MLB: ALCS-Detroit Tigers at Boston Red Sox

2013 was a great year for baseball. The Wild Card races came down to the wire (and beyond, in the AL’s case) and great player performance lurked around every corner. From the World Baseball Classic through to the final pitch of the World Series, baseball fans were treated to a memorable season in every way. An incredibly active and lucrative hot stove season kept fans glued to twitter as every day this winter seems to feature another big trade or contract.

Stars like Clayton Kershaw and Miguel Cabrera showed fans how they got to be legends in their own time but it wasn’t just established superstars who dominated that headlines in 2013. Check out theScore’s nine biggest breakout performers of 2013 below, as trends exploded into the public conscience and bit players turned to superstars right before our eyes. Happy holidays and enjoy!

Yasiel Puig

It was only a matter of time before the Dodgers’ Cuban import strong Yasiel Puig made an impact at the big leagues. The tools and pedigree that convinced one Dodgers scout to sign him after a single batting practice session held incredible promise. Harnessing those tools would take time and the Dodgers already owned a very expensive outfield. There was no need to rush Puig to the bigs…at first.

Injuries and a terrible start to the season caused LA’s front office to reach down to double-A and pluck the promising Puig up for a shock call-up in June. The rest, as they say, is history.

Puig hit the ground running with spectacular plays and an unbelievable assortment of offensive skills. His aggression at the plate belied a mature approach, his ability to hit the ball to the opposite field – with force – showed he wasn’t just swinging from his heels with some beginners luck on his side.

There were obvious growing pains, mental lapses and base running adventures that gave some within the game pause as to Puig’s viability in big situations. Many lessons still unlearned, the Dodgers stuck with their athletic outfielder; who in turn rewarded them with more than 5 Wins Above Replacement in barely more than 100 games.

In many ways, 2013 was the Year of the Puig. His imprint on the 2013 season is indelible. He spawned tribute bands and adulation, scorn and pessimism. He became a star and nearly a household name in Los Angeles and the baseball-watching world over. Few will look back at the 2013 season without the name “PUIG” springing instantly to mind.

Unproven kids

The widespread use of otherwise unproven rookies in big moments might also be the death of another type of player – the Proven Winner. Many teams struck forth in huge moments with players without long track records of postseason success. Even deadline day acquisitions skewed towards “good players” rather than “guys who used to play on good teams.”

Michael Wacha is the poster child for the movement away from established winners in favor of players who can simply get the job done. With just nine big league starts under his belt, the Cardinals sent Wacha to the hill for five playoff starts, including two in the World Series.

Sonny Gray and Gerrit Cole are two more rookies making big playoff starts for their teams. Danny Salazar started the Wild Card play-in game for Cleveland. Texas went with Martin Perez in their one shot at playoff glory, eventually falling to David Price and the Rays. To say nothing of the entire Cardinals bullpen, chockfull of rookies in nearly all roles.

Proven playoff achievers are a nice luxury but there is nothing to preclude a young player from joining their ranks other than opportunity. The legend of Michael Wacha never gets off the ground if not for St. Louis’ belief that he was their best option for those five playoff games – a belief he rewarded with four great starts (and one not-so-great start in the biggest game of all, but we won’t hold that against him, will we?)

Josh Donaldson

St Louis Cardinals v Oakland Athletics

It often takes a long time to become an overnight success. Josh Donaldson‘s journey to becoming the best player on one of the best teams in baseball seems like it happened quickly, as he rose from afterthought to MVP in just one season.

It is rare that a college position player taken in the first round of baseball’s amateur draft spends four years in the minor leagues, slogging away at every rung on the minor league ladder. Selected 48th overall by the Chicago Cubs in 2007 and eventually traded as part a move that landed the Cubs Rich Harden, Donaldson languished in the minor leagues, spending more than two full seasons at triple-A, spending time in 2012 at three different positions when he did receive a call-up to the Majors.

In 2013, Josh Donaldson arrived in a major way. His fourth-place finish in AL MVP voting is merely a footnote on the true greatness of his season, putting up 8 WAR thanks to his combination of fine defense and great offense. Posting a .301/.384/.499 line with 24 home runs in a cold, spacious ballpark goes an awful long way to helping your team win 96 games.

Because they’re the A’s, there is no telling how Donaldson fits into Oakland’s plan for the future. If this is his career year, so be it. Josh Dondaldson arrived with one of the most complete seasons in baseball this year – hopefully more than just baseball fans by the Bay take notice.

Team Chemistry

For all the individual accomplishments of great players in places like Detroit, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Cincinnati, it was one of the most complete teams in recent memory that ended up taking home the ultimate prize.

The Red Sox bounced back after a terrible 2012 by making (and hitting on) some shrewd, smart signings – contracts inked because of more than just past performance. The Red Sox of 2013 were a veteran bunch that used platoons effectively, cycled through a fleet of relievers and some nice bounce back seasons from key players to win more games than any other team in baseball.

No Red Sox player finished in the top 5 for MVP or Cy Young voting. They traded away the second-best rookie in the American League. No Red Sox pitcher won 20 or totaled 25 saves. They didn’t have any players post 6 WAR or higher. The only Sox personnel to sniff an individual trophy was their new field boss, as John Farrell finished second in Manager of the Year voting. But they won 97 games with a balanced attack, good defense, and buy-in from every player on the roster.

Plenty of teams – both good and bad – get along and forge lifelong friendships. But what the Red Sox, and also the Oakland A’s, seem to embody is the ability to adapt and understand what makes the group successful. Players changing positions, players taking on new roles, coaches working to keep everyone on the same page and putting their players in the best positions to succeed.

Fit matters. The Red Sox did a great job building a team around their existing core of good players, bringing in players who will not only fill open roles but fit within their culture. The Red Sox succeeded – will this prove to be a one-off luxury or will more teams follow the example of Boston, Oakland, and even Tampa Bay in their pursuit of not just good players but the right players? Certainly seems like a worthwhile gamble.

Matt Carpenter

The 2012 Cardinals made great use of Matt Carpenter, spelling the injured David Freese at third base and moving him around the diamond as needed. He put up a 125 OPS+ in 340 plate appearances, good enough for a sixth-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting. During St. Louis’ 2012 playoff run, it became clear to anyone watching that Carpenter’s mature approach was well-suited to the big leagues. During the National League Championship series, he terrorized the Giants in three starts, grabbing three hits and three walks, his Cardinals winning two of his games (though they lost the series to the eventual World Series champs.)

2013 was Carpenter’s coming out party, leading off for the best offense in the National League all season long. Even while learning a completely foreign position, Carpenter showcased the Cardinals-centeric skills that turns unassuming prospects in above-average contributors.

Little Carp held an on-base percentage near .400 all season long, finishing with a .318/.392/.481 line, leading the league in hits, doubles, and runs scored, playing fine defense at second base all the while.

MLB: Washington Nationals at St. Louis Cardinals

Headed back to his rightful spot on the hot corner in 2014, Mat Carpenter is no longer a secret weapon but a key contributor and prime example of what makes the Cardinal the best organization in baseball – the ability to take a 13th round pick without an overwhelming skill set and working with their player to create an All Star.

The Defensive Shift

The defensive shift was not created in 2013. It probably wasn’t perfected, either. But 2013 feels like the year the defensive shift went from being a novelty to a fact of life when it comes to preventing runs in the big leagues.

The World Series champion Boston Red Sox adopted the shifty ways of new third base coach Brian Butterfield, moving infielders all over depending on scouting reports and computer printouts on opposing hitters. The Pittsburgh Pirates took a quantum leap forward in their run prevention, using defensive shifts all over the diamond and supporting their pitchers with sharp defense at every turn. Even the Astros are getting into the act, putting their “decision sciences” department to good use.

The conversation around baseball circles finally turned from the viability of using defensive shifts to strategies designed to beat them. Moving fielders around is here to stay – thanks in no small part to the success experienced by the teams willing to experiment in 2013.

Pitch Framing

Whenever a new metric or quantifiable skill is identified, there is a rush by early adaptors to take it as gospel and there is a backlash against that which seems a little too convenient. The biggest statistical revelation of 2013 had to be putting a number on pitch framing.

Not that the numbers are infallible, but the initial smell test checked out and quickly these numbers, in all their various forms, took off. Anything that makes the Brother Molina look better than the rest is going to gain some traction among those who watch the game closest.

The Rays are seen at the vanguard of this movement, valuing and putting a number on a catcher’s ability to create extra strikes for his pitchers. Despite almost zero offensive output from the likes of Jose Molina and recent signing Ryan Hanigan, the Rays keep rolling on, preventing runs in every way they can.

There is no disputing the value of a good pitch framer. Jose Molina himself demonstrates how much a sole focus on grabbing extra strikes – at the expense of blocking balls in the dirt and throwing out base runners – can aid a pitcher more than we ever realized. Putting a number on it, taking the time to break it down and use all tools available to analysts suggests 2013 might just be the tip of the pitch framing iceberg.

Jose Fernandez

Of all the charges regularly leveled against the Miami Marlins, timidity is not often one of them. Jose Fernandez was a coming force, the Cuban defector (while still in high school) who lit up the low minors at the tender age of 19. Most scout watchers and experts thought he’d be a star, they just didn’t think it would happen all at once.

When the Marlins announced, seemingly out of the blue, that Fernandez would make the Opening Day roster, many were shocked. The Marlins weren’t playing for anything in 2013, having dumped all their high-priced talent in the offseason.

Jose Fernandez wasted little time proving he belonged in the big leagues, dominating opponents from day one. On top of his unbelievable stuff and huge velocity, Fernandez played with an infectious energy, occasionally rubbing opponents the wrong way.

The Marlins shut Fernandez down in September but few will forget the meteoric beginning to his very promising career. It isn’t often a pitcher goes from high-A ball to Rookie of the Year and Cy Young finalist in one calendar year. Mix in your first-ever snowfall and we can safely say 2013 was one to remember for Jose Fernandez.

Mike Trout

How do you follow the best age-20 season in baseball history? How does a great player respond to posting his career year during his first season in the big leagues.

If you’re Mike Trout, you do this impossible – you do it again, only better.

Nobody could fault Mike Trout is he rested on his laurels after a superlative 2012 season that saw him hit 30 home runs and steal 49 bases, all while playing unbelievable outfield defense and basically taking the world by storm. In 2013, Mike Trout secured his crown as the league’s best player.

Trout cut down his strikeouts while upping his walks and making fewer outs. Trout put up a .323/.432/.557 line with 27 home runs and 33 steals. He drew 100 walks for the first time in his career, hit more doubles and triples while settling into a middle-of-the-order slot as a run producer. Trout lead the American League in runs scored for the second straight season. He whiffed on fewer pitches and swung at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone. He hit for the cycle. He hit tape-measure home runs. He did it all.

More than anything, he did the impossible by better one of the greatest seasons in recent memory. He became a more complete offensive player as well as transitioning into his future as a big-time power hitter. All during his age-21 season. He is the best player in baseball. There is little room for doubt after his unbelievable 2013.

He secured national endorsement deals and, in an era of rising contracts, became the hottest commodity in baseball. He will soon become highest player in baseball, staring at a pay day that could dwarf the then-record deal signed by Alex Rodriguez after the 2000 season. This was the year he grew from just another player to a generational talent.

Mike Trout, theScore’s breakout performer of 2013.