Early-Season MLB Phenoms We Should Not Take Seriously

Joe Giglio@@JoeGiglioSportsContributor IApril 30, 2014

Early-Season MLB Phenoms We Should Not Take Seriously

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    There's nothing quite like early-season statistics in Major League Baseball, specifically when it comes to red-hot starts. If a flawed player posted an outstanding June, July or August, few fans and media members would give it much thought.

    In April, however, it carries intrigue. With the month coming to a close, 10 players—five everyday contributors and five starting pitchers—have opened eyes around the sport. With 2014 All-Star Game balloting already underway, all 10 of the players on this list deserve at least some consideration for July's extravaganza. 

    Of course, a hot start doesn't guarantee a great year or a season truly deserving of a trip to Target Field in July. As you'll see, early-season phenoms come in all shapes and sizes. From star-caliber hitters to future Cy Young contenders to journeyman relishing in the spotlight, almost anyone can put together big statistics for a month.

    If we dig deeper, however, flaws emerge. When the dust settles, don't expect a 2014 MVP or Cy Young winner to emerge from this group. 

    Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted, and are valid through the start of play on April 29. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.

Dee Gordon, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Stats: 91 PA, .353/.385/.482, .397 BABIP (batting average on balls in play)

    Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Dee Gordon has always possessed the athletic ability and lineage to succeed as a everyday player in the big leagues. Early on in 2014, he's also had a tremendous amount of luck on his side. 

    Through nearly 100 plate appearances, the 26-year-old speedster has racked up 13 stolen bases, two triples and an unsustainable BABIP of .397. That type of luck when putting the ball into play has buoyed a batting average that currently sits at .353.

    Without any power or excellent plate discipline, Gordon will need to remain a .300-or-better hitter in order to rack up value for Los Angeles. When his BABIP eventually normalizes, struggles will likely commence for the current Dodgers starting infielder.

Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves

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    Stats: 6 GS, 43 IP, 5.44 SO/9, 1.47 ERA, 4.09 xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) 

    When it comes to Atlanta Braves starter Julio Teheran, don't confuse the present for the future. By 2015 or 2016, we could be talking about one of the best and most dominant young starters in baseball. Despite early results, Teheran isn't quite at that level yet.

    Yes, a 1.47 ERA is very, very impressive for the 23-year-old future star. But unless Teheran drastically changes the way he's been succeeding, it won't last like this for very long.

    With a minuscule SO/9 rate of 5.44, Atlanta's young stopper is relying on defense and luck when opposing players put the ball in play. While having Andrelton Simmons behind him at shortstop certainly gives merit to that strategy, Teheran simply must strikeout a greater percentage of batters to continue dominating opposing lineups.

    Over the last 10 years (2004-present), only one starting pitcher—Bartolo Colon in 2013—pitched to an ERA under 2.75 while striking out less than six batters per nine innings pitched. While the precedent was set just last season, it's unlikely to be matched any time soon.

Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies

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    Stats: 102 PA, .389/.436/.644, .370 BABIP

    Heading into the 2014 season, Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon owned a .737 OPS across 151 games in parts of three seasons. During his time with Colorado, few fans or media members thought a future star was emerging during part-time duty.

    With a 2.0 fWAR before the calender hits May, perhaps Blackmon fooled all of baseball—including his own team. Or, more likely, the former second-round pick is on an incredible run that's been enhanced by luck on batted balls.

    Although a .370 BABIP for a player that calls Coors Field home isn't outrageous or totally unsustainable, don't expect Blackmon to retain that type of success all season long. From 2011-2013, Blackmon's BABIP figures were .270, .319 and .366, respectively. While his trajectory is clearly pointing up, 2014 NL MVP consideration isn't likely to commence this summer for the 27-year-old.

Dillon Gee, New York Mets

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    Stats: 6 GS, 40.2 IP, 5.98 SO/9, 2.88 ERA, 4.32 FIP

    At 14-11, the New York Mets are an early-season surprise in the suddenly competitive NL East. Part of the reason for their success: Excellent starting pitching. Finesse righty Dillon Gee has certainly been a big part of a group that entered play on April 29 with a 3.67 team ERA.

    With a personal ERA of 2.88, New York's Opening Day starter has been good enough to catch the attention of team captain David Wright, per Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News.

    “You look up on the scoreboard, you see 88s, 89s and you don’t truly appreciate and understand what he does until you see from behind the kind of movement he has and his ability to pinpoint his pitches and really throw all of them in any count,” Wright said. “It’s pretty special working behind him.”

    As long as Gee continues to put zeros on the scoreboard, those kind of quotes will emanate from teammates. However, a 4.32 FIP (fielding independent pitching) suggests regression is coming sooner than later. 

Justin Upton, Atlanta Braves

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    Stats: 101 PA, .330/.406/.625, .440 BABIP, 31.7 K%

    Justin Upton has been an excellent player since arriving to the majors as a 19-year-old in 2007. With seasons of 30-plus homers, six-plus WAR and a .300 batting average, the gifted outfielder has always shown the potential for an MVP season.

    Thus far in 2014, that potential has manifested itself in Upton's numbers. With an OPS of 1.031, Atlanta's left fielder is providing massive power for a team designed to win games with power and great pitching.

    Unfortunately, it won't continue if Upton's strikeout rate hovers over 30 percent. From 1995-2003, a period that included some of the most prolific power-hitting campaigns in baseball history, 25 individual seasons were recorded in which a qualified hitter posted a strikeout percentage of at least 30 percent. Not one of those seasons featured a player with a WAR above 5.0.

    Unless Upton makes more contact, his luck will run out and MVP consideration will evaporate.

Jason Vargas, Kansas City Royals

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    Stats: 5 GS, 35.0 IP, 4.63 SO/9, 1.54 ERA, 4.39 xFIP

    Jason Vargas wasn't signed to be a stopper, ace or rotation savior in Kansas City. Yet, through his first five starts as a member of the Royals, the soft-tossing lefty has been that and more. With James Shields headlining the rotation, a big season from Vargas could give Kansas City a dynamic top-of-the-rotation combination.

    While Shields' excellence is to be expected for the remainder of the season, Vargas' continued success shouldn't be. From 2009-2013, Vargas owned a xFIP of 4.47. Based on his ability to limit walks and strike out hitters, an average-to-below average pitcher took the hill for the Mariners and Angels.

    That pitcher now resides in Kansas City, regardless of early-season numbers. Heading into play on April 29, Vargas' xFIP was near the bottom of all qualified starters. As the season progresses, expect the numbers to stabilize and AL Central foes to tee off on Kansas City's free-agent acquisition. 

Alexei Ramirez, Chicago White Sox

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    Stats: 113 PA, .358/.384/.557, .370 BABIP

    One month of production shouldn't change years of evidence. In the case of Chicago White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez, a snapshot of consistency has ensconced his career in the majors.

    Since arriving as a 26-year-old in 2008, Ramirez has played in at least 136 games every season. Over the last three years, he's suited up for 158 games in each campaign. His OPS+ has hovered around league average, topping out at 104 in 2006 and dipping to 75 in 2012. In six seasons, he's generated 18.2 WAR, good for an average of 3.0 per year.

    It's that consistency that should bring pause to believing in a hot start this month. Despite great early-season numbers, Ramirez isn't breaking out or becoming a better player than fans have seen over the last six-plus years. When the dust settles in 2014, expect something close to Ramirez's career slash line.277/.315/.404heading into this season.

Scott Feldman, Houston Astros

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    Stats: 4 GS, 26.2 IP, 3.04 SO/9, 1.69 ERA, 5.06 xFIP

    Prior to landing on the disabled list, Houston Astros Opening Day starter Scott Feldman was providing valuable innings, wins and solid production for a franchise desperately in need of a top-of-the-rotation starter.

    The only problem: Feldman isn't a that kind of pitcher.

    From 2005-2013, the former Rangers, Cubs and Orioles right-hander owned a 4.62 ERA and 96 ERA+ across 909.1 career innings. The 31-year-old signed in Houston as nothing more than an average starting pitcher. While there's value in that for a franchise that needs innings and depth, an ace wasn't expected to emerge.

    Despite the stingy ERA, Feldman isn't an ace. In fact, an xFIP of 5.06 suggest major regression is on the way. When it arrives, don't be surprised. It's simply a result of a pitcher without great velocity or strikeout-ability returning to the form he's show for nearly a full decade.

Chris Colabello, Minnesota Twins

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    Stats: 97 PA, .308/.351/.505, 27 RBI, .397 BABIP

    Who? If you haven't been paying close attention to the day-to-day lineups for the 2014 Minnesota Twins, it's likely that Chris Colabello hasn't caught your baseball eye. If the 30-year-old breakout sensation of April continues to deliver huge RBI totals, that will soon change.

    Upon his 27th run batted in of April, the versatile Twins surprise star surpassed Kirby Puckett for the most RBI in a single month in franchise history. According to Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com, Colabello realizes the unique nature of his newly found success.

    "It's quite an honor," Colabello said. "You start getting mixed in with names like that and you realize how special this game is and how special this opportunity to be here is. It's certainly something I'll remember for a long time."

    Barring a luck-induced season, it's hard to believe that Colabello can keep up his .505 slugging percentage, .397 BABIP and 190 RBI projection, per ESPN. While new, unexpected stars are great for the game, this one can't last forever. 

Alfredo Simon, Cincinnati Reds

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    Stats: 4 GS, 27.2 IP, 5.53 SO/9, 1.30 ERA, 4.31 xFIP

    When Mat Latos went down with an injury in spring training, a major hole looked to open up in the Cincinnati Reds rotation. Replacing a starting pitcher that averages 211 innings pitched, 114 ERA+ and 195 strikeouts per season seemed like a major task for new manager Bryan Price.

    Thus far, journeyman righty Alfredo Simon has been the perfect fit and impressed his skipper, per John Fay of USA Today.

    "I've been extremely impressed," Price said. "I know he was a waiver claim for us. He has been remarkable. He's wanted more opportunity. We've given that to him. It was a good idea that we brought him in camp to start in case we had an injury."

    While the success has been a boon for the Reds, Latos' impending return is critical. Despite a 1.30 ERA, Simon hasn't flashed the track record or snapshot of sustainable performance throughout his career. At the age of 32, it's highly unlikely that Simon can transform from journeyman to stopper. 

    Through four starts, an expected fielding independent pitching rate of 4.31 suggests that regression is on the way before long.

    Agree? Disagree? Which early-season standout is poised for regression?

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