Fluke or For Real: Making Sense of 10 Hot MLB Starts

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistApril 14, 2017

Fluke or For Real: Making Sense of 10 Hot MLB Starts

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    There's nothing like an unexpectedly hot start to a fresh MLB season.

    Is it a sign of a breakout season to come or a matter of small-sample-size success before a player comes crashing back to earth?

    That's what we've set out to decide as we dive a bit deeper into 10 surprisingly hot starts to the 2017 season.

    It's a list that includes everything from standout rookies (Manuel Margot and Amir Garrett) to budding stars (J.T. Realmuto and James Paxton) to veterans with something to prove (Ryan Zimmerman and Mark Reynolds).

    Are they a fluke or the real deal?

    Let's find out.

SP Chase Anderson, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    2017 Stats

    2 GS, 1-0, 0.69 ERA, 13.0 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 4 BB, 11 K

      

    Fluke or For Real?

    Chase Anderson wasn't even guaranteed a spot in the Milwaukee Brewers rotation this spring.

    The 29-year-old made a career-high 30 starts last season and topped the 150-inning mark for a second straight year, but he was essentially a league-average option once again, going 9-11 with a 4.39 ERA (95 ERA+), 1.37 WHIP and 120 strikeouts in 151.2 innings.

    A strong spring won him one of the available rotation spots, and he's made the most of it so far with a pair of terrific starts.

    "I'm just trying to take advantage of opportunities because you don't get too many of them in this game," Anderson told Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

    So is the right-hander on his way to a breakout season?

    It's too early to make that leap. After all, we've seen this before when he rattled off a 12-inning scoreless streak to begin last season.

    However, there's no reason to think he can't be a viable rotation option all season for the rebuilding Brewers.

RP Chris Devenski, Houston Astros

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    2017 Stats

    2 G, 1-0, 1.13 ERA, 8.0 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 14 K

     

    Fluke or For Real?

    Chris Devenski was far off the prospect radar prior to his surprising rookie performance last season.

    The 26-year-old pitched to a 2.16 ERA and 0.91 WHIP with 104 strikeouts in 108.1 innings while making five starts and 43 relief appearances to finish fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting.

    Now he finds himself in something of an undefined role.

    "I can see him doing a little bit of everything," manager A.J. Hinch told Richard Justice of MLB.com. "I think he could get the last three outs of a game if we needed that. I don't think one particular role will define this guy. His demeanor, his pitch repertoire, his ability to throw strikes, his mentality, it bodes well for him."

    He's already shown his multi-inning versatility this season with a pair of four-inning appearances out of the bullpen, registering a 14-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

    Regardless of whether he finds himself in the rotation, winds up closing games or remains in something of a hybrid role, expect him to be a key part of the Houston Astros pitching staff while they chase an AL West title.

DH Avisail Garcia, Chicago White Sox

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    2017 Stats

    8 G, 34 PA, .452/.500/.645, 14 H, 1 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 8 RBI, 6 R, 0/2 SB

     

    Fluke or For Real?

    Avisail Garcia has yet to develop into the middle-of-the-order threat the Chicago White Sox were hoping he'd become when he was acquired from the Detroit Tigers.

    He's still just 25, though.

    As an everyday player the past two seasons, he's hit a combined .252/.308/.374 while averaging 18 doubles, 12 home runs and 55 RBI over 527 plate appearances and posting a 0.5 WAR.

    The rebuilding White Sox stuck by him this season, giving him $3 million in his second year of arbitration when he looked like a potential non-tender candidate, and he's rewarded them with a hot start.

    "Avisail is more relaxed at the plate," teammate Miguel Gonzalez told David Just of the Chicago Sun-Times. "He's not trying to do too much. He has power no matter what, so he's just staying through it and making good contact. You can tell by the way things are going for him right now."

    Given his age and offensive potential, there's reason to be optimistic about his hot start, but his track record is lacking.

SP Amir Garrett, Cincinnati Reds

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    2017 Stats

    2 GS, 2-0, 1.42 ERA, 12.2 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 9 K

     

    Fluke or For Real?

    Injuries opened the door for Amir Garrett to break camp with a spot in the Cincinnati Reds' starting rotation, and the team's top pitching prospect has been dynamite in his first two big league starts.

    So has he exceeded expectations?

    "The numbers have," manager Bryan Price told Adam Berry and Bob Cohn of MLB.com. "The competitiveness, no, because I've heard about that for the longest time, about what type of competitor Amir is."

    Price continued: "The ability to command his stuff, and the fact he's pitched two games so far now, both games on the road, St. Louis [Cardinals] and Pittsburgh [Pirates], division rivals, never been in the big leagues before, and pitching as well as he has, that's beyond my expectations for sure."

    The former two-sport star has steadily improved since turning his full attention to the baseball diamond, and if there's any pitcher in the rebuilding Reds system who is going emerge as the ace of the staff going forward, it's Garrett.

    The 24-year-old is going to experience some bumps in the road, but a run at NL Rookie of the Year is not out of the question.

RF Mitch Haniger, Seattle Mariners

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    2017 Stats

    10 G, .250/.375/.550, 10 H, 3 2B, 3 HR, 6 RBI, 10 R, 2/2 SB

     

    Fluke or For Real?

    A few years from now, the Taijuan Walker-Jean Segura trade that went down between the Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks this offseason might be better known as the Mitch Haniger trade.

    The 26-year-old hit .321/.419/.581 with 34 doubles, 25 home runs and 94 RBI between Double-A and Triple-A last season, and he broke camp with the Mariners' starting right field job.

    He's also been tasked with hitting in the No. 2 spot in the lineup ahead of the likes of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager.

    "I'm hitting in front of some great hitters, and I need to get on base for those guys," Haniger told John Blanchette of the Spokesman-Review. "They’re proven veterans who can drive guys in. If I just do my job and let them do theirs, we'll get this rolling."

    He's essentially a finished product, so he doesn't offer the same upside that a lot of rookies do, but he appears to have the tools necessary to be an everyday outfielder at the MLB level.

    An .800 OPS with 20-plus home runs and plenty of runs scored serving as a table-setter could be enough to put him in the running for AL Rookie of the Year.

CF Manuel Margot, San Diego Padres

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    2017 Stats 

    10 G, 43 PA, .325/.372/.650, 13 H, 4 2B, 3 HR, 5 RBI, 8 R, 1/1 SB

      

    Fluke or For Real?

    Manuel Margot has a chance to be a bright spot in what figures to be a long season for the rebuilding San Diego Padres.

    The 22-year-old spent last season in Triple-A, where he hit .304/.351/.426 with 39 extra-base hits and 30 stolen bases, earning the Opening Day center field job in 2017.

    Good speed, table-setting ability and standout defense in the outfield were all to be expected.

    His early power surge was not.

    "It's not what we were expecting from him," manager Andy Green told Owen Perkins of MLB.com. "We were expecting really strong competitive at-bats, slashing the ball around the yard, but we'll take the three home runs early on from him. I couldn't be more pleased with his early-season effort. He's been outstanding."

    After he hit just six home runs in 566 plate appearances in the minors last season, and considering he'll be playing half his games in pitcher-friendly Petco Park, it's unlikely the power production continues.

    However, he's capable of being a 3-4 WAR player as a rookie.

SP James Paxton, Seattle Mariners

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    2017 Stats

    2 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 13.0 IP, 6 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 13 K

      

    Fluke or For Real?

    James Paxton looked primed for a breakout season, and he's delivered so far.

    Here's what I wrote while naming him to my All-Under-The-Radar team in February:

    FIP or Fielder Independent Pitching is a measure of the facets of the game that a pitcher can control—home runs, strikeouts and walks—and it's converted into a number that is meant to mirror ERA.

    To put it simply, it's what a player's ERA should be and it's often a good predictor of positive or negative regression to come.

    While Paxton pitched to a rather nondescript 3.79 ERA over 20 starts last season, it was accompanied by a 2.80 FIP which was good for fourth-best among all pitchers with at least 120 innings of work.

    Only Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard and Jose Fernandez were better.

    The starting rotation could be the determining factor in whether the Mariners are contenders this season, and more of the same from Paxton would go a long way.

C J.T. Realmuto, Miami Marlins

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    2017 Stats

    8 G, 33 PA, .400/.455/.700, 1 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 6 RBI, 7 R, 0/1 SB

      

    Fluke or For Real?

    The Miami Marlins have not had a true franchise catcher since the days of Charles Johnson.

    Since Johnson's final Opening Day start in 2001, they've trotted out 12 different starting catchers in the season opener.

    Now it looks like J.T. Realmuto might bring some stability to the position.

    He took over for veteran Jarrod Saltalamacchia midway through the 2015 season and took a huge step forward last year when he hit .303/.343/.428 with 31 doubles and 11 home runs.

    His receiving skills are still a work in progress, and it remains to be seen how much power he'll develop. His hit tool is for real, though, and his lineup versatility is incredibly valuable.

    "In general, the at-bats are the same," manager Don Mattingly said, per Tim Healey of the Sun Sentinel. "Your plan is pretty much the same. You got to get a good pitch, got to know what you [got] with a guy. J.T. doesn't seem to be bothered by anything I do with him. He's a guy I can put sixth, I can put third, I can lead off—and feel comfortable he can handle all that."

    Already this season, he's hit first, second and sixth in the order.

    The first of many All-Star appearances could be forthcoming.

1B Mark Reynolds, Colorado Rockies

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    2017 Stats

    11 G, 40 PA, .306/.375/.722, 11 H, 3 2B, 4 HR, 11 RBI, 5 R, 0/1 SB

      

    Fluke or For Real?

    One-dimensional power hitters have been devalued in recent seasons.

    Mark Reynolds had to settle for returning to the Colorado Rockies on a minor league deal this offseason despite posting an .806 OPS with 24 doubles and 14 home runs in 441 plate appearances.

    He'll earn $1.5 million this season after winning a spot as a non-roster invitee. As Ian Desmond recovers from a fractured hand, Reynolds has found himself in an everyday role to begin the season.

    It's a role he's filled in the past and one he's thriving in here in the early part of April.

    "You get a couple hits and you gain some confidence," Reynolds said, per Aniello Piro of Mile High Sports. "You ride it out as long as you can do it. Once that ball gets rolling, you just try to bottle it up and see how long it lasts."

    Considering the Rockies gave Ian Desmond a whopping $70 million over five years this offseason, Reynolds isn't going to steal his starting job.

    However, the team could use Desmond in more of a super-utility role once he returns, giving him some time in the outfield to ease the transition to first base—at least while Reynolds is swinging a hot bat.

    A 20-homer season isn't out of the question for Reynolds if he gets 400 plate appearances.

1B Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals

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    Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

    2017 Stats

    9 G, 36 PA, .382/.417/.735, 13 H, 3 2B, 3 HR, 6 RBI, 6 R, 1/1 SB

      

    Fluke or For Real?

    Ryan Zimmerman is already an established star in the big leagues.

    Or at least he was.

    The 32-year-old hit just .218/.272/.370 with 15 home runs and 46 RBI in 467 plate appearances for a minus-1.1 WAR in 2016.

    With roughly $46 million left on his contract through the end of the 2019 season, he's out to prove he can still be the impact player he was a few years ago.

    So far, so good, as he's off to a red-hot start.

    "I think he's been aggressive, attacking early," hitting coach Rick Schu told Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post. "I think he wants to prove to everyone that he's still the man—and he is."

    A lot has been made about the importance of a bounce-back season from Bryce Harper, and that's a significant factor in the Washington Nationals' hopes of contending for a title.

    However, a return to relevance from Zimmerman would go a long way as well.

       

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.