Saturday, October 11, 2014

2014 All-Breakout Team

Here's my list of top breakout players at each position. I exclude rookies (sorry, Jose Abreu) and try to avoid established big leaguers where possible (so no Jose Altuve or Michael Brantley).

C Devin Mesoraco
I covered Mesoraco's mega-breakthrough in early September, but it's worth repeating here. Jonathan Lucroy and Buster Posey may have gotten more ink, but the numbers say Mesoraco was baseball's best-hitting catcher this year, at least on a per-game basis. His 25 home runs, .387 wOBA and 147 wRC+ were tops at the position (minimum 200 plate appearances). He also had the highest slugging (.534) and ISO (.260), and was second in RBI with 80. Only Posey and Lucroy provided more offensive value from behind the plate this year, and both only because they accumulated many more at-bats. Even after accounting for his pedestrian defense, poor baserunning, and somewhat limited playing time (440 PA), he still ranked as the sport's fifth most valuable receiver this year with 4.4 fWAR. Not bad for a career .225/.282/.359 hitter coming into the season.

1B Steve Pearce
Pearce was this year's Jose Bautista, an unheralded journeyman who blew down the doors with an AL East club. Regarded by many as Baltimore's MVP this year, the 31 ear-old was worth six bWAR this year--ten times his career mark--despite appearing in just 102 games. Even more amazing was that he put seven years of middling results behind him to become one of the best hitters in baseball. After hitting just 17 home runs in his career leading up to 2014, Pearce parked 21 this year in only 383 plate appearances. What's more, he batted .293/.373/.556--nearly dead even with Mike Trout's rate stats--for a 160 OPS+. The Orioles nearly let him go, too, releasing him on April 27th. Good thing they re-signed him two days later.

2B Brian Dozier
At age 27, Dozier built off a solid sophomore season to become a bona fide star in his third year. His 112 runs were second only to some guy named Trout but easily paced the division. His 23 big flies were tied for most at the keystone with Neil Walker. In fact, with 21 steals he was the only second baseman to go 20/20 this year. And his 89 walks--third most in the Junior Circuit--also led the position. Though his defense was suspect, Dozier produced more offensive value than all but two second basemen you may have heard of: Robinson Cano and Jose Altuve.

3B Nolan Arenado
Arenado's reputation as a defensive wizard was already established, but we couldn't help but wonder whether he was going to hit or merely become the third base equivalent of Andrelton Simmons. Well, he hit all right. After batting a paltry .267/.301/.405 (81 OPS+) as a rookie last year, this year he stepped it up to hit .287/.328/.500 (116 OPS+). He showed a much improved power stroke, nearly doubling his home run output and clubbing more doubles despite playing 22 fewer games this year. Even better, he added pop without trading contact, as his batting average increased 20 points and his strikeout rate actually went down.

SS Danny Santana
Though he played twice as many games in center as he did at short, I'm going to include him here anyways. There really wasn't a breakout shortstop this year, either, so I'm going to include Santana even though 2014 was his first season. The 23 year-old only appeared in 101 games for the Twins this year, but still made a huge impact by batting .319/.353/472 (130 OPS+), scoring 70 runs and banging out 41 extra base hits. He also swiped 20 bases in 24 attempts and compiled nearly 200 total bases. Worth close to four wins this year, Santana is an obvious regression candidate (especially with that 98/19 K/BB ratio) but should be a solid shortstop going forward.

OF Corey Dickerson
The 25 year-old was a beast in his sophomore season, batting .312/.364/.567 with 24 home runs and 76 RBI in 478 plate appearances. Though missing 31 games hindered his counting numbers, Dickerson still posted the league's ninth-best batting average, third-best slugging percentage and fifth-highest OPS, all while homering more frequently than all but five National Leaguers.

OF J.D. Martinez
I just wrote about Martinez, but yeah, he was really good this year.

OF Charlie Blackmon
Given the chance to play everyday after batting .309/.336/.467 in half a season last year, Blackmon made the most of it. A hot start catapulted the 27 year-old to his first All-Star nod, and while he tailed off in the second half he still finish with solid overall numbers (.288/.335/.440 and 2.1 bWAR). Colorado's leadoff man also fell one long ball shy of 20/20, settled for 19 dingers and 28 steals, respectively.

U Josh Harrison
Following three uninspiring seasons as a utilityman, Harrison settled into an everyday role with the Bucs this year and delivered monster numbers. In addition to making his first All-Star team, he also hit .315/.347/.490 (134 OPS+) with 58 extra base hits and 18 steals. Worth more than five bWAR, Harrison has the vote of teammate Andrew McCutchen (and some media members) for team MVP.

SP Garrett Richards
Richards was in the midst of a Cy Young-caliber campaign when he suffered a season-ending knee injury while trying to turn a double play at Fenway on August 20th. Before that Richards, who entered the season with just 29 big league starts under his belt through three years, was stellar. Despite missing the final six weeks of the season, Richards ended the season with his 2.61 ERA and 139 ERA+ ranked fifth in the AL, his 2.60 FIP was fourth, and his 1.04 WHIP placed third. He also finished second in H/9 and first in HR/9. It's impossible to overstate the effect his loss had on the Angels' rotation, especially as they were swept out of the postseason.

SP Tanner Roark
Roark impressed as a rookie last year, going 7-1 with a 1.51 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in 14 appearances (five starts), but nobody could have guessed that he would finish 2014 among the top starters in the National League. The 27 year-old Illinois native delivered nearly 200 innings of 2.85 ERA ball, providing roughly five wins above replacement for the Nationals. Roark concluded his first full season ranked among the NL's top 10 in wins, ERA, ERA+, WHIP, BB/9, shutouts, and pitching bWAR. His development was a big reason why Washington ran away with the division this year.

SP Jake Arrieta
After struggling mightily with Balitmore over his first three-plus seasons, Arrieta was traded to the Chicago Cubs last summer. Moving out of the AL Beast to the weaker National League appears to have done wonders for him, as he went from one of baseball's worst starters to one of its best. In 25 starts this year he posted a 2.53 ERA, well below his 5.23 career mark coming into the season, along with a 0.99 WHIP. His FIP was even better at 2.26, reflecting his superb 4.07 K/BB ratio and microscopic home run rate (just five long balls allowed in more than 156 innings of work).  The Cubs have all the young hitting talent in the world, but in order to contend they'll need guys like Arrieta in the rotation.

SP Sonny Gray
Gray delivered on the exceptional promise he displayed last year as a rookie, turning in 219 innings of 3.08 ERA ball (seventh and eighth in the American League, respectively). The fireballer was a force in Oakland's stacked rotation, racking up 183 strikeouts (ninth) and limiting opponents to a .232/.301/.327 slash line. The future is bright for Oakland's 24 year-old ace, and he'll be expected to step up next year following Jon Lester's departure.

SP Dallas Keuchel
The third-year starting pitcher took a quantum leap this year after two seasons with ERAs over five. In 2014 it was under three--at 2.93--good for seventh in the AL and sustained over 200 innings. The southpaw completed five games--most in the American League--and was fifth in pitching bWAR with 5.1. With a 3.21 FIP, 3.04 K/BB ratio and 1.18 WHIP, there's little reason to believe his success this year was entirely a fluke.

CL Zach Britton
A failed starter, Britton had never finished a game before this year, much less saved one. That quickly changed when Buck Showalter thrust him into the closer's role after Tommy Hunter proved ineffective. Britton was up to the task, piling up 37 saves (against only four blown opportunities) and not allowing an earned run over the season's final six weeks. The southpaw took to the bullpen wonderfully, finishing his first season as a reliever with a 1.65 ERA and 0.90 WHIP. He remained effective in the ALDS versus Detroit, securing a hold and nailing down two saves as the Orioles swept the Tigers. 

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