MLB

Playing Fact or Fiction with MLB's Biggest First-Quarter Breakouts

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterMay 18, 2014

Playing Fact or Fiction with MLB's Biggest First-Quarter Breakouts

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    Otherwise known as our latest excuse to talk about Masahiro Tanaka.
    Otherwise known as our latest excuse to talk about Masahiro Tanaka.USA TODAY Sports

    Before any MLB season starts, we pretend to know who the stars are going to be. Typically, the list includes players who are accustomed to being stars. Such is the way of things.

    But then some players outperform expectations. Other players massively outperform expectations—especially early in the season. Like so many White Walkers, the breakout stars inevitably come.

    One thing we can do when the breakout stars come early in the season is simply enjoy them. But at some point, we have to do the other thing: try to discern which of them are for real.

    The 2014 season being a quarter of the way through is our excuse to do so, which we will do in the form of the classic "Fact or Fiction" game with the 10 biggest breakout stars out there right now.

Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When the White Sox gave Cuban slugger Jose Abreu his record $68 million contract, they expected to get some power from him.

    What they're getting instead, surely to their delight, is a lot of power. Through 44 games, Abreu has a .908 OPS and leads MLB with 15 home runs. If he stays on this historic pace, he'll top 50 homers.

    But now comes the part where I tell you about my mixed feelings for Abreu.

    Abreu's power is legit. The 15 home runs obviously say so, but it's notable that Abreu was also leading MLB in average batted ball distance at last check, according to BaseballHeatMaps.com. Then there's the eye test, which consists of how one's eyes actually vibrate when he squares balls up.

    What troubles me, however, is that pitchers seem to have figured Abreu out. He has a strikeout rate close to 40 percent in May. That's related to how, per Brooks Baseball, he's seen a few more breaking balls and has seen his whiff rate against them skyrocket. That's what slugger Kryptonite looks like.

    That Abreu's power is legit while his hit tool needs some work puts us in a tough spot with this verdict. But since it feels like he's already regressing, I have to go with...

    Verdict: Fiction

Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Charlie Blackmon is currently 11th in MLB in WAR (FanGraphs version). This is interesting, as I doubt many of us had the Rockies outfielder pegged as one of baseball's elite players coming into 2014.

    And he's probably not, truth be told. At the least, you can point out how Blackmon's 2014 success is largely owed to Coors Field, as his OPS on the road is roughly 500 points (yup) lower than at home.

    But let's give Blackmon some credit. For a guy who's supposed to be a platoon hitter, he's doing a fine job against southpaws in a sample size that's not very small. In addition, any guy who can pull off a massive decrease in strikeouts while becoming one of MLB's best contact hitters is doing some things right.

    Also, Blackmon has given the Rockies above-average defense at all three outfield positions this year according to the defensive metrics. That's not an insignificant gift.

    So an elite player? Probably not.

    But a significantly improved player worthy of some props? I would say so, yes.

    Verdict: Fact

Dee Gordon, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Coming into 2014, we knew Dee Gordon as:

    1. The son of Tom Gordon, which is cool trivia.
    2. A former top prospect who, with a .614 career MLB OPS to his name, wasn't really panning out.

    But suddenly, Gordon has become one of MLB's most dangerous weapons. He's turned himself into a .313 hitter and is leading the league by a mile with 25 stolen bases.

    There's no question that the speed is legit. But since Gordon is walking in only about five percent of his appearances, he must continue to hit if he wants to keep getting on and putting his speed to use.

    This is more possible than you might think.

    Apparently recognizing that he's all speed and no power, Gordon is going the Willie Mays Hayes route by ditching fly balls in favor of line drives and ground balls. We should also give the guy credit for never hitting fastballs and breaking balls more squarely than he has this year (see Brooks Baseball).

    Meet Dee Gordon, much-improved player.

    Verdict: Fact

Sonny Gray, Oakland A's

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Sonny Gray teased that he was going to be a good one last year, posting a 2.67 ERA in 12 regular-season appearances (10 starts) and a 2.08 ERA in two postseason starts.

    What we've seen in 2014 is Gray not stopping. Through nine starts, he's among the American League leaders with a 2.10 ERA.

    But is Gray as dominant as his ERA suggests?

    Not quite as far as the fancy-pants ERA estimators are concerned. FIP, xFIP and SIERA—which calculate what a pitcher's ERA should be based on things he can control—all have Gray down as more of a mid-3.00-ish ERA guy. In other words: They think his ERA is off by over a run, which is quite the disparity.

    And I can see where these metrics are coming from. Gray is, after all, a merely average strikeout guy and an average walk guy. He also still doesn't have his changeup to a point where it can get lefties out consistently. Per Brooks Baseball, they're hitting .308 against it with only one strikeout.

    Gray has about as bright a future as any young pitcher in the American League, but I'm not sold that he's already one of the AL's elite pitchers just yet.

    Verdict: Fiction

Tom Koehler, Miami Marlins

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Everyone knows Jose Fernandez (RIP). Because of his no-hitter, people know Henderson Alvarez. If for no other reason than his blistering fastball, Nathan Eovaldi is also pretty well known.

    But now would be a good time to get to know the mystery man of Miami's rotation, Tom Koehler. He's following up a "meh" 4.41 ERA in 2013 with a 2.25 ERA through nine starts in 2014.

    But just like with Sonny Gray, the trio of FIP, xFIP and SIERA sees Koehler as being not quite as good as his ERA. These three disagree with Koehler's ERA even more than they disagree with Gray's ERA, as all three view Koehler as a guy who should have an ERA in the low-to-mid-4.00s.

    Once again, it's easy to see why. Koehler is a well-below-average strikeout artist who also happens to have a well-above-average walk rate. That's not an efficient path to dominance.

    It's not like we're talking about an elite ground-ball artist either. Since Koehler has a ground-ball rate below 50 percent, I highly doubt he's going to be able to maintain a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) as low as .213 for very long.

    Verdict: Fiction

Wily Peralta, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    Like Tom Koehler, also off to a quietly dominant start to 2014 is Wily Peralta. The Brewers right-hander has a 2.05 ERA, which puts him right next to Zack Greinke on the MLB leaderboard.

    That ERA isn't entirely a fluke, as Peralta is doing some things better in 2013. His strikeouts have gone up a slight notch, and his walks have gone down way more than just a slight notch. He's also still the ground-ball artist he's always been with a GB% over 50.

    But this is where we turn to the eternally unimpressed ERA estimators and find that they're not impressed.

    Rather than a 2.00-ish ERA guy, the FIP, xFIP and SIERA trio has Peralta pegged as more of a mid-3.00-ish guy. Strikeout rate is an important factor here. While Peralta has improved his strikeout habit, he's still no better than the average pitcher at getting them.

    The key to Peralta's success to this point has been his .263 batting average on balls in play. That's 41 points lower than the BABIP he had in 2012 and 30 points lower than the one he had last year.

    When regression hits there, it'll hit Peralta's ERA too.

    Verdict: Fiction

Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cubs

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    USA TODAY Sports

    There are two starters in MLB who currently hold sub-1.65 ERAs. One of them, Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto, was a great pitcher before 2014 with a 2.61 ERA from 2011 to 2013.

    The other is Jeff Samardzija, who entered 2014 with a 4.10 ERA as a starter in 2012 and 2013. Between the two sub-1.65 ERA guys, that makes him by far the bigger surprise.

    Samardzija has earned his 1.62 ERA to some extent. This has been the best year ever for his control, as he's currently operating with a safely below average walk rate. And as it has been for a few years now, Samardzija's ground-ball rate is still trending upward.

    But Samardzija hasn't been as hard to hit as usual. He's a slightly below-average strikeout artist for a change, which isn't surprising in light of the decrease in his swinging-strike rate and in his velocity.

    I'll grant that this is another tough one, as no ERA as low as 1.62 is built to last. But if it's a question of who deserves his sterling ERA more, I'd side with Cueto over Samardzija. With a superior strikeout rate, walk rate, ground-ball rate and improved velocity, Cueto has undoubtedly been the more dominant pitcher.

    Verdict: Fiction

Seth Smith, San Diego Padres

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    Denis Poroy/Getty Images

    Coming into 2014, you knew Seth Smith as a platoon hitter with a .265/.342/.456 batting line.

    Now he's a platoon hitter with a .333/.428/.590 batting line. In the OPS category, he's right up there with Troy Tulowitzki, Giancarlo Stanton and Yasiel Puig.

    These numbers aren't coming totally by accident. Smith is showing off a more measured approach at the plate this year with an elevated walk rate and a decreased strikeout rate.

    Aside from that, though, much is owed to Smith's .385 average on balls in play. That's the best of his career by a mile, and it suggests that he's making better contact than usual.

    However, Smith's contact rates aren't drastically different from where they were in 2013. The key to his success is an average over .300 on ground balls, which is way above his previous career average of .231. I also have doubts about how much longer he can keep hitting for so much power despite how his HR/FB rate (home runs per fly balls) is not better than his career norm.

    So no, this probably isn't going to last.

    Verdict: Fiction

Yangervis Solarte, New York Yankees

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    I, like many, had no idea who Yangervis Solarte was before 2014. But six or so weeks into 2014, I now know him as everyone else knows him: the great Never-Nervous Yangervis.

    Through 35 games, Solarte is slashing .315/.392/.488. His .315 average is one of the best in baseball.

    And Solarte has done his part to earn it. He's hard to strike out, boasting a well-below-average strikeout rate. He's also done his damage mainly against good pitches, as he has a respectable chase rate and is among the best at making contact inside the strike zone.

    One gripe is that Solarte hasn't adjusted well to the increase in off-speed stuff Brooks Baseball says he's seen in May, as he's hitting in the low .100s against it. But since he's continued to crush breaking pitches and has improved against hard stuff, it's apparent the key to stopping him hasn't yet been discovered.

    I have a feeling I might regret this, but right now I have to hand it to Mr. Never-Nervous.

    Verdict: Fact

Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    If this slideshow has taught anyone anything, it's that ERA can't be trusted.

    And it is on this note that I introduce the exception to the rule: Masahiro Tanaka.

    Through eight starts, Tanaka owns a 2.17 ERA. The difference between him and other low-ERA guys, though, is that the ERA estimators agree that he's a sub-3.00 ERA guy. FIP, xFIP and SIERA all say yes, yes, yes.

    Rightfully so. With a 10.24 K/9, Tanaka is among MLB's best strikeout pitchers. With a 1.09 BB/9, he's among MLB's best control pitchers. That he's also good at getting ground balls is a bonus.

    One thing worth questioning is if Tanaka can possibly maintain such a low walk rate while also maintaining one of MLB's smallest percentages of pitches in the strike zone. But at the same time, you don't worry about that when you watch him, as he must lead the league in pitches that look like strikes until they're not.

    Yankees general manager Brian Cashman tried to downplay (via ESPN New York) Tanaka as a "really solid, consistent No. 3 starter" back in February. Instead, he's been about as legit an ace as aces can be.

    Verdict: Fact

     

    Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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