A look back at some of the top breakouts in the American League from 2011. Rookies are ineligible, so you won't find Michael Pineda, Desmond Jennings, Eric Hosmer, Mark Trumbo, Jeremy Hellickson, or Brett Lawrie below. For the most part, I tried not to include guys who were already established big league stars that took their games to new heights, a la Curtis Granderson, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Justin Verlander.
C Matt Wieters (four bWAR)
After a pair of disappointing seasons that produced a mediocre .266/.328/.393 line with 20 home runs in exactly 800 at-bats, he made his first All-Star team, won his first Gold Glove and set career highs in everything except batting average and OBP. He more than doubled his career long ball output by clearing the fences 22 times. Still, you get the feeling that we haven't seen the best of the 25 year-old backstop yet. I don't think he'll ever hit the Joe Mauer level many predicted for him when he broke in (I doubt Wieters will ever win one batting title, let alone three), but he could still improve upon his statistics from last year. The big switch-hitter quietly put up big numbers (14 bombs, .840 OPS) in the second half of 2011, and I see no reason why he can't continue to improve and sustain that production over the course of a full season. He could go out and slug 30 home runs this year, something only a handful of catchers (Carlos Santana, Mike Napoli, and Brian McCann) have a legitimate shot at doing.
1B Carlos Santana (3.9 bWAR)
I know his primary position is catcher, but he started 63 games at first base last year and should continue to receive more playing time there to help keep his legs fresh and his powerful bat in the lineup. He made a splash in his 2010 rookie season with his keen batting eye and power stroke before Ryan Kalish slid into him and ended his year in mid-August, so many pegged him as a sleeper/breakout candidate for 2011. Fully recovered from his injury, the 25 year-old played in 155 games and established himself as one of the top-hitting catchers in the game (if you can stomach the .239 batting average). The sophomore posted a .217 ISO, crushed 27 home runs and drew 97 walks. He'll need to cut down on his whiffs (133 last year and a 20.2 % K rate), but there's nothing stopping him from becoming a perennial 30 home run threat.
2B Howie Kendrick (4.3 bWAR)
The first time All-Star delivered in his age 27 season by setting career highs in numerous categories such as runs, triples, home runs, walks, OBP, SLG, OPS, and OPS+. His power spike was the most impressive aspect of his 2011 campaign; after smacking 20 home runs in 2009 and 2010 combined he launched 18 last year, and probably would have reached 20 if not for a stint on the DL in late May. In addition, his slugging percentage jumped 57 points and his ISO soared by 51. This could be the first step in realizing the Robinson Cano type potential that many once saw in him.
3B Jose Bautista (8.5 bWAR)
While 2010 was his true breakout season, I remember a lot of people writing him off as a fluke and not taking him seriously as an elite player (he was going in the fourth round of most fantasy drafts). His five year-$64 million deal was criticized as a risk before the ink had even dried (and now it looks like a massive bargain, another shrewd move by GM Alex Anthopoulos). Casual fans simply assumed was taking something, or that he had gotten very lucky, because part time players aren't just supposed to go out and rack up 54 home runs like that. I must admit I was somewhat skeptical of his transformation myself, though I didn't think he was a Brady Anderson type who would immediately crash back to Earth. Well, he went out and proved everybody wrong last year, when he was the best player in baseball during the first half and went on to lead the major leagues in home runs, walks, SLG, OPS, and OPS+. Despite the double digit dropoffs in four-baggers and RBI, in many ways his 2011 campaign was superior to his 2010 breakout. Don't worry about the second half dropoff, because he was banged up and couldn't possibly sustain his videogame-like first half production. Joey Bats is legit, people, and he'll be terrorizing pitchers for several years to come.
SS Asdrubal Cabrera (3.7 bWAR)
Everything from his 2011 season more or less matches up with his previous performance, except for a shocking power spike. After hitting just 18 home runs in his first 1,415 big league at-bats, the 25 year-old Cabrera cranked out 25 of them last year, over four times his previous career high of six. Accordingly, his SLG and ISO both skyrocketed by more than 100 percentage points from 2010. How did he pull that off? His 13.3 HR/FB %, twice his previous career best, explains the fluky power total, as does the ESPN Home Run Tracker's claim that 15 of his 25 dingers were measured as traveling "just enough" to find the bleachers. Cabrera helped himself out by hitting the ball in the air more, as his ground ball rate dropped eight percent while his fly ball rate jumped by over seven percent, but it's a good bet that more of those fly balls are going to die on the warning track or land in outfielders' gloves next season. His other counting numbers received a boost because he finally managed to stay healthy for the entire season, playing 151 games and accumulating 604 at-bats. Hopefully he enjoyed his first All-Star selection, Silver Slugger, and MVP votes, because I don't see him getting anymore in the future.
OF Alex Gordon (5.9 bWAR)
The first overall pick of the 2005 draft had been a massive bust up until last year. Touted as the next George Brett, he disappointed everybody with his .244/.328/.405 career line and injury plagued seasons in 2009 and 2010. But just when it seemed as though he would never develop into the star everyone projected him to be, he turned 27 and enjoyed the best season of his career by setting personal bests across the board, winning his first Gold Glove and even earning some MVP consideration. His numbers--101 runs, 23 home runs, 87 RBI, 17 steals, and a .303/.376/.502 line--would fit right in on the back of Brett's baseball card. No, he'll never be George Brett, but he should be a key contributor on an up and coming Royals squad.
OF Melky Cabrera (2.9 bWAR)
Until last year, Cabrera was a fourth outfielder miscast as an everyday player with the Yankees and Braves, but in Kansas City he thrived last year batting leadoff for the Royals. Other than his .332 BABiP, none of his batted ball stats (line drive, ground ball, and fly ball percentages, etc.) deviated much from his career norms, so perhaps playing under easy-going manager Ned Yost for a young non-contender (for the first time in his professional career) helped him relax, because he went out and smashed every single previous career high except for triples, walks, and OBP.
Here are his career highs prior to last season:
548 at-bats 75 runs 149 hits 28 doubles 13 home runs 73 RBI 13 steals .280/.360/.416 .752 OPS 95 OPS+ 213 total bases
And here are his numbers from 2011
658 at-bats 102 runs 201 hits 44 doubles 18 home runs 87 RBI 20 steals .305./.339/.470 .809 OPS 121 OPS+ 309 total bases
It's a wonder how he didn't make the All-Star team last season. He's been killing the ball in spring training and is slated to bat in front of Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, so it will be interesting to see if he can replicate his numbers this year. Don't bet on a repeat performance, but it's not totally out of the question, either.
OF Matt Joyce (three bWAR)
Joyce had been productive on a per game basis before last year, with a .243/.344/.486 line and 25 home runs in 490 at-bats. The only problem was, those at-bats were spread out over three seasons, and the most games he'd ever played during a single season was 92, during his rookie year with Detroit. The 26 year-old rightfielder suited up for 141 games in 2011, and he did not disappoint. He made his first All-Star team, posted a 132 OPS+, whacked 19 home runs and stole 13 bases for a club in desperate need of extra offense in the wake of Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford's departures. Unfortunately for Joyce, his severe lefty-right splits (.866 OPS against righties, .657 OPS against southpaws) make him a prime platoon candidate, but he should still play enough to put up similar numbers to last year.
SP Justin Masterson (4.1 bWAR)
After flashing some promise during his Red Sox debut in 2008, the big sinkerballer had been a thoroughly mediocre pitcher before last season, one who'd performed poorly as both a starter and a reliever. Out of nowhere he became the ace of Cleveland's staff, leading the rotations in wins (tied with Josh Tomlin), ERA, starts, complete games, innings pitched, strikeouts, and ERA+ as he set career bests in just about everything. The key was slicing a full hit and walk off his H/9 and BB/9 rates, and decreasing his HR/FB rate for the third consecutive season. 2011 was probably his ceiling, but he's entering his age 27 season and will start on Opening Day for the Tribe.
SP BranDon McCarthy (3.7 bWAR)
He'd been an ordinary starting pitcher plagued by injuries and bouts of ineffectiveness with the White Sox and Rangers over his first five seasons from 2005 through 2009. He didn't pitch at all in 2010, so understandably Texas didn't make much of an effort to resign him when he became a free agent after the season. Billy Beane scooped him up off the scrap heap, and McCarthy made radical improvements in his A's debut/age 27 season. The sabermetric darling cut his home run rate in half, walked just 1.3 batters per nine innings and induced more ground balls than ever before. Those strides, combined with Oakland's pitching friendly venue, helped McCarthy set career highs across the board. His 1.13 WHIP and 4.92 K/BB ratio were especially impressive. He went toe-to-toe with Felix Hernandez on Opening Day and should be in line for another strong season.
SP Doug Fister (5.7 bWAR)
The groundballer was nothing more than a league average starter during his first two seasons with Seattle, but in his age 27 season (notice a pattern here?) he surprised everybody by turning in one of the better pitching campaigns of 2011. Through the end of July he had a solid 3.33 ERA and 1.17 WHIP (but just a 3-12 record to show for it) with the Mariners, who sent him to Detroit just in time for the Tigers' playoff run. Fister flourished in Motown, going 8-1 over his final ten starts while compiling an otherworldly 11.4 K/BB ratio. He averaged seven innings per start, held opposing batters to a measly .206/.228/.294 line and posted a microscopic 1.79 ERA/0.84 WHIP combo. He was just as good as, if not better than, Justin Verlander over that stretch, which helped him set career highs across the board and lead the American League in fewest long balls allowed per nine innings, with just 0.5. Obviously he'll be hard pressed to repeat that same success this year, especially given Detroit's defensively challenged infield, but with their potent offense backing him he should be able to breeze past his eleven wins from a year ago.
SP Derek Holland (2.7 bWAR)
His peripheral stats lined up with his numbers from 2010, but the difference was that he made 32 starts and completed 198 innings for a 96 win team. When that happens, it's not much of a surprise that the third year starting pitcher went 16-5 and found himself pitching in the World Series. The secret was improved command; more than half of his pitches were in the strike zone and he lowered his walk rate by nearly a full batter per nine innings. Most impressively, he led the AL in shutouts and kept his ERA under four despite pitching half his games in the hitter's haven known as the Ballpark in Arlington.
SP Matt Harrison (4.0 bWAR)
Harrison began his major league life as a starter, but after two ineffective seasons he was moved to the bullpen, where he made improvements but still rated as a below average pitcher. He carried a career 5.39 ERA and 1.57 WHIP with him back to the rotation last year, but this time he stuck around, making 30 starts and winning fourteen games. He managed to shave two full runs off his career ERA and slice his bloated WHIP down to 1.27. He trimmed his walk rate from 4.5/9 in 2010 to 2.8/9 last year while cutting his home run rate in half and upping his K/9 from 5.3 to 6.1. That's a recipe for success right there, and
RP David Robertson (3.9 bWAR)
The 26 year-old stepped up and replaced free agent bust Rafael Soriano as New York's crucial eighth inning bridge to Mariano Rivera. After three seasons of decent but unspectacular relief work for the Yankees, he emerged as one of the top setup men in the game. The numbers speak for themselves:
-He was a perfect 4-0
-Posted a miniscule 1.08 ERA (lower than his 1.12 WHIP), which translated to an unbelievable 410 ERA+
-Piled up 100 strikeouts in 66 and two-thirds innings, good for a superlative 13.5 K/9 rate that rates as the fourteenth best ratio all-time for a reliever with at least 60 innings pitched (his ERA was seventh lowest)
-He allowed just one home run in his 70 appearances, and hit only one batter
-Opponents batted a paltry .170/.280/.226 against him
For his efforts he was named to his first All-Star team, finished eleventh in the Cy Young voting and earned as much MVP consideration as Josh Hamilton.
CL Brandon League (1.2 bWAR)
The eighth year reliever took over the closer's job from David Aardsma, who would miss all of 2011and require midsummer Tommy John surgery. League was not a natural replacement by any means, for he had saved only eight games in his entire career and has never had the elite strikeout rate indicative of a top notch reliever. Nevertheless, he did one helluva job for the Mariners last year, saving 37 games with a 2.79 ERA and 1.08 WHIP while posting a career best 4.5 K/BB ratio and making his first All-Star team.