You can keep your “This Year’s Robbie Ray” or “Finding the Next Joey Votto.” I’m here for the next Teoscar Hernandez.
There was significant value in the resurgent Robbie Ray and Joey Votto last year, but that’s just what they were: resurgent. Neither showed much we hadn’t seen from them before. Hernandez, on the other hand, was a non-prospect-turned-part-timer-turned early-rounder. If you know who Teoscar Hernandez was traded to Toronto for in 2017, raise your hand. If you foresaw his 2020 breakout raise your other hand. Now stop lying.
Upon his arrival in Canada Hernandez was a one-dimensional slugger. His low average and poor defense limited his ceiling, or so it seemed. But he did one thing extremely well paving the way to his 2020 breakout: he absolutely crushes the ball.
Each year his barrel rates are in the double-digits and he’s in the top-15% in average exit velocity, max exit velocity, and hard-hit rate. Interestingly he’s decreased his flyball rate leading to more line drives, a higher BABIP, and a 60 point increase in batting average from 2018 to 2021 (.239 to .296). This has taken him from slightly above average with the bat to one of baseball’s most productive hitters. And this post isn’t really about him. It’s about the next him.
I started out to find who we can see becoming the next low average, high slugging hitter that can take the next step and become a fantasy lineup anchor. Hernandez got to where is today by improving in some areas such as strikeout rate and his flyball/line drive mix but by also capitalizing on an opportunity. That last part is especially important for the group of hitters I looked at because it might not be there for all of them even if it should. But I’ll start with the ones who seemingly have a clear path to playing time in early 2022.
First up is Cleveland Guardians first baseman Bobby Bradley. Unlike Hernandez, Bradley has previously landed on top-100 prospect lists, barely. Bradley has always been known for his 70-grade raw power but despite that expectations were low because of his poor hit tool. Running strikeout rates anywhere from 20% to 33% in the minor leagues meant Bradley was going to need to seriously hone his contact ability to make it as a big league regular. His batted ball mix is comparable to Hernandez’s as is his contact quality. For Bradley it begins and ends with strikeouts. Hernandez’s first extended look was 95 PAs in 2017 and he struck out 37.9% of the time backed up by a 16.6% swinging-strike rate. Bradley’s first real taste of Major League Baseball was the 2021 season in which he racked up 279 PAs but they came with a 35.5% K rate and 17.8% swinging-strike rate. Awfully similar, don’t you think?
What helped key Hernandez’s breakout was his ability to make more (and probably better) contact on pitches in the zone. For Bradley it will need to be an improvement in contact on pitches outside of the zone, as he’s nearly 20% off the league average. The opportunity is there as he is the projected starter at first base for Cleveland – will Bobby Bradley make the necessary improvements?
Bobby Dalbec put together the best 2021 season of anyone on this list. In 453 PAs in 2021 Dalbec popped 25 home runs, drove in 78 RBI and slashed .240/.298/.494, good for a 107 wRC+. You could say that he has a head start because he has a full-time job in Boston’s lineup and has already demonstrated he can be an above-average hitter. Like Bobby Bradley (and Teoscar Hernandez), strikeouts have always darkened Dalbec’s door. A 23.1% K rate in 143 PAs in low-A ball in 2016 represents his career-low while his career high is 42.4% in 2020 at the major league level, albeit in just 92 PAs. In 2021 he lowered his strikeouts by nearly 10%, but he also took fewer walks.
From August 1st through the end of the season, however, a new Dalbec showed up. His K rate dropped to 28.7%, his walks ticked up to 9.6%, and his production skyrocketed to a 174 wRC+.
Interestingly enough Dalbec’s decreased strikeout rate might be the result of a more aggressive approach, specifically on pitches inside the zone.
Perhaps you need to see the better plate discipline sustained well into 2022 to be convinced. And that would be fair. However, I’m positive you don’t need anymore evidence of his ability to absolutely crush the ball – Dalbec’s statcast metrics are undoubtedly elite.
A popular sleeper already, Bobby Dalbec has the best chance of anyone on this list to breakout because, well, it likely already started and we could be looking at a 35-homer bat going in the pick 230 range. Give me that over Rhys Hoskins or Ryan Mountcastle, who each go 100 picks earlier.
The next two names have shown flashes of high-level production but have less certain roles. But if you’re looking for more speed and a lower price tag either might be your man!
It’s the same song and dance with Sam Hilliard. He has big raw power and poor plate discipline. He also has surprisingly good speed and is a bigger threat for stolen bases than the rest on this list. He’s also a Colorado Rockie and might have just seen his path to playing time go down significantly with the additions of Kris Bryant and Randal Grichuk.
Nonetheless, Hilliard popped 14 home runs in just 238 PAs last season backed up by excellent batted-ball metrics. All in all he’s hit 27 home runs with a .225/.301/.492 slash line and a 13.1% barrel rate in 439 big league PAs. But a 34.6% strikeout rate isn’t doing him any favors in his attempt to carve out a regular gig. Hillard actually possesses some interesting qualities. His swing rates on pitches both outside and inside of the zone are better than average. And he swings as much as your average major leaguer. He just doesn’t make much contact when he does swing. It wasn’t too late for Hernandez and it isn’t too late for Hilliard. But at 28 years old his opportunities might soon dry up.
You may remember Aristides Aquino from he rattled of 19 home runs in just 56 games back in 2019. Yes, those were major league home runs. He also hit 28 triple-A dingers in just 78 games that season. He seemed like a prime no-hype breakout but has been unable to play enough since then to build on what looked like a true fantasy asset.
As 2019 wore on Aquino’s strikeout rate grew. He finished that year with a 26.7% K rate. Things only got worse from there as his strike rates were 32.1% and 36.8% in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Still his overall body of work leaves me intrigued. In just 486 big league PAs Aquino blasted 31 home runs, stole 10 bases, and has essentially been a league average hitter (97 wRC+). He hits the ball extremely hard and has an excellent home ballpark. Jesse WInker and Eugenio Suarez are now sleepers in Seattle, the National League has the DH now, and the Reds have nothing to lose by giving Aquino a chance.
Right now it looks as if Aquino is slated to split time at DH and RF against left-handed pitching. But with uncertainty about Mike Moustakas and Nick Senzel’s ability to stay healthy there might be a bigger role in store.
You will not need to spend a high draft pick on any of these four hitters. Depending on your league, aside from Dalbec, you probably won’t need to use a draft pick on them at all. Yet there is immense profit to be gained if one of this group can capitalize on their opportunity and show signs of improvement early.
Who are your power breakout for 2022? Leave a comment or find me on twitter @JoeyThomasD!