The Biggest Surprises Through The Quartermark Of The MLB Season

We’ve officially passed the quarter point of the 2017 MLB season, and the new season already has brought plenty of surprises. The defending world champion Chicago Cubs, picked by many to defend their title in 2017, are playing .500 baseball. The Minnesota Twins are in first place in their division after losing 103 games last season. While the New York Yankees are hitting the turbo button on their rebuild, the New York Mets are falling apart at the seams just a subway ride away. There’s still plenty of baseball left, of course, and it’d be foolhardy to jump to conclusions this early. But enough games have been played where we can start separating the pretenders from the contenders. With that, let’s look at the biggest surprises through the first 45-plus contests.

Eric Thames is baseball’s most feared hitter: If I had bet one-million dollars that Eric Thames would be baseball’s most promising hitters through the first two month of the season, then I would be a very rich man. Unfortunately no one, including myself, predicted that 30 year-old Thames and Milwaukee’s latest reclamation project would be this good, this fast.

After all, no one also predicted that Thames would be at the spot that he is now. Thames journey to Milwaukee is one of interesting proportions, starting from a limited role early for the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners from 2011-2012, to playing in the Korean Baseball League the next three seasons, to finally signing with Milwaukee last November on a three-year deal worth $16 million.

Now, Thames is making the most of his opportunity for the Brewers soundly, as he’s slowly blossomed into a perfect No. 2 hitter in Milwaukee’s lineup. Through 188 PA’s, Thames is hitting a reputable .278 with an on-base percentage of .404  and a .989 OPS. While Thames’ K% is a little bit higher than normal (23.4 percent), he is compensating it with power – hammering 13 home runs, 28 RBIs and posting the 10th highest wRC+ in the National League.

Jason Vargas and Ervin Santana are leading contenders for the AL Cy Young: We are at the end of May and two 34 year-olds, Jason Vargas and Ervin Santana, are the front-runners for the American League Cy Young award. How is this possible? Well from afar, you can probably count on one hand the number of people who believed this to be true in spring training – hint: not many.

Through it all, the revival of Vargas is probably the most fascinating story to date so far. Not even two years ago, Vargas was placed on the season-ending DL following a torn UCL in his left elbow. Then after recovering from injury last season, Vargas pitched a grand total of 12 innings out of the Kansas City bullpen in early September.

To make it perfectly clear, it’s incredibly difficult (borderline impossible) for a pitcher to recover from such severe of an injury at such an age and outperform his metrics. And that is exactly what Vargas is doing currently, producing at such a level that it carries no logical reasoning at all – like how a lifetime fly-ball pitcher is surrendering a miniscule 0.7 HR’s per nine innings, or how Vargas owns the fourth best ERA (2.39) and the third-best K/BB rate (3.8) amongst all qualified starters in the American League.

Unlike Vargas however, Santana didn’t approach 2017 with arm issues nor an extremely low ceiling. The seasoned right-hander entered his 13th MLB season with consistency on his mind. Last year, Santana proved to be a stable No 1. starter for Minnesota, recording his second-best ERA in five seasons and best FIP ever. It’s safe to say that Santana has not only maintained those numbers this year, but rather, he’s blown his 2017 projections out of the water.

As a whole, Santana’s body of work this year is quite compelling. He offers the lowest ERA (1.80) and the second most wins (seven) in the American League, while displaying by far the best H/9IP rate of his career (4.0). Santana’s methodical approach on the mound is a significant building block for the Twins as its’ buoyed them to first place in the AL Central.

The Yankees are the most surprise team in the American League, and they’ve done it the right way: 

At last, the #MakeNewYorkYankeesBaseballGreatAgain movement is starting to take form. There’s a myriad of ways to quantify what the Yankees are doing, but stick with the obvious: They are second in the American League in runs, fourth in home runs, and second in adjusted OPS. They’re out-hitting, out-slugging, and out-walking nearly every other major league team. And, just to show off, they’ve stolen 32 bases in 38 attempts, too.

The fact that the Yankees are outscoring teams isn’t the most surprising thing in the 2017 season though. Everyone is enthralled with Aaron Judge, an ample amount of other young phenoms, and for good reason. Along with Judge, other Yankees’ such as Starlin Castro, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Garder, Aaron Hicks and holy heck even Matt Holliday are producing credible numbers.

When you first analyze the Yankees’ roster, though, you’re left with the impression of “HOW ARE THEY DOING THIS?,” in all caps, and it has nothing to do with Judge. It has nothing to do any suggestion that the Yankees have been lucky, an argument quickly countered by a reminder of the time missed by Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius. It’s an honest and frantic question, and one that can’t be stated enough:

All of these Yankees have outperformed their 2017 projections drastically. If you want proof, take a look at the projected OPS for each of the above hitters according to Baseball Prospectus, compared to their actual OPS:

Actual OPS vs. PECOTA projections

Player 2017 PECOTA projected OPS Actual OPS Difference
Aaron Hicks .716 1.043 .327
Starlin Castro .733 .904 .171
Brett Gardner .736 .902 .166
Matt Holliday .803 .916 .113
Jacoby Ellsbury .710 .771 .061
Chase Headley .735 .768 .033

The Yankees just might be good at cobbling together a baseball team, even when they’re not paying people $150 million to play for them. These surprising seasons don’t all have to be found money. There can be a little science and baseball acumen involved. There can be a lot of science and baseball acumen involved.

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