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2021 MLB Breakout Candidates: Five Hitters With Opportunity

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Whether you follow player breakouts for your fantasy team or just for the fun/challenge of it, predicting breakouts is always a challenge. Especially after you just had a season as we had in 2020, all of the “breakouts” are basically just 60-game hot streaks. 2021 MLB breakout candidates are the hardest to predict, given we only see what a 100-200 plate appearance hot streak looks like for some players.

Rob Manfred recently told the teams to plan for a full 162-game season and barring any unforeseen events, we could finally get a “normal” baseball season. In 2020, there were several incidents of what looks like a player finally breaking through, but we are looking at such small samples that it’s very hard to take any of these breakthroughs as if they are legit breakouts in a player’s career.

Some of these hitters that are going to be mentioned might not have the prospect pedigree of someone in the top 25 prospect rankings, but a lot of these players had major improvements in 2020 and with a full season, we could see the full extent of what their 2020 season was.

2021 MLB Breakout Candidates: Opportunity Is a Mans Best Friend

Ty France

The first player on this list found himself shipped off to the Seattle Mariners from the San Diego Padres in the Austin Nola deal. France originally made a name for himself in the Padres system after putting up one of the minor leagues’ most dominant performances.

In 2017, at AAA El Paso, Ty France, in 348 plate appearances, put together a .399/.477/.770 slash line with 27 home runs and a 196 wRC+. France would end up getting the call to the MLB later that season but went virtually unnoticed after only slashing .234/.294/.402 in 201 plate appearances, which also came with an abysmal K/BB rate of 0.18.

Fast forward to the end of 2020, Ty France would put together a rather intriguing season. France in 155 plate appearances would have a 305/.368/.468 slash line and improved plate discipline brought his wRC+ up to 132 from 86 in 2020. France would only hit four home runs in that span. In 2020, France took a dip in his batted ball metrics, but it was actually for the better.

France’s 2020 was a product of consistent contact over mashing the ball. His hard-hit rate (balls hit over 95MPH) dropped dramatically down to 29.8% from 42.6% in 2019. Despite the drop in hard-hit rate, France’s success is largely due to him hitting more line drives, fewer ground balls, and fewer fly-balls, which ultimately gives plenty of room to believe in France as a 2021 MLB breakout candidate and take another step further.

Sean Murphy

Entering the 2021 season as the Oakland Athletics starting catcher, Sean Murphy is looking to put together a full season of what he has shown us in his very brief career right now.

Through 200 career plate appearances, Murphy owns a .237/.355/.491 slash line with a 133 wRC+. Murphy holds an impressive 15% career walk rate, but that comes with a 26.5% strikeout rate. Although Murphy carries a minimal sample size, it’s worth noting the comparisons he shows to a certain top catcher in the American League thus far in his career.

K/BBHard Hit%Expected Batting Average (xBA)wRC+Slugging%
Sean Murphy0.5745.7%.227133.491
Yasmani Grandal0.5941.6%.228118.445

Murphy still has another 3286 plate appearances go before this comparison means anything, but it’s certainly something to take notice of as Murphy continues to progress into the future of the catcher position for the Athletics.

In 2020, Murphy made an adjustment that fellow 2021 MLB breakout candidate Ty France showed. Murphy lowered his line drive rate by 9.3%, hit fewer balls on the ground, and added a whopping 12.2% in his fly-ball%, which at the end of 2020 sat at 39.2%.

Murphy, with his stellar defense which was what originally got his name out there amongst prospect circles, Murphy will have the first opportunity to prove he is worth the hype in Oakland.

Franchy Cordero

If you’re a fan of saber-metrics you’re probably already aware of who Franchy Cordero is.

Cordero called himself in the Padres organization with his blend of incredible power and speed before being shipped off to the Kansas City Royals before the beginning of the 2020 season. Cordero has been tabbed as a breakout for the past two seasons; As he should be.

Cordero has battled injuries in his short career, only making appearances in 25 games and 62 plate appearances after suffering an elbow sprain in 2019 before the season began, followed by a broken hamate bone.

Despite having a rather disappointing career slash line of .236/.304/.433 in 315 career plate appearances, Cordero has put up some wacky stat-cast numbers like the homerun above. On batted balls, Cordero mashes with a career average of 92.5MPH exit velocity on batted balls in play and a 12.5% career barrel rate, almost double the league average of 6.8%.

One of the main factors that’ll decide how much of Cordero’s ceiling we see is his inability to make contact consistently. Cordero has a career swinging strike rate of 16.8% and an even less inspiring 0.25 BB/K in his short time in the majors.

Cordero spent time this winter with the Dominican Winter League, where he didn’t do necessarily do impressive in 76 plate appearances. Cordero drew nine walks and showed improved plate discipline, and struck out 21 times in the 18 games. In today’s game, strikeouts are inevitable, but with that being said, Cordero will have to improve upon his career 34.9% strikeout rate.

Anthony Alford

One thing that these 2021 MLB breakout candidates have in common is that they all are finally getting the opportunity to prove what they can finally do, Anthony Alford, after spending years in the Blue jays system and only accumulating 88 plate appearances in his tenure with the team.

But after being claimed off waivers by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Alford now finds himself projected to be the teams starting center-fielder in 2021. In his small 29 plate appearance’s as a Pirate, Alford hit two home runs and stole three bases.

Alford made a name for himself before being drafted by the Jays given his power-speed combination. But like many others who share the same profile, Alford has struggled to make consistent contact with a career 35.2% strikeout rate (very small sample size albeit).

Alford’s speed in 2020 ranked in the 99th percentile according to baseball savant. Alford doesn’t have the pedigree that some of the other 2021 MLB breakout candidates in this article might have, but he has the tools to be an above-average player on both sides of the ball based on his speed alone.

Austin Riley

Despite a lackluster slash-line in 2020, Austin Riley finds himself on the verge of making the Atlanta Braves lineup even scarier to look at.

In 2020, Austin Riley made huge improvements in the batter’s box. A rather bland .239/.301/.415 slash line in 206 plate appearances will mask the major improvements that Riley made in the plate discipline department.

Riley turned an unimpressive 36.4% strikeout rate in 2019 and dropped it down to 23.8% while also raising his walk % to 7.8%. Riley also cut down on his swinging strike rate of 20.5% in 2019 down to 14.8% in 2020, His plate discipline still needs a lot of work, but when if he continues improving consistently on what is considered his biggest weakness Riley could be in for a major 2021 breakout.

Riley has huge power potential; in 2020 Riley actually took a hit in his hard-hit rate that dropped from 44.6% down to 42.9%. But at the price of the very small decrease in hard-hit balls and more focus on his zone contact rate took a massive from 70.7% to 79.2%.

When Riley made contact in 2019, he had an average launch angle of 20.6 degrees. 2020 took a more line-drive approach (13.6 degrees) that did huge favors for his advanced metrics.

Riley in 2019 had an xBA (expected batting average) of .219, in large part due to striking out so much and making contact straight into the air. In 2020 Riley made a rather weird adjustment; Riley put the ball in the air fewer (as evident by the lower launch angle) but put the ball on the ground 41.7% of the time, up from 26.7% in 2019.

Riley is surrounded by an impressive lineup that will only help reach his potential as a 2021 MLB breakout.

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Murray is a college student attending Humber College for Sport Business, can be found on Twitter at @_MurrayBrown