The 10 Biggest Surprises of the 2022 MLB Season So Far

Zachary D. RymerApril 23, 2022

The 10 Biggest Surprises of the 2022 MLB Season So Far

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    Cleveland Guardians' Franmil Reyes celebrates with Steven Kwan (38) after hitting a two run home run against the Chicago White Sox during the third inning of a baseball game, Thursday, April 21, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
    AP Photo/Ron Schwane

    Perhaps a handful of things have gone as expected since Major League Baseball began its 2022 season April 7. But as is usually the case early on in any given season, many more things have gone decidedly not as expected.

    So for your consideration, here's our list of the 10 early-season developments that have surprised us the most.

    We wanted to take a balanced look at things, so the list is evenly split between pleasant surprises and not-so-pleasant surprises. These concern teams and players who are or aren't meeting expectations, as well as some leaguewide trends that bear monitoring.

    Let's take it away.

The Colorado Rockies Are...Good?

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    ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 11: C.J. Cron #25 of the Colorado Rockies is congratulated by first base coach Ronnie Gideon #53 after a 6-4, 10th-inning win over the Texas Rangers in the home opener at Globe Life Field April 11, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. Colorado won 6-4 in ten innings. (Photo by Brandon Wade/Getty Images)
    Brandon Wade/Getty Images

    A quick shoutout to the New York Mets, who lead baseball with 11 wins. And to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are hot on their heels with 10 wins of their own.

    But if the question is which is the most surprising team of the early going, any answer that isn't "the Colorado Rockies" is wrong.

    The Rockies lost 87 games in 2021, and the odds pegged them for a still more disastrous season in 2022 even despite big-ticket additions Kris Bryant and Randal Grichuk. FanGraphs, for example, put their chances of making the playoffs at 0.4 percent.

    Well, they're 8-4 out of the gate and doing things they've never done. The offense's .849 OPS away from Coors Field is the highest in the club's 30-year history. In spite of some recent stumbles, the bullpen is likewise trafficking in a franchise-low 3.06 ERA.

    It's a small sample size and all, but it's encouraging that the Rockies are at least teasing that they're finally going to crack these two codes. Meanwhile, their playoff chances have shot all the way up to 1.3 percent.

This Is Not What the Texas Rangers Envisioned

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    SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - APRIL 19: Tom Murphy #2 of the Seattle Mariners and Marcus Semien #2 of the Texas Rangers speak during the fifth inning at T-Mobile Park on April 19, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
    Abbie Parr/Getty Images

    Also hoping to pull off a Rockies-style comeback in 2022 were the Texas Rangers, who notably went all-in last offseason with a $581 million splurge in free agency.

    It's, uh, not working out. At 4-9, the Rangers have the worst record in the American League.

    It hasn't helped that they've gotten very little out of their new $500 million infield. After mashing 45 home runs for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2021, Marcus Semien has zero homers and a .170 average to boot. Corey Seager is faring better, but only to the extent that he's hitting .275 with just two extra-base hits.

    It's not offense, however, that's Texas' top concern. The club's pitching has been a nightmare, coughing up an AL-high 5.68 ERA. One could pin this on bad luck, but not after one also realizes Texas pitchers have served up five more home runs than any other team's hurlers.

    As the Rangers did all their offseason spending after losing 102 games in 2021, it was little wonder when they began the season as a long shot for the playoffs anyway. Now they're an even longer shot, with just a 2.8 percent chance of playing in October.

The Guardians Are an Offensive Machine

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    Cleveland Guardians' José Ramírez celebrates with Austin Hedges (17) after hitting a grand slam against the Chicago White Sox during the second inning in the first game of a baseball doubleheader, Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
    AP Photo/Ron Schwane

    Speaking of Semien, his former team began this season as a good bet to have the league's top offense. The Toronto Blue Jays lost him, yes, but they added Matt Chapman and retained Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and other incumbents from an offense that clubbed 262 homers in 2021.

    And now for a special announcement from the Cleveland Guardians, whose newly extended third baseman already has more grand slams (two) than every other major league team (one):

    MLB @MLB

    A J-Ram slam! <a href=""></a>

    Such is the vibe that Jose Ramirez and the Guardians are grooving on so far in 2022. Before mustering just one run on Friday, they had been leading the majors with 68 runs as well as with a 135 OPS+ that was 11 percent better than the next-best team.

    It helps that Ramirez has had lots of help. Rookie outfielder Steven Kwan has an OBP north of .500, as did sophomore infielder Owen Miller before he landed on the COVID-19 injured list. Oscar Mercado, typically a glove-first outfielder, already has half as many home runs as he hit throughout all of 2021.

    In all, not bad for an offense that was all sorts of below average in 2021 and then got nary an offseason addition.

Carlos Correa Has Gone Invisible

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    MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 12: Carlos Correa #4 of the Minnesota Twins looks on against the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 12, 2022 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
    Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

    Elsewhere in the American League Central, the Minnesota Twins also wanted to become an offensive juggernaut after spending $105.3 million to add Carlos Correa to a lineup that included Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco and other noteworthy bats.

    It's not all Correa's fault that this aspiration has yet to happen, but nor is he blameless.

    Far from it, in fact. After clubbing a career-high 26 home runs to go with a sturdy 131 OPS+ in 2021, the 27-year-old shortstop has just one homer and a 76 OPS+ through 13 games with Minnesota. Per his .573 regular OPS, this is the worst start he's ever had.

    In their defense, Correa and the Twins have had to play through some gnarly weather in the early goings. He also has a better excuse than most for a slow start, in that he signed late and thus got to take only 20 at-bats in spring training.

    It's nonetheless not quite optimal that Correa's peripheral stats are littered with red flags. Among them, whiff and strikeout rates that rank in the 22nd and 16th percentiles, respectively.

The Majors Weren't Ready for Seiya Suzuki

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    Chicago Cubs' Seiya Suzuki heads to first during a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays Monday, April 18, 2022, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
    AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

    If it's a free-agent success story you want, look no further than Seiya Suzuki. Just 13 games into his major league career, he looks precisely like what he was in Japan: arguably the best player in the league.

    After notching career highs with a 1.069 OPS and 38 home runs for the Hiroshima Carp in 2021, Suzuki joined the Chicago Cubs on an $85 million contract in March. The deal was mostly met with glowing praise, and Suzuki added to the hype by leaning into his Mike Trout inspirations.

    All this might have set the stage for a disappointing first impression, but nope. Suzuki, 27, is hitting .333/.500/.692 with four home runs and 12 runs driven in. He also has metrics to match, including barrel and chase rates that both place in the 99th percentile.

    To put the latter in perspective, Suzuki has chased only 10.7 percent of the pitches he's seen outside the strike zone. The player directly below him on that leaderboard is some guy named Juan Soto.

The Reigning MVPs Haven't Had It Easy

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    Los Angeles Angels' Shohei Ohtani reacts after a swinging strike during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros Tuesday, April 19, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
    AP Photo/David J. Phillip

    On the mound, reigning AL MVP Shohei Ohtani is doing just fine, thank you. Even though he finally gave up a home run on his splitter, he's struck out 26 of the 59 batters he's faced and even flirted with a perfect game his last time out.

    At the plate, though, the Los Angeles Angels' two-way star is off last year's 46-homer pace with just three long balls through 14 games. More troubling are his .270 OBP and whiff and strikeout rates that are well below average.

    In Ohtani's defense, umpires aren't giving him many breaks. His rate of called strikes in the "shadow" region of the zone is way up from last year, resulting in calls like this one.

    Meanwhile in the National League, fellow reigning MVP Bryce Harper is also struggling to get back on the track that led him to a league-best 179 OPS+ and 35 home runs in 2021.

    He's played in 14 games and produced just a .323 OBP and two home runs. With his chase rate higher than ever, he would seem to be pressing, as the Philadelphia Phillies are off to a slow start. A sore right elbow isn't helping him either.

Albert Pujols' Return to St. Louis Has Been a Delight

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    St. Louis Cardinals designated hitter Albert Pujols tips his cap as he steps up to bat during the first inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates Thursday, April 7, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
    AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

    Elsewhere on the topic of MVPs, three-time MVP and future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols returned to the St. Louis Cardinals for his final major league season.

    Watching his swan song unfold has been nothing short of delightful.

    Since getting a warm welcome at Busch Stadium on Opening Day, Pujols has been hot at the plate with seven hits in 21 at-bats. Two of those left the ballpark, bringing his career home run total to 681. He's 15 away from Alex Rodriguez for fourth on the all-time list.

    But enough about that. You came here to see Pujols run, right?

    St. Louis Cardinals @Cardinals

    Tommy triples, but the best part of the play might be the end! <a href=""></a>

    It's not often that you get to see a 42-year-old hustle like that, mainly because most hitters are typically long gone from the majors at that age. Considering that he got released just last year, it's a small miracle that Pujols is not only still at it but also going as strong as he is.

Bobby Witt Jr. and Julio Rodriguez Don't Look Ready

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    Kansas City Royals' Bobby Witt Jr. walks back to the dugout after striking out against the Cleveland Guardians during the fourth inning of a baseball game, Monday, April 11, 2022 in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)
    AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann

    As Pujols was on the date of his MLB debut on April 2, 2001, Bobby Witt Jr. and Julio Rodriguez were both just 21 years old when they debuted for the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners, respectively, this April. Those moments, at least, were good fun.

    What's followed? Less so for both players.

    Witt and Rodriguez, who rank as B/R's No. 1 and No. 3 prospects for the 2022 season, have both struggled in the batter's box. Witt, to the tune of a .159 average and 33 OPS+. Rodriguez, to an even worse .167 average and 15 OPS+.

    Both players have a common problem in that they're racking up strikeouts, with Witt punching out at a 28.3 percent clip and Rodriguez at a cringe-worthy 44.2 percent. Yet Rodriguez at least has a good excuse for some of his punchouts, specifically the eight that came on highly questionable called third strikes.

    Regardless, it's not the kind of start that either player was hoping for, particularly considering that there's now a financial incentive attached to the Rookie of the Year and other awards.

Strikeouts Are Down...For Now

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    ST. PETERSBURG, FL - APRIL 13: Wander Franco #5 of the Tampa Bay Rays bats against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning of a baseball game at Tropicana Field on April 13, 2022 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
    Mike Carlson/Getty Images

    Witt and Rodriguez may not be helping, but there's actually good news for baseball fans who are fed up with the sport's seemingly never-ending barrage of strikeouts.

    Whether you go off strikeouts per game or overall strikeout percentage, they've been slightly less frequent at the outset of the 2022 season.

    This is another "small sample size and all" situation, but the further good news is that this is a continuation of a trend that began last year. After baseball banned sticky stuff on June 21, 2021, the leaguewide strikeout rate went from 23.9 percent before to 22.6 percent after. This year's 23.1 percent strikeout clip is a regression, to be sure, but not an erasure of progress.

    This is also happening even though pitchers, despite a short spring ramp-up and the usual early-season weather challenges, are already just about matching the average fastball velocity that they had in 2021. To wit, about a quarter of all fastballs are 95 mph and above.

    Yet in baseball's post-sticky-stuff era, even those heaters don't spin like they used to. It thus makes sense that batters aren't swinging and missing at them as much.

Batting Average and Home Runs? Both Are Way Down

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    New York Yankees' Joey Gallo reacts after hitting a fly out during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox Sunday, April 10, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
    AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

    The bad news, however, is that the league's lowest strikeout rate isn't leading to more scoring. Teams have gone from 4.53 runs per game in 2021 to just 3.99 runs per game.

    As for why, suffice it to say it's kinda hard to push runs across when the leaguewide batting average is an all-time low .231 and balls just aren't going over the fence. Home runs are down to 0.90 per game from 1.22 per game last season.

    Even if it's hard to quantify, weather is likely a factor. But some are also pointing fingers at the ball, with Dodgers manager Dave Roberts saying: “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but something is different.”

    The numbers actually back up Roberts. Hard-hit balls (i.e., 95 mph and up) in the sweet spot (i.e., between 8 and 32 degrees) are more frequent than they've ever been in the Statcast era, yet they're going an average of just 313 feet. That's a new low for the Statcast era.

    In what sure seems like a related story, balls are now being stored in humidors at all 30 stadiums. Between that and the fact that batters are also hitting a Statcast-low .200 against shifted infields, the deck is stacked against them to an unfair degree.