Chase Utley: One of the Best Ever

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All Time "Breakout" Seasons

 What would you define as a breakout? Me, personally, would say a breakout is when a player with a baseline of X performs well enough that he establishes a new baseline, Y, in which Y is significantly greater than X. How would this be measured? I don't know. The best way to do it is probably by taking a reliable projection system and then looking at how a player improves in the eyes of said projection system over the year. That's the easy way out, and it's not what I'm looking at today. I just wanted to establish this before I go ahead and accidentally mislabel these seasons as "breakouts". Which seasons, you may ask? I decided to take every player's back to back season since 1947, and take the difference. So, if a player had 0 WAR in year 1 and 15 WAR in year 2, that would be a 15 win improvement, which is a lot. 

Here's an example as to why I wouldn't necessarily consider these seasons to be a breakout: Manny Machado played 156 games in 2017 and amassed a mere 1.7 fWAR. In 2018, he posted a much stronger 7.0 over 162 games. Does this mean Manny broke out? Well, he put up 6.6 WAR in 2015 and 6.2 WAR in 2016. He was previously a superstar prospect who was very highly regarded throughout his career. In 2017, he had weirdly poor defensive numbers and, at the plate, had significantly stronger statcast numbers than actual results. The fact of the matter was that he was still a truly elite player that just had a freak down season, and that his 2018, while maybe not entirely expected, was more of a pleasant surprise than a breakout. He kind of did the same thing in 2019 and onward, except his excellent 2020 happened over just 60 games. Point is, that isn't really a breakout, but it is still interesting. Let's proceed.

Here are the top 5 "breakouts" since integration. For context, each of these players had over 400 plate appearances in the previous season. This removes guys like Willie Mays and Mike Trout who just entered the league and were immediately amazing, and instead focuses on established starters who improved their on field performance significantly.

Let's start with Norm Cash. While this was just his second full season in the majors, the Tigers first baseman was already 27. Cash followed up a great rookie season with one of the best seasons the league has ever seen. He hit 361/487/662 good for a 1.148 OPS and a 201 OPS+. His 10.2 WAR was second in the league to Mickey Mantle's 10.4. He finished just 4th in AL MVP, as this also happened to be the season that Roger Maris socked 61 dingers. Mantle probably should have won MVP, but in the moment, it would have been hard to give him the hardware over his teammate who just broke the home run record and led the league in RBIs. This isn't about Mickey Mantle, so I digress. The Tigers won a whopping 101 games but missed the goddamn playoffs because those fucking Yankees, led by Mantle and Maris,  won 109. Pre-division series MLB was an unforgiving world. Anyways, Cash never really came close to his 1961 heights for the rest of his career, but he was still a fantastic hitter until the ripe old age of 40. In no small part due to his 385/433/500 world series slash line, the Tigers took home a World Series championship against the Cardinals. His 2 out single to right field against the legendary Bob Gibson sparked the 3 run rally the Tigers rode to victory in game 7 of that series. At age 37, he posted a 149 OPS+ and finished 12th in MVP voting. To be quite frank, he should have gotten a lot more hall of fame consideration than he did.

In fourth place we have Mike Schmidt. In 1973, Schmidt was a small 23 year old child who struggled severely with strikeouts. His strong defense and power output gave him a respectable WAR total, but 1973 Mike Schmidt was a tiny infant compared to what he would later become. Schmidt, who I believe to be the best home run hitter since integration (he led the league in home runs 8 times. Barry Bonds only did it twice. Hank Aaron four times. Steven Kwan has never done it.), followed up a passable rookie season with one of his finest.  He led the league with 36 home runs (this meant a lot more than 36 homers today), posted a 158 OPS+ and played god tier defense at the hot corner. The Phillies won just 80 games, which partially explains why he didn't win MVP. He ended up taking home MVP honors twice later in his career, so it all works out. 

Side rant time: Apparently, this random motherfucker named Mike Marshall pitched 208 innings OUT OF THE BULLPEN in 1974 and ran a 2.42 ERA. What an absolute god. This is why I fucking hate the reliever adjustment in war. Who gives a fuck that he came out of the bullpen? Why does that make him less valuable? It makes no sense. The rWAR calculation for him basically decreases the league average ERA for him by 0.34 just because he was a reliever. This is illogical. Obviously relievers used to have lower ERAs, but they also pitched way less!! Innings are innings! This motherfucker pitched 208 innings and had a 141 ERA+. Why did he only have a 3.2 rWAR?????? IT MAKES NO SENSE!!!! 

Anyways, Mike Schmidt (no relation to Wally) also led the league in strikeouts that year (he did this three other times, what a beast). I hate to compare players to Joey Gallo, because Gallo is something of a buffoon and isn't very good. Schmidt is like the old fashion Fernando Tatis Jr., a god tier infielder who does nothing but slug. Tatis is probably the best non roided (oh wait, nevermind. Whoops!) shortstop ever and Schmidt is hands down the best third baseman ever. I love them both.

At number three we have Bret Boone, the man who perfectly represents the 2001 Mariners. The Mariners were a great team that year, but should they really have won 116 games? Bret Boone was a solid player, but should he really have had 7.8 WAR? Unlike Cash and Schmidt, Boone was kind of just a random dude who drifted around the league. He was 32 at this point, having only 2 seasons with above average offensive production. Then, all of a sudden, the guy hits 331/372/578 with 37 home runs and leads the league in RBIs. He finished third in MVP, behind Jason Giambi and his teammate Ichiro. As we all know, the Mariners won 116 games off the back of easily the best position playing performance in MLB history (their offense was fantastic, hitting for an 807 OPS and scoring 927 runs, but they also supported their pitching staff with god tier defense). I would say that Boone's breakout season was somewhat legitimate, as he had two more great seasons afterwards (3.9 and 7.4 fWAR, accordingly). Steroid accusations were thrown around by Jose Canseco, and while they honestly might be true, his claims don't hold up under any further examination. He literally claimed that Boone and him had talked during 2001 spring training, despite Canseco having not played in spring training that year. Truly bizarre. Still, this kind of late career breakout is certainly very fishy. I guess we'll never know.

Our favorite political commentator Aubrey Huff, who has me blocked on Instagram, slides in at number 2. Unlike these other guys, Huff had previously established himself as a very good first baseman. He had a plethora of good seasons with the Rays, and then had another excellent 2008 campaign with the Orioles. Then, for whatever reason, his 2009 was truly disastrous. It's rare to see a player bad enough to post a -2.1 WAR also get enough playing time to do so, but it happened. Why? I don't know. Figure it out yourself. Whatever the reason for his regression was, Huff was released by the Orioles and also sucked for the Tigers before becoming a free agent. The Giants proceeded to sign him, and he had far and away the best season of his career. Why? I don't fucking know. Maybe he was drinking adr*nochr*me. (THIS IS A JOKE! I AM MAKING FUN OF AUBREY FOR HIS SILLY POLITICAL VIEWS! I DO NOT SUPPORT THIS CONSPIRACY!!) Whatever it was, it didn't last, as he was awful in 2011 and 2012 before retiring and becoming a based and redpilled Twitter user. 

At number one, we have Matt Kemp. This is a weird one, kind of like Manny Machado but to a much larger extent. Kemp debuted in 2006 at age 21 before breaking out in 2007 and becoming a full time low level star in 2008 for the Dodgers. After an excellent 2009 season in which he led the 95 win Dodgers with a 4.9 WAR, Kemp had a down season in 2010. From a normal fan's perspective, his 2010 wasn't too terrible. His average went down, but he still hit 28 home runs and his OPS was still above the league average. The issue was that his defense, which had earned him a gold glove the year prior, was genuinely atrocious, and despite a 106 OPS+, he was a replacement level player. Then, he flipped this horrible season on its head with a truly incredible 2011 campaign that ended in a 2nd place MVP finish. He hit 324/399/586 in a very pitcher friendly Dodger stadium, played significantly better defense (he won a gold glove, which is a little questionable but I'll let it slide) and stole 40 bases. He was just one homer shy of 40 bombs, which would have put him into the 40-40 club. Shame. Should he have won MVP over Ryan Braun? Maybe. Is Ryan Braun based for taking steroids? Yes. I digress.

So, were these seasons breakouts? Norm Cash and Mike Schmidt's were both very conventional breakout years for second year players. Cash's represented a productive ceiling, while Schmidt's was just the beginning of one of the best careers the MLB has ever seen. Boone's breakout season was a genuine late career breakout that was sustained, while Aubrey Huff's was more of a temporary return to form. Finally, I firmly believe that Kemp was just evening out his awful 2010 and nothing more. He followed up his near MVP season with 3 seasons that were almost a perfect average of his 2010 and 2011 seasons. This fits into my theory that most "breakouts" are just additional information that alter the player's career baseline, rather than establishing a new baseline then and there. 

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