Breaking Down the Staying Power of MLB's Early Surprise Teams

Joel ReuterFeatured ColumnistApril 18, 2014

Breaking Down the Staying Power of MLB's Early Surprise Teams

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    JEFFREY PHELPS

    Each MLB season sees a handful of unexpected teams get off to good starts, and this year has been no different.

    What follows is a look at the six surprise teams of the 2014 season's first three weeks along with my take on whether they are for real or a fluke.

    To be considered an early-season surprise, teams had to be .500 or better entering play Friday and be outperforming my expectations entering the season.

    Included with each team's record is a look at where I had them ranked in my Opening Day power rankings in order to give you an idea of what my expectations were heading into the year.

    From there, I break down each team's offense and pitching so far this season, followed by a "fluke" rating from 1-5, which indicates the following:

    • 1: Team is not a fluke at all and will be able to contend.
    • 2: Team is not a fluke but may be just on the outside of contention.
    • 3: Team is not a contender but has a chance at a winning record.
    • 4: Team is a fluke but is still better than expected entering the year.
    • 5: Team is a fluke and will regress to preseason expectations.

    I then determine where the surprise teams fall on that scale, based on what I've seen so far this year and how I expect things to play out going forward.

     

    All stats courtesy of FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.

Chicago White Sox (8-8, No. 26 Preseason)

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    Nam Y. Huh

    Offense

    R/G: 5.44 (third in MLB)
    BA: .267 (fourth in MLB)
    OPS: .762 (fourth in MLB)

    The White Sox offense has been perhaps the biggest surprise in all of baseball so far this season. While they have already begun to regress with just 11 runs over the last four games, they have been impressive nonetheless.

    Shortstop Alexei Ramirez (.381 BA, 1.061 OPS) has been one of the best hitters in all of baseball, while catcher Tyler Flowers (.395 BA, .911 OPS) is hitting an even 200 points higher than he did last year.

    Throw in the dangerous duo of Adam Dunn (.962 OPS, 3 HR, 8 RBI) and Jose Abreu (.811 OPS, 4 HR, 14 RBI), and this offense has been awfully good.

    Expect Flowers to regress a good deal, as his .667 BABIP is absolutely ridiculous, and the White Sox as a whole will likely take a step back at some point. But they still have a chance to be a top-10 offense.

     

    Pitching

    ERA: 4.90 (28th in MLB)
    SP ERA: 4.08 (18th in MLB)
    RP ERA: 6.48 (30th in MLB)

    Led by a trio of left-handers in Chris Sale (3-0, 2.30 ERA), Jose Quintana (1-0, 2.37 ERA) and John Danks (1-0, 3.32 ERA), the White Sox rotation has been solid at the top so far this year.

    However, Erik Johnson (0-1, 6.35 ERA) and Felipe Paulino (0-1, 7.98 ERA) have been shelled—although Johnson did turn in a quality start his last time out. He will now need to build off that going forward, because the team is counting on him, not only this year but for the future.

    Paulino is a question mark, though, and another bad start or two could force the team to look toward someone else to fill his rotation spot.

    Then there's the bullpen, which is the worst in all of baseball and has been an absolute disaster outside of Maikel Cleto (6.2 IP, 1.35 ERA) and Daniel Webb (10.2 IP, 2.53 ERA).

    The White Sox can hit all they want, but if they don't get the bullpen sorted out, they're not going to be able to win very many games.

     

    Fluke Rating: 4/5

    The offense looks for real, to a point, and the resurgence of John Danks is a terrific boost for the rotation, but there are still too many holes to view this team as a serious contender.

    The back of the rotation is a question mark, the bullpen is a mess, and at some point the lack of production at both second base and left field is going to become an issue.

    Are the White Sox better than expected? Absolutely, and they should be a fun team to watch all year. Are they serious contenders for a playoff spot in the AL? At this point, I have to say no.

Milwaukee Brewers (11-5, No. 18 Preseason)

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Offense

    R/G: 4.06 (18th in MLB)
    BA: .255 (10th in MLB)
    OPS: .703 (17th in MLB)

    For as much has been made about the return of Ryan Braun (.788 OPS, 3 HR, 10 RBI), the bigger addition to the Brewers lineup this season has been a healthy Aramis Ramirez (.369 BA, .880 OPS, 14 RBI).

    Those two, along with the duo of Carlos Gomez (.323 BA, .984 OPS) and Jonathan Lucroy (.321 BA, .879 OPS), give the team four impact bats to anchor the lineup.

    Throw in complementary pieces like Khris Davis, Scooter Gennett and Mark Reynolds, and the offense looks vastly improved over last season's group. Remember, the Brewers led the National League in runs scored in 2012, and while they may not be quite that good again in 2014, they should be one of the better attacks in the league once again.

     

    Pitching

    ERA: 2.73 (third in MLB)
    SP ERA: 2.55 (fourth in MLB)
    RP ERA: 3.16 (10th in MLB)

    Call the Brewers' terrific starting pitching a surprise if you want, but I've had high hopes for them from the onset, placing them eighth in an Opening Day article ranking all 30 starting rotations.

    The potential was there for the team to be very good from starters one through five; it was just a matter of guys pitching up to that potential, and they have done that so far.

    Yovani Gallardo (2-0, 1.46 ERA) has once again looked like an ace in what is a contract year, while fellow veterans Kyle Lohse (2-1, 3.05 ERA), Matt Garza (0-2, 3.43 ERA) and Marco Estrada (1-1, 3.06 ERA) have been solid as well.

    The X-factor here is Wily Peralta, who turned in a solid rookie season that went largely overlooked due to the tremendous field of NL rookie pitchers last year. He's 2-0 with a 1.96 ERA and 1.09 WHIP on the year so far, and he has a chance to be a breakout star in 2014.

    Throw in a bullpen led by the foursome of Francisco Rodriguez (4-of-4 SV, 0.00 ERA), Brandon Kintzler (5 IP, 0.00 ERA), Will Smith (7 IP, 0.00 ERA) and Tyler Thornburg (2-0, 9.2 IP, 0.93 ERA), and this staff looks awfully good from top to bottom.

     

    Fluke Rating: 1/5

    Why not the Brewers? That's something that will likely be said a lot in the days and weeks ahead if this team keeps winningand at this point there's no reason to think it won't.

    The starting rotation has been great, and all five pitchers are capable of pitching right around their current level for the entire season.

    Keeping the lineup healthy will be the biggest thing, but if the Brewers can avoid any major injuries, there is no reason their offense can't be above average as well.

    It's going to be an uphill battle pushing their way into the NL playoff picture, but this team looks to be the real deal.

Minnesota Twins (8-7, No. 28 Preseason)

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    PAUL BEATY

    Offense

    R/G: 5.73 (first in MLB)
    BA: .245 (t-16th in MLB)
    OPS: .732 (seventh in MLB)

    That's not a typo—the Minnesota Twins are in fact the highest-scoring team in baseball right now. How have they managed to pull that off? Let's take a look.

    Two unlikely middle-of-the-order threats in Chris Colabello (.357 BA, .981 OPS, 19 RBI) and Jason Kubel (.340 BA, .941 OPS) have led the offensive charge to this point.

    Colabello toiled in the Can-Am League for years before finally debuting as a part-time player last year at the age of 29. Kubel, now in his second go-around with the Twins, signed a minor league contract in the offseason and had to earn his spot on the team.

    Even "struggling" hitters like Brian Dozier (.207 BA) and Josmil Pinto (.206 BA) both currently have an OPS over .830 thanks to their pop and ability to get on base.

    It has to be mentioned that Colabello (.463), Kubel (.444) and Josh Willingham (.417) all have BABIPs that are not sustainable, so they are likely to regress, but it's fair to say that the Twins offense is significantly better than expected.

     

    Pitching

    ERA: 5.00 (29th in MLB)
    SP ERA: 5.15 (27th in MLB)
    RP ERA: 4.76 (25th in MLB)

    Herein lies the problem for the Twins, as their starting pitching simply is not good enough for them to legitimately contend.

    After getting an MLB-worst 5.26 ERA from their starting pitchers last season, the team shelled out big bucks to sign Ricky Nolasco (5.50 ERA) and Phil Hughes (7.20 ERA). Nolasco threw the ball really well in his last start, but he's not a staff ace, and the team simply lacks the front-end pitching needed to be a serious threat.

    Incumbents Kevin Correia (5.30 ERA) and Mike Pelfrey (7.98 ERA) have not been any better, and while Kyle Gibson (3-0, 0.93 ERA) has been fantastic and should be a valuable piece moving forward, one pitcher does not a rotation make.

    The bullpen struggles have also been a surprise after the team posted a solid 3.50 mark last season in relief. That said, they should be OK, as closer Glen Perkins (3-of-4 SV, 5.14 ERA) has been nearly perfect in his last four outings (0 H, 1 BB), and both Brian Duensing (6.2 IP, 0.00 ERA) and Samuel Deduno (10.2 IP, 2.53 ERA) have proved reliable here in the early going.

     

    Fluke Rating: 5/5

    The Twins offense has been a huge surprise, and while they will no doubt regress some, they have a chance to be an above-average group all season and have far exceeded expectations in that department.

    As I said earlier, though, this team simply does not have the pitching to be a serious contender, and the offense is only going to mask that fact for so long.

    With the White Sox looking surprisingly strong and the rest of the AL Central expected to be in the mix to contend, the Twins could have a hard time avoiding another 90-loss season.

New York Mets (8-7, No. 22 Preseason)

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    Jae C. Hong

    Offense

    R/G: 4.53 (t-eighth in MLB)
    BA: .229 (28th in MLB)
    OPS: .644 (26th in MLB)

    Despite ranking in the bottom five in all of baseball in team batting average and team OPS, the Mets have managed to push across runs on a consistent basis so far this season.

    Juan Lagares (.314 BA, .816 OPS), Lucas Duda (.275 BA, .841 OPS) and Daniel Murphy (.298 BA, .668 OPS) are the only three players putting together plus offensive seasons at this point, yet the Mets still rank within the top 10 in runs per game.

    Stars David Wright (.258 BA, .641 OPS) and Curtis Granderson (.167 BA, .598 OPS) have combined for two home runs and 12 RBI to this point, and one would have to think both players will pick things up at some point. Rookie catcher Travis d'Arnaud (.154 BA, .506 OPS) is also a much better offensive player than he's shown so far.

    With that in mind, the team may be able to counter an inevitable regression in runs per game if those three guys can turn things around in the days and weeks ahead. Still, it's hard to see the Mets remaining a top-10 offense much longer given their individual production.

     

    Pitching

    ERA: 4.33 (24th in MLB)
    SP ERA: 4.15 (21st in MLB)
    RP ERA: 4.66 (22nd in MLB)

    Most expected starting pitching to be a strength for the Mets this season, even with Matt Harvey on the shelf, and things seem to be rounding into form after a bumpy start.

    Jenrry Mejia (2-0, 2.81 ERA), Dillon Gee (1-0, 3.71 ERA) and Jon Niese (0-1, 3.46 ERA) have all been solid, while Zack Wheeler (1-2, 4.67 ERA) threw the ball much better his last time out.

    The concern here is Bartolo Colon (1-2, 6.00 ERA), who threw the ball OK his first two times out but gave up 11 hits and nine runs in his last start against the Los Angeles Angels. His next outing will be a telling one, and the team needs him to bounce back strong.

    Losing closer Bobby Parnell to injury early on looked like a death sentence to what was already viewed as a shaky bullpen, but the unit has managed to hold things together for the time being. Veterans Jose Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth have been nice pickups, and incumbents Gonzalez Germen and Carlos Torres have stepped up big as well.

     

    Fluke Rating: 3/5

    The offense is puzzling at this point, as it's a wonder the Mets have been able to score as many runs as they have with such a low team average and their two best hitters being off to such slow starts. My guess is that the two things will even themselves out moving forward, and the team's offense will end up somewhere in the middle of the pack.

    The rotation looks solid and should also be able to settle somewhere in the middle of the pack as well, if not slightly better. One has to wonder how long the bullpen will hold up, though.

    The Mets still look to be on the outside looking in for a playoff spot, but if their star hitters come around and the rotation settles in, finishing a few games over .500 is a possibility.

San Francisco Giants (10-6, No. 14 Preseason)

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez

    Offense

    R/G: 4.50 (10th in MLB)
    BA: .247 (15th in MLB)
    OPS: .725 (t-10th in MLB)

    During their two World Series runs, the Giants relied heavily on a plus pitching staff, doing just enough offensively to get by. They are still not going to lead the league in runs scored, but the offense looks like it has a chance to be a legitimate plus.

    The value of a healthy Angel Pagan (.377 BA, .916 OPS) can't be overstated, as the team was 39-32 with him in the lineup last year and 37-54 without him.

    Newcomer Michael Morse (.306 BA, .892 OPS) has been a great addition, while Brandon Crawford (.311 BA, .933 OPS) and Brandon Belt (.297 BA, .891 OPS) are off to solid starts as well.

    Considering the struggles of Hunter Pence (.206 BA) and Pablo Sandoval (.175 BA), this team has done better than anyone could have hoped at the plate this year. Once those two get on track, this could be a very good offense.

     

    Pitching

    ERA: 3.24 (eighth in MLB)
    SP ERA: 4.22 (t-23rd in MLB)
    RP ERA: 1.63 (first in MLB)

    Ace Madison Bumgarner (2-1, 3.48 ERA) has been solid, and Matt Cain (0-2, 4.00 ERA) threw the ball very well his last time out. However, the team's best starter so far has been veteran Tim Hudson (2-0, 2.35 ERA), who has shown no ill effects after ankle surgery last year.

    The back of the rotation has been rough, though, as Tim Lincecum (0-1, 7.20 ERA) and Ryan Vogelsong (0-0, 5.40 ERA) have combined for one quality start. That being said, both guys turned in their best start of the season last time out, and it's not time to panic just yet.

    The bullpen once again looks like one of the best in the business, as the one-two punch of Santiago Casilla (10.2 IP, 0.00 ERA) and Sergio Romo (4-of-4 SV, 1.29 ERA) at the back end is as good as it gets.

     

    Fluke Rating: 1/5

    With an improved offense and the addition of Tim Hudson to the rotation, the Giants look to be in a great position to bounce back from a disappointing 2013 season.

    I was relatively high on them entering the year, putting them at No. 14 on my Opening Day power rankings, just outside the playoff picture.

    This team is for real, as the Giants not only have a shot at earning a playoff spot but could also legitimately challenge the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West.

Toronto Blue Jays (8-8, No. 20 Preseason)

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    GAIL BURTON

    Offense

    R/G: 4.12 (15th in MLB)
    BA: .235 (22nd in MLB)
    OPS: .694 (20th in MLB)

    The Blue Jays finished ninth in the MLB in runs per game last season with a mark of 4.40, and with essentially the same group of guys back this season, most expected them to again boast one of the better lineups in the American League.

    Instead, they have scuffled a bit, as Jose Bautista (1.111 OPS, 6 HR, 11 RBI), Melky Cabrera (.301 BA, .841 OPS) and Adam Lind (.324 BA, .965 OPS) are the only three guys putting together plus offensive seasons to this point.

    Their .258 team BABIP ranks 29th in MLB, and with talented hitters like Edwin Encarnacion, Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie all off to slow starts, the pieces seem to be there for the Blue Jays to get back on track and again be one of the better offenses in the league.

     

    Pitching

    ERA: 4.05 (19th in MLB)
    SP ERA: 4.17 (22nd in MLB)
    RP ERA: 3.86 (17th in MLB)

    After ranking 29th in the league in starting pitching ERA last season, the Blue Jays surprised observers when they wrapped up the offseason without adding another arm to their rotation.

    However, led by the hot start of veteran Mark Buehrle (3-0, 0.86 ERA), they have been better than expected to this point. A healthy Drew Hutchison (1-1, 3.68 ERA) threw the ball better last time out, as did Dustin McGowan (1-1, 4.85 ERA).

    Questions remain as to whether Brandon Morrow (1-1, 5.52 ERA) can return to his pre-injury form and whether R.A. Dickey (1-3, 6.26 ERA) is still a viable starter. The team has some depth, though, with J.A. Happ returning from injury and top prospects Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez knocking on the door.

    The bullpen has done well despite closer Casey Janssen being on the shelf, as Sergio Santos had been very good in the ninth inning before blowing a save Thursday. They were a top-10 bullpen last year, and they have the arms to be there once again.

     

    Fluke Rating: 2/5

    The offense has to be the strength of this team, as the starting pitching will likely go through some of the same ups and downs that it did last season, and Toronto certainly has the pieces once everyone gets things going this year.

    That being said, the staff has been better than expected, and if Morrow and Dickey can sort things out, the unit has a chance to be a legitimate plus. (That remains a big "if" at this point, though.)

    It's still too early to call the Blue Jays serious contenders in a deep American League playoff picture, but they look like they have a chance to at least remain in the hunt.

     

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