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In Some Depth: Anticipating Future Breakouts

Carson Cistulli

Carson Cistulli writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

The business of In Some Depth is generally to monitor the 30 major-league clubs' respective depth charts and to call attention to position battles or playing-time changes on said clubs.

The less well known, but still entirely relevant, business of In Some Depth is to anticipate changes in depth charts or in the performance of players on said depth charts.

In this edition of the ISD, I've borrowed a novel -- and, it should be said, pretty nerdy -- approach to anticipating future production. At the FanGraphs Community Blog this past January, contributor Lewie Pollis used home run-per-fly ball rates (HR/FB) from September of 2010 to identify the "next" Jose Bautista. Because Bautista recorded a HR/FB of 25.6% (relative to a career average of 9.2%) in the September before his 54-homer breakout, it followed that a player who posted an uncharacteristically high HR/FB in September of 2010 might be prepared to break out in 2011.

In fact, the player whom Pollis identified was Mike Morse -- that is, the same Mike Morse who's hit 27 homers so far in 2011 after posting a total no higher than 15 in any previous season. Until September of 2010, Morse's career HR/FB rate was 11.4% percent; his 23.8% mark from then on more than doubled that. Moreover, Morse's 21.1% HR/FB this season much more resembles his figure from September of 2010 than from before.

While we can't expect things to work out so neatly as Pollis's prediction regarding Morse, there's something to Pollis's methodology. As much as we should avoid drawing conclusions from small sample sizes, we also have to recognize that players change. Bautista changed and Morse changed. And some players who are toiling in something like fantasy obscurity at the moment will have power breakouts in 2012 -- if not Bautista- or Morse-sized breakouts, at least notable relative to that player's established rates. The question is which players will have those breakouts.

For the purposes of this edition of the ISD, I looked at HR/FB for every player with more than 50 plate appearances in the last 30 days (so, basically August 12th through September 10th). From this list, I identified five players who have (a) shown recent and uncharacteristic spikes in HR/FB but who also have (b) generally existed on the periphery of fantasy relevance.

Here are those five players, ordered by the magnitude of difference between their 30-day and career HR/FB figures:

Player: Brent Lillibridge, UT, CHA
HR/FB (Last 30): 33.3% HR/FB (Career): 10.7%
Notes: Full-season HR/FB of 21.3% is impressive, and last month -- in which he's hit four homers in just 54 plate appearances -- has actually sped up that pace. Positional flexibility has actually maybe been liability for playing time. Other liability for playing time: Ozzie Guillen.

Player: Matt Wieters, C, BAL
HR/FB (Last 30): 25.0% HR/FB (Career): 9.5%
Notes: Hasn't yet had the season people expected from an uber-prospect, but has slashed .296/.374/.630 over last 30 days with very repeatable .270 BABIP. Over those same 30 days has hit seven homers in 91 PA. His 17 homers is tied for fifth among catchers (non-Mike Napoli division).

Player: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C, BOS
HR/FB (Last 30): 25.0% HR/FB (Career): 11.8%
Notes: Definitely has flaws as a hitter, including 1.3% BB versus 35.1% over last 30 days, but power spike seems realistic. Has hit five of career-high 16 home runs over last 30 days. Will likely have shot at starting catcher role in Boston in 2012 -- although might find competition from talented Ryan Lavarnway.

Player: Casper Wells, OF, SEA
HR/FB (Last 30): 27.8% HR/FB (Career): 15.2%
Notes: Actually hit four homers in 99 plate appearances in 2010, but recent power surge -- five homers in 74 PA -- still tops that. Has gotten regular-ish playing time with Seattle out of playoff race and lacking true starter in left field. Might be competing with Trayvon Robinson for 2012 job.

Player: Scott Sizemore, 3B, OAK
HR/FB (Last 30): 22.7% HR/FB (Career): 10.7%
Notes: Hit 17 homers between Double- and Triple-A in 2009, but that's his only double-digit homer season before 2011's 10-homer effort (thus far). Has half (five) of season's homers in last 30 days -- a stretch spanning 93 plate appearances. He is, by all appearances, the starting third baseman for the A's.