The 2017 MLB All-Breakout Team with 1 Month to Go
As the 2017 MLB season approaches its conclusion, a number of things are coming into focus, including the top breakout performer at each position.
To qualify as a "breakout" candidate, a guy doesn't need to be a rookie. Rather, we're looking for a statistical leap forward that is substantial, surprising or both, which means it can come from sophomores or even more seasoned players.
We'll begin behind the dish, where a member of the Miami Marlins has given the foundering Fish some much-needed good mojo.
Catcher: J.T. Realmuto, Miami Marlins
You could argue J.T. Realmuto broke out last season when he posted a .771 OPS with 11 home runs in 137 games for the Marlins.
This year, however, he has affirmed and built upon his value, posting an .804 OPS with 14 home runs through 107 games along with the third-highest WAR among catchers by FanGraphs' measure.
Realmuto ranks as the fifth-worst pitch-framer in baseball, according to StatCorner. But, given his WAR, that only highlights how valuable he's been at the plate for a sub-.500 Marlins team that has won seven of 10 and is trying to maintain contact in the National League wild-card chase.
First Base: Justin Smoak, Toronto Blue Jays
Setting aside the easy puns his last name generates, Justin Smoak has been a revelation for the Toronto Blue Jays.
The 2008 first-round pick hit a scant .217 last season, but this year he's slashing .295/.369/.575 with 33 home runs.
"I felt like once I got to the big leagues, I tried to be a power guy," Smoak said, per FanGraphs' Travis Sawchik. "I tried to create power. I already had it. I didn't need to create it. I used to get real big at times and try to create [power], taking the same swing on every pitch. You can't really do that."
What you can do, clearly, is start smoaking the ball at age 30. (Sorry, not sorry.)
Second Base: Jonathan Schoop, Baltimore Orioles
After hitting .267 with a .752 OPS and 25 home runs last season, Jonathan Schoop has taken a seismic step forward, hitting .299 with an .881 OPS and 26 homers with a full month to go.
Unfortunately, it's for a Baltimore Orioles team that is likely going nowhere in the American League East.
Schoop, meanwhile, seems to have figured something out.
Per Peter Schmuck of the Baltimore Sun, he said:
"I think it's being more mature. I learned from my first year, when I was going up there and just hacking and I learned they've got to give me something to hit. If they don't give me something to hit, then pass it on to the next guy and be more patient. I'd rather get a pitch to hit than miss it."
Shortstop: Zack Cozart, Cincinnati Reds
Zack Cozart has always been a valuable player with the leather, but he's made major strides with the lumber this season.
In 88 games, the 32-year-old boasts career highs in on-base percentage (.404), slugging percentage (.578) and home runs (17).
Add his typically stellar glove work, and you're looking at a huge output heading into a contract year, despite lingering injury issues.
Cue the cash-register sound effects.
Third Base: Travis Shaw, Milwaukee Brewers
After slashing .242/.306/.421 last season with the Boston Red Sox, Travis Shaw has upped his line to .289/.361/.553 with the Milwaukee Brewers. He's also hit 27 home runs and tallied 80 RBI.
"[I was] just trying to do a little bit too much," Shaw said of his 2016 stint with the Sox, per Kevin Santo of USA Today. "I got out of what I like to do at the plate, and I wasn't playing every day. So when I got in there, I thought I needed to prove [something], get two, three hits every night that I did play."
Now, for the scrappy Brew Crew, Shaw is proving his worth.
Left Field: Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
OK, we're cheating a little. Cody Bellinger has made the bulk of his starts at first base for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The prohibitive NL Rookie of the Year favorite has made enough appearances in left field to qualify, however, and he deserves a place on this list.
In 101 games, Bellinger has a .968 OPS and 34 home runs, which puts him one shy of Mike Piazza for the Dodgers' rookie record.
"It's been a lot of fun," outfielder Chris Taylor said of watching Bellinger's ascent, per Joshua Thornton of MLB.com. "I had the opportunity to play with Cody in Triple-A, and I've seen what he can do. It doesn't surprise me at all."
Center Field: Tommy Pham, St. Louis Cardinals
As the St. Louis Cardinals cling to life in the NL Central, heap praise on Tommy Pham.
A 16th-round pick in 2006, the 29-year-old has career highs in average (.307), OPS (.899), home runs (16) and RBI (52).
FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan summed up the majesty and mystery of Pham:
"The best player on the Cardinals, by Wins Above Replacement, leads the team by a margin of one full win. The best player on the Cardinals didn't crack the opening-day roster... The best player on the Cardinals has himself an extended injury history, and the best player on the Cardinals has also had to manage a degenerative eye condition, called keratoconus. The best player on the Cardinals probably isn't supposed to be the best player on the Cardinals."
And yet, here he is.
Right Field: Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
This isn't the best moment to sing Aaron Judge's praises.
The New York Yankees rookie is swinging for some ignoble strikeout milestones. After looking like the second coming of Babe Ruth early in the season, the strapping 25-year-old is getting his inevitable comeuppance.
Still, there's no denying the numbers. Even with his recent struggles, Judge owns a 1.014 OPS with 37 home runs. He's a virtual lock to win AL Rookie of the Year.
"It's a little frustrating, but there's nothing you can do about it," Judge said of his whiff binge, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com). "You can't pout. You can't cry. You just have to keep working and move on."
Starting Pitcher: Luis Severino, New York Yankees
A live arm that once seemed destined for the bullpen, Luis Severino has put it together for the Yankees.
Through 24 starts, the 23-year-old is 10-5 with a 3.18 ERA and 175 strikeouts in 150 innings. Despite some recent wobbling, he ranks fourth among pitchers with 4.5 WAR, per FanGraphs.
Add it up, and you've got a budding ace with a well-deserved All-Star nod.
"I think he grew a lot last year," manager Joe Girardi said, per Ari Gilberg of the New York Daily News. "And I think a lot of times in life you grow more through your struggles than you do your success."
Relief Pitcher: Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks
If you're searching for reasons why the Arizona Diamondbacks have gone from a disappointing also-ran in 2016 to a legitimate NL playoff contender, don't sleep on Archie Bradley.
The hirsute 25-year-old posted a 5.02 ERA as a starter last season but has blossomed in the Snakes bullpen, putting up a 1.33 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 54.1 innings.
Could his success lead to a rotation role down the road?
"I definitely want to start again. For sure I want to start again," Bradley said, per Andrew Vailliencourt of AZCentral.com. "But just like everything in this game, you have to learn to deal with adversity, you have to learn to deal with new roles and whatever you're doing you want to do it to the best of your ability."