MLB's 25 Biggest Breakout Stars of the Season's First Half

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistJune 25, 2013

MLB's 25 Biggest Breakout Stars of the Season's First Half

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    Contrary to popular opinion, players do not need to be at the beginning of their careers or have never had success as pros in order to have a breakout season.

    For whatever the reason—and there are many, including lack of consistent playing time and injury—sometimes it takes longer for things to click and fall into place for one player than it does for another.

    To be sure, there are different levels of breaking out. But when the stars do finally align, they always bring with them big numbers and memorable moments along the way.

    It happens every year, and 2013 is no different. Who are the biggest breakout stars through nearly three months of the regular season?

    Let's take a look.


    *Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of and are current through games of June 24.

Domonic Brown, RF, Philadelphia Phillies

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    2013 Stats: 76 G, .274 BA/.857 OPS, 33 XBH (19 HR), 50 RBI

    While he has cooled off after a tremendous May that saw him hit .303 with 12 home runs and 25 RBI, Domonic Brown remains one of Philadelphia's most productive bats and ranks among the league leaders in multiple categories:

      NL Rank MLB Rank
    Home Runs (19) T-2 T-6
    RBI (50) 8 15
    Slugging Percentage (.538) T-6 T-12

    Remember, it was only last year that Brown was widely considered to be a bust and a player who many believed desperately needed a change of scenery if he was ever going to live up to his potential as an All-Star-caliber outfielder.

    Brown's ability to get his career back on track is as impressive as his overall numbers this season.

Clay Buchholz, RHP, Boston Red Sox

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    2013 Stats: 12 GS, 9-0, 1.71 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 84.1 IP, 81/29 K/BB

    Before landing on the disabled list with a strained neck, Clay Buchholz was making a strong argument to be called the best pitcher in baseball this season.

    Along with being the MLB leader in ERA, Buchholz is tied for third in the American League in wins (tied for sixth in MLB), while his 1.02 WHIP ranks sixth (tied for 15th in MLB).

    He's emerged as the ace of the staff in Boston, allowing more than two earned runs in only one of his 12 starts on the season.

Matt Carpenter, 2B, St. Louis Cardinals

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    2013 Stats: 72 G, .322 BA/.875 OPS, 29 XBH (6 HR), 27 RBI

    Matt Carpenter has taken the reins of both second base and the leadoff spot in St. Louis this season, ranking among the league leaders in multiple categories.

    His .322 batting average ranks seventh in the NL, while his 34 walks rank eighth, and when it comes to crossing home plate, Carpenter's 56 runs scored trail only Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Gonzalez for the most in baseball. 

    No starting second baseman has posted a higher on-base percentage (.403) or OPS (.875) than Carpenter, who, entering the season, was considered more of a role player than an All-Star candidate.

Patrick Corbin, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    2013 Stats: 15 GS, 9-0, 2.19 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 102.2 IP, 79/27 K/BB

    At the end of the day, all a team really asks from its starting pitchers is that they give the team a chance to win.

    Few pitchers in baseball this season have been as successful at doing just that as Patrick Corbin, as the Diamondbacks are 14-1 in his starts, per ESPN Stats & Info.

    Corbin has stepped into what has been a revolving door of aces in Arizona, and he has dominated, ranking among the league leaders in multiple categories:

      NL Rank MLB Rank
    Wins (9) T-4 T-6
    ERA (2.19) 4 5
    WHIP (1.00) 8 T-13
    IP (102.2) 10 16

    He might not be the strikeout artist that we've come to expect from a typical ace, but there's no disputing that, in 2013, Corbin has been one of the most consistent and impressive starting pitchers in baseball.

Chris Davis, 1B, Baltimore Orioles

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    2013 Stats: 76 G, .331 BA/1.116 OPS, 51 XBH (27 HR), 70 RBI

    It might seem odd to have a player that hit 33 home runs last year on a list of breakout stars, but it would be a travesty if we didn't recognize what Chris Davis has done so far in 2013.

    Davis leads all of baseball in home runs (27), slugging percentage (.709) and OPS (1.116). His .331 batting average trails only Miguel Cabrera in the American League, and his 70 RBI trail only Cabrera (75) for the most in baseball.

    This season, Davis has been on a historic pace for extra-base hits, as his 51 extra-base hits lead all of baseball. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, he's the fifth-fastest to reach 50 in the expansion era (via ESPN Stats & Info).

    He has also raised his walk rate significantly from 2012 (6.6 percent to 10.3 percent) while decreasing his strikeout rate (30.1 percent to 26 percent).

    Chris Davis was good for Baltimore in 2012, but he has been astounding this season. He's improved his game by leaps and bounds, both at the plate and with the glove, becoming the legitimate All-Star and MVP candidate that some believed he could eventually develop into.

Josh Donaldson, 3B, Oakland Athletics

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    2013 Stats: 76 G, .305 BA/.860 OPS, 31 XBH (10 HR), 46 RBI

    Josh Donaldson is having the kind of season where, even in batting practice, things are going his way.

    Take a look at this ridiculous home run that he put in the middle of the "O" in the sign situated in left field in Oakland—a shot that saw Donaldson burst into a reverse home run trot and raised $10,000 for the Wounded Warriors Project.

    It seems to take incredible feats like that for Donaldson to get some attention this season, one in which his play speaks for itself.

    Donaldson, 27, ranks 11th in the American League in both batting average (.305) and OPS (.860). He leads Oakland in hits (87), home runs (10) and RBI (46), and his 3.0 WAR ranks seventh in the American League (per ESPN), while his 2.9 mark at FanGraphs finds him in the same spot.

Jose Fernandez, RHP, Miami Marlins

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    2013 Stats: 14 GS, 4-4, 3.05 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 79.2 IP, 81/29 K/BB

    In a season with few bright spots for the Miami Marlins, Jose Fernandez has shined as the current—and future—ace of the team's rotation.

    Despite his solid overall numbers (which pale in comparison to some of his National League counterparts already mentioned on this list), Fernandez has pitched even better than his numbers would indicate.

    Tied with Pittsburgh's Jeff Locke for the ninth-lowest opponent batting average in baseball at .203, Fernandez's performance on the hill has drawn rave reviews from opposing catchers such as Arizona's Miguel Montero. "I see him as a Cy Young winner, he's that good," Montero told USA Today's Bob Nightengale.

    He ranks just outside the National League's top 10 in ERA (tied for 15th), WHIP (13th) and strikeouts (tied for 18th). If Miami allows him to continue taking the ball every fifth day for the rest of the season, there's a chance that he could crack the top 10 in multiple categories by the time October rolls around.

Evan Gattis, C, Atlanta Braves

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    2013 Stats: 53 G, .252 BA/.894 OPS, 25 XBH (14 HR), 37 RBI

    One of the great feel-good stories of the season, Evan Gattis has become a star despite recording only two hits in 24 at-bats this month before landing on the disabled list with a strained oblique.

    Among catchers with at least 150 at-bats, Gattis ranks first in slugging percentage (.577), second in home runs, third in OPS and fifth in RBI. 

    Of players with at least 10 home runs on the season, Gattis is going deep every 11.6 at-bats, the second-highest rate in baseball, trailing only Chris Davis (10.3).

Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    2013 Stats: 74 G, .306 BA/.956 OPS, 36 XBH (19 HR), 65 RBI

    Paul Goldschmidt has entered the race not only for National League MVP but for the title of "best first baseman in baseball" with his extraordinary play for Arizona this season.

    The 25-year-old ranks among the league leaders in multiple categories:

      NL Rank MLB Rank
    Batting Average (.306) 13 23
    Hits (85) T-11 T-25
    Home Runs (19) T-2 T-6
    OPS (.956) 5 8
    RBI (65) 1 3
    Runs (50) 6 T-11
    Slugging Percentage (.572) 4 7
    Walks (36) T-6 T-17

    He's been equally impressive with the glove, leading all first basemen with 11 defensive runs saved (DRS) and ranking fifth with a 6.8 UZR/150, per FanGraphs.

Carlos Gomez, CF, Milwaukee Brewers

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    2013 Stats: 72 G, .313 BA/.925 OPS, 38 XBH (12 HR), 37 RBI

    Depending on who you ask—and whether you're a believer in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) or not—Carlos Gomez is the best player in baseball this season. ESPN's Baseball Tonight noted that Gomez leads all MLB position players in WAR this season.

    FanGraphs has Gomez ranked third in baseball at 4.2 WAR, tied with Baltimore's Chris Davis.

    Whether he's truly the best player in the game is largely irrelevant when it comes to Gomez breaking out. There's no debate that he's in that discussion—a discussion that, as recently as 2012, he had no right to even listen in on, much less be a part of.

    Tied with teammate Jean Segura for the MLB lead in triples with eight, Gomez ranks among the National League leaders in multiple categories. He's ninth in batting average, sixth in OPS and stolen bases (15) and fifth in OPS. 

    Defensively, Gomez continues to make incredible plays in center field, leading all major league outfielders in DRS with 19 while ranking fourth in UZR/150.

Matt Harvey, RHP, New York Mets

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    2013 Stats: 16 GS, 7-1, 2.05 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 110 IP, 121/24 K/BB

    If Matt Harvey had Detroit's offense behind him, he would've been the first pitcher to notch 11 wins, not Max Scherzer.

    Actually, Harvey might be 16-0 at this point; he's been that good.

    Owner of the lowest WHIP of any starting pitcher in baseball, Harvey leads the National League with 121 strikeouts and ranks second in ERA, third in winning percentage and fourth in innings pitched. Opposing batters are also only hitting .188 against him, the second-lowest mark in baseball.

    He's allowed more than five hits in only five of his starts and more than three earned runs only twice. Harvey has four games with double-digit strikeout totals, the same number of starts in which he's failed to pitch into the seventh inning. 

    While I'm not quite ready to anoint him the best pitcher in the National League (Clayton Kershaw remains on the throne), Harvey is unquestionably the man who deserves the All-Star game start for the senior circuit and has to be considered the front-runner for the 2013 NL Cy Young Award at this point in time.

Jose Iglesias, SS, Boston Red Sox

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    2013 Stats: 33 G, .426 BA/1.044 OPS, 11 XBH (1 HR), 7 RBI

    The biggest question surrounding Jose Iglesias has been whether he'd ever hit enough to become an everyday player. Boston's 23-year-old shortstop has answered that question this season with a resounding "Yes!"

    Before his recent 0-for-3 effort against Detroit in which he failed to reach base, he had reached base safely in 25 straight games, as noted by the Red Sox's Twitter account.

    Iglesias recorded 43 hits in his first 100 at-bats this season, becoming only the third rookie in baseball history to get off to such a tremendous start, joining Luke Scott (Houston, 2006) and Tony Oliva (Minnesota, 1964) in an incredibly exclusive club.

Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP, Seattle Mariners

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    2013 Stats: 16 GS, 7-3, 2.26 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 107.1 IP, 96/17 K/BB

    Despite Seattle's struggles this season and a wealth of pitching depth in the minor leagues, the Mariners will not be trading 32-year-old right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma in order to acquire additional pieces for the offense, according to Peter Gammons.

    Nor should they.

    While he's coming off consecutive poor outings against Oakland, Iwakuma remains one of the better starting pitchers in baseball this season, and he is among the league leaders in multiple categories:

      AL Rank MLB Rank
    Wins (7) T-4 T-5
    ERA (2.26) 2 7
    WHIP (0.89) 1 2
    IP (107.1) 5 10
    Strikeouts (96) 8 T-17

    Even more impressive is the fact that he has a lower ERA and WHIP than rotation-mate and perennial Cy Young Award candidate Felix Hernandez, while also racking up more quality starts this season than the undisputed King of Seattle.

Mike Leake, RHP, Cincinnati Reds

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    2013 Stats: 15 GS, 7-3, 2.61 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 96.2 IP, 63/20 K/BB

    While he was a 12-game winner back in 2011, 25-year-old Mike Leake has taken his game to a new level in 2013.

    With the 10th-lowest ERA in the National League, Leake has quietly put together an outstanding season in Cincinnati. While it's no surprise that Leake has largely been overlookedespecially with rotation-mates like Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto and Bronson Arroyo in the foldhis performance has been outstanding.

    Since allowing nine earned runs and 16 hits over his first 12 innings of work, Leake has pitched to a 2.02 ERA and 1.07 over his last 13 starts, walking 14 while striking out 57. For a guy who entered the season with a career 4.23 ERA and 1.33 WHIP, Leake's numbers this season are all the more impressive.

Jeff Locke, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    2013 Stats: 15 GS, 6-1, 2.01 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 89.1 IP, 63/39 K/BB

    Nobody would have expected to see Jeff Locke leading the National League with a 2.01 ERA after nearly three months of the 2013 season. That was largely because, well, most people had no idea who Jeff Locke was.

    Part of the package that Pittsburgh received from Atlanta in exchange for Nate McLouth back in 2009, the 25-year-old southpaw has been outstanding for the Pirates this season, allowing no more than one earned run in 10 of his 15 starts (and no more than four in any of them).

    While it's unlikely that Locke will ever be considered a true ace, he is pitching like one in 2013 and making a strong case for inclusion on the NL All-Star squad.

Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore Orioles

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    2013 Stats: 77 G, .317 BA/.825 OPS, 41 XBH (5 HR), 38 RBI

    After spending the bulk of his rookie season in the shadows of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, Manny Machado has left no doubt that he belongs in the best-youngster-in-baseball conversation with his play this year.

    Machado, 20, has already established himself as one of, if not the premier defensive third baseman in the game, leading all third basemen in UZR/150 (28.1) and DRS (16), according to FanGraphs.

    At the plate, his .317 batting average and 49 runs scored ranks seventh in the American League, while he also ranks second in hits with 106, trailing only Miguel Cabrera (108) for the most in baseball.

    No player has more multi-hit games (31) or doubles (34) this season than Machado, who is on pace for 72 two-baggers, a number that would break Earl Webb's 82-year-old single-season record of 67 doubles, set way back in 1931.

Shelby Miller, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals

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    2013 Stats: 15 GS, 8-5, 2.35 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 92 IP, 101/20 K/BB

    Among the NL leaders in wins (seventh), ERA (seventh), WHIP (fifth) and strikeouts (seventh), Shelby Miller has exceeded even the loftiest of expectations in St. Louis this season.

    Miller is on pace to strike out 213 batters this season, which would set a new Cardinals rookie record, eclipsing the 194 batters that Rick Ankiel fanned back in 2000. Should he hit that number, it would be the 10th-highest strikeout total of any rookie pitcher in baseball history.

Daniel Nava, RF, Boston Red Sox

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    2013 Stats: 69 G, .274 BA/.816 OPS, 21 XBH (10 HR), 45 RBI

    Among American League outfielders, Daniel Nava's .372 on-base percentage trails only Mike Trout (.384) for the league lead. Nava also ranks fourth in RBI and is currently sitting in a tie with Chicago's Alex Rios for seventh in OPS.

    When you consider that he wasn't thought to be much more than a fourth outfielder heading into the season, what he's done with Boston thus far becomes even more impressive.

Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    2013 Stats: 20 G, .442 BA/1.229 OPS, 10 XBH (7 HR), 14 RBI

    The first player in baseball history with 34 hits and seven home runs in the first 20 games of his career, it's taken just over three weeks for Yasiel Puig to firmly establish himself as one of the bright young stars in baseball.

    Like Mike Trout in 2012, it's fair to wonder whether there's anything on the diamond that Puig can't do. He can hit for power, hit for average, has the speed to swipe bases, and he has a cannon for a throwing arm that has already thrown out three baserunners from right field.

    He's forced his way into a starting spot in whatwhen healthyis a very crowded outfield in Los Angeles. In fact, he has likely pushed two-time All-Star Andre Ethier out of a starting spot, and quite possibly, out of Los Angeles altogether.

Anthony Rendon, 2B, Washington Nationals

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    2013 Stats: 24 G, .333 BA/.854 OPS, 10 XBH (1 HR), 6 RBI

    While he hasn't spent all that much time in the majors this season, Anthony Rendon has quickly shown why he's been considered Washington's top prospect.

    Since being recalled from Triple-A on June 4, Rendon has been on fire, hitting .397 with a .936 OPS, picking up hits in all but two of the 16 games that he's played this month.

    He still has plenty of work to do with the glove before we can call him even an adequate defensive second baseman, but considering that he's essentially learning the position on the fly after having played third base for most of his career (amateur and professional), growing pains in the field were to be expected.

    That said, his level of play for Washington has made Danny Espinosa expendable, perhaps opening the door for Washington to move its former starting second baseman at the trade deadline.

Trevor Rosenthal, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals

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    2013 Stats: 36 G, 1-1, 1.89 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 38 IP, 54/8 K/BB

    There was never any doubt that Trevor Rosenthal dealt heat, but what he's done in his first full major league season out of the bullpen in St. Louis just isn't right.

    The 25-year-old flamethrower has failed to record a strikeout in only five of his 36 appearances on the season, and he's allowed an earned run in only seven. 

    Since April 17—the only time this season that he's allowed earned runs in consecutive outings—Rosenthal has pitched to a higher WHIP (1.00) than ERA (0.93), striking out a ridiculous 13.3 batters per nine innings of work.

    Among relievers with at least 20 innings of work this season, only Jason Grilli (58), Kenley Jansen (56) and Aroldis Chapman (56) have more strikeouts. Rosenthal also ranks fourth in baseball with 17 holds, tied with New York's David Robertson.

Hyun-Jin Ryu, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    2013 Stats: 15 GS, 6-3, 2.85 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 98 IP, 81/31 K/BB

    For all of the issues surrounding the Dodgers this season, the performance of Hyun-Jin Ryu hasn't been one of them.

    A legitimate contender for NL Rookie of the Year honors thus far, the 26-year-old Korean import has the 11th-lowest ERA in the National League, the 22nd-lowest WHIP, and the third-most quality starts, tied with teammate Clayton Kershaw and Washington's Jordan Zimmermann with 12 each.

    He's gone at least five innings in all of his starts, failing to reach the sixth inning in all but one of them. Ryu is on track to have the most successful MLB rookie season of any pitcher to ever come out of Korea:

    Player Year (Team) W-L ERA WHIP IP BB SO
    Chan Ho Park 1996 (LAD) 5-5 3.64 1.41 108.2 71 119
    Byung-Hyun Kim 2000 (ARI) 6-6 4.46 1.40 70.2 46 111
    Jae Weong Seo 2003 (NYM) 9-12 3.82 1.27 188.1 46 110
    Jung Bong 2003 (ATL) 6-2 5.05 1.53 57.0 31 47
    Hyun-Jin Ryu (projected) 2013 (LAD) 13-6 2.85 1.22 212.0 67 175

Jean Segura, SS, Milwaukee Brewers

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    2013 Stats: 73 G, .336 BA/.897 OPS, 27 XBH (11 HR), 31 RBI

    One of three players in baseball with at least 10 home runs and 15 stolen bases (Carlos Gomez and Mike Trout are the others), Jean Segura has made last season's trade of Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels look like one of the more lopsided deals in recent history.

    Take a quick look at the leaderboards for both the National League and all of baseball, and you'll see Segura's name at or near the top in multiple categories:

      NL Rank MLB Rank
    Batting Average (.336) 4 5
    Hits (99) 1 3
    OPS (.897) 9 16
    Slugging Percentage (.529) 9 17
    Stolen Bases (23) 2 4
    Triples (8) T-1 T-1

    That is not too shabby for a 23-year-old shortstop that wasn't expected to hit for much power.

Julio Teheran, RHP, Atlanta Braves

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    2013 Stats: 14 GS, 5-4, 3.32 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 89.1 IP, 71/16 K/BB

    Yes, Julio Teheran leads baseball with eight hit batters—the only time he appears in the top 10 of any pitching category in baseball so far this season—but the 22-year-old right-hander has finally begun to live up to the potential that made him one of the game's top pitching prospects for the past few years.

    Since May 31, Teheran has pitched to a 2.73 ERA and 1.00 WHIP, with a 1.1 BB/9 ratio and 9.8 K/9 rate. Those numbers are very, very impressive. He ranks fourth among rookie starters in ERA and strikeouts, third in WHIP, and second in quality starts with nine.

Travis Wood, RHP, Chicago Cubs

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    2013 Stats: 15 GS, 5-6, 2.85 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 98 IP, 69/29 K/BB

    Don't be fooled by Travis Wood's sub-.500 win-loss record, as the 26-year-old right-hander has been the best player at Wrigley Field this season.

    Note that I said "player," not just "pitcher."

    Tied for the fifth-lowest WHIP in the NL and 10th-lowest in baseball, Wood has allowed more than three earned runs in only one of his 15 starts. That was during a May 25 loss to his former team, the Cincinnati Reds, who traded him along with two others for Sean Marshall back in 2011.

    Not only has Wood been outstanding on the mound, but he's been terrific at the plate as well, hitting .258 with two home runs, seven RBI and a .758 OPS.

    His batting average is higher than those belonging to Starlin Castro (.233), Anthony Rizzo (.253) and Alfonso Soriano (.248), and Wood's OPS is the sixth-highest on the club as well.