Though we spend practically the entire offseason analyzing team’s rosters and the quality of their players, there are always players that either exceed or fail to meet expectations. Through the first month the first month, that statement still stands true. So which surprises are real, which are flukes, and which need more time to examine? Let’s play: buy, sell, or hold!
Tim Anderson, Chicago White Sox
Considered a critical part of the White Sox rebuild, Tim Anderson has continued to be team’s shortstop despite three straight subpar offensive seasons. So far, the White Sox seem to be getting reward for their patience; Anderson has a .985 OPS and 166 weighted runs created plus (wrc+). However, Chicago should not expect that to last. Anderson’s stats are currently being inflated by a .443 batting average balls in play, despite the fact his hard contact rate is actually down at 24.6%. Furthermore, his chase rate is extremely high at 44.4% and his walk rate is incredibly low at 2.4%. On defense, it seemed liked Anderson was making improvements while posting 0 defensive runs saved (drs) after having -8 drs the season prior, but with already -5 drs and a -2.4 ultimate zone rating (UZR), he’s clearly regressing in that department as well. Therefore, not only is Anderson not actually getting better, he seems to be getting worse; a harsh reality check should soon be expected for the 25-year-old shortstop.
Jackie Bradley Jr., Boston Red Sox
Jackie Bradley Jr. has constantly been locked down center field for the Red Sox, compiling a 10.3 WAR over the past three seasons. However, the 29-year-old has been abysmal so far; he has a .390 OPS and a -0.8 WAR. Some of these struggles are due to luck, as Bradley Jr. has a .208 BABIP. However, there are other explanations for Bradley Jr.’s struggles that make more sense. For starters, his hard contact rate (35.2%) is down from the season prior (41.1%), while his ground ball rate is significantly higher at 56.6%. That, combined with a 31.6% chase rate and a decreased contact rate (65.2%) signifies that Bradley Jr.’s offensive struggles are legitimate. Then comes the defensive issues; he has -5 drs in 2019, after compiling 21 drs between 2016 and 2017. Bradley Jr. may have the reputation as an elite defender, but cracks could clearly be seen when his drs regressed all the way to zero last season. It is now clear that this regression was not a fluke; Bradley is a below average hitter and fielder currently, and the Red Sox shouldn’t expect him to come out of this slump; this is the start of a greater downfall for the 2016 All Star.
Christian Walker, Arizona Diamondbacks
After trading Paul Goldschmidt, the Diamondbacks seemed to have a major hole at first base. However, Christian Walker has filled in admirably so far, with a 1.051 OPS and a 1.2 WAR. The 28-year-old is still rookie eligible despite being in his fifth season, due to him being a swingman/26th man type player throughout his career, but he seems to have found a home as Arizona’s new slugger. Walker’s hard contact rate of 67.7% justifies his .400 BABIP, while his .614 expected slugging isn’t too far from his .663 slugging percentage. In fact, his barrel percentage (19.4%), exit velocity (94.6%), expected weighted on-base average (.408), and hard-hit rate (56.5%) all rate amongst the league’s best. Plus, a decreased chase rate of 31.3% and increased walk rate (9.2%) show an improved approach, and he’s rated out as a solid defender at first base (1 drs) so far. Though it would be ideal to give it a little more time before completely buying into the fact that a journeyman has become an elite slugger out of nowhere, we’ve seen these breakouts before in the past (Max Muncy), and there is nothing to suggest that Walker will slow down anytime soon.
Marwin Gonzalez, Minnesota Twins
Signed to a two year, $21 million contracts this offseason, Marwin Gonzalez was expected to be a big part of the Twins’ pursuit towards a division title. However, so far, the 30-year-old has struggled with a .488 OPS and a 27 wrc+. This comes after a 2018 campaign in which he regressed to a .733 OPS, causing concern that Gonzalez’s struggles this season could be legitimate. However, there’s still reason to be optimistic. Though it may be caused by a decreased line drive rate and increased ground ball rate, Gonzalez’s .192 BABIP indicates he has been the victim of plenty of bad luck, especially since his 35.2% hard contact rate isn’t far off from what it had been in previous years. His barrel percentage, exit velocity, and launch angle are all also around where they should be for him; the lack of production seems to be coming from the low BABIP. Though Gonzalez likely won’t ever reach the .907 OPS he had in 2017, an OPS around .770 for the season still seems well within reach.
Hunter Dozier and Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals
The Royals lineup had a bleak outlook heading into the season. Yet, they still are in the middle of the pack with 124 runs scored, thanks in large part to the performances of Hunter Dozier and Alex Gordon. Dozier, 27, was once considered a top prospect but fell flat with a -0.8 WAR last season. This season, however, he has a 1.155 OPS and a 1.6 WAR. With an increased walk rate, and decreased chase rate and strikeout rate, his approach has improved in order to complement his impressive batted ball profile (47.9%). Furthermore, his .622 expected slugging percentage and .431 expected weighted on-base average are elite; he could very well be a building block for the Royals and should continue to produce at a solid level (.850 OPS, 3.5-4 WAR), albeit probably not at the level he’s currently producing at. As for Gordon, the 35-year-old seemed to be a financial problem more than an asset, but in his final year under contract, he’s thrived with a .957 OPS and a 1.3 WAR. Similar to Dozier, improvements in strikeout rate and chase rate have fueled this hot streak, while his .305 BABIP and 40.2% hard contact rate validate it. Combined with his solid defense, and Gordon could be a 4 win player for the Royals this season. Though more time is needed to assess these unexpected emergences, Kansas City has to be pleased with the value they are receiving from these two.
Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Indians
Ranked as the top third baseman by most people heading into the season, Jose Ramirez has disappointed so far, with a .543 OPS and a 42 wrc+. However, there is no reason to worry; Ramirez’s numbers will soon revert back to being MVP caliber. With an increased 38.6% hard contact rate and an increased 23.2% line drive rate, it doesn’t make sense that Ramirez’s BABIP sits at just .185. A decreased walk rate is concerning, but his chase rate is around the same; there is nothing to explain the lack of production besides bad luck. With solid defense (1 drs) and solid base running (2.1 BsR), once Ramirez’s production returns to normalcy, he’ll be back to being the 8 win player he was last season.
Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay Rays
Traded to the Rays from the Pirates in the Chris Archer trade, Tyler Glasnow looked to be nothing more than a flyer for Tampa Bay after flaming out with Pittsburgh. However, the Rays clearly saw something they loved about him, and he’s rewarding them with a 1.53 ERA so far this season. The 25-year-old has cut his walk rate by more than half (1.84 BB/9), has increased the number of pitches he’s thrown in the zone to around 50%, while opponents are chasing more of his pitches. He’s also altered his pitch mix slightly by doubling his curveball usage, while he’s inducing ground balls 50% of the time. Even more impressive, a .257 BABIP and 34.2% hard contact rate against him proves that this is indeed no fluke, and his 2.66 FIP illustrates that he’s clearly a front-line starter. The Rays have done it again; they’ve outsmarted yet another team, and actually received the better pitcher in the Archer trade. When I do my top ten starting pitcher list next season, I fully expect Glasnow to make an appearance on it; he is that talented.
Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox
When the Red Sox signed Chris Sale to a five year, $145 million extensions right before the start of the season, they envisioned him continuing to be one of, if not the best pitcher in baseball. However, the 30-year-old has been awful with a 7.43 ERA and 5.61 FIP and has been one of the issues with the team’s regression following a World Series championship. There is plenty of reason to be concerned with Sale; his velocity has decreased to 93 MPH, his hard contact allowed has increased, while his K/9 has slipped to 9.39. However, at the same time, Sale’s velocity has improved throughout the month, and following an outing against the Rays today in which he allowed only two earned runs in seven innings, he seems to be finally finding his grove. Still, until he starts throwing his fastball more (37%) and his contact allowed rate (76.2%) decreases, I can’t completely buy into the idea he’s going to magically see his ERA drop to the low twos; an ERA around 3.00 is much more likely.
Zach Davies, Milwaukee Brewers
Despite the fact that Christian Yelich is breaking records with 14 home runs, the Brewers have been stagnant with a 15-14 record, in large part as a result of their lackluster rotation. Zach Davies, however, has been a bright spot so far with a 1.65 ERA. Still, there isn’t much reason to believe he’ll continue to be an above average starter for the team. With an 88.1% left-on-base percentage, a very low 7.7 HR/FB%, and a very high 4.76 xFIP, it’s clear Davies is bound to regress significantly. Opponents are actually chasing at less of his pitches than usual, and he continues to be a pitch to contact type pitcher with a low K rate, yet his BB/9 of 3.29 is not where it should be. As reflected by his 5.08 skill-interactive ERA (SIERA), Davies is more of a back-end starter than a reliable and stable arm, and Milwaukee cannot rely on him too much.
Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds
Speaking of NL Central teams with pitching issues, the Reds have to be thrilled with had they’ve gotten from Luis Castillo so far this season; the team’s opening starter has a 1.23 ERA and a 2.53 FIP. Like with Davies, some of this production is bound to decrease with a 90.1% left-on-base rate, a .241 BABIP, and a 4.5% HR/FB. However, unlike Davies, Castillo’s emergence has been expected since he first came into the majors as a solid prospect, and improvements to his K/9 (10.55) and hard contact allowed rate (27.4%) can also explain his success. That makes me not completely sell off the notion that Castillo is becoming a front-line starter, but until he improves his zone rate (36%) and proves that he’s better than his peripherals, I see him more as a 3.50 ERA pitcher than a 2.50 ERA pitcher.
Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies
If the Phillies are going to live up to the hype they received heading into the season, they are going to need better production from their rotation. At the core of the unit’s problems are with its ace, Aaron Nola; he has a 5.68 ERA and a 5.41 FIP. Don’t be fooled by the numbers though; Nola is still one of the best starting pitchers in the MLB. A 25% HR/FB rate and a .345 suggests he’s been a victim of bad luck, especially considering he continues to induce a lot of ground balls (46.1%) and little hard contact (29.8%). He’s not the 2.37 ERA pitcher he was last year, but an ERA in the high 2.00s or the low 3.00s is still a reasonable expectation for the 25-year-old.
Domingo German, New York Yankees
With practically their entire starting lineup, including ace Luis Severino, injured, the Yankees have to be satisfied to be five games above .500 at 16-11. A big part of this persistence has been Domingo German, who has impressed with a 1.75 ERA and a 2.90 FIP. The 26-year-old has a solid K/BB ratio of 3.50, has only allowed hard contact 27% of the time, and an excellent 38.5% chase rate. A .180 BABIP means that he’ll regress at some point, but even then, he’ll be a 3.00 ERA pitcher for a team that needs stability in the back-end of their rotation. He’s not an ace or even a front-line starter, but German clearly looks to be a promising middle of the rotation starting pitcher for the club.