Every MLB Team's Biggest Surprise (Good or Bad) Thus Far in 2021

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 17, 2021

Every MLB Team's Biggest Surprise (Good or Bad) Thus Far in 2021

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    Buster Posey
    Buster PoseyJohn Hefti/Associated Press

    No matter how much offseason research you do or how many simulations and algorithms you run, there will always be dozens of Major League Baseball players who surprise you.

    Some in a good way.

    Others in a bad way.

    If you view the MLB calendar as a trip around the diamond, mid-May puts us squarely on first base. And at the quarter pole of the 2021 campaign, we've identified one player from each of the 30 franchises who has drastically overperformed or underperformed preseason expectations.

    For most teams, there were several strong candidates in each direction. Considering healthy batters are hovering around 150 plate appearances and healthy pitchers have made around eight starts, that's no surprise. One great day at the dish or one terrible night on the mound can swing things considerably with these sample sizes.

    All the same, none of us saw these starts coming.

American League East

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    Cedric Mullins II
    Cedric Mullins IITerrance Williams/Associated Press

    Baltimore Orioles: Cedric Mullins, OF

    In 2019, Mullins had one of the worst starts to a season imaginable. After 22 games, he was batting .094 and was sent down to Triple-A. After more than two months and a .205 batting average there, he was further demoted to Double-A. Had there been minor league baseball in 2020, it's a safe assumption he would have at least started that season trying to earn his way back onto a major league roster.

    Two years later, Mullins got out to one of the hottest starts of anyone. During a season-opening sweep of the Red Sox, he had nine hits in his first 13 at-bats. He had nine multi-hit performances in Baltimore's first 22 games. And he's even hitting for some power this year with six home runs already under his belt. 

    Let's be sure to give an honorable mention to John Means, too. Even though he finished second in the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year race, no one was expecting him to be sitting on a 1.21 ERA with a no-hitter through eight starts.

            

    Boston Red Sox: Bobby Dalbec, 1B

    Boston is alone in first place in the AL East because its expected stars have done their thing admirably. Xander Bogaerts, JD Martinez, Rafael Devers and Alex Verdugo have each been tearing the cover off the ball for what is one of the most lethal offenses in the big leagues this season.

    Now if they could just get Dalbec to join the party.

    The Red Sox first baseman hit 59 home runs between the 2018 and 2019 minor league seasons. He proceeded to club eight dingers in 92 plate appearances last year in his first season in the majors. But there has been a power outage this year. Twenty-six games into his season, Dalbec was batting .174 with one home run.

    He's been heating up considerably over the past 10 days or so, but he still has a long way to go to live up to the preseason hype.

           

    New York Yankees: Clint Frazier, OF

    As a whole, the Yankees aren't hitting anywhere near as well as expected, barely averaging 4.0 runs per game. And of the bunch, Frazier has been the most disappointing.

    Frazier hit .265 in 2018, .267 in 2019 and .267 in 2020. He also hit .228 or better at every stop of his minor league career. He's no Giancarlo Stanton or Aaron Judge in the slugging department, but he used to be a reliable source of hits with a reasonable amount of pop. Through his first 118 plate appearances of this campaign, though, he's hitting .141 with just six RBI. And let's just say he's nowhere near a good enough fielder or baserunner to get away with those shortcomings at the dish.

            

    Tampa Bay Rays: Brandon Lowe, 2B

    A high whiff rate has always been an issue for Lowe. In fact, in 2019, he had the third-highest strikeout rate (34.6 percent) among the 273 players who made at least 300 plate appearances. But when he made contact, he at least used to get on base with regularity. He batted .270 two years ago and finished eighth in last year's AL MVP race with a .269/.362/.554 triple slash.

    Thus far in 2021, however, Lowe has spent most of his time on the wrong size of the Mendoza Line. There was a 17-game stretch from April 6-26 in which he batted .123though, at least three of his eight hits were home runs. At this point, it's unclear whether he'll finish the season with more total bases (48) or strikeouts (46).

           

    Toronto Blue Jays: Lourdes Gurriel Jr., LF

    In his first three seasons in the majors, Gurriel had a 162-game pace of 34 home runs and 93 runs batted in while triple slashing .287/.327/.508. He was arguably the most valuable member of the Blue Jays lineup during that time. But he has been almost unplayable this season. Gurriel's 2021 slugging percentage (.298) is only marginally better than his batting average was from 2018-20.

    The good news is Gurriel is no stranger to slow starts. Twenty games into his first season, he was batting .206/.229/.309. The following year, he was at .175/.250/.275 in mid-April when he got sent back down to Triple-A for more than a month. And after batting .241 through the first 32 games of last season, he hit .380 the rest of the way. Perhaps he'll turn things around once again.

American League Central

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    Carlos Rodon
    Carlos RodonCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Chicago White Sox: Carlos Rodon, SP

    With a gigantic honorable mention to Yermin Mercedes for hijacking what was supposed to be Randy Arozarena's AL Rookie of the Year campaign, we simply must go with "Rodon vying for the AL ERA title" as the most stunning development of Chicago's season.

    The No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 MLB draft was always a promising prospect, but it didn't seem like he was ever going to rein it in well enough to contend for a Cy Young award. He entered this season with a career ERA of 4.14 in the majors, and that number was getting worse with each passing year. It was 5.19 in 2019, then he had Tommy John surgery and then he had an 8.22 ERA in four appearances last season. He was non-tendered in early December before re-signing with the White Sox on a one-year, $3 million deal in late January.

    At long last, he has been worth the wait. After five scoreless innings in his season debut, he threw a no-hitter against Cleveland and allowed just two earned runs in his first 31 innings of work with 44 strikeouts. Despite getting touched up for four earned runs in his most recent start, Rodon has a sparkling 1.47 ERA and might be the AL's starting pitcher in this year's All-Star Game.

            

    Cleveland: Eddie Rosario, OF

    Over the past six seasons with the Minnesota Twins, Rosario was a rock-solid contributor in the lineup. He triple-slashed .277/.310/.478 at a 162-game pace of 28 home runs and 91 runs batted in, receiving votes for AL MVP in each of the past two seasons.

    He was particularly lethal against Cleveland, batting .301/.337/.560 with 22 home runs in 93 games.

    Evidently, though, he just hits well against Cleveland, not in Cleveland. After 140 plate appearances in 2021, he's batting .211 with three home runs (.152 with no home runs in home games) and has not yet been worth anything close to the one-year, $8 million deal he signed in February.

           

    Detroit Tigers: Jose Urena, SP

    Urena signed with the Marlins when he was just 16 years old. After more than a decade in that organization, he signed with Detroit as a free agent this winter and is currently on pace for the best season of his MLB career.

    From April 16 through May 2, Urena made four consecutive starts in which he logged 7.0 innings pitched while allowing two or fewer earned runs. Prior to Saturday's disappointing start against the Chicago Cubs, his strikeout rate (7.0 per 9 IP), home run rate (0.5 per 9 IP) and ERA (3.60) were all career bests. He only has a 1-4 record to show for it, though, as Detroit isn't giving him any more run support than Miami did.

            

    Kansas City Royals: Jorge Soler, RF/DH

    Two years ago, Jorge Soler was one of the best sluggers in baseball. He clubbed an AL-best 48 home runs, drove in 117 runs and had a .922 OPS in spite of 178 strikeouts. And after a disappointing 2020 campaign (eight home runs, .769 OPS), Soler's spring training numbers (five home runs, 1.005 OPS) pointed toward a bounce-back year.

    However, since his fantastic season debut (2-for-2, 1 HR, 2 BB, 1 HBP), Soler has been a ghost at the dish, hitting just two home runs over his last 38 games. Remove that April 1 performance and he's batting .191 with a .584 OPS. He has had six games with three or more strikeouts and just six games with two or more hits.

           

    Minnesota Twins: Byron Buxton, CF

    With Buxton, there has long been an "if he could just stay healthy" factor. The No. 2 pick in the 2012 MLB draft had at least 10 home runs and at least 10 steals in each of 2016, 2017 and 2019. However, he averaged just 72 games played over the past six years.

    This hot start goes beyond just health, though, because he's hitting for average like never before.

    Buxton entered 2021 with a career batting average of .238. His best mark in any given season was .262. But he's sitting at .370 with an MLB-best slugging percentage of .772nearly 200 points better than his previous career high. In April alone, he creamed eight home runs, batted .426 and was a fairly easy choice for AL Player of the Month honors.

    (He is once again on the IL with a strained right hip, so we'll see if he can pick up where he left off when he returns to action.)

American League West

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    Shohei Ohtani
    Shohei OhtaniAshley Landis/Associated Press

    Houston Astros: Kyle Tucker, OF

    The No. 5 pick in the 2015 MLB draft racked up 58 home runs and 50 stolen bases in Triple-A between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, and last year seemed to be the beginning of Tucker's arrival in the big leagues. He hit nine dingers and swiped eight bags during the regular season, followed by batting .306 during Houston's 13-game postseason run.

    Heading into the season, it felt like a tossup as to whether Tucker or 2019 AL MVP runner-up Alex Bregman was going to be the biggest star of Houston's lineup.

    Instead, Yuli Gurriel has been Houston's early MVP candidate while Tucker took a nose dive at the plate. Through 33 games, he was batting .175 with a modest five home runs.

    He has turned a serious corner as of late, though, racking up 11 hits and four dingers in his past seven games. But he needed that red-hot stretch just to get his batting average up to a still-pedestrian .230.

             

    Los Angeles Angels: Shohei Ohtani, SP/DH

    You know how NBA fans look back at the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook-James Harden era of the Oklahoma City Thunder and wonder how in the world that team never won a title? There will be a similar phenomenon if these Los Angeles Angelswith five-tool phenom Mike Trout and pitching/slugging unicorn Ohtanifail to even make the playoffs.

    There's no surprise that Ohtani has been good. The man won AL Rookie of the Year in 2018 by hitting 22 home runs and making 10 starts on the mound with a 3.31 ERA. Rather, the surprise is that he has been this ridiculously good. Sure, he often walks too many batters when he's pitching, but that's a small price to pay for someone averaging 14 strikeouts per 9.0 IP and a home run for every 13.9 plate appearances. Trout is still the heavy favorite for AL MVP, but Ohtani is closing that gap.

             

    Oakland Athletics: Elvis Andrus, SS

    For more than a decade, Andrus ranked among the best in the majors in one category: speed. From 2009-19 the then-Rangers shortstop stole 302 bases, swiping more than 20 bags in 10 of those 11 seasons. He also batted .275 during that stretch and averaged 80 runs scored per season. He was twice named an All-Star and was always a valuable commodity in fantasy baseball because of those steals.

    Now that he's 32-going-on-33, though, Father Time is catching up to his fleet feet. Andrus hit .194 with only three stolen bases in 29 games played last season, and he has slipped even further to a .180 average this season with Oakland.

             

    Seattle Mariners: Mitch Haniger, RF

    In the span of eight months from June 2019 through February 2020, Haniger suffered a ruptured testicle and underwent surgeries to repair both a sports hernia and a herniated disc. That's a whole lot of unpleasantness in a short period of time, and after nearly 22 months in between regular-season games, no one had any clue what to expect from the 2018 All-Star.

    Inexplicably, Haniger has been as good as he once was, if not better. Fourteen games into the season, he was hitting .351/.371/.632. And while the average has tapered off considerably to .258, his MLB-best 12 home runs put him on pace for better than 50. 

             

    Texas Rangers: Isiah Kiner-Falefa, SS

    From 2013-16, Kiner-Falefa made 1,367 plate appearances in the minor leagues without hitting a single home run. He picked up a little bit of power starting in 2017, hitting what was then a career-best five home runs in 570 Double-A plate appearances. This was followed by eight home runs in the first 846 plate appearances of his MLB careerotherwise read as one for every 105.8 trips to the plate.

    So, naturally, he hit five home runs in his first 127 plate appearances this season, including three in the span of 12 at-bats.

    Kiner-Falefa was already a great fielder (2020 Gold Glove) and a guy who could hit for average (.280 last season). If he continues to hit for even a modest amount of power, too, he just might wind up with a few MVP votes.

National League East

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    Trevor Rogers
    Trevor RogersAlex Brandon/Associated Press

    Atlanta Braves: Huascar Ynoa, SP

    Everyone knew the Braves had a potential NL Rookie of the Year in their starting rotation.

    We just thought it was Ian Anderson as opposed to Ynoa.

    The former had an excellent 2020 debut, making six regular-season starts with a 1.95 ERA, followed by four postseason starts with a 0.96 ERA. And he has been fine thus far to the tune of a 3.20 ERA. But Ynoa has been—outside of one dud against the Cubslights out with a 2.23 ERA. Not too shabby for a guy who had a 7.30 ERA in 24.2 innings pitched over the previous two seasons.

    To sweeten the deal, Ynoa is also doing an impressive Shohei Ohtani impression at the plate, batting .400 with a pair of home runs. One of those dingers was a grand slam on a night where he went seven innings without allowing an earned run. Again, not too shabby.

             

    Miami Marlins: Trevor Rogers, SP

    Last year was a trial by fire for Trevor Rogers. He had not previously pitched in the majors or at the Triple-A level, and he made just five mediocre starts in Double-A in 2019. With minor league baseball canceled by the pandemic, though, the Marlins allowed their highly touted prospect to make seven MLB starts, resulting in a 6.11 ERA.

    What a difference a yearand a drastically improved home run ratecan make. Rogers' first eight starts of the 2021 campaign have yielded a 1.84 ERA with 57 strikeouts in 44 innings of work. In April alone, there were three starts in which he lasted at least six innings and struck out at least seven batters without allowing a run.

    Between Rogers, Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and star prospect Sixto Sanchez, the Marlins could have one heck of a starting rotation for years to come.

           

    New York Mets: Francisco Lindor, SS

    The New York Mets merely owe Lindor $363.3 million between now and the end of the 2031 season, so I'm sure they don't mind the fact that the former perennial AL MVP candidate is batting .197/.309/.291 since arriving in Queens.

    While it is far too early to try to say that mammoth contract extension was a bad idea, the early lack of power is jarring. Lindor had at least 40 doubles and at least 32 home runs in each of 2017, 2018 and 2019, but he had just one of each in April and has not shown signs of snapping out of that funk yet in May.

    Lindor is too good to not improve eventually, but what a rough start it has been to this 11-year marriage.

            

    Philadelphia Phillies: Zach Eflin, SP

    Eflin has had a solid K/BB ratio throughout his career, but he has taken that to a whole new level this season.

    The Phillies righty has logged at least six innings pitched in each of his eight starts this season, amassing 51 strikeouts against just five walkstwo of which were intentional, no less. That's a K/BB ratio of 10.2. Not quite the record mark of 11.6 that Phil Hughes set in 2014, but still remarkable.

    And perhaps most impressive about Eflin's strong start is the competition faced: three starts against Atlanta, two against St. Louis and one each against the Mets, Nationals and Giants. Not much was expected of the Giants this season, but there's a lot of "preseason playoff expectations" on his list of foes vanquished.

            

    Washington Nationals: Patrick Corbin, SP

    The Nationals made several noteworthy offseason acquisitionsJosh Bell, Kyle Schwarber and Jon Lestereach of whom has provided either little or negative return on investment thus far. But the biggest disappointment has been the left-hander who used to be a tertiary ace of the pitching staff.

    In both 2018 (with Arizona) and 2019 (with Washington), Corbin received votes for NL Cy Young. Between those two seasons, he had a 3.20 ERA, averaged 10.8 strikeouts per 9.0 IP and 7.4 hits per 9.0 IP. But through seven starts this season, those figures are at 7.2 and 8.9, respectively.

    In fairness, most of that damage was done in his first two appearances. Since allowing 15 earned runs in those first 6.1 innings of work, Corbin has made four quality starts. However, his strikeout stuff is still not what it once was, and his slow start hurts even more with Stephen Strasburg on the IL with no return date in sight.

National League Central

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    Jesse Winker
    Jesse WinkerAaron Doster/Associated Press

    Chicago Cubs: Kyle Hendricks, SP

    Over the past seven seasons, Hendricks had been a reliable source of quality starts. He had a 3.12 ERA during that time, never had a season at 4.00 or worse and even won an ERA title in 2016. He's not a flamethrower and no one was confusing him for Max Scherzer or Clayton Kershaw, but Hendricks did a great job of limiting baserunners and subsequently keeping the ball in the yard.

    Not so much this year. Chicago's ace has already allowed 11 home runs in 34.2 innings of work, the balls that do stay in play are resulting in hits way more often than they used to (.333 BABIP) and his walk rate (2.6 per 9 IP) is unusually high. Add it all up and Hendricks has an ERA (6.23) almost double what it had been over the past seven years.

    He did recently (May 4) pitch seven innings of one-run ball against the Dodgers and has made a pair of quality starts against the Brewers. It would be premature to throw in the towel on his season. But when things have gotten ugly for Hendricks, they've gotten hideous.

             

    Cincinnati Reds: Jesse Winker, LF

    It only took 27 games for this fifth-year outfielder to reach the highest single-season FanGraphs WAR total of his career.

    As of the morning of May 12, Winker was leading the NL in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS with marks of .374, .682 and 1.114, respectively. Even for a preseason MVP candidate, those would be ridiculously impressive numbers. But that certainly wasn't the expectation for Winker. He hit .255 last year and .269 the year before, posting a solid-but-nothing-special 162-game pace of 28 home runs and 60 RBI.

    Now, if only he could fix Eugenio Suarez's bat by osmosis. The Reds slugger has never been sensational in the batting average department, but his current mark of .148 is quite the eyesore.

            

    Milwaukee Brewers: Keston Hiura, 1B/2B

    Two years ago, Hiura was the rookie sensation who took the NL Central by storm. After batting .329 with 19 home runs in 57 games at the Triple-A level, he got promoted, hit another 19 dingers and batted .303 in 84 games with the Brewers. He also stole a combined 16 bases.

    Last year was a sophomore slump in the batting average department (.212), but at least he still hit 13 home runs in 59 games. This year, the batting average has gotten even worse (.152) and the power has evaporated (one home run in 89 plate appearances). He was optioned back to the minors earlier this month.

            

    Pittsburgh Pirates: Tyler Anderson, SP

    Among the many reasons Pittsburgh was expected to have one of the worst records in MLB history was the lack of anything resembling an ace in the pitching staff. Opening Day starter Chad Kuhl has yet to post an ERA better than 4.20 since his MLB career began in 2016. No. 3 starter Mitch Keller had more walks (18) than strikeouts (16) last season and had a 7.13 ERA the year before that.

    But at least Anderson has given them an unexpected spark.

    The lefty had a 4.65 ERA over the past five seasons with Colorado and San Francisco, but he has trimmed that down to 3.50 through his first eight starts of this season. In each of the first seven, he went at least five innings and allowed three or fewer runs. He recently reeled off three consecutive quality starts against the Royals, Padres and Cubs.

    JT Brubaker has also been impressive for the Pirates, but at least he was a prospect with potential. Anderson came out of nowhere.

           

    St. Louis Cardinals: Yadier Molina, C

    At 38 years young, Molina is having one of the best hitting seasons of his career.

    Yadi has always had a solid bat. He surpassed 2,000 career hits last September and has a career batting average of .282. He hit at least .260 each year from 2007-20. But last year was looking like the end of the line for the veteran catcher. He hit .262, only had six extra-base hits and posted the worst K/BB rate of his career.

    He's back with a vengeance in 2021. In his first 73 at-bats, Molina had 12 extra-base hits. He's slugging .591, which is laughably better than his previous career high of .501 set in 2012. If he keeps this up, he could be one of the oldest MVPs in MLB history.

National League West

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    Mark Melancon
    Mark MelanconBrandon Wade/Associated Press

    Arizona Diamondbacks: Carson Kelly, C

    Prior to this season, Kelly was a bit of a black hole in the batting order. From 2016-20, he triple-slashed .221/.305/.396. He did at least occasionally swat one over the fence (23 home runs in 625 plate appearances), but having him and a pitcher at the bottom of the batting order was not doing St. Louis or Arizona any favors.

    Out of nowhere, Kelly has become the most reliable hitter for the Diamondbacks. They've even had him bat leadoff a couple of times. And why not? He's batting .338 with a .491 on-base percentage. After drawing just six walks last season, Kelly has already earned 23 bases on balls this year.

             

    Colorado Rockies: Charlie Blackmon, OF

    Before the season even began, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Colorado would A) come nowhere close to making the playoffs and B) trade away its soon-to-be free agents Trevor Story and Blackmon. The latter's dreadfully slow start to the year could be having a substantial negative impact on the return the Rockies get if and when they trade their veteran outfielder.

    Blackmon batted .283 or better in each of the past nine seasons and slugged at least .440 in each of the last eight years. However, he's sitting at .242 and .347, respectively, after 37 games played.

    The batting average portion appears to just be terrible luck on batted balls. His walk rate is higher than any other season, and his strikeout rate is lower than it has been since 2011. He's still seeing the ball well. It just isn't finding the grass as often as it used to.

    The power outage will certainly concern potential trade partners, though. From 2016-19, Blackmon averaged one home run for every 21.2 trips to the plate. That rate ballooned to 41.2 last year and is currently at 71.0 this year.

           

    Los Angeles Dodgers: Justin Turner, 3B

    First and foremost, it's a surprise that Turner has stayed healthy thus far. (Knock on wood.) Only once in his career (151 games played in 2016) has Turner managed to appear in at least 84 percent of his team's games played. He has played in all but two Dodgers games this year.

    And because he has been able to play almost every day, the 36-year-old third baseman is leading the highest-paid team in baseball in batting average (.311), hits (42) and runs batted in (23).

           

    San Diego Padres: Mark Melancon, RP

    Melancon has been a hot potato passed around the National League as of late. Starting in July 2016, the reliever went from Pittsburgh to Washington to San Francisco to Atlanta to his current home in San Diego. Over the past four years, he had a 3.57 ERA and was consistently good enough to factor into the equation for saves, but seemingly never good enough to be locked in as "the guy" you want closing a must-win game.

    Through 16 appearances with the Padres, though, he has been sensational.

    Melancon has a year-to-date line of 17.2 IP, 10 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 15 K with an MLB-best 13 saves. Even though Blake Snell and Chris Paddack have struggled in what was supposed to be one of the best starting rotations in baseball, Melancon's presence at the back of the bullpen has enabled the Padres to stay afloat as one of the top teams in the NL.

            

    San Francisco Giants: Buster Posey, C

    Along with what Yadier Molina is doing in St. Louis, Posey is making 2021 look like a renaissance year for veteran catchers.

    The 34-year-old backstop opted out of the 2020 season amid COVID-19 concerns, and that came on the heels of a disappointing 2019 campaign in which he had a career-worst triple-slash line of .257/.320/.368. Between 2018 and 2019, he hit just 12 home runs in 893 trips to the plate.

    Evidently the year off did him a lot of good, as he's batting .382 and has already mashed eight taters.

            

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics current through the start of play on May 16.

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