Breakout seasons are one of the most enjoyable parts of being a sports fan. The intelligent number-crunchers can do all the pre-season analysis and predictions they can, but unforeseen breakout years can significantly alter the landscape of on-field results.
According to R.J. Anderson at Fangraphs, the most inexplicable breakout performance in all of MLB in 2010 came from a Colorado Rockie:
Of all the surprising stories this season, Matt Belisle's rise to prominence takes the cake for least expected.
With apologies to Carlos Gonzalez and Ubaldo Jimenez, that means Matt Belisle has to take the title as the biggest breakout performance in purple pinstripes last season. Gonzalez and Jimenez each had appeared on Top 100 prospect lists and had notable success leading a playoff team in 2009. Belisle, on the other hand, showed very little on paper to suggest he was capable of this type of breakout performance.
Belisle had recorded a career ERA of 5.10 (!!) through 372.2 career innings prior to 2010, and any success from a 30-year-old with those statistics would figure to be a happy short-term coincidence. As the season wore on, the right hander's Cinderella dominance on the mound proved to be anything but a fluke. By season's end, the 1998 second round pick of the Atlanta Braves was one of baseball's top relief pitchers.
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While Belisle had always had success avoiding walks, he had never struck out more than 6.39 batters per nine innings. That vaulted to nearly a batter per inning. He also had a HR/FB rate that was better than MLB average for the first time in his seven-year career.
He was utilized as a long-reliever, set-up man, mop-up reliever and standard middle reliever. He pitched in close games and blow outs, with the lead and trailing games. And he shined in every role.
Who could have possibly predicted a surprise season from Matthew Thomas Belisle?
Your trusty friends at Purple Row, naturally. Believe in us. When the Belisle signing was reported on Purple Row on January 14, 2009, Scott Podsednik was mentioned four times, his wife once, Edwin Bellorin once, and....hey look at this: Michael Young for 23 comments. Huh. At the time, Purple Row's staff consisted solely of Russ and Rox Girl, but a future staff member stood alone as the only one who felt the Belisle signing was worth digital ink:
If Belisle's never asked to start, that's a good signing. FIP indicates he was much better than his 7+ ERA. The defense in Cinci is ugly, so that would make sense. Plus, he's a got a solid 2.18 GB/FB ratio.
The author of those comments was deacs, the newest addition to the Purple Row staff. Good hire, Mr. Martin.
After struggling to begin 2009, Belisle was sent down to AAA, resurfacing at the end of August. He then posted a 1.42 ERA in 12.2 innings in September and October, striking out ten and walking zero. Solo home runs by Casey McGehee and Ryan Roberts were the only runs tagged on Belisle after September 1 that season. SSS and all, but quite solid.
Jim Tracy seemed to buy in to the brand new Belisle, as the former Cincinnati Red was used to protect a 5-3 7th inning lead in Game 2 of the NLDS. From AAA filler to high leverage playoff piece in one month. As foreshadowing of his use in 2010, Belisle relieved Jason Hammel in Game 3 in the fourth inning.
In that playoff series, Belisle faced seven batters, striking out two, walking one and allowing zero hits and zero runs. Something had changed with Belisle in AAA, and the Rockies knew it. He signed a guaranteed MLB contract worth $850k early in the offseason, on November 5, 2009. The faith Jim Tracy and Dan O'Dowd publicly (yet passively) showed towards Belisle could have been an indicator that Matt Belisle was a different pitcher than he had been the rest of his career. Rene Lachemann and/or Bob Apodaca found something.
That changed pitcher returned in 2010 in Spring Training. He faced 32 batters, retiring 27 of them, allowing three hits, walking one, hitting a batter and striking out five. Piecing together his September and partial March, I tabbed Belisle as a surprise candidate for 2010 prior to the regular season:
That pushes (Matt) Reynolds out of the mix...It doesn't mean we can't have a nice surprise in the bullpen. Matt Belisle showed up last September as a different pitcher than we knew, so much so that he was Jim Tracy's 7th inning reliever in the only game we won in the NLDS. He has always had talent - he was a 2nd round pick and earned one of the largest signing bonuses in Braves history. He has the stuff and he seems to finally feel comfortable with it.
Did either deacs or I predict that kind of dominant season? No. Neither of us are comfortable with predicting jaw-dropping breakouts. We leave that for Rox Girl. But while Belisle's season shocked the writers at Fangraphs, Purple Row wasn't so surprised.
Matt Belisle owns the third highest signing bonus in Atlanta Braves history for a draft pick at $1.75mil, behind Mike Minor (2009-$2.42mil) and Jeff Francouer (2002-$2.2mil). He was drafted in 1998, and that remains the richest year of Belisle's professional career. Nearly thirteen years later, he can finally wash away that disappointing designation, as the Rockies will be paying him $2.35million in 2011, a one-year deal inked on January 11 that avoided arbitration for the right-hander.
After being Jim Tracy's favorite arm in the pen in 2010, very reasonable concerns abound that Belisle will regress heavily in 2011. Some of that includes doubts that his 2010 season was a complete fluke, which I naturally disagree with. But after that workload, it is highly doubtful his arm will return completely to form.
Fortunately, the Rockies' front office is an intelligent one. Belisle's required workload will get cut organically with a healthy Huston Street and Rafael Betancourt - Street missed 74 games in 2010, and while Betancourt missed just four games, his early season illness limited his usage. Dan O'Dowd could have counted on their improved health to shoulder the burden of a required cut into Belisle's innings.
Instead, O'Dowd aggressively pursued relievers this offseason, coming home with former Marlin and Astro closer Matt Lindstrom. Belisle figures to split the seventh inning with Lindstrom (and perhaps Matt Reynolds), helping to shelter him from overuse. With a smaller burden on Belisle's arm, he figures to once again be a valuable member of the Rockies' bullpen.