Biggest MLB Surprises and Disappointments at the One-Month Mark

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 24, 2018

Biggest MLB Surprises and Disappointments at the One-Month Mark

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    Sean Manaea is ready for his closeup, and other observations from the opening weeks of the 2018 MLB season.
    Sean Manaea is ready for his closeup, and other observations from the opening weeks of the 2018 MLB season.John Hefti/Associated Press

    If the 2018 Major League Baseball season is going exactly as you expected it would, congratulations. You're the only one of your kind.

    For the rest of us, there's been plenty to be surprised and disappointed by.

    With the season in its fourth week of action, now's as good a time as any to break down the biggest of both worlds. These are the players and teams either flying past expectations or struggling to keep up with them.

    We have a dozen to get to, starting with seven surprises and ending with five disappointments.

Surprise: The Boston Red Sox Are Unbeatable*

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    So, about that asterisk. It's there because the Boston Red Sox were quite beatable in back-to-back losses to the Oakland Athletics on Saturday and Sunday. They were no-hit Saturday for the first time in almost exactly 25 years.

    Still, a 17-4 record is a 17-4 record is a 17-4 record.

    The Red Sox are one of only 19 teams to win at least 17 of their first 21 games. All they've needed to get it done is an offense that ranks second in MLB with an .810 OPS and 124 runs and a pitching staff that's tied for third with a 2.75 ERA.

    Of course, anyone could have expected the Red Sox to be good in 2018. They did win the American League East in 2016 and 2017, after all. They also entered 2018 with an MLB-high $235.2 million payroll.

    The fact that they're this good, however, is largely a testament to the answers they've gotten to their biggest questions. Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez are driving a much-needed power surge. Rick Porcello has turned his clock back to 2016. David Price has turned his back to 2015. And so on.

    Meanwhile in the National League, there's one team that's doing a decent Red Sox impression.

Surprise: The Arizona Diamondbacks Are the NL's Red Sox

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    Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    The Senior Circuit doesn't have a 17-game winner, but it does have a 15-game winner that's grabbed hold of a division lead that was supposed to be beyond their grasp.

    Looking at you, Arizona Diamondbacks.

    The D-backs are pacing the NL with their 15-6 record not to mention a National League West race that was supposed to be dominated by the Los Angeles Dodgers following their 104-victory, pennant-winning 2017 season.

    All this is happening on the heels of Arizona's 93-win rise from the ashes in 2017, which looked too good to continue into 2018.

    The Diamondbacks are pushing back against that notion largely on the strength of their run prevention. They're getting a 2.75 ERA out of their pitchers, who are being aided by the NL's most efficient defense. Throw in an offense that can do a little bit of everything, and there's not much to complain about.

    "I just think we have a good team," veteran starter Zack Greinke told reporters Thursday. "There's not really any holes."

    Elsewhere in the NL is an entire division that's upending the presumed status quo.

Surprise: The NL East Is the Best Division in MLB

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    Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

    Entering play Monday, the National League East was the only division in MLB that had three teams with winning percentages of at least .600.

    Shockingly, the Washington Nationals were not among them.

    After winning 97 games and capturing the division title by 20 games in 2017, the Nationals were supposed to be the kings in the NL East castle once again. Instead, they're 10-12 and looking up at an archenemy and two teams who were supposed to be rebuilding.

    The archenemy is the New York Mets, who are rebounding from a 70-92 thud with a 14-6 start. They've enjoyed mostly great pitching as well as a lineup that's deeper and less one-dimensional than usual.

    After the Mets is the first alleged rebuilder: the 14-7 Philadelphia Phillies. The early bungles by new manager Gabe Kapler already feel like ancient history, mainly thanks to a pitching staff with a 3.01 ERA.

    The next alleged rebuilder is the 12-9 Atlanta Braves. Their big surprise has been an offense that leads the NL with 115 runs scored.

    All three teams will have to worry about the Nationals eventually. But even this early, it's apparent the Nats won't cakewalk their way to another division title.

Surprise: Javier Baez Is the Best Slugger in Baseball

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Yes, it's true. The best power hitter in MLB right now is a 6'0", 190-pound middle infielder.

    Javier Baez has hit "only" seven home runs, putting him two dingers off Mike Trout's MLB-leading nine. But the Chicago Cubs star does lead MLB in isolated power (.444).

    For anyone who's unfamiliar with ISO, it's a metric that simply measures extra bases per at-bat. Indeed, "extra bases" has been the theme of Baez's early offensive performance. He's collected 21 hits in 72 at-bats, and all but six of them have been for extra bases.

    The 25-year-old has always had explosive raw power, but it tended to get lost in an approach that was too wild for his own good. That's changing in 2018, albeit in a subversive way.

    Rather than swinging less often, Baez is actually swinging more often. But it's a case of controlled aggression, as he's letting loose more frequently against pitches within the strike zone. A lower ground-ball rate and a higher hard-contact rate are proving to be effective at tapping into his power.

    Baez is not, however, the best overall hitter in baseball.

Surprise: Christian Villanueva Is the Best Hitter in Baseball

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    Denis Poroy/Getty Images

    Meet Christian Villanueva, who's quietly leading MLB with a 1.219 OPS.

    Granted, it seems impossible for any San Diego Padres player to ever do anything loudly. It must also be granted that Villanueva, a 26-year-old rookie, is kinda-sorta-obviously overachieving. In terms of expected production, he's no Betts, Kris Bryant, Aaron Judge or Rhys Hoskins.

    And yet, what he's doing must not be written off.

    Villanueva was always a good power hitter in the minor leagues, and he isn't leaving much doubt about how he means to translate his power to the major leagues. He hits the ball like a Jose Bautista clone, in that he's a right-handed swinger who tries to hit everything in the air to his pull side.

    This approach has earned him seven homers and five doubles, all but three of which have been to the left of center field.

    "You see the power; it's real," Padres manager Andy Green told reporters after Villanueva launched three homers against the Colorado Rockies on April 3. "It was a fun game for him, one I'm sure he'll remember for the rest of his life."

    Oh, if only Villanueva would face baseball's best pitcher.

Surprise: Sean Manaea Is the Best Pitcher in Baseball

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The best pitcher in baseball right now is neither Clayton Kershaw nor Max Scherzer nor Corey Kluber nor Chris Sale.

    It's Sean Manaea.

    The Oakland left-hander certainly looked the part when he no-hit the Red Sox his last time out. Given that he was facing MLB's hottest offense, Manaea couldn't have done it with anything less than a truly masterful performance. He was spotting his fastball and changing speeds with his slider and changeup all night.

    "I told him earlier, 'Look, I've caught a lot of great pitchers in this game, and that was the most well-pitched, well-executed game I've ever had behind the plate,'" Jonathan Lucroy, Manaea's catcher, told reporters.

    Even before Manaea no-hit the Red Sox, it was plenty apparent he was up to something. He had allowed just five earned runs over 27.2 innings in his first four starts.

    All told, the 26-year-old now boasts a 1.23 ERA over 36.2 innings. That's good for 1.7 wins above replacement. Only Johnny Cueto has that matched, though he's pitched 10.2 fewer innings than Manaea.

    But as good as Baez, Villanueva and Manaea are going right now, there's only one player who's been replicating the feats of Babe Ruth.

Surprise: Shohei Ohtani Is Everything

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    OK, fine. The hype for Shohei Ohtani has died down recently. The Japanese phenom hasn't homered since April 6, and his last start was a two-inning dud.

    Nonetheless, it's still utterly absurd that an American League player is serving as both a hitter and pitcher. The fact that Ohtani has excelled at both tests the limits of how much a mind can be boggled.

    The Los Angeles Angels star needed less than a week in Major League Baseball to begin doing things that nobody had done since the Bambino himself roughly a century earlier. Overall, he boasts a .997 OPS and three homers in 11 hitting appearances and a 3.60 ERA and 19 strikeouts in three pitching appearances.

    All this is way out of step with the brutal struggles Ohtani endured during spring training. But it's very much in step with what the 23-year-old did in Nippon Professional Baseball, and the underlying numbers are just as impressive as the surface numbers.

    To wit, Ohtani's bat has produced an elite mark in average exit velocity (95.1 mph), while his arm has produced an elite fastball (97.2 mph) and contact rate (61.9 percent).

    Now, if only the most hyped prospect in the NL could start holding up his end of the bargain.

Disappointment: The Ronald Acuna Jr. Coming-Out Party Has Been Postponed

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    B51/Mark Brown/Getty Images

    As Ohtani was struggling his way through spring training, it sure looked like Ronald Acuna Jr. was going to be everyone's rookie obsession in 2018.

    Several weeks later, he doesn't even seem close to becoming a major leaguer, much less dominating as one.

    Acuna still rates as the Braves' top prospect as well as one of the best prospects in baseball. He's a five-tool talent who, as a 19-year-old, got better and better in 2017 before taking spring training by storm with a 1.247 OPS, four homers and four stolen bases.

    Though that didn't earn him a spot on Atlanta's major league roster, he seemed to be in a Bryant-like situation. The Braves would promote Acuna as soon as they'd secured a seventh year of club control over him and no sooner.

    Instead, the 20-year-old is lending credence to the notion he simply wasn't ready. He's played 14 games for Triple-A Gwinnett and managed just a .215/.301/.277 slash line. That prompted general manager Alex Anthopoulos to say: "We're looking for Ronald to just get hot at this point."

    In the meantime, there are plenty of established major leaguers to be disappointed in.

Disappointment: Giancarlo Stanton Goes 'Thud' in New York

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    For instance, there's the suddenly not-so-menacing Giancarlo Stanton.

    As a member of the Miami Marlins, the 28-year-old won the National League MVP in 2017 on the strength of a 1.007 OPS and 59 homers. When the New York Yankees acquired him and the bulk of his $325 million contract, they had every reason to hope he could be just as mighty for them.

    He was at first with two homers on Opening Day. But ever since then, Stanton has mustered only a .667 OPS and three homers.

    This alone would be frustrating for Yankees fans who expected the world from the slugger in 2018. What's only adding to their frustration is how Stanton has been especially meager up close:

    • Away: 1.094 OPS in 8 G
    • Home: .596 OPS in 13 G

    Hence, the frequent congregations of boo birds at Yankee Stadium. Despite one fan's shirt, they're sure to continue until Stanton starts making his usual amount of noise.

    "The good times will be magnified, and so will the bad," Stanton said, per MLB.com's Mike Lupica. "The fans expect a lot. I expect a lot, too."

    To be fair, there's an even better hitter out there who's enduring an even worse slump.

Disappointment: Joey Votto, All-Time Great Hitter, Can't Hit

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Because it really can't be said often enough, Joey Votto is indeed an all-time great hitter. The list of players who've tallied a .300/.400/.500 slash line over 6,000 plate appearances includes him and 17 others.

    So, suffice it to say it's jarring that Votto's hitting just .247/.352/.260.

    It's especially jarring that the Cincinnati Reds star is struggling to live up to his reputation as MLB's foremost on-base percentage authority. That's largely of his own making, as he's killing his long-ironclad walk rate with more frequent swings.

    The bright side is that these are mostly swings at strikes, which should lead to yet another bright side: He's hitting for more power.

    But that's just not happening. Votto has just one extra-base hit all season, and it was a double. He's nowhere close to being on track to match or exceed the 36 homers—one off his career high—he hit in 2017.

    As Jay Jaffe covered at FanGraphs, there's some evidence that Votto has been afflicted by bad luck. But knowing that he's 34 years old, it's hard to ignore the possibility that this is the beginning of his inevitable decline.

    At this point, what could only help him snap out of it is a few at-bats against a certain National League Central foe.

Disappointment: Yu Darvish Can't Get It Together

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    The Cubs seemed to have found the final piece of the puzzle when they signed Yu Darvish for $126 million in February.

    So far, he's having trouble fitting in.

    Darvish did have one good start against the Milwaukee Brewers on April 7, in which he struck out nine over six one-run innings. But he's failed to make it out of the fifth inning in his other three starts, which featured at least four earned runs apiece. He has a 6.86 ERA.

    The right-hander is averaging 93.8 mph on his fastball, so his arm appears to be fine. A more pressing concern is his times-through-the-order problem:

    • 1st Time: .454 OPS
    • 2nd Time: .667 OPS
    • 3rd Time: 1.759 OPS

    Darvish didn't have this same problem en route to a 3.86 ERA over 186.2 innings last year. He's also at least aware that he has it now. So, there's hope he can get himself squared away and get back to pitching deep into games.

    For now, though, his pitching is weighing down a staff that has just a 4.14 ERA. And that's just one of many problems to be found on a surprising number of would-be superteams.

Disappointment: Several Alleged Superteams Are Surprisingly Mortal

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Major League Baseball is in an era of haves and have-nots. And entering this season, few teams seemed to have as much as the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, Nationals and Cleveland Indians.

    But collectively, it's been a struggle to get even six games above .500.

    The Indians (12-8) are still getting excellent pitching, but the offense just hasn't been there. They're scoring just 3.5 runs per game.

    Beyond Judge's struggles, the Yankees (12-9) have been beset by Gary Sanchez's own slump and inconsistent pitching by pretty much everyone not named Luis Severino.

    The Cubs (10-9) have a similar problem with their starting pitchers. Jon Lester has been reliable, but everyone else has combined for a 5.84 ERA.

    The Dodgers (11-10) have their bright spots, but they're outweighed by not-so-bright spots. Those include the slumbering bats of Corey Seager and Yasiel Puig and the sudden mortality of Kenley Jansen.

    The Nationals (10-13) can rest easy knowing that Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are living up to their billing. Now they just need the rest of their long list of stars to do the same.

    Will these teams be fine in the long run? Most likely, yeah. But it's never a good thing to have a hole to climb out of.

       

    Spring training stats courtesy of MLB.com. Other stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Savant and Baseball Prospectus.