Everyone who plays fantasy baseball loves breakout players and sleepers. We spend a good portion of our pre-season preparation evaluating which players we think are poised to take their games to the next level. Content providers understand this well, and as such, articles that look to predict this year’s breakout players start popping up not long after the champagne gets popped at the World Series and continues in earnest right up until Opening Day. Easily one of the most popular forms (I dare say, the most popular) is the seemingly obligatory Age-27 breakout article. You have no doubt read a bunch of articles already this year that use this magical age filter as a starting point. There will be countless more times, in podcasts and over the airwaves, you will hear some analysts say, “He’s entering his Age-27 season!” The phrase has become so ubiquitous that people who base their arguments on it don’t even think twice about qualifying what it means anymore. It is almost assumed that everyone knows that 27 is the magical year for fantasy baseball players to break out, right? If the previous statement seems a touch ridiculous, it is because it is, of course.
We all understand the concept of the Age-27 theory, that being that players hit their physical “peak” at the age of 27. The problem lies in the fact that many cling to this idea as if it were a rule backed up by the statistics we are all chasing at the draft table, thus we all end up missing the forest for the trees. There have been many other fantasy writers smarter than I am who have taken turns attempting to deflate the idea, and there is plenty of evidence that true “breakouts” usually occur earlier in a player's career. So why are we seemingly stuck with this narrow outlook year after year?
Perhaps the perpetuation of the myth of the Age-27 player is just the result of legions of fantasy writers dusting off the template for an easy article that we already know our readers are almost expecting. Just run a simple age filter on your favorite spreadsheet, compile your list of qualifying players and the article can almost write itself the rest of the way. All that changes are the names in front of that mythical number 27. Of course, ask these same writers for a general list of “sleepers” and “breakout” players, and often their favorites will be players between the ages of 23-26. If it isn’t more prescient to predict success based on a player's age than it is other underlying factors, why do we all do it and shouldn’t we stop?
The problem, of course, is that everyone, including writers, has varying definitions of all of the over-used terms that we use to identify players who essentially should see their performance increase in the upcoming season and thus provide us with profit at the draft table. Your idea of a breakout could be last year’s poster-boy of the Age-27 club, Chris Davis. Proponents will look at the 53 home runs as evidence to support their cause, but I might counter by saying he actually broke out a year earlier at 26, when he hit 33 home runs, topped 500 at-bats for the first time and showed that he was figuring it out at the plate by hitting .270. See, we are both correct, depending upon our point of view. You see a player who broke out last year while I see a player who continued to grow, and in Davis’ case, maybe even “peaked.”
Not convinced yet? Okay, I will present you with two headliners of this year’s Age-27 class from the American League: Yu Darvish and Jason Kipnis. Two very good players who are both firmly entrenched inside the top-25 mixed league rankings heading into 2014. Those lofty rankings clearly illustrate that in both instances the breakout has already occurred. Does the fact they will turn 27 this year mean they will have a better chance to live up to their lofty ADP’s? Perhaps, but there is just as much chance they deliver a season like Billy Butler did a year ago, when rather than continue to higher peaks at 27, he instead regressed to post a season that was arguably worse than his 2009 season, when he “broke” out at the tender age of 23.
Butler embodies the type of player no one wants to talk about the following year. The guys who came up short, despite their birthdays forcing them on to the list. For every Jason Kipnis on the list, there is a Gordon Beckham. You can point out Jason Castro and I can counter with Alex Avila. And what about the guys who just turned 27 last year but will still be at that magic number for most of this year? Do we only look at those who turn 27 during the current season, which is the usual norm, or do we finally admit that the actual difference between these “peak” years is insignificant enough to stop being so myopic about it? What would you say if I told you the jump in performance in these years is likely at its lowest points from 26-28, or in other words the exact years we tend to gravitate towards when looking for this year’s breakouts?
Count me firmly in the camp of those who do not believe in the idea that there is a particular time in a player’s career that is optimal for a breakthrough. If anything, I think you could build a pretty convincing case that if there is a trend to be exploited, it would be that just as many players will break out in any given year from the earlier age groups. Going the other way, it wouldn’t surprise me at all for an equal number of 28-year-olds to make a splash as well, and often they make for solid buys, often based on the fact that they came up short at 27. As the example with Kipnis and Darvish shows, good players who happen to be hitting 27 were already good. Does it mean that 27-year-olds Trevor Plouffe and Michael Saunders are suddenly going to make a leap this year? Or will they just continue to be maddeningly inconsistent?
The answer to finding the true breakouts is to widen our scope and instead put more focus on younger skilled players who actually have as much of a chance of seeing a jump in performance as those further up the ladder. The difference is that the younger the player, the greater the opportunity is to take advantage of a wider gap in expected performance when they do break out. To bring the argument full circle, here is quick look at some of my favorite AL names from up and down the age scale to consider as potential breakouts this season:
Myers is the clear headliner here and helps illustrate the point well. This year could very well be the one that will see him post the largest performance gains he ever will across the board. The problem, of course, is no one is sleeping on him. That train has left the station. Garcia and Arcia are two players I have personally profiled as sleepers. Their age and relative lack of experience has kept their prices reasonable, but they both flashed intriguing skills last year. Franklin’s stock is somewhat muted due to his lack of an everyday job thanks to Robinson Cano. Semien is already making a strong case for playing time and has only Gordon Beckham blocking the way.
This is a very interesting group here. In Perez, Hosmer and Altuve, we have three players generally ranked inside the top-10 at their positions, but not often in the top-5. All three have multiple years of service and could be ready to take the next leap up lists. Hosmer in particular seems poised to take a big step in the power department. In Lawrie, we have a guy who has under-performed against expectations, but his age at least hints to the fact that maybe it was the expectations that were out of whack. We also have a classic overachiever in Grossman, a shiny prospect in Bradley and two post-hype names in Hicks and Montero who won’t cost much to take a chance on.
Andrus has already pretty firmly established what he is, but Moustakas and Middlebrooks have shown flashes of real talent and pretty nice ceilings. Pinto only has Kurt Suzuki in the way for regular playing time. The latter names all have playing time questions but could all make gains this year.
Seager backed up his 2012 with a similar season a year ago. Perhaps the bump comes this year. Hitting in front of Cano is a nice place to start. If Gomes gets more playing time, the popular sleeper can deliver career highs across the board. It took Martin a little longer than expected to make an impact, and Choo steals the leadoff job, but he can still add some more power to the speed this year. Calhoun is a classic late-bloomer who will get a big bump from regular playing time alone. Ackley fits the bill of many who reach this age. Time may be running out.
Okay, so maybe this is why we like 27. It tends to produce the largest list of everyday players. Even after taking Kipnis away, Jennings, Jackson, Reddick and Brantley head an intriguing group, since I don’t really think we have seen the best out of any of these players yet, and a few have some very nice ceilings if they come through. But no one up top is really trying to establish themselves as major league players anymore. The question for all is if they can take the next step. On the flipside, there are also guys like Smoak and Beckham, who despite still clinging to sleeper status for yet another year, are becoming less and less compelling bets in spite of their age.
Even eliminating last season’s biggest names from this level like Davis, Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson and Adam Jones leaves us with some interesting names. Santana and Wieters wouldn’t be the first catchers to peak just a touch later, especially when it comes to hitting home runs. Cabrera and Butler, for that matter, are guys who have done it before 27 that we have to decide if they can reverse the curve. Cespedes might be the most intriguing option here, heading into his third full season at an older age than most thanks to his time in Cuba.
And that’s just the bats. I didn’t even get into the host of exciting arms. Just cherry picking under-27 starters might yield: Chris Sale, Alex Cobb, Danny Salazar, Sonny Gray, Chris Archer, Chris Tillman, Dan Straily, Rick Porcello, Hector Santiago, and of course Drew Smyly. Not too shabby, right? And these are just the young guns from the AL.
It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that in the post-steroid era where power is down, pitching ERA’s are tumbling and players can’t extend their careers as easily, that more and more big league teams are turning to young players and asking them to hit the ground running and learn on the job. That means even more players will have those breakouts even sooner than expected. The best fantasy players out there are ahead of the curve on this and have already made the adjustments in how they assess the player pool, so don't be afraid to go for some younger bets this year. If you don't, you risk missing the boat to this year's real breakout stars.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanpcarey