The 2021 Major League Baseball season is underway with a full slate of 162 games on the schedule. So who has the potential to breakout and become the next star? Here we will look at one potential breakout candidate for each team, with one player per division highlighted.
American League East
Nick Pivetta – Boston Red Sox
Nick Pivetta’s stuff rivals some of the best pitchers in baseball. Justin Verlander and Trevor Bauer were listed as having similar repertories to Pivetta in 2019. Pivetta started the 2020 season with Philadelphia and was traded mid-season to Boston, where he settled in and pitched well. His velocity dipped by 1.8mph on his 4-seam fastball in 2020. It should not be a huge concern because many pitchers velocities dropped this year due to a short restart after being stuck at home during the pandemic. Both his fastball and curveball are his main options and both have above average spin rate. His curveball was the superior option in 2019 but took a backseat to his slider in 2020. Maybe this will continue to be a trend in 2021. A change of scenery a lot of times is all a pitcher with good stuff needs to excel.
Other breakout candidates: Bruce Zimmermann (BAL), Clint Frazier (NYY), Jeffrey Springs (TB), Rowdy Tellez (TOR)
American League Central
Michael Kopech – Chicago White Sox
On Opening Day, it had been 939 days since Michael Kopech last threw a pitch in a professional baseball game. From battling Tommy John surgery, to getting married and divorced, having a child, and sitting out due to the pandemic, Kopech has had a rollercoaster of a past few years. This year Kopech is slated to start the season in the bullpen, but it would not surprise anyone if he pitches his way into the rotation by the middle of the season. Unsurprisingly, there will be an innings limit which should be somewhere around 100-120 innings for the season. Kopech is touted for his electric fastball but his slider has looked extremely sharp this spring. While there is concern by some fans about his focus on the game, his recovery went better than expected because of his new peace of mind that he developed through hiking. If you take a look at prospect publications, most still have Kopech as a top 50 prospect; evaluators still believe he can reach his ceiling as a number 1 or 2 starter.
Other breakout candidates: Josh Naylor (CLE), Tarik Skubal (DET), Brady Singer (KC), Jorge Alcala (MIN)
American League West
Evan White – Seattle Mariners
If you were to ask a scout what tool comes to mind when talking about Evan White they would most definitely say fielding. And the scouts wouldn’t be wrong, as the eye test matches the stats with Seattle’s first baseman. White made 2 outs above average (good for the 82nd percentile) and saved 7 runs in 2020. But White’s tools extend well beyond what he does with his glove. He featured sprint speed that ranked in the top 15% (although stolen bases have never been a component of his game). Offensively, White had elite underlying metrics. He placed in the 90th percentile in barrels and the 95th percentile in hard hit rate. Now obviously, hitting the ball hard will only take you as far as your contact rate. White had the 3rd most strikeouts in baseball in 2020 with a dismal 41.6% strikeout rate despite only striking out in 20.4% of plate appearances in the minor leagues. Maybe the pressure of signing a contract before stepping on a major league field got to him. Maybe it was the fact that the Mariners lineup is still in the middle of a rebuild. Maybe it was a change in approach. No matter the reason for the alarming strikeout rate, one thing is for sure: if Evan White makes more contact he will be a solid big league hitter.
Other candidates: Josh James (HOU), Shohei Ohtani (LAA), Chad Pinder (OAK), Nate Lowe (TEX)
National League East
Austin Riley – Atlanta Braves
Austin Riley stormed on the scene in triple-A 2019 but his bat has fizzled out ever since. In his rookie 2019 season, Riley put up an 84 OPS+ and in 2020 he had an 83 OPS+. Although the overall production was about the same, there were some key changes that Riley made that could lead to an increase in production. He cut his strikeout rate by 12.6% in 2020 and increased his walk rate by 2.4%. This comes as no surprise when looking at his swing and contact percentages. His O-swing percentage dropped by 4%, his O-contact percentage increased by 7%, and his overall contact rate increased by over 9%. Additionally, his average exit velocity spiked by almost 2 mph in 2020. Furthermore, Riley will be completely focused on playing his natural position of third base this year which could help him focus at the plate. While some metrics show promise for Riley, what really will determine whether or not he will be able to breakout is his ability to hit righties. In his major league career thus far, Riley has batted .225/.277/.407 in 383 plate appearances vs. righties, but .255/.325/.585 in 120 plate appearances vs. lefties. In spring training, both of Riley’s homeruns came against JT Brubaker, a right handed pitcher.
Other breakout candidates: Jazz Chisholm (MIA), Sam McWilliams (NYM), Spencer Howard (PHI), Tanner Rainey (WAS)
National League Central
Nick Senzel – Cincinnati Reds
Nick Senzel has had large expectations ever since being drafted 2nd overall in the 2016 draft. Originally drafted as a third baseman, Senzel has been primarily a center fielder in the big leagues, showing just how athletic he is. Senzel had a decent rookie season in 2019, slugging 12 homers, stealing 14 bases, and batting .256/.315/.427. 2020 was a stereotypical sophomore slump, though. Senzel played in just 23 games, missing time for undisclosed reasons, and amassed an OPS+ of just 54. Senzel still shows the tools that made him one of the top prospects in all of baseball. While he was never praised for his speed, he has shown elite sprint speed in the majors ranking in the 96th and 97th percentile in 2019 and 2020. According to Statcast, Senzel has been an above average defender in center field with 3 Outs Above Average in two seasons. While Senzel hasn’t crushed the ball, putting up below average exit velocity numbers and hard hit rates, Senzel has made a ton of contact with an impressive 77.6% and 81.4% contact % in his first two seasons. Senzel is projected to be the Reds leadoff hitter and plays in the hitter friendly Great American Ballpark. He makes enough contact to have 20-25 home run potential if he can grow into his power a bit.
Other breakout candidates: Adbert Alzolay (CHC), Drew Rasmussen (MIL), Clay Holmes (PIT), Genesis Cabrera (STL)
National League West
Joe Musgrove – San Diego Padres
Musgrove was traded to the Padres this offseason. He should fit in as a back of the rotation starter because the likes of Dinelson Lamet, Yu Darvish, and Blake Snell sit atop the Padres rotation. This will be Musgrove’s 6th season in the majors and he still has yet to put it all together. He has collected ERAs of 4.06, 4.77, 4.06, 4.44, and 3.86. This is nothing spectacular at all, but his pure stuff and advanced statistics suggest he is better than his career results to this point suggest. Musgrove has always worked around the plate well, putting up a 2.2 BB/9 in his career. But his SO/9 of 8.4 has been underwhelming. With Pittsburgh in 2020, Musgrove used a diverse 6 pitch arsenal not relying on any one pitch more than 27% of the time. His 4-seam fastball, curveball, and slider all have well above average spin rates even though he doesn’t have premier velocity. Although 2020 was a small sample size, you could start to see the maturation of Musgrove as a pitcher. He started to limit hard contact (career low 85.1 average exit velocity) and increased his strikeout rate by more than 10% compared with any other season of his career (33.1%). Despite the fact that he made some key adjustments, he still performed worse than expected (3.86 ERA vs. a 3.13 xERA). The trade to San Diego will put him on a very competitive team and he will not be relied upon to be the ace of the staff. With better luck and continued improvement it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Joe Musgrove pitch like an All Star this year.
Other breakout candidates: Taylor Widener (ARI), Brendan Rodgers (COL), Gavin Lux (LAD), Logan Webb (SF)