Biggest MLB Surprises, Disappointments at 2017 1-Month Mark

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 24, 2017

Biggest MLB Surprises, Disappointments at 2017 1-Month Mark

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    If baseball were an actor, it would tear up every script and insist on improvising.

    Want evidence for this hypothesis? Just take a look at what's happened so far in the 2017 MLB season.

    It's only been a handful of weeks, but already much of the conventional wisdom about the league and the players therein has been thrown for a proverbial loop. There are surprises and disappointments aplenty.

    Could some of these turn out to be just the latest round of April flukes? Yes.

    Could some of these turn out to be harbingers of real trends? Also yes.

    Either way, it is as good a time as any to pause and appreciate the five biggest surprises and five biggest disappointments of the 2017 season so far.

Surprise: The Eric Thames Experience (featuring the Milwaukee Brewers)

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    When Eric Thames left to play in South Korea in 2014, the modest .727 OPS he'd posted in parts of two major league seasons suggested he might never be seen stateside again.

    Well, he's back. If you haven't spotted him yet, here's a hint: He's the big dude in the Milwaukee Brewers uniform with the 1.289 OPS and MLB-high eight home runs.

    Maybe this isn't too surprising in light of what Thames did in South Korea. He went there and found the Fountain of Dingers, putting up a 1.172 OPS and averaging 41 homers over three seasons. However, the league's faith in those numbers translating back to the U.S. was such that the 30-year-old could only find a $16 million contract over the winter. And even at that rate, the Brewers seemed to be rolling the dice.

    It's early, but they've rolled a winner. Thames is not only continuing to rake but has also been a perfect fit for a Brewers lineup that leads MLB in home runs, with 34. 

    Provided you don't play for the Chicago Cubs, it's an early success story that anyone can appreciate.

Disappointment: American League Aces Are Flunking

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    If Thames is an upstart slugger who's owning the National League, the other side of that coin would feature tried-and-true aces getting shellacked in the American League, right?

    Sure. Why not. Whatever the case, that's what's happening.

    Take a look at the bottom of the AL wins-above-replacement leaderboard, and you'll see five guys who have no business being there: Cy Young winners Rick Porcello and Justin Verlander, All-Stars Jose Quintana and Steven Wright and up-and-coming right-hander Kevin Gausman. 

    These guys combined for a 3.25 ERA last season. They're now combining for a 6.65 ERA this season. And it really has been that ugly. They've struggled with both walks (3.8 BB/9) and home runs (2.0 HR/9). 

    Further thickening the plot is that the AL's offensive environment hasn't been especially nasty. The .700 OPS in the AL this April is lower than the .711 OPS in the AL last April.

    This is either One of Those Things™ or One of Those Things™. Regardless, it's a bad look.

Surprise: The Best Rookies in MLB Are...Mitch Haniger and Antonio Senzatela?

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    From Aaron Judge to Andrew Benintendi to Manuel Margot to Amir Garrett, there's a fine collection of former top prospects who are emerging as name-brand rookies.

    But they're all looking up at Mitch Haniger and Antonio Senzatela.

    (Double-checks.)

    Yeah. That's what the stats say. With a 1.020 OPS and strong defense for the Seattle Mariners, Haniger has been baseball's top rookie hitter. With a 3-0 record and 2.08 ERA in four starts for the Colorado Rockies, Senzatela has been baseball's top rookie pitcher.

    What makes this surprising is that neither of them ever appeared in any top-100 rankings. But looking back with 20-20 hindsight glasses, that part is also surprising. 

    Before this season, Baseball America described Haniger as a "good athlete" with "plenty of raw power and good bat speed." It said the following about Senzatela: "When he takes the mound, he usually wins."

    Sounds like they were pretty good prospects before they became pretty good players. Clearly, whatever fanfare they're getting is overdue.

Disappointment: So Much for Byron Buxton's Big Breakout

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    Just as there are plenty of youngsters who are living up to the hype, there are plenty who aren't. That means you, Dansby Swanson, Tim Anderson and Devon Travis.

    However, what makes Byron Buxton's situation especially frustrating is that (read this next bit in a heartbroken Obi-Wan Kenobi voicehe was the chosen one.

    Heck, there's no other player with a longer track record of chosen one-ness. The Minnesota Twins drafted Buxton No. 2 overall 2012, and he was rated as MLB's No. 1 or No. 2 prospect before 2014, 2015 and 2016.

    After struggling mightily in his first tastes of the majors, Buxton snapped out of it with a 1.010 OPS and nine homers last September. He was one of the best players in the league, making it all too easy to anticipate a proper breakout in 2017.

    Alas, he's gone back to struggling mightily. He has just a .301 OPS, in no small part because he's struck out 27 times in 58 plate appearances. If he stays on this track, he'll destroy the single-season strikeout record.

    That's probably a big "if" at this point.

Surprise: Aaron Judge Is a Vengeful God (and the Yankees Aren't Bad, Either)

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    You know who's a strikeout-prone youngster who's not struggling to find his footing?

    Aaron Judge. That's who.

    The best way this writer can drive the point home is to just link to the dingers Judge has hit this year. The best way this writer can drive the point home and keep his job is to link to just this one, this one and this one and provide some analysis.

    At 6'7" and 282 pounds, Judge is the biggest position player ever. So of course he can clobber a baseball. The real question coming into 2017 was whether he would put his bat on the ball often enough.

    He's answering that by dropping his K percent to 25.4 from a dismal 44.2 as a rookie last year. How? One word: discipline. Judge is going fishing at only 23.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. Given the sheer size of his strike zone, suffice to say he's developed a crucial skill.

    Thus his .983 OPS and six homers. It's a better performance than even the New York Yankees could have anticipated, and it's a sizable reason why they've ridden a hot offense to their 11-7 record.

Disappointment: The Blue Jays Have the Blues

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    You know that GIF of Chuck Norris repeatedly punching the camera?

    Imagine Norris as the 2017 season and the Toronto Blue Jays as the camera and, presto, you have a fitting image.

    The Blue Jays are 5-13 and may be lucky it's not worse. Their supposedly high-powered offense has a .639 OPS. Their supposedly solid pitching staff has a 4.11 ERA. To boot, two of their best hitters (Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki) and two of their best pitchers (Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ) are on the disabled list.

    There's still time for the Blue Jays to turn things around and try for a third straight postseason trip. But there was an argument—notably made by FanGraphs' Dave Cameron—that they should have torn it all down before the season began. It may not be long before that becomes reality.

    "Rival evaluators already are beginning to size up the Jays as a possible candidate for an extensive midseason sell-off," ESPN.com's Buster Olney wrote.

    It's too soon to bury the Blue Jays. But is it too soon to start digging their grave? No.

Surprise: The Rockies Can't Get Much Higher

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    The Colorado Rockies entered spring training as a dark horse threat in the National League, but what hype they had faded when they began to rack up injuries.

    Said hype has since returned.

    There are the Rockies at 13-6, with first place in the NL West all to themselves. That's surprising in and of itself. But what's really surprising is they've dominated with their arms and not their bats.

    Coors Field, be damned—the Rockies have the NL's second-best ERA at 3.59. Senzatela's surprise super-rookie thing has helped. So have strong performances from Tyler Chatwood and Kyle Freeland.

    The real prize, though, is Colorado's bullpen. It has a 2.76 ERA and, according to FanGraphs, has accounted for more WAR than any other bullpen. Greg Holland is proving to be one of the big steals from last winter's free-agent market, and there's depth aplenty beneath him.

    Because Denver's thin air isn't going anywhere, all this good pitching may not last. But by the time it comes down, the Rockies offense may be ready to improve on its modest .730 OPS.

    So if you're not already, beware the Rockies.

Disappointment: The Giants' Magic Appears to Be Spent

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    After winning it all in 2010, 2012 and 2014, the San Francisco Giants didn't win the World Series last year. That's quickly going from a possible fluke to a bad omen.

    While the Giants aren't strangers to struggles in odd years, what's happening to them in 2017 is concerning—even by their standards. They're 6-13 and can't do anything right. Their offense has just a .656 OPS. Their pitching staff has just a 4.43 ERA.

    And now, here come the injuries.

    Staff ace Madison Bumgarner learned the hard way that dirt-biking is a dangerous off-day activity, suffering bruised ribs and a shoulder strain that could keep him out for two months.

    Center fielder and leadoff man Denard Span has a bad shoulder of his own, as he suffered a sprain when he crashed into a wall on Saturday. Fellow outfielder Jarrett Parker knows his pain and then some, as he's out for a while with a broken clavicle that he got running into a wall on April 15.

    Unlike the Blue Jays, the Giants have too many long-term building blocks to entertain a rebuild. But at the very least, they're on their way to the biggest dose of humility they've had to swallow in some time.

Surprise: The Diamondbacks Can Hit and Pitch and Win

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    The Arizona Diamondbacks went 69-93 last season, and then traded away their most productive player (and Haniger!) over the winter. That's a hell of a way to set low expectations.

    That now seems oddly clever.

    The D-backs' 12-8 record is good enough for second in the NL West and third in the National League. And with a lineup like theirs, it's not the biggest shocker to see them leading baseball in runs.

    By far the bigger surprise is what they're doing on the mound, particularly at the start of games. Arizona starters have gone from a 5.19 ERA in 2016 to a 3.71 ERA in 2017. Zack Greinke, Shelby Miller and Patrick Corbin are having bounce-back seasons, and everyone's taking cues from pitching strategist Dan Haren.

    "Dan Haren’s expertise from standing on the rubber and being able to see the same sight line as some of these pitchers has been a great value," manager Torey Lovullo said, according to Scott Bordow of The Arizona Republic.

    What, exactly, is a pitching strategist? Right now, the best answer is something about to be in demand.

Disappointment: Starling Marte Lets Everyone Down

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    With a center field role formerly occupied by Andrew McCutchen in hand, this season was Starling Marte's big chance to force everyone into taking his superstardom seriously.

    Now he'll be lucky if anyone takes him seriously ever again.

    The league recently announced that Marte has been suspended for 80 games for taking nandrolone, a performance-enhancing drug. This is a huge blow to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Without one of their best players, what was already a hard climb back to the playoffs won't be any easier.

    For MLB, the positive spin to put on Marte's suspension is that he got caught. A system that's been tweaked and fine-tuned over years and years clearly isn't useless.

    But perhaps more than ever before, one wonders whether it will ever be perfect.

    Although the league has been cracking down on PEDs for over a decade, the high-profile cases—Dee Gordon in 2016, Ervin Santana in 2015, the entire Biogenesis gang in 2013—just keep coming. The easy explanation is that money is simply too great an incentive for cheaters. But with Marte being just the latest player to get caught using after having already signed a life-changing contract, that answer may be too easy.

    At the end of the day, you have to ask, "What makes players use?" And then, "What can be done about it?" Until clear answers arise for both questions, you can expect more Starling Martes.

       

    Data courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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