It may be hard to believe, but this week marks the quarter-season point for every team in baseball. It’s around this time of year that we really begin to see what’s what. A team that started out on a hot streak could easily come crashing back down to earth by this point in the season, if they aren’t a legit threat to win (ahem – Colorado Rockies). And, the opposite is just as true. A good team might have a rough April, but turn things around the rest of the way (watch out for the Nationals). But, even though it’s difficult to judge a team or player based solely on 25% of a season, there are always some big surprises this time of year. Here are the three biggest surprises, in my opinion. In no particular order.
#1 – The Houston Astros
It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that the Astros are winning. They have a quality core of young players. But, I don’t believe anyone expected them to have the best record in the AL, and be one of only two teams with 27 wins at this point in the season. I expect that most people (outside of Houston, anyway) expected this kind of performance in another year or two. But, Dallas Keuchel has proven to be even better than advertised (6-0, 1.67 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, through 9 starts), and has placed himself in the early-season Cy Young conversation. And, the bullpen in Houston has proven thus far that they are one of the best in baseball, sporting a 2.20 ERA (2nd only to KC in the AL), 11 wins (most in baseball), 16 saves (2nd only to TB in AL), just 30 walks (fewest in baseball) and 137 K’s (2nd only to NY in AL). Their offense makes me a little nervous right now – it leads all of baseball in HR’s, but is only 8th in OPS, primarily because they’re 22nd in OBP (.305). What that tells me is they’re relying pretty heavily on the HR to score runs at this point, and that usually isn’t the kind of offense you can count on for a full season. But, for now, it’s working, and working well.
#2 – Clayton Kershaw
Four straight years leading the league in ERA. Four consecutive years with an average ERA of 2.11, and average WHIP of 0.95. Three Cy Youngs and a runner-up, in four seasons. Coming into his age 27 season (normally the beginning of a player’s “prime” years), everyone expected the consensus best pitcher in the game to continue to cruise through the NL. But, after 8 starts (right at 25% of his average full season), Kershaw is just 2-2, with a 4.24 ERA, and 1.24 WHIP. If he averaged 7 innings per start the rest of the season, and reached 33 total starts (where he finished ’11,’12 & ’13), he would need an ERA of 2.11 over his next 25 starts, just to get his season ERA as low as 2.60 (which would still be his highest since 2010). He’s on pace to allow more HR than ever before in his career, and he’s on pace to walk more than any of his Cy Young seasons. A minor set-back wouldn’t shock me, after the way the postseason went for him last year. But, this is pretty surprising for a guy that has been so dominant, and is still in the early stages of his career.
#3 – Nelson Cruz
The guy had never hit more than 29 HR in a season prior to last year, when he hit 40 at the age of 33 (the cynic in me begins to speculate as to exactly how that’s possible, but I’ll leave that alone for now). And, the move to the cavernous Safeco Field in Seattle seemed like a poor choice for a strictly power-hitter. But, something in the air in Seattle must agree with Cruz. Through 39 games, he’s leading the league in batting (.351), HR (16), RBI (33), SLG (.715), OPS (1.121), and total bases (108). While I don’t expect him to maintain this pace for the rest of the season (he’d challenge 60 HR, if he did!), he’s almost certain to turn in a better season than I ever anticipated – I expected 25 HR would be his max. An early-season MVP candidate, Cruz has carried the Seattle offense (they’re 9th in the AL with a .706 OPS even with Cruz’s ridiculous stats), and kept their season from already being a bust (“just” 3 games below .500 and 8 games out of first place).
Do you have another big surprise that you think I missed? Or, an entirely different top 3? Tell me about it in the comments below!