admit I prefer both Corey Seager and Oneil Cruz, but if they both go, Franco is the next name I look for. Last year was pretty much a lost season for Franco, as the quad injury popped up in April and then a broken bone in July. Franco was limited to just 83 games in his second season. Now maybe this was a small sample, but Franco looked like he was already breaking out last April before the injuries came up.

Last April, Franco hit .313 with four homers, eight doubles and three steals in just 20 games. He was also supported by an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH and a hard hitting percentage of 48%. That small sample is a 30-homer, 22-steal pace in 150 games. Obviously this is a risky play, but I really think this was the only month Franco was healthy. Like Henderson, Franco is not a perfect player. He’s been much better against left-handed pitches so far in his career, and the overall quality of the batted ball has been weak. I just think we are getting caught up and forgetting that Franco is still only 22 years old. The sky is the limit for him.

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Somehow Sean Murphy had already broken out. He is coming off a pretty big season where he finished as the fourth best catcher in H2H point leagues and seventh best in 5×5 Roto. I think there’s another level to Murphy, though. First of all, he made incredible improvements in plate discipline, hitting just 20% last year. Murphy had never been below 25% before this. He also consistently raises the ball, posting a barrel rate of 10.5% or better three straight seasons. And then we get to the home/street divides.

  • Career at Oakland Coliseum — .213/.319/.368, 17 HR in 159 games
  • Career Everywhere Else — .256/.334/.484, 29 HR in 166 games

So now we take Murphy out of a cavernous ballpark and add him to a lineup that scored the three most runs in baseball last season? Yes please! The only downside to joining the Braves is that Murphy’s playing time will decrease. Last season he saw 612 plate appearances, which led all catchers. Murphy won’t see as much time at DH, but he will clearly play a lot. The Braves gave up a bunch of assets in the trade to get him. If all goes my way, Murphy could put together a Will Smith-type season with the Braves.

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Am I buying too much into spring training? Maybe. Alec Bohm took a huge step forward last season, batting .280 with 13 home runs, 79 runs and 72 RBI. He lowered his strikeout rate from 26.6% in 2021 to 17.4% in 2022. He also increased his launch angle as we asked him to. Bohm posted a career-high 30.5% field goal percentage, which pairs well with his hard contact. Bohm always hit the ball hard, averaging an exit velocity of over 90 MPH in each of his three seasons. Now we just have to unlock that power. It might be happening.

Bohm is up to three homers in 17 at-bats this spring, and as Scott White pointed out in spring training, Bohm has added 10-15 pounds of muscle this offseason. While watching a few Phillies games this spring, I also heard on their broadcast talk about how manager Rob Thomson wants Bohm to pull the ball more this season. So have we added muscle to take more of a pull-heavy approach? This kind of feels like a breakout on the horizon. If he does, Bohm could hit .280 with 20-25 home runs in the middle of a good Phillies lineup. If you miss out on third basemen (and Jordan Walker), I’d target someone like Bohm later.

The Re-Breakouts

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Admittedly, this is strange to me. I was completely out on Blake Snell last season as he has been horrendously ineffective the last few years as well. I looked like a genius after his first seven starts last season and then it went away. In Snell’s last 17 starts, he posted a 2.53 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 12.9 K/9 and a 15.3% swinging rate. Those are borderline top-12 starting-level pitcher numbers. What fueled this stretch? He traded his changeups for more sliders and threw more strikes.

Snell gets into trouble when he thinks too much. He has a mid-90s fastball with a 22% whiff rate and two breaking pitches with whiff rates over 43%. Snell should really drop his changeup and lean more into his breaking pitches. There is also a downside here as Snell has struggled with his health. He hasn’t thrown more than 128.2 innings since his 2018 Cy Young campaign. Of course this is anecdotal, but players sometimes magically find a way to stay healthy in contract years. Maybe that will be Snell this season. I like to target Snell as my SP3 in 10th round drafts.

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Want to hear something crazy? Last season, Trevor Rogers had a higher ADP than Alek Manoah, Yu Darvish, Shane McClanahan and Carlos Rodon. That didn’t work out so well. The reason it was chosen over these names is because it comes with incredible upside. For his first 19 starts last season, we were wrong. During that span, Rogers had a 5.85 ERA, 1.60 WHIP with too many walks and not enough strikeouts. He was placed in IL with back spasms in late July but, when he returned, something clicked.

In Rodgers’ last two rehab starts, he allowed just five hits and one run on 17 strikeouts in 12 innings, one of which was a no-hitter. In his first three starts with the Marlins, Rogers posted a 2.95 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 10.8 K/9 and a 12.7% swinging rate. He left his fourth start early with a strained lat and ended his season back in IL. Obviously it was a very small sample, but we know the talent is there and Rogers is off to a good start this spring. Rodgers moved out of the top-100 last season and is well outside the top-200 now. This is the type of talent you want to buy again.

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