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Who Will Breakout in 2024?

MJ Melendez hitting for the Kansas City Royals; CC by License 2.0

Every season players come out of nowhere and break onto the scene, and every offseason the media tries to predict who these breakout players will be. These players often can make or break a team's season and can have a big impact on the season as a whole. A couple of examples from the 2023 season are Jonah Heim, George Kirby, Orlando Arcia, and Justin Steele. I attempted to do this last year and had mixed results picking: Christian Yelich, Bryan De La Cruz, Garrett Whitlock, and Aaron Ashby. So today we are going to use stats and analytics to try and predict what players could be in line for a career season. 

KCR C/OF MJ Melendez

Melendez was a 2nd round pick by the Royals back in 2017 and was a hyped-up hitting prospect straight from the jump. He had mashed consistently throughout the minors as he posted wRC+ marks well over 100 at every level. He got his call-up in 2022 as he played 129 games and had a wRC+ of 98 in those games and posted similar results in 2023 with a 92 in 148 games.

 The two easiest ways to predict breakouts using analytics are to look at expected stats and the quality of contact. Based on both of these, Melendez underperformed in 2023. His average exit velo ranked in the 96th percentile and his HardHit% ranked in the 91st percentile. Melendez was consistently producing some of the best quality of contact in the major leagues last year but finished with below-average hitting numbers. When looking at his expected stats his xBA and xwOBA both were slightly higher than his BA and wOBA but his biggest difference comes in xSLG which was .432 compared to a just .398 SLG. It is clear that if Melendez keeps hitting the ball as hard as he was last year then it will likely result in better numbers in 2023. 

Melendez still has some major weaknesses that handicap him from being a star. The two biggest ones are his strikeout numbers and his defense. He posted a K% in the 18th percentile and a Whiff% that was in the 7th percentile and both of these are pretty big issues. His numbers against both fastballs and sliders were very rough in 2023 as he had a Whiff% of 37% against these two pitches and they made up 52% of the total pitches he saw last year. However, just like his basic numbers, his expected stats against these pitches were significantly better than his actual numbers. His xSLG on fastballs was .454 compared to a .398 SLG and his xwOBA against sliders was .290 compared to just a .241 wOBA. While Melendez will never be a big-time contact guy, if his numbers come closer to his expected marks then he can easily improve his K and Whiff numbers. Next is his defense which is his biggest issue. He came up as a catcher and in 2022 he primarily played there that year and graded out as one of the worst defensive catchers in baseball. In 2023 the Royals tried him in the outfield and he was almost just as bad out there. While Melendez will likely never be a good defender, he can easily become an average one. He will likely stick in OF for the foreseeable future and maybe even see some more DH. His arm graded out as one of the best ones in baseball last year and with about a league-average sprint speed, he could become an average outfielder in 2024 with a little work. If Melendez keeps hitting the ball as hard as he has and can play an average outfield defense then his value will skyrocket and Melendez could end up breaking out in 2024. 

MIA OF Jesus Sanchez 

Last year I took a chance on Marlins OF Bryan De La Cruz and he had a good 2023 but still did not produce at the rate I expected him to. So I am going to take another chance on a Marlins OF with Jesus Sanchez. Sanchez first got called up in 2020 at the age of just 20 and played just 10 games. He got his first true playing time in 2021 and he posted a wRC+ of 111 in just 64 games in 2021 and cemented his spot on the roster for the future. However, he took a step back in 2022 with a 90 wRC+ in 98 games but got back to in 2023 with a 109 wRC+ in 125 games. Sanchez has already proven to be an above-average bat but I think he has a lot more in the tank.  

Sanchez, similar to Melendez, underperformed based on his expected stats however if he performs to his expected stats, he could become an All-Star. Sanchez’s xwOBA, xBA, xSLG, average exit velo, Barrel%, and HardHit% all ranked between the 70th to 80th percentile in baseball last year. Sanchez already has borderline elite expected stats and contact quality so what is holding him back from a true breakout? Again, similar to Melendez, it is due to strikeouts. His K% ranked in at 23rd percentile, his Whiff% ranked in at 22nd percentile, and his Chase% ranked in at 30th percentile. These are admittedly not great but he can still be a successful hitter with these numbers. A fix for this can be for him to raise his BB% which has been under 10% every year he has been in the majors. If Sanchez can walk a little more, bring his strikeouts down a little, and keep hitting the ball like he did last year, then he could easily be making a push for an All-Star nod in 2024. 

OAK RHP Mason Miller

Miller was a 3rd round pick by the A’s in 2021 and quickly rose through the ranks of the A’s system with unbelievable strikeout numbers at every level. Miller got the call-up in 2023 and was impressive as he posted a 3.78 ERA and 3.47 FIP in 33 innings last year. Miller is a pure power pitcher with a fastball that touches 100 and a slider that generated a 47% Whiff% in 2023. His great start to his career in 2023 was not just luck as his stats backed up his performance, meaning that he can likely continue this level of success over a full season.

Miller had very good advanced stats as he had a 3.23 xERA and a respectable 4.77 xFIP. His FIP was higher due to his walk numbers which are his biggest concern at the moment. His 11.5% BB% is too high but his 27.3% K% helped make up for it and balance it out. He also did a very good job of avoiding hard contact with a 3.7% Barrel% and a 34.1% HardHit%, both of which are far above average. He did have some minor issues with generating Whiffs and Chases but as he gets more innings I think he will get better in both of these regards. Miller also just overall has really good stuff as his Stuff+ was 125 via fangraphs and he also has a 103 Pitching+. Miller has a great arsenal of pitches and he will generate more Whiffs as time goes on. With this A’s team likely being dreadful this year, there is a good chance that if Miller performs he can be their lone representative in this year’s All-Star game.

BOS RHP Kutter Crawford

Last year I thought Garrett Whitlock was going to be the Red Sox pitcher who broke out and that did not work out as Whitlock struggled in 2023. I am doubling down this year on the Red Sox RHP and predicting Kutter Crawford to have a big year this year. Crawford was 16th round pick in 2017 and had little to no expectations but slowly worked his way up the minor leagues pitching solid at every level. He got his first call-up in 2021 and pitched in just one game but got more extended time in 2022 and struggled as he had a 5.47 ERA across 77.1 IP. However, he took a big step forward in 2023 as he tossed a 4.04 ERA across 129.1 IP, but he can be even better in 2024. 

He had very good advanced stats in 2023 as he posted an xERA, xBA, Avg exit velo, chase%, BB%, and HardHit% above the 70th percentile. The big reason for his success in 2023 was his big improvement in his fastball. It went from a -7 run value in 2022 to a 9 run value in 2023. He started to elevate his fastball more in 2023 which led to him getting way more strikeouts with it. His cutter also became a lot better and he added a sweeper that was a big plus pitch for him. Overall, his plus metrics are really good on his pitches. He has 106 Stuff+, 102 Location+, and 104 Pitching+ via fangraphs which are all above league average. Crawford, overall, has great stuff but what can he improve on to be better in 2024?

His biggest area of weakness was his GB numbers being high which can lead to a higher HR rate over time. However, as he continues to develop his sweeper and cutter, that could lead to weaker contact and more ground balls. Crawford underperformed his expected stats in 2023 and that along with him developing his pitches more could lead to Crawford having a true breakout season and becoming a top-the-line starter.

Every year players break out and there is almost no way to truly predict who will and who will not, but using the analytics, there seems to be a good chance that these 4 could have very successful years. So you should watch out for these guys to see how they perform this season and try to predict some breakout guys for yourselves. 

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