MLB Players We Didn't See Coming in 2017
The 2017 MLB season has provided more than a few unexpected standout performances.
Who would have guessed that Ervin Santana, Mike Leake and Jason Vargas would boast three of the five best ERAs among qualified starters? Or that Yonder Alonso and Scott Schebler would be on pace for 40-homer seasons and Corey Dickerson for 200 hits and 110 runs scored?
We've picked one player from each position whose early production we didn't see coming.
In an effort to show the contrast between expectations and reality, we provided a look at each player's preseason ZiPS projections and what they're on pace to produce along with their current stats.
Catcher: Alex Avila, Detroit Tigers
Current Stats: 1.090 OPS, 29 H, 13 XBH (6 HR), 20 RBI, 13 R
ZiPS: .243/.362/.412, 45 H, 16 XBH (7 HR), 23 RBI, 23 R
Pace: .337/.462/.628, 98 H, 44 XBH (20 HR), 68 RBI, 44 R
After a forgettable season with the Chicago White Sox, catcher Alex Avila returned to the Detroit Tigers on a one-year, $2 million deal during the offseason.
He was expected to serve as backup and mentor to James McCann once again, but the veteran has carved out a bigger piece of playing time thanks to his torrid start.
Some of that playing time came at first base while Miguel Cabrera was on the disabled list, and inevitable regression is coming since he has a completely unsustainable .479 batting average on balls in play.
Still, the Tigers have to be pleased with the decision to bring back the 30-year-old, who could wind up being a decent trade chip come July if he remains productive.
First Baseman: Yonder Alonso, Oakland Athletics
Current Stats: 1.020 OPS, 33 H, 18 XBH (13 HR), 30 RBI, 19 R
ZiPS: .263/.334/.428, 74 H, 27 XBH (10 HR), 40 RBI, 36 R
Pace: .275/.379/.642, 114 H, 62 XBH (45 HR), 103 RBI, 65 R
There were plenty of candidates at first base, including the following:
- Justin Bour: .933 OPS, 13 HR, 33 RBI
- Logan Morrison: .885 OPS, 13 HR, 34 RBI
- Eric Thames: 1.029 OPS, 13 HR, 26 RBI
If we're looking for the most unexpected breakout player at the position, however, it has to be Yonder Alonso.
The 30-year-old looked like a legitimate non-tender candidate after he posted a .683 OPS with seven home runs in 532 plate appearances last year.
Oakland decided to bring him back on a $4 million salary, though, and that looks like a brilliant decision.
He's already set a career high in home runs (13), his hard-contact rate is up (32.3 to 38.6 percent), and his fly-ball rate has spiked dramatically (33.3 to 54.5 percent).
Expecting him to keep up his 46-homer pace might not be realistic, but his breakout looks like the real deal.
Second Baseman: Chris Taylor, Los Angeles Dodgers
Current Stats: .996 OPS, 32 H, 12 XBH (5 HR), 17 RBI, 17 R
ZiPS: .264/.327/.395, 78 H, 25 XBH (5 HR), 32 RBI, 40 R
Pace: .333/.434/.563, 106 H, 40 XBH (17 HR), 56 RBI, 56 R
Chris Taylor didn't win a spot on the Opening Day roster, but a .354/.483/.500 line over 60 plate appearances during spring training had him squarely on the Los Angeles Dodgers' radar.
A slow start by Chase Utley and Logan Forsythe's fractured toe opened the door for him to see significant playing time at second base, and he's run with the opportunity.
The former Seattle Mariners prospect was developed as a middle infielder, but he added playing the outfield to his repertoire during spring training and, with Forsythe back healthy, made his first career start in center field Wednesday.
The 26-year-old will likely settle into a super-utility role going forward, and he has a chance to make an impact this season for a Dodgers team battling injuries.
Third Baseman: David Freese, Pittsburgh Pirates
Current Stats: .805 OPS, 24 H, 8 XBH (5 HR), 14 RBI, 10 R
ZiPS: .258/.337/.404, 73 H, 23 XBH (9 HR), 38 RBI, 36 R
Pace: .253/.363/.442, 78 H, 26 XBH (16 HR), 45 RBI, 32 R
David Freese made good on a one-year, $3 million deal last season, earning a three-year, $11 million extension from the Pittsburgh Pirates in August.
That's proved to be an important signing for the team with third baseman Jung Ho Kang unable to secure a visa to make his way stateside following an offseason DUI arrest.
Josh Harrison has received the bulk of the playing time at second of late, but Freese has settled in as the primary third baseman and is being counted on as a run producer in the middle of the lineup.
His walk rate is up (9.1 to 13.3 percent) and his strikeout rate is down (28.9 to 22.1 percent) this year, putting him in line for an .805 OPS that would be the second-best mark of his career.
The 34-year-old is signed through next season, but the Pirates could shop him at the deadline to teams looking for a veteran corner infield upgrade.
Shortstop: Zack Cozart, Cincinnati Reds
Current Stats: .970 OPS, 50 H, 20 XBH (4 HR), 23 RBI, 26 R
ZiPS: .267/.324/.429, 81 H, 28 XBH (8 HR), 37 RBI, 43 R
Pace: .338/.416/.554, 173 H, 70 XBH (14 HR), 81 RBI, 92 R
Zack Cozart hit .303/.332/.532 with 16 doubles and nine home runs through his first 50 games last season, and he was shaping up to be a significant trade chip for the Cincinnati Reds.
However, he hit just .228/.302/.389 with 15 extra-base hits over his next 45 games leading up to the trade deadline, and a potential July 31 deal with the Seattle Mariners fell apart.
His struggles continued to the tune of a .198 average and .555 OPS after that, and his season ended in September with a right knee injury.
With his stock down, efforts to trade him during the offseason yielded no progress, and he broke camp as the Reds starting shortstop for the sixth straight season.
His stock is back on the upswing now, though, and with free agency looming in the offseason, he figures to be the top shortstop option on the trade market this summer.
Outfielder: Aaron Altherr, Philadelphia Phillies
Current Stats: .973 OPS, 36 H, 20 XBH (8 HR), 26 RBI, 24 R
ZiPS: .239/.315/.424, 72 H, 31 XBH (11 HR), 45 RBI, 43 R
Pace: .296/.389/.584, 130 H, 68 XBH (29 HR), 90 RBI, 86 R
Aaron Altherr showed flashes of greatness as a rookie in 2015, when he posted an .827 OPS with 20 extra-base hits in 161 plate appearances for the Philadelphia Phillies.
However, he followed that with a dismal .197 average and just 10 extra-base hits in 227 plate appearances last season, and with offseason additions Michael Saunders and Howie Kendrick joining incumbent All-Star Odubel Herrera, Altherr appeared to have been squeezed out of a starting job in the outfield.
However, he's remained in the lineup thanks to a hot start and could yet factor significantly into the team's long-term plans.
"It's important to see if he can sustain it," manager Pete Mackanin told Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly. "If he sustains it, he becomes a real viable option to stay with the Phillies and be considered a core piece. I want to see more. We all do."
Outfielder: Avisail Garcia, Chicago White Sox
Current Stats: .961 OPS, 58 H, 21 XBH (8 HR), 37 RBI, 26 R
ZiPS: .276/.328/.435, 92 H, 27 XBH (11 HR), 50 RBI, 48 R
Pace: .339/.382/.569, 203 H, 72 XBH (28 HR), 128 RBI, 90 R
It's easy to forget that Avisail Garcia is still just 25 years old.
The centerpiece of the 2013 three-team deadline deal that sent Jake Peavy to the Boston Red Sox and billed by many as a five-tool star, he had significant expectations with which to contend.
"A lot of pressure on a 21-year-old to be the next ... Miguel Cabrera, stuff like that. People were putting that label on him," hitting coach Todd Steverson told Jack Magruder of FanRag Sports. "He needs to be Avi, and I think he's found a way to be Avi now."
Garcia saw everyday playing time for the Chicago White Sox in 2015 and 2016, but the results were less than impressive: a .682 OPS and averages of 18 doubles, 12 home runs and 55 RBI.
The rebuilding club had every reason to give him another chance this season, though, and he's rewarded it with a breakout performance so far.
His 4.4 percent walk rate still needs work, and his .394 BABIP figures to take a bite out of his batting average once it regresses toward the mean, but there's no question he's taken a step forward.
Outfielder: Scott Schebler, Cincinnati Reds
Current Stats: .870 OPS, 40 H, 21 XBH (14 HR), 28 RBI, 21 R
ZiPS: .249/.315/.468, 92 H, 38 XBH (18 HR), 58 RBI, 51 R
Pace: .247/.320/.549, 137 H, 70 XBH (46 HR), 95 RBI, 70 R
Adam Duvall 2.0, anyone?
Scott Schebler showed some decent pop last season after Jay Bruce was shipped to the New York Mets, posting an .818 OPS and slugging seven doubles and eight home runs in 213 plate appearances from August onward.
The first two months of 2017 have been his coming-out party, though, as he ranks among the MLB leaders with 14 home runs and is on pace for a whopping 46 round-trippers.
Schebler is actually in line for some positive regression as far as his batting average is concerned, with a .230 BABIP and solid 19.9 percent strikeout rate.
And a huge jump in his fly-ball rate (29.1 to 41.6 percent) plus more hard contact (33.3 to 40.2 percent) means there's a good chance of plenty more long balls to come.
For the rebuilding Reds, the 26-year-old has a chance to be a big part of the present and future.
Designated Hitter: Corey Dickerson, Tampa Bay Rays
Current Stats: .988 OPS, 63 H, 28 XBH (12 HR), 23 RBI, 35 R
ZiPS: .270/.318/.498, 85 H, 38 XBH (15 HR), 40 RBI, 43 R
Pace: .330/.376/.613, 201 H, 91 XBH (39 HR), 75 RBI, 110 R
Corey Dickerson mashed 36 doubles and 24 home runs in his first season with the Tampa Bay Rays last year, but he did it while hitting just .245 and recording a less-than-stellar .293 on-base percentage.
Part of that had to do with ongoing struggles against left-handed pitching, as he hit .241 with a .589 OPS and just two home runs in 113 plate appearances against southpaws.
He's still not providing much in the way of power against lefties, with just one of his 12 home runs coming against them, but his .351/.403/.544 line in 62 plate appearances has helped him solidify his role as everyday leadoff hitter.
The 28-year-old talked about his improved production against lefties with David Laurila of FanGraphs:
"If you're just pinch-hitting against relievers—guys who are designed to strike you out—instead of starters who are going to be around the strike zone, it's going to be a lot harder. That's kind of how it is with facing lefties. Sometimes it's not a good sample size. Once you start getting consistent playing time ... that will show if a guy can hit lefties or not. I feel that's all I needed, getting more consistent at-bats. Now I don't even think about it. It just feels like a normal at-bat."
His .383 BABIP represents a 98-point increase from a year ago, so some regression is to be expected in his overall batting line, but there's no question Dickerson looks like a different hitter in 2017.
Utility Player: Marwin Gonzalez, Houston Astros
Current Stats: 1.007 OPS, 31 H, 16 XBH (11 HR), 28 RBI, 18 R
ZiPS: .266/.314/.445, 73 H, 27 XBH (11 HR), 36 RBI, 36 R
Pace: .282/.380/.627, 102 H, 53 XBH (36 HR), 93 RBI, 60 R
Marwin Gonzalez doesn't have a defensive home to call his own on a stacked Houston Astros team.
That, however, hasn't stopped him from getting regular at-bats, as he's already played games or parts of games at first base (12), left field (12), third base (10), second base (6), shortstop (3) and right field (2).
"He's the everyday player we don't call an everyday player because he moves around the field," manager A.J. Hinch told Bradford Doolittle of ESPN.com.
Gonzalez filled a similar role last season and set career-highs in plate appearances (518), hits (123), doubles (26), home runs (13), RBI (51) and runs (55).
He hit just .254/.293/.401 in the process, though, and his OPS is up over 300 points thanks in part to a huge spike in his walk rate (4.2 to 12.2 percent).
Whether he settles in at one position because someone else goes down with an injury or continues to bounce around the field, he's been invaluable for the Astros during their hot start.
Starting Pitcher: Ervin Santana, Minnesota Twins
Current Stats: 10 GS, 7-2, 1.80 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 27 BB, 50 K, 70.0 IP
ZiPS: 20 GS, 7-8, 4.46 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 42 BB, 96 K, 121.0 IP
Pace: 37 GS, 26-7, 1.80 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 99 BB, 184 K, 258.0 IP
The Minnesota Twins balked at the idea of trading Ervin Santana during the offseason, instead opting to hold on to the veteran starter so he could serve as an innings eater and leader for the young staff.
If he keeps pitching like he has in the early going and they finally decide to pull the trigger on moving him, the Twins will hold one of the most valuable trade chips on the market.
The 34-year-old leads the majors in ERA (1.80) and hits per nine innings (4.0), and he's already thrown a pair of complete-game shutouts among his 10 starts.
His 4.09 FIP doesn't exactly scream sustainability, but he's consistently pitched below his FIP in the latter half of his career, so his regression might not be as significant as some expect.
At any rate, his $13.5 million salary for next season and $14 million club option for 2018 make him an attractive target for teams looking to upgrade their rotations in 2017 and beyond.
Starting Pitcher: Jason Vargas, Kansas City Royals
Current Stats: 9 GS, 5-3, 2.30 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 13 BB, 49 K, 54.2 IP
ZiPS: 11 GS, 4-4, 3.87 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 14 BB, 50 K, 60.0 IP
Pace: 32 GS, 18-11, 2.30 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 46 BB, 173 K, 192.2 IP
Jason Vargas made just 12 combined starts in 2015 and 2016 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, and it was unclear exactly what the Kansas City Royals could expect from him heading into this year.
It's safe to say no one expected this.
The 34-year-old has been nothing short of dominant over his first nine starts, ranking fifth in the majors and third in the American League in ERA (2.30) and holding opposing hitters to a .219 average.
That despite an average fastball velocity of 87.0 mph, according to Brooks Baseball.
What's more, his 2.95 FIP ranks sixth among qualified starters, suggesting his terrific start may be sustainable.
In the final season of a four-year, $32 million deal and with the Royals off to a rocky start, he'll be a hot commodity come July.
Starting Pitcher: Mike Leake, St. Louis Cardinals
Current Stats: 9 GS, 5-2, 1.91 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 10 BB, 42 K, 61.1 IP
ZiPS: 21 GS, 7-8, 4.07 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 27 BB, 90 K, 129.0 IP
Pace: 32 GS, 18-7, 1.91 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 36 BB, 151 K, 220.1 IP
Mike Leake might have found himself battling for a spot in the St. Louis Cardinals rotation if not for a spring injury to phenom Alex Reyes.
Instead, he's been the best pitcher on a starting staff that leads the majors with a 3.17 ERA.
The 29-year-old went 9-12 with a 4.69 ERA and 1.32 WHIP last year after signing a hefty five-year, $80 million deal during the offseason.
He's earning that money this season, though, as he leads the National League in ERA (1.91) and ranks second to Clayton Kershaw in WHIP (0.93).
Leake has always been a superior athlete on the mound and a capable middle-of-the-rotation starter, but he's taken his game to another level for a Cardinals team that has leaned hard on its starting staff.
Starting Pitcher: Derek Holland, Chicago White Sox
Current Stats: 9 GS, 4-3, 2.47 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 20 BB, 44 K, 54.2 IP
ZiPS: 14 GS, 4-6, 4.86 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 26 BB, 59 K, 75.0 IP
Pace: 32 GS, 14-11, 2.47 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 70 BB, 155 K, 190.2 IP
Derek Holland was quietly one of the league's best lefty starters as recently as 2013, when he went 10-9 with a 3.42 ERA and 189 strikeouts over a career-high 213 innings for the Texas Rangers.
Injuries derailed him, however, and he made just 35 combined starts with a 4.30 ERA over the past three seasons.
Those ongoing health concerns were reason enough for the Rangers to decline his $11 million option during the offseason, and he landed with the rebuilding Chicago White Sox on a one-year, $6 million deal shortly after the team dealt Chris Sale.
The 30-year-old has given the South Siders exactly what they were hoping for: a veteran presence and a valuable trade chip they can flip for prospects at the deadline.
Starting Pitcher: Andrew Triggs, Oakland Athletics
Current Stats: 9 GS, 5-3, 2.77 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 15 BB, 42 K, 52.0 IP
ZiPS: 28 G, 6 GS, 3-3, 3.76 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 17 BB, 51 K, 60.0 IP
Pace: 31 GS, 17-10, 2.77 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 52 BB, 145 K, 179.0 IP
Andrew Triggs split his time in the majors last season between the starting rotation and bullpen, but it was clear where he belonged:
- Starter: 7 G, 1-1, 2.70 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 1 BB, 23 K, 26.2 IP
- Reliever: 17 G, 0-0, 5.76 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, 12 BB, 32 K, 29.2 IP
The 28-year-old was never viewed as much of a prospect during his time in the minors, and the Oakland Athletics scooped him up off waivers from the Baltimore Orioles last March.
He's proved to be a diamond in the rough, though, relying on a deceptive crossfire delivery to keep hitters off balance despite less-than-overpowering stuff.
Under team control through the 2022 season and with a 3.25 FIP, Triggs should serve as a low-cost rotation option in Oakland for the foreseeable future.
Relief Pitcher: Anthony Swarzak, Chicago White Sox
Current Stats: 19 G, 2-0, 4 HLD, 1.16 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 5 BB, 26 K, 23.1 IP
ZiPS: 31 G, 2-4, 0 HLD, 4.72 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 17 BB, 48 K, 57.0 IP
Pace: 65 G, 7-0, 14 HLD, 1.16 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 17 BB, 90 K, 79.1 IP
Each season, a handful of veteran relievers make good on minor league deals to emerge as key contributors on big league staffs.
Jeff Todd of MLB Trade Rumors highlighted 10 such pitchers earlier this week, including former closer Jason Motte and resurgent lefty Craig Breslow, but the headliner of this year's group is undoubtedly Anthony Swarzak.
The 31-year-old made 26 appearances out of the New York Yankees bullpen last season, posting a 5.52 ERA in 31 innings.
He kicked off this season with 19.2 scoreless innings, however, and he's allowed just nine hits and three walks for a 0.54 WHIP that ranks second among pitchers with at least 20 innings of work.
As a former starter, Swarzak has the ability to go multiple innings, which only adds to his value.
Closer: Bud Norris, Los Angeles Angels
Current Stats: 23 G, 1-2, 9/11 SV, 2.66 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 9 BB, 31 K, 23.2 IP
ZiPS: 25 G, 12 GS, 5-6, 4.39 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 27 BB, 72 K, 80.0 IP
Pace: 73 G, 3-6, 29/35 SV, 2.66 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 29 BB, 98 K, 73.2 IP
The Los Angeles Angels probably didn't envision Bud Norris closing games when they signed the veteran to a minor league deal during the offseason.
However, the 32-year-old has pitched his way into that role with Huston Street, Cam Bedrosian and Andrew Bailey on the disabled list.
Norris is using a cut fastball as his primary pitch to go along with the sinker he relied heavily on as a starter and a slider.
It's that cutter that's been the real difference-maker, though, limiting opposing hitters to a .132 average and .053 ISO, according to Brooks Baseball.
Even in this era of dominant relief pitchers, a career resurgence in the closer's role doesn't happen every day. Props to Norris for reinventing himself and finding his way into a favorable situation.