A year ago, I made a bold prediction about who the biggest breakout hitter of the 2011 season would be. It was not intended to be a serious analysis and my methodology was hardly pure—it was pseudo-scientific at best and contained quite a few casual conflations of correlation and causation. I simply noticed a pattern and noted where next it would land.
My pick was Michael Morse, and I'm immensely proud of that. Morse enjoyed a breakout year at age 29, hitting .303/.360/.550 in 146 games for the Nationals. His slugging percentage was good for fourth in the National League, and his 31 homers, .387 wOBA, 147 wRC+, and (for what it's worth) 95 RBI all ranked among the league's Top 10. Maybe he wasn't the biggest breakout hitter of the year, but at the very least he was up there.
This marked the third season in a row in which the aforementioned pattern has held, and at the risk of mistaking coincidence for causation it makes some sense that this idea works. It isn't a silver bullet, but as we look ahead to the coming season it will be a lot more fun if you suspend your disbelief and behold 2012's sure-thing breakout star. Before we get into that, though, let me show you how my foolproof system works.
Let's turn the clock back to 2009—more specifically, September 2009. If you had checked the HR/FB rate leaderboard for the month, you'd have seen some predictable names among the Top 10. Derrek Lee topped the list, followed by Prince Fielder and Troy Tulowitzki. Seeing Lance Berkman, Ryan Howard and Dan Uggla there wouldn't have surprised anyone, and swing-for-the-fencer Jack Cust made sense too. Adam Lind and Matt Diaz might seem like poor fits now, but at the time Lind was considered one of the most powerful young hitters in baseball and Diaz was actually a very good hitter.
But one of the names was not like the others. Rounding out the Top 10 was a black sheep who most baseball fans had never even heard of: a 29-year-old journeyman named Jose Bautista.
With a little bit of fudging, the 2008 September leaderboard tells a similar story. Expanding the list to include hitters with at least 65 plate appearances in the final month of the season season (as opposed to just qualified hitters), Cust and Howard are Nos. 1 and 2, with Manny Ramirez, Carlos Delgado, and Kelly Shoppach (lest we forget, he hit 21 homers that year) tied for third place. Joey Votto, Paul Konerko, Adrian Gonzalez, and Jay Bruce also crack the Top 10—not a bad list of sluggers. But there was an outlier there, too: a 27-year-old Quad-A player named Ben Zobrist.
There are a number of tangential similarities you can draw between Zorilla and Joey Bats (changing teams, inconsistent positions and playing time), but essentially the logical takeaway is: If a player who seemingly has no business ranking among the most powerful hitters in baseball ranks among the most powerful hitters in baseball at the end of the season, it could mean that he has genuinely gotten better and is thus primed for a breakout year. It's overly simplistic, but at least it makes some sense.
It was this same unscientific model that predicted a Morse breakout in 2011. The September 2010 HR/FB leaderboard is a little more interesting than those from years past, with names like Kelly Johnson, Mike Stanton and Drew Stubbs checking in among the Top 10. But Johnson had already had success as an MLB hitter, Stanton was known for his power potential, and to a lesser extent Stubbs too looked like he could grow into some pop. Morse was the only real outlier.
Now that we've established that this system is foolproof, let's take a look at the 2011 HR/FB leaderboard, where we'll undoubtedly find our 2012 breakout star:
Where do we start? Napoli, Fielder, Reynolds, and Braun have already established themselves as among the best power hitters in the game. Kinsler, Sandoval, Beltre, and now Morse have all shown good-to-great pop in the past too. Morrison doesn't exactly strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers, but he's a 24-year-old with a history of slugging in the minor leagues and a solid track record in the majors so far.
That leaves only one option: Brent Morel. He's not a perfect fit with Zobrist, Bautista and Morse—this will be his age-25 season so a significant improvement wouldn't be seen as coming out of nowhere, and having appeared on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list he's of a higher pedigree than his breakout predecessors.
But the rest of the shoe fits. In roughly a full season's worth of MLB games over the last two years, Morel has hit just .243/.285/.372—good for an underwhelming .657 OPS and a measly 74 wRC+—with 13 home runs and a .130 ISO. RotoChamp and Bill James have him pencilled in for 12 homers last year, and neither foresees him topping a .145 ISO. In other words, he hasn't demonstrated any notable power, and he clearly is not perceived as having much to tap into.
But boy, did he have big a September. Of the 10 home runs Morel hit in 2011, eight came in the final month of the season. Through August 31, his career HR/FB rate stood at just 4.9 percent; in 103 September plate appearances, that ballooned to 29.6 percent. Not to mention he slugged .553 with a .329 ISO and an are-you-kidding-me 1.474 Power Factor.
There's a big sample size caveat here and I'm not suggesting that Morel's gaudy September numbers are completely indicative of a new true talent level. But a late-season swing (pun intended) as dramatic as his shouldn't necessarily be dismissed as a fluky hot streak, especially since some of his other numbers changed towards the end of the year too. It's important to remember the huge role of luck in baseball and the dangers of reading too much into small sample sizes, but surely that Zobrist, Bautista, and Morse all broke out after huge Septembers has to mean something. And besides, I hear the jury's still out on science.
So there you have it: 100 percent surefire proof that Brent Morel will be the next Jose Bautista. I just hope that the Magicians Alliance doesn't throw me out for revealing the secrets of my