Breaking through is hard to do for old guys, but these 10 are doing it
Players tend to have established track records by the time they hit their 30s
The Phillies' Raul Ibanez is putting up Triple Crown-worthy numbers at age 36
The Blue Jays' Marco Scutaro, 33, has greatly improved his plate discipline
Cliff Lee won the Cy Young Award in a season in which he turned 30 and entered with a 54-36 lifetime record. Steve Stone was 32 and a 78-79 career pitcher when he became a Cy Young Award winner. And Bill Mueller was 32 and a career .286 hitter when he suddenly became a batting champion. Breakthrough seasons by veteran players are harder to see coming than breakout seasons by top prospects -- sort of like trying to find the next Susan Boyle.
Baseball players tend to have established a track record and playing identity by the time they hit their 30s, but once in a while some established pitcher comes up with a new pitch (Stone tamed the break on his big curveball) or an established hitter clicks with a new approach (think Andres Galarraga when he met up with hitting coach Don Baylor), and we get the kind of production no one saw coming. And so Britain's Got Talent has Susan Boyle, and the Toronto Blue Jays have Marco Scutaro. Who knew?
One quarter of the way through the season, here are the 10 most surprising breakthroughs by veteran players this year:
1) Raul Ibanez, 36, Phillies: Yes, he did hit 33 bombs and drive in 123 runs while playing in Seattle's airplane hangar in 2006, so he does have some pop. But Triple Crown-worthy numbers at age 36? Get real. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro is looking very smart for turning his back on Pat Burrell and giving the lefty-swinging Ibanez big free-agent money, despite the Philadelphia lineup seemingly in need of a right-handed stick. Ibanez is a career .288 hitter batting .352. And don't write off his big numbers as the inflationary effect of Citizens Bank Park; he has hit more dingers away (nine) than at home (eight).
2) Marco Scutaro, 33, Blue Jays: You come up with the list of all the players who learned plate discipline late in their careers and we'll fit it on a bottle cap. Yes, Sammy Sosa learned how to take a walk, primarily because he made himself into such a ferocious slugger that no one wanted to throw the ball near the plate to him. But where is Scutaro's patience coming from so suddenly? Only Luis Castillo has looked at a greater percentage of pitches without swinging than Scutaro, who suddenly is swinging at only 32 percent of pitches, way down from his career average of 41 percent. He has taken a league-leading 36 walks in 47 games (just 21 below his career high already) and posted a .395 OBP. He is a completely different hitter.
3) Jason Bartlett, 29, Rays: Why is a career .285 hitter batting .373 and already hitting a career-best seven home runs? Bartlett used to be a groundball-hitting machine, which is a good idea for a middle infielder without power. But suddenly he is hitting far more line drives and flyballs, and they are falling for hits and homers like never before. Bartlett, a guy who hit one home run last year, leads all shortstops in slugging (.596).
4) Wandy Rodriguez, 30, Astros: Rodriguez entered this season as the definition of a nondescript pitcher: 37-40 after 111 major league games and a 4.79 ERA. Now he is a Cy Young contender with a 1.71 ERA who makes left-handers look sick. Nobody throws more curveballs than Magic Wandy, perhaps because there's not a better curve in the game right now.
5) Frank Francisco, 29, Rangers: One more reason why teams shouldn't spend a ton of money on anyone outside the top three or four elite closers. The Rangers found a cheap closer by turning a four-pitch guy into a two-pitch guy. Francisco's 94 mph heater and 86 mph splitter make for textbook closer's stuff. He has yet to allow a run this season (15 2/3 innings, a workload lightened by biceps tendinitis).
6) Heath Bell, 31, Padres: See Francisco, Frank. Bell has acquired the aggressiveness needed for his promotion to the closer's role. The successor to Trevor Hoffman is throwing fastballs more often and using his slider less. The payoff: one run allowed in 19 1/3 innings.
7) Casey Blake, 35, Dodgers: The eighth spot in NL batting orders is notoriously difficult because of hitting in front of the pitcher, but Blake is having the best season of his life out of that spot. His .376 OBP is a huge improvement on his .330 career mark.
8) Joe Mauer, 26, Twins: Yes, he's a young guy, but the Mauer of 2009 is nothing like the guy who has been around for more than 2,000 major league at-bats entering this season. This is Mauer with power. We know he can win batting titles (he has two of them), but slugging titles? Entering this season with a .457 slugging percentage, Mauer is slugging a ridiculous .914 this year, mostly because the flyballs he is hitting to the opposite field and are flying over the wall. The guy suddenly is Mike Piazza with crazy power the other way. Only three of his hits -- hits, not home runs -- have been pulled to right field.
9) Joel Piniero, 30, Cardinals: Dave Stewart, Storm Davis, Mike Moore, Dennis Eckersley, Steve Ontiveros, Jeff Weaver, Jeff Suppan ... does anybody fix more veteran pitchers than Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan? Duncan turned Piniero from a strikeout pitcher with a big curveball into a groundball pitcher with pinpoint control. The result? Piniero is having an excellent season despite the lowest strikeout rate of his career.
10) Russell Branyan, 33, Mariners: Branyan has been a project his entire career, bouncing from team to team because he always showed crazy power -- just not often enough in between strikeouts. The Mariners, his eighth team, were so desperate for power that they handed Branyan, a career .230 hitter, the first base job. He has rewarded them by hitting .305, with 10 of the team's 39 home runs. The key for Branyan? He is no longer the extreme flyball hitter he has been throughout his career.
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