December 24, 2011 Leave a comment
Every year there is a group of athletes that have break-out performance. Some were previous disappointments who found their way. Some were no names who put themselves on the map. You thought some of them were pretty good but it turned out they were really good. Some just have a great story. Here are 11 athletes who broke out in 2011:
Jacoby Ellsbury, Center Fielder, Boston Red Sox – Ellsbury went from goat to hero in the span of two seasons. After coming up from the minors and helping the Sox win a World Series in 2007 Red Sox fans have been patiently waiting for Ellsbury to become the star player he was expected to be. It reached a breaking point in 2010 when he was moved from center to left field in favor of free agent pick-up Mike Cameron. When injuries held Ellsbury to only 18 games fans and the media wondered if he was really too injured to play. Even some of his own teammates question why he wasn’t rehabbing with the team. When Ellsbury bounced back in 2011 even his biggest supporters couldn’t predict what he would accomplish. He posted a line of .321/.376/.928, all career highs. He hit 32 home runs, 21 over his previous career high of 9 and 105 RBI, 55 more than his previous career high of 60. He also added 39 stolen bases and a Gold Glove. Will Ellsbury continue this torrid pace? Maybe not but remember one thing – he’s got three more years of arbitration and Scott Boras is his agent. I’m thinking that the production doesn’t dip too much.
Alex Gordon, Left Fielder, Kansas City Royals – Gordon was supposed to be the center piece of the Royals’ re-build when he was drafted 2nd overall in the 2005 MLB draft. Things didn’t turn out that way. After a disappointing rookie season in 2007 Gordon was either too hurt or too ineffective to stick with the major league roster for a full season. The natural third baseman also became a man without a position after the Royals started moving him around the diamond, from shortstop to first base, to the outfield and back. Gordon entered spring training in 2010 and 2011 on the roster bubble. He seemed like he’d be another high rated pick that couldn’t get it done in the small market and would need a change of scenery if he wanted a chance to succeed. Manager Ned Yost decided to give that change of scenery to Gordon himself by declaring Alex Gordon his starting left fielder for the 2011 season and Gordon rewarded Yost’s faith with his best season yet. He had a .303/.376/.879 line, all career highs (his previous high in batting average was .260). His 23 home runs were 7 better than his previous best of 16 and his 87 RBI were 27 better than his previous career best of 60. Like Ellsbury, Gordon was also awarded a Gold Glove for his prowess in the field. Will the Royals ever complete their perpetual rebuild? If they do one thing is for sure – Alex Gordon will be playing left field for the Kansas City Royals.
Jimmy Graham, Tight End, New Orleans Saints – Jimmy Graham’s mother left him at a foster home when he was 11 years old. Since then he went to the University of Miami to play basketball, got a degree with a double major in marketing and management, joined the football team in his fifth year in school while he was taking post-grad classes, was drafted to the NFL and became the favorite target of one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Who says that the system is broken? When he knew that he wasn’t going to make the NBA he just decided to play football in his extra year of eligibility. He only caught 17 passes in his year playing with the Hurricanes but 5 of them were for touchdowns. The New Orleans Saints made him the 95th pick in the 2010 NFL draft. He would play behind former Hurricane stand-out tight end Jeremy Shockey. In his rookie year he caught 31 balls from All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees, including 5 touchdowns and a paltry 11.5 average yards per reception. In the off season Shockey was traded to the Carolina Panthers and Graham was promoted to the starting lineup. Through 14 games in 2011 only Wes Welker has more receptions than him. He already has 87 receptions for a whooping 1,171 yards and 9 touchdowns. He still has two more games to add on that total. He’s been a huge part in Drew Brees attempting to break Dan Marino’s long standing yards in a season record. He’s only in his 2nd year. Graham looks like he’s going to stick around in New Orleans for a long time coming. It’s not too bad for a guy who just decided one day to play some football.
Robert Griffin III, Quarterback, Baylor Bears – Life is good for the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner. Why wouldn’t it be? When people keep their expectations low it’s not hard to exceed them, especially if you are Griffin. His Baylor Bear football team wasn’t expected to do much this year. Ask TCU, Oklahoma, and Texas (all ranked teams that Baylor defeated) how much they’ve done this year. When Heisman time came all of the talk leading up was about Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and Alabama running back Trent Richardson. In swooped Griffin on the last week of the season and put on a big performance against the Texas Longhorns to win the Heisman trophy. Not only was he the first Baylor Bear to win it, he was the first to ever be nominated. Griffin’s life is much different from Graham’s. Griffin was born in Okinawa, Japan in 1990 to Sergeants Robert and Jacqueline Griffin, both of the U.S. Army. He bounced around the world until his family finally settled in Texas when he was 8 years old. That led him to Baylor University where he helped turn a perennial also-ran into the #12 team in the country by the end of his junior season, which is his 4th at Baylor. Griffin can graduate now and leave for the NFL or he can come back for one more year and try to make Baylor football even better. One thing is for sure – the future is bright for RG3.
Ian Kennedy, Pitcher, Arizona Diamondbacks – The New York Yankees had high hopes for Ian Kennedy when they drafted him 21st overall in the 1st round of the 2006 draft. Kennedy made his Yankees debut in September of 2007. He bounced up and down and on and off the disabled list for between 2007-2009. His injuries ranged from a strained lat to bursitis to an aneurysm in his armpit. The Yankees decided it would be better to use him as a trade chip then count on him for the future of their starting rotation and shipped him away to Arizona in a three team trade to acquire center fielder Curtis Granderson. Kennedy, finally healthy, made 32 starts for a horrible D-Backs in 2010 and had a 9-10 record with a 3.80 ERA. For that mediocre performance Kennedy was rewarded by being named the opening day starter for the Diamondbacks in 2011. 2011 was a much different year for Kennedy and the D-Backs. He finished with a 21-4 record and a 2.88 ERA in 33 starts. He struck out 198 batters in 222 innings pitched, 30 more than the high of 168 that he set the year before. He didn’t make the All-Star team and he only finished fourth in the National League Cy Young voting but Kennedy led the Diamondbacks to a worst to first place finish. Kennedy pitched for the D-Backs in their first post-season since 2007. They lost to the Brewers but Kennedy had established himself as the ace of the staff for Kirk Gibson and an up-and-coming Arizona Diamondback team.
Clayton Kershaw, Pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers – You’ve got to hand it to Clayton Kershaw. While a historic franchise was imploding around him Kershaw kept his cool and gave the Dodgers faithful a unanimous Cy Young winning season. Kershaw was another one of these players that the fan base always had high expectations, maybe too high, and even modest results were met with disappointment. His best record coming in to 2011 was his 13-10 record in 2010. The Dodgers fan base expected more out of Kershaw so that is exactly what he gave to them in 2011. While the owner of the Dodgers was losing his shirt (and his baseball team) in a divorce the Dodgers became a side show. Kershaw did not. By the end of the season Kershaw had amassed a 21-5 record with a 2.28 ERA and 248 strikeouts. His 21 wins, 2.28 ERA and 248 K’s earned him the pitcher’s triple crown. By time the 2012 season rolls around the Dodgers will be in a more stable state. The MLB took over the team during the season and they will likely have new owners in charge by early next year and they will need to pick up the pieces of the mess left by the previous regime. The new owners will have a pair of centerpieces to build around – outfielder Matt Kemp and Kershaw, who finally became the ace that the Dodgers fans have been waiting for him to become since he first broke into the big leagues back in 2008.
Kevin Love, Forward, Minnesota Timberwolves – Kevin Love was the #5 pick in the 2008 NBA draft by the Memphis Grizzlies and was promptly traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a multi-player draft day deal. He would be part of the rebuilding process after the T-Wolves had traded Kevin Garnett to the Boston Celtics in the previous off-season. He was blocked, however, by Al Jefferson who was the centerpiece of the Garnett trade. He played modest minutes in his first two seasons in Minnesota, putting up solid but unspectacular numbers. Jefferson was traded to the Nets before the 2010-2011 season and Love was primed for a bigger role with the Timberwolves. He started 73 games last season, more than the 59 that he started i his first two seasons combined. His numbers enjoyed an strong uptick as well. He went from 14.0 points per game to 20.2, from 11.o rebounds per game to 15.2, and from 28.6 minutes per game to 35.8. He also improved his field goal and free throw percentages (45% to 47% FG, 81% to 85% FT). Love posted the first 30/30 game in the NBA in 28 years when he scored 31 points and grabbed 31 rebounds in a game against the Knicks. The Timberwolves only won 17 games and were the worst team in the league for the 2nd year in a row but they have Love, who was a Western Conference all-star last year as well as the 2011 most improved player in the NBA. If he can continue to develop into one of the marquee players in the league he might get the Timberwolves out of the lottery before you know it.
Brad Marchand, Winger, Boston Bruins – Marchand is the Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Bruins. Listed at 5’9″ and 183 lbs. Marchand may not be the biggest or strongest player but he makes up for it with heart, toughness, and a little ego. Marchand has been a pain in the ass for opponents (especially the opposing goalies) since he broke into the league in 2009. After not scoring a goal in 20 games during his time with the Bruins in the 2009-2010 season he broke out last season with 21 goals and 41 total points for the Bruins in 77 games during the 2010-2011 season. He took his game to another level in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs when he had 11 goals and 8 assists in the 25 game run to the Stanley Cup championship. The diminutive young star quickly became a fan favorite among the Bruins faithful with his mix of speed and finesse to go along with his little tough guy antics on the ice. Marchand came back and picked up right where he left off in the 2011 portion of the 2011-2012 season. He has scored 15 goals and 29 total points for the Bruins in the first 33 games of their Stanley Cup-defending season, including a hat trick just last night. Marchand is one of the cornerstones of a Boston Bruins team that looks to be a Cup contender for many years to come. The opposing fans are sure to love to hate Brad Marchand for many years to come and Marchand and the Bruins faithful wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jason Pierre-Paul, Defensive End, New York Giants – Jason Pierre-Paul was a stand-out basketball player in high school. The school’s football coach tried to recruit him to play football and Pierre-Paul casually brushed him off. The coach then started to wait for him after basketball practice by sitting on the hood of his car until he finally agreed to play football. Pierre-Paul is probably happy that the coach had been so insistent on him playing football. After playing a year each at College of the Canyons and Fort Scott Community College Pierre-Paul was recruited to play at the University of South Florida. The son of Haitian immigrants only played one season at USF before declaring for the NFL draft. He was drafted 15th overall by the New York Giants at the 2010 NFL draft. He had little previous training but was going into a situation were he would be mentored by guys like Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. After a decent rookie season with modest playing time Pierre-Paul has blown up for the Giants in 2011. He has 13.5 sacks including 1 for a safety, 2 forced fumbles and 6 passes defensed to go with 59 tackles in his sophomore season. Pierre-Paul looks to be next in a long line of impressive pass rushers to don the New York Giants uniform. He’s only two years into his career and he’s got plenty of time to create a resume that matches the likes of Lawrence Taylor and Michael Strahan. He is off to a pretty good start.
P.K. Subban, Defenseman, Montreal Canadiens – Speaking of hockey players that opposing fan bases love to hate, Subban has earned quite the reputation of loathe among fans of the Canadiens’ fiercest rivals. He broke into the NHL with the Canadiens in February of 2010 and has only gotten better as he has gained experience. His personality is what makes Canadien fans love him and opposing teams hate him. He’s rough and loud on the ice and his celebrations, such as his trademark arrrow show, make him one of the most hated men on the ice. He’s a productive player too. He scored 14 goals and had 24 assists in his first full season in the NFL last season. He also added 2 points and 2 assists in his first NHL post-season action in the first round series against the Bruins. On March 20, 2011 Subban became the first rookie defenseman in Canadien history to have a hat trick in a game. Subban has only scored 2 goals so far during the 2011 season but has already recorded 12 assists in 35 games. He’s the stabilizing force in the back end of the Canadiens’ defense and at only 22 years old looks to be an integral part of the Canadiens success for a long time.
Russell Westbrook, Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder – Westbrook was the 4th overall pick of the Seattle Supersonics in the 2008 NBA draft out of UCLA. The Supersonics were subsequently sold and moved to Oklahoma City where he would have to join Kevin Durant as the centerpiece for the new franchise, the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder disappointed in 2009-2010 but made a huge turn-around in 2010-2011 thanks to the maturation of Westbrook. The Thunder went 50-32 for the season and made the playoffs, making it all the way to the Western Conference finals. Westbrook averaged 21.9 points in 2010-2011, up from his previous high of 16.1 the year prior. He also improved his free throw % from 78% to 84% over the course of the last two seasons. If that wasn’t enough Westbrook averaged 23.8 points per game during the Thunder’s deep playoff run last season. With Kevin Durant dominating up front Westbrook looks to lead the Oklahoma City back court that may be the team to beat in the West.