Throughout the course of a long season, successful baseball teams tend to benefit from contributions by breakout players many fans may not know on Opening Day. Here are five MLB NL East sleeper breakout candidates.
5 MLB NL East Sleeper Breakout Candidates
A.J. Puk, Miami Marlins
A litany of injuries compelled former starting pitching prospect A.J. Puk to transition into a relief role when he was still with the Oakland A’s. The Miami Marlins traded for Puk in the off-season and have already deployed him in high-leverage, late-inning situations.
A wishcast comp that immediately springs to mind now that Puk has fully committed to these short-burst appearances is another southpaw Josh Hader.
With similar arsenals, Puk could have the upside of someone like Hader. So far in 2023, their respective fastballs have generated similar whiff rates in the mid-30%. Hader’s lethal weapon, though, is his slider, which consistently gets 50% whiff rates year-over-year.
It’s worth noting that Puk has shifted his repertoire from a slider that previously got whiffs in the 30% range to a sweeper that is now getting whiffs at 28%. This could be a small sample size blip, and the 84 mph sweeper could become even more successful than his previous 87 mph slider.
These are still very good marks and manage to generate a great SwStr% of 14.6% and chase rate outcomes in the 96 percentile for the lanky reliever.
The Marlins organization certainly has no lack of raw talent, and a player like Puk solidifying the back end of the bullpen could boost the overall morale of a developing team.
Tylor Megill, New York Mets
Another pitcher who converted from a slider to a sweeper in 2023 has managed very good results thus far in an unexpected cameo filling in for the injured Justin Verlander. Perhaps Tylor Megill prefers the tilt of his newfound sweeper coming out of his six-foot-seven frame’s release point.
Statcast classifies Megill’s release point extension in the 98 percentile, which translates to an increased perceived velocity to a hitter. When he first hit the big stage, it was with a fastball that touched 100 mph, but now he averages about 94.
Megill has decreased the fastball usage and leaned into his off-speed offerings, throwing his sweeper 10% more than his previous slider. He also utilizes a changeup, and some small sample size curiosities have all three pitches equally getting 23% whiff rates.
Thus far, all of this has translated to a 2.25 ERA in three games started – all resulting in a Win for the pitcher, and more importantly for his team. What this could ultimately mean is Megill maintains a rotation position. Carlos Carrasco has not looked like himself, and Megill’s main competition David Peterson has yet to capitalize on his opportunity.
Brandon Marsh, Philadelphia Phillies
It’s tough being a centerfield prospect in the Los Angeles Angels system – since a guy named Mike Trout hangs out there most days – which is why former prospect Brandon Marsh might have been elated to find himself traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2022.
While Marsh still doesn’t have centerfield to himself – currently in a strong side platoon with defensive whiz Cristian Pache – Marsh has previously shown he can handle lefties. In fact, his one homer so far this year was off a southpaw. Plus, in his 2021 debut, he actually had a better batting average versus lefties than righties.
Marsh’s current .476 wOBA is good for top 3% in the league. His excellent batting eye is demonstrated by a chase rate in the 91 percentile, while his Zone-Contact% has improved 10% since 2022 to near elite levels of around 92%.
Still only 25, Marsh sports a video game OPS of 1.153 through 13 games. He’s been the number-five hitter in a lineup that will also see Bryce Harper’s return in short order.
After already hitting a game-winner for the Phils, Marsh appears to be in a prime position to build momentum towards a breakout that could put his promising exit velos, 87 percentile speed, and terrific defense to great use for a Phillies team with which he’s already run a World Series gamut.
Victor Robles, Washington Nationals
Another 25-year-old who makes this list, Victor Robles, feels like he should be much older. Once regarded as a can’t-miss prospect, Robles has spent seven seasons stutter-stepping to find his stride.
Perhaps, like Brandon Marsh, there’s something to getting out of a large looming shadow. In Robles’ case, that shadow was Juan Soto, who now finds himself with the San Diego Padres competing for the playoffs.
Thus far this season, Robles has revolutionized his batting profile – doubling his walk rate, while halving his strikeout rate from last year. Last year’s previous 73% contact is now in the low 80%, while his OBP is a marvelous .377.
While he could still grow into some power, Robles now profiles as a contact hitter with on-base prowess, who can use his speed on both sides of the ball. He also has a cannon for an arm.
On a developing team with only upside to play for, Robles still has many good years left to stretch his tools in whatever direction helps his team reemerge as a contender.
Nick Anderson, Atlanta Braves
The Atlanta Braves’ bullpen was one of the highest-rated coming into the season, though presumed closer Raisel Iglesias still factored into that scenario before a Spring Training injury shelved his Opening Day chances. Meanwhile, Braves bullpen mainstay A.J. Minter has filled in admirably.
No one knew what to expect from X-factor and new kid on the block veteran Nick Anderson, who has also closed games for the Braves in 2023.
Technically, 32-year-old Anderson already achieved a breakout season. Spending most of his 20s in independent ball, he debuted late at age 28 in 2019 – tossing 65 dominant innings, mostly in middle relief, and tallying a ridiculous 15.23 K/9.
Once traded from the Miami Marlins to the Tampa Bay Rays, Anderson’s first full season with his new club was the truncated 2020 season. Then, his 2021 went sideways due to injuries, and mechanical inconsistencies prevailed thereafter.
The 2023 version of Anderson hasn’t walked a batter in just under seven innings, garnering a 13.5 K/9 behind an elite 18.8% swinging strike rate.
With Anderson, it was never about velocity but rather a deception in the extension of his release point, which played up the movement of his pitches. While he currently may not be exhibiting the same stuff as before, what he’s now shoveling plays as well as ever.
Previously, Anderson’s four-seam fastball headlined as his bread and butter, and it still gets great whiffs at 33%. But he’s basically swapped 10% usage of his four-seam with his curveball, which gets an astounding 66% whiff rate. Again, these are small sample sizes but provide great insight as to how hitters are responding in the early goings to Anderson’s comeback.
The Braves organization scored a major win with this minor league deal, which has major league upside. If Nick Anderson can stay healthy, once Iglesias returns, the Braves will have a three-headed monster for opposing hitters to deal with at the end of meaningful games.
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