Don't Trust Second-Half Breakouts

A second-half breakout is predictive, but not how most expect.

This article is part of our fantasy football advice & strategy series.

Breakouts. Everyone loves their breakout players: Player X was just unproductive in the season's first half. He was getting a few touches per game. In the season's second half, everything starting clicking. He missed a few tackles and just found a way to the end zone. The coach and quarterback gained confidence in him and this production will carry on to the next. BAM, future Pro Bowler.

Sorry if you got excited for these players because they aren't like to continue this production level. They are up for some heavy regression. Me = Killjoy.

Articles on second-half breakouts litter the web. It is intuitive that players can build on the previous season and continue that production for the entire next season.

This intuition is wrong.

Players aren't likely to keep the breakout going and if a fantasy owner wants to correctly value a player, the owner should look to the player's first-half production.

Time to "break out" some numbers. I hope I didn't lose everyone after the last statement. I will start looking at running backs who saw their fantasy points (non-PPR) jump the most from the first half to the second half over the last five seasons. I took the top 10 movers from each season and then compared the jump season to their next season. I removed rookies as they normally get inserted more and more into game plans as the season goes on, so we should expect some jump as the season goes on.

First, I only ended up with 48 players, as two players didn't play the next season at all because of injury. Truthfully, I expected the dropout number to be a little higher, but owners are too often reminded of the game's injury attrition.

These running backs saw an average increase in production by a total of 41 fantasy points from the first half to the second half or ~5 points per game. I also looked at the top half of this group, and its average production jumped by 54 points or ~7 points per game. These players probably carried owners into the playoffs.

These running backs got hit with some hardcore regression the next season. I know people don't like seeing regression thrown around, but players can't just keep performing at record-breaking levels. Production will slowly come back to the player's and league's talent level at some point.

With second-half breakouts, regression comes hard. Players usually don’t sustain their previous season's second-half production or even their full-season production.

In our 48-player sample, the average decrease from a great second half to the next season's first half was 29 fantasy points (~4 points per game). For the top 24, the drop was even worse at 42 fantasy points (~5 points per game).

Some likely will point out the exceptions like Latavius Murray, who carried his 2014 second-half production into 2015, but he is the exception, not the rule. Only 25 percent of the players improved their previous season's production, while the rest declined.

Sadly, an owner can't even say that the good second half helped offset a bad first. When looking at the season-to-season production, a small drop in production still occurs. The second-half breakouts saw their season production fall by an average of 35 fantasy points (~2 points per game). The big breakouts averaged a 55-point decrease (~4.5 points per game). Again, some were able to keep up the gains (29 percent), but the vast majority saw their numbers fall.

The best method to predict these running backs' next-season production was to simply double their measly first-half production. Using this method, the average change was an increase of five points for the season (~.33 points per game) with more than half (52 percent) improving their numbers. Among the 24 big movers, their full season points drop by an average of just one point per player.

Running backs are one way to look at breakouts. What about wide receivers? I used the same method by looking at the top-10 movers each of the last five seasons. Also, I divided the group in half to get the top movers. The results for wide receivers is generally the same, but with a few small differences.

The point jump was almost with same as with running backs, but the wide receivers saw just a tad more of an increase. On average, the first-half to second-half jump was 33 points (~4 points/game). Again, I divided the players (all 50 played in both seasons) in half to get a top group. The big mover's jump was 44 points on average (~5.5 points/game).

The first noticeable difference is the amount of decline from the breakout second half to the next season's first half. Again, the players' production declines, but the decrease is smaller. The average receiver sees an 18-point drop (~2 points per game) with 80 percent of players decreasing. The big movers again see a larger drop with their difference 22 points (~3 points per game). These decreases are only about half the drop that running backs saw.

The season-to-season values show the same smaller decline. The average change in points was a decrease of 25 (~1.5 points per game) with 76 percent of players declining. The top breakouts see their production drop by 33 points (~2 points per game). So, temper expectations.

Finally, I again compared twice the production from breakout season's "bad" first half to the entire next season. Of the three wide receiver comparisons, this is the best with an actual increase in production of eight points (0.5 points per game) and 54 percent of the players improving.

I know the preceding was full of a lot of numbers, but fantasy leagues are not won with your players' grit and heart. The need to move the ball and score touchdowns. When running backs and wide receivers have a great second half, temper expectations for the next season. The vast majority won't sustain the second-half pace. Most won't even keep up their overall season numbers, and owners should expect them to regress the next year.

Jeff Zimmerman
Zimmerman writes analytics-focused baseball and football articles for RotoWire. He is a three-time FSWA award winner, including the Football Writer of the Year and Best Football Print Article awards in 2016. The 2017 Tout Wars Mixed Auction champion and 2016 Tout Wars Head-to-Head champ, Zimmerman also contributes to, BaseballHQ and Baseball America.
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