Biggest Surprises from Early in the MLB Season
If we've learned anything over the first two weeks of MLB's regular season, it's this: Being the best team or player on paper means absolutely nothing.
You can crunch and twist the numbers however you like, but the results on the field don't lie, and those results run the gamut from expected to surprising—from pleasant to downright miserable.
It's a long season, and early successes or struggles don't necessarily mean that a player or team will be in the same situation six weeks from now, much less six months from now when the regular season comes to an end.
But that doesn't mean we should completely ignore what's transpired early on.
Here's a look at some of the biggest surprises in baseball thus far.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
Aging Stars Producing in the Bronx
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With half of the team's starting position players on the disabled list, names like Travis Hafner, Vernon Wells and Kevin Youkilis filled out manager Joe Girardi's lineup card on Opening Day for the New York Yankees.
Yankees haters and baseball fans alike chuckled at the Evil Empire's fortune, and with good reason, considering the numbers that the trio, with a combined 37 years in the major leagues, put up in 2012:
Thus far in 2013, the trio has performed beyond expectations, hitting a combined .337 (35-for-104) with eight home runs and 19 RBI while crossing home plate 21 times.
Youkilis leads the team in batting average and OPS and ties with Robinson Cano for the lead in hits (14) and Hafner in RBI. Hafner and Wells tie for the lead in home runs, while Pronk's eight runs lead the Bronx Bombers.
It was Youk's quick thinking against the Baltimore Orioles that allowed the Yankees to turn the team's first triple play in 45 years, setting a bit of MLB history in the process:
Considering how injuries have decimated the team, that the Yankees have played .500 baseball is impressive. Without the contributions from this veteran trio, those results could be much, much worse.
Angels Without Wings
Los Angeles' foursome hasn't been so fearsome in 2013.
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How bad have things gotten in Los Angeles?
A lineup that features Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo and Josh Hamilton got shut out by Bud Norris and the Houston Astros, with the group going a combined 2-for-14 with two walks and three strikeouts.
The Angels have looked flat, unable to generate the kind of offensive performance the team expected after the addition of Hamilton's bat to the middle of the lineup. With 40 runs scored on the season, the Angels are tied with the Minnesota Twins for 21st in baseball.
Without Jered Weaver for at least the next month as he recovers from a fractured elbow on his non-pitching arm, an already under-performing rotation needs to step up its performance for the Angels to climb back to .500 and into the playoff race.
C.J. Wilson, Tommy Hanson, Jason Vargas and even Joe Blanton are capable of delivering solid performances on the mound—but they've yet to do so in 2013.
Angels starters have pitched to a 5.98 ERA and a 1.59 WHIP, making the bullpen's 4.06 ERA and 1.27 WHIP look Cy Young-esque in comparison.
Clay Buchholz looks the part of a Cy Young contender in 2013.
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With the American League's second-lowest ERA (3.03) and a WHIP (1.23) good enough to be one of the five lowest in the AL, Boston's pitching staff has been better than advertised so far in 2013.
The starting rotation has been solid, with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz both pitching like Cy Young contenders. The rotation has pitched to a combined 2.35 ERA, the fourth-lowest in baseball and the best mark in the American League.
While the bullpen hasn't been nearly as impressive, pitching to a 4.26 ERA, that number is grossly inflated by the ineffectiveness of closer Joel Hanrahan. He has allowed six earned runs over his last three appearances and reportedly has dealt with a sore leg, which may be the root cause of his issues.
But take a look at the numbers posted by the rest of the bullpen:
That works out to a 1.59 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP for the rest of Boston's relievers—not too shabby.
Considering how poorly the pitching staff as a whole performed in 2012, things couldn't have started much better than they have in 2013.
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I've got some bad news for fans of the Baltimore Orioles: Chris Davis has slowed down since we looked at the ridiculous stats he was on pace for after the season's first week.
No longer is the slugger looking at a season with 92 home runs and 393 RBI; Orioles fans will have to settle for a measly 88 home runs and 279 RBI.
I kid, of course, because there's no possible way that Davis (or anyone for that matter) will reach those absurd totals at the end of the season. That doesn't make the 27-year-old first baseman's start to the 2013 season any less surprising or historic:
Chris Davis has 19 RBI in the O's 1st 9 games, the most RBI through 9 team games by any player in the Live Ball Era (since 1920)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 12, 2013
Think about that for a second. Chris Davis has done something that iconic figures of the game like Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Willie Mays never accomplished during their careers.
If that doesn't surprise you, nothing will.
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Through the first 11 games of the 2013 season, New York's John Buck has driven in as many runs (19) as the Miami Marlins have scored.
Buck's torrid start has earned him a place in the annals of baseball history:
FACT: #Mets C John Buck has 6 HR in '13. Ties Gabby Hartnett ('25) & Sandy Alomar Jr ('97) for most HR by catcher in 1st 10 games of season.— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) April 13, 2013
Not ridiculous enough of a fact for you? Try this one on for size, from ESPN's Mark Simon (applicable to the aforementioned Chris Davis as well):
Not bad for a guy whom most expected to serve as the primary backup for prospect Travis d'Arnaud in Flushing this season.
What's the secret to Buck's early-season success? It could be what he's wrapping his bats in, pointed out by Jay Horowitz, longtime director of media relations for the Mets:
John Buck has been using lizard skin on his bats for a firmer grip in the cold. Today,most of the Mets joined him twitter.com/Jay_HorwitzPR/…— Jay Horwitz (@Jay_HorwitzPR) April 13, 2013
If Buck keeps playing at an incredibly high level, it won't be long before there's a run on lizard skin around baseball.
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Fact: A pair of pitchers, Los Angeles' Clayton Kershaw and Washington's Gio Gonzalez, each with a solo home run, have been more productive run-producers in 2013 than Miami's Giancarlo Stanton and Chicago's Alfonso Soriano.
The sluggers combined to hit 69 home runs and drive in 194 runs in 2012 but have yet to produce a single run for their respective teams in 2013.
Most experts and prognosticators believed that both sluggers would see a dip in production this year for different reasons: Soriano is 37, while the 23-year-old Stanton is the only legitimate major league player on a Miami squad decimated by owner Jeffrey Loria's latest fire sale.
But even the most pessimistic among us couldn't have predicted that things would start off in 2013 as badly as they have for the pair.
While it's only a matter of time before they both start to produce, it doesn't make their slow start any less surprising.
Carl Crawford Is Healthy and Productive
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Having played in a total of 161 games in 2011 and 2012, it was fair to question whether Carl Crawford could stay healthy enough to contribute anything of value to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013.
So far, so good.
Through the first 11 games of the season, Crawford leads the National League in batting average (.410), stands tied with New York's Daniel Murphy for the league lead in hits (16) and is among the league leaders in on-base percentage (.465), OPS (1.081) and runs scored (11).
If Crawford can stay healthy and productive atop the Dodgers lineup, the blockbuster trade that bought him to Los Angeles (and left more than a fair share of people scratching their heads in bewilderment) won't look nearly as risky as it originally did.
Milwaukee's Inability to Score Runs
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Losing Corey Hart to knee surgery before the season began was a blow for sure, but most expected Milwaukee's lineup, one that features perennial All-Stars Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez, to hold its own without its first baseman in the fold.
Milwaukee's offense put 776 runs on the board in 2012, more than any other National League team and third-most in all of baseball, an average of nearly five runs per game.
So far in 2013, the Brewers have scored 32 runs, a number that ranks 28th in baseball, ahead of only the Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins.
Not even the most pessimistic Brewers fan expected the team to struggle offensively.
Six games under .500 and the only tenant in the basement of the NL Central, Milwaukee needs its bats to wake up quickly if the team is to get back on track and return to the postseason after missing out in 2012.
Toronto's Improved Starting Rotation?
Mark Buehrle and company have struggled badly.
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While the additions of Emilio Bonifacio, Melky Cabrera and Jose Reyes to Toronto's lineup played a part, it was the Blue Jays' revamped starting rotation that had people doing back flips this winter and anointing the team the cream of the crop in the AL East.
A trio of front-end starting pitchers—Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey and Josh Johnson—were supposed to bring stability and quality starts to a rotation decimated by injury in 2012 and among the worst in baseball, and rightfully so.
So far, though, we've yet to see the trio perform to even the lowest of expectations.
While you could expect an adjustment period with the trio making the jump from the National League to the American League (despite Buehrle having spent the bulk of his career in the AL), the trio's inability to give the Blue Jays quality outings thus far has been a major shock.
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Analysts expected Atlanta to be one of the better teams in baseball and a legitimate contender in the National League this season, especially with the addition of the Upton brothers, B.J. and Justin, to the team's outfield this past winter.
Nobody expected the Braves to be quite this good, however.
Atlanta has jumped out to a 10-1 start, giving the team the best record in baseball and an early three-game lead in the NL East. MLB.com's Mark Bowman notes that it's been nearly 20 years since the Braves started a season like this:
Kimbrel finishes a 3-1 win with a perfect ninth.The #Braves have won eight straight and are 10-1 for the first time since 1994.— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) April 13, 2013
It's not as if the Braves pound teams into submission, as their 53 runs scored on the season ranks 10th in baseball. But the team ties with Oakland for the biggest run differential thus far at plus-30, due largely in part to the performance of the pitching staff.
From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's David O'Brien:
The starting rotation hasn't been too shabby either, with a 2.30 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP, despite Julio Teheran sitting with marks of 7.36 and 1.64, respectively.
Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm, Kris Medlen and Mike Minor have pitched to a combined 1.29 ERA and 0.98 WHIP, striking out 41 batters in 55.2 innings of work.
While Atlanta's pitching will hit some bumps along the way, there's no disputing that the group is one of the best that you'll find in baseball—and they will make the Braves a tough team to beat on a daily basis.