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Bats & Balls: 10 First-Half Breakouts

David Regan

David Regan

David Regan is a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, and was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.

The All-Star break for me is a time to take a deep breath, enjoy the starts, ponder how the Dodgers will do in the second half and reflect on some surprising first-half performances. Some top performances aren't exactly a huge surprise. For instance:

A healthy Troy Tulowitzki is among the game's elite players. A 1.048 OPS from a shortstop is ridiculous. Next highest among qualified shortstop - Hanley Ramirez at .835.

Jose Abreu leads baseball with 29 home runs, which is a surprise, but less so given we knew he had power coming over from Cuba.

A healthy Giancarlo Stanton is pretty good - .933 OPS, 21 HR.

With a .991 OPS, Victor Martinez may be the new David Ortiz at DH.

I am surprised that Scott Kazmir has a 2.38 ERA that is bound to rise, but he was pretty good last year as well.


Here, though, are 10 players who had true and, to me, surprising first-half breakouts. Some of these will go on to have solid second halves, while others will suffer drop-offs.

J.D. Martinez (OF-DET)

J.D. Drew is probably the best "J.D." to ever play the game, but this one is having a pretty good 2014. Martinez, a .251/.300/.387 career hitter in 899 career at-bats with the Astros entering the season, is batting a healthy .346/.380/.654 in 188 at-bats for Detroit after not being a regular fixture in the Detroit lineup until about a month ago. First, though, here is "small sample size," but has the 26-year-old Martinez figured something out that would allow him to be an above average hitter in the second half? On the surface, yes, there are reasons to be concerned, but no one really expects a 1.034 OPS over the second half. A sampling of Martinez's ratios:

YEARBB%K%HR/FB%BABIP
Career6.423.29.5.310
20145.923.422.8.409

The two far-right columns of course stand out, as the strikeouts and walks are as expected, but Martinez is benefitting from an inflated BABIP and a HR/FB rate that's about double the league average. He's chasing more bad balls and swinging and missing with more frequency than in past years, so this screams "aberration." I'll be willing to say that he's made improvements, but a line more in the .270/.325/.425 range over the second half makes sense.

Devin Mesoraco (C-CIN)

Like Martinez, Mesoraco is 26 and in a breakout season. Unlike Martinez, I'm buying what he's showing. He's striking out more this year, but Mesoraco has improved his BB% from 6.8 to 8.2, and he was a highly-touted prospect at one time, making me more likely to buy .304/.375/.609. A catcher sporting a .343 BABIP makes me suspicious, but even if that drops in the low .300s the rest of the way, he can still bat in the .280 range, which to me is his baseline. Mesoraco homered once every 20.3 at-bats in the minors in 2010-2011, making this year's 12.9 mark not as unbelievable. Let's say that drops to 20 over 240 second half at-bats - that still leaves Mesoraco with 28 homers for the year. I'll take that.

Michael Brantley (OF-CLE)

When you put the ball in play, good things happen, and Brantley's abnormally-low 8.2 K% means he's doing a best-in-class job of putting bat on ball. At .322/.382/.519, Brantley deservedly earned his first All-Star appearance, and with 15 home runs and 10 stolen bases, he's been fantasy gold. With his legs, at .322 BABIP is very sustainable over the second half, so a .300-plus BA the rest of the way is doable. With an ISO that has risen from last year's .112 to .197 in 2014, I'm a little skeptical given a HR/FB rate that's sitting at 17.6 percent versus a career 6.8 percnt. Figure the power drops a bit the rest of the way, but a final line of .310-23-105 with 17 steals appears reachable. He could very well be a third-round pick in next year's drafts if he keeps improving.

Todd Frazier (3B-CIN)

Frazier has homered 19 times in each of the last three seasons. The difference this year, of course, is that he has those 19 at the All-Star break. A deserved All-Star, Frazier is batting .293/.350/.500. Further, he's already swiped 14 bases after entering 2014 with 10 career steals in 319 career games. A drop in his BABIP from .320 to .271 last year led to Frazier batting just .234, but the BABIP is back up again in 2014, this time to a reasonable .328. Given his 8.0 BB% and 20.3 K%, Frazier is probably a .270-.275 hitter in the second half, but what about the power? Frazier's fly balls are travelling nine feet further this year, so if you think about the number of drives that get caught on the warning track, this helps explain the home runs. His 17.6-percent HR/FB rate is just three percentage points above his career mark, so not too far out of line. Frazier never showed this sort of power in the minor leagues, but power can come in time. I'll hedge a bit and say he finishes with 30 home runs, with a 30/30 season in sight.

Charlie Blackmon (OF-COL)

Blackmon's last five games prior to making his first All-Star appearance: 12-for-21, 2 HR, 2 SB

For the year, the breakout outfielder is batting .306/.350/.480 with 14 home runs and a whopping 18 stolen bases. His walk and strikeout rates have improved dramatically now that he's playing every day:

BB%

2013: 2.7
2014: 5.5

K%

2013: 19.0
2014: 12.8

Blackmon did hit .309 last year, but not with this sort of power or speed, and given his contact ability and hitter-friendly home park, I have to think this is for real. Blackmon showed similar abilities in the minors, and now that he's playing every day at age 27, I don't expect much of a drop, if any.

Corey Kluber (SP-CLE)

Have him cheap in the RotoWire Staff League, but traded him in another when his value was far from this high. As Kurtis Blow once rapped, these are the breaks. Kluber has already made 20 starts this year, going 9-6 with a 3.01 ERA. Most impressive are his ratios: 9.7 K/9, 2.2 BB/9. He's cut his HR/9 rate from 0.92 to 0.68 this year, and he's generating a few more ground balls. Add all that up, and he'd be the easy choice to start the team's first playoff game if that opportunity presents itself for the Indians. This is also no fluke, as Kluber was almost as good last year with an 8.3 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9. Limit walks while missing bats, and good things tend to happen. Much of Kluber's success has come via a vastly improved curve ball, allowing Kluber a second plus pitching in addition to his 92-94 mph fastball. He should have plenty of success in the second half.

Garrett Richards (SP-LAA)

Richards has been vastly improved in his first full season as a big-league starter. He's improved his repertoire to the point where his K/9 has spiked from 6.3 to 9.3 this year. Richards was a controversial All-Star snub after going 11-2 with a 2.55 ERA in 19 starts prior to the break. With a 3.21 xFIP, he's pitching a bit over his head, as that 4.4-percent HR/FB rate will likely come up, though he could offset that if he can improve his 3.1 BB/9. Richards does a good job generating ground balls; he's allowing fewer this year (50.2 percent vs. 57.9 percent in 2013), he's still well above average. Finally, one of my favorite metrics for pitchers is swinging-strike percentage, a rate that measures the percentage of strikes that hitters swing at and miss. For Richards, he's improved that rate over last year from 9.2 to 11.3 percent. He's probably not a 2.55 ERA pitcher at this point in his young career, but a rate in the low 3.00s the rest of the way? Bet on it.

Tyson Ross (SP-SD)

I don't really feel sorry for anyone who is making a living playing the game of baseball, but it has to be frustrating at time for Ross, who is "supported" by perhaps the worst offensive club in baseball history. It hasn't stopped the 6-foot-6 Ross from a breakout season, though, as he's ridden an unusual delivery to a 2.85 ERA in his first 20 starts. Give him a decent offense, and instead of sitting at 7-10, he might very well be 13-4. Ross has an 8.8 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9 to go with a 58-percent groundball rate, a mark that is tops in the National League. His fantasy value will remain suppressed by things like their leadoff men having a .286 collective OBP and their cleanup men batting just .187. Incredible. Ross, 27, is in his first full season as a starter, but while he may regress slightly in the second half, Ross is a horse and should at worst, post an ERA in the low 3.00s from here on.

Dallas Keuchel (SP-HOU)

Keuchel's xFIP was a solid 3.58 last year, a mark that has dipped to 3.18 in 2014, so is it really a huge surprise that his ERA has improved from 5.15 to 3.20? Somewhat it is to be sure, but a few ratios are worth noting:

YEARK/9BB/9HR/FB%BABIP
20137.23.117.4.346
20146.82.29.2.302

Normalization in his HR/FB rate and a lower BABIP combined with vastly improved control has made the Astros look like geniuses for trusting Keuchel with a rotation spot after last year's 5.15 ERA. The other critical factor has been Keuchel's MLB-leading 62.6 GB%, as he's allowed just six home runs over his 17 starts. I was a bit skeptical at first, but the numbers don't lie (usually). He should continue to be solid over the second half, though the average strikeout rate limits his overall upside.

Zach Britton (RP-BAL)

Tommy Hunter was the O's closer to open the season, but after blowing a pair of saves in May, Britton took over and hasn't looked back. He's converted 15 of 17 save opportunities with a 1.30 ERA, so Hunter and pitchers like Darren O'Day will continue to be relegated to setup duty. Britton bombed as a starter, but in his first full year in the bullpen, Britton has added 3 mph to his fastball while improving his BB/9 from 4.8 to 3.8 to this year's 2.6. Safe to say he's found a home in the bullpen. Britton's GB% is a ridiculous 78.0, so there's even more reason to expect a solid second half. We'd love to see his 7.1 K/9 improve, as the elite closers are well above 10.0, but unless his .222 BABIP were to spike significantly, Britton doesn't need to post an elite strikeout rate to be a successful closer.