2016 Breakouts That Could Last
Every year, any number of players break out in a way that seemed unimaginable prior to the season. These kinds of breakouts are a bit different from, say, Bryce Harper’s outburst in 2015, or even Gary Sanchez’s historic ascension last summer. Neither player could have been forecast to reach the heights they did, but at least some sort of breakout can be expected from young players with a prospect pedigree, like a Harper or a Sanchez.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have the players who achieve a new level of performance seemingly out of nowhere. Think of Rich Hill when he returned to the majors in 2015, or Zach Britton or Andrew Miller after shifting to the bullpen a few years ago.
In 2016, there was no shortage of such players. Let’s take a look at some of the most notable and stunning breakouts from last year, and assess how likely they are to continue in 2017, starting with:
Daniel Murphy, Washington Nationals
Murphy spent the first several seasons of his career with the Mets, and was a perfectly fine player there. He ran a .288/.331/.424 slash line with the Mets, good for a 109 OPS+. Murphy was never renowned for his defense at second, but made up for it with a decent bat with a bit of pop.
Murphy’s greatest moments in Queens came just as his tenure there ended. Murphy smashed seven home runs during the 2015 postseason, helping power the Mets to the NL pennant, but the outburst wasn’t enough to convince the Mets to keep him. The division rival Nationals lured him away on a three year, $36 million deal.
In 2016, Murphy picked up where he left off in the 2015 playoffs, and morphed into one of the best hitters in baseball. His .347/.390/.595 line set career highs in batting average, on-base, and slugging percentage, as did his 28 dingers. He ran a 157 OPS+, and finished second in NL MVP voting.
Such a massive jump in performance would have most analytically-minded people thinking regression to the mean was inevitable. Sure, Murphy was a monster last year, some might say, but his numbers were propelled by an uncharacteristic and unsustainable .340 BABIP. But dismissing Murphy’s 2016 as BABIP-fueled would be a disservice to his play, and would unfairly discount his chances of continuing to rake going forward.
Murphy was never much of a fly ball hitter, as about one-third of his batted balls prior to 2016 went for fly balls, below league average. In 2016, Murphy’s fly ball rate spiked to 41.9%, and his groundball rate reached a career-low 36.3%. Fly balls can do more damage, but get caught for outs more often than grounders, so that Murphy changed his batted ball profile to skew more fly-heavy, while boosting his BABIP, suggests he was either quite lucky, or simply hit the ball on the skews more frequently.
The evidence points to the latter. According to FanGraphs, Murphy’s hard hit rate entering 2016 was about 29%, a figure which spiked to over 38% in. His soft contact rate dropped to 12%, among the lowest in the league. Murphy also set a career-high in pull-percentage at 41.3%. It’s impossible to know his true intentions, but the data suggests that Murphy came into 2016 determined to swing for the fences more, to hit for power, which he did in spades.
Typically, when a hitter guns for more power, they are compelled to sacrifice contact rate in order to get there. There has to be a cost to trying to hit more home runs: if you could simply swing for the fences freely, everyone would do it. But Murphy managed to boost his power while only sacrificing a bit of his still excellent contact skills. His K% increased from 2015, up to 9.8%, but that was still below both his career average and the league average. His contact rate fell from a career high of 91% in 2015 to 88% in 2016, yet that still matched his career average and was far better than the league average.
If Murphy actually sought to hit for more power, and did so without forsaking his contact abilities, does this make him more likely to sustain this level of performance? It’s impossible to tell, but the fact that Murphy’s break out seemed to coincide with a change in process does make it feel more genuine. Murphy will probably decline somewhat from his 2016 peak, but if he approaches 2017 just as he did 2016, his break out at the plate just might continue.
Matt Shoemaker, Los Angeles Angels
Recently at ESPN, Sam Miller tried to find major leaguers who followed career paths that were insane as Rich Hill’s, and considered that of Shoemaker’s to be of notable craziness. Shoemaker went undrafted in 2008 and signed with the Angels before toiling in the minors for years, without a hint of prospect buzz or on-field success. He owns a 5.26 ERA in over 400 career innings at Triple-A, and he had a 4.64 ERA at Triple-A during the year before he was called up. Yet during his rookie year, 2014, his age-27 season, Shoemaker posted a 3.04 ERA in 136 innings, fanning 124 batters.
After that first surprise, though, Shoemaker faded back toward anonymity. He finished second in rookie of the year voting in 2014, but saw his ERA fall back to 4.46 in 2015, good for merely an 85 ERA+. The wheels fell completely off to begin 2016, as his ERA stood at 8.49 ERA through seven starts. His rookie year was proven to be a fluke, it seemed, overpowered by a career otherwise filled with disappointment.
Which made it only more shocking when Shoemaker did his best impression of a Cy Young contender the rest of the way. From May 17th onward, Shoemaker pitched 130.1 innings with a 2.83 ERA. His 2.94 FIP over that span was the fifth best mark in baseball among starters with at least 100 IP. He struck out 23.2% of the batters he faced and walked a minuscule 3.3% of the batters he faced. He wasn’t Clayton Kershaw, but he was, for all intents and purposes, an ace.
His season, however, ended in terrifying fashion, on a comeback line drive that struck him in the head on September 4th. He suffered a small fracture of the skull, but was fortunately released from the hospital days later, though he did not return to the mound in 2016.
When he does return in 2017, can we expect him to dominate again? Perhaps he won’t rank among the best pitchers in the AL again, but there are plenty of reasons to believe his break-out was mostly for real. First, consider this plot of his velocity from 2015 to 2016, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
At age-29, an age when most hurlers are seeing their velocity slip, Shoemaker upped the heat, an encouraging sign moving forward. Moreover, Shoemaker also hugely emphasized his splitter down the stretch, and his increased usage of the pitch coincided directly with his success. After using the splitter roughly a fifth of the time entering 2016, Shoemaker used the pitch nearly 40% of the time from May onward, making it easily his most relied upon pitch. His splitter was dominant, holding opposing hitters to a .189 batting average, and posting a strong 36.9% whiffs per swing rate.
If Shoemaker maintains some of his velocity gain and continues to make his strong splitter the focal point of his repertoire, there’s no reason Shoemaker can’t move ahead as a quality pitcher. He probably won’t post some of the best fielding independent numbers in the league, as hitters get a chance to adjust to his altered and upgraded repertoire, but after mowing hitters down for the better part of 2016, it’s time to believe in Shoemaker as legitimately good major league starter.