These 5 hitters are poised to break out this season

February 14th, 2023

Each season, there are players who have a breakout performance, one that puts them on the baseball map and often propels them to new heights of stardom. The upcoming season will be no exception, and we asked five writers to weigh in with a hitter they think will enjoy a breakout campaign in 2023.

Bryan De La Cruz, OF, Marlins
Key stat: 44% sweet spot rate, best in baseball

Where to start? De La Cruz’s .252/.294/.432 (103 OPS+) line from last year hardly lights hearts aflame or makes you think he alone can turn around Miami’s moribund offense. But under the hood, there’s just so much to look at here. Things like …

  • His 1.137 OPS in September was third-best in baseball, behind only Aaron Judge and Julio Rodríguez, right ahead of Mike Trout and Yordan Alvarez – you know, some half-decent hitters.
  • The difference between his expected outcomes (based on Statcast inputs) and his actual outcomes was tied for the third-largest in baseball. Based just on the quality of his contact and how much of it he made, his overall hitting performance looked closer to Pete Alonso or Byron Buxton.
  • That 44% “sweet spot” rate? It’s talking about ideal launch angles, the high grounders, line drives, and low-angle fly balls that lead to a lot of damage, if not necessarily homers. (A great example of this is that No. 2 on this list was Freddie Freeman.) No one did this as often as De La Cruz did.

It’s possible that Miami’s extremely pitcher-friendly park won’t let his true talents shine through. It’s also possible we were seeing the first signs of a breakout from a 26-year-old who has all of one full season (574 plate appearances) of Major League time under his belt, fueled in part by changes to approach and swing during a midseason return to the Minors.

-- Mike Petriello

Nolan Gorman, 2B, Cardinals
Key stat: 14.4% barrel rate in 2022

Ranked 33rd overall on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects list prior to last season, Gorman burst onto the scene in May and recorded three homers, 10 RBIs and a 1.133 OPS over his first 11 games with the Cardinals. However, he was unable to keep up his hot start and was soon overshadowed by fellow rookie Brendan Donovan, who emerged from relative obscurity to finish third in the NL Rookie of the Year race. Gorman is now an afterthought for St. Louis, especially with another highly touted prospect, Jordan Walker (MLB Pipeline’s No. 4 prospect), receiving considerable hype entering Cards camp this year.

That said, Gorman has the potential to slug his way back into a prominent role with the team. Though the 22-year-old has a lot of swing and miss in his game, he showed a real aptitude for squaring up the baseball when he made contact last season. Gorman had a 46.7% sweet-spot rate, a metric that represents how often a player hits a ball in the launch-angle sweet-spot zone from 8 to 32 degrees. That was the highest among MLB players with at least 150 batted balls. He also had a near-elite 14.4% barrel rate -- the percentage of batted balls with an optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, typically resulting in homers and extra-base hits. 

Now that he has some experience against big league pitching under his belt, he could trim his strikeout rate (32.9% in 2022) enough to give his impressive raw power a real chance to shine.

-- Thomas Harrigan

Seiya Suzuki, OF, Cubs
Key stat 155 wRC+ over season’s final 7 weeks

Although it’s a little too neat, Suzuki’s debut year in the Majors can be broken up into three segments: The hot start, the underwhelming middle and the encouraging finish. He was the top National League rookie in April, a month in which he showcased his tremendous strike-zone judgment and powerful bat. By the start of May, Suzuki’s chase rate and barrel rate were among the top five in baseball, each just shy of 20%.

However, opposing pitchers quickly countered by throwing Suzuki more offspeed and breaking pitches, and by elevating their fastballs. This led to a prolonged adjustment period for the 27-year-old. From May 1 through Aug. 20, he posted a .229/.283/.362 slash line. He chased significantly more pitches out of the zone (30.2%) and saw his barrel rate plummet to 6.3%. This swoon was exacerbated by a lingering left finger injury that sidelined Suzuki for 35 games.

He began to come out on the other side of this slump beginning with a three-hit performance against the Brewers on Aug. 21. From that point on, we got another glimpse of the Suzuki who captivated us during that inaugural month. His 22.3% chase rate, 15.1% barrel rate and 155 wRC+ over this closing stretch each ranked in the top 10 among NL hitters with at least 120 plate appearances.

Suzuki’s rookie season was, by definition, fine. A 2.0 WAR and a 116 wRC+ are serviceable numbers. But given the quality of his swing decisions and ability to barrel the ball consistently, it feels like he is just scratching the surface.

-- Brian Murphy

Andrew Vaughn, White Sox
Key stat: 17.3% hard-hit + sweet-spot contact per PA

Vaughn's numbers were fine if unspectacular in 2022 -- 17 homers and a 111 OPS+ -- but the 24-year-old former No. 3 overall pick showed the underlying strong contact profile to explode in 2023. Vaughn ranked in the 82nd percentile of MLB in exit velocity (90.8 mph) and 90th percentile in hard-hit rate (48.6%), while also ranking right around the top quarter of the league in strikeout rate (17.3%) and swing-and-miss rate (21%).

And here's a big standout metric for Vaughn: 17.3% of his plate appearances last season ended with him making contact that was both hard-hit (95-plus mph) and in the launch-angle sweet spot (8-32 degrees). That was fifth-best among qualified hitters, behind only Yordan Alvarez, Freddie Freeman, Corey Seager and Mookie Betts -- and just ahead of Aaron Judge and Manny Machado. Vaughn hits hard line drives and fly balls, and he doesn't swing and miss or strike out very often. Good combo.

-- David Adler

Daulton Varsho, Blue Jays
Key stat: 11 home runs over final 38 games of the 2022 season

So far, Varsho has been notable mostly for his ability to catch and play in the outfield, as well as his excellent speed. But 2023 may be the year we see a breakout campaign from him at the plate with his new team, the Blue Jays. Toronto wanted a left-handed bat to add to a heavily right-handed lineup, and traded Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and top catching prospect Gabriel Moreno to the D-backs in exchange for Varsho. The Jays may have swung that deal at just the right time.

That’s because Varsho ended last season with a pretty impressive show of power, hitting 11 of his 27 homers on the year over the final 38 games, and he stands to be one of the greatest beneficiaries of the new infield shift rules. Varsho pulled 50.9 percent of his batted balls in play last season. Of the 225 hitters who had at least 250 balls in play in 2022, Varsho ranked second only to Albert Pujols in that category.

Beginning with the upcoming season, teams must have at least four players on the infield, with a minimum of two on either side of second base. Each infielder must have his feet on the infield dirt -- no more “Ted Williams shift” or any other shift involving infielders positioning themselves in the outfield. Varsho should definitely benefit from these new shift restrictions and continue to progress as an offensive threat.

-- Manny Randhawa