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15 most stunning early-season MLB developments

Hanley Ramirez has been one of the best MLB surprises so far

The 2018 MLB season is still in its early stages. But enough time has passed that we can really take notice of what’s happened, or failed to happen.

No team is in a state of disaster just yet. But preseason contenders like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals do need to figure out what’s going on and fix their problems quickly. Other teams, like the Houston Astros, New York Mets, and Cleveland Indians, have started well, despite some of their best players significantly underperforming.

In the early weeks of the MLB season, we’ve also seen teams like the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates jump out to strong starts. They’ve given us a lot to be surprised about. The New York Yankees, meanwhile, have struggled in places where they weren’t expected to struggle.

Almost three weeks into the regular season, these are the most stunning early-season MLB developments.

Dormant start for Dodgers

There are multiple ways of looking at this. One is that while the Dodgers’ 5-9 record is poor, much of that came against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Arizona off to an 11-4 start, including a 5-1 mark against Los Angeles. So, going with the “it’s not who you play, it’s when you play them” mantra, we could just say that the Dodgers have been more unlucky than anything else.

To a degree, that’s true. Luck — or lack thereof — is always a factor. Still, a team with the Dodgers’ talent being 1-5 against anyone is excessive. Additionally, even if we don’t consider the Arizona losses, Los Angeles is only .500. The Dodgers’ remaining games have come against the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics, who are a combined 12-19. If nothing else, these are the teams that Los Angeles should be dominating. But, thanks largely to a number of struggling offensive stars, the Dodgers are only treading water against sub .500 teams.

There’s definitely time left. But the last thing that a World Series contender wants to do is fall into a deep hole in April. If Los Angeles can’t right the ship quickly, that’s precisely what’s going to happen.

Rejuvenated Hanley Ramirez helping spark Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox boast MLB’s best record. That’s not the surprising part. What is surprising is that Ramirez, who might as well have played with a fork in his back in 2017, has been a real driving force.

Ramirez has slashed at .362/.415/.617, hit three homers, scored 10 runs, and driven in a league-leading 15 runs. Perhaps Boston’s biggest problem in 2017 was a lack of power. While teams around the league were hitting home runs in record numbers, the Red Sox had some of the worst power numbers in all of baseball. It didn’t keep Boston from winning the American League, but in the ALDS against the Astros, the Red Sox were badly overmatched. The addition of J.D. Martinez alone was never going to change that. Boston needed guys like Hanley to improve.

Ramirez is 34, and two of his last three years with the Red Sox were well below expectations. There was little reason to expect that he’d bounce back at all, let alone so dramatically. Thus far, Boston has gotten exactly what it needs out of Ramirez.

Yoenis Cespedes cold, Mets hot

Yoenis Cespedes

A lot was rightfully made of the injuries that the New York Mets had to deal with over the 2016 and 2017 seasons. But even in that stretch, the availability of one man — Cespedes — seemed to be more important than others. From Cespedes’ New York debut on August 1, 2015 through the 2017 season (including the playoffs), the Mets were 112-105 with him in the lineup. That may not look like a fantastic record, but it’s overwhelming when compared to the 54-70 mark without him. From 2015-2017, New York’s success was been significantly tied to Cespedes.

That trend hasn’t extended into 2018. The Mets are 12-2, and while Cespedes has played in every game, he hasn’t played especially well. He does have three home runs, but has scuffled to a .190/.266/.362 mark.

Yet, New York has found a way to overcome. The health of the pitching staff has been key. We can also circle the hot starts of guys like Todd Frazier and Asdrubal Cabrera. Now, as good as 11-2 is, Mets’ season ticket holders shouldn’t be buying playoff tickets just yet. Still, it’s worth pointing out that when Cespedes gets hot, he’s as good as anyone in the game. So, if the team is clicking when he’s struggling, it’s fun to think about what it can do when Cespedes warms up.

Angels absolutely dominant

The Los Angeles Angels are enjoying life. No team has scored more runs (both per game and total) than the Halos, who also have baseball’s best run differential. Now, there may be some temptation to look at this team and say that it’s just been the Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani show. That would be a false statement.

Certainly, Trout and Ohtani have made big impacts for the Angels. But for the sake of argument, let’s wipe their numbers off the board. With Trout and Ohtani, Los Angeles leads all of baseball with 26 home runs. Without them, the Angels have 17, which still ranks in the top-10. If we take Trout and Ohtani’s 20 combined runs off the board, the Halos would have 83 runs scored. Excluding the Angels, only the Red Sox have scored more.

Make no mistake, we’re not trying to run down the achievements of either man. Trout is baseball’s best player, while Ohtani is combining pitching and hitting in a way nobody’s done in nearly 100 years. But throughout Trout’s career, the Angels have never had a problem at the top of the roster. The problem has been keeping a good top-25. Thus far in 2018, Los Angeles has flipped that script.

Unusual group leading the NL in hitting

The American League batting race is being led by Joe Mauer, Robinson Cano, Mookie Betts, and Jose Altuve. We can’t call any of those guys true surprises. But over in the National League, things have a much different look to them.

Ryan Flaherty of the Braves leads the senior circuit with a .366 average. The top-10 is rounded out by Jose Martinez of the St. Louis Cardinals (.364), Los Angeles’ Yasmani Grandal (.359), Pirates outfielder Corey Dickerson (.358), Atlanta’s Dansby Swanson (.357), Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant (.352), Diamondbacks outfielder David Peralta (.340), Philadelphia Phillies teammates Odubel Herrera (.327) and Rhys Hoskins (.326), and Cubs’ utility man Ben Zobrist (.326). Other than Bryant and maybe Hoskins, this isn’t exactly an expected group.

The senior circuit’s standings look a lot different than expected. Some of that can certainly be attributed to the small sample size. But several unexpected performances also go a long way in explaining why.

Joe Mauer sparking first place Twins

Miguel Sano

Mauer had a very nice year in 2017. He hit .305/.384/.417 and helped lead the Minnesota Twins to a spot in the American League Wild Card Game. Still, Mauer is in his age 35 season, spent much of his career catching, and hit .267/.353/.380 from 2014-2016. So, while 2017 was nice, it seemed like more of a last stand than a sign of things to come. No way that someone at Mauer’s age who played so much time behind the plate could do that again, right?

Well, Mauer hasn’t repeated 2017’s numbers. He’s been better. Much better, in fact. Mauer has hit .412/.545/.529, helping lead Minnesota to first place. Yes, we’re a long way from starting the .400 watch. But Mauer is hitting line drives 29.6 percent of the time. Even in his heyday, Mauer never even cracked 28 percent. So, even he’s not hitting the ball out, Mauer is hitting the ball hard.

This has all contributed to a Twins team that sits in first place in the American League Central. So, can Minnesota hold on? It’s tough to say. The Indians have had virtually nothing go right and are only fractionally behind the Twins. But at the very least, Mauer’s performance has helped validate 2017’s postseason trip. It’s also making a return trip in 2018 seem quite plausible.

Nationals losing, despite Bryce Harper’s near record pace

One would be hard pressed to find anyone playing as well as Harper has since Opening Day. If you’re a fan of paces, Monday’s broken bat blast put the Washington Nationals star on pace for 76 home runs. When a player of Harper’s caliber is playing that well, his team needs to take advantage.

But 2018 has been quite mediocre for the Nats. Washington is 7-9. As bad as that is, things only get worse when we remember that the Nationals actually started 4-0. They swept the Cincinnati Reds to open the year, then defeated the Atlanta Braves in the first game of the second series of the year. That paints a bleak picture. Washington is 3-9 over its last 12 games and is 4-9 in games not played against the Reds, who have been baseball’s worst team by just about any standard you could draw up.

The contract situation of some of the Nationals’ best players (namely Harper) gives 2018 a real World Series-or-bust feel. The 7-9 start isn’t anything to react too strongly about. But the 7-9 start with Harper playing so well points to a team with a lot of struggling players. It may not be time to press the panic button in D.C. just yet, but knowing where it is would probably be a good idea.

Dallas Keuchel struggling with control

While the Houston Astros haven’t quite kept up with the Angels, there’s no reason to worry about a 10-6 start. But looking at beginning of Houston’s season, one thing really does jump out. Keuchel is struggling to find the strike zone in a rather significant way.

He’s walking 5.4 hitters per nine innings. That’s nearly twice his rate from last season (2.9) and is more than twice his career rate entering the year (2.6). In and of itself, a rocky start to the year isn’t a big problem for a pitcher. Pitchers generally need at least a few weeks before their pitches are really sharp. Additionally, one bad inning in April can throw a pitcher’s numbers out of whack.

But this isn’t a matter of Keuchel getting hit hard. If he was struggling with his command, especially with his breaking pitches, we’d be inclined to shrug this off and revisit it another month. But not only is Keuchel’s command off, but his control his off. Strangely, we’d be more encouraged if his pitches were getting hit hard after finding the heart of the strike zone. But a pitcher like Keuchel struggling to even throw strikes is shocking. If it continues, it will be a problem too big to ignore.

How bad the Reds are

To be fair, we weren’t expecting to see any World Series parades in Cincinnati this fall. But heading into the year, it appeared as though the Reds were maybe coming out of what’s been a long rebuilding project. The beginning to this season has done a lot to dull that optimism.

The Reds are 2-13. That’s the worst record in the league. They’ve also been outscored by 48 runs. That’s the worst run differential in the league by a staggering 13 runs. The poor pitching is hardly shocking. What is shocking is the complete lack of offense. Adam Duvall leads the team with three home runs, but he is hitting .160/.218/.380. Joey Votto, meanwhile, has yet to hit a home run. In fact, he’s yet to record any extra-base hit and is hitting .236/.283/.236.

The bad start isn’t surprising. But even bad teams generally have something to hang their hats on. Through the early part of 2018, Cincinnati has lacked that.

Mariners’ deep offensive attack

The 1997 Seattle Mariners hit more home runs than any team in MLB history. This team may not quite reach those levels. Still, our hearts go out to any pitchers tasked with facing this group. The Mariners have an absolutely unforgiving lineup, which has been anchored by no fewer than five guys.

Robinson Cano has yet to find his power stroke. But he’s still been one of baseball’s best hitter, slashing at .375/.537/.475. Mitch Haniger leads the team with four home runs and is hitting .289/.400/.578. New Mariner Dee Gordon has a solid .327/.362/.400 slash line and has seven steals. Jean Segura (.327/.362/.491) and Kyle Seager (.300/.345/.560) round out what’s been a lethal quintet. Imagine how much more formidable this group will be now that Nelson Cruz has returned to the lineup.

Whether Seattle can hang with teams like Los Angeles and Houston over a full season remains to be seen. But the Mariners look like they’ll be a fun team to watch in 2018.

Pirates leading the NL Central

The Pirates have exceeded expectations thus far. Despite losing Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen from last year’s team (which was not terribly good to begin with), the Bucs have jumped out to an 11-4 start and lead the National League Central.

The Tampa Bay Rays are probably regretting the decision to trade Corey Dickerson to Pittsburgh. He’s hitting .358/.386/.585. Colin Moran has provided a nice return on the Cole trade thus far. He’s hit .310/.383/.429. Josh Bell has only one home run, but has hit .305/.373/.424. Starling Marte has three home runs and a .305/.388/.559 slash line, while Gregory Polanco has five home runs. While the pitching hasn’t been great, we’d be remiss without pointing out what Trevor Williams (3-0, 1.56 ERA) and Jameson Taillon (2-0, 0.89 ERA, 0.69 WHIP) have done.

Whether the Pirates will continue to play this well remains to be seen. But this team was almost universally pegged as one of the five worst in baseball heading into the year. Pittsburgh has been nothing close to that thus far.

Indians winning with anemic offense

No team has ever won a pennant in April. Plenty of teams, however, have seen their hopes get crushed with a bad opening month to the year. That has not happened in Cleveland. For that, the Indians should be thanking guys like Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Cody Allen, and Andrew Miller. The pitching staff has kept this team afloat while the offensive has been unfathomably bad.

We can’t just point out one hitter who’s struggled. It’s been a team-wide problem that’s plagued guys like Francisco Lindor (.241/.302/.379), Jason Kipnis (.164/.233/.236), Jose Ramirez (.160/.300/.340), and Edwin Encarnacion (.146/.255/.333). These are All-Star caliber players. Making matters worse is that nobody has really stepped up from down the line. In fact, Lindor’s .241 average leads the team among qualified hitters.

Despite that, the Indians are 8-6. Realistically, a team isn’t going to keep winning when it’s hitting that poorly. Cleveland needs to snap out of it. But by all rights, this team should be something like 5-9 right now. Even with the shockingly bad offense from so many star hitters, the positives still outweigh the negatives.

Yoan Moncada still looks overmatched

Once MLB’s top prospect, Moncada has struggled at the MLB level. The 2018 season is an important one for him. For his sake, we have to hope that he’s got a lot more in the tank. The Chicago White Sox keystone had a terrible spring training and now continues to look overwhelmed out there.

On the positive end, he’s drawn eight walks. Unfortunately for Moncada, that’s only helped him to a .184/.298/.306 line. And what’s even worse is that the poor slash stats aren’t really the problem here. If Moncada was making contact, we could at least question if he was hitting into some hard luck. But he’s struck out 24 times in 49 at-bats. That’s excessive for guys like Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger. And Moncada doesn’t have anything close to their power.

Moncada is still in the early stages of his MLB career. Some of his struggles can be attributed to what’s typical of young players. But we just haven’t seen enough improvement. At this time last year, Moncada was arguably baseball’s top prospect. So, the lack of significant growth as a player is certainly surprising.

Unheralded group leading strong start for Braves

Atlanta hasn’t had a winning season since 2013. Considering that, the 8-6 start is mildly surprising. But the really surprising part of the Braves’ start isn’t just the record. It’s the number of players that have contributed to the cause.

Atlanta has five qualified hitters above .300. Another, Nick Markakis, is hitting .298. As previously detailed, Flaherty leads the National League in hitting and is slashing at .366/.458/.463. Freddie Freeman has been his usual stellar self, hitting .320/.493/.560 with two home runs. Swanson is hitting .357/.390/.571 and looks like the star prospect that he once was. Preston Tucker is hitting .300/.341/.575 with 12 RBI, while Ozzie Alibes is at .313/.333/.703 and has five home runs. Pitching wise, Anibal a Sanchez has turned back the clock with a 1.29 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 14 innings over his first three starts.

The Braves haven’t quite kept up with the Mets in the NL East. But thanks to a deep group of players, Atlanta is getting the attention of the rest of the league.

Inconsistency of star-studded Yankees lineup

The New York Yankees sit at 7-7. While that’s below the capability of this team, we can’t call it especially surprising. What has been surprising, however, has been the performance of this lineup. The Bronx Bombers have potential to be one of the best offenses in league history. The consistency just hasn’t been there yet.

Aaron Judge and Didi Gregorius are off to nice starts. Each has three home runs. Judge is slashing at .340/.470/.566, while Gregorius is at .311/.433/.689. Things haven’t gone nearly as well for Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez. Both have three home runs, but Stanton has scuffled to .220/.303/.458, while Sanchez is hitting .140/.157/.400. While Stanton has done reasonable damage when making contact, that’s been an all too uncommon occurrence. He already has 25 strikeouts on the young season.

One thing that the Yankees haven’t done is shake the lineup up, too much. Judge has hit second in every game, Stanton has hit third each game, while Gregorius has been New York’s primary cleanup man. A .500 start is hardly catastrophic. But the Yankees don’t want to lose site of the Red Sox early and end up playing catchup through the summer. If these big bats don’t hit more consistently, a lineup shakeup could be in order for Aaron Boone.