By Michael Levitt
The biggest breakout of 2019 belonged to Arizona Diamondbacks center fielder Ketel Marte, who is set to move back to second base this year after becoming the starting center fielder before the 2019 season. Marte, who is 26 years old and going into his sixth season in the majors, had never hit more than 14 home runs, but exploded for 32 in 2019, more than double his career high. He also had 36 doubles, blowing past his previous high of 26 set a year earlier. In addition to increasing his power stats, Marte increased his total hits as well, increasing his batting average almost 70 points to .329. This also resulted in his on-base percentage going up to .389, and due to his power stats increasing, his slugging percentage increased as well to an absurd .592. Marte ended the season with an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .981, good for the fourth-highest in the National League (among qualified players). This season, Marte will look to keep that momentum going. However, it would be natural to expect at least some regression, since Marte’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .342 last year, almost 30 points higher than his career average of .313, which indicates some luck involved with his impressive year. The league average BABIP is usually around .300, but it can be considered different depending on the player and their batting approach. In general, Marte seems to be lucky on balls in play more than the average player, so some recession should be expected, although he should still be better than he was in 2018.
Perhaps the most surprising breakout happened courtesy of New York Yankees third baseman Gio Urshela. Urshela had been with the Cleveland Indians for a few years going into 2018, but he got hurt during spring training and was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays before he came back. He only played in 19 games with Toronto before they decided to send him to the minor leagues, and he did not come back up for the rest of the season. Midway through the season, Urshela was traded to the Yankees, and while they did not call him up to the majors during that season, he represented good depth for the 2019 season. And the Yankees needed it. The club had 30 different players go on the injured list over the course of the season, and after Miguel Andujar got hurt for the season in early April, they brought up Urshela to play third base. He took the opportunity and ran with it, hitting .314 with 21 home runs and 34 doubles. This led to a slugging percentage of .534, and his on-base percentage was a stellar .355 as well. While Urshela did not establish himself as an everyday player for the Yankees, he probably would have had he been on a team that did not have a surplus of infielders vying for playing time, as the Yankees did even with Andujar hurt. At 28 years old, Urshela is older than the usual player that is going into his second full season, but he had not really been given too much of a chance to show what he could do at the major league level. After having a .349 BABIP in 2019, Urshela is bound for some recession in 2020, but his batting average should still be good enough to stay the primary third baseman for the Yankees. His on-base percentage will probably drop a bit since he does not walk too much, but his slugging percentage could stay around the same. The Yankees still have a surplus of infielders, but Urshela showed enough last year to at least be given a chance as the main third baseman in 2020.
Another player who took a big step forward was Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Lucas Giolito. Giolito, a former top prospect who had been traded to the White Sox from the Washington Nationals as part of a package for outfielder Adam Eaton, had developed into a okay back-end starter going into 2019, but took the next step during the season, becoming a front-end starter that the White Sox could build around. And while he may not be their best pitcher anymore after the club signed former Houston Astros ace Dallas Keuchel over the offseason, Giolito will look to continue his success in 2020. In 2019, he won 14 games on a decent White Sox team and amassed an ERA (earned run average) of 3.41, which was just under half of what it was in 2018. But his most impressive statline from 2019 was his three complete games, two of which were shutouts. That would be hard for Giolito to replicate in 2020, but if he can continue to harness the control issues that plagued him in the past, it is plausible for him to be closer to the 57 walks he gave in 2019 and not be as wild as he was in 2018, when he walked 90 batters and hit 15 more. He also took a big step forward in the strikeout department, notching 228 in 2019 after having 125 in about the same amount of innings in 2018. Giolito should not be as bad as he was in 2018, but if he cannot limit his walks, some of the other young White Sox pitchers could jump ahead of him to be the “future ace.” It may be reasonable to at least expect a small dropoff from Giolito, but he should be able to at least have some of the command that he showed last year. The big question with Giolito that is not necessarily asked of Marte or Urshela is, can he take the next step? At 25 years old, he is still young enough to develop more and become the future ace that the White Sox are looking for.
There are many players who seem to come out of nowhere and contribute in a big way for their teams. Some may just be lightning in a bottle, while others are here to stay. Trying to figure out which category a player is in can be difficult since there is no telling what will happen, such as injuries and trades. But teams must do their best to evaluate the players and put them in the best position to succeed. After all, having the players succeed helps the team succeed. And the team succeeding is the main goal of any front office.