It feels good to beat the crowd — to a great band, to a cool restaurant, to the next style that everyone is about to be wearing.

The concept carries over to baseball. Few experiences are more rewarding than spotting a player’s potential before it shows up on the leaderboards or blooms into MVP votes.

There’s a class of upwardly mobile players every season. From 2023, you might recall Bobby Witt Jr of the Kansas City Royals, Yandy Diaz of the Tampa Bay Rays and Adolis Garcia, of the Texas Rangers or maybe the Chicago Cubs’ Justin Steele, Minnesota Twins’ Pablo Lopez and Seattle Mariners’ George Kirby.

Some were buzzy before they proved people right, others came totally out of nowhere. So before the 2024 MLB season really gets going on opening day, let’s get some breakout picks on the record. Hipster credibility only counts, after all, if you wear it loud and proud.

Below, we’ll run through nine hitters and five pitchers showing signs of changing their station in the game for the better. We’re looking for players with at least some major-league data, so this list won’t include obvious coming attractions such as consensus top prospect Jackson Holliday of the Baltimore Orioles or hyped Japanese import Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Shohei Ohtani’s new teammate on the Los Angeles Dodgers.

New stars can be born that way, too, but we’re looking at players who already have an existing baseline to improve upon.

Because a breakout can mean different things for different players, we’ll identify what that might look like (some will be gunning for MVP contention, others will be simply establishing themselves as useful members of a core), and provide some stylistic reference points to help you latch on to your new favorite players.

Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pittsburgh Pirates

Why he’s primed for success: The 27-year-old third baseman has already solidified his status as a cornerstone in Pittsburgh thanks to his elite defense. Still, there have been flashes of more.

Beginning in June, he found the formula to add lift to his persistent hard contact. Hayes was one of only seven hitters (min. 500 plate appearances) to post marks of 105 or better in both contact+ and BIP+. Most of the others — Ronald Acuna Jr., Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado, Adley Rutschman, Bo Bichette, Alec Bohm — either have MVP Awards or designs on competing for one. Hayes could soon join them.

What a breakout would look like: .300 batting average, 20 home runs and a .500 slugging percentage, a top-five National League MVP finish

Recommended If You Like (RIYL): Fast-twitch Manny Machado of the San Diego Padres, frozen ropes, diving stops

Royce Lewis, Minnesota Twins

Why he’s primed for success: The No. 1 overall pick back in 2017, Lewis has played in only 70 regular-season games after battling through two torn ACLs. But when he has been on the field? It’s been grand. His career batting line — .309/.372/.548 with 17 homers — includes five grand slams. He led MLB in the category in 2023 despite his limited playing time, then burnished his big-moment reputation with four postseason blasts. Anything even close to a full season of his elite pop could mint Lewis as a superstar third baseman.

What a breakout would look like: 500+ plate appearances (PA), 35 homers, 140 OPS+

RIYL: Comeback stories, Austin Riley with speed, statuesque follow throughs

Seiya Suzuki, Chicago Cubs

Why he’s primed for success: Entering his third MLB season after jumping from Japan’s NPB, Suzuki mirrors Hayes as a hitter who has already exhibited brilliance, just not consistently. The underlying skills speak to a potentially elite bat. The outfielder’s 122 discipline+ in 2023 was third in the rankings among qualified batters, behind only Juan Soto and Alex Bregman, while fewer than 15 players can match his combo of zone-contact rate (86.1%) and 90th-percentile exit velocity (106.3 mph). He’s looking to pick up where he left off after leading the league in hitting (.361) among those with at least 70 at-bats from Aug. 18 on last season.

What a breakout would look like: A .300/.400/.500 line with 25+ homers

RIYL: Prime Justin Turner, a decent imitation of those Christian Yelich seasons

Triston Casas, Boston Red Sox

Why he’s primed for success: A strapping 6-foot-4 first baseman who swings from the left side, Casas began to find the balance between strong patience (115 discipline+) and counterproductive passivity in his first full spin around the big leagues. Watch for him to tap into his raw power more by being more opportunistic.

What a breakout would look like: .400 on-base percentage, 35 homers

RIYL: The exact midpoint between the Atlanta Braves’ Matt Olson and New York Yankees’ Anthony Rizzo, sunbathing

Francisco Alvarez, New York Mets

Why he’s primed for success: Still just 22 years old, Alvarez stunned evaluators by arriving in the big leagues as an above-average defender behind the dish. Packing breathtaking power in his right-handed swing, Alvarez’s minor-league numbers suggest the potential for a strong plate approach, too. If the defense holds (he ranked fourth in MLB in framing runs last season), he’s not that far from receiving MVP votes.

framing runs leaders

What a breakout would look like: 10% walk rate, just the fifth 35-homer season by a catcher since 2000

RIYL: Muscles, caught stealings, what if Jorge Soler was a premium defensive backstop?

Maikel Garcia, Kansas City Royals

Why he’s primed for success: Garcia, a 24-year-old you might not have noticed taking over as the Royals’ third baseman in the glow of Bobby Witt Jr.’s breakout, is a classic modern starter kit. He secures his playing time with top-of-the-line defense, he doesn’t often swing at bad pitches (112 discipline+), and he makes above-average contact when he does swing (104 contact+).

All he has to do is put more of those balls in the air — an adjustment we’ve repeatedly seen hitters with his discipline make. Here’s the list of qualified hitters who rated better than Garcia in hard-hit balls (95+ mph exit velocity) per swing in 2023: Ronald Acuna Jr., Juan Soto, Yandy Diaz, Mookie Betts, Hayes.

What a breakout would look like: .280 batting average, 20 homers, 20 steals

RIYL: Stealth Ke’Bryan Hayes, slim Yandy Diaz, the Best Supporting Actor category

Nolan Gorman, St. Louis Cardinals

Why he’s primed for success: Look, Gorman is never going to win a batting title, but he has shown progress in his approach — laying off more breaking balls and attacking more fastballs as the 2023 season went on. And the St. Louis infielder, who will also see DH time, does serious damage when he swings at the right pitches. His 159 BIP+ last year wedged in between Bryce Harper and Pete Alonso.

What a breakout would look like: 40 homers, a .245 AVG

RIYL: Max Muncy with pedigree, that healthy Brandon Lowe year

Dominic Canzone, Seattle Mariners

Why he’s primed for success: An unheralded outfielder shipped to Seattle in the Paul Sewald trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks last July, Canzone has earned his way to this point by mastering the trick that Hayes, Garcia and a swath of other young players with more concentrated physical ability often have to learn in the majors. His entire game is geared toward pulling the ball in the air. He has enough contact ability and power to make it really work. And his upper minors numbers (.386 OBP across 159 games at Triple-A) suggest he might have just enough of an eye to hunt fastballs and pull it off.

What a breakout would look like: Regular playing time, 20 homers and enough walks to sustain a .330 on-base percentage

RIYL: This year’s Isaac Paredes, Adam Duvall, the chef’s kiss emoji

Luis Matos, San Francisco Giants

Why he’s primed for success: The longest shot on this list, Matos doesn’t have a direct line to playing time in the outfield despite a torrid spring training performance. But players this young with this many sterling indicators of future stardom typically wind up earning at-bats.

Matos struggled to connect with authority in his first taste of the bigs in 2023, but demolished the upper minors. Both his hit tool (107 contact+) and approach (101 discipline+) clear the bar for success, and under the hood, his swing decisions rate very highly by the nuanced SEAGER metric, and his exceptionally strong zone-contact rate (92.1%) mirrors other wiry hitters who have figured it out. The ultimate success story in this realm is … deep breaths, Giants fans …Mookie Betts. But Matos’ plate skills and exit velocities, even in a small sample, compare favorably enough to more realistic hitting comps like teammate Thairo Estrada, and recent breakouts J.P. Crawford and Jeremy Pena to expect major-league contributions soon.

What a breakout would look like: Winning a job, batting .275 with signs of power development

RIYL: Thairo Estrada in the grass, lotto tickets that could result in “Mookie Betts Lite”

Cole Ragans, Kansas City Royals

Why he’s primed for success: Well, have you seen the stuff? Ragans burst onto the scene after joining the Royals in the Aroldis Chapman trade. He was so good across 12 starts with Kansas City (2.64 ERA, 31.1% strikeout rate) that you could quibble with calling him an All-Star candidate instead of a breakout candidate. Still, this is an arsenal that had to be mentioned. He’s hurling 97-mph fastballs from the left side that touch triple digits, alongside a hard cutter, a diving slider and a strong changeup. Among arms with at least 80 innings last season, he ranked fourth in missing bats (his contact+ was behind only Shane McClanahan, Spencer Strider and Luis Castillo), and third in limiting their potency (his BIP+ was behind only Tarik Skubal of the Detroit Tigers and former Milwaukee Brewers ace Corbin Burnes).

One industry insider summed up Ragans’ potential to ESPN’s Jeff Passan by calling him “left-handed [Jacob] deGrom.”

What a breakout would look like: A 30% strikeout rate, sub-2.50 ERA, winning or contending for the Cy Young

RIYL: Jacob deGrom, turbocharged Cole Hamels, landmark trades

Kutter Crawford, Boston Red Sox

Why he’s primed for success: The 27-year-old righty got his first extended run as a starting pitcher in 2023 and showed real promise. He’s not going to blow you away with eye-popping stuff, but he is better-than-average at making hitters swing at things they shouldn’t (discipline+), limiting damage (BIP+) and limiting contact (whiff+).

Only 10 pitchers who threw at least 120 innings met those criteria last year, and the other nine (Zack Wheeler, Max Scherzer, Kodai Senga, Justin Steele, Jordan Montgomery, Sandy Alcantara, Zach Eflin, Dylan Cease and Tyler Glasnow) are far more famous than Crawford.

What a breakout would look like: 3.30 ERA, lots of weak contact on bending pitches

RIYL: Right-handed Justin Steele, short arm actions, nominative determinism

Gavin Williams, Cleveland Guardians

Why he’s primed for success: Just half a season into his career, the 6-foot-6 Williams clearly has a bat-missing arsenal. Though he’ll begin the season on the IL, he looks like a crucial piece of Cleveland’s latest wave of pitchers. His slider played like a true swing-and-miss out pitch in 2023, and it helped him land among MLB’s top-10 starters in one indicator of potential dominance — whiff rate on pitches in the heart of the zone.

What a breakout would look like: 28% strikeout rate, sub-3.50 ERA

RIYL: Dylan Cease, prime Lucas Giolito

Cristopher Sanchez, Philadelphia Phillies

Why he’s primed for success: A surprise contributor to the Phillies last season, the lanky 27-year-old left-hander is part of the plan now. A sinker/slider/changeup pitcher, he excels by making batters regret their swing decisions. His discipline+ against was sixth among all pitchers who threw 80 innings in 2023, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Sanchez relentlessly tempts hitters to swing at his change, while simultaneously stealing strikes with his back-door sinker. Plus: Reports out of spring training indicate Sanchez might have added a tick of velocity and a cutter to the package.

What a breakout would look like: 30 starts, another ERA around 3.40

RIYL: Jesus Luzardo of the Miami Marlins, vintage Jose Quintana from his Chicago White Sox days, string beans

Keaton Winn, San Francisco Giants

Why he’s primed for success: Splitting time between roles in the Giants’ wonky 2023 pitching plan, Winn nonetheless managed to show promise by posting an elite 117 strike+ in his limited MLB time. The appeal here is very straightforward: Winn has a good 96-mph fastball and a diabolical splitter. Still technically a rookie, he already appears to know what to do with it.

What a breakout would look like: 140+ innings, 115 ERA+ and a sub-1.20 WHIP

RIYL: Kevin Gausman, Alex Cobb, are you sensing a pattern?

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