Testing the B.S. Meter on MLB's Most Shocking 1st-Quarter Breakouts

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterMay 16, 2017

Testing the B.S. Meter on MLB's Most Shocking 1st-Quarter Breakouts

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    Featuring Aaron Judge, and more!
    Featuring Aaron Judge, and more!Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Even by baseball standards, the first quarter of the 2017 MLB season has been full of surprises.

    But rather than gush over them, let's ask the blunt question: What's for real and what's not?

    In times like these, it sure helps to have what we're calling the "B.S. Meter." It's just what it sounds like: a device with which to assess believability.

    With the help of the latest and greatest in sabermetrics, it's now going to be applied to 10 breakout stars. The list consists of five top hitters and five top pitchers. Not all of them were completely off the radar before the season, but each is far surpassing what could've been fairly expected of them.

    Starting with the hitters, let's get to it.

Aaron Judge, New York Yankees

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images
    GPAHRSBAVGOBPSLUGOPS+
    33138142.316.420.744208

    Aaron Judge entered 2017 as a consensus top-100 prospect, of course. But after struggling in the majors in 2016, the 6'7", 282-pound outfielder was better known as MLB's large adult son than a slam-dunk star.

    Now he looks like a budding superstar. And how.

    Per Baseball Savant, there's not much of a gap between Judge's expected production and actual production. If you've seen his highlights, you won't be surprised to hear that one factor is how much he crushes the ball. He averages 93.9 mph on his batted balls, and has topped 100 mph 34 times.

    The key for Judge, 25, will be continuing to put balls in play. He struggled to do that in 2016 but has dropped his strikeout rate from 44.2 percent to a more manageable 28.3 percent this season.

    And while his strikeout rate has ticked up in May, he has safeguards in place to keep it from getting too out of control. His much-improved walk rate is reflective of much-improved discipline, as he's laying off pitches he can't reach and is attacking pitches that he can reach.

    In other words, he's downplaying the hazards of his size and playing up the advantages.

    B.S. Meter: Low

Miguel Sano, Minnesota Twins

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
    GPAHRSBAVGOBPSLUGOPS+
    33139100.297.349.667203

    Miguel Sano is another large adult son who was once a top-100 prospect who got a reality check in the majors, and who's now hitting everything in sight.

    And wouldn't you know it, his big breakout also smells legit.

    Whereas Judge is just now finding his discipline, Sano has always had discipline and now has it in spades. He's walking in 20.1 percent of his plate appearances, which is a fine counterbalance for a strikeout rate that remains through the roof at 34.5 percent.

    And when the 24-year-old does put the ball in play...hoo boy.

    On average, balls are coming off his bat with a 20.3-degree launch angle and 99.0 mph in exit velocity. That's more than enough loft and more speed than any other hitter. Behold, a prophecy coming true.

    "Sano has enough juice to earn comparisons to Giancarlo Stanton, the only righthanded hitter in the game who matches his 80 raw power on the 20-80 scouting scale," wrote John Manuel at Baseball America in 2012.

    Not surprisingly, Sano has an even smaller gap between his expected and actual production than Judge does. Despite the strikeouts, the dude can hit.

    B.S. Meter: Low

Michael Conforto, New York Mets

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images
    GPAHRSBAVGOBPSLUGOPS+
    3412691.327.413.654192*

    *Through May 14.

    Following a 2016 season in which he disappeared for a while, Michael Conforto has quickly gone from being a wild card to being one of the only stable players the New York Mets have. 

    Things look good at first glance. The 24-year-old's walk and strikeout rates have improved. He's still mostly hitting the ball in the air. And when he's done so, he's averaged a rock-solid 96.2 mph in exit velocity.

    But upon closer inspection, the red flags come into focus.

    Despite his decreased strikeout rate, Conforto is actually rocking a career-low 75.4 contact percentage. And while it hasn't hurt him yet, his extreme fondness for the middle of the field could come back to bite him.

    That's a good habit for a singles hitter, a la DJ LeMahieu. It's less of a good habit for a power hitter, much less one who doesn't quite have Sano-ian or Judge-ian raw pop.

    So the sizable gap between Conforto's expected production and his actual production? That's not such an easy thing to dismiss. He's a good candidate to come back down to earth.

    You know, sort of like he did after last April.

    B.S. Meter: High

Yonder Alonso, Oakland Athletics

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    Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images
    GPAHRSBAVGOBPSLUGOPS+
    36130120.283.377.646191*

    *Through May 14.

    Yonder Alonso has already beaten his previous career high for home runs by three. That would seem suspicious if it wasn't by design.

    "I'm trying to punish it more, get it in the air," Alonso said during spring training, according to Eno Sarris of FanGraphs.

    Yonder Alonso basically didn't want to be Yonder Alonso anymore. And it's working. His launch angle is way up and he's added exit velocity, to boot. What was a line-drive swing with some oomph is now a fly-ball swing with much oomph.

    The catch with a loftier swing is that it requires taking the long way to the ball. Thus, it's no wonder that the 30-year-old has a higher strikeout rate than usual.

    But like Judge and Sano, power isn't all Alonso has to downplay the effect of whiffs. He's always had discipline and hasn't had to sacrifice any to boost his power. In fact, his walk rate is up.

    The result is a tiny difference between his expected and actual production. And if anything, Alonso's torrid May suggests he's only getting more comfortable in his new baseball skin.

    B.S. Meter: Low

Eric Thames, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images
    GPAHRSBAVGOBPSLUGOPS+
    36154 131.315.435.693188

    Anyone who read last week's breakdown of the luckiest hitters of 2017 will already know a thing or two about how Eric Thames is really hitting this season.

    For everyone who didn't, here's the CliffsNotes version: Thames has had an excellent approach, but he's not hitting the ball with either as much loft or exit velocity as you'd expect. Thus, the large gap between his expected and actual production.

    However, this must be said: "lucky" is not the same as "bad."

    Hitters can create luck, and Thames has had a unique way of creating his. Unlike Conforto, who's often testing the big part of the field, Thames is shying away from center field and either pulling or pushing everything.

    He's thus aiming for the shortest fences. That's the best possible way he could maximize the effect of his relatively modest pop. And from looking at him, it's obvious that his real pop is more than just modest. 

    The 30-year-old probably isn't one of the best hitters in baseball. But he's definitely a lot better than he was when he left for Korea three years ago.

    B.S. Meter: Medium

Jason Vargas, Kansas City Royals

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    Ed Zurga/Getty Images
    GIPK/9BB/9HR/9ERAERA+
    744.27.91.60.21.01410

    Jason Vargas was little more than an innings eater before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2015 and missing the better part of two seasons. Now he's pitching like an ace.

    It would be unbelievable if it wasn't so believable. His strikeout rate is solid, and his walk and home run rates are downright excellent. And it's not just Kauffman Stadium contributing to the latter. Batted balls against Vargas have averaged only 85.4 mph, safely below the MLB average of 86.9 mph.

    The 34-year-old's repertoire has changed, as he's fallen back in love with his four-seam fastball. And despite throwing from a lower angle than he was pre-surgery, he's masking his release points and using a high-low attack with his location.

    In plain English: He's not making it easy for hitters to recognize pitches or pick a location to sit on. As any pitcher whose fastball sits in the mid-80s should be, he's doing all he can to keep hitters off-balance.

    This kind of approach likely won't let him keep his 1.01 ERA forever. Nonetheless, it actually makes sense that hitters' expected production against him isn't much better than their actual production.

    B.S. Meter: Low

Ervin Santana, Minnesota Twins

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images
    GIPK/9BB/9HR/9ERAERA+
    854.06.83.51.01.50270

    Ervin Santana has undergone an innings-eater-to-ace transition similar to that of Vargas. But in light of his strikeout, walk and home run rates, it doesn't look as believable at first glance. 

    The key reason for his success: He's allowing an MLB-low 3.8 hits per nine innings, in no small part because he's working on by far the lowest batting average on balls in play in history.

    Spoiler alert: That won't last. He owes hitters some hits.

    Another spoiler alert: Santana may not crash as hard as you'd expect.

    As long as he remains in Minnesota, he'll get to keep pitching to a defense that ranks third in efficiency. And he'll keep making his defenders' jobs easy as long as he keeps limiting exit velocity to an average of 83.2 mph.

    Much like Vargas, Santana is masking his release points and going with a high-low attack. The difference is that the 34-year-old still has zip on his fastball at an average of 92.5 mph.

    Even after bad luck does catch up with Santana, he could still have a career year.

    B.S. Meter: Low

Mike Leake, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
    GIPK/9BB/9HR/9ERAERA+
    746.16.21.90.61.94214 

    Clearly, Mike Leake has the best ERA (and best ERA+) in the National League because he didn't enjoy pitching to a 4.69 ERA last year.

    And also because he's trying some different things.

    "[I'm] trying to be more pitcher-ish," he told Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Mix and match and read swings as I'm going. I'm getting a little better at all of it. It's about trying to use it as little as you can and keep things in your back pocket if you can."

    Leake, 29, is throwing more cutters in 2017, and not just in general. It's been his go-to pitch deep into games in a way that it hasn't been in the past. So, it no longer works to wait for sinkers against him.

    However, Leake's new approach isn't working as well as those of Vargas and Santana. 

    His strikeout and walk rates are actually worse than they were a year ago. And while his ground-ball rate is quite good, his 87.3 mph in average exit velocity isn't. To boot, the defense behind him isn't good either.

    The numbers say Leake owes hitters some hits. That's easy to believe.

    B.S. Meter: High

Dylan Bundy, Baltimore Orioles

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    Brian Davidson/Getty Images
    GIPK/9BB/9HR/9ERAERA+
    851.26.32.10.72.26182 

    Because he was once MLB's No. 1 pitching prospect, Dylan Bundy's breakout shouldn't be too hard to believe.

    But given that he basically lost three years to Tommy John surgery and only showed flashes of greatness in 2016, his 2017 season is blowing away all reasonable expectations.

    Good health isn't the only thing the 24-year-old has going for him. He's reintroduced a slider/cutter that wasn't there in 2016. It's a nasty pitch, and is helping him place among the leaders in late movement.

    But unless he starts getting more easy outs via a higher strikeout rate, there is one outstanding concern: How long can Bundy survive as an extreme fly-ball pitcher?

    Sure, it's worked to this point. That's partially because balls in the air against him have less exit velocity than the league average. His outfielders are also rating well so far.

    But his success may have limited lasting power. Said outfield might have been the worst in baseball last year. If that doesn't come back to bite Bundy, the tiny dimensions of Oriole Park at Camden Yards could.

    He doesn't owe too many hits. But the ones he does owe will find him.

    B.S. Meter: High

Kyle Freeland, Colorado Rockies

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
    GIPK/9BB/9HR/9ERAERA+
    740.05.94.10.22.93173

    You know the magic Baseball Savant formula that's been cited as a tell-all for each player's "real" effectiveness?

    Surprisingly, it claims that Kyle Freeland is right where he should be. That flies in the face of what you'd expect with a Colorado Rockies pitcher with a sub-3.00 ERA. Much less one with those strikeout and walk rates.

    Freeland's saving grace is his ability to get ground balls. Not even Dallas Keuchel has been his equal in that department. That helps explain his almost nonexistent home run rate and, with help from his defense, his below-average .272 BABIP.

    But can he really keep getting ground balls at this rate?

    It's not as if Freeland, 24, is assaulting hitters with sinkers. They account for only 34.4 percent of his pitches. Nor is he making like Keuchel and staying low with his location. In fact, Freeland (and everyone else) is miles from Keuchel in that regard.

    Point being: Freeland isn't the National League's Keuchel. Because that would be the most logical explanation for his success, his success is best taken with a block of salt.

    B.S. Meter: High

    Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball and Baseball Prospectus.