5 Breakout Candidates to Watch in MLB's 2nd Half
Not every player gets off to a hot start to begin the season.
Every year, there are countless guys who struggle during the first half of the year, for one reason or another, and are hastily labeled as disappointments. However, it’s easy to lose sight of just how long the regular season is and therefore how quickly a player can turn a disappointing first half into an overall successful campaign.
For example, Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons scuffled during the first half of the 2013 season. He had a .630 on-base percentage, .278 wOBA (weighted on-base average) and 73 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) in 90 games. After the All-Star break, however, he posted a .788 OPS, .342 wOBA and 117 wRC+ in 67 games.
This year should be no different, as there’s a long list of guys who seem poised to make up for a slow start with a strong second half.
Here’s a look at five breakout candidates—including recently promoted prospects as well as those on the verge of the major leagues—for the second half of the 2014 season.
Maikel Franco, 3B/1B, Philadelphia Phillies
Maikel Franco turned in a breakout performance last season, batting .320/.356/.569 with 31 home runs, 36 doubles and 103 RBI in 581 plate appearances between the High-A and Double-A levels. The third baseman also showed an improved feel for the strike zone, highlighted by his 70-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 134 games.
Franco entered spring training with an outside chance of making the Phillies’ Opening Day roster, but he ultimately was assigned to Triple-A Lehigh Valley after batting .184 over 16 games. Unfortunately, the 21-year-old’s struggles didn’t end with spring training, as he posted a disappointing .209/.267/.318 line with five home runs in 78 games spanning the first three months of the season.
Since the beginning of July, however, Franco has looked more like his 2013 self, with a .347 average, .985 OPS, nine extra-base hits and 11 RBI over his last 11 games. His potential turnaround couldn’t come at a better time, too, as current third baseman Cody Asche has struggled to the tune of a .641 OPS and 24-to-1 K/BB ratio over his last 25 contests.
If Franco can build off his performance this month and finish the regular season strong at Lehigh Valley, he could still conceivably get a look in the major leagues as a September call-up.
Brandon McCarthy, RHP, New York Yankees
At face value, it’s easy to conclude that Brandon McCarthy is having a poor season; he has lost 10 of his 20 starts, allowed 146 hits in 122.1 innings and owns an overall ERA of 4.63. However, a deeper look at the 31-year-old’s numbers this year tells a much different story.
For example, though McCarthy sports a 4.63 ERA, his FIP (fielding-independent pitching) currently sits at 3.69, while his xFIP (expected FIP) is an even more impressive 2.87. Meanwhile, the right-hander’s 7.72 strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate and 55.3 percent ground-ball rate represent career highs, while his 1.54 walks-per-nine-innings rate is well below his career average of 2.32.
Lastly, McCarthy has looked excellent since coming over from the Diamondbacks earlier this month, with a 1.42 ERA and 12-to-1 K/BB ratio in 12.2 innings over two starts. And if his nine-strikeout performance Saturday is a sign of what’s to come, McCarthy seems poised for a big second half.
Ken Giles, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies
Ken Giles has always shown tremendous potential thanks to a legitimate triple-digit fastball, but it wasn’t until last year’s Arizona Fall League that the right-hander finally took a step forward.
Giles has only continued to improve since then, and it’s easy to envision him taking over as Philadelphia’s closer once Jonathan Papelbon is out of the picture. That could happen sooner rather than later if he’s moved before the July 31 trade deadline.
Giles, 23, spent the first two months of the season in the minor leagues, where he recorded 12 saves and posted an excellent 1.88 ERA and 38-to-13 K/BB ratio in 28.2 innings between Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley. His success was directly tied to his improved ability to throw strikes (63 percent strike rate), which in turn helped him to hold opposing hitters to a .497 OPS.
The flame-throwing Giles has been even more impressive since reaching the major leagues—though he was initially used primarily in low-leverage situations—with a 0.69 ERA, 18-to-3 K/BB ratio and .455 opponents’ OPS in 14 innings spanning 13 appearances.
Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
Oscar Taveras has been viewed as baseball’s top offensive prospect basically for the last two years, and with good reason. Over parts of six seasons in the minor leagues, the left-handed hitter batted .320/.376/.516 with 53 home runs, 122 doubles and 324 RBI in 436 games.
However, despite announcing his arrival on May 31 with a solo home run in his big league debut, the 22-year-old outfielder hasn’t made an immediate impact in the major leagues as expected.
Between his two stints with the Cardinals after his initial call-up, Taveras has batted just .192/.229/.269 with four-extra base hits—he hasn’t jumped the yard since his debut—and five RBI while appearing in 24 games. As a result, Taveras hasn’t run away with the everyday role and has been forced to share playing time with the Cardinals' other outfielders.
That being said, Taveras is simply far too good of a hitter to continue struggling like he has over the last month and a half. It’s only a matter of time until he settles in at the dish. When he finally does, look out.
Tyler Skaggs, LHP, Los Angeles Angels
As is the case with McCarthy, Tyler Skaggs has pitched significantly better this season than his numbers suggest.
Skaggs, 23, has posted a 4.50 ERA in 96 innings (15 starts) in his first season with the Angels, though his 3.55 FIP and 3.77 xFIP indicate his ERA has been inflated due to bad luck.
Specifically, the left-hander’s 61.8 percent strand rate is the lowest among all qualified starters in the major leagues, per FanGraphs, while his 2.44 BB/9 rate and 51.2 percent ground-ball rate both represent the best marks of his brief major league career.
And while Skaggs’ strikeout rate of 6.47 K/9 may be lower than expected, it’s likely a product of him focusing on throwing more quality strikes and working deeper into games rather than trying to miss a bat with every pitch.
Lastly, Skaggs has been able to keep the ball in the park more often this season (0.66 HR/9), something he’s struggled to do in the past (1.84 HR/9 in 2012, 1.63 HR/9 in 2013).
As long as Skaggs can stay healthy, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him emerge as one of baseball’s premier young pitchers during the second half of the season.