In 2016 I played in 8 fantasy baseball leagues. League types included, but were not limited to, dynasty keep-all, roto, auction, -ONLY and H2H. My leagues also resided on many different platforms, but mainly ESPN, CBS, and Yahoo. One common thread of the first and second place finishers in all these leagues was an abundance of popup and breakout players these owners snagged. Players that fell into the breakout bucket included Brad Miller, Jose Ramirez, Jonathan Villar, and Aledmys Diaz to name just a few. These players consistently found their way onto the top teams in my leagues. In many cases, they were snagged for nothing but a waiver claim or an add/drop. A no cost transaction can lead to amazing surplus value. Oftentimes, these players are discounted or completely discarded because owners felt they were familiar enough with said player to pass on investing. Today we will examine two players I feel are in line for a huge step forward.
Contestant number one is CJ Cron, who will be entering his age 27 season next spring. 2016 was the 3rd season in a row he increased his number of plate appearances, as he moved towards earning a full-time job. He also moved away from his managers yo-yo treatment of the previous 2 seasons. CJ upped his walk rate for the third year in a row, which is tremendous progress for a notoriously impatient hitter like Cron. Over that stretch, his BB% has gone from 4.0%, then 4.2%, and finally 5.4%. More interestingly, his K% has also dropped the last 3 years as follows: 24.1%, 20.3%, 16.9%. He also swung at fewer pitches out of the zone when compared to the previous two seasons.
Prior to this season, Cron’s numbers versus righties and lefties were virtually indistinguishable. Starting in 2014, his slash splits were .258/.289/.462 (LHP) against .255/.288/.453 (RHP). This year he struggled mightily against left-handers, hitting only .234 and slugging .383. Examining his minor league stats, this struggle was out of character for CJ. In rookie ball his SLG% versus lefties was .585. That increased slightly to .588 in HiA, and settled in at .526 in AA. His 51 at-bat AAA debut may have foreshadowed his lefty problems, as he slugged only .333 before his MLB promotion, though it was in a small sample size. Addressing this issue next season and returning to form will be paramount to maximizing his value.
I feel that CJ would have broken out in 2016 if not for his untimely hand injury. However, the statistical suppression from the injury creates a prime buying opportunity. Cron has legit 30 hr power. To approach that number he needs to stay healthy and return to his lefty crushing ways. 2017 should be the first season he exceeds 600 plate appearances, and become the primary 1B for the first time in his young career. While not fleet of foot, he has worked hard on his defense and would have finished 3rd among all 1B in UZR/150 had he played enough to qualify. Albert Pujols also logged 123 games as a DH last year, a number I do not expect to rise following his recent foot surgery. Next year could be the year CJ makes good on his 1st round draft pedigree, and hit the ceiling projected in his minor league scouting reports.
Mike Foltynewicz has long been a favorite of mine since his days as an Astros’ prospect. Going back to his amateur days, the scouting report on Folty has remained fairly consistent across different websites. Armed with a double plus fastball, a potential plus curve, a developing change that flashes league average, the only thing he’s missing is consistent command/control. Unfortunately, that glaring weakness has many analysts worrying he could end up in the bullpen. Still, there’s enough raw stuff there that Folty could succeed as a starter.
A first round pick in 2010, Folty will begin his 4th major league season next spring. In 2016 he logged 150.1 innings between the majors and AAA. During his first three years in the bigs, his K/9 has increased as follows, 6.8, 8.0, 8.1. Conversely, his WHIP has saw a dramatic decrease over his first two years as you can see, 1.607, 1.627, 1.297. His BB/9 also dropped with each progressing season, 3.4, 3.0, 2.6. The increase in Ks combined with a dip in free passes adds up to a pitcher who may be figuring things out.
When examining the reason for Folty’s improvement, the answer may be found while evaluating his pitch mix. Consider how his pitch frequency has changed over the years in the table below:
Season FB% SL% CB% CH%
2014 73.0% 5.8% 10.4% 10.7%
2015 71.0% 14.8% 10.5% 3.6%
2016 62.6% 19.2% 10.3% 7.9%
Foltynewicz is now less reliant on his fastball and is more trusting of his developing slider. This may also explain his newfound ability to keep left-handed hitters in check. During his first 2 years in the league, Folty was killed by lefties yielding a wOBA over .400, and a slugging percentage of approximately 600. In a dramatic turnaround, his 2016 slash line vs lefties was 247/320/456, which included a wOBA of .329. These numbers nearly mirrored his 2016 rates vs same handed hitters, 268/319/431 and a wOBA of 322.
One variable we cannot predict is how park factors could influence the final stat line Foltynewicz may produce next season, since the Braves are moving into their new stadium in the spring. In reviewing the dimensions, the biggest difference is in right field, which will be 15 feet closer than Turner’s configuration. Partially alleviating concerns from that is a 16 foot fence that will surround right field. The closer distance is also somewhat mitigated by Folty’s success vs lefties this year. The similar dimensions should allow their new stadium to play closer to Turner Field as opposed to the launching pad that was Fulton County Stadium. Still, the fear of the unknown here could help keep his price down. The final factor suppressing Folty’s price tag is the DL stint he endured in June for bone spurs in his elbow. Any time an elbow injury occurs, fantasy owners hold their collective breath. However, this aliment is a common occurrence with pitchers. and is one that can be managed for long periods of time without surgical intervention. Following his return from the DL, Folty spun quality starts at the White Sox, at SF, at STL, and at WAS down the stretch.
All of these signs point to a developing pitcher on the upswing who is about to begin his age 25 season. Another point in his favor is that he seems to have the trust of an organization willing to let him work through his struggles at the big league level. Folty could very well end up as a #2 starter that his prospect reports once predicted. Realistically, he may settle in as a mid rotation starter with the upside for big games against weaker offenses. Either way, Foltynewicz has shown enough growth in my estimation to reasonably expect success in the future.
Both Cron and Folty can help all teams, whether you are going for the title or in the middle of a rebuild. The opportunity for profit is there regardless of how you plan to use the player in the future. Buying players in this manner before a breakout occurs is how leagues are won or lost. I practice what I preach and am actively trying to acquire these players as well. Buying early in the off-season can be risky, as trades and free agent signings can ruin the promise of playing time. However, Cron and Folty seemed locked into their roles, and that projection is unlikely to change unless they are traded form their current teams.