MLB Players We Didn't See Coming in 2018

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistMay 25, 2018

MLB Players We Didn't See Coming in 2018

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout has been arguably the best player in MLB in 2018. If you didn't see that coming, you need an optometrist and/or a new sport to follow. 

    Other players, meanwhile, have rightly surprised the majority of us with stellar starts. Some are youngsters; some are seasoned veterans. All have darted out of the gate with numbers beyond what even the most optimistic prognosticator would have predicted.

    From a resurrected Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder to a Milwaukee Brewers reliever amassing strikeouts at a historic rate, here are a half-dozen 2018 standouts we didn't see coming—with or without prescription glasses.

C Francisco Cervelli, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Quick, which catcher leads MLB in WAR, per FanGraphs' calculation? If you said the San Francisco Giants' Buster Posey or the New York Yankees' Gary Sanchez, you'd be wrong.

    Instead, the honor belongs to the Pittsburgh Pirates' Francisco Cervelli. 

    Through 38 games, Cervelli paces all qualified catchers with a .931 OPS. That far outpaces the 32-year-old's career mark of .745 and exemplifies a Bucs team in the thick of the National League Central race despite trading outfielder Andrew McCutchen and ace Gerrit Cole.

    Cervelli has also gunned down 35 percent of would-be base stealers. He's been the best backstop of 2018, period.

2B Jed Lowrie, Oakland Athletics

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    ZiPS predicted veteran Oakland Athletics infielder Jed Lowrie would hit nine home runs in 2018. The 34-year-old matched that total on May 11.

    Granted, Lowrie hasn't homered since then, but he does lead all qualified second basemen with a .926 OPS. 

    Lowrie has never hit .300 or made an All-Star team in his serviceable MLB career. He's hitting .319 this year and would be a deserving member of the AL's Midsummer Classic contingent.

    He's also an impending free agent and tempting trade bait for the perennially retooling, small-market A's.

RHP Charlie Morton, Houston Astros

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    Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

    Charlie Morton owns a career 4.28 ERA. He turned 34 in November. Those aren't the trappings of an ace.

    Nonetheless, Morton has pitched like one in 2018.

    In 55.2 innings spread over nine starts for the Houston Astros, Morton boasts a 1.94 ERA with 70 strikeouts. His 3.35 FIP suggests a degree of good fortune, but the pitcher has been a revelation for the defending champions no matter how you parse it.

    "He had everything working," Astros catcher Brian McCann said after Morton struck out a career-high 14 against the Texas Rangers on May 12, per MLB.com's Richard Dean. "He's pretty much had it all year."

LHP Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Josh Hader busted out in 2017 with the Brewers with a 2.08 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 47.2 frames. Somehow, that pales in comparison to what the 24-year-old reliever is doing in 2018.

    In 29.1 innings with the Brew Crew this season, Hader sports a 1.23 ERA and is averaging an absurd 17.8 strikeouts per nine innings.

    Maintaining that pace is almost certainly unrealistic. Hader, though, is missing bats like few before him.

    On April 30, he became the first pitcher in MLB history to strike out eight hitters in an appearance that lasted fewer than three innings, per MLB.com's Jeff Wallner.

    "I've never seen a performance like that," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said, per Wallner. "My mouth was wide open watching him."

    Pitchers with this much early success often come with a high draft pedigree. Hader, though, was selected in the 19th round in 2012 by the Baltimore Orioles. Talk about a sleeper.

RF Nick Markakis, Atlanta Braves

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    Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

    The Atlanta Braves are the highest-scoring team in the National League thanks to the contributions of breakout blue chips such as second baseman Ozzie Albies and outfielder Ronald Acuna.

    Don't sleep on the overperforming veterans, however, including Nick Markakis.

    At 34, Markakis leads the Senior Circuit with a .344 batting average and all of baseball with 66 hits. He's been a steady performer since breaking into the league in 2006, but has never made an All-Star team nor cracked the .900 OPS threshold. 

    Thus far, his 2018 OPS sits at .922.

    As FanGraphs' Sheryl Ring correctly noted, Markakis "has looked like a Hall of Famer so far this year."

LF/RF Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    All Dodgers fans who expected Matt Kemp would by a key contributor to the 2018 team, raise your hands.

    Seriously, though, put your hands down.

    Yet here Kemp is, leading the defending National League champions with a .327 average and .871 OPS. Here he is, cranking back the clock to when he finished second in NL MVP voting for the Dodgers in 2011 before injuries and ill-fated turns with the San Diego Padres and Braves diminished his status.

    When the Dodgers reacquired Kemp from Atlanta, it appeared to be a mutual salary dump with the aim of shipping first baseman Adrian Gonzalez out of SoCal. You take our creaky vet, and we'll take yours.

    Along the way, Kemp apparently sipped from the fountain of youth.

    It's been a tough season for Los Angeles, which sits in fourth place in the NL West. But Kemp has done his part and then some.

              

    All statistics and standings current as of Thursday and courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs.