There’s still another month of baseball to be played before 2016 is officially put in the books, but the cold winter months are feeling closer than ever. The mornings feel brisk, leaves are falling from trees and 20 of MLB’s 30 teams will soon be forced to watch the postseason from their respective couches.
Instead of focusing more on young players who took a huge step back this season, we’ll shift to those who used 2016 to show the tremendous progress in their development. The following five ballplayers put together the type of performance that will make their respective teams depend on them heavily to either repeat or continue growing in 2017.
DJ LeMahieu, 2B, Colorado Rockies
It’s been amazing to watch this transformation over the past three seasons. In 2014, LeMahieu won a Gold Glove award, but his offense mostly revolved around hitting singles. His average jumped in 2015 along with a slight bump in power, but he’s come into his own as a 27-year-old this season.
Now, he’s in command of the National League batting race with a few games to go and is slugging nearly .500. Check out the three-year progression in his triple slash:
LeMahieu became an everyday option for the Rockies in 2013. He never had an isolated slugging number greater than .100 for a single season until this year…and it’s .147. He’s also making more contact than ever (90.2 percent contact rate) and his 35.3 percent hard-hit rate is nearly 10 percentage points higher than it was in 2015 (26.6 percent).
Are his home/road splits drastic? You bet they are – he’s owns a 1.071 OPS at Coors and a .747 OPS on the road. However, he’s shown a ton of growth and went from being a light-hitting, defense-first second baseman to a more complete ballplayer.
Aaron Sanchez, SP, Toronto Blue Jays
After letting David Price walk via free agency, the Blue Jays didn’t have a true staff ace. Many thought it was Marcus Stroman’s time, but he’s struggled with inconsistency. Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ have been great, but Sanchez has been the ace Toronto needed.
It’s ironic because coming into Spring Training this past February, the right-hander being in the rotation wasn’t remotely close to being a sure thing. It became one after he proved himself with each appearance, and he carried that over to an All-Star performance in 2016.
In 185 innings of work, he’s 14-2 with a 3.06 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, with 22 of his 29 starts being of the quality variety. Opposing hitters have mustered just a .228/.293/.339 triple slash against him, and he’s been aided by getting ahead of hitters more often than ever before.
After throwing first-pitch strikes just under 54 percent of the time through his first two seasons, that’s jumped to 60.7 percent in 2016. That’s led to using his curveball and changeup more often, and the opposition is hitting .157 off those offerings in 2016, according to Brooks Baseball.
Jonathan Villar, SS, Milwaukee Brewers
Villar always had the speed, but struck out an awful lot for a hitter without much power and not a very high on-base percentage. Plus, he’d only be manning shortstop for the Brewers until top prospect Orlando Arcia was ready.
However, he’s played so well for Milwaukee that they’re finding him other spots on the field just to keep him in the lineup. In his first opportunity to play every day, he’s posted an impressive .285/.369/.458 triple slash with 19 home runs, 91 runs scored and 63 RBI. The added power isn’t solely coming in the homer department, either – he’s collected 37 doubles and three triples.
The speed is still there, too. Getting caught a league-high 18 times isn’t the best, but his 60 steals also currently lead the league. Villar has plenty to play for this weekend because if he hits one more home run, he’ll join Joe Morgan, Eric Davis and Rickey Henderson as the only players to hit 20-plus homers and steal 60-plus bases in one season. Henderson was the last person to accomplish the feat in 1990.
Villar was a low-risk/high-reward signing last winter and the Brewers reaped the benefits. Instead of him being a placeholder while the organization waited for Arcia to develop, he should be a part of their future.
Jon Gray, SP, Colorado Rockies
After pitching to a 5.53 ERA over 40.2 frames in 2015, that’s dropped to 4.61 in 168 innings in 2016. Gray’s WHIP has also dropped from 1.62 to 1.26 and although his BB/9 rate has stayed relatively the same (3.10 in ’15 to 3.16 in ’16) his K/9 rate has jumped from 8.85 to 9.91.
Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post touched upon Gray’s growth recently, giving a lot of credit to the emergence of his curveball. After not throwing that pitch at all in 2015, he’s used it 11 percent of the time and opponents are hitting .196 off it, according to Brooks Baseball.
It keeps hitters on their toes since they can either get a mid-90s fastball from Gray or that curveball of his, which is thrown in the upper-70s. He’s flashed his potential on a few occasions this year, but none better than the complete game, four-hit, 16-strikeout shutout against the San Diego Padres on September 17.
The right-hander has the raw talent to be an ace, he’s shown flashes of brilliance this year and is learning how to pitch at Coors (8.27 ERA in 20.2 IP in ’15, 4.30 ERA in 83.2 IP in ’16). This is exactly what the Rockies were hoping for upon selecting him with the third overall pick in the 2013 amateur draft.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
It’s been a disappointing year for the Pirates, but Polanco has enjoyed a breakout campaign. Despite hitting just .249/.316/.369 through his first 870 at-bats, the front office signed him to a five-year, $35 million extension that runs through 2021. The deal also includes team options for the 2022 and 2023 seasons.
Why would the Pirates commit that amount of money to someone who hadn’t proven himself yet? Because they knew what was coming, and he showed them a glimpse this year. Between 2014 and 2015, Polanco hit 16 home runs, 44 doubles and drove in 85 runs.
In 2016, he’s hit 22 homers, 34 doubles and has driven in 86 runs while slashing .262/.325/.471 in 516 at-bats.
The young outfielder has been more aggressive on pitches inside the strike zone, enabling him to increase both his line-drive rate (19.7 percent in ’15 to 24 percent in ’16) and hard-hit rate (30.3 percent in ’15, 36 percent in ’16). Pittsburgh has its next big stud outfielder, and Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette just hopes the organization doesn’t waste his production like they did with Andrew McCutchen.
Each of these players took an impressive leap forward in their development, but which leap was the greatest of all?