Every MLB season produces and introduces us to new stars, and this year is no exception. With the inclusion of loaded rookie classes (particularly in the NL) along with players who have put together incredible career-years, one can argue that 2018 may have seen the rise and infusion of the most talent ever in this regard.
An incredible rookie year can classify as a breakout year, but in this article, it is defined as a player, who isn’t a rookie, that has put together quite the exceptional season, and burst onto the season. It can range from being an All-Star worthy campaign to one that could win you an MVP or Cy Young award. They can come out of nowhere, or from young talents who had the potential and were slowly taking steps to eventually putting together an excellent year. The American League has had its fair share of breakout seasons, and here are the five biggest.
Blake Snell, Tampa Bay Rays
Blake Snell has put together one of the all-time best breakout seasons because it may win him the 2018 American League Cy Young Award. He has his season disturbed by a DL stint but has still put together something tremendous. In 175.2 innings, the 25-year-old has a 1.90 ERA, and 0.962 WHIP with 211 strikeouts. His 216 ERA+ for the year would put him 22nd all-time, ahead of guys like a prime-Clayton Kershaw and Jacob deGrom.
He has been pure filth, striking out 31.1% of total batters faced, and possesses a favorable 1.26 groundball-flyball ratio. His hard-hit rate and average velocity are also better-than-average. He owns a 7.2 bWAR which is the best in the AL, and the sixth-best fWAR in the AL, although he has better numbers than a handful of the guys ahead of him. He’s had the talent but struggled to put it together the last two years.
What’s even more impressive, however, is that he has been at his best against the best competition. In over 80 innings against the American League’s six best teams (including five-best offenses in all of baseball), Snell has a 1.82 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 100 strikeouts, a .238 wOBA, and .532 OPS allowed. With the slight decline of Clayton Kershaw this season, it’s fair to say that Blake Snell may be the best southpaw in the game.
Matt Chapman, Oakland Athletics
Chapman showed some flashes last season, posting a .785 OPS and 14 home runs in 84 games (329 plate appearances) and was pegged as a building block for the A’s franchise. But he has exploded in the second half of 2018 and is lapping the numbers he had as a rookie. The third baseman has upped the ante to a .281/.356/.515 slash line with 24 home runs and a 138 OPS+.
And what makes Chapman even more special is that he has graded out as the best defender, not only at the hot corner but of all players. Both the metrics and the eye test says so. He has the best defensive WAR, according to Baseball Reference, and FanGraphs says he has the most Defensive Runs Saved of any player.
Chapman has the third-best bWAR among position players in the AL, is 6th in wOBA, wRC+, and fWAR, and he’s only 25. Matt Chapman is burgeoning into a superstar who could contend for an MVP one day and has become the face of the Oakland A’s. We may be seeing the next Nolan Arenado but without the benefit of playing at hitter’s haven Coors Field.
Trevor Bauer, Cleveland Indians
We all knew that Trevor Bauer had talent; it’s why he was taken third overall back in 2011. But he was never quite able to become the frontline starter he was expected to become. In his first four full seasons (2014-2017), the righty never had an ERA under 4.18 and never had elite swing-and-miss stuff you would think his arsenal would make you believe he had.
But in 2018, Bauer found something and became so good that he was in the middle of the Cy Young debate. He still is but would be one of the favorites, if not for an injury that had him miss over five weeks of playing time. Before going onto the DL, the UCLA product had a 2.21 ERA in 25 starts and 166 innings. And on the season, he has thrown 171.1 innings in 27 starts, posting a 2.26 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and his 219 strikeouts mean he has crossed the 200-strikeout plateau for the first time in his career.
He has an elite 11.5 K/9 aided by an elite 31.2% K-rate. And even with all the time missed, Bauer has the sixth-best fWAR among all MLB starters (second in the AL) and the fifth-best bWAR in the AL. If not for the injury, we would have seen Bauer establish himself as a legitimate ace: a workhorse that can shoulder 200+ innings and mow down hitters with nastiness. Still, it’s been quite the season.
Alex Bregman, Houston Astros
Alex Bregman is the example of the player that took steps in his first two seasons and made you believe that eventually, he would turn into the elite player his high draft position would make you think. And boy, it’s come in a big way. He is having a career-best year all across the board and is lapping his last two seasons. The third baseman is hitting .289/.395/.538 with 31 homers, an excellent 159 wRC+, 159 OPS+, and elite .398 wOBA.
He is sixth in the AL in bWAR and fourth in fWAR. He is one of the few guys with more walks (13.4%) than strikeouts (11.7%), which makes his season even more impressive. If not for all-time outstanding seasons from Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and J.D. Martinez, Bregman and his elite .934 OPS would be squarely in the mix for the AL MVP. This is the type of full-season excellence the Astros expected from Carlos Correa.
Mike Clevinger, Cleveland Indians
Mike Clevinger had a good year last season, but he only threw 121.2 innings, and six of his 27 appearances came as a reliever. This year, he has pitched a whopping 193.1 innings, which is sixth in the AL and 12th in all of baseball. The righty has a 3.07 ERA which puts him sixth in the AL among starters and 13th in the MLB. He’s also sixth in the AL in bWAR and 14th in the MLB in fWAR.
What this all means is that Clevinger has been a top-15 pitcher this season, but no one has noticed. It’s been very quiet. He is one of four Indians starters to crack the 200-strikeout mark, cementing himself as a potential frontline starter. The 27-year-old was slotting in fine as the number four behind Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Carrasco, but when Bauer went onto the DL, Clevinger’s responsibility increased. And he responded, posting a 2.12 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 58 strikeouts in 46.2 innings since.
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