15 MLB Players Whose White-Hot Starts We Never Saw Coming

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistMay 8, 2014

15 MLB Players Whose White-Hot Starts We Never Saw Coming

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    It takes a lot to surprise us these days.

    With the wealth of information available to us, from traditional statistics to advanced metrics and video clips that are slowed down, dissected and put back together, it's become harder than ever for a player to come along and do something that nobody saw coming.

    Take Chicago's Jose Abreu, for instance. While nobody expected Abreu to put together a historic first month in the major leagues, there was little doubt coming out of spring training that the Cuban defector was going to be a force in the middle of the White Sox lineup.

    It'd be easy to include a rookie on a list of white-hot starts that we never saw coming, if for no other reason than that they don't have a track record of success at the major league level to point to—but you won't find one first-year player on the pages that follow.

    From youngsters still trying to find their way in The Show to established veterans that we thought were past their primes, there has been no shortage of individual eye-opening performances just over a month into the 2014 season.

    Here's a look at 15 of the most surprising.

Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    2014 Stats: .324/.346/.535, 6 HR, 26 RBI, 21 R, 1-for-2 SB

    I admit it, I jumped the gun a bit when I wrote this about Colorado's Nolan Arenado last March:

    If you want to see one of the sweetest swings that you've seen in awhile, point your eyes toward Colorado's spring training games and take a gander at 21-year-old Nolan Arenado.

    Surpassed by 2012 draft pick David Dahl as the team's top prospect (according to MLB.com), Arenado has been raking this spring, hitting .348 with four home runs and 10 RBI. Seven of his eight hits have gone for extra bases, and he looks very much like the fourth big bat in the Rockies lineup, alongside Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Wilin Rosario.

    He might not start the season smacking balls into the night at Coors Field, but it won't be long before he's manning the hot corner in Colorado and garnering support in the NL Rookie of the Year race.

    He didn't join the Rockies until May 2013, and while Arenado garnered support for the NL Rookie of the Year Award, finishing seventh in the voting, and won his first Gold Glove Award, his numbers at the plate (.267, 10 HR, 52 RBI) over 133 games certainly didn't live up to the "sweetest swing" hype.

    It seemed as if Arenado's bat was going to need a few years to catch up to his glove. So much for that.

    Arenado sits in the midst of a 27-game hitting streak, tying Michael Cuddyer for the longest streak in team history, and the 23-year-old is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

    He's making contact with nearly everything that pitchers are throwing his way, both in and out of the strike zone, ranking among the senior circuit's leaders in batting average (seventh) and RBI (third).

Charlie Blackmon, CF, Colorado Rockies

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: .359/.396/.602, 7 HR, 25 RBI, 30 R, 8-for-10 SB

    It wasn't that long ago that Carlos Gonzalez was sliding over to center field in Colorado as Dexter Fowler's replacement, a move that Rockies manager Walt Weiss ultimately decided against making just before the start of spring training, as he explained to reporters, including Troy Renck of the Denver Post:

    We are feeling comfortable with the alternatives, watching these guys run around. The big thing is we want to keep CarGo on the field. Risk and reward has kind of swung the other way. We are in a different place than we were in the fall. That’s what it comes down to.

    So far, Charlie Blackmon has proved that Weiss made the right move.

    A career .291 hitter heading into the season, Blackmon hit .309 with six home runs, 22 RBI, 35 runs scored, seven stolen bases and an .803 OPS over 82 games for the Rockies in 2013. He's already surpassed some of those numbers—and it won't be long before he knocks off the rest.

    Does playing in Coors Field help pad those numbers? Absolutely, but it's not as if Blackmon completely disappears when the Rockies hit the road:

    Home (16).4141.24012 (7)2023
    Away (18).293.7064 (0)57

    Blackmon set both franchise and baseball history against Arizona on April 4, according to ESPN Stats and Information. He joined Andres Galarraga as the only Rockies to ever record six hits in a game, and he's the first player in MLB history to have three doubles and a home run in a six-hit effort.

    Even more impressive than his record-setting performance is that, more than a month into the season, the 27-year-old trails only teammate Troy Tulowitzki for the NL lead in batting average, OPS and runs scored.

Melky Cabrera, LF, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: .329/.359/.534, 6 HR, 14 RBI, 22 R, 3-for-4 SB

    As ESPN's Buster Olney notes in his latest insider-only column (subscription needed), it's fair to wonder whether Toronto's Melky Cabrera has figured out a new way to beat baseball's drug policy:

    Cabrera has been a journeyman outfielder for much of his career, cut loose by the Braves when he was 26 years old before he suddenly made a miraculous climb into the elite echelon of hitters, at the same time Cabrera -- a good friend of Alex Rodriguez -- became a Biogenesis client. In his second season of stardom, Cabrera tested positive. Rather than to immediately own up, he tried covering his tracks

    He got a two-year, $16 million deal with the Blue Jays and now, as he prepares to go into the free-agent market in the fall, he’s off to an incredible start. His numbers very closely resemble those he put up the summer he was suspended. 

    Whatever we may think about the legitimacy of Cabrera's numbers in 2014, the 29-year-old outfielder has not failed a drug test (as far as anyone knows) and seems to have finally found his groove after dealing with a multitude of injuries that limited him to only 88 games in 2013, his first year in Toronto.

    Cabrera leads the American League with 48 hits while ranking fourth in batting average, seventh in runs scored, and eighth in home runs and slugging percentage (.534).

Jesse Chavez, SP, Oakland Athletics

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    Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: 7 GS, 5 QS, 2-1, 2.47 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 43.2 IP, 35 H, 7.66 K/9

    As the holes continued to appear in Oakland's rotation during spring training, the A's turned to career journeyman Jesse Chavez to stop the bleeding. While his numbers during the exhibition season were impressive—a 2.22 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 28.1 innings of work—there was reason to be skeptical.

    A career journeyman, the 30-year-old right-hander headed into the regular season as the owner of a career 5.48 ERA and 1.47 WHIP with only two starts under his belt over a six-year major league career. That he had thrown more than 100 innings as a professional twice, first in 2004 and again in 2012, only added to the skepticism about his ability to not only succeed, but hold up in Oakland's rotation.

    Chavez has proved that his spring numbers were no aberration and become a key piece of Oakland's rotation, ranking fourth in the American League in WHIP, fifth in ERA and 10 in strikeouts (44).

Chris Colabello, RF, Minnesota Twins

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: .270/.313/.444, 4 HR, 28 RBI, 13 R, 0-for-2 SB

    It wasn't until the 2013 World Baseball Classic that Chris Colabello, a Massachusetts native who was the starting first baseman for Italy's entry into the tournament, even appeared on our radars.

    Just over a year later, Colabello's 30 RBI rank second in the American League and fourth in baseball, effectively replacing Justin Morneau as the biggest run-producing threat in Minnesota's lineup.

    Not too shabby for a guy who spent the first seven years of his professional career playing in the independent Canadian-American Association.

    That he was able to go yard on his mother's birthday—while she was being interviewed at the game—only adds to the ridiculousness of his scorching start to the 2014 season.

Brian Dozier, 2B, Minnesota Twins

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: .234/.359/.438, 8 HR, 14 RBI, 31 R, 11-for-12 SB

    No cheating: What American League second baseman ranks among the league leaders in home runs, walks and runs scored? (Hint: The answer is NOT Robinson Cano.)

    That'd be 26-year-old Brian Dozier, who despite hitting a mediocre .234 on the season, leads the American League in runs scored, is second in stolen bases, third in walks and fifth in home runs.

    That Dozier is flashing some power isn't all that surprising, considering that he hit 18 home runs for Minnesota in 2013, which put him in a tie with Brandon Phillips and Chase Utley for the fourth-highest total among second basemen.

    That power, coupled with a career .306 on-base percentage, made manager Ron Gardenhire's decision to put Dozier atop the team's lineup seem like a questionable move at the time. But Dozier has doubled his career walk rate this season, drawing free passes 16 percent of the time, resulting in a gaudy .359 on-base percentage and making Gardenhire look like a genius in the process.

    Gardenhire attributes Dozier's success (and that of the other Twins who are off to hot starts this season) not to his work, but that of hitting coach and former big league slugger Tom Brunansky, as he explained to the Star Tribune's La Velle E. Neal III:

    Rather than Bruno standing on deck and telling them, ‘He’s going to start you with a slider,’ we want our hitters to know that. They are studying themselves. He gives them the information and they are taking it and reading it and they know what [the pitcher] is going to do.

    I think Bruno has made them become accountable for their own actions, rather than baby-sit them, and it is working out.

    Whatever the reason, Dozier's start to the season is remarkable—and seemingly came out of nowhere.

Dee Gordon, 2B, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: .341/.372/.450, 1 HR, 10 RBI, 19 R, 20-for-23 SB

    Nobody paid much attention to the news that Dee Gordon had won the starting second base job for the Los Angeles Dodgers coming out of spring training, and for good reason. His inability to get on base with any consistency, where he could take advantage of his elite speed, made the 26-year-old an afterthought.

    So much for that.

    Gordon not only leads baseball with 20 stolen bases, but he leads all qualified second basemen in batting average, hits (44) and triples (three) while trailing only Chase Utley in on-base percentage (.372) and OPS (.822).

Tim Hudson, SP, San Francisco Giants

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: 7 GS, 6 QS, 4-2, 1.99 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, 54.1 IP, 37 H, 5.96 K/9

    One of baseball's most consistent and reliable starting pitchers for more than a decade, the San Francisco Giants were lauded by many for landing one of the steals of this past winter when they signed Tim Hudson to a two-year, $23 million deal.

    But Hudson was a 38-year-old pitcher whose 2013 campaign was abruptly cut short when he broke his ankle in July, leading most to believe that he'd be a solid addition to the back of the Giants rotation, nothing more.

    "I've had to prove myself everywhere," Hudson told MLB.com's Mark Bowman. "I think that is just one of those things that makes me tick. When somebody doubts something I can do, it just gives me a little extra drive to prove that I can."

    Instead, he's pitched like a player 10 years younger, walking only three battersthree batters over 54.1 innings of work and establishing himself as one of baseball's elite starters.

    Only Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto has thrown more innings or posted a lower WHIP, while no qualified starter has issued as few free passes than Hudson, who sits tied with Miami's Tom Koehler for the ninth-lowest ERA in baseball.

    "I'm really happy with how the first month has gone," he told Bowman. "It's a long year. Coming into Spring Training, I just felt like I had a lot to prove. Obviously the season has gotten off to a really good start. I'm starting to feel really good physically. I couldn't ask to a better start to the year. Hopefully, I can just keep it up."

    He's not the only one, as the Giants aren't sitting atop the NL West standings without Hudson's surprising performance thus far.

Jordan Lyles, SP, Colorado Rockies

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: 7 GS, 5 QS, 4-0, 2.62 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 44.2 IP, 37 H, 4.84 K/9

    If we're being completely honest, nobody thought much about Jordan Lyles being traded from Houston to Colorado this past winter as part of the Dexter Fowler deal.

    After all, Lyles was moving from Minute Maid Park, one of the more hitter-friendly venues in baseball, to the game's premier park for offense, Coors Field, a place that typically destroys even the most talented of pitchers.

    Owner of a career 5.35 ERA and 1.45 WHIP heading into the season, there was no reason to think that this move was going to be a positive one for the 23-year-old right-hander, a supplemental first-round pick by the Astros in the 2008 draft.

    Consider this: Heading into the 2014 season, Lyles had allowed three earned runs or less in only 58 percent of his 65 career starts. In 2014, that number is up to nearly 86 percent, something he attributes to a stellar defense behind him, as he explained to The Denver Post's Patrick Saunders:

    "I'm making better pitches when guys are in scoring position. I just feel more confident, especially with this team around me; with this defense behind me."

    Rockies manager Walt Weiss thinks that a new approach on the mound has been the biggest reason for Lyles' success: "His two-seamer has helped him turn the corner. His ability to get ground balls and get hitters to hit the top of the ball is a reason he's pitching so well. He's been a savior for us."

    Weiss might be on to something: Lyles is throwing his two-seam fastball far more often (42.5 percent of the time) than he ever has before, which has resulted in a career-best 56.3 percent ground-ball rate, which ties him with Miami's Nate Eovaldi for the 10th-best mark in baseball this season.

Jean Machi, RP, San Francisco Giants

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: 17 G, 5-0, 0.53 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 17.0 IP, 12 H, 6.88 K/9

    If you're one of those people who think that wins for pitchers are one of the more useless statistics on the planet, then this is right up your alley.

    Five pitchers in baseball have notched at least five victories on the season thus far: Mark Buehrle, Adam Wainwright, Zack Greinke, Rick Porcello and Jean Machi. You might be scratching your head on that last name. Jean who?

    That's Jean Machi, the 32-year-old middle reliever for the San Francisco Giants that didn't make his major league debut until he was 30 years old. He's not a household name by any means, but there he sits, alongside more well-known names with more wins on the season than nearly any other pitcher in the game.

    But his win-loss record to start 2014 isn't the only surprise. 

    Among relievers with at least 15 appearances on the season, only Francisco Rodriguez has pitched to a lower ERA—and only seven other relievers have lower WHIPs.

Casey McGehee, 3B, Miami Marlins

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    Rob Foldy/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: .318/.386/.403, 0 HR, 23 RBI, 9 R, 0-for-0 SB

    With every swing, Casey McGehee continues to make me eat my words. I wrote this not-so-flattering passage about McGehee and the Marlins other offseason acquisitions, as the regular season was about to get underway:

    Adding Jarrod Saltalamacchia will help, but none of the other veteran additions that the team made over the winter—Rafael Furcal, Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee—can be counted on to be legitimate difference-makers. If that trio puts up league-average numbers this year, it will be a surprise.

    Surprised doesn't even begin to describe the reaction around baseball to McGehee's revival in South Florida. Out of the major leagues in 2013, McGehee took his talents to Japan, where he hit .292 with 28 home runs and 93 RBI for the Rakuten Golden Eagles. He hadn't been major league relevant since 2011, when he hit .223 with 18 home runs and 67 RBI for the Milwaukee Brewers.

    Hitting fourth in Miami's lineup behind Giancarlo Stanton, McGehee has seized the opportunity to produce when teams decide to pitch around his younger teammate. Take a look at what Manny Navarro of The Miami Herald wrote after Miami beat the New York Mets on Tuesday night:

    McGehee’s walk-off RBI single off Mets reliever Gonzalez Germen marked the fourth time this season the third baseman was in the on-deck circle when Stanton was intentionally walked. He’s now 2-for-3 in those situations with a walk and two go-ahead or game-winning RBIs.

    The well-traveled veteran attributes his success in those situations to his time in Milwaukee with another of the game's most fearsome sluggers:

    It took awhile, but I think my time in Milwaukee definitely helped me being in those situations, hitting behind Prince [Fielder] all those years.

    Taking the personal part of it and then understanding what’s going on and not try to do much is what you have to do. Just slow down and have a good at bat is all you can really do right there.

    While McGehee's lack of power is uncharacteristic for a cleanup hitter in a major league lineup, his 23 RBI—the ninth-highest total in the National League—are not.

Albert Pujols, 1B, Los Angeles Angels

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: .293/.358/.579, 10 HR, 26 RBI, 23 R, 1-for-1 SB

    Written off as "over the hill" by fans and pundits alike, Albert Pujols headed into the season determined to not only silence his critics, but take their words and shove them down their throats, as he explained to USA Today's Bob Nightengale during spring training:

    The last couple of years have been rough on me, but I don't know how people can tear me down so fast. They talk about trying to live up to my (10-year, $240 million) contract, but I don't worry about that.

    Let them say what they want now. But later it will be my turn to say what I want. Believe me, that time will come.

    Really, all Pujols' doubters did was piss him off, something that Milwaukee starter and former teammate Kyle Lohse told Nightengale was a major mistake: "You don't upset a guy like Albert. I feel sorry for the other pitchers in that division this year."

    Lohse was spot on, as Pujols has re-established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the middle of Los Angeles' lineup, hitting his 10th home run of the season on May 4—more than a month earlier than he accomplished the feat in 2013, when home run No. 10 didn't arrive until June 9.

    Take a look at where an "over-the-hill" Pujols ranks across multiple offensive statistics this season:

    StatisticPujols '14AL RankMLB Rank
    Home Runs102T-2
    Slugging Pct..57939

    The newest member of baseball's 500 home run club is swinging the bat like he did when he called St. Louis home, looking like a player that nobody thought still existed.

Francisco Rodriguez, RP, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: 18 G, 0-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 18.0 IP, 8 H, 13.00 K/9, 14-for-14 SV

    After throwing a career-low 46.2 innings of relief in 2013, a season that saw him thrive in Milwaukee and fall apart in Baltimore, it appeared as if Francisco Rodriguez's career was nearing the end of the line.

    Interest in the 32-year-old reliever this winter was minimal, with teams in need of a closer looking past the man formerly known as "K-Rod," who had racked up 304 saves since 2002 and owned the single-season record for saves, closing out 62 games for the Los Angeles Angels in 2008.

    So he headed back to Milwaukee on a one-year deal, expecting to serve as one of the primary setup men for Brewers closer Jim Henderson.

    Visa issues and thorns in his foot from stepping on a cactus limited him to only six innings of work this spring, but that didn't stop the team from naming him the closer the day before the regular season began.

    As he explained to the Journal Sentinel's Todd Rosiak, Rodriguez believes that his lack of work this spring was a blessing in disguise: "My arm has to be fresh — especially with the workload I've been used to. My arm, my body is totally fresh because of that. I feel great. That tells you that the time off really helped."

    That might be an understatement, as Rodriguez not only leads baseball with 14 saves—tying a MLB record with 11 saves in March/April, originally set by Seattle's Kazuhiro Sasaki in 2001—but no team has been able to get a run across home plate against him yet this season.

    "He looks good to me," manager Ron Roenicke told Rosiak. "This guy's a good pitcher. He's got everything working now, which, when he does, this is how he pitches."

Alfredo Simon, SP, Cincinnati Reds

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: 6 GS, 6 QS, 4-1, 1.99 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 40.2 IP, 27 H, 4.87 K/9

    Alfredo Simon had established himself as a reliable middle reliever for the Cincinnati Reds, pitching to a 2.78 ERA and 1.22 WHIP since the team claimed him off of waivers from the Baltimore Orioles at the start of the 2012 season.

    But when Brett Marshall went down with a finger injury, as reported by John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer, toward the end of spring training, Reds manager Bryan Price turned to Simon, who had worked as a starter during the spring, to fill the vacancy at the back of Cincinnati's rotation.

    "I've been extremely impressed," Price recently told Fay, via USA Today. "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."

    Simon had only made 19 starts over his six-year major league career, pitching to a 4.11 ERA and 1.36 WHIP, not far off from the 4.63 ERA and 1.37 WHIP that he posted over 23.1 innings of work this spring.

    Really, there was no reason for optimism, much less to expect that he'd emerge as one of the game's best starters over the first month of the season, which is exactly what he's done. He ranks seventh in the National League in WHIP, eighth in ERA and one win off of the MLB lead.

Matt Wieters, C, Baltimore Orioles

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: .341/.374/.560, 5 HR, 18 RBI, 13 R, 0-for-1 SB

    Coming off of another disappointing season at the plate, expectations for Matt Wieters were relatively low heading into the 2014 season. He'd provide his usual excellent defense behind the plate, smack a handful of home runs and struggle to hit for average or get on base with any regularity.

    A career .260 hitter in the season's opening month, scorching starts simply weren't Wieters' thing. Until this season, that is. Baltimore's leading hitter with a .341 batting average, second in the American League behind Texas' Shin-Soo Choo, Wieters also ranks fifth in slugging percentage (.560) and OPS.

    It looked as if Wieters' hot start was for naught as speculation ran rampant that a recent elbow injury would require season-ending Tommy John surgery, but after meeting with Dr. James Andrews, surgery is not required, according to The Baltimore Sun's Dan Connolly—and Wieters may avoid the DL altogether.

    *All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and/or FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

    **I purposely left Chicago's Emilio Bonifacio off this list as his torrid start to the season has been discussed ad nauseam, removing what surprise there was.