Christain Yelich on the Brewers; CC by License 2.0
Every single year in baseball there are a couple of guys that break out and surprise everyone by exceeding expectations or living up to old ones. Last year, guys like Sandy Alcantara, Framber Valdez, Emmanuel Clase, Luis Arraez, and Alejandro Kirk were the breakout type players that for the first time broke out and surprised people. So for today, the goal is to spotlight a few guys that I believe will break out in 2023. It will be a mix of younger guys taking that next step, some older players that could finally have that breakout season, and even some players who are going to have major comeback seasons.
Before starting out, some ground rules should be established. I will not be picking any rookies like Jordan Walker or Corbin Carrol because these are way too easy of choices to make and I believe that a true breakout guy is someone with at least some major league experience. So to adjust to this I will be putting some limitations. For hitters, they must have at least 350 career PA; for pitchers, they must have 25 plus career starts or 40 plus career appearances. Now that these are established let’s get into the players.
Yelich is most heavily known for his elite run from 2018 to 2019 in which he was arguably the best hitter in baseball and became the face of the Brewers franchise. However, since that year he has taken a massive step down and most people consider him to be a washed-up star who does not have much of anything to offer. Even though he has taken a steep decline in that time he has still been a very good player over the past 3 years. From 2020 to 2022 he posted an OPS+ of 107 which is still above league average and a valuable player but compared to his 171 mark from 2018-2019 it has been very disappointing. However, I think he has a lot left in the tank to get to a point where he can be at a mark of 120-140. His advanced metrics have been very solid over the past couple of years and I believe that with a minor boost, he can get back to his all-star level.
Christian Yelich 2022 percentile rankings
As seen above, Yelich is still a very good hitter but is not the player he used to be. Looking into the numbers, the big difference between now and his previous elite seasons is his slugging%. Now his OBP is down from his previous seasons as well but his xwOBA being in the 75th percentile shows he still has elite numbers there. However, his SLG in 2022 was down nearly 300 points from his 2018-2019 seasons. He is still hitting the ball hard so why is his SLG so down? There are multiple reasons for this; first, his launch angle is down tremendously from his 2019 season which is leading to his ground ball rate being way up. This leads to fewer extra-base hits and a lot more singles or hard ground-outs. Another thing leading to this decrease in SLG is his decrease in pulling the ball and an increase in hitting to the opposite field. Now looking back at Yelich’s 2019 spray chart, the majority of his extra-base hits were pull-side and not opposite. So what does all of this mean for Yelich in 2023? First off, his launch angle increased slightly in 2022 and I believe it will continue to increase in 2023. Next with the ban on the shift Yelich will likely begin to start pulling the ball more because he will not be getting shifted as much. On top of all of this, the Brewers lineup is looking better and has more depth than it has in any of the past 3 seasons, so Yelich will hopefully be getting better pitches to hit and be hitting in more scenarios where he can drive the ball instead of hitting the ball into the ground. All of this put together is why Yelich will put together a great comeback season in 2023.
Bryan De La Cruz
De La Cruz is a late bloomer as he came up as a 24 year-old and played his first full season in 2022 for the Marlins at the age of 25. In that first full year, De La Cruz posted a respectable 103 OPS+ for a Marlins team that had a dreadful offense. Diving deeper into the numbers for De La Cruz they show elite advanced numbers in many different regards that give many future indications of success.
Bryan De La Cruz 2022 percentile rankings
De La Cruz hit the ball very hard in 2022 and most people don’t know this guy’s name, but they will soon. These numbers above are not just good; they are elite and very rare. Now how can he improve on this and break out in 2022? First off, Cruz had bad Walk rates and K rates while also struggling with his chase rates. These are all expected from a young guy like Cruz who is still adjusting to the MLB. If he can even improve one of these in 2023 he will wildly improve all his numbers all around. Another area of improvement for Cruz is his defense, his arm was elite and he has solid speed but he had issues in CF. However, with Jazz moving to CF in 2023, De La Cruz will likely take a corner OF spot where his arm will continue to be elite and he will not have to cover as much ground. This could lead to Cruz becoming a more well-rounded ball player and his overall value going up. Cruz also had just a .304 BABIP in 2022 which for a guy hitting the ball as hard as he was is very low. Cruz just needs a couple of small things along with a little more experience and he could easily become one of the best corner OF in the NL in 2023.
Whitlock burst onto the scene in 2021 as a 24 year-old with a disgusting pitch arsenal. His sinker, slider, and changeup combo is one of the best in all of baseball, and projects as one of the best pitchers in baseball. The main question with Whitlock is if he is a SP or RP. He came up as a RP in 2021 and he posted a 1.96 ERA out of the pen in 2021. However, in 2022, the Red Sox gave him 9 starts in which he had a 4.15 ERA in those starts. Now headed into 2023, the question will be how the Red Sox will use him. Whitlock is dealing with an injury but is expected to miss just a couple weeks and the Sox are hoping to make him a full-time starter in 2023. His advanced stats have shown that he has the potential to do this and just needs a full season in either role and he could break out.
Garrett Whitlock 2022 percentile rankings
These numbers are extremely solid and can translate to the next level as a starter. A couple of promising stats to look at for Whitlock as a starter is he was able to keep his HR numbers down and keep his walk numbers down as well. These are usually two things relievers have trouble with when translating to a starter. If he can keep these two things down and work on getting more comfortable as a starter he can easily put up good or even great numbers as a starter. Now there is still a chance he ends up in the bullpen where he has proven he can be elite. It is safe to say that Whitlock has the stuff and the numbers to be a great starter or reliever but he needs a full season at the given spot.
Aaron Ashby just barely made the qualifications for this list as he has a career 40 appearances. However, he could just not be left off this list. As a Cardinals fan, this guy terrifies me and I think he will have a fantastic season this year. He made a short debut in 2021 but was able to play close to a full season in 2022, and based on his base-level stats he was not great. Ashby posted a 4.44 ERA across 27 games and 19 starts. However, diving just a little into advanced numbers it is clear to see that Ashby has the tools to be elite.
Aaron Ashby 2022 Percentile rankings
Ashby proved that he is very good at avoiding hard contact and striking out batters at an elite rate. This is a combo that is a recipe for success in the big league. He suffered from a lot of weak hits last year as his xERA and xwOBA were both much lower than his actual stats. If he improves nothing in 2023 he will still get better because he can not be as unlucky as he was in 2022. His biggest problem in 2022 was walks which on top of weak hits led to his ERA being much higher than expected. Walks are a very common problem for young pitchers so if he can get slightly better at preventing the free pass he can put together an elite season. The Brewers need to have faith in Ashby as a starter and if they give him a full season as a starter in the back of that rotation he can easily have below a 3.50 ERA. Even if they decide to make him a full-time reliever he has been elite in that spot as well. Ashby is so close to being amazing and if he figures just a couple of things out he will put together an all-star season in 2023.