Picking MLB's 2014 All-Breakout Team Entering June Baseball
Some players go their entire careers without having that breakout performance that makes people stand up and say "Yep, that's the kind of player I thought he could be."
Others take years before they finally put it all together, while some hit the ground running, forcing us to take note of their play from the first moment they step onto a major league field.
We've seen our fair share of breakout performances over the first two months of the 2014 season, and while eight weeks don't make a breakout season, they do make for a breakout two months.
To qualify as a breakout performer—and to avoid having players who have played for about a week making the cut—position players must have appeared in at least half of their team's games. Pitchers must have enough innings under their belts to qualify for their league's leaderboards.
With that in mind, let's take a look at MLB's All-Breakout Team as the calendar flips to June.
Catcher: Derek Norris, Oakland Athletics
2014 Stats: 46 G, .289/.399/.469, 13 XBH (5 HR), 25 RBI, 2-for-2 SB, 149 wRC+
Acquired as part of the package that Oakland received from Washington for Gio Gonzalez, Derek Norris had been a disappointment over his first two seasons with the A's, hitting a combined .226 with 16 home runs and 64 RBI.
Then he spent the winter working with his personal hitting coach, Paul Sanagorski, and everything changed, as he explained to John Hickey of the San Jose Mercury News:
We (Norris and Sanagorski) went over some video that Adam (Rhoden), our video guy in Oakland, gave me, showing some things I was doing positively. We tried to keep that same bat path and that same swing going into spring training. As it's gone along, I've gotten more and more confidence, and I've been riding it out ever since.
The results have been evident, as Norris has been one of Oakland's most consistent performers. Among catchers with at least 125 plate appearances on the season, Norris trails only teammate John Jaso (.886) in OPS and Philadelphia's Carlos Ruiz (.403) in on-base percentage.
He has as many RBI as San Francisco's Buster Posey, more than Yadier Molina and Brian McCann, and he walks as often as he strikes out.
Honorable Mention: Devin Mesoraco (CIN—one game shy of playing in 50 percent of team's games)
First Base: Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox
2014 Stats: 44 G, .260/.312/.595, 27 XBH (15 HR), 42 RBI, 141 wRC+
Signed to the largest contract in franchise history, Cuban import Jose Abreu was expected to provide big power upon his arrival to Chicago.
He hasn't disappointed, as his 10 home runs and 31 RBI in April set major league records for a rookie. When you consider that he's yet to face major league pitching in warmer weather, there's reason for optimism that he'll pick up where he left off upon his return.
Can he sustain his early-season production over a full season?
"I don't think anybody knows," teammate Adam Dunn told the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan. "Obviously what he's done in a short amount of time has never been done. Pitchers are going to learn. It's a constant game of adjustments. But he's got his head on his shoulders right, and he'll be a good one for a long time."
Despite missing half of May with an injured left ankle, Abreu still ranks among the league leaders in home runs (third), RBI (sixth), slugging percentage (fourth) and OPS (ninth).
Honorable Mention: Anthony Rizzo (CHC)
Second Base: Brian Dozier, Minnesota Twins
2014 Stats: 44 G, .243/.349/.441, 183 XBH (11 HR), 26 RBI, 12-of-16 SB, 122 wRC+
Brian Dozier began to make waves a season ago when he slugged 18 home runs—nine over the last two months of the season—but Minnesota's 27-year-old second baseman has made everyone take notice in 2014.
Not only on the field, but off it as well, as seen with his remarkable Rubik's Cube skills.
When he's not busy solving puzzles, Dozier has been Minnesota's most productive hitter. Atop the lineup, Dozier has scored 44 runs, second to only Oakland's Josh Donaldson (48) in the American League. His 32 walks rank sixth in the AL, his 12 stolen bases ninth and 11 home runs 10th.
"With the start he's gotten off to, he should be the starting (All-Star) second baseman," Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki told Fox Sports North's Tyler Mason. "His play explains it. Not just his hitting, but he goes out there and plays Gold Glove-caliber defense out there."
Not everyone would agree with Suzuki's assessment of Dozier's defense, but he's been good enough for the Twins—and good enough to earn the fourth-highest vote total among AL second basemen for the 2014 All-Star Game.
Honorable Mention: Derek Dietrich (MIA), Dee Gordon (LAD)
Third Base: Yangervis Solarte, New York Yankees
2014 Stats: 49 G, .299/.369/.466, 17 XBH (6 HR), 26 RBI, 0-for-0 SB, 131 wRC+
Don't look to one of New York's high-priced, high-profile additions this past winter as the team's most important offseason acquisition. For it's Yangervis Solarte, a non-roster invitee to spring training, who has been the team's MVP through two months of play.
Solarte has been one of the team's most productive bats, something that wasn't lost on Derek Jeter, who knows a thing or two about producing at the plate.
"He’s been one of our most consistent hitters. He went through a little stretch there where he scuffled, but that happens to everyone," Jeter told ESPN's Wallace Matthews. "Him and Jacoby (Ellsbury) have really been the only two guys who have been consistent for us throughout the first month of the season. He enjoys to be out there. He wants to play. He’s not intimidated by anything, and he’s done a good job.”
Solarte is among the team's leaders in every offensive category, and he ranks second among rookies in on-base percentage, fifth in home runs and fourth in OPS.
That he's had the season he's had in the biggest media market in the world, replacing one of the game's most polarizing figures in Alex Rodriguez, makes it all the more impressive.
Honorable Mention: Nolan Arenado (COL), Conor Gillaspie (CHW)
Shortstop: Eduardo Escobar, Minnesota Twins
2014 Stats: 41 G, .328/.362/.479, 16 XBH (1 HR), 10 RBI, 1-for-2 SB, 133 wRC+
A career .228 hitter over parts of three major league seasons heading into the year, Eduardo Escobar has broken out in a big way for Minnesota.
He's arguably been Minnesota's best hitter through the first two months of the season, leading the team in batting average and OPS (.841). Among shortstops with at least 100 plate appearances on the season, Escobar's OPS is second to only Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki.
Escobar hasn't only been impressive at the plate, however, as he ranks fifth among shortstops in UZR/150. His combination of offense and defense resulted in the demotion of Pedro Florimon, considered to be one of the better defensive shortstops in the game.
"With our situation right now, I'm just going to keep playing him at short because he's swinging so good and playing well," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire explained to MLB.com's Rhett Bollinger earlier this month.
"We'll use the other guys as best as we can. We've always liked what he's brought to the table as energetic kid but he's a talented one, too. He won a Gold Glove in Venezuela and he's swinging the heck out of it so he's fun to put out there."
Honorable Mention: Xander Bogaerts (BOS)
Left Field: Michael Brantley, Cleveland Indians
2014 Stats: 54 G, .303/.368/.500, 22 XBH (9 HR), 39 RBI, 8-for-8 SB, 147 wRC+
When Cleveland signed Michael Brantley to a four-year, $25 million contract extension in February, it seemed like a reasonable deal. Four months later, it looks like one of the steals of the offseason.
"We all said when that deal came out that that was a bargain for us," Indians first baseman Nick Swisher told The Plain Dealer's Zach Meisel. "(He's) that cornerstone, that keystone guy that we really, really need."
How right he was.
One of the lone bright spots on a disappointing Indians club, Brantley is tied for the major league lead with six outfield assists and ranks eighth in the American League in RBI and runs scored (34), 10th in OPS (.868). His .303 batting average and .500 slugging percentage come in just outside the top 10.
"He does everything great," Jason Giambi told Meisel. "He plays great defense. He throws to the right base. He runs the bases well. He takes great at-bats. He can hit the ball the other way. He can pull the ball. Now he's showing power."
With the power surge, Brantley is within one home run of tying his career high and on pace to shatter his personal bests in nearly every offensive category.
"You're going to see him grow and grow and keep growing," Giambi told Meisel. "He's going to be an unbelievable player."
Honorable Mention: None
Center Field: Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies
2014 Stats: 44 G, .317/.355/.523, 20 XBH (10 HR), 37 RBI, 10-for-13 SB, 129 wRC+
After a strong finish in 2013, when he hit .332 with 20 extra-base hits and an .859 OPS over the season's final two months, it looked as if Charlie Blackmon could be on the verge of breaking out.
And that's what he's done.
Among leadoff hitters with at least 100 plate appearances atop the lineup, only Milwaukee's Carlos Gomez (.933) has a higher OPS than Blackmon's .863 mark.
Not bad for a guy who wasn't sure that he wanted to bat leadoff in the first place.
"It's something out of the gate that I wasn't real comfortable with," Blackmon recently told The Denver Post's Patrick Saunders. "Then again, it's one of the most important positions in the lineup, because you're setting the table and we have a lot of really good hitters in our lineup. So it's something I have embraced and I've taken it as a personal challenge to get on base, to work counts and create some traffic."
A catalyst for baseball's highest-scoring offense, Blackmon finds himself among the National League leaders in RBI, runs scored (35) and stolen bases.
To be fair, the 27-year-old outfielder's home and away splits are severe, leaving little doubt as to why his overall numbers are as impressive as they are. That doesn't take away from the fact that Blackmon has been one of baseball's biggest stars over the season's first two months, however.
In the first official voting update for the All-Star Game (via MLB.com), Blackmon leads all National League outfielders with nearly 550,000 votes, more than 80,000 votes ahead of the reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen.
Honorable Mention: A.J. Pollock (ARZ)
Right Field: George Springer, Houston Astros
2014 Stats: 40 G, .255/.343/.497, 17 XBH (10 HR), 29 RBI, 1-for-3 SB, 136 wRC+
I was hesitant to include George Springer, seeing as how his best is still years away. But between Springer's play and the lack of another standout candidate for the honor, Houston's 24-year-old gets the nod.
Per ESPN Stats and Information, Springer became only the second rookie since 1900 to hit seven home runs in a seven-game span, and his 1.032 OPS in May is the ninth-highest in baseball, regardless of position.
"He got out to a slow start, and the game was kind of fast and he kind of pumped the brakes, and now, once he slowed the game down, you're starting to see his natural talent pretty much just take over," Houston manager Bo Porter told MLB.com's Jackson Alexander.
He leads Houston in home runs, RBI, slugging percentage and OPS, and is second to Chicago's Jose Abreu in those categories among rookies. The American League Rookie of the Year race, which originally looked like a two-horse race between Abreu and New York's Masahiro Tanaka, has now become a three-man battle for supremacy.
Honorable Mention: None
Left-Handed Starter: Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros
2014 Stats: 11 GS, 6-3, 2.70 ERA (2.74 FIP), 1.02 WHIP, 76.2 IP, 63 H, 15 BB, 64 K
After pitching to a 5.20 ERA and 1.54 WHIP in his first two major league seasons, Dallas Keuchel looked like most of the other pitchers that Houston has sent to the mound in recent seasons—forgettable.
Rather than continue along the same path expecting different results—the definition of insanity—Keuchel decided to make a change. He started to throw his slider, as Gammons Daily's David Golebiewski recently took note of:
Keuchel is proving to be far more than a Quad-A footnote during the Astros’ rebuilding process thanks to one of the game’s nastiest sliders. He didn’t even throw the pitch when he first arrived in the majors in 2012, instead relying upon a loopy, low-70′s curveball that opponents slugged over .400 against. But Keuchel has since shelved his curveball, developing a high-70s-to-low-80s breaker that hitters just can’t resist.
No major league starter has tossed fewer sliders in the strike zone than Keuchel (minimum 150 pitches thrown). Just 22.5% of his breaking stuff has hovered over the plate — about half the MLB average clip (45.1%). But he’s not just bouncing sliders in the dirt and expecting hitters to pull the trigger. Rather, Keuchel is spotting his slider far enough off the plate that hitters can’t inflict much damage, but close enough that they still feel compelled to swing.
Keuchel rarely issues a walk and induces more ground balls (65.4 percent of the time) than any other starting pitcher in the game. But it's not just his slider that has people taking notice.
"I think when you're able to plus and minus your fastball and have the type of command that Dallas has, you can pitch," manager Bo Porter recently told MLB.com's Phil Rogers. "He's able to cut the ball in to the righties, sink it away from righties, which runs it in on lefties. He has confidence to throw his breaking ball and his changeup in any count."
In the span of two months, Keuchel has essentially gone from a throwaway to a cornerstone of Houston's rebuilding process, someone that the team can build its future rotation around.
Honorable Mention: None
Right-Handed Starter: Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves
2014 Stats: 12 GS, 5-3, 1.83 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 83.2 IP, 58 H, 20 BB, 66 K
Some will point to Julio Teheran's rookie campaign from a season ago, when he went 14-8 with a 3.20 ERA and 1.17 WHIP, finishing fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, as his breakout season.
But therein lies the danger of pegging a rookie as a breakout performer—the best is usually yet to come.
The 23-year-old has pitched to the third-lowest ERA and fifth-lowest WHIP among qualified starters, firmly establishing himself as the ace of Atlanta's talented rotation. He's held the opposition to a meager .195/.251/.306 slash line, his .557 OPS against the fourth-lowest mark in baseball.
Picking Teheran over a pair of highly qualified contenders in Oakland's Sonny Gray and New York's Masahiro Tanaka wasn't an easy call to make, but it ultimately came down to Teheran's overall stats and the lack of run support that he gets, compared to the other contenders for this spot.
The Braves average 3.5 runs per game when Teheran is on the mound, while Gray receives nearly a full run more (4.45) and Tanaka a run-and-a-half more (5.00).
That Teheran has performed this well knowing his team isn't likely to provide enough offense to atone for any mistakes on the mound makes his performance all the more impressive.
Honorable Mention: Sonny Gray (OAK), Masahiro Tanaka (NYY)
Reliever: Dellin Betances, New York Yankees
2014 Stats: 22 G, 3-0, 1.47 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, 30.2 IP, 15 H, 9 BB, 51 K
It wasn't that long ago that Dellin Betances was considered one of New York's best pitching prospects, a hulking 6'8" starter who, along with Andrew Brackman and Manny Banuelos formed the "Killer B's"—the future of the Yankees starting rotation.
Brackman is out of baseball, Banuelos is working his way back from 2013 Tommy John surgery and Betances has become one of baseball's premier middle relievers.
The 26-year-old leads all relievers with 51 strikeouts, which, according to the Elias Sports Bureau (via the YES Network), makes Betances the first rookie reliever in baseball history to fan at least 50 batters through his team's first 50 games of the season.
He's done it all with a pitch that has batters and his battery-mates baffled—his slurve.
When asked by the New York Post's Ken Davidoff to describe the pitch, Yankees catcher Brian McCann called it a curveball, St. Louis center fielder Peter Bourjos called it a slider while Cincinnati minor leaguer Mikey O'Brien, who helped Betances master the pitch while with the Yankees, calls it a cutter.
“The thing that makes it different is he throws 98, 99 [mph],” Bourjos said. “So I think it’s similar to a lot of pitches. It’s just that guys that have that pitch are throwing 91. So he’s throwing 98. So it makes it tough, especially with the difference in velocities—it’s 81 and he tops at 98. It’s a big gap.”
Honorable Mention: Jake Petricka (CHW), Hector Rondon (CHC), Adam Warren (NYY)