Fluke or the Real Deal? Breaking Down the Most Stunning MLB Starts to New Season

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistAugust 9, 2020

Fluke or the Real Deal? Breaking Down the Most Stunning MLB Starts to New Season

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    The 2020 MLB season is full of anomalies, from the truncated 60-game slate to the universal designated hitter to the expanded 16-team postseason format.

    It has also featured scalding starts by multiple players. Some we saw coming: Aaron Judge hitting a bunch of home runs and top prospects such as Luis Robert hitting the ground running aren't shocking developments.

    In other cases, however, guys have put up less expected eye-opening numbers. Are these mere small-sample mirages? Or are we witnessing the rise of unlikely stars and contributors?

    Let's take a look at eight relatively obscure players who have stuffed the stat sheet in the early going and decide whether their gaudy output is a fluke or the real deal.

2B Hanser Alberto, Baltimore Orioles

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The presumed doormats of the American League East, the Baltimore Orioles have gotten off to a surprisingly decent 6-7 start and are tied for second place in the division entering play Saturday.

    Multiple Orioles have put up better-than-expected numbers, but Hanser Alberto stands out.

    Alberto enjoyed a minor breakout with Baltimore in 2019, hitting .305 in 139 games. This season, he's shot out of the gate with a .339 average and .916 OPS. Through 10 games, he's hit six doubles and two home runs.

    His hard-contact rate, meanwhile, has skyrocketed from 24.6 percent last season to 40.0 percent. 

    Alberto posted a .709 OPS in nine minor league campaigns. He's 27 years old. A regression probably looms on the near horizon. 

    But the O's should ride his hot streak as long as they can.

    Verdict: Fluke

RHP Brandon Bielak, Houston Astros

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    The Houston Astros are without 2019 co-aces Gerrit Cole (free agency) and Justin Verlander (forearm strain). Closer Roberto Osuna is likely lost for the season to Tommy John surgery. If the 'Stros hope to defend their American League pennant, they'll need other pitchers to step forward.

    So far, Brandon Bielak is answering the call.

    Through 10.1 innings, the 24-year-old rookie owns a 0.87 ERA. He threw five scoreless frames in his first big league start Thursday. For a guy who entered the season as the Astros' No. 13 prospect behind seven other young arms, that's notable.

    Bielak could be a useful addition to Houston's depleted staff, but there are reasons to think his minuscule ERA will rise significantly.

    After averaging 3.7 walks per nine innings between Double-A and Triple-A last season, Bielak has issued six walks and surrendered six hits with the Astros. Eventually, more of those baserunners will start crossing the plate. 

    If he hones his command, Bielak has the good-if-not-overwhelming stuff to profile as a solid No. 5 starter or multi-inning reliever. But don't expect him to save the day.

    Verdict: Fluke

RHP Randy Dobnak, Minnesota Twins

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Cool mustache? Check. Bespectacled? Double check. One look at Minnesota Twins right-hander Randy Dobnak, and you want to root for him.

    So far, he's rewarded that urge with exemplary results.

    In three starts and 15 innings, Dobnak has a 0.60 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP and has held opponents to a .173 average.

    After going undrafted out of college in 2017, Dobnak began his pro career with the unaffiliated Utica Unicorns of the United Shore Professional Baseball League.

    He eventually caught on with the Twins and rose quickly through the organization. Last season, he made nine appearances and five starts for Minnesota and posted a 1.59 ERA in 28.1 innings.

    While he lacks an overpowering fastball, Dobnak has developed an effective sinker/slider combo that has helped him induce a 68.2 percent ground-ball rate in the early going.

    He may not be an ace, but the former Unicorn looks like a legitimate, valuable mid-rotation arm.

    Verdict: The real deal

INF/OF David Fletcher, Los Angeles Angels

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Entering play Saturday, David Fletcher leads qualified Los Angeles Angels hitters in batting average (.327) and slugging percentage (.509) and is tied for the club lead in on-base percentage (.409).

    Yes, the Halos have played only 14 games. But considering Fletcher wears the same uniform as a guy named Mike Trout, that's impressive.

    A sixth-round pick by the Angels in 2015, Fletcher showed promise last season with a .290 average in 154 games, though his .384 slugging percentage suggested a hitter with limited power potential.

    This season, six of Fletcher's 18 hits have gone for extra bases, including four doubles and two home runs. With Andrelton Simmons sidelined by an ankle injury, he's the everyday shortstop and is hitting leadoff for Los Angeles.

    The 26-year-old might return to earth a bit. His .348 batting average on balls in play is more than 30 points higher than last season's mark of .317.

    But considering he's also logged big league innings at second base, third base and both corner outfield spots, he could be a useful super-utility player for the Angels once Simmons returns and has teased the potential to be even more.

    Verdict: The real deal

3B Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Texas Rangers

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    A lot has gone wrong for the Texas Rangers, but Isiah Kiner-Falefa has been a bright spot.

    A fourth-round pick by the Rangers in 2013, Kiner-Falefa slashed .238/.299/.322 in 65 games last season. So far in 2020, he's slashing .353/.405/.471 with two triples and four stolen bases and has become the everyday third baseman.

    "Listen, this kid is a confident kid," Rangers manager Chris Woodward told reporters in mid-July. "He is quiet and keeps to himself, but there is an inner confidence. He believes he is the best player on our team, and I'm never going to tell him that he is not."

    Kiner-Falefa has translated that confidence into results. And the wobbling Rangers, who entered play Saturday at 4-8, will surely stick with him as long as he keeps hitting.

    But his .462 batting average on balls in play coupled with the .679 OPS he posted in seven minor league seasons suggests the 25-year-old is playing well above his long-term ceiling.

    Verdict: Fluke

OF Trent Grisham, San Diego Padres

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Trent Grisham hit .231 in 51 games as a rookie for the Milwaukee Brewers last season. He committed a costly error in the eighth inning of the Brewers' National League Wild Card Game loss to the Washington Nationals and was traded to the San Diego Padres during the offseason.

    Now, he is San Diego's everyday center fielder, and he's playing like a man on a redemption mission.

    Through 14 games, Grisham has hit four home runs, two doubles and a triple. He's stolen three bases and owns a .946 OPS.

    Other young Padres, such as shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., have garnered more attention, but Grisham deserves his share of the spotlight.

    A first-round pick by Milwaukee in 2015, Grisham slashed .300/.407/.603 in 97 games between Double-A and Triple-A last year before earning his call-up. He's still just 23 years old and could be a key part of the emerging Friars' rise.

    Verdict: The real deal

OF JaCoby Jones

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Through 10 games with the Detroit Tigers, JaCoby Jones is hitting like an MVP.

    He owns a .364 average with four doubles and three home runs. His 1.190 OPS leads the American League. Have the Tigers found an unlikely superstar to accelerate their rebuild?

    Not so fast.

    After the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him in the third round in 2013, Jones hit .265 with a .760 OPS in seven minor league seasons. Not bad, but a far cry from the Ruthian numbers he's produced in 2020.

    His .450 batting average on balls in play is a red flag, as is the fact that his 43.5 percent hard-contact rate is almost identical to the 43.4 percent mark he posted in 2019, when his BABIP was .304.

    Add the fact that he's 28 years old, and the odds Jones will suddenly morph into more than a decent fourth outfielder are low.

    Verdict: Fluke

INF Donovan Solano, San Francisco Giants

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Through 13 games, Donovan Solano paces baseball with a .447 average. He ranks third in the game with a 1.098 OPS. He's tallied 14 RBI.

    But Solano is 32 years old. By the time the rebuilding San Francisco Giants are again a full-fledged contender, he'll be deep into his mid-30s.

    Solano was a nice surprise for the Giants in 2019, when he hit .330 with an .815 OPS in 81 games. Before that, he hadn't played in the big leagues since 2016, when he hit .227 in a nine-game stint with the Yankees.

    As a journeyman enjoying an improbable late-career surge, he's a fun story and has helped keep his team out of the NL West basement. 

    But this is the very definition of "enjoy it while it lasts," for both Solano and San Francisco.

    Verdict: Fluke

                  

    All statistics current entering Saturday and courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.