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Breakouts maximizing power to stay excellent

These three men have been MVP candidates for two years now, but they're doing things differently in 2014 by deriving their prosperity from more power (or the lack thereof).

Gomez, Darvish, and Donaldson are still spectacular, but now they have better power.
Gomez, Darvish, and Donaldson are still spectacular, but now they have better power.
Gomez: Tom Lynn; Darvish: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports; Donaldson: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, a few new players will burst onto the scene. Sometimes, they're former top prospects who haven't developed as rapidly as their teams had hoped; sometimes, they're big-money international free agents who just took a little while to adjust; and sometimes, they're guys who come out of nowhere. Their profiles might differ, but they all share a common drive for success and, more importantly, the knowledge that evolution is the key to preserving it.

In 2013, three players — Carlos Gomez, Yu Darvish, and Josh Donaldson, each fitting the aforementioned backstories, respectively — broke out, with top-10 WARs that surprised many. So far in 2014, each is still in the top 10; however, that doesn't mean they've remained static. No, each player has changed their power output for the better, which has compensated for declines in other areas.

First, let's look at Gomez. After the Mets signed him as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic, he played phenomenally well in the minors before being sent to Minnesota in the Johan Santana trade. There, he struggled for a few years until the Twins flipped him to the Brewers in exchange for J.J. Hardy. In 2013, he finally realized his potential, with an 8.9-WAR season that made him the fifth-most valuable position player in the major leagues. In 2014, his overall production has decreased marginally; his 2.6 WAR ranks him sixth among position players.

Massive improvements on offense elevated him to elite status last year — his 130 wRC+ blew his career 79 wRC+ out of the water. His plate discipline was as awful as it had ever been (he posted walk and strikeout rates of 6.3% and 24.7%, respectively), so that didn't play a role in the offensive outburst. Instead, we can attribute his change to power: His .222 ISO in 2013, which overshadowed his prior ISO of .133, was the 17th-best in the majors.

If a 130 wRC+ sounds impressive, then Gomez's 172 wRC+ in 2014 will really blow your mind. So far, he's been hitting the snot out of the ball; in addition to a .404 BABIP (supported by a 25.2% line drive rate), his ISO has surged to .271, good enough for ninth in all of baseball. He's putting the ball in the air more often this year — his 42.0% fly ball rate represents a significant improvement over 2013's 38.3% mark — and he's hitting it further when he does, with his average fly ball distance of 304.8 ft. besting last year's 289.1-foot mark by a wide margin.

This clout couldn't have come at a better time, because Gomez's fielding has dropped off precipitously this year. When Gomez demolished the league in 2013, he did so with a balanced approach; supporting his 26.3 runs of offense with 26.5 runs of defense, he came at opponents from all angles. In 2014, he's become one-dimensional: While the heightened power and BABIP have made him a 17.6-run hitter (the sixth-best mark in the majors), he's suddenly a 0.3-run fielder (a decidedly more mediocre 78th in the majors). His -2.7 UZR/150 is easily the lowest mark of his career — his next-worst was 5.1 in 2010.

His newfound incompetence with the glove notwithstanding, Gomez is still one of the best players in baseball, primarily because he's reached the upper echelon of power. Opposing Gomez's exceptional power is Darvish, who has continued to pitch like a god, thanks to less power allowed.

Following the 2011 season, Texas signed Darvish to a five-year, $50 million contract out of Japan. He proceeded to post respectable numbers in his first season in the U.S., albeit with more-than-respectable peripherals. Although his 3.29 FIP in 191.1 innings hinted at the potential for greatness, his 3.90 ERA forced him to settle for 3.5 RA9-WAR (which was still the 28th-best figure in baseball). 2013 saw him transform into a true ace, as his 2.83 ERA in 209.2 innings pitched gave him 6.7 RA9-WAR, earning him third place among qualified pitchers.

Generally, it isn't good for a pitcher if batters hit for a lot of power off him — after all, extra-base hits will usually lead to more runs, which pitchers don't want to give up. By extension, if a pitcher's ISO against jumps from .126 one year to .140 the next year, it should be safe to assume that the pitcher's performance overall declined in Year 2. This wasn't the case with Darvish, as the above WAR numbers prove.

Unlike Gomez, Darvish didn't succeed because of power, but in spite of it. While hitters did tee off against him a bit more, they also struck out 32.9% (!) of the time, which tends to compensate for any gains in power. Moreover, he limited free passes, to some extent—9.5% BB%, down from 10.9% the year prior. This added up to be a good recipe for success for him; this year, he's switched up the ingredients a bit.

If anything, Darvish has pitched better this season than last; his 2.4 RA9-WAR thus far ranks eighth in the major leagues, even though he's only thrown 61.1 innings. One might not come to this conclusion by looking at his peripherals, as they're generally worse than last season. He's become less grounder-friendly this year; in 2013, he induced ground balls 41.0% of the time, but now, he's down to 34.6% in that regard. Coupled with an inevitable decline in strikeouts (down to "only" 28.4%), Darvish's production as a whole might have deteriorated this year, if it weren't for power.

In 2014, Darvish has lowered his ISO to .101, good enough for 16th in the majors. Compare that to last year's .140 mark, which was 45th among qualified pitchers, and it's not hard to deduce how he's sustained his hegemony. This is mainly due to a lower HR/FB%: Last year, 14.4% of the fly balls hit off Darvish left the yard; this year, that number's all the way down to 4.4%. Should he maintain this pace, the strikeout and grounder depreciations shouldn't affect his overall output, meaning he'll stay elite.

Moving back to position players, we see that Donaldson hasn't relented in his abuse of pitchers. He's an even better hitter than last year, despite regression in a few offensive categories, and you'll never guess the reason: power.

Unlike Gomez and Darvish, Donaldson was never highly touted before his arrival to the show. The Cubs drafted him in 2007, then shipped him (and other prospects) to Oakland in the Rich Harden trade. Once in the Bay Area, he flew under the radar for a few years, culminating in 1.5 WAR in limited action in 2012. Then came 2013, wherein he accrued 8.0 WAR — the third-most in all of baseball.

Donaldson's breakout was similar to Gomez's in that he achieved it with the bat and the glove: Donaldson compiled 37.3 runs of offense to go along with 12.1 runs of defense. The former number came as the result of superb plate discipline (he walked in 11.4% of his PAs and struck out in 16.5%) and a solid .333 BABIP, and the latter number came as the result of, well, exceptional fielding.

The good for Donaldson in 2014: He's still catching everything — he's now 7.4 runs above average in the field, which is the seventh-best mark in baseball. The bad news: His BABIP has deflated to .299, and while he's taking more bases on balls (12.8%), he's striking out more often (19.7%) as well. So why has his wRC+ increased from 148 last year to 152 this year? An ISO uptick to .252 (13th in MLB) probably has something to do with it.

Donaldson's fly balls are traveling 291.9 feet, as opposed to 288.9 feet in 2013, so he's not hitting the ball that much harder. However, his fly ball rate has spiked to 43.8%, while his infield fly ball rate has plummeted to 5.7%. In other words, this is a case of quantity over quality; while he has yet to make any notable improvements in hitting, he has put the ball in the air more often, and that's made the difference.

In sports, as in life, change is inherent, and correctly so — if everything stayed the same, we'd get bored quickly. For players in the greatest baseball league in the world, adjustments and alterations come with the territory. Gomez, Darvish, and Donaldson have refuted any notions of one-hit-wonderdom that observers might have held regarding them, and they've done it via power. Perhaps the new stars of this season — Dallas Keuchel, Seth Smith, Todd Frazier, and others — will learn from their predecessors, and will undertake similar actions to remain ahead of the curve.

. . .

All data courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Heat Maps, as of Thursday, May 29th, 2014.

Ryan Romano is a featured contributor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Birds Watcher and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports and live tweeting about Veep, Sundays at 10:30/9:30c on HBO. Boldly running for president. Proudly standing for everything.