Playing 'Fact or Fiction' with MLB's Biggest 2013 Breakout Stars

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistMay 8, 2013

Playing 'Fact or Fiction' with MLB's Biggest 2013 Breakout Stars

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    Finding breakout stars in Major League Baseball just one month into the season can be a difficult task. On the one hand, if a player maintains a high level of performance over a full year, you can see how April and early May helped shape that success. 

    But then there are the players who come storming out of the gate, much to the surprise of fans. A perfect example of this would be Bryan LaHair, a journeyman minor leaguer who got a shot to play full time with the Chicago Cubs last year. 

    LaHair came on like a house of fire, hitting .390/.471/.780 in April and parlaying that single month into an appearance on the National League All-Star roster. But you could tell from his 25 strikeouts in 59 at-bats that it wasn't going to last. 

    So as we go over some of the top breakout performances from the early part of 2013, we are going to tell you who is for real and who is going to get a reality check very soon. 

    Note: All stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted. Stats up to date through games on May 6. 

Matt Harvey, RHP, New York Mets

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    The Start

    4-0, 49.1 IP, 1.28 ERA, 22 H, 7 ER, 2 HR, 12 BB, 58 K

    Matt Harvey's Start: Fact or Fiction?


    How very appropriate that we start things off with Matt Harvey, who dominated the White Sox on Tuesday night to the tune of nine innings of one-hit, 12-strikeout baseball. 

    Harvey electrified in his debut last year, recording 70 strikeouts in 59.1 innings pitched. But this year has actually taken the 24-year-old to a whole other level. 

    You could tell that Harvey had the potential to be something really special from his first start in 2012, when he was showing a fastball that sat at 93-96 mph and exploded out his hand, with an 89-91 mph slider with incredible break as it reached the plate. 

    Now we are seeing everything Harvey has to offer. He is mixing in a very good curveball and even showing better command than he had at any point in 2012. Most pitchers can't live up in the zone with a fastball because hitters can drive it out of the park. But because Harvey's ball jumps out of his hand, by the time a hitter commits, it is already past him. 

    We are running out of superlatives to describe just how great Harvey is, but the one thing we can't say is that this is just a fluke. There was a time when the Dodgers had Fernandomania. Don't be surprised if New York comes up with a similar craze for the electrifying Harvey. 

Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore Orioles

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    The Start

    32 G, .309/.352/.522, 42 H, 12 2B, 1 3B, 5 HR, 21 RBI, 3 SB, 9 BB, 24 K

    Manny Machado: Fact or Fiction?


    Even though my expectations for Machado this season were modest, considering he was just 20 years old and still had plenty of development ahead of him, I have no problem saying that I am completely on board with what he is doing right now. 

    I don't think his average and on-base percentage will stay quite that high all year, but his .346 BABIP suggests that this may not be entirely a fluke. (We don't have a big enough sample to know where his BABIP line will settle.)

    But even if the offense comes down a bit, say .280/.330/.470, a lot of Machado's value is tied up into how great—not good—he has been at third base. A converted shortstop because of the need at the big league level, he has already saved 6.9 runs and is on pace for a UZR/150 of 38.6 this season (per FanGraphs). 

    An elite defensive third baseman with an OPS of .800 at the age of 20? Yeah, I think I will buy into that start. 

Starling Marte, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    The Start

    30 G, .325/.390/.528, 40 H, 6 2B, 2 3B, 5 HR, 16 RBI, 10 SB, 7 BB, 30 K

    Starling Marte: Fact or Fiction?


    There was excitement in Pittsburgh when the Pirates brought up Starling Marte, as he has some explosive tools and is a good defensive player. 

    Marte has been a one-man wrecking crew in the Pirates' lineup to start the season, hitting .325/.390/.528 so far. While some might view this as an evolutionary period for the 24-year-old, you can see the signs that a drop-off is coming sooner or later. 

    For starters, Marte's approach at the plate is not very good. He has always been a hacker unwilling to work counts and take walks. That has remained true thus far, as he has a 30-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Those 30 strikeouts have come in just 123 at-bats. 

    On top of that, Marte's BABIP is sitting at .396 right now. If his hitting approach had significantly changed, I would say that might be sustainable for an entire season. But he is still walking just 5.1 percent of the time. 

    That average is going to trickle down and the power won't be as great because won't make as much contact as he is right now. 

Carlos Gomez, OF, Milwaukee Brewers

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    The Start

    29 G, .368/.417/.642, 39 H, 7 2B, 2 3B, 6 HR, 12 RBI, 7 SB, 6 BB, 21 K

    Carlos Gomez: Fact or Fiction?


    Unlike the first three players on this list, who really don't have a huge career sample size that we can use to properly judge how much regression could be coming, Carlos Gomez is 27 years old and has been in the big leagues for seven years. 

    It might be surprising to hear that Gomez actually leads all of baseball in WAR at 2.3 (per FanGraphs). While he is a nice piece to have thanks to above-average defense in center field and speed on the bases, there is no way he retains his current value all season. 

    Gomez is hitting .368 with a .418 BABIP and line-drive percentage of 22.0. The BABIP is 109 points better than his career mark and line-drive percentage is 5.1 percent above his career total. 

    While there has been a slight improvement in Gomez's walk and strikeout rates this season, it is not nearly enough to think that he will stay far above his career line of .253/.300/.393 as we move into the dog days of summer. 

Dexter Fowler, OF, Colorado Rockies

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    The Start

    29 G, .295/.403/.591, 31 H, 4 2B, 1 3B, 8 HR, 15 RBI, 4 SB, 16 BB, 29 K

    Dexter Fowler: Fact or Fiction?


    While never a bad player in his big league career, Dexter Fowler had not taken the leap from everyday player to All-Star like everyone had figured. That is, of course, until this season. 

    Using the small sample-size caveat, I believe that the change in Fowler that we have seen through the first month of the season is real. To begin with, he is walking and striking out roughly at the same rate he has throughout his career, and his BABIP is actually 14 points lower than his career mark. 

    Plus, Fowler has tapped into that plus raw power everyone said he had when he was coming through the minors. His eight home runs are just five shy of his career high set last year. He isn't just a product of Colorado either, as he is actually hitting better on the road (.305/.428/.593) than at Coors (.283/.353/.565). 

    Sometimes a player like Fowler, who has been steadily improving as a hitter throughout his career, takes a little longer than you would like to hit his peak. After a very successful 2012 campaign, he is ready to take the leap to superstardom this year. 

Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    The Start

    3-2, 43.2 IP, 3.71 ERA, 41 H, 18 ER, 4 HR, 12 BB, 48 K

    Hyun-Jin Ryu: Fact or Fiction?


    Hyun-Jin Ryu was a pitcher I felt like the Dodgers overpaid for a bit, even at just $6 million annually. He does not have overpowering stuff and has an unathletic body. Yet for the first month of the season, his mound presence has helped him out. 

    Yet when you are a left-hander who throws an average fastball and pitches up in the zone, eventually hitters are going to drive your pitches over the fence. Of course, pitching in Dodger Stadium, which is a big park, can lead to a lot of balls falling short of the wall.

    Another thing that helps Ryu is the division he plays in: There are not a lot of dynamic offensive teams in the National League West. The Giants and Diamondbacks make contact without a ton of power. San Diego is never going to score a lot of runs. 

    Only Colorado has an above-average offense, but that lineup can be exploited when taken away from Coors Field. 

    Because we only have 43.2 innings to judge Ryu by, perhaps he will be able to succeed with his average stuff. But I want to see how he handles facing lineups multiple times over the course of the year before making any declarations. 

Shelby Miller, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals

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    The Start

    4-2, 36.2 IP, 1.96 ERA, 28 H, 8 ER, 3 HR, 11 BB, 38 K

    Shelby Miller: Fact or Fiction?


    Shelby Miller has been on the radar basically since the day he was drafted by the Cardinals in 2009. He ranked as the team's top prospect for three years from 2010-12 before Oscar Taveras burst onto the scene. 

    Now that Miller is getting his first shot at pitching in the big leagues, he has been as good as advertised. His stuff looks as good as it ever has, with a plus fastball, curveball and changeup. He commands everything so well, especially considering he is just 22 years old. 

    The reason I believe in Miller, as opposed to someone like Hyun-Jin Ryu, is a difference in stuff and the way they pitch. The powerful right-hander generates a good groundball rate (42.7 percent) and strikes out nearly 20 percent of batters he faces. 

    Adam Wainwright has been the star of St. Louis' rotation so far this season, but Miller isn't that far behind. If he can show this kind of command on all his pitches and keep missing bats at the rate he is, Miller will be the National League Rookie of the Year. 

Chris Davis, 1B, Baltimore Orioles

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    The Start

    32 G, .318/.420/.654, 34 H, 9 2B, 9 HR, 30 RBI, 19 BB, 34 K

    Chris Davis: Fact or Fiction?


    The one thing everyone knew about Chris Davis was that he could hit the ball really far when he made contact. That has held true the last two years, as he slugged .501 with 33 home runs with the Orioles in 2012 and is off to a blazing start this year. 

    What has changed is the approach Davis is taking at the plate. Known for being a hacker throughout his big league career, the 27-year-old is walking more than ever (14.5 percent) and striking out less (26 percent this season, compared to 30.0 percent for his career). 

    The problem is the strikeouts are still a huge part of Davis' game. Even though the rate at which he is punching out has decreased, in a small sample size, he still has 34 in 107 at-bats. That is not going to allow him to keep hitting .300 with an on-base percentage over .400. 

    He has already started to slow down. After hitting a high-water mark of .403/.486/.855 on April 21, Davis is just 9-for-45 with four extra-base hits, 16 strikeouts and nine walks in 14 games since. 

Carlos Santana, C, Cleveland Indians

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    The Start

    26 G, .355/.450/.645, 33 H, 9 2B, 6 HR, 14 RBI, 1 SB, 16 BB, 22 K

    Carlos Santana: Fact or Fiction?


    Carlos Santana has always been a player on the periphery of stardom, but he wasn't hitting for enough average to quite get there. 

    That has changed this season, as the Cleveland catcher is making harder contact and driving the ball with more authority than he has at any point in his career. He has done it without sacrificing plate discipline or changing his approach. 

    One big problem Santana had in the past was hitting line drives. He would often roll over pitches and pound the ball into the dirt, leading to a lot of weak groundouts.

    This year, the 27-year-old has increased his line-drive percentage by more than three points from his career mark. His strikeout rate (20.2 percent) and BABIP (.415) are elevated, so the average will come back down to earth. 

    But because Santana is hitting the ball with more authority and is still very patient, this looks like the year where he finally turns into a .280-.290 hitter with 100 walks and 25-30 home runs. Those numbers for a catcher would put him into the MVP conversation.