Was it a fluke, or was it real? That's the question facing 2011's breakout players and their teams as spring training begins. Some, like 2010 breakout star Jose Bautista, might be even better in their follow-up campaigns. Others will blend back into the pack or worse, leaving 2011 as the high point of their careers.
Here's a look at what the coming season might hold for five players who were 27 or older in 2011 and whose Wins Above Replacement (bWAR, as calculated by Baseball-Reference.com) last season exceeded their previous career totals.
2011 stats: .321/.376/.552, 32 HR, 105 RBI, 119 R, 39 SBAge: 282011 bWAR: 7.2Pre-2011 bWAR: 6.4
Ellsbury missed all but 18 games in 2010 due to injury, which helped keep his career bWAR below his eventual 2011 total, then emerged last year as one of the best players in the American League, making his first All-Star team, winning the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger and finishing second in MVP voting. The biggest change in his game was his sudden ability to hit for power. Prior to 2011, Ellsbury had hit just 20 major league home runs in 1,513 plate appearances, good for a .405 slugging percentage. Last year, he hit more than 50 percent additional homers in less than half as many trips.
Ellsbury's player comment in Baseball Prospectus 2012 pegs the difference to a newfound ability to get around on low-inside fastballs and opposing pitchers' failure to adjust, suggesting that the scouting reports will have caught up this season and Ellsbury won't get as many fastballs to drive. It seems likely that Ellsbury's power numbers and batting average will come back to earth a bit this year, but it's unlikely he'll go back to being the slap-hitter he appeared to be earlier in his career.
Mashing his near-MVP season together with his earlier singles-hitting, Ellsbury has now posted a career .301/.354/.452 line and averaged 17 home runs per 162 games. That seems like a very reasonable expectation for the coming season. Those aren't clear MVP numbers, but mix in 40-odd steals and Gold Glove-quality defense in center field and they'll keep him among the most valuable players in the league. They'll also make him a comparable player (with more steals, but inferior plate discipline) to teammate Dustin Pedroia, who is less than a month Ellsbury's senior and who, despite winning the 2008 AL MVP, has never had a season as good as Ellsbury's 2011 campaign.
2011 stats: 11-13, 2.83 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 6.1 K/9, 3.95 K/BBAge: 282011 bWAR: 5.7Pre-2011 bWAR: 1.6
Fister went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA in 10 starts and one relief appearance after being acquired from the Mariners at the trading deadline, leading the American League in ERA (minimum 10 starts) and trailing only rotation-mate Justin Verlander in wins in the AL over the final two months of the season. Then, after a hiccup in his first playoff appearance, Fister went 2-0 with a 2.19 ERA in two subsequent postseason starts against the Yankees and Rangers. In his previous two major league seasons, Fister had been little more than a tall (6-foot-9), league-average strike-thrower, posting a 98 ERA+ (the league average is 100) over 232 innings while averaging less than two walks but just five strikeouts per nine frames. He was largely the same pitcher with the Mariners in early 2011, albeit with a better ERA thanks in part to an up-tick in groundballs and, correspondingly, a decrease in home runs.
With the Tigers, however, Fister put it all together. He walked almost no one (five men in 70 1/3 innings) and pushed his strikeout rate up to around league average (7.3 K/9), resulting in an absurd 11.40 K/BB ratio. He got more groundballs, kept his home runs in check and benefitted from his opponents hitting just .246 on balls in play.
That means there's correction to come. Fister's BABIP and K/BB as a Tiger were clearly unsustainable, his home run rate was abnormally low all season and his regular-season run with Detroit came almost entirely against weak-hitting teams: four starts against Cleveland, two against the Royals and one each against the Orioles, Rays, Twins and A's, with only the Royals ranking above league average in runs scored per game on the season, and barely. And while he handled the Rangers well twice (once in August, once in the playoffs), both of those starts came at Comerica Park. Fortunately, there's room for regression given just how dominant Fister was down the stretch.
The Pitch f/x statistics at TexasLeaguers.com show that Fister was throwing a tick harder with the Tigers and was missing more bats with his curveball over those final two months, so his improvement wasn't all fluke. Given that 2011 was just Fister's second full season as a major league starter, it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect him to finish 2012 with an ERA and WHIP close to his career marks (3.49 and 1.18) with strikeout and walk rates comparable to his overall 2011 numbers (6.1 K/9, 1.5 BB/9).
2011 stats: .303/.376/.502, 23 HR, 87 RBI, 101 R, 17 SBAge: 282011 bWAR: 5.9Pre-2011 bWAR: 3.8
Drafted as a third baseman with the second-overall pick in the 2005 draft, Gordon was saddled with expectations of becoming the next George Brett, but he struggled after making the leap from Double-A to the majors in just his second professional season. Still, he's a career .321/.438/.578 hitter in the minors and the biggest difference between his sophomore season in 2008 (.260/.351/.432) and his breakout season in 2011 is 43 points of batting average and the ability to hit his fellow left-handers. Gordon finally fulfilled his potential last season, and at the typical peak age of 27, no less.
Staying healthy was a big part of Gordon's success. He lost more than half of 2009 to hip labrum surgery and his 2010 season got off to a late start due to a fractured right thumb that very well may have impacted his hitting thereafter (2010 was also when the Royals sent Gordon back to the minors to become an outfielder). Last year, however, Gordon stayed healthy and had the season he should have had two years prior, adding 20 assists, a Gold Glove and three down-ballot MVP votes to the numbers above to round out a spectacular all-around performance.
As with the Yankees' Curtis Granderson, Gordon's improvement against lefties was the other key. In 2008, Gordon hit .273/.370/.491 against righties but just .234/.312/.317 against lefties. In 2011, he hit .314/.384/.517 against righties, comparable to his 2008 numbers with some extra batting average, and .278/.358/.471 against lefties. Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long is credited for Granderson's improvement against same-handed pitchers, and Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer should receive similar praise for Gordon's turnaround. Assuming Gordon can sustain that fix, as Granderson did from late 2010 through the 2011 season, Gordon should regress only as far as his batting average does in the coming season.
2011 stats: .303/.360/.550, 31 HR, 95 RBIAge: 292011 bWAR: 3.0Pre-2011 bWAR: 1.9
Here's what I wrote about Morse at the end of spring training a year ago:
"In roughly a full season worth of at-bats (618), Morse has hit .291/.353/.456 with 21 homers and 88 RBIs in the major leagues, but prior to 2010 he hadn't had 100 at-bats in the majors since his rookie year of 2005. In the interim, he was sidetracked by a 2006 knee surgery and a 2008 shoulder surgery, the latter of which effectively erased that entire season from his ledger. Since returning from the shoulder surgery in 2009, however, he has hit .302/.340/.509 in 880 plate appearances between Triple-A and the majors. Back in the bigs last year, Morse hit .289/.352/.519 in 266 at-bats with 15 of his 21 career homers. He's at it again this spring, tying the Orioles' Jake Fox for the major league lead in home runs (9) and ranking second behind Fox in total bases (53). The 29-year-old will break camp as the Nationals' starting leftfielder and number-five hitter and need only look to teammate Jayson Werth for an example of a player who escaped an injury-plagued twenties and found stardom in his thirties."
If you can see it coming, it's no fluke. Morse will turn 30 before Opening Day, which makes his sudden stardom (he received two down-ballot MVP votes last year) seem untenable, but this is who he is. He might experience a bit of regression as a result of moving back into the outfield, and he was unlikely to hit .300 again at any position given his poor plate discipline, but he now boasts a career major league line of .296/.356/.499 in 1,260 plate appearances and should be able to produce similar numbers for the Nationals in 2012 as long as he can stay healthy.
2011 stats: 13-7, 2.71 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 7.0 K/9, 2.28 K/BB Age: 34 2011 bWAR: 3.7 Pre-2011 bWAR: -3.9
Prior to last season Vogelsong hadn't pitched in the majors since 2006, made a major league start since 2004 or performed above replacement level since throwing six innings of relief as a 22-year-old rookie in 2000. At the age of 33 he returned to the team that drafted him (in 1998!) as a non-roster invitee, snuck onto the 25-man roster and then into the rotation in late April thanks to a Barry Zito injury. Vogelsong went 8-1 with a 2.20 ERA over his first 16 starts, made the All-Star team, finished fourth in the National League in ERA (2.71) and even picked up a down-ballot Cy Young vote.
Looking back at Vogelsong's 2011 season in isolation shows nothing to suggest it was authored by a pitcher who entered the year with a 5.86 ERA, 1.59 WHIP and 10-22 record in the major leagues. Vogelsong's peripherals were solid, he wasn't especially lucky on balls in play or fly balls staying in the ballpark, he didn't give up an excess of fly balls or line drives, his fastball averaged about 92 miles per hour and he missed bats with his curve and changeup. Nothing about the component parts of his performance stands out as unusual. He looks like a legitimate, mid-rotation starter who maybe got a bit lucky with his ERA for one season thanks to some spectacular and likely unrepeatable clutch pitching (opponents hit just .200/.320/.290 against him with runners in scoring position).
Vogelsong did benefit significantly from his home ballpark, where he posted a 2.15 ERA, and came back to earth a bit after that hot 16-start run early in the season. But his road ERA was a still-strong 3.57, his worst ERA in any single month was 3.79 in August and xFIP (eXpected Fielding Independent Pitching, a strong predictor of future performance) equated his 2011 performance with a 3.85 ERA, which is still comfortably better than average. Look for Vogelsong's ERA to swell by a run or so in the coming season, but for him to remain a solid part of the Giants' deep rotation.