Each MLB team’s most pleasant surprise so far

Didi Gregorius

Perhaps more than any other sport, baseball offers its fans a multitude of surprises each year. The 2018 MLB season has been no different. While a lot of attention will go towards those players who are surprising in a bad way, we’re putting our focus on the good surprises.

The Boston Red Sox have been one of baseball’s best teams. That’s not surprising. The fact that they’ve been significantly aided by a player we thought was done not too long ago, however, is a surprise. The New York Yankees, meanwhile, had a key player have a career year a season ago. He’s responded by having an even better start to this season.

Finding positive surprises for teams like the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles can be tough. While not as bad, the fact that they’ve fallen well short of expectations makes it challenging to find good surprises for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals. Meanwhile, it’s hard to limit it to only one surprise for the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates.

As hard as it can be to narrow it down, each team has one surprising player that stands out even just a little bit above the rest.

These are the biggest surprises of the 2018 MLB season thus far.

Note: Unless otherwise noted, stats are accurate through play on Tuesday, May 1.

Boston Red Sox: Hanley Ramirez

It was hard to be especially optimistic about Ramirez entering the 2018 season. He was a 34-year-old coming off of a .242/.320/.429 season, one of the worst years of his career. Staring at that, why would anyone be optimistic?

Well, if you were optimistic, Hanley has rewarded you. He entered May hitting .311/.379/.447 with three home runs and three steals. This is a guy who stole only one base a season ago and hasn’t topped 10 steals since 2014. So, Hanley isn’t just hitting. He’s been an overall offensive weapon.

Not bad for a guy who looked cooked just over a month ago.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Trevor Williams

By and large, the Pirates have been one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2018 season. Williams is one of the main reasons why.

Williams wasn’t a terrible pitcher prior to 2018, but he was nothing to write home about, either. Over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, he had a 4.36 ERA and 1.36 WHIP. In other words, he was the exact kind of pitcher you’d expect to see hanging around the middle or bottom of the rotation on a bad team. But through the first month of 2018, Williams has a 2.29 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. He’s not striking hitters out at a high rate, either. In fact, his 2018 K/9 rate (5.9) is worse than his 2016-2017 one (7.1). That points to some luck, but it also points to a pitcher who’s not allowing loud contact. That’s fairly uncommon in April.

Whatever Williams is doing differently this year, it’s working. We’re guessing that the Pirates would like to see him keep that up.

Los Angeles Angels: Tyler Skaggs

The Angels were going to score runs in 2018. But in order for them to consistently win games and compete for a playoff spot, the pitching was going to have to be much improved. One month in and it has been. Skaggs has been one of the main reasons why.

Skaggs entered 2018 with a 4.59 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and a 7.7 K/9 rate. In his first six outings of 2018, Skaggs has posted a 3.03 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and an 8.8 K/9 rate. Now, unlike Williams in Pittsburgh, Skaggs has been around for a while. That would point to some likely regression. But it’s important to remember that while Skaggs made his MLB debut in 2012, he’s only 26. Maybe he’s just hitting his prime.

That would be good news for the Angels. If pitchers like Skaggs continue to do well, the Halos figure to score more than enough runs to at least contend for a playoff spot.

Philadelphia Phillies: Odubel Herrera

While Herrera has been one of Philadelphia’s better players over the previous three seasons, his game has gone to a much different level through the early part of 2018.

From 2015-2017, Herrera slashed at .288/.344/.430 and averaged 12 home runs a season. This year, he’s hitting .337/.391/.490 and has three home runs, which puts him on pace for 17. Not coincidentally, at 16-13 the Phillies are also off to a nice start.

Philadelphia was something of a trendy team heading into the 2018 season. But in order for them to live to that hype, players like Herrera had to elevate their games. From 2015-2017, he was simply one of the best players on a bad team. In 2018, Herrera’s been one of the catalysts for a good team. His increase in production is high on the list of reasons why.

Minnesota Twins: Max Kepler

Not unlike Herrera, Kepler had been a nice player for the Twins in recent years. He definitely had power. The primary question with Kepler always surrounded the rest of his game. Could he be more effective when he wasn’t hitting home runs?

In 2018, that answer has been a clear yes. Kepler is hitting .300/.364/.556 for Minnesota. And while the pop has been there, Kepler hasn’t been aided by a particularly large power surge, either. Kepler’s four home runs put him, more or less, on par with his 2016 and 2017 totals of 17 and 19. Where Kepler has really elevated his game has been in the strikeouts, or lack thereof. Over the last two seasons, Kepler struck out 207 times. That may not seem like too a high a total, especially for the modern game. But he’s struck out only 10 times in 2017, putting him on pace for about 75 on the season. That’s a vast improvement.

A lot about Minnesota’s first month has not gone according to plan. But that can’t be blamed on Kepler, who’s much improved from the good player that he was a season ago.

Colorado Rockies: Chad Bettis

Entering the year, Bettis sported a career 5.01 ERA and 1.48 WHIP. Given that he’d pitched at Coors Field, we have to grade those numbers on something of a curve. Still, we can’t call those numbers any more than mediocre, and even that’s even fairly generous. But 2018 has been a lot better than that.

He’s posted a 2.43 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. And he hasn’t achieved those numbers by striking out a lot of hitters, either. Still, while the hitters are making contact, it’s not especially good contact. His 6.3 hits per nine innings allowed will back that up. Those are good numbers for any pitcher. They’re especially good for a Colorado pitcher who has to pitch at Coors Field. His numbers there (4.22 ERA, 1.22 WHIP) are much worse than they are on the road, but not bad given how strong of a hitter’s yard that is.

No matter what happens on the mound, Bettis is one of baseball’s most inspiring stories. But in 2018, he’s been quite a bit more. Bettis has been one of baseball’s best pitchers.

Detroit Tigers: Jeimer Candelario

Through a very limited MLB sample size, Candelario came into 2018 with a career .268/.353/.399 slash line and three home runs. One month into the year, he sits at .291/.371/.518 with four long balls.

As impressive as the four home runs is, we’re as impressed by Candelario having three triples and seven doubles. Sometimes, a high batting average or OBP early in the season can be attributed to a lot of poorly hit balls just finding holes. That’s the kind of thing that will even out over time. But 14 extra-base hits points to someone who’s hitting the ball hard.

The Tigers are certainly in a rebuild. But if Candelario can continue to play at such a high level, the rebuild process will be expedited.

Atlanta Braves: Nick Markakis

The Braves do not lack for positive surprises. But even in a crowded field, Markakis’ long track record, mixed with what he’s done this year, makes him Atlanta’s most pleasant surprise.

We’ll start with the slash line. Over the previous five seasons, Markakis hit .277/.348/.380. That’s not a bad total, at all. But in 2018, he’s hitting .306/.405/.468. As good as that leap as been, the jump in power has been even more surprising. Markakis has topped 20 home runs twice in his long career, and never since 2008. But with four home runs, Markakis finds himself on pace for 23.

Time will tell whether he maintains that pace. But either way, his performance through the early part of the season has been quite the story. It’s no wonder that the Braves are off to a hot start.

Oakland Athletics: Jed Lowrie

We have to give honorable mention to Sean Manaea. Through the first month of the season, he’s looked like a true ace. But Manaea’s talent has always been there. He just needed to put it together. The fact that he has so quickly is a positive surprise. It just isn’t quite a surprise on par with what Lowrie has done.

Lowrie is hitting .336/.392/.597. Entering the season, career highs in the slash stats were .290/.381/.526 — and those didn’t come in one season. So, he’s not only off to the best start of his career, he’s dwarfing any previous best totals. Lowrie also has seven home runs. His career high presently sits at 16. So, only one month into year, Lowrie is nearly halfway there.

Lowrie has been a role player through his career. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we generally don’t associate role players with stardom. One month into the year, Lowrie is a real MVP candidate. If you saw that one coming heading into Opening Day, you’re a liar.

St. Louis Cardinals: Miles Mikolas

Miles Mikolas

Mikolas spent 2015-2017 in Japan. Whatever he did there obviously worked wonders. Because while Mikolas was nothing more than a middling MLB pitcher from 2012-2014, he’s been a genuine ace for the Cardinals in 2018.

Mikolas has a perfect 3-0 record, which has been aided by a 3.27 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. While Mikolas has respectable hit and strikeout rates (8.2 and 7.4 per nine, respectively), the true secret to his success has been his command. Mikolas has a BB/9 rate of 0.5. Or, to put it another way, he’s walked two guys in 33 innings. He’s even contributed at the plate.

For the Cardinals to contend in 2018, finding depth in the rotation behind Carlos Martinez was going to be vital. One month in, Mikolas has provided that and then some.

Toronto Blue Jays: Kevin Pillar

Pillar has always had nice speed and good defensive skills. But he was a .264/.302/.390 entering 2018, so his overall offensive game needed a little refining. He seems to have found that in 2018.

Pillar is hitting .315/.361/.574. He has four home runs, which is pretty darn good for a guy who’s never hit more than 16 in his career. Additionally, Pillar hasn’t lost the strengths that he had entering the year. In fact, with five steals, he’s on pace to set a new career high.

Despite Josh Donaldson missing much of the year and guys like Marco Estrada and Marcus Stroman not pitching especially well, the Blue Jays are off to a good start. The improved play of Pillar can certainly be called a catalyst for that.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Patrick Corbin

Corbin once looked like a promising ace. But following the 2013 season, he went under the knife for Tommy John Surgery. Upon returning, he posted a 4.35 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, and 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings from 2015-2017. Not bad, but not exactly the ace that we saw in 2013. In 2018, the ace has been back.

Corbin has a 2.25 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, and has struck out 12.4 hitters per nine. Those numbers are all vastly better than what Corbin did in 2013 (3.41 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 7.7 K/9) when he was an All-Star and one of baseball’s best, most promising young pitchers.

Arizona has an elite offense and a legitimate No. 1 starter in Zack Greinke. All it really needs to be a true World Series contender is for someone like Corbin to emerge as a good No. 2. One month in, he’s been much better than that.

Baltimore Orioles: Pedro Araujo

The Orioles have had a dismal season. Apart from Manny Machado, very little has gone right for Baltimore. While Machado has been great, we can hardly call that surprising. But the play of Araujo can definitely be classified as a positive surprise.

While his 4.60 ERA is a little high, that’s the life of a relief pitcher. If we remove Araujo’s worst outing, he has a 2.40 ERA. Or, to put it another way, he’s been fantastic in nine of ten outings. Araujo’s WHIP (1.15) and strikeout rate (11.5 per nine) point to a pitcher who’s been very hard to hit.

Baltimore has deep group of relievers (Zach Britton, Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, Mychal Givens) who could be possible trade targets of other teams. If nothing else, the emergence of Araujo has given the Orioles more freedom to deal those guys, knowing the future of the bullpen is in good hands.

San Diego Padres: Christian Villanueva

Like the Orioles, the Padres haven’t had an especially great start to the season. But unlike Baltimore, San Diego has a fairly deep list genuinely good surprises. None, however, top what Villanueva had done.

Villanueva hasn’t just been one of the Padres’ best hitters He’s been one of the best hitters in the entire National League. He has nine home runs and is hitting .317/.404/.707. His slugging percentage and OPS lead the senior circuit.

San Diego had a rough April and realistically will not compete for a playoff spot this year. But if young players can develop, the 2018 season can be an unqualified success for the Padres. Villanueva has certainly developed. That only gives San Diego a brighter outlook for the future.

Houston Astros: Charlie Morton

Houston Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton

Morton was a postseason hero for the Astros in 2017, but he kind of came out of nowhere. He had a 3.62 and 1.19 WHIP which was one of the best seasons of a fairly long career at that point. But in 2018, his game has gone to a different level.

Morton has a 1.72 ERA and 0.98 WHIP. Really, his increased strikeout rate deserves much of the credit. From 2008-2015, Morton had a below average 6.3 K/9 rate. Over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, that significantly increased to a 10.0 K/9 rate. Morton is only getting better in 2018, striking out 11 hitters per nine.

Again, Morton wasn’t a bad pitcher in 2017. Houston had enough confidence in him to start Game 7 of the ALCS and finish Game 7 of the World Series. But in 2018, he’s only getting better well into his 30s. That’s certainly a pleasant surprise that the Astros were looking for.

Cincinnati Reds: Scott Schebler

Cincinnati is another team that’s had very little go right for it in the early going of 2018. But the performance of Schebler definitely qualifies as a positive surprise.

To be fair, we saw Schebler hit a very respectable 30 home runs a season ago. But en route to those 30 home runs, he hit .233 and had a .307 OBP. So, as good as his home run total was, Schebler was one-dimensional. But in 2018, he’s hitting .309/.356/.527. He’s also hit three home runs in only 55 at-bats, so the power isn’t going away. Schebler has just been a well-rounded hitter in 2018.

It’s the kind of progress that the Reds want to see. Schebler becoming a more complete hitter would go a long way toward putting a positive spin on a rough season.

Chicago White Sox: Matt Davidson

Once a top prospect, Davidson floundered for a while before hitting 26 home runs in 2017. As it turns out, though, it looks like 2017 was just a small glimpse of what Davidson can do.

The Chicago third baseman has nine home runs already. He’s also hitting .256/.380/.600, significantly elevating what he did a season ago (.220/.260/.452). Davidson hasn’t simple been a guy with nice pop that you can stick at the bottom of an order. He’s hit like a legitimate middle-of-the-order guy.

Davidson’s performance hasn’t helped the White Sox win many games. But it does give Chicago one more player to hang its hat on as it looks towards an already promising future.

New York Mets: Asdrubal Cabrera

If your team is going to exceed expectations, you need players to perform better than they have before. The Mets have exceeded expectations. That’s due in no small part to Cabrera having a career year.

Cabrera was a .270/.331/.420 hitter entering 2018. While those are fine totals for a middle infielder, they’re dwarfed by what he’s done in 2018. In addition to his five home runs, Cabrera is hitting .337/.388/.567. That’s a .955 OPS for a 10-year veteran who’d only exceeded .800 once before this year.

New York has spent much of the 2018 season atop the National League East standings. If we were to come up with a list of reasons why, it would not take us long to get to Cabrera’s performance.

Tampa Bay Rays: Mallex Smith

Smith has always had the kind of speed that can wreak havoc once he gets on base. The problem for Smith has been that he just hasn’t reached base enough in his career. Coming into 2018, Smith had a career .256 batting average and .323 OBP.

That’s changed in 2018. He has a .325 average and a .385 OBP. That’s led to a nice six steals. While Smith doesn’t have any home runs, he has five extra-base hits (three doubles and two triples). So, while he’s not a power hitter, Smith isn’t purely a slap hitter, either. He’s doing damage with the bat, as well as his legs.

While the start to the season hasn’t been quite as poor for Tampa as other teams, the Rays are a rebuilding team. Smith can be a big building block in that rebuilding project, especially if he continues to hit like this.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Courtesy of Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA Today Sports

Ryu was a top-tier pitcher in 2013 and 2014. But he missed all of 2015 and nearly all of 2016. After the 2014 season, Ryu posted a 4.04 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, and 8.2 K/9, Those numbers aren’t bad, but they weren’t nearly on par with what he did in 2013 and 2014.

So, we can say it’s a bit surprising that Ryu has been better than ever in 2018. He has a 2.22 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, and a 10.8 K/9 rate. All of which will easily be career highs if thy are maintained.

The starting pitching beyond Clayton Kershaw was one of the Dodgers biggest question marks entering the year, at least when it came to returning to the World Series. Now, Los Angeles has suffered through a rough start to the year and if things don’t get turned around soon, it’ll be hard enough to imagine a playoff spot, let alone a World Series. But if things do get turned around, the way Ryu has pitched thus far has gone a long way toward alleviating those initial concerns.

Kansas City Royals: Jorge Soler

Over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Soler slashed a .210/.307/.383, hit only 14 home runs, and looked a long way removed from the guy who was once one of baseball’s best prospects.

But in 2018, Soler has lived up to the promise that he once had. He’s followed up a strong spring to hit .306/.434/.494 with three home runs. The Royals haven’t had a whole lot go right for them in 2018. But the emergence of Soler has certainly been a clear positive.

If nothing else, let Soler serve as a reminder for once-hyped players who struggle at first. Soler has turned it around, and at 26 he still appears to have a bright future. So, if one of your favorite team’s best young prospects is struggling, be patient.

Miami Marlins: Jarlin Garcia

Whether they’re going about things the right way can be debated. But this Marlins’ season should really be judged like spring training. How well the players — especially the young ones — come along is far more important than the team’s record. With that in mind, Miami has to love what it’s seen from Garcia.

In 33 innings pitched over six appearances, he has a 1.09 ERA and 0.85 WHIP. This is a guy who had a 3.68 ERA and 1.23 WHIP during his Minor League career. Those aren’t bad numbers by any means, but they’re not close to what he’s done this year.

No, this doesn’t mean that the Marlins are going anywhere in 2018. But it’s certainly something positive to take from a season that will produce far more losses than wins.

Seattle Mariners: Mitch Haniger

In an abbreviated 2017 season, Haniger hit .282/.352/.491 with 10 home runs. So, we can’t exactly be too surprised by the fact that Haniger is off to a nice start.

He’s hitting .303/.388/.687. But more impressive than the slash line is that Haniger has 10 home runs. That’s nearly halfway to the career mark of 21 that he had coming into the year. Haniger isn’t simply having a nice start. He’s having a great, MVP candidate-like start.

Seattle has a lot of thump in its lineup. This was the case entering the year. The way that Haniger has played has only made the Mariners a scarier lineup for opposing pitchers.

Milwaukee Brewers: Josh Hader

Hader splashed onto the scene in 2017. Coming out of the Milwaukee bullpen, he posted a 2.08 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and 68 strikeouts in 47.2 innings. But doing that as a rookie is one thing. He surely couldn’t be that good again, right?

Actually, Hader hasn’t been that good. He’s been better. In 11 outings, Hader has a 1.00 ERA, 0.50 WHIP, and 39 strikeouts in 18 innings. That’s simply a dominant reliever.

Some people in Milwaukee might have believed that Hader would be as good in 2018 as he was in 2017. But he couldn’t be much better. There just wasn’t that much to improve upon. Yet, one month into the season, Hader has found a way.

New York Yankees: Didi Gregorius

We thought Gregorius was good in 2017. As it turned out, the 2017 season was only a small glimpse into the kind of hitter that Gregorius can be.

He’s at or near the top of the American League rankings in most major hitting categories. Gregorius is slashing at .333/.424/.735, has 10 home runs, and 30 RBI. He leads the American League in both slugging and OPS.

The New York lineup is filled with stars. While it’s dealt with some unexpected slumps, the Bronx Bombers offense has generally lived up to the billing. In the midst of that, Gregorius has been the best Yankee hitter of 2018.

Chicago Cubs: Carl Edwards Jr.

Much like Hader with the Brewers, Edwards had a good year coming out of the Cubs’ bullpen a season ago. Improving to a point where we could call it a genuine surprise was going to be difficult. Difficult, but not impossible.

Edwards has been nearly unhittable coming out of the Chicago bullpen. He’s allowed only one earned run on the way to a 0.66 ERA. Edwards has also struck 23 hitters out in 13.1 innings. That’s a 15.1 K/9 rate, a significant upgrade from his impressive 12.8 rate a season ago. The really notable improvement has been his walk rate. Edwards walked 5.2 hitters per nine innings in 2017. While he generally overcame it, that’s too high. But in 2018, he’s walked only 3.3 hitters per nine — a much more respectable number.

As good as Chicago has been in recent years, the bullpen hasn’t necessarily been a strength. But Edwards’ performance is going a long way toward turning that around.

Texas Rangers: Bartolo Colon

For the better part of the last decade, it’s seemed as though Colon had found the fountain of youth. But in 2017, he stumbled to a 6.48 WHIP and 1.59 WHIP. For all intents and purposes, it appeared as though his career was over.

But appearances can be deceiving. Through six outings and four starts in 2018, Colon has a 2.87 ERA and 0.86 WHIP. He’s allowing 6.9 hits per nine innings. As a point of reference, he allowed 8.7 hits per nine innings in 2005 when he won the American League Cy Young Award.

It hasn’t been a great year for the Rangers. But Colon has shown that he’s far from done. In fact, in some ways, he’s better than he’s ever been.

San Francisco Giants: Chris Stratton

The Giants have dealt with a rash of injuries to their starting rotation in 2018. Fortunately for San Francisco, some unexpected guys pitchers have emerged, pitching far better than expected. Stratton leads that list.

He has a 3.90 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. Even those numbers are really elevated by one bad outing. Until his most recent outing, Stratton had  2.32 ERA and 0.94 WHIP. Of course, we can make just about anyone’s numbers look good if we start cherry picking outings. But the fact remains that in five of six starts, Stratton has been rock solid.

Stratton hasn’t made anyone in San Francisco forget about Madison Bumgarner. But he’s been a pleasant surprise for his team.

Cleveland Indians: Trevor Bauer

Trevor Bauer

The Indians are a first place team despite a struggling offense. Of course, much of the credit for that goes to Cleveland’s pitching. Usual suspects like Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Andrew Miller deserve praise for that, but so does Bauer.

Bauer had a 4.36 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, and 8.7 K/9 rate coming into 2018. In 2018, he’s put up a 2.45 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and  10.3 K/9 rate. He’s gone from a good middle-of-the-rotation guy to a solid top pitcher.

The Indians had one of the best teams in baseball coming into 2018. They don’t exactly need big improvements from their players to be a real World Series contender. Still, it never hurts. Bauer has been vastly improved in 2018, helping keep Cleveland atop the standings while some of his teammates have struggled.

Washington Nationals: Matt Adams

Adams has long been a dangerous hitter with a lot of power. But while the power hasn’t exactly gone away in 2018, the 2018 version of Adams would be better described as a good hitter with power.

Adams is hitting .296/.397/.630. All three totals blow away his previous career highs. He’s also hit five home runs. If that pace is continued, Adams will set a new career high in long balls with room to spare. The Nationals knew they were getting a capable hitter when they landed Adams. But he hasn’t simply been a nice left-handed bat to come off the bench or a platoon specialist. Adams has been a good overall hitter.

The first month of the season has been a letdown for Washington. But with Adams, the Nats have a clear good surprise.