Following one of his least productive major league seasons, John Buck has helped carry the New York Mets.
Early on in 2013, we're being treated to shocking individual turnarounds across Major League Baseball. Those of us who thought John Buck and Vernon Wells were on the decline have been eating crow.
Even under-30 players like Patrick Corbin and Chris Johnson have caught the sport off guard by performing above their perceived potential.
The following guys underachieved last season, but seem reinvigorated thus far.
*Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, up to date as of April 26.
Jorge De La Rosa.
Kevin Correia (Minnesota Twins)
He signed a two-year, $10 million deal in December. Across the baseball world, there was a consensus that Minnesota overpaid.
In nine short months, Correia has progressed from whiny long man (via Rob Biertempfel, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review) to serviceable American League starter. The .659 OPS against him is lower than it's ever been, and a 3.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio deserves praise.
Jorge De La Rosa (Colorado Rockies)
Setbacks during De La Rosa's recovery from Tommy John surgery delayed his 2012 debut until the third week of September. Then, the former rotation leader pitched poorly in his only three starts (0-2, 9.28 ERA, 1.78 WHIP).
Despite limited appearances against major league hitters in spring training, the early regular-season results are impressive. De La Rosa will carry a 2.86 earned run average into his final April outing.
Then again, all but one of his assignments have been away from the high altitude and high-scoring conditions of Coors Field.
Ervin Santana (Kansas City Royals)
Unheralded reserves (like Trayvon Robinson), reputable sluggers (including Prince Fielder) and everybody in between teed off against the right-hander one summer ago. Santana gave up 39 total home runs and the Los Angeles Angels had no choice but to dump his salary.
He was previously effective, with WAR values of 3.0 or better in 2008, 2010 and 2011 (via Baseball-Reference.com), though this sort of rebound puts him on pace for a career year.
After five starts, he's a top-10 AL pitcher in terms of IP (36.0), ERA (2.00) and WHIP (1.00)
Clay Buchholz began his sixth major league season in absolutely awful fashion. He allowed five runs or more in each of his first six starts for an atrocious 9.09 earned run average. A 3-1 record in that span proves once and for all that individual win-loss records are meaningless.
But anyway, he salvaged the final three months upon returning from intestinal bleeding. Nonetheless, he surrendered 25 total home runs and finished with the lowest strikeout rate of his career.
The Texas native is on the fast track to Queens for his second MLB All-Star Game.
Besides the fact that the Boston Red Sox have been dominant, Buchholz keeps the bullpen fresh by providing great length every five days. So far, he's averaged better than seven-and-a-half innings per performance. Opponents have combined for only one long ball against him and an anemic batting line.
Perhaps manager John Farrell deserves some credit. He served as the team's pitching coach through 2010 (Buchholz's best season) before accepting a job with the Toronto Blue Jays. There's no doubt that his familiarity with the right-hander is a positive.
Addison Reed broke camp with the Chicago White Sox and confirmed his readiness immediately. He didn't give up a run through 13 appearances. Manager Robin Ventura officially appointed him to the closer's role in late May.
There were plenty of hiccups, however, for the then-23-year-old reliever. When working in the ninth inning or later, his earned run average spiked to 5.28. He particularly fared poorly when falling behind in the count.
The White Sox could be deep in the AL Central cellar by now if not for Reed and his poise under pressure.
Half of his entrances have come in one-run games or tied situations. With only a couple of exceptions, he limits other teams to one baserunner (if anything at all).
Reed is benefiting from more whiffs and first-pitch strikes and simply a better idea of where his offerings will wind up.
The end-of-spring decision to demote Francisco Cervelli to Triple-A left the New York Yankees catcher upset and confused, according to George King of the New York Post.
It's unclear how long it took for him to come to peace with the news, but the stats suggest he never did. Cervelli's .246/.341/.316 batting line was artificially inflated by 15 HBP. An atypically high strikeout rate also deterred the Yankees from recalling him until season's end.
All in all, he saw the field on just three occasions (five innings caught).
Four defensive errors aside, the Yanks couldn't ask for anything more from the homegrown catcher. Only three of Cervelli's teammates have superior slugging percentages.
The 27-year-old also compares favorably to others who squat behind the plate. Looking at WAR values in the American League, he ranks pretty close to the top (via FanGraphs).
However, Andrew Marchand of ESPNNewYork.com reports that Cervelli won't return until June after fracturing his hand.
He spent this past summer as a sub-replacement-level player.
Infuriated by his inability to make contact in July, the New York Mets demoted him to the minors in late July. The motivational method didn't have an effect, as Lucas Duda was accused of "sulking" on the farm (via Mike Puma, New York Post). He also posted a lower OPS during the final six weeks of the regular season.
Totally different story in 2013.
The outfielder is among baseball's OBP leaders. Producing when at a platoon disadvantage isn't the struggle that it used to be, so New York confidently inserts him into the lineup for each game.
Duda remains an obvious defensive liability but has been outstanding overall.
The Colorado Rockies quietly traded Kevin Slowey to the Cleveland Indians in January, with whom he never earned a call-up.
Who knew he was even active?
Floundering in the International League (5.14 ERA, 7 HR allowed in 49.0 IP) made his prospects of securing a major league job seem bleak.
Fortunately, the depleted Miami Marlins extended an opportunity to the right-hander. He distinguished himself in spring training, but the correlation between March and April effectiveness has always been insignificant.
At this point, however, it's finally possible to trust Slowey. He made quality starts against the Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds.
Through five turns of the rotation, he and Boston Red Sox ace Jon Lester own near-identical statistics.
The Arizona Diamondbacks liked what they observed from Patrick Corbin in Cactus League play. They believed he had the potential to stick in the majors.
After a brief stretch of dominance at Double-A, they recalled him to fill in for Daniel Hudson. But mixed results led to a demotion after five starts.
He returned to the big leagues at midseason and excelled out of the bullpen (1.54 ERA in 11.2 IP). Still, Arizona was unsure if he could help as a member of its rotation.
Corbin and newly acquired Randall Delgado spent the preseason battling for the No. 5 spot. The choice became obvious in late March as Delgado struggled, while the lefty emerged as the club's strikeout leader.
That success has translated to the real games. Each of Corbin's outings have coincided with Arizona victories, and he's working efficiently (less than 15 pitches per inning). Beginning 73 percent of all plate appearances with strikes obviously helps with that.
MLB.com shows that a sub-1.00 WHIP puts this former second-round draft pick in exclusive company with the likes of Yu Darvish and Matt Harvey.
Just like the previous year, the Miami Marlins intended to use John Buck behind the plate regularly. Based on his career production, they expected a slight uptick in production.
He instead spent the summer slumping. Between May and August, his season batting average never even reached .200. Rookie Rob Brantly leapfrogged him on the depth chart upon arriving from the Detroit Tigers.
Desperate to dump salary, the Fish included him in their infamous November blockbuster with the Toronto Blue Jays. Then, he was flipped to the New York Mets several weeks later. Contrary to popular belief, the Mets requested Buck's inclusion in the R.A. Dickey trade (via Adam Rubin of ESPNNewYork.com). They valued his defensive knowledge and clubhouse presence and would've tolerated his below-average bat.
New York never dreamed that this Travis d'Arnaud stopgap could serve as the team's leading run producer.
Buck has only had one comparable stretch of brilliance during his nine previous major league seasons. It began on April 29, 2010 and carried him to an All-Star selection (h/t Baseball-Reference.com).
Chris Johnson split the season with the Houston Astros and Arizona Diamondbacks. His .281/.326/.451 batting line barely compensated for his shaky defense at third base.
He initially dominated in the desert, clubbing five home runs and 15 RBI through eight games (1.284 OPS).
But putting balls in play became an issue for much of August and September.
Just days after avoiding arbitration with a $2.29 million contract, Johnson was shipped to the Atlanta Braves in the long-awaited Justin Upton trade.
Late in spring training, manager Fredi Gonzalez decided that he would platoon with Juan Francisco at third base (via MLB.com's Mark Bowman). The 28-year-old played irregularly when the regular season opened (two starts through April 6), but then Freddie Freeman landed on the disabled list with a strained oblique. He posted gaudy numbers in Freeman's absence and has stayed atop the MLB leaderboard in batting average.
It's been surprisingly to see Johnson figure out southpaws, who gave him trouble the past couple of seasons.
With the Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff decimated by injuries, Carlos Villanueva earned a promotion from the bullpen in late June.
His first five starts were encouraging. The Blue Jays won each of them, as the right-hander consistently held the opposition to three runs or less and survived into the middle innings.
However, Villanueva's tendency to induce fly balls came back to bite him in September. His overall performance in the rotation was typical of a back-end contributor: 16 GS, 5-7, 4.50 ERA, 1.22 WHIP.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos dropped hints that he didn't fully trust the impending free agent to withstand a full season's workload (via John Lott, National Post). Sure enough, Toronto acquired pitching reinforcements through trades with the Miami Marlins and New York Mets.
Villanueva would already have multiple victories this season with an adequate bullpen behind him. Carlos Marmol, unfortunately, has twice blown save opportunities when relieving him.
Across both leagues, only the aforementioned Clay Buchholz claims a superior earned run average and larger workload.
Villanueva's 3.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio is his best since 2006, when he was a rookie with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Vernon Wells became fixated on pulling every pitch to left field. His home run rate stayed consistent, but he continued to suffer in all the triple-slash categories and lost his starting job. Defensive-minded players like Gerald Laird and Ruben Tejada were better than Wells in terms of OPS.
Anemic production combined with an inflated salary made him a punch line. The veteran outfielder also missed 10 weeks of action after tearing a ligament in his thumb.
The New York Yankees panicked to acquire Wells toward the end of spring training. They agreed to take responsibility for $13.9 million of his remaining contract, though only because preseason injuries had left the lineup depleted.
So far, the 34-year-old has silenced the naysayers. According to FanGraphs, he ranks No. 2 among all Yankees in WAR, trailing only Robinson Cano.
As the ESPN Home Run Tracker demonstrates, Wells still prefers to pull the ball.
That's what makes his turnaround so surprising. Despite staying the same in every way, he has gone from undesirable to indispensable.