If there is one thing we know about hitters vs. pitchers, it is that a hitter’s stats tend to stabilize much more quickly. This means it takes a bit smaller of a sample for us to figure out what to make of their performance. That isn’t to say there is no noise in small samples of hitter performance, but when it comes to the same metrics across the two types of players, we need fewer plate appearances to understand a hitter’s outlook, as well as to more accurately project the future.
We recently took a look at five pitcher breakouts. Now, it’s time to look at five more breakouts — this time of position players. Much like the pitchers who were previously covered, this group sports a wide variety of profiles. From a two-time former No. 1 prospect to an established major leaguer who has put all aspects to his game together, this list of players proves that the path to major league success is nonlinear.
Jazz Chisholm Jr., Miami Marlins
One of the most toolsy young players in the game today, Jazz Chisholm Jr. was two homers shy of joining the 20/20 club in 2021, swatting 18 round-trippers and stealing 23 bases in his rookie season. Despite roughly league-average hard hit and barrel rates, Chisholm wasn’t able to sustain production above the league average thanks to a 28.6 percent strikeout rate. All told, he ended his rookie season with a respectable 98 weighted runs created plus (wRC+), but the strikeouts needed to be curbed to net better results at the plate.
A year later, Chisholm is hitting the ball harder and more often, raising his hard hit rate to the 77th percentile. The strikeouts are still there, but at a much more palatable rate of 23.7 percent, just a few ticks above the league average of 22.5 percent. But the most important part of Chisholm’s improvement is his ability to elevate the baseball in 2022. Now, he has the 12th-highest barrel rate among qualified hitters, and he already has seven home runs to his name.
J.P. Crawford, Seattle Mariners
The aforementioned established major leaguer, J.P. Crawford graduated as a prospect during the 2018 season. Known for his consistent presence on defensive highlight reels, Crawford’s glove made up the lion’s share of his value as a big leaguer. Coming into the 2022 season, however, Crawford’s offensive output had been on a three-year incline, netting wRC+ marks of 87, 95 and 103 over the past three seasons. That alone earned him a five-year extension.
While Crawford has always shown an above-average skill set when it comes to avoiding strikeouts and drawing walks, with rates near or better than the league average three years running, the best mark he had mustered in weighted on-base average (wOBA) was a meager .314. For his career to date before this season, his triple slash was a rather tepid .250/.331/.367. This year, Crawford is mashing to a much stronger .289/.368/.444 — good for 46 percent above the league average — with a wOBA of .360.
Jeremy Peña, Houston Astros
Jeremy Peña came into the season as the Astros’ top prospect as well as the 30th-ranked prospect in baseball. He had extremely big shoes to fill, being the heir apparent to generational talent Carlos Correa, who left the organization via free agency. Peña’s performance so far has lessened the blow for a team that lost its best player.
As a prospect, Peña was highly regarded for his defensive prowess, but it’s his hit tool and power that has surprised evaluators, providing more offense than he was expected to. That trend has continued at the major league level, as Peña is second at his position1 with a .508 slugging percentage. His offense is no mirage, either, as his .368 expected wOBA is a near facsimile of his .370 actual wOBA.
Daulton Varsho, Arizona Diamondbacks
A second-round draft pick by Arizona in 2017, Daulton Varsho made his debut during the shortened 2020 season. He flashed his power in 2021, hitting nine homers in just 18 games in Triple-A and then 11 more in 95 games with the big league club. Varsho came up as a catcher but has transitioned to playing mostly the outfield, thanks to his well-above-average sprint speed and ability to get great jumps, allowing him to get to many more fly balls than the average outfielder.
At the plate in 2022, Varsho already has seven home runs, and he has raised his wOBA by 24 points. Additionally, he has considerably raised his average exit velocity, hard hit rate and barrel rate. With a WAR of 1.6, he is the best player on a vastly improved Diamondbacks team.
Wander Franco, Tampa Bay Rays
Wander Franco made history when he was twice named the No. 1 prospect by Baseball America, joining the likes of Joe Mauer, Andruw Jones and Bryce Harper. When he was called up by the Rays last June, the entire baseball world took notice. In storybook fashion, he hit a game-tying three-run home run in his very first game. While he did scuffle for about a month after his debut performance, Franco ended the season strong, earning a top-three finish in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.
While his .304 wOBA may seem a little underwhelming, because offense is down leaguewide it still nets a 108 wRC+. But by expected metrics, he should be hitting much better, as his .360 xwOBA mark is in the 68th percentile. Franco’s calling card has always been his bat-to-ball skills — he hardly swings and misses let alone strikes out — but this year, he is a much more all-around player. His glove looks to have caught up with his bat, making him a possible MVP candidate once the actual results meet with the expected results.
Just like with the pitchers, there are small samples at play here. Even though hitting stats tend to be a little more reliable at smaller samples, there is still a lot of baseball left in the season. As young hitters hit, pitchers adjust, and in order for hitters to maintain success, they must adjust back. For some of the hitters on this list, that part has yet to be tested. For others, their success is the result of their readjustments.
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