The MLB’s regular-season schedule is 162 games long for a reason – it’s a marathon, not a sprint. While we’re not even at the three-week mark yet, it’s still long enough for us to get a good glimpse as to which players are off to surprisingly great starts.
Baseball is a game of failure, but it’s also a game of averages. Even if a player is white-hot for a certain period of time, they’ll eventually come back down to Earth and maybe even go into a slump to even things out (unless your Bryce Harper). However, some players may use a hot start to propel themselves to a new benchmark moving forward when it comes to their career norms.
Whether the current narrative about players is good or bad, they still have five months of games left to prove themselves, one way or the other. With that in mind, here are five players who have been pleasant surprises thus far.
Dexter Fowler, CF, Chicago Cubs
This year’s Cubs team is stacked with talent. Still, I’m convinced they wouldn’t be 12-4 right now and already in control of the NL Central if Fowler isn’t at the top of their lineup. Yes, the pitching has been there, but the lineup hasn’t been performing from top-to-bottom like they anticipate it to yet.
Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward have hung out in the interstate for a majority of the year, and Chicago took a big blow in losing Kyle Schwarber. Despite all of that, they’ve been putting pressure on opposing teams because Fowler always seems to be on base, posting a .393/.521/.696 line with 11 RBI and 14 runs scored through 56 at-bats.
Who knows how much longer it’ll last since his BABIP is currently sitting at .500, but once his hot streak eventually subsides, the rest of the lineup will probably be clicking, and Chicago will continue to not miss a beat. And that’s scary for everyone else.
Mat Latos, SP, Chicago White Sox
A lot of us knew how good Latos could be, but not many thought he’d have the third-lowest ERA among starting pitchers at the moment. Through three starts (18.1 innings), he’s already 3-0 with a 0.49 ERA, 0.60 WHIP, 11 strikeouts and just five walks.
This brings back memories to his San Diego Padres days, when he won 14 games and posted a 2.92 ERA in 2010. He’s been dominant by holding opponents to a .097 batting average and a .118 BABIP, so it’ll be interesting to see how he responds upon getting knocked around for the first time.
Even when that eventually happens, the White Sox are likely already pretty satisfied with their $3 million offseason gamble.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C, Detroit Tigers
When I hear Saltalamacchia’s name, I normally think of three things: good amount of power for a catcher, not a lot of batting average and other really long baseball names. After a rough 2014 and even rougher start to 2015 with the Miami Marlins, he got cut despite being in the middle of a three-year, $21 million deal.
He ended up catching on with the Arizona Diamondbacks and had a strong finish to the season (posted an .805 OPS) and became a low-risk, high-reward signing for the Tigers. So far, there’s been a huge reward, hitting .286/.375/.800 with five home runs, while being tied for second in the AL with 14 RBI in 35 at-bats.
Could that last? I mean, crazier things have happened. His .313 BABIP isn’t much different than his career average, but his 33.3% homer/fly ball rate will definitely plummet to around 10-15% at some point.
Jean Segura, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks
In case you missed it over the winter, the Dbacks are going for it all. After bolstering their starting pitching, they acquired Segura to solidify the middle of the infield, but the numbers didn’t show he was much of an upgrade over Nick Ahmed or Chris Owings.
Well, he tore up opposing pitching throughout Spring Training, and even though that doesn’t mean much, he’s continued in the regular season. Without A.J. Pollock at the top of the order to provide a spark, Segura has taken that responsibility, hitting .338/.375/.574 with 10 RBI and 10 runs scored through 68 at-bats.
The biggest difference in his game is increased plate discipline. He’s swung at fewer pitches outside the strike zone (39.5% in ’15 to 30.7% in ’16) and inside the strike zone (69.9% to 61.9%), yet his contact rate on balls in the strike zone has gone up (91.5% to 94.9%).
We’ll see how sustainable this is over the course of an entire season, especially as his first-pitch strike percentage creeps back to his career norms of around 60-65%.
Vincent Velasquez, SP, Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies are one of a few National League teams who are clearly using 2016 to rebuild for the future. We knew they weren’t going to be good, but it remained to be seen how bad they’d be.
While the bullpen is going to provide manager Pete Mackanin a few sleepless nights over the coming months, he has to be pleased with the performance of his rotation, and more specifically, Velasquez.
His last start against the New York Mets was a little rocky, but the overall results so far have been fantastic. The 23-year-old right-hander is 2-1 with a 0.93 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 29 strikeouts and just three walks in 19.1 innings of work. That includes a 16-strikeout, complete game shutout gem against the San Diego Padres.
With a mid-90s fastball and three other pitches he can throw in game situations, Philadelphia is already seeing the reward in trading Ken Giles away to the Houston Astros over the winter.
Which players have been the biggest surprises for you so far during the first three weeks of the MLB regular season?
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