Projecting breakout seasons is a dangerous practice, and considering everybody wants to be the first one to find the next diamond in the rough, the success rate here is generally not great, because for every Mark Canha (shameless plug), there are 10 Nick Pivettas. In other words, that is to say that banking on someone to start giving you results when they have historically failed to do so is difficult. Predicting that something will deviate drastically from what has already been established as the “standard” is an inherently foolish endeavor, but that’s what makes it so interesting. All we can do is look at the information we have, and use it to determine who can best capitalize on their strengths going forward. It’s an inexact science, yes, but if it wasn’t then where would the fun come from? All that being said, I’ve gathered 5 players who I believe are in the best position to take a leap forward in 2020, so without further ado, enjoy!
Poche, simply put, has one of the most electric fastballs in the league. His fastball has an active spin rate of 97.2%— good enough for 3rd in MLB—and a FA-Z (Average Vertical Movement) of 11.4, the best in baseball by a fairly wide margin. Fangraphs writer Michael Augustine wrote a terrific piece on why he should cut down on his extremely high use of his four seamer, in favor of his also effective slider. As Augustine notes, Poche used his fastball a ridiculous 88% of the time, over 50% more often than league average.
This is more than a ‘sum of its parts’ situation, however, as the left-hander has proven that he can have great success at professional level. His 2018 AAA campaign was beyond impressive, as across 50 innings he posted a 1.08 ERA, 1.75 FIP, and 2.29 xFIP, accompanied by a 41.5 K%. Once he reached the big leagues, Poche’s incredible knack for accumulating strikeouts more or less remained, with a K% of 34.8, but his 4.70 ERA, 4.08 FIP, and 4.44 xFIP raised eyebrows. This can almost certainly be attributed to his struggles with the long ball. His mark of 13.5 HR/FB wasn’t sky high, but it was above league average; now combine that with his 62.4% fly ball rate, and you see why his numbers ballooned so dramatically.
Augustine suggests in his piece that cutting down on the fastball usage may mitigate some of the home run concerns, and with a front office as savvy as Tampa’s, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have Poche experiment more heavily with some breaking pitches. Whatever the cause may be, if Poche can alleviate some of those concerns with the longball, he could play a major role in an already-impressive Rays bullpen.
Could you argue that Luplow already broke out? I suppose, but in 2019 he didn’t even register 300 PAs—not to mention that in my dynasty league he was just signed for $2 million cheaper than Dee Gordon—leading me to believe that even if he has begun his breakout, he’s still criminally undervalued going into 2020. A .383 wOBA greatly impressed last season, and while his .348 xwOBA suggested some regression might be on the horizon, a deeper dive shows that there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Luplow’s 2019 O-Swing% of 22.7% was 8.9% better than league average, and combined with his 75.2% Z-Swing% (7.9% above average), he proved that his knowledge of the strike zone is borderline elite. His walk rate has always impressed, and his 2019 was no exception, as he walked 12.6% of the time. Walk rate is a skillset that generally translates well year-over-year, which certainly bodes well for the 26 year old’s future.
I was admittedly very high on Yoan López going into last season, but he didn’t perform quite as well as I’d hoped. López was hit hard in 2019, harder than almost anyone in the league, and he could’ve gotten away with it if his AA strikeout numbers had translated to the Majors, but his 2018 minor league K% of 34.4 dipped harshly to 17.1% in his first MLB season, severely limiting his ability to get outs. Still though, his 101 xFIP- wasn’t horrible, especially considering that it was achieved without the his usual strikeout numbers. It’s true that López’s spin efficiency was one of the worst in the majors last season, but scouts have been raving over his impressive fastball/slider combo for years now, and if he can find a way to make it work at the Major League level, he could be a lethal asset out of Arizona’s pen. With no direct path to the closer role, López may end up relegated to a middle relief or setup role, but that shouldn’t impair his ability to get outs.
I was going to try to avoid including any former top prospects in this list, but the ceiling here is so much higher than many give him credit for. Some have begun to write off the 25 year old after he produced just 0.6 fWAR in his first 249 games, but based on what he’s shown us, there is potential for McMahon to grow into an all-star caliber player, and he seems primed to take a big step forward this season. The most obvious indicator is how hard he hits the ball, and trust me, he hits the ball hard. In 2019, his 47.7% Hard Hit Rate and 91.4 MPH Average Exit Velocity put him in the top 9th and 10th percentile of the league, respectively, and his 10.4 BB% is another positive sign. Just as his BB% would indicate, his command of the zone is excellent, evidenced by his 29.2 O-Swing% and 76.7 Z-Swing% last season, and his .200 ISO and 60-grade power potential showcase how strong his bat can be. There are certainly flaws that might cap his ceiling going forward, but if he manages to correct some of them—mainly his unimpressive 8.4° Launch Angle and horrendous 29.2 K%—he will be electric to watch this season.
An absolute on-base machine, Wade has posted a 14.6% BB% across over 2000 minor league PAs, giving him a career .389 OBP as a member of the Twins farm system. Wade’s biggest flaw is his power, as scouts have him graded around the 30/35 mark, and his career minor league ISO is a measly .131, which obviously isn’t terrific, but his 6’1” 205lb frame inspires hope that he can tap into some power potential down the line. The biggest obstacle to Lamonte Wade producing at the Major League level is the absolutely loaded Twins lineup, which will likely prevent him from seeing regular ABs for the majority of the season. Wade might not be given an opportunity to shine this year, but if he does, it’s a good bet that he’ll take advantage of it.