Michael Brantley (.324/.384/.904), 17 home runs
Of all the players on this list, few have enjoyed the kind of career year that Michael Brantley is having. The slash line is excellent, but his numbers go far deeper than that. According to Fangraphs, Brantley has contributed about 35 runs to the Indians’ offense, behind only 2 other players (Trout and McCutchen), and in front of (gasp!) Troy Tulowitzki. Brantley’s WAR is 4.8, third in the Major Leagues. In other words, we knew Brantley was good, but elite? The overarching question is this: is this guy for real? Throughout his career, Brantley has been a solid contact hitter, so a high average isn’t too much of a surprise. The power (17 home runs) is. His batted ball output has remained relatively constant this year from last year, pointing perhaps to some luck being the factor behind the power surge. Than again, Brantley is 27, which is generally the time when guys tend to improve and see a spike in their power numbers. His BABIP is .325 on the year, up from his .304 mark last year.
Bottom line: Brantley seems to be coming into his own at the beginning of his prime. I wouldn’t expect 20-25 home runs from him annually, and it’s too soon to be putting him in the same category and Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen, but the ability is for real.
Jose Altuve (.336/.373/.817)
In Altuve, the Astros have a great little player and the perfect face of a lowly franchise. Is he really the star that Houston can trust? Altuve’s BABIP (one of the easiest ways of determining if a player is lucky or good) is .358, one of the highest in the league. That might regress some, but numbers are rarely that simple. One thing to note is that Altuve has majorly slashed his strikeout rate, from 12% in 2013 down to 8% in 2014, and he’s making more contact this year: 90% contact this year, up from 87% last year. That may seem marginal, but when you consider Altuve’s speed, it becomes vital for him to make consistent contact. As long as he does that, the batting average should be fine.
Bottom line: Even if Altuve doesn’t hit .336, he has other skills that make him a valuable asset to Houston: his speed and his glove. Still, there’s no reason to believe that Altuve’s numbers are fluky, because he does two things extremely well: hit the ball and run like heck.
Jose Abreu (.304/.362/.972), 30 home runs
Because this is Abreu’s first major league season, we’re unable to compare his current stats from his past stats. Still, there are some reasonable assessments we can make about Abreu’s rookie season, and how he sets up for 2015.
1. He swings too much. 42.2% of pitches he sees he swings at, 5th in the majors. That might be a recipe for success for some guys, but as major league pitchers start to figure you out, you’d better learn how to take bad pitches.
2. His fly ball rate is extremely low for a power hitter. He hits fly balls 32% of the time, good for 90th in the major leagues. That’s not conducive to sustained power.
3. He’s not an above average defender.
Bottom line: Abreu is exciting for White Sox fans, but he is riddled with caution signals. He has benefited greatly from his unfamiliarity with Major League pitchers, which he won’t have the longer he plays here.
Anthony Rizzo (.278/.378/.873), 25 home runs
Get ready, baseball fans. Anthony Rizzo has arrived.
It doesn’t take long to see that this guy is for real. He sports a healthy 40.5% fly ball rate, and a relatively low .302 BABIP, a good sign that he hasn’t been aided by a lot of good fortune. He swings a lot: 44%, but he makes good contact: 90% of all pitches swung at, a far cry from Jose Abreu’s paltry 70%.
Bottom line: Get ready.
Anthony Rendon (.277/.333/.798), 15 home runs
Anthony Rendon’s emergence might be one of the most unforeseen events for the 2014 season. He hit 7 home runs in 2013, and his power surge this year has probably been a result of his fly ball percentage spike (40%). His BABIP is the same from last year, and his average is 12 points higher. I’m not sure what to make of Rendon offensively, but he has been stellar defensively, worth 5.8 runs to the tune of an overall 4.3 wins above replacement (WAR).
Bottom line: Inconclusive, but still a nice player.
Lucas Duda (.258/.352/.843), 21 home runs
Slowly and surely, Lucas Duda has really put together a solid year. He might not yet be elite, but according to Fangraphs has created over 15 runs for the Mets offense. How? his power. Duda’s fly ball rate is a ridiculous 48.7%, good for 3rd in baseball. However, he does strikes out a ton, thanks to a 70% contact rate.
Bottom line: Lucas Duda’s career appears to be following the general trajectory of Adam Dunn; big lumbering first baseman/DH, 200 strikeouts and 40 home runs annually, a guy whom I would never consider a star.