Can MLB's Biggest Breakouts Keep Up These Ridiculous Paces?
Welcome to the end of May, when the hottest players in Major League Baseball are easy to spot.
Determining whether they'll stay hot is the hard part.
We're going to focus on a dozen of the biggest early success stories of 2018 and, with the help of all available data, buy or sell whether they have lasting power for the rest of the season. The proof will mostly be in the numbers, but there's also some to be found in tangible changes that players might have made.
Let's get to it.
Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
Key Stats: 18 G, 31.1 IP, 1.15 ERA
He almost certainly doesn't have a chance of winning it, but Josh Hader isn't out of place in the National League Cy Young Award discussion.
A reliever who can put up a 1.15 ERA while typically getting more than three outs per appearance is a special commodity. Even more special is the left-hander's 56.9 strikeout percentage, which is on track to set a single-season record for a reliever (Aroldis Chapman's 52.5 in 2014).
If there's a reason for skepticism, it has to do with how the 24-year-old isn't pairing his strikeout rate with a record-low contact rate. Others have done better.
Still, it makes sense that Hader's capacity for strikeouts is only getting stronger over time. When facing him, hitters have to pick up the ball from an extreme release point and are then tasked with hitting either his electric mid-90s fastball or his devastating slider. To boot, he's pretty good at disguising the two pitches as one another on their paths to the hitting zone.
In short, this is a dude with rare talent. Accomplishing rare feats sounds about right.
Francisco Cervelli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Key Stats: 40 G, 161 PA, .934 OPS, 7 HR
Francisco Cervelli looked the part of a catcher on the wrong side of 30 in 2016 and 2017, as he managed just a .705 OPS in 697 plate appearances.
Now he has a .934 OPS that's miles better than the next-best mark (Yasmani Grandal's .837) among catchers with at least 150 plate appearances. He's also already tied his career high in home runs.
This is the work of a truly different player. The 32-year-old responded to his rough '16 and '17 seasons by changing both his lifestyle and his batting stance. The latter involved adding a leg kick. Such an adjustment has been known to increase power.
Sure enough, Cervelli's average launch angle (18.3 degrees) and average exit velocity (90.9 mph) are way up. It's also to his credit that he's still picky with his swings. Add these elements together, and you get a rate of good contact per swing (11.0 percent) that leads in the National League.
In all, Cervelli is more than worthy of adjusted expectations.
Miles Mikolas, St. Louis Cardinals
Key Stats: 10 GS, 66.1 IP, 2.58 ERA
It's happening under the radar, but Miles Mikolas has looked every bit like the guy who was an ace for three years in Japan. And he seems to only be getting better.
The 29-year-old's command is his bread and butter. His 2.7 walk percentage is the lowest in the NL, and he's backing it up with a strike zone rate that only two pitchers have beat. While it can't be measured, he also maintains a good read on hitters that leads to clever plans of attack.
One catch is that Mikolas relies on his defense by way of a below-average strikeout rate. He must do his part by stifling loud contact, which is something he's only good at when he gets hitters to expand the zone.
For the most part, that hasn't been a problem. But hitters are wising up and chasing his pitches less often as time goes on. It's likely a matter of time before that starts to spell trouble.
This doesn't mean Mikolas is a bad pitcher. It just means he's probably not this good.
Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
Key Hitting Stats: 30 G, 117 PA, .929 OPS, 6 HR
Hitting WAR: 0.9
They said Shohei Ohtani would be a slugger, and he has indeed been a slugger. Beyond his surface stats, he has the patience (12.0 BB%) and exit velocity (94.2 mph) associated with the type.
But the rookie sensation's offensive production has leveled off since April. Not so coincidentally, pitchers have gone from prodding him for weaknesses to giving him the usual slugger treatment of pitching him low and away.
The 23-year-old hasn't let this derail him, but he's yet to find an adjustment for it. Until he does, excitement for his at-bats should be held in check.
Key Pitching Stats: 7 GS, 40.1 IP, 3.35 ERA
Pitching WAR: 0.8
Ohtani's pitching, on the other hand, is becoming must-see TV.
He was dangerous enough when all he had was his triple-digit fastball and vanishing splitter. What he's figured out in recent starts is how to effectively use his slider. He's getting it down in the zone consistently, and that's turned it into a second swing-and-miss offering to complement his splitter.
Ohtani now has a lower contact rate than Chris Sale. It's an understatement to say this bodes well.
Patrick Corbin, Arizona Diamondbacks
Key Stats: 11 GS, 69.1 IP, 2.47 ERA
In fairness, this isn't the first time Patrick Corbin has been good. The guy was an All-Star back in 2013, and he authored an underrated campaign just last year.
This is the first time he's been truly great, however, and it has much to do with how he's earned his career-high strikeout rate. His pitch mix now features a curveball that has similar run and drop to his slider, but with less velocity. Such things are useful for keeping hitters off-balance.
One thing to beware of, though, is how badly Corbin's fastball velocity has fallen off in May. He's yet to be hurt by that, but it lessens his margin for error going forward.
Put these things together, and Corbin's acehood is probably on borrowed time.
Trevor Bauer, Cleveland Indians
Key Stats: 11 GS, 72.1 IP, 2.61 ERA
Trevor Bauer struggled earlier in his career in part because he couldn't stabilize his control and in part because he had more talent than he knew what to do with. He was incapable of keeping it simple.
Things are different now.
The right-hander's walk rate stabilized several years ago, and now his strikeout rate is going up. Related to the latter is how he recently stopped trying to throw everything but the proverbial kitchen sink and moved to base his arsenal on his mid-90s fastball and filthy curveball.
Given that many of these improvements can be traced to last season, it makes sense that Bauer's ERA is on a seemingly endless downward trend.
Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros
Key Stats: 11 GS, 74.2 IP, 2.05 ERA
This is out of character for a guy who had previously never been more than a good strikeout artist, yet it's not surprising. Cole always had the stuff for strikeouts. He merely needed to unlock it.
The Houston Astros have helped him do so. He's simplified his repertoire to be about his fastball, slider and curveball above all else, and the average spin rate of these pitches has taken a huge leap. That's had a tangible effect on his fastball's rise, his slider's run and his curveball's drop.
On top of all that, Cole has switched up how he's locating these pitches. By keeping his fastballs up in the zone and his breaking balls down in the zone, he's making it tough for hitters to sit on anything.
About the only catch is that Cole's strikeout rate peaked early. But it hasn't so much died as it has leveled off. His newfound dominance is stubborn like that.
Brandon Belt, San Francisco Giants
Key Stats: 51 G, 220 PA, .971 OPS, 11 HR
"One of my goals this year is to keep the ball off the ground as much as possible," Brandon Belt said before the season.
This is only half of the explanation for why he's finally showing the kind of power the San Francisco Giants have always hoped for. Perhaps the biggest is that he's ceased hitting the ball to the big part of the yard. His rate of batted balls to center field is way down, resulting in fewer wasted drives in that direction.
Meanwhile, Belt's adjustment hasn't hurt either his walk or strikeout rates too badly. It all adds up to a previously unattainable level of equilibrium for the 30-year-old.
Odubel Herrera, Philadelphia Phillies
Key Stats: 51 G, 211 PA, .901 OPS, 7 HR
Odubel Herrera appears to be making the leap from star to superstar. To wit, the only healthy everyday center fielder with a higher OPS is a fellow named Mike Trout.
For the most part, the 26-year-old's breakout can be traced to the quality of his at-bats. The chase problem he developed in 2017 is gone now, and that's helped him bring his walk and strikeout rates into closer alignment than ever.
Where things get dicey is the quality of Herrera's contact.
According to FanGraphs' metrics, he's actually making more soft contact and less hard contact. While both his average launch angle (12.2 degrees) and exit velocity (87.3 mph) have reached new peaks, neither is an eye-popping figure. That calls attention to the large gap between his expected slugging percentage and actual slugging percentage.
Likewise, that points to how Herrera has only dominated within Citizens Bank Park's friendly dimensions. And from here on out, he'll play away from there more often.
Andrelton Simmons, Los Angeles Angels
Key Stats: 53 G, 222 PA, .880 OPS, 4 HR
Just try to strike out Andrelton Simmons. It can't be done.
Not easily, anyway. The 28-year-old is striking out in only 4.5 percent of his plate appearances. Such a figure has no business existing at a time when the average K% is a whopping 22.5.
But this isn't a new trick for Simmons. It's an impressive variation on a theme that's spanned the length of his major league career.
This is also just one part of a more disciplined approach that's also produced more walks and slightly more power. Regarding the latter, his improved exit velocity (88.1 mph) accounts for a static launch angle (7.4 degrees). He's effectively turned himself into a master of hard line drives.
About the only thing worthy of skepticism is the gap between Simmons' expected BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and actual BABIP. But if he could overcome such a gap last year, he should be able to do it again this year.
Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies
Key Stats: 11 GS, 71.1 IP, 2.27 ERA
Unlike the other pitchers on this list, Aaron Nola isn't succeeding on the strength of an unparalleled walk rate or a hypercharged strikeout rate. For him, the former is steady and the latter is actually down.
This allows for some suspicion as to whether he's as dominant as his ERA suggests. The easiest way to dispel any such suspicion is to watch him pitch.
He's a legitimate four-pitch pitcher with a four-seamer, sinker, curveball and changeup, and all four pitches are above-average or better. He also has excellent command of all four, so he can attack hitters with different movements, speeds and locations at will.
As evidenced by his 6.3 BB%, Nola isn't one to hurt himself with walks. Altogether, 61.8 percent of plate appearances against him end in either a strikeout, a ground ball or a pop-up. That ranks among the elites.
Nola thus occupies an interesting space among contemporary aces. He's not the best, but he might be the most balanced.
Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox
Key Stats: 48 G, 213 PA, 1.187 OPS, 17 HR
Sure, Mookie Betts was an American League MVP candidate as recently as 2016. But even then, he wasn't close to the level of offensive production he's enjoying this season.
Betts' 17 homers put him one behind Trout for the major league lead, and he leads Trout (and everyone else) in OPS. Apart from a few nagging injuries that have sidelined him here and there, he shows no signs of slowing down.
It ought to be easy to poke holes in such an outrageous performance. But in this case, it's awfully hard.
Betts is operating at maximum efficiency in that his swings are infrequent, but he usually makes contact—and it's typically good contact. He's working on career bests in launch angle (19.6 degrees) and exit velocity (92.5 mph).
Let's go back to the ol' good-contact-per-swing well:
- 1. Mookie Betts: 13.1%
- 2. Francisco Cervelli: 11.0%
- 3. Max Muncy: 10.4%
It's Betts and then everyone else. If that's not a locked-in hitter, nothing is.