Fluke or for Real? Breaking Down MLB's Stunning Starts to 2022

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystApril 17, 2022

Fluke or for Real? Breaking Down MLB's Stunning Starts to 2022

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    Is Atlanta's slow start a fluke or a real problem?
    Is Atlanta's slow start a fluke or a real problem?Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    The reigning World Series champions have a losing record, Ji-Man Choi has mastered the art of getting on base, Jose Berrios is having trouble getting guys out and the best bullpen in the majors belongs to *checks notes* the Colorado Rockies?

    Suffice it to say, the first week-plus of the 2022 MLB season has featured more than a few surprises.

    But which of those stunning starts are small sample size anomalies and which are the real deal?

    Only time will tell, but we can make some guesses while we wait.

    These surprising starts are listed in no particular order, but we will oscillate between individual players and position groups/teams, saving the Atlanta Braves discussion until the bitter end.

    Statistics current through the start of play Saturday, unless otherwise noted.

Tylor Megill, SP, New York Mets

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    Tylor Megill
    Tylor MegillAlex Brandon/Associated Press

    Stats: 10.1 IP, 2-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.90 FIP, 1.89 xFIP, 9.58 K/9

    Between Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom, the New York Mets are paying nearly $80 million this season (some of it deferred) for a pair of aces. But with Scherzer dealing with hamstring tightness and deGrom sidelined by a shoulder injury, Tylor Megill ended up with a most unexpected Opening Day start against the Washington Nationals.

    But the second-year big leaguer seized the day, yielding just three hits while logging five scoreless innings for the win. Megill then doubled down on that impressive opener by pitching the first 5.1 innings of a 2-0 shutout victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday.

    He had to wiggle out of a pair of two-on, one-out jams against the Nats, but he was solid throughout in both starts, firing 11 strikeouts with nary a walk.

    That strikeout rate is nothing new. In fact, 9.58 strikeouts per nine innings is the lowest thus far in his professional career. In five starts with the Double-A Binghamton Mets last year, it was 14.54 (42 strikeouts in 26 innings).

    What is new is the improved velocity. Per FanGraphs, Megill was sitting at 94.7 mph on his fastballs and 85.5 mph on his changeups in 18 starts last season, but he's up to 96.5 and 90.1, respectively, thus far this year.

    Not to get too carried away here, but those are "healthy Stephen Strasburg" velocities.

    We'll see how he does from here, but it looks like Megill is the real deal. That isn't to say he's now the ace of the Mets staff, but he's going to force the team to consider a six-man rotation if and when the entire staff is healthy.

    Verdict: For real

Cleveland Guardians Outfield

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    Cleveland's Steven Kwan
    Cleveland's Steven KwanReed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    Steven Kwan Stats: .455/.606/.636
    Myles Straw Stats: .321/.457/.357, 4 SB
    Oscar Mercado Stats: .179/.179/.607, 3 HR

    Entering the season, outfield was a great big question mark for the Guardians.

    Myles Straw in center was the only sure thing, as much as a career .265 hitter with five home runs in 862 plate appearances can be a sure thing. And the expectation/guess was that Straw would be flanked in the outfield by Bradley Zimmer in left andif and when fully recovered from the gruesome leg injury suffered last JulyJosh Naylor in right.

    Instead, it has been Oscar Mercado and rookie Steven Kwan in the corner outfield spots, and it has been a thing of beauty for Cleveland.

    Kwan hit .328 in the minors last year and .469 during spring training before quickly emerging as the best contact hitter since Tony Gwynn. His MLB career began with an unfathomable-in-today's-game streak of 116 pitches seen without a swing-and-miss. And in one game during that run, he went 5-for-5 at the dish in a win over the Kansas City Royals last weekend.

    While Mercadowho hit .197 between the 2020 and 2021 campaignsstill isn't hitting for average, at least the pop is back in his bat. He hit 15 home runs as a rookie in 2019 but had just seven home runs in 300 at-bats between the last two seasons. The 27-year-old already has three jacks and five total extra-base hits this year, carrying quite a big stick down in the No. 7/8 hole in the lineup.

    And while Straw only has one extra-base hit, the speedy leadoff hitter has made up for it by leading the majors in stolen bases.

    Kwan's batting average will eventually drop off, but he has the eyes and the hands to potentially lead the majors in batting average as a rookie. Straw's stolen bases are nothing new, as he had 30 swipes last year. The only real question is whether Mercado can keep hitting for power, though I suspect we'll see that right-handed hitter platoon with the left-handed Naylor sooner rather than later, putting both in a position to play to their strengths.

    We'll see how the pitching beyond Shane Bieber and how the infield beyond Jose Ramirez holds up over time, but this outfield looks mighty fine and should keep Cleveland in the mix for a playoff spot.

    Verdict: For real

Ji-Man Choi, 1B, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Ji-Man Choi
    Ji-Man ChoiChris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Stats: .526/.640/1.000, 2 HR, 7 RBI

    At the start of play Saturday, Ji-Man Choi was leading the majors in both batting average and OPS (1.640), which nobody saw coming.

    Until 10 days ago, Choi had career marks of .241 in batting average and .787 in OPS dating back to 2016, and he had hit .230 or worse in both 2020 and 2021. And there was certainly no evidence of an impending power surge during spring training. He drew a ton of walks (10 in 27 plate appearances) but managed just one single in 16 official at-bats.

    Lo and behold, he has become the most unretirable hitter in the league.

    But let's be honest: There's a lot of dumb luck in play here.

    Choi isn't suddenly mashing the cover off the ball. His 50.0 ground-ball percentage is much higher than it was in any of the past four seasons, according to FanGraphs. He's just putting the ball in the perfect spots, boasting a completely unsustainable .667 BABIP.

    You don't need me to tell you that Choi's astronomical numbers are going to come back to earth, though. It's more a question of how drastic that plummet will be. And with the way he's seeing the ball thus far16 walks and 10 strikeouts, including spring trainingI like his chances at having a career-best season. Choi has yet to finish a year above a .267 average or .363 on-base percentage, but I think he finishes closer to .285 and .400.

    Verdict: Fluke, but legitimate improvement

Colorado Rockies Bullpen

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    Colorado's Daniel Bard
    Colorado's Daniel BardDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Stats: 31.1 IP, 5-0, 5 SV, 0.86 ERA

    Opening Day starter Kyle Freeland is 0-2 with a 10.00 ERA, and yet the Colorado Rockies are 5-2 overall behind the strength of a bullpen yielding next to nothing.

    In total, the Rockies have used eight relief pitchers. At the start of play Saturday, six of them had combined for 24.2 innings of scoreless work. Closer Daniel Bard had allowed two runs, setup man Alex Colome had allowed one, and that was it for the octet.

    But does anyone seriously expect this to last?

    For starters, this is Mile High we're talking about. Not only has Colorado never posted a sub-3.65 bullpen ERA, but the Rockies pen also had the second-worst ERA and second-worst fWAR over the past three seasons. Humidor or not, relief pitching in Denver has always been a struggle.

    Beyond that, this bullpen isn't exactly a who's who of flame-throwing out-getters.

    Bard was out of the majors from 2014-19 before compiling a 5.21 ERA as the Rockies closer last year. Colome has 155 career saves but merely a 6.7 fWAR to show for it while bouncing around from one team to the next. And those are the names with at least some track record worth mentioning. Others like Ashton Goudeau, Justin Lawrence and Tyler Kinley are much bigger unknowns, liable to implode at any moment.

    I hope I'm wrong, because Colorado suddenly becoming a hot spot for drama-free holds and saves would be a lot of fun and would at least add some intrigue to this year's NL West race. But it likely won't be long at all before the late innings become a constant problem for the Rockies once more.

    Verdict: Fluke

Jose Berrios, SP, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Jose Berrios
    Jose BerriosFrank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Stats: 5.1 IP, 11.81 ERA, 2.625 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 8.4 BB/9, 5.1 HR/9

    Hellbent on assembling a starting rotation that can make good use of all the home runs supplied by the bats of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., George Springer, Matt Chapman, etc., the Blue Jays spent big on starting pitchers this offseason, bringing in both Kevin Gausman and Yusei Kikuchi and re-signing Jose Berrios to a seven-year, $131 million deal.

    Early returns have been less than ideal, especially with Berrios.

    After allowing 10 earned runs in eight innings of work during spring training, he lasted all of seven batters in his Opening Day start against the Texas Rangers. Following a leadoff home run to Brad Miller, Berrios gave up two walks, two singles, a wild pitch and a hit batter before exiting the game. He was charged with four earned runs, but not the loss, as the Blue Jays rallied from a 7-0 deficit for a 10-8 victory.

    His subsequent start against the New York Yankees was substantially better, but he still walked three batters in the first four innings and collapsed in spectacular fashion in the fifth, allowing two home runs, two doubles and a flyout to deep center in the span of seven pitches.

    His velocities are right on par with the past several seasons, so it's not a dead-arm issue or anything like that.

    He just seems to be having trouble both finding the strike zone and avoiding barrels.

    Over the past five years, Berrios' highest rate of balls per pitch thrown was 0.371 and his highest average exit velocity was 88.7. So far, those numbers are 0.386 and 94.5, respectively. And that latter number is way up because 25.0 percent of batted balls have been classified as barrels, which is just absurd. Among the 238 starting pitchers who logged at least 20 innings last season, the highest barrel percentage was Tarik Skubal's 14.3.

    Once that number regresses to the mean for Berrios, so will his ERA. But let's keep an eye on that walk rate in the next start or two before we fully chalk up this poor start to a small sample size for a two-time All-Star.

    Verdict: Fluke

Chicago Cubs

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    Seiya Suzuki
    Seiya SuzukiGene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Record: 4-3, plus-eight run differential

    When the Chicago Cubs had their fire sale at the 2021 trade deadline, the expectation was that it would help expedite the rebuilding process, but that it would still take at least another season or two before this team was ready to compete for another title.

    Of course, we didn't know at the time that they were going to sign five-time Nippon League All-Star Seiya Suzuki to a five-year, $85 million deal, or that he would be immediately as good as advertised—and then some. With three home runs and 10 runs batted in through his first six games, Suzuki has already emerged as the clear favorite for NL Rookie of the Year.

    We also didn't know last summer that Marcus Stroman would end up signing with the Cubs. The 2019 All-Star chose Chicago on a two-year, $50 million deal, and he has gotten out to an impressive start in his new home.

    Justin Steele has also been surprisingly impressive with a 1.93 ERA through two starts. And if that second-year, fifth man in the rotation continues to pitch well, this could be one of the better rotations in the majors if and when Wade Miley (left elbow inflammation) gets healthy.

    As a resultand in spite of a horrendous start to the year from Patrick Wisdomthe Cubs are early candidates to win the NL Central, already with a pair of wins over the already to their credit.

    And here's the kicker: They have plenty of room in the budget to improve via trade.

    Chicago had the third-highest payroll at $221.6 million in 2019 but is currently slightly below the league average at $141.8 million this year. For a team that might be one bat and one reliever away from truly competing with the likes of the Mets and the Dodgers, there's a lot of wiggle room to make it happen.

    That preseason win total that hovered in the 73-74 range sure seems like a mistake already.

    Verdict: For real, if they commit to it

Cody Bellinger, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Cody Bellinger
    Cody BellingerDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Stats: .240/.367/.400, 1 HR, 3 SB

    Are we going to get 2019 Cody Bellinger or 2020-21 Cody Bellinger?

    Thus far, it looks like the latter, and that's no good for the Dodgers.

    Since being named the NL MVP in 2019, it has been injury after injury for Bellinger. First it was the shoulder injury that he tried to battle through in 2020 before undergoing offseason surgery. Then it was the broken leg that sidelined him for much of the first two months of 2021. And then he fractured a rib last September, missing about two weeks of action.

    As a result, he was a shell of his former self. The man who hit .305 with 47 home runs in 2019 had been replaced by a man who hit .195 with 22 home runs over the past two seasons combined.

    He sprang to life last postseason, though, hitting .353 with a home run and five stolen bases. And if that version of Bellinger showed up for 2022, the Dodgers could be so darn unstoppable that they might wrap up the NL West by Labor Day.

    Maybe he can get there, though, because he at least looks healthy, as evidenced by the three stolen bases—already matching his total in 96 games played last season—and the trio of multihit performances. He just needs to improve his consistency at the dish.

    His line drive rate and ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio leave much to be desired compared to where he was at three years ago, so that means there's room for improvement.

    Verdict: Fluke

Atlanta Braves

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    Atlanta's Max Fried
    Atlanta's Max FriedJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Record: 4-5, minus-11 run differential

    There has not been a back-to-back World Series champion since the New York Yankees in 1999-2000, and just putting together a winning season the year after winning it all has been a struggle as of late. The Dodgers bucked that trend last year with 106 wins, but six of the past nine reigning champions won fewer than 52 percent of games played.

    Are the Braves headed for a similar fate, or can they rally from this rough start?

    Well, that largely depends on whether most of the starting rotation can turn things around.

    Kyle Wright (who started the season with a career ERA of 6.56) is pitching well, but both Ian Anderson and Huascar Ynoa got shelled in their first outings of the season, while Charlie Morton and Max Fried were tagged for a combined 14 earned runs while going 1-3 in their first four starts. Each of those four guys had an ERA of 4.05 or better during the 2021 regular season, so having all four start out poorly has been far from ideal.

    The Braves also desperately need Adam Duvall and Eddie Rosario to wake up at the plate. Those trade-deadline acquisitions played a huge role in getting the team from three games below .500 to 15 games over .500, but they have been ghosts so far at a combined 9-for-55 with no home runs.

    The good news is that Ronald Acuna Jr. should be back within the next month, and while Ynoa is still a bit unestablished, we've seen enough from each of Morton, Fried and Anderson in recent years to expect them to bounce back soon. And once Acuna is back and the starters recover, Atlanta should benefit from a ridiculously loaded bullpen.

    Will they recover enough to win the NL East and defend their crown? We shall see. The Mets are looking pretty darn good, and the Phillies are going to be a problem.

    But will the Braves continue to rank among the worst in the majors in run differential? Heck no.

    Verdict: Fluke