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2nd Half Hitter Breakout Candidates

It is hard enough to compile a list of breakout candidates in the preseason. Usually, these lists are pretty cookie-cutter and include a swath of young hitters supposed to be on the upswing. Gee, you’re predicting a young guy to get better and perhaps breakout? Throw enough darts at the youngins and some will turn out correct. But projecting a hitter to break out over the remaining 2 1/2 months of the season is even more difficult. How much should we weight the first 3 1/2 months versus the hitter’s career? Is the hitter hiding an injury if he has been a disappointment so far? Has age caught up to him? As usual, all we could do is analyze the various metrics we have at our disposal and make educated, higher percentage play guesses.

So with that in mind, I looked at the batted ball average distance leaderboard, BABIPs and xBABIPs and everything else I usually analyze as if we were still in preseason mode. The term breakout here could be used to simply mean a rebound from a somewhat disappointing first half or perhaps in the context of a young player taking the next step.

Here are four breakout candidates for the post-all star break portion of the season.

Nick Swisher

Moving from Yankee Stadium to a park that is not as friendly for home run hitters in Cleveland, it was a valid question as to how Swisher would perform in his first year with the Indians. Though clearly not as beneficial as Yankee Stadium, Progressive Field has inflated left-handed home runs a bit over the last three seasons. And besides, hitting at home hasn’t even been Swisher’s problem, as he sports a .195 ISO there versus just a .130 mark away. His HR/FB rate sits at a career low, but at 295 feet, his average batted ball distance ranks 39th among all qualified hitters and is essentially the same as it has always been

Swisher is obviously still hitting the ball far, but for whatever reason, they haven’t left the park at the same rate. In addition, his BABIP has somehow managed to fall below .300, despite the fact that his line drive rate is a ridiculous 27%, and his IFFB% is just about 5%. That has led to an xBABIP of a robust .335. Unfortunately, he has only posted a .300+ BABIP three times over his career and has just a .292 career mark. But then again, he never hit line drives like he has this year, nor avoided the popup. Swisher doesn’t have a whole lot of name value and has rarely contributed in batting average. That means he should cost little to acquire and given his always strong walk rate, could be an excellent piece for the stretch run in OBP leagues.

Pablo Sandoval

After dealing with elbow issues in spring training that likely scared away some potential fantasy owners, Sandoval has posted a batting average well below his career mark, as well as the lowest ISO of his career. But Sandoval ranks 44th with an average distance of nearly 295 feet, which is actually a career best, albeit barely. His HR/FB rates have really bounced around even though his distance marks have remained relatively stable. Those distance match up better with his mid-teen HR/FB rates in previous seasons, rather than the marks he has posted that have barely reached the league average, like during this season.

The xBABIP calculator actually suggests that his current career worst BABIP mark is deserved given his batted ball mix. His mix though is right in line with where it has always sat and yet his career BABIP is well above his current mark. That suggests that he has either been a bit lucky throughout his career, or the xBABIP calculator is missing something that Sandoval does to boost his BABIP. Since Sandoval goes to all fields, I vote for the latter, that xBABIP is underestimating his BABIP ability. So with a batting average and perhaps power increase ahead, Sandoval makes for a high upside target.

Anthony Rizzo

After a pretty exciting Cubs debut in 2012, expectations were justifiably high for Rizzo this year. And although he batted just .224 in April, he belted eight homers, looking like the 30 home run threat many predicted he would be. But it all went downhill from there, as he has hit just five since, while failing to boost his batting average to a considerable degree. The good news is that he is swinging and miss less, while walking more than last year. In addition, his xBABIP sits at an even .300, well above his current mark. He is pretty close to league average in each batted ball type, so it’s a bit of a mystery why his BABIP is well below the league average and xBABIP marks.

The next issue is that of his power. Oddly, his HR/FB rate is down about a third, but his ISO is actually up. You can thank his 27 doubles — versus 15 last year in about the same number of at-bats — for that. While Rizzo’s batted ball distance is down about six feet from last year, it still suggests better than his current HR/FB rate, though not markedly so. Of course, we then remember that Wrigley Field inflates left-handed home runs, and it becomes even more favorable during the hot summer months. While it is very possible that the Cubs dismantle their team in the coming weeks and leave few hitters for Rizzo to knock in or get knocked in by, this couldn’t be a better time to acquire his services.

Jason Heyward

What follows all assumes that his current hamstring injury is minor and he returns after the all-star break. It seems like every week we talk about what a good buy low candidate Heyward is on The Sleeper and the Bust, and yet he seems happy to continue keeping that window to acquire him open. So let’s see what we have here:

1) A strong walk rate and a rebound from a down 2012? Check.
2) A career best strikeout percentage? Check.
3) A career best line drive rate? Check.
4) Sustaining of last year’s increased fly ball percentage? Check.

But behind all of this good news is the fact that Heyward’s ISO sits at a paltry .143. For a man of his size, that simply boggles the mind. Just a 9.6% HR/FB rate? Really? Batted ball distance to the rescue! He sits at around 288 feet, compared to 290 feet last year. And 293 feet the year before. So basically, this is the same Heyward, hitting the ball just about as far as he always has. But, the balls have been stubborn, wanting to land in the field of play rather than in the stands.

Then there’s the issue of his BABIP. He’s batting an ugly .227, thanks to a career worst .256 BABIP. Of course, we have seen close to this before back in 2011 when he posted a .260 mark. But that was driven by a low line drive rate and an IFFB% above 20%. So the .260 mark was deserved. His xBABIP this season? .310.

The only thing preventing me from predicting a full rebound from a fantasy value perspective is his steals. He has just 2 in 5 attempts, after attempting 29 last year. The Braves rank tied for 26th in baseball in steal attempts this year and have attempted just 0.53 per game. Last year, they attempted 0.82 steals a game. It is likely that all the power the Braves added during the offseason has convinced manager Fredi Gonzalez to run less often. But aside from the steals, Heyward appears to be a good bet to enjoy a big second half.