Every preseason baseball analysts make their list of breakout candidates. While just about every publication puts out an article like this, most of these lists rotate the same 5-7 names. The players that find themselves on these “sleeper” lists get so hyped for being underrated that they ironically almost get overrated. Most of the people recognize the names on these lists as they are generally top prospects who have a starting role for the first time or guys who had great second halves the previous year.
But what about the guys that go seemingly unnoticed every spring training and wind up as household names by the end of the summer? These are the post-hype prospects, the guys who added a pitch to their arsenal or underwent a swing change in the offseason. In 2017 it was Chris Taylor, Scooter Gennett, and Tommy Pham. In 2016, it was Kyle Hendricks and Cesar Hernandez. While these are all recognizable names now, they were all once forgotten names that resided in baseball obscurity.
Whether it is Pham’s degenerative eye condition or Hendricks being taken in the 39th round, these are the players whose stories provide fans and talk show hosts with storylines in the dog days of summer. While the top prospects with eye-popping tools generate all the hype at this time of year, this list is reserved for the guys that were slept on; the afterthoughts that gritted their way to the big leagues.
Projecting which players are going to seemingly come out of nowhere is a difficult task, look for the following players to defy expectations en route to career seasons.
Adam Morgan (RP), Philadelphia Phillies
Before his conversion to the bullpen, Morgan hadn’t thrown a single pitch that hit 96 mph in his major league career. In 2017, Morgan saw a substantial uptick in his velocity, and that increase continued as the season progressed. In April, his average fastball velocity was 93.8, but by season’s end, he was throwing his heater 95.4 mph. This can be partly explained by the fact that he was relocated to the bullpen, which allowed him to not have to save any bullets for later innings.
There were other encouraging signs for Morgan other than just increased fastball velocity. After being moved to the bullpen, Morgan began featuring his offspeed pitches much more frequently by throwing either his slider or changeup 16% more than his career average.
His slider was the primary reason that he posted the 3rd highest K% in all of baseball against left-handed hitters (trailed only Aroldis Chapman and Josh Hader). Morgan spun his slider 68% of the time against lefties and despite hitters knowing it was coming, they managed a meager .164 batting average and .463 slugging percentage against the pitch.
The emergence of Morgan’s changeup makes him able to neutralize right-handers as well. In 2017, Morgan threw 41% changeups against righties, up 19% from his previous career-high. Out of all the pitches Morgan threw against right-handed hitters, his changeup had the highest whiff percentage and the lowest batting average and slugging percentage against. Let’s have a look at how Morgan’s changeup messed with hitter’s timing:
Due to his high number of whiffs he generates with his offspeed pitches, it follows that his K% increased by nearly a third (up from 18.9% in his career to 27.5% in 2017). This change in pitch usage follows a league-wide trend of pitchers moving away from their fastballs and opting to use their breaking pitches more.
In recent years, we have seen the value of relievers who are capable of throwing multiple innings greatly increase. Every team is seeking a reliever with this unique skill set, and the Phillies might just have that guy in Adam Morgan. With prior experience as a starter and capable of throwing multiple innings, Morgan could emerge as the fireman out of the Philly pen in 2018.
Miles Mikolas (SP), St. Louis Cardinals
In one of the most under-the-radar signings of the offseason, the Cardinals signed Miles Mikolas to a two year, 15.5 million dollar deal, despite not pitching in the major leagues in over three years. In his time away from the MLB, Mikolas was quietly becoming one of the best starting pitchers in the Nippon Professional Baseball League in Japan.
Projecting players coming over from Japan is a difficult exercise given the small sample size of players that have made the transition, but if we can glean anything from recent precedents, the numbers show that Mikolas could prove to be a bargain.
In recent years, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, and Kenta Maeda have come over from Japan and enjoyed success in the United States. With these three pitchers serving as a precedent, let’s look at how their numbers in Japan stack up against Mikolas.
Out of 25 seasons compiled by Mikolas and the aforementioned Japanese triumvirate, Mikolas last three season ERAs rank 10th, 14th, and 16th among this group. Additionally, his 2017 K-BB% of 22% ranks third out of the 25 seasons compiled by this group. Overall, his career statistics, most closely mirror Kenta Maeda. The only difference being Mikolas has better command.
It is impossible to determine what this will mean for Mikolas’ future success in the big leagues, but with such a high demand for starting pitchers and such a low cost for Mikolas services, he would wind up being a steal.
**All statistics courtesy of DeltaGraphs.com, an advanced baseball statistics website that tracks data for the NPB.
Ketel Marte (SS), Diamondbacks
Ketel Marte was somewhat of an afterthought in the deal between the Diamondbacks and Mariners last offseason that was headlined by Jean Segura and Taijuan Walker. Despite not making his Diamondbacks debut until July of last season, Marte quickly showed why the Diamondbacks were so insistent on including him in the trade. After working to improve his launch angle at Triple-A last season, he was able to post the lowest ground ball rate of his career, without sacrificing plate discipline (29 walks against 37 strikeouts in just under a half a season). Considering that Marte will get to play a full season hitting at hitter-friendly chase field with the probably-juiced MLB baseball, don’t be surprised if Marte uses his revamped swing to reach a career-high in home runs in 2018.
Despite posting a pedestrian .319 wOBA, his expected wOBA of .342 suggests that he got a bit unlucky on his batted balls. With a double-digit walk rate and a better-than-league-average strikeout rate, this high quality of batted balls is a sign that he can be an above-average offensive shortstop at the big league level. These numbers are buoyed by plus speed (ranked 29th out of all position players in sprint speed in 2017), which can hopefully translate to more stolen bases as he gains experience and becomes a better base stealer.
While there are signs that his offensive game is starting to improve, his defense has always been his calling card. Marte has the soft hands, smooth actions, and strong throwing arm to be a premier defensive shortstop for years to come. This defensive ability translated to above average marks according to DRS and UZR last season. With a positively-trending offensive profile and the athleticism and tools to occupy a premier defensive position, Marte could go from being an afterthought to a borderline All-Star in 2018.
Colin Moran (3B), Pirates
Many people in the industry were quick to criticize the Pirates for not acquiring a top-tier prospect in the deal that sent ace Gerrit Cole to the Astros a few weeks ago. While the Pirates didn’t receive any prospects that were worthy of Top 100 consideration, they might see something in Colin Moran that many overlooked.
Moran was drafted with the 6th overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft but failed to live up to the hype in his first four professional seasons. However, Moran made a noteworthy swing change last season that saw him add much more loft to his swing, evidenced by a 13% decrease in his groundball rate. The number of players who are switching to more flyball heavy approaches seems to be a dime a dozen, but the adjustment that Moran has made is more extreme than most. The decline in his groundball rate from 47% to just over 34% is a larger drop than both Yonder Alonso and Logan Morrison, who both successfully adopted the same swing changes en route to career seasons in 2017.
Focusing on lifting the ball resulted in newfound power for Moran in 2017 as he saw his slugging percentage increase from .368 to .543 while hitting a career-high 19 home runs at Triple-A Fresno. He hit one home run in every 18.8 plate appearances last season, which is roughly the same home run rate as slugger Nolan Arenado. Doubters will point to his power numbers being inflated by the fact that he played his games in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, but this high run scoring environment does not account for Moran being able to slash his K% by nearly a third (from 24.3% to 16.3%).
Moran was able to hit more home runs while simultaneously striking out less by simplifying his stance and swing. The following videos compare Moran in 2016 with the new-and-improved 2017 version.
As you can see in this first video, Moran has a very open stance, holding his hands high.
This video shows the 2017 version of Moran. You probably noticed that Moran closed his stance and rested the bat on his shoulder, with a noticeably less pronounced load compared to a year before. With less moving parts, Moran was able to make more contact, all the while posting a career-best power numbers as he got the ball in the air much more frequently.
These changes could translate into more home runs at PNC Park, which has a short porch in RF. Similar to Marte, Moran will also get the added benefit of hitting the MLB ball, which seems to fly further than the minor league ball.
Of course, Moran is still blocked at third base by David Freese, who is still a serviceable big league 3B. Freese did post a career-low wRC+ despite a .336 BABIP, so there is at least some evidence that Freese could be starting to decline offensively. If Moran finds himself getting every day at-bats for the Pirates, he could silence all those that were skeptical of the Pirates front office when they snatched him from the Astros in the Gerrit Cole trade.