MLB's Biggest Surprises of the First Quarter of the 2013 Season

Rick WeinerFeatured ColumnistMay 15, 2013

MLB's Biggest Surprises of the First Quarter of the 2013 Season

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    By the time this week's slate of games comes to an end, every team in baseball will have arrived at or passed the quarter mark of its regular-season schedule.

    That in itself is a surprising fact, as it feels like the season only started a few weeks ago.

    With roughly 25 percent of the 2013 regular season behind us, now is as good a time as any to take a look at the biggest surprises from early-season action—surprises of both the good and bad variety.

    To give some perspective on what I believe constitutes an actual surprise and what doesn't, here are some examples: John Buck having hit more home runs than Prince Fielder is surprising; Chris Davis hitting for power and driving in runs is not. None of those players appear on the pages that follow.

    With that in mind, let's take a look at which players (and teams) have forced us to stand up and take notice in 2013.

     

    *Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and current through the end of games on May 14.

The Pitching in St. Louis

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    Heading into spring training, I ranked St. Louis' rotation the 16th-best in baseball (noting it had top-10 potential) and the bullpen ninth.

    A quarter of the way through the 2013 regular season, it's clear that I got those backwards.

    There's no question that the team's rotation has been the best in all of baseball, going 23-8 with an MLB-leading 2.38 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. Were it not for Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn, tied for the highest ERA of the bunch at 2.88, those numbers would be even lower.

    Think about that for a second: The highest ERA in the group is 2.88.

    Of the 30 teams in baseball, 11 don't have a starting pitcher with an ERA that low.

    Things haven't gone nearly as well in the bullpen, with St. Louis ranking last in the National League with a 5.16 ERA, just ahead of Houston's 5.20 mark for the highest in the game.

    Outside of strong performances from Edward Mujica and Trevor Rosenthal, St. Louis relievers have been wildly ineffective, with three current members sitting with an ERA over 7.00.

    Mitchell Boggs, who has pitched to a 3.08 ERA out of the Cardinals bullpen since 2010, was so bad this season that he now finds himself trying to work out the kinks in Triple-A.

The Yankees' Resilience

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    Don't look now, but the New York Yankees are sitting atop the AL East and are tied with the Texas Rangers for the best record in the American League at 25-14.

    This wasn't supposed to happen, not with half of the Yankees' starting lineup out for the first quarter of the regular season due to injury, joined by some of the reinforcements that the team bought in to help weather the storm.

    Yet the Bronx Bombers have thrived in the face of adversity.

    The "Over the Hill Gang," comprised of Travis Hafner, Vernon Wells and Kevin Youkilis, has turned back the clock five years, hitting a combined .280 with 17 home runs and 47 RBI in 300 at-bats.

    The pitching staff has been excellent, Robinson Cano has performed like the perennial MVP candidate that he is and the team's early-season success is terrible news for the rest of baseball.

    Why?

    Because the Yankees are starting to get healthy.

    Curtis Granderson made his 2013 debut on Tuesday night against Felix Hernandez and the Seattle Mariners, and both Ivan Nova and Youkilis could return from the disabled list within the next week to 10 days.

    As the team's injured stars return to action, the Yankees only become more dangerous for those remaining opponents on the team's schedule.

Matt Harvey's Dominance

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    There was never a question whether or not Matt Harvey had front-of-the-rotation potential, but nobody expected to see him reach that potential in his first full season in the big leagues.

    Among the league leaders in nearly every pitching category, Harvey has been nothing short of dominant, allowing more than one earned run in only two of his eight starts on the season so far.

    As ESPN's Buster Olney points out, batters that allow Harvey to start things off with a strike are essentially doomed to fail:

    In at-bats that start out with Strike 1 against Matt Harvey, opponents are 9-for-102, with 42 strikeouts. espn.go.com/mlb/player/spl… Not good.

    — Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) May 11, 2013

    The 24-year-old is allowing fewer than five hits per nine innings of work, he nearly threw a no-hitter and a perfect game and very well could be the starting pitcher for the National League at the All-Star Game, held this season at his home park of Citi Field.

Hisashi Iwakuma's Performance

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    What American League pitcher has the lowest ERA since the 2012 All-Star break?

    The answer, courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser:

    Since the All-Star Break last season, Iwakuma has the best ERA among AL starters, with a 2.22 mark in 23 starts (Verlander 2.37, Felix 2.48)

    — Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) May 11, 2013

    While Hisashi Iwakuma was excellent in the second half of the 2012 season (15 GS, 8-4, 2.50 ERA, 1.20 WHIP), nobody expected him to be matching numbers with Felix Hernandez in 2013.

    Yet that's exactly what the 32-year-old Japanese import has done:

      ERA WHIP IP H BB K
    Iwakuma 1.74 0.74 51.2 30 8 51
    Hernandez 1.53 0.93 64.2 50 10 64

    Iwakuma's 0.74 WHIP leads the American League. He has allowed more than two runs in only one of his eight starts on the season, and, most impressive of all, he's put up those incredible numbers while pitching with a blister on the middle finger of his throwing hand since spring training.

Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura

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    There's been no bigger surprise in Milwaukee this season than the play of center fielder Carlos Gomez and shortstop Jean Segura.

    We knew that the pair had plenty of speed between them, but their ability to hit the ball consistently—and with power—was unexpected.

    Take a look at how the duo's numbers in 2013 stack up to their combined performance last season:

      BA HR RBI R SB
    Gomez/Segura (2012) .260 19 65 101 44
    Gomez/Segura (2013) .364 13 36 43 21

    While last year's numbers only include 45 games for Segura, acquired in the trade that sent Zack Greinke to Los Angeles, nobody expected this kind of performance from the 23-year-old in his first full major league season.

    Nor from Gomez, who, at 27 years old, seems to finally be coming into his own, building upon a breakout 2012 campaign to become one of the more electrifying players in baseball through the first quarter of the 2013 season.

Colorado's Pitching

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    Nobody expected much of anything from Colorado's starting rotation in 2013. The talented but oft-injured group struggled badly in 2012, finishing the season as the most inept group in all of baseball. As a result, the bullpen was overworked, posting subpar numbers and performances.

    Much of the same was expected in 2013.

    Not only has Colorado's pitching staff left its 2012 struggles (and the failed idea of a four-man rotation) firmly in the past where they belong, but Rockies pitchers are doing something really surprising: They are more effective in the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field than they are on the road.

    The splits don't lie:

      G ERA WHIP IP H BB K
    Home 18 3.50 1.22 167 151 52 115
    Away 21 3.92 1.4 181.1 193 61 146
    Totals: 39 3.72 1.31 348.1 344 113 261

    That Colorado has managed to pitch to an ERA below 4.00 and a respectable WHIP is more than surprising—it's miraculous.

Scott Feldman and Travis Wood

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    What a difference a year makes.

    Neither Scott Feldman nor Travis Wood was overly impressive in 2012:

      W-L ERA WHIP IP H BB K
    Feldman (Texas) 6-11 5.09 1.38 123.2 139 32 96
    Wood (Cubs) 6-13 4.27 1.20 156 133 54 119
    Totals: 12-25 4.63 1.28 279.2 272 86 215

    With numbers like those, it's not surprising that expectations for the pair heading into the 2013 season were, shall we say, on the low side.

    Surely, nobody was expecting performances like these:

      W-L ERA WHIP IP H BB K
    Feldman 3-3 2.53 1.15 42.2 32 17 33
    Wood 4-2 2.03 0.92 53.1 32 17 36
    Totals: 7-5 2.25 1.02 96 64 34 69

    While Chicago remains in the basement of the NL Central, seven games below .500, the performances of Feldman and Wood are a major reason why the Cubs' record doesn't more closely resemble that of Houston (10-30) or Miami (11-28).

The Lack of Offense in Los Angeles

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    With or without Jered Weaver leading the way, pitching in Los Angeles was going to be shaky in 2013—that's what happens when you add the likes of Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson to the mix.

    But a lack of quality pitching wasn't going to hinder the Angels' playoff plans, not when the team added Josh Hamilton to a lineup that already included Albert Pujols, Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo, giving the team four powerful bats that could atone for any of the team's shortcomings on the mound.

    Based on the foursome's 2012 numbers, it's easy to understand why that was the expectation:

      BA HR RBI R
    Hamilton (Texas) .285 43 128 103
    Pujols .285 30 105 85
    Trout .326 30 83 49
    Trumbo .268 32 95 66
    Totals: .291 135 411 210

    As we have seen, this "fearsome foursome" has yet to approach those expectations in 2013:

      BA HR RBI R
    Hamilton .214 5 12 15
    Pujols .242 6 22 19
    Trout .286 7 27 25
    Trumbo .264 9 27 18
    Totals: .252 27 88 77

    Most concerning are the slow starts by Hamilton and Pujols, two of the highest-paid players in baseball. Even if the team's pitching staff improves—which it should once Weaver returns to the mound—the Angels are going nowhere fast without big-time contributions from the two veteran sluggers.

Did I Mention the Lack of Offense in Los Angeles?

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    While losing Hanley Ramirez to injury for all but four games of the season will put a damper on any team's offense, that's no excuse why a lineup as talented as the one the Dodgers trot out on a daily basis ranks 28th in baseball with only 131 runs scored on the season.

    It's not as if the team's biggest bats—Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Adrian Gonzalez or Matt Kemp—aren't hitting the ball:

      BA HR RBI R
    Crawford .311 5 9 24
    Ethier .256 3 13 10
    Gonzalez .341 4 26 10
    Kemp .276 1 15 16
    Totals: .284 13 63 60

    The problem is that, while the team is hitting, it's not hitting for extra bases—and singles simply aren't getting the job done.

    One of six teams to not have at least 100 extra-base hits on the season, the Dodgers rank 29th out of 30 teams in the category, ahead of the Miami Marlins by one, 81-80.

    Until Crawford, Kemp and company start hitting balls into the gaps on a more consistent basis, this lack of offense will continue, putting added pressure on the team's pitching staff and skipper Don Mattingly to deliver results.

Toronto's Starting Rotation

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    At the quarter point of the season in Toronto, the team's "new and improved" starting rotation looks a lot like the injury-ravaged, underwhelming group that the Blue Jays trotted out a year ago:

      W-L ERA WHIP BAA
    2012 52-69 4.82 1.42 .265
    2013 8-15 5.39 1.54 .274

    Perhaps we shouldn't be all that surprised that R.A. Dickey hasn't been as sharp as he was during his Cy Young Award-winning season in 2012. While he's a knuckleball pitcher, he is 38 years old, and some regression was to be expected.

    Nor should we be shocked by the fact that Josh Johnson landed on the disabled list before the end of May, considering his spotty injury history. 

    But Mark Buehrle's performance is shocking, as is the trio's combined numbers in a Blue Jays uniform:

      GS W-L ERA WHIP BB K
    Buehrle 8 1-2 6.19 1.48 13 30
    Dickey 9 3-5 4.83 1.35 24 48
    Johnson 4 0-1 6.86 1.88 9 19
    Totals 21 4-8 5.70 1.49 46 97

    A return to health for Johnson—and a return to form for all three veteran hurlers—is the only way that Toronto will be able to surprise the baseball world and dig itself out of the early-season hole that the team currently resides in.