2012 Breakout Watch


Every season we see some players emerge out of nowhere and greatly elevate their stock. Sometimes that player rides the parade of accolades into the majors, like Starlin Castro did. Sometimes that player has a breathtaking minor league surge cut short by injury, like Robert Whitenack did. And sometimes the breakout performances fly so far under the radar only the most die-hard fans and most loyal readers of CubbiesCrib are aware it is even happening, as in the cases of Eric Jokisch or Dallas Beeler.

But just because these breakout performances seem to come from nowhere is no reason to not try to predict them. There are several indicators that a particular player is on the verge of a breakout. The trick is recognizing these indicators before the breakout occurs.

Today I’ll just give you two names to watch, one pitcher and one hitter. In both cases there are good reasons to expect good things from the player, but there are no guarantees. I would not expect any of these players to become the next Castro, either.

RHP Austin Reed

At first glance this prediction looks ludicrous. Reed pitched for Boise last season and the numbers are not pretty. Batters hit .320 off him. His ERA was over 6.00. His strike outs were down, his walks were up, and in general the numbers just looked bad. And yet, despite all that, I suspect that if anyone is going to jump up the rankings and motor through the farm system this season, it will be Reed.

Lost in all those awful numbers are two indicators that change everything. First all, his GO/AO rate was an amazing 2.33. A good ground ball pitcher has a GO/AO of 1.4 or better. A great one stays over 1.6. Reed’s 2.33 is stunning. Most of the time, a ground ball is a win for the pitcher. However, a ground ball pitcher on a bad defensive team will often look far worse than he is because his team will not make plays behind him. Every team as young as Boise is almost by definition bad defensively, especially on the infield. Suddenly, Reed’s awful numbers aren’t quite so awful.

There is likely more to this story than just a case of a ground ball pitcher being hurt by an inexperienced infield, but even so there are other indicators in his favor. In the Rookie League in 2010 Reed was something of a strikeout artist, and he showed flashes of that in 2011 (particularly when the bases were empty). I strongly suspect that when he moves to the Midwest League in 2011, the combination of a more experience defense, a more pitcher friendly league, and a better understanding of what to do when he does have runners on base will result in Reed taking major strides forward. Excellent ground ball pitchers with strikeout inducing stuff tend to have very bright futures once they put things together. If Reed can learn to harness his stuff and pitch to his abilities, he should have a bright future as well.

Reed should compete for a slot in the very good Peoria starting rotation. If he handles the Midwest League early, I expect the Cubs will challenge him with a trip to Daytona.

C Micah Gibbs

Catchers have a tough time in the minors. Because catching is the most physically demanding position, it is not uncommon to see young catchers wear out during their first few years in the minors. The level of endurance needed to play behind the plate full time is not something most players pick up quickly. As a result, second half slumps are normal among young catchers in lower level full season leagues. Gibbs is a perfect example of that, as his OPS dropped from .737 in the first half of the season to .609 in the second half. Having experienced first hand the physical demands of catching regularly, I suspect Gibbs will be much better prepared for the 2012 season and that his second half decline will be less severe.

We knew him to have good defensive skills when he was drafted. Based on his 2011 season, I think his bat may turn out to be an asset as well. He shows remarkably little power for a catcher so far, but I suspect that will develop (as it did for Steve Clevenger). The most encouraging number is his on base percentage. Even after his sharp second half decline he still had an OBP over .350. In the first half it was .410. A high OBP is a very encouraging sign in a young hitter. Combine that with the reasonable assumption of better conditioning and I think we can expect that he will be able to nearly replicate his first half numbers over the course of a season in 2012. If he adds a little power to that package, he could finish the season as high as Tennessee.