Using Two Statistics to Spot a Breakout Hitter (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

Franmil Reyes could be on the verge of a massive breakout.

Given the richness of the data Major League Baseball generates, it is easy to get bogged down by numbers as fantasy players. We are in the age of predictive modeling and Big Data analytics. The dirty little secret is that all of this fancy-sounding stuff is actually pretty simple underneath the hood.

The most accurate models are usually the simplest ones. This is often true with baseball data.

We have dozens and dozens of metrics that measure pitcher performance, but the best predictor of future performance continues to be something we have counted for as long as the game has existed – strikeouts and walks. We will dive into those two categories in another post, but for today, I want to focus on the two categories I find most useful for hitters: contact rate and hard-hit rate.

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There are various ways to calculate hard-hit rate. Different websites use different calculations to get the final number. For my purposes, I am using Baseball Savant’s “launch speed angle” category that you can find in their pitch-by-pitch dataset. Every batted ball is given a value from 1-6 based on the category of contact. Category one is the worst contact, and six is the best. If we take every ball classified as a five or a six and look at the slugging percentage on those batted balls, you get a slugging percentage of above 2.000. These are the types of events I want to focus on.

The calculation I am using for contact rate is total pitches contacted (fair or foul) divided by total swings.

I am using 2019 and 2020 data here. For every hitter that put at least 100 balls into play, I found their contact rate and hard-hit rate, as well as the percentile rank for each. We can display this with a scatter plot:

Dots are pretty evenly distributed all over the plot. The best fantasy hitters are represented by the dots in the top right of the plot. These hitters make contact on a high percentage of their swings and hit the ball well.

Only one hitter, Mookie Betts (86.9% contact rate, 13.7% well-hit rate), finds himself in the top 10% in both categories. If we bump the parameters down to the top 20%, these hitters join the party: Mike Trout (82.2% contact, 15.3% hard-hit), Justin Turner (83.5%, 13%), Howie Kendrick (83.7%, 14.6%), and Robinson Cano (82%, 11.3%).

Coming down one more step to looking at hitters in the top 25% in each category, you have this list:

There are some interesting names for 2021 purposes on this list. You can get a handful of these hitters for cheap; here are some interesting ADP’s right now:

Player
2021 ADP

Xander Bogaerts
36

Ketel Marte
79

Charlie Blackmon
90

Eddie Rosario
114

Giovanny Urshela
152

Anthony Santander
158

Max Kepler
176

Justin Turner
217

Kyle Seager
257

Brandon Belt
 348

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Undoubtedly we will see some hitters change their game and improve drastically in one or both categories in 2021, driving a true breakout season. I cannot sit here and tell you that I know who these players will be, of course, but I can give you some names that are already performing great on one side and can improve on the other. Here are some more players worthy of a closer look:

There’s a mixed bag of names there, with some established studs. Nate Lowe, Franmil Reyes, Brandon Lowe, Luis Robert, Mike Yastrzemski, Lourdes Gurriel, Christian Walker, and Willie Calhoun have a great chance of posting monster seasons in the future. They could all obliterate their current price tags.

There is so much more in the data to explore. I encourage everybody to go through the numbers and see what other hitters stand out in one or both of these categories. This is where you can find breakout hitters. Thanks for reading!

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Jon Anderson is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Jon, check out his archive and follow him @JonPgh.