ST. PETERSBURG - JUNE 12: Pitcher David Price #14 (left) of the Tampa Bay Rays celebrates the home run of Carlos Pena #23 against the Florida Marlins during the game at Tropicana Field on June 12, 2010 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
While we're all obsessed with stats and projections, baseball's at its best when it makes us change the way we think about it. What follows are the 15 players (or groups of players!) who busted out and made us change the way we think about them during the 2010 regular season.
The season is over, and the season's just beginning. For many, baseball is done for half of a calendar year, and there's nothing left to do but wait and see which players the front office swaps around in preparation for 2011. For a select few, though, baseball's just getting started - or, at least, the important baseball, anyway. For these people, the warm up's complete, and it's just a matter of waiting for the gun.
But as it happens, we get a bit of a breather. In between the last day of the regular season and the first day of the playoffs, we get two days of nothing. Two days of talking and writing and discussing and predicting, I suppose, but two days of no action. And because we get a little break, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on the regular season that's now completely behind us. There'll be plenty of talk about the playoffs. For the next solid month, the postseason'll be all pretty much anyone's talking about. Right now, if only for a little while, we have a chance to talk about something else.
I'm going to seize it. In lieu of another Division Series preview or attempt to identify playoff X-Factors, I'm going to touch on what I consider to have been the 15 biggest breakout performances of the 2010 regular season. 30 teams just wrapped up 2,430 games over the span of six months. A lot of stuff happened. A lot of unexpected stuff happened. Following are the players or groups of players who most exceeded expectations, and who set themselves up for sustained future success.
(This last bit is key for understanding why Omar Infante is nowhere to be found.)
The 15 are listed alphabetically, so that nobody yells at me for putting one in front of another. Be less mad, internet.
Okay, so they're listed alphabetically, but Jose Bautista would rank first anyway were I to put these in ascending order of breakout awesomeness. In 2009, Jose Bautista hit 13 home runs. In 2010, Jose Bautista hit 54 home runs. It was the biggest single-season home run increase in the history of baseball, besting Davey Johnson's +38 in 1973, and it was enough to have Bautista finish a full 12 home runs ahead of second-place Albert Pujols. There were 49 different players who came to the plate at least 500 times and hit 12 homers or fewer. It was as spectacular a breakout as any the game has ever seen, and even if Bautista gives some of his gains back in 2011, he should remain a very productive slugger.
This is hard, since everyone thought Beltre broke out in 2004, but Beltre went from a .759 OPS over five years with the Mariners to a .919 OPS with the Red Sox. While he's always played some of the best hot corner defense in baseball, this year he led all third basemen in hitting, too. Adrian Beltre's always been a talented, underrated player. In 2010, he really put himself back on the map. By moving across the country to a friendlier environment, Beltre went from being talented to being perhaps the best overall third baseman in baseball. Hello, free agency!
I tend to err against counting rookies as breakout contenders, since a lot of rookies enter the league with high expectations, but Starlin Castro is 20 years old. He began the year in AA Tennessee and never saw AAA. Then he came up to Chicago and batted .300 as a shortstop over 125 games. You know how many times a 20 year old has batted .300 over at least 500 trips to the plate? Eight. Other names in the group: Alex Rodriguez, Al Kaline, Vada Pinson, Claudell Washington, Orlando Cepeda, Ken Griffey Jr., and Mickey Mantle. Castro obviously doesn't have big-time power, but to do what he was able to do this year at such a young age puts him on track to have a magnificent big league career.
Dickey finished with a lower ERA than Ubaldo Jimenez. He finished with a lower ERA than Mat Latos, and Clayton Kershaw, and Johan Santana, and Cliff Lee, and much of the rest of the league. It doesn't matter whether or not you think R.A. Dickey is as good as his 2010 season ERA. What matters is that Dickey went from being a guy without a great shot at having a long career to being a somebody. Dickey's knuckleball, and the strikes and groundballs that followed, made him a fan favorite in New York, and you can count on his sticking around for a while.
Once again, I'm uncomfortable putting a rookie on here, but Garcia was no ordinary rookie. Jaime Garcia had Tommy John surgery, missed most of the 2009 season, and narrowly won the fifth rotation slot in 2010 out of spring training. Then he posted a 2.70 ERA over 28 starts. In the span of six months, Garcia's gone from mysterious young starter to capable long-term starter, and it always just feels so great when you can literally make the most out of a package of talent.
It's hard to know what to make of a guy who had nearly 40 percent of his balls in play drop in for hits, but while Gonzalez may have gotten a little lucky this past season, there's no questioning the fact that he and teammate Troy Tulotwitzki carried the Rockies on their backs down the stretch. Gonzalez posted a 1.091 second half OPS, led the NL in average, and improved his 2009 home run rate by nearly a third. Not bad for a guy who isn't yet 25.
Prior to his departure for Japan, Colby Lewis' big league career comprised two parts injuries and three parts agony. After posting encouraging numbers overseas, Lewis returned to the States on a $5 million, two-year deal, and pitched his well-traveled ass off, striking out nearly a batter an inning. Lewis was a good prospect back in the day; it only took him most of a decade and a couple different countries to realize his potential.
You could argue that Liriano didn't exactly break out, since he's always had this ability, but for me, major injuries set the meter back to zero, and Liriano took an enormous step forward from his inconsistent 2009. He gained velocity back, he threw more of his breaking ball, and the numbers came out as some of the very best in the league. It's hard to throw strikes. It's hard to get strikeouts. It's hard to keep the ball on the ground. Liriano does all three. He's back on the path to superstardom.
Despite the mediocre innings total, to do what Morrow did, after the upbringing he had in Seattle, is astounding. Trusted as a full-season starter for the first time in his career, Morrow struck out nearly 30 percent of the batters he faced while coming within inches of a no-hitter against Tampa Bay. No, he isn't yet a greater starter. Yes, he's got his flaws. Even so, his stock has soared to a level few could have predicted when he was traded for Brandon League last winter.
I could've used this space on Mat Latos, but I'd prefer to acknowledge baseball's greatest story of the year. Predicted by many to finish last in their division, the 2010 San Diego Padres won 90 games. They won more games than the Red Sox. They won more games than the Cardinals. Their season came down to the very final day. The Padres didn't qualify for the playoffs, but they nevertheless sent a strong message. They finished 2009 with a 37-25 record over their last 62 games. They finished 2010 90-72. While many will again expect them to be mediocre going forward, the talent is in place for another strong campaign.
Pretty much all of Price's relevant numbers took a step forward this past season, and he's ended up a strong contender for the AL Cy Young. There's not a whole lot more to say. David Price was good. Now he is great. That's a breakout.
Torres' breakout can be traced back to 2009, when he had good success as a bench player in San Francisco, but in 2010 he did it as a regular, batting .268 with good power and great defense. For a while, Torres was lost. Then he re-taught himself how to hit and became a capable everyday outfielder at the age of 32. To be sure, every team in this year's playoffs has guys you can root for. You can root a little harder for Andres Torres.
Here's the crazy thing - Votto's 2010 wasn't a classic breakout. He OPS'd .874 in 2008, and then .981 in 2009. This season, however, he kicked things up another level by increasing his home run rate by a quarter. Remember that, in 2010, offense was down league-wide. Joey Votto didn't notice. The Reds' best player may also be the best player in the National League, and if you haven't had a chance to watch him yet, be sure to watch him in the playoffs. Even against the Phillies, he's a good bet to put on a show.
Another rookie, but another rookie who exceeded expectations in a big way. Back in the day, Walker was a good prospect for the Pirates, showing up in the Baseball America Top 100 for four consecutive years. His stock then cratered with a poor 2008 in AAA, and didn't exactly rebound all that far with a decent but by no means impressive 2009. Then 2010 happened. Walker shined with the Pirates by posting an .811 OPS from the middle infield, and though scouts don't love him at second base, he has shown the kind of bat that can play at other positions. Not a lot has gone the Pirates' way over the years. Neil Walker has gone the Pirates' way.
Jered Weaver was a good pitcher when he was striking out a decent number of hitters. Jered Weaver became a great pitcher when he started striking out more. Weaver won the 2010 strikeout crown by one over Felix Hernandez and two over Tim Lincecum, and his strikeout rate fell in between those of Francisco Liriano and Clayton Kershaw. It's amazing what happens when you do more of the things that make a guy an ace. You turn into an ace. Weaver won't win the Cy Young, but he should be a contender for years.