Every year, there are a handful of players who shock us in the season's opening weeks.
There are nobodies, rookies, and washed-up veterans who emerge as the game's top players by May, while some of baseball's biggest stars make their fans embarrassed to don their jerseys.
In this week's Featured Columnist poll, 16 of Bleacher Report's top baseball writers weighed in on which hot hands and slow starters we should begin idolizing or start worrying about, respectively.
This slideshow showcases 10 hot starters (look for the cold-starter results tomorrow), each with a rating of "the real deal," "expect some regression," or "Mayday! Mayday!" (the results were curved, so the majority/plurality answer did not always win)
Instead of featuring two opposite positions for each player, each slide features either a "ball of sunshine" to explain why he or she thinks the player's early success is legitimate, or a "little raincloud" to argue for why his hot start is unsustainable—half the players got optimists, half got pessimists.
For a subject in which there is often no obvious truth, I thought fewer, more developed analyses would be more interesting than a smattering of sound-bites.
Thank you to all who participated! I hope this is as fun to read as it was to put together.
Note: I sent this survey only to the Featured Columnists who have been active in previous polls. If you are a new FC or you have changed your mind about wanting to participate, send me a message and I'll be sure to keep you in the loop for next time!
The numbers: 3.50 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 33:8 K:BB ratio
The real deal—8
Expect some regression—8
The ball of sunshine: Joseph Lopez
Dallas Braden is the real deal. Forget about the perfect game for a minute, and look at his season numbers.
He’s 4-3 with a 3.50 ERA and a pretty darn good 33K/8BB ratio. Braden currently leads the A’s staff in ERA, wins and innings pitched.
Last season, prior to getting injured, Braden was 8-9 with a solid 3.89 ERA. This year, especially after his little spat with A-Roid, Braden seems a lot more focused on making his pitches.
He does not have overpowering stuff, and is like Mark Buehrle in that regard. However, Braden does keep hitters honest with his off-speed pitches, and knows how to work deep into games (he’s got 2 CG’s this year).
In short, Braden is pitching like an ace for Oakland, and appears to be a legit front-of-the line starter.
The numbers: 10 homers, 30 RBI, .979 OPS
The real deal—4
Expect some regression—12
The little raincloud: Aaron Hooks
Looking at the Blue Jays schedule so far, more Royals, Rangers and Orioles games pop up than I would have expected. And while the Jays have played Tampa three times in 2010, they will still face them 16 more times.
Factor in the Yankees 19 times and Boston, who hasn’t been very good, but figures to be better, 13 more times, and you’ve got 48 games coming up against elite pitchers.
Also working against Mr. Wells is history. Never hitting over 33 HRs or 117 RBI, his current pace wouldn’t just equal career highs—it would absolutely smash them.
Baseball has a way of evening everything out over the course of the season. We’ve got enough of a history with Vernon Wells to know what he is: a good player. Not a record-setting player.
The numbers: 1.42 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 36:16 K:BB ratio
The real deal—3
Expect some regression—13
The ball of sunshine: Todd Hayek
Jamie Garcia is a rookie. But unlike many rookies who come in and “light it up,” don’t expect him to fade.
He has the best pitching coach in baseball. He doesn’t try to overpower guys. He pitches with his arm and his head (unlike most rookies).
He’s not going to be a dominating, complete-game-shutout type pitcher, but he will be very productive and consistent.
Seven quality starts sums it up best. He will pitch 6-7 innings and give up 1-3 runs almost every outing, which makes him a top-30 pitcher in fantasy.
With Carpenter and Wainwright, he will never have too much pressure on him and can learn from the best in the game.
The numbers: 10 homers, 29 RBI, .550 SLG
The real deal—1
Expect some regression—8
The little raincloud: Eric Ball
Alex Gonzalez had a great April, but is now crashing back to Earth in May. He’s hitting .200 in the month and has only blasted three HRs after crushing seven in April.
In other words, he's falling back to the numbers most expected for the aging veteran SS.
Gonzalez, a career .248 hitter, has never been considered a power hitter; he's averaged 16 HRs a year throughout his career, never hitting more than 23 in a season.
Looking at his career numbers, I can confidently say that Gonzo’s power surge will not continue. Add his recent injury history over the past few years and Blue Jays fans need to enjoy this hot streak while it lasts.
The numbers: 13 homers, 28 RBI, 1.022 OPS
The real deal—2
Expect some regression—14
The ball of sunshine: Nino Colla
Aside from 2008, you could depend on Paul Konerko going deep at least 28 times since 2004 and even in 2008 he dealt with injuries.
All of his statistics really fall in line in terms of what he’s capable of, aside from maybe walking more than he is striking out.
The only reason people are taking note is perhaps the fact that he leads the league in home runs and he’s putting together his hot streak at the beginning of the season instead of in the middle.
This is just par for the course for Konerko, and in a walk year, I think you can expect his production to stay on track the rest of the season.
The numbers: Seven homers, 23 RBI, .988 OPS
The real deal—3
Expect some regression—10
The little raincloud: Jeremiah Graves
Soriano, 34, appears to have finally righted the ship after an abysmal first few weeks of the season. He currently has an outstanding .331/.383/.628 batting line with seven home runs and 23 RBI through the club’s first 35 games.
As impressive as these numbers are, there is every reason to believe that the free-swinging Soriano cannot sustain this level of success.
Soriano’s numbers have been in steady decline since he signed his mammoth eight-year, $136 million deal with the Cubs following his stellar 2006 campaign with the Nationals.
As has become the norm for Soriano, age—and likely injury—will take their toll before season’s end and the much-maligned outfielder will finish with numbers that fall well short of expectations once again.
The numbers: 12 homers, 26 RBI, 1.042 OPS
The real deal—2
Expect some regression—10
The ball of sunshine: Nick Cafferky
In his nine seasons of professional baseball, Wigginton has been somewhat of a journeyman. Playing on his sixth team, Wigginton was supposed to be nothing more than a spot starter and an insurance policy if injuries plagued the Orioles.
When Brian Roberts got injured, Wigginton wasn’t even the first option. However, when given the opportunity, he shined.
Since then he has been the Orioles' only source of power.
Think it won’t last? Wigginton is the only Oriole worth giving attention right now, but everyone knows that won’t last when Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Matt Wieters heat up.
When that happens, Wigginton will actually have people on base when he steps up to the plate. If anything, his numbers could get better.
The numbers: .331 batting average, 28 runs, .828 OPS
The real deal—9
Expect some regression—6
The little raincloud: Lewie Pollis
How is it possible that Jackson recently led the AL in batting despite striking out in almost a third of his at-bats? Well, Jackson's BABIP currently stands at .459. And that’s after a regression; just last week it hit .511.
If his BABIP drops to his 2009 Triple-A mark of .384—still an absurdly high number—his OBP will fall to a pedestrian .336. Does that say "Rookie of the Year" to you?
If his BABIP were to fall to the ML-average of .300, his batting average will plummet to just .219. He's like a worse version of Mark Reynolds, but without the power or plate discipline.
As a speedy line-drive hitter, it makes sense that he'll carry an above-average hit rate.
But if his luck reverses, you're looking at a guy who might not be ready for the majors, let alone a quality leadoff man.
The numbers: Eight homers, 28 RBI, .953 OPS
The real deal—13
Expect some regression—3
The ball of sunshine: Brett Kettyle
Coming into the season, Jason Heyward was the most hyped rookie to make his debut.
While drawing considerations to Fred McGriff, Hank Aaron, and Willie McCovey are nice, it wasn’t until Heyward got onto the field that he really began to stand out.
His season stats are impressive for anyone, not just a rookie. Heyward is hitting .276/8/28 with a .408 OBP.
The reason that Heyward’s start is real is his ability to make adjustments. Twice already this year, Heyward has come into and out of a mini-slump.
His ability to listen to his coaches and make small changes in his approach will keep him successful all year, even as pitchers try to figure out his weaknesses.
The numbers: 4-2, 1.47 ERA, 1.03 WHIP
The real deal—1
Expect some regression—4
The little raincloud: Chris Murphy
Livan Hernandez has not had an ERA below 4.00 since 2005 and that was at 3.98. Batters have batted .284 or higher every year against Hernandez since 2005.
For my fellow nerdlings, Hernandez’s BABIP is currently at .181, which spells bad things to come. A normal BABIP is around .300.
So far, Livan has faced just one team in the top 10 in MLB in scoring.
You don’t become a Cy Young-caliber pitcher at the age of 35. Then again, maybe the National League is just that bad.