While a lot of time during the offseason is focused on the hot stove, most of the remaining topics revolve around which player will finally take that next step toward becoming a superstar and which superstars are on their last legs. While the mainstream media seems convinced that baseball actually works this way, we in the sabermetric community know that breakout performances almost never happen overnight, even if they seem as if they do. In actuality players take a while to progress, and that top prospect from a couple years ago that everyone had forgotten about is the same guy who seemed to come out of nowhere, but was actually slowly progressing every season.
So I have attempted to make a list of the factors which I consciously or subconsciously take into consideration when projecting a jump in talent from any given player.
1. Raw Talent. When attempting to project a player's future performance, an integral part is taking his natural talent into account and understanding that if everything goes right developmentally, that player has all the tools to excel. The vast majority of the best players in baseball all have very strong tools which have evolved into something much greater, but that doesn't belittle the fact that they all started out with just those tools. A pitcher who doesn't throw mid-90's or a hitter who doesn't show any power potential have a much lower chance of excelling at the Major League level and eventually becoming stars.
2. Age & Career Arc. Almost as important as having talent itself is how old the player is and what kind of career he's been having until now. Obviously, while a 23 year old who earns a trip to the all-star game is expected to go on to do great things, the same cannot be said for a 33 year old making the trip for the first time. On average rookies perform at a lower level than more experienced players due to players taking a few years to fully acclimatize themselves to the majors. Players need time to adjust to the differences, like the longer seasons and the unparalleled competition they face in the MLB that they hadn't experienced until now.
The amount of development a player goes through from the time he's called up is the other important factor pertaining to a player's age. Most talented players will go through a slow but efficient annual uptick in a few key statistics. The stats I personally find most telling when analyzing a player's level of familiarity with the MLB are K%, and BB%. I also like looking at velocity and SwStr% to gauge if a pitcher is declining or improving and ISO or other power numbers like max HR distance, which Jon wrote a great article about recently, for hitters. If those numbers are trending up or down, get ready to see improvement or decline in that player. As an example, if a hitter has been progressing in each of these categories over the past few seasons and has now reached his peak seasons of 27-29, that player is a good bet to breakout.
3. Pedigree. In direct relation to a player's talent, I've found that considering a player's former prospect status is a huge aid to properly projecting future success, even if it hasn't shown up to this point. Someone like Jay Bruce or Madison Bumgarner, for example, despite their struggles early on in their careers, should have been expected to turn it around and eventually ascend to all-star level. I also take where a player was drafted into consideration because of its correlation with raw ability, especially in high school first rounders. While it should be taken into account, it shouldn't be weighed as heavily as former prospect status.
4. Mechanics. Where a player stands mechanically could be used as an extremely effective tool in determining how raw that player still is for a couple reasons. First, it directly shows that player's ability to convert his tools into baseball skill and it additionally shows a player's ability to stay consistent and not suffer as much from the vagaries of a career in baseball. Once a player utilizes proper mechanics, he is on the right path of having his raw talent manifest itself on the diamond and therefore is one step closer to stardom.
On the other hand, if a player has improper mechanics yet is oozing talent, he is a few small mechanical adjustments away from becoming that player everyone wants to become. And if you ever see him make that adjustment, you know success is right around the corner.
5. Flashing Dominance. I find this to be the most overused factor in deciding if a certain player has taken "the next step" in his major league career. The reason for this stems from misunderstanding the term "flashing dominance". Used almost exclusively for pitchers, it is meant to explain a game where a pitcher is untouchable or, in other words, doesn't give up many hard hit balls. Limiting another team's hits in a game has been proven not be much of a predictive stat and is therefore pretty much useless to us in our endeavor to project future performance. What we are actually looking for is if a player has been able to demonstrate proper use of skills that are predictive like striking out a lot of batters. For example, a pitcher having double digit strikeouts while limiting his walks to two or fewer. For hitters, having games where you see a lot of pitches per plate appearance and everything you make contact with is hit hard.
In my mind , these are the five keys that seem to be particularly helpful in accurately projecting a player's success, decline or breakout.
When the season gets closer, I hope to follow up this article with my personal predictions on which players might breakout and which might sorely disappoint in 2013.