Thinking about Michael Saunders's somewhat late breakout, I was wondering what other players reached their potential relatively late in their careers, and whether their "breakout" was sustainable or not. Are they a matter of players finally realizing their potential, or is it a matter of completely breaking down and retooling, say, their swing or pitching mechanics? The two mentioned in the title will obviously be analyzed, as will one or two others.
Pre-breakout (2009-11): 204 G, 635 PA, 12 HR, 45 RBI, 180/53 K/BB, .196/.263/.306, -0.4 WAR
Breakout (2012-): 62 G, 241 PA, 7 HR, 22 RBI, 59/23 K/BB, .276/.344/.465, 2.1 WAR
As reported in the offseason, Saunders was working on retooling his swing yet again, this time with somewhat unorthodox methods such as using rubber bands to stay compact and using a 60-ounce bat. His FB% for 2009-11 were 38.7%, 47.9%, and 49.5%, while his LD% in those years were 14.7%, 16.5%, and 14.9%. So far in 2012, however, his FB% is 32.5%, coupled with a 14.0% HR/FB, while his line drive rate has skyrocketed to 21.4%. He's currently running a .340 BABIP, so we should expect a little regression, but there's no reason to believe that he can't best his career .287 mark with his speed.
Saunders's big problem throughout his major league career has been strikeouts. His career 27.3% mark is simply too high for someone whose ceiling is around 15-20 HR power. This year so far, however, he's been cutting down on the Ks, with his K% being 24.5% on the year. His walk rate on the year, 9.5%, is higher than his career mark 8.7%. If Michael can keep cutting down on strikeouts, walk some more, and keep his LD% and BABIP steady, there's plenty of tangible evidence to point to that shows that his level of success can be sustainable.
Pre-breakout (2004-09): 575 G, 1754 PA, 59 HR, 211 RBI, 434/220 K/BB, .238/.329/.400, -0.8 WAR
Post-breakout (2010-): 273 G, 1614 PA, 116 HR, 274 RBI, 270/276 K/BB, .272/.401/.596, 16.9 WAR
Jose Bautista's WAR pre-breakout was largely fueled by his awful defense. From 2004-09, he bounced around the league; he spent 2004 on four different teams. Bautista largely credits Toronto hitting coach Dwayne Murphy for his success. Murphy gave him the tip of starting his swing earlier, which results in more fly balls and thus, more home runs. Bautista has always had a somewhat high FB%, with a career rate of 46.2%, which, post-breakout, has increased, clocking in at 49.8% between 2010 and 2012. However, his career HR/FB rate between 2004-09 was a paltry 9.1%, while post-breakout, it's been a stratospheric 21.7%.
Even more evidence is his K/BB ratio, which when comparing pre- and post- breakout, it's as different as night and day. His walk rate from 2004-09 was 10.2%, which, while decent, isn't spectacular. His strikeout rate from that same time period was 24.5%, which is a little too high for someone whose career high in home runs up to this point was 16. Since 2010, however, his BB% and K% have been 16.4% and 16.5%, respectively. This drastic shift may have more to do with pitchers being afraid to pitch to Bautista (28 IBB since 2010, as opposed to just 9 from 2004-09), but in 2010, Bautista was intentionally walked only twice. A sample size of two-plus years, coupled with Bautista showing no sign of slowing down after a somewhat rough start, proves to me that he can sustain this level of success for at least a few more years.
Pre-breakout (2009-10): 87 G, 304 PA, 5 HR, 43 RBI, 66/23 K/BB, .299/.360/.413, 1.7 WAR
Post-breakout (2011-): 155 G, 594 PA, 23 HR, 98 RBI, 134/39 K/BB, .289/.340/.470, 4.1 WAR
At first glance, Freese doesn't look like he had any significant breakout. His BA and OBP are both lower post-breakout, and his K/BB ratio is actually worse. However, Freese had an absurdly high .375 BABIP in 2009-10, and in 2009 he had all of 34 PAs. From 2011 onward, Freese has run a .344 BABIP, which is still a little high, but over ~600 PAs, it's doubtful there will be much regression.
However, one thing that has skyrocketed in Freese's post-breakout has been his HR/FB, which is a large contributor to his 57-point jump in SLG. From 2009-10, it was 8.3%, a below-average rate. Since 2011, it's been 20.4%, with a FB% of 28.9%, absurdly low for such a high HR/FB. With a career LD% of 22.5%, Freese has consistently made solid contact. We can expect a little bit of regression in his HR/FB rate, but if he can keep his LD% high, his FB% around where it currently is, and hits less ground balls (career 49.0% rate), he could be a star for many years.
This might all be a case of cherry-picking and SSS. I'd been enamored with this thought for a while, and felt like doing some research on the matter. I felt like it was an insightful glance as to what makes a consistently good hitter, as opposed to one who has one or two fluky years among a sea of mediocre seasons.