Analyzing Early Trends From 60-Game MLB Season

We don’t know when the season could get cancelled, and have to take everything day-by-day, but I’ll speak for everyone when I say that is has been such a pleasure to have the MLB back as part of my everyday life. Since this is a short season, it’s going to be difficult to make any sort of concrete analysis on any topic, as the sample sizes are too small. Yet, by focusing on stable metrics, as well as digging deep into specific changes players are making, there are little aspects of this season that could make a different as front offices plan for 2021. Today, we’ll be looking at 30 players (or specific clusters of players) who have either started the season on a hot streak or cold streak. In my opinion, these players have something interesting working in their favor or against them that will impact them moving forward, even if our current sample size is super small.

Stats via Baseball Savant and Fangraphs, collected on August 7th or 8th, depending on the player

To start, we’ll look at players who have gotten off to a good start to the season, and should continue to perform at a very high level:

SS Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers

For the first two seasons of his career, Corey Seager looked like the future face of the Dodgers, accumulating 12.9 WAR in that span. However, he had to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2018, and last season, he disappointed. Yet, he was still a 113 weighted-runs-created-plus (wrc+) hitter, and so far, he’s been magnificent this season. His .593 expected-weighted-on-base average (xwOBA) and .955 expected slugging percentage (xSLG) are off the charts, as he’s hitting the ball extremely hard (63.6% hard hit rate). Usually, I’d be worried about his reliance on a high line-drive rate and low launch angle, but this season would be in line with his pre-2018 form, so I’m buying the idea that he’s back to being one of the top shortstops in the MLB; he’s actually gotten unlucky, based on his expected statistics.

OF Aaron Judge, New York Yankees

Wait, what’s surprising about Aaron Judge dominating? We’re well aware that the 28-year-old is one of the elite players in the game when healthy, but I think he’s back to being the most feared slugger in the entire game. After his absurdly terrific 2017 campaign, the Yankees’ star outfielder saw his power numbers dip, and although he’s failed to improve his launch angle, he has done something else- he has started to pull the ball. He’s nearly doubled his 37.8% pull rate from a season ago, and as long as he continues to do that, an MVP award should be coming his way in the future.

Multiple San Diego Padres Position Players

The Padres rank near the top of the league in runs scored, and a lot of the credit should go to the following four players: Fernando Tatis Jr., Trent Grisham, Will Myers, and Jake Cronenworth. Tatis Jr. is the star of the group and hasn’t improved his strikeout rate, but he’s nearly doubled his walk rate and has started to launch the ball more. As for Grisham, he’s one of the most disciplined hitters in the league, and right now, he’s hitting the ball extremely hard at an optimal launch angle (21.6 degrees), and also rates out well in most defensive metrics. Meanwhile, Myers is chasing less pitches and is hitting far less ground balls, and has always been an underrated offensive producer anyways. To top it all off, Cronenworth not only provides defensive versatile for San Diego, but MVP Sports Talk’s 93rd-ranked prospect has an xwOBA near .500 and an xSLG over .800. Simply put, this team is, and will continue to be, a lot of fun to watch.

RHP Dylan Bundy, Los Angeles Angels

Once considered one of the top prospects in the game, it’s safe to say that Dylan Bundy hasn’t yet become the ace that everyone expected him to become. Nevertheless, he’s only 27-years-old, and is finally starting to tap into some of his untapped potential- he has a 2.74 xFIP and a 12.50 K/B ratio through 21.2 innings pitched. In the past, he had been more of a mid 4s xFIP type of pitcher, though this shouldn’t be considered a fluke. In a past article I wrote regarding pitcher who needed to alter their pitch usage, Bundy has one of the top candidates to do so, as he was relying on his fastball far too often. Well, so far, he’s throwing his fastball about 10% less, and now, he’s able to work in the zone more and induce less contact. Considering their desperate need for pitching, the Angels have to be ecstatic about their acquisition of him.

The Reds’ Trio of Starting Pitchers

The Reds came into the season expecting to have an elite rotation, and it’s safe to say that the trio of Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo, and Trevor Bauer is living up to those lofty expectations. Gray ended the year on a high note after working off his slider more last season, and he’s come into 2020 and flourished (1.64 xFIP and 13.50 K/9). Meanwhile, Castillo has transitioned into more of a prototypical four-seam pitcher who works at the top of the zone, and with his arm slot, I think he has a chance to be one of the nastiest pitchers in the entire game. Finally, Bauer is coming off of a rough season, yet he was a Cy Young candidate as recently as 2018, and after tweaking his pitch usage, he’s inducing even less contact than in previous seasons. With Bauer set to be a free agent, this may be the only chance we get to watch this trio thrive together, but no matter what, they’ll certainly be missing a lot of bats.

RHP Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee Brewers

Although he showed a lot of promise with a 3.36 xFIP in 121.2 innings, many were skeptical of Brandon Woodruff. Well, fittingly, his peripherals so far have been nearly exactly what they were last year, and with a heavier usage of a sinker that actually works (it plays well with his velocity), he’s inducing more ground balls. If he can pitch enough innings, he could be very well end as a future ace.

The Indians’ Trio of Starting Pitchers

Shifting back to Ohio, the Indians are giving the Reds some serious pushback for the tile of best starting pitching trio in baseball. We’re all aware of Shane Bieber’s ridiculous start to the season, as after a fantastic start to his career, he’s officially maxed out his pitches and has become one of the elite pitchers in baseball (1.23 xFIP). Meanwhile, although Mike Clevinger hasn’t started out strong, there isn’t any reason to be worried. That’s particularly true for Cleveland- Carlos Carrasco and Zach Plesac have been fantastic. For Carrasco, he simply needed to get back on track after recovering leukemia last year, and he’s simply a great comeback story. Plesac, on the other hand, has been a very pleasant surprise. His 5.06 xFIP from a season ago certainly wasn’t inspiring, yet his K-BB numbers are off-the charts; he’s using his breaking pitchers more and apparently has adjusted his curveball to work better with the rest of his pitches. The Indians do a great job working with pitchers like Bieber and Plesac, who have great feel for pitching, and turning them into elite K-BB ratio pitchers. In other words, why doubt that these aren’t their latest success stories?

RHP German Marquez, Colorado Rockies

In terms of his peripherals, not much has changed with German Marquez, but since his ERA (1.89) is currently very low, he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves, and I figure he ought to be mentioned in this piece. As mentioned, due to playing in Colorado, his ERA has always been much higher than his xFIP. However, he induces ground balls nearly half the time, consistently has excellent K-BB numbers, and although the Rockies are off to a great start, he could one day be a major trade-chip for team; outside of Colorado, I truly believe he’d be considered one of the top pitchers in all of baseball.

RHP Dustin May, Los Angeles Dodgers

The last thing the Dodgers needed was another terrific young starting pitcher, yet that’s what Dustin May will be for them for a long time. Our 13th-ranked prospect has a 2.60 xFIP through 13.2 innings last season, and also posted a 3.70 xFIP in 34.2 innings last season. His sinker and cutter play really well off of each other, so I’m not surprised that he’s inducing a lot of ground balls- he also has a superb K/BB ratio of 5.00. I don’t see any red flags with him whatsoever, and he should anchor the front of their rotation with Walker Buehler for some time.

For the most part, the players cited on this list have a track record of success, or have made approach changes that should gear them up for sustainable success. Now, let’s look at the opposite end of the spectrums: players who are off to a fast start, but will certainly regress eventually:

OF Luis Robert, Chicago White Sox

Luis Robert is regarded by most as an elite prospect, and right now, he’s near the top of the leaderboard in WAR. Nevertheless, I don’t expect him to continue to dominate.  To his credit, his walk rate is near 10%, but considering he’s chasing at a 42.3% rate, that walk rate will likely regress. Plus, although he’s hitting the ball hard, he currently has a 48.6% ground ball rate- his .485 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) will only prompt him for so long.

INF Donovan Solano, San Francisco Giants

The Giants quietly have several players that are performing at a high level right now, and Donovan Solano is clearly the biggest surprise- he currently has a wrc+ over 200. Expecting that to continue, however, would be foolish. The 32-year-old has continued to showcase poor plate discipline, and is relying on an unsustainable 46.3% line-drive rate. Essentially, his production is completely dependent on his BABIP, so once those line drives become ground balls, he’ll provide far less value- he’s also a poor defender.

OF Kyle Lewis, Seattle Mariners

The Mariners are looking for players who can be a part of their next contending team, and their hoping that 25-year-old Kyle Lewis fits that mold- he has a .426 on-base percentage currently. To his credit, his plate discipline has been much better than Robert, but similarly to the White Sox center fielder, his launch angle (4.5) won’t support high very high BABIP (.545). Plus, the defensive metrics currently don’t believe in his ability to be a long-time center fielder.

OF Eloy Jimenez, Chicago White Sox

I could’ve put Robert and Eloy Jimenez together, yet the two are every different. Robert at least provides a lot of value outside of his offense, but Jimenez’ power is completely tied to his bat. Currently, he ranks near the top in all batted ball categories at Baseball Savant, which would seem to be encouraging, right? Nope. He’s continued to not walk at the rate you’d expect for a slugger, and furthermore, his launch angle (1.5) has gotten even worse. A 54.5% ground ball rate isn’t going to cut it, and to no one’s surprise, his defense (3rd percentile Outs Above Average) has been atrocious as well.

LHP Martin Perez, Boston Red Sox

New Chief Officer Chaim Bloom did what he could to add a lot of depth to the Red Sox roster this season, and his biggest signing was lefty Martin Perez. So far, he has a 3.45 ERA, and continues to induce a lot of soft contact. At the same time, though, he’s walking nearly as many hitters as he’s striking out, and from previous studies, we’ve concluded that batted-ball metrics are pretty unstable for pitchers. Perez is the same pitcher he’s always been, which is a 5.00 ERA pitcher with subpar K-BB ratios- not exactly what Boston is hoping for.

RHP Randy Dobnak, Minnesota Twins

As a former Uber driver who had to work extremely hard to get to the majors, Randy Dobnak is a pitcher that all fans ought to pull for. Nevertheless, if you believe his 0.60 ERA in 15 innings is a sign of progression, I’m here to tell you that it unfortunately is not. The 25-year-old’s strikeout numbers (4.80 K/9) aren’t where you’d like them to be, and he also hasn’t allowed a home run rate. Considering his batted-ball numbers all rank as below average, I doubt he’ll continue to get away with not missing bats.

RHP Zack Wheeler, Philadelphia Phillies

I’ve been on the “Zack Wheeler breakout” train for a long time, but I may finally be ready to hop off of it. In the aforementioned pitch usage article, Wheeler was the player who stood out the most, as he has all the traits you want for a power pitcher that works at the top of the zone. However, he is continuing to throw his sinker at a high rate, and thus, I’m not surprised that he isn’t missing bats (4.15 K/9). His current 2.08 ERA won’t be intact for much longer.

LHP Kyle Freeland, Colorado Rockies

After he posted a 2.85 ERA in 2018, many thought Kyle Freeland, rather than German Marquez, was the ace the Rockies had been searching for. Instead, he came back with a 6.73 ERA, which came as a surprise to his supporters. However, with K/BB ratios barely over 2.00, his peripherals have never been strong, and, in my opinion, he’s a #5 starter with a likely xFIP in the 4.50s. So far, his 2.41 ERA would seem to be encouraging, but he’s not striking batters out an optimal rate (5.40 K/9), and, as we’ve mentioned previously, relying on the ability to induce soft contact isn’t very stable.

With this group, most of these players aren’t rating well in the stable metrics. That’s also the case with the next group, though they don’t the luxury of rating out well in traditional statistics:

1B Evan White, Seattle Mariners

Ranked as MLB Pipeline’s 56th-ranked prospect, Evan White certainly is expected to be a huge part of the Mariners’ rebuild, especially after they signed him to a six-year contract extension with multiple club options. However, my prospect model didn’t believe he had enough of an offensive skillset at first base, and that evaluation has been correct so far. The 24-year-old is hitting the ball hard, but he’s doing so with ground balls (55.6%), which is why his xSLG sits at a very poor .306 mark. So far, he has an xwOBA under .200 versus breaking balls, and with a 42.9% strikeout rate, it appears he wasn’t ready for his MLB debut.

OF/3B Austin Riley, Atlanta Braves

Austin Riley got off to a very fast start last season as a rookie, yet he failed to adapt as pitchers adjusted to him, and that remains the case in 2020. He is continuing to strike out  over 36% of his plate appearances, and unless he living up to his power potential, the Braves can’t bank on him being their future third baseman moving forward.

2B Jose Altuve, Houston Astros

Easily the most controversial inclusion of this group, Jose Altuve has a previous track record of success, yet, for those playing close attention, he’s shown signs of regression in the past. The 30-year-old has generally been a risky player based on his reliance on unstable batted-ball luck, and it appears to be catching up to him. His sprint speed is down a full ft/s, and, thus, his decline in BABIP last year may not be a fluke. Add in the diminishment of his defensive abilities, and it’s clear his time as one of the game’s premier stars may be coming to a close.

LHP Madison Bumgarner, Arizona Diamondbacks

As a three-time World Series champion, Madison Bumgarner will one day have his number retired in San Francisco. That doesn’t concern the Diamondbacks, however, as they signed him to an $85 million deal- they need him to anchor their rotation. Unfortunately, he always looked like a poor investment, and those concerns appear to have been solidified. Since he played in a huge ballpark in San Francisco, the 31-year-old always has able to have a lower ERA than his xFIP indicated he should have, especially since he’s a fly-ball pitcher. Well, in three starts this season, he has posted a 6.68 xFIP, is allowing even more fly balls, and his average fastball velocity (88.7 MPH) is down almost 3 MPH. That’s not ideal, to say the least.

RHP Rick Porcello, New York Mets

Despite the fact that he compiled a 5.52 ERA and 5.14 xFIP last season, Rick Porcello still received a $10 million contract from the Mets, who were betting that his struggles were a fluke. So far, their gamble hasn’t been paid off. Not only has the 31-year-old’s decline in strikeout rate continued (6.92 K/9), but he also hasn’t even allowed a home run yet, and I’m not buying the fact that increasing the usage of his sinker will lead to him maximizing on his abilities. Right now, that 2019 season looks like it should’ve raised more red flags than it did.

These five players are struggling in both stable metrics and traditional statistics, so they’re getting the worst of both worlds. The next group also aren’t lighting the baseball world on fire, yet there isn’t any reason to be worried about them:

Any Star Player With a Long Track Record of Success

Worried about Christian Yelich’s or Cody Bellinger’s struggles so far? Don’t be. What’s a better sample size to go off of: the first 15 games of a season, or multiple 162-game seasons? Unless there are some specific approach/underlying issues with a player, overreacting to a small sample size is pointless. They may not be competing for an MVP in a short season, yet superstars who don’t meet expectations in 2020 will be fine in 2021. Honestly, there isn’t much more to say than that.

Multiple San Diego Padres Hitters Who Aren’t Producing at a High Level

Not only are the Padres scoring runs at a high level due to contributions of several players, but they could be doing even better. Currently, three players they were counting on- Manny Machado, Tommy Pham, and Jurickson Profar – have underperformed, yet they all should be key offensive producers for this team soon. All three have pretty similar peripherals numbers to what they’ve had in the past, and for Machado and Profar, that’s involved them walking at a higher rate. It’s pretty scary to imagine what this lineup could look like if these three players start performing the way they should be.

OF/3B Yoshi Tsutsugo, Tampa Bay Rays

When the Rays signed Yoshi Tsutsugo from Japan this offseason, they were certainly hoping for more than a .542 OPS. However, I’ve been very impressed by the lefty slugger, and I’m guessing they feel the same way. His 13.7% chase rate is absurdly low, and as long as he continues to hit the ball hard (44%) and in the air (only a 32% ground ball rate), he’ll provide Tampa Bay with the perfect blend of on-base skills and power that they need at the top of their lineup.

3B Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers

This could apply to several Dodger hitters, but Turner stands out in particular. So far this season, he only has a .702 OPS, despite the fact that his launch angle and walk rate are right around where they’ve always been. Essentially, the only difference for the 35-year-old has been that he isn’t hitting the ball (30.2%) as hard as he usually does, but over time, there isn’t any reason to believe that’ll continue to be the case.

RHP Joe Musgrove, Pittsburgh Pirates

Many pegged Joe Musgrove as a breakout candidate heading into the season, so it isn’t ideal that he currently has a 6.75 ERA and 4.97 xFIP in 14.2 innings. In the end, though, I think his supporters will be rewarded. The 27-year-old is relying on his off-speed pitches more than he has in the past, and it’s worked- he’s striking out batters at an improved 10.43 K/9 rate. Right now, his command (6.75 BB/9) has been an issue, but he’s always done a good job of limiting his free-passes in the past, and there isn’t any reason to believe he’ll continue to allow home runs on 26.7% of his fly balls. This is a talented pitcher that Pittsburgh can only hope can be a useful trade piece for them, and nothing that’s happened so far should change how other teams view him.

RHP Brady Singer, Kansas City Royals

The move to not worry about service time concerns with Brady Singer is unusual, and it’s nice to see the Royals benefit from some early success so far. Sure, his 4.80 ERA and 5.26 FIP don’t look promising, yet that stems greatly from a 2.40 HR/9- he is allowing home runs on 1/3 of the fastballs he’s allowed. That has “fluke” written all over it, especially since he’s getting ground balls (43.2%) and is doing a better-than-expected job striking batters out (10.80 K/9). Add in the fact that he’s been able to throw his fastball at the top of the zone, and there’s a lot to be encouraged about him being an important part of their  rotation for years to come.

RHP Kevin Gausman, San Francisco Giants

After he posted a 5.72 ERA last season, the Giants signed Kevin Gausman with the hopes that he’d not only bounce back, but reach new heights under their tutelage. So, they should be concerned about his 5.27 ERA through 13.2 innings, right? Wrong. The 29-year-old has built off of his improved strikeout rate from last season, and right now, he’s sporting an 8.50 K/BB ratio. After ditching his slider last season, he’s at least had it become more of a respectable offering, which allows him to rely less on his fastball. I’m not sure he’ll keep this pace up entirely, but it’s hard not be encouraged from what we’ve seen so far from a pitcher who has always flashed so much potential.

So, there you have it. For the most part, I did my best to not fret about specific numbers, and look more towards players who clearly have made changed to make themselves better, or those that are/aren’t getting the credit they deserve. Obviously, in such a small sample size, we shouldn’t have too many conclusions, yet this was still a fun exercise to look at players whose production doesn’t just affect their respective teams for this season, but for the 2021 season as well. Without further aideu, let’s continue to enjoy as much baseball as we can, no matter what!

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