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Storylines and Surprises of MLB (so far)

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Although most teams have only played around 20 games at this point, it still is intriguing to look at who and what has surprised the baseball world in the month of April. Granted, all of these are coming from a small sample size, which the sabermetric community will point out is of extreme importance. Nevertheless, some of these players and teams are showing signs of sustainability throughout, while some are sure to tamper off, even as soon as within a few weeks. From old faces to new faces, there are many surprises that bear noticing so far at this point in the season and this list will cover a few of them. With that being said, it's time to look at some of these surprise standouts.

Charlie Blackmon's Surge
Charlie Blackmon's Surge Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Charlie Blackmon's Surge

The Colorado Rockies' outfield situation only had two of the every day spots locked up entering 2014, those being perennial All-Star Carlos Gonzalez and defending NL batting champion Michael Cuddyer. It was expected that the Rockies were going to shift Gonzalez to CF to start the season, and Cuddyer in RF, leaving a platoon of guys to battle for the LF starting spot. Low and behold, those plans changed.


Once opening day hit, Gonzalez was back in his normal LF spot, with 27-year-old Charlie Blackmon commanding CF in Colorado. His quick start at the plate was seen as a bit of mirage, until he had a 6 hit game, opening some eyes around baseball. Since that day, Blackmon has only continued to impress, with an impressive slash line of .410/.453/.692. Looking at league leaders up to this date, he will be seen as leading MLB in AVG, 3rd in OBP, 2nd in SLG, and t-4th in HR (5), accumulating a wRC+ total of 206, good enough for 2nd in baseball behind his teammate Troy Tulowitzki.


The Rockies were hopeful that Blackmon would solidify himself as the team's CF this year and going forward and he has certainly outperformed even the organization's expectations to this point. Can he keep it up?

 

All statistics provided via Fangraphs

Teams Off to Hot Starts
Teams Off to Hot Starts Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Teams Off to Hot Starts

Every year, MLB sees various teams get off to hot starts that many did not expect. The most surprising team up to this point is the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers. The team on paper could have led one to believe that they would at least compete for a long while this season behind a solid lineup consisting of Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Gomez, and valuable production from guys like Jonathan Lucroy and Jean Segura. What was not expected was the great pitching they have gotten up to this point from their entire rotation and the likes of bullpen arms like Will Smith (0 R allowed in 10.1 IP), and expected setup-man-turned-closer Francisco Rodriguez (9 baserunners allowed in 12 IP, 0 R allowed, 9 SV).


Another team to look at in terms of a somewhat surprising start is the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves. The team's pitching staff was decimated with injuries in spring training, losing starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery, and also, Mike Minor to a shoulder injury. What the team has thrown out there to replace those lost arms has been remarkable. Excellent starts from young Alex Wood, and including Aaron Harang and Ervin Santana, two guys who the team picked up essentially right before the season kicked off, have propelled the team to have one of the top pitching staffs in all of MLB up to this point. Minor is expected to return to the rotation soon and will only bolster this pitching staff.

 

All statistics provided via Fangraphs

Old Arms Still Got It
Old Arms Still Got It Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Old Arms Still Got It

When thinking of the top pitchers in baseball, names like Mark Buehrle, Alfredo Simon, Aaron Harang, and Scott Kazmir, will not be on the short list. However, 2014 has shown that these aged pitchers still have something left.


Mark Buehrle: With an MLB-leading 0.64 ERA over 28 IP, Buehrle has gotten off to a truly fantastic start. His strikeout rate is up, his walks are down, and he has yet to allow a HR up to this point. The Blue Jays sorely need him to keep this up if they hope to compete in the AL East.


Alfredo Simon: Thought of as the long man in the Reds bullpen entering the season, Simon was called upon to fill in for the injured Mat Latos and has performed much better than expected. Simon has held opponents to a .170 AVG over his 27.2 IP, striking out 17 in the process. The real surprising factor, other than run prevention, has been ability to go deep in to games, saving a Reds' bullpen that ranks among one of the league's worst in 2014.


Aaron Harang: Where have you been, Aaron Harang? After his career ended in Cincinnati, Harang hasn't been much other than a blip on the radar since with stops with the Padres, Dodgers, Mariners, and Mets. This year has, however, has been a complete 180. Through his five starts, he has tallied 33 K in 31.2 IP, a .139 opponents' AVG, and also threw 7 no-hit innings against the Mets, being pulled due to pitch count. The telling stat, though, has been his high walk rate (10.7%). If he wants to keep this up, that number is going to have to come down.


Scott Kazmir: He only made his return to MLB last year with the Indians, but Kazmir has been exceptional since signing with the A's this past winter. Over his 27.1 IP, he's struck out 24, walking only four batters, maintaining a 1.65 ERA. The telling stat with him, though, could be the abnormally low .219 BABIP. He's been lucky and good thus far. Time will tell if he can keep that kind of luck up over the remainder of his season.

 

All statistics provided via Fangraphs

Young Guns Making a Name
Young Guns Making a Name Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Young Guns Making a Name

At the opposite end, there are names that may be working themselves into the better arms in baseball. The Rangers' Martin Perez, A's Sonny Gray, and the previously mentioned Alex Wood have all been bright surprises in 2014.


Martin Perez: What has he done this year? Only throw back-to-back shutouts. Although it is impressive that he has thrown 38 IP in five starts so far, none of his numbers really seem all that impressive, except the one that tends to matter the most, his 1.42 ERA. The run prevention ability is elite at the moment, which is good enough, because it's something the Rangers desperately need to have to stay competitive.


Sonny Gray: If it weren't for the great performance of Martin Perez, Gray would have garnered more attention as he was on the wrong side of Perez's most recent shutout performance. In 32 IP, Gray has been quite the wizard on the mound. Posting a 2.25 ERA looks nice, but the .312 BABIP and 2.71 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, shows what the pitcher can control himself - walks, strikeouts, and home runs) are telling stats. Batters are getting on against him, but he is working his way out of jams, continually giving the A's a chance to win games in which he starts.


Alex Wood - The young lefty has been a real pleasant surprise for the Braves. Stepping into the #2 spot in the rotation, Wood has been opposed by the some of the better pitchers his team has had to face, no easy task for a young pitcher. Wood has answered the call though, striking out a batter per inning pitched, posting a stellar 1.54 ERA, and also going toe-to-toe with Jose Fernandez in a game which he, Fernandez, struck out 14, with Wood, himself, striking out 11 over eight innings.

 

All statistics provided via Fangraphs

Albert Pujols, Welcome Back?
Albert Pujols, Welcome Back? Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Albert Pujols, Welcome Back?

After reaching the remarkable total of 500 home runs, the long awaited resurgence of the dominance of perhaps one of the greatest hitters in MLB history may have arrived. Or has it? Although the power has returned (MLB-leading 8 HR), looking at some deeper numbers might lead one to believe that maybe the Albert Pujols of old isn't quite back, and may never really return. The aging factor is likely the primary cause of his decline, but take a look at some of these numbers.

(First of all, tip of the hat to Brian Kenny on MLB Now on 4/24 for this idea.)

Pujols' strikeout rate is at 8.2%, a positive sign considering where it has been trending over the past few seasons, but, he is still chasing pitches out of the zone, garnering an O-Swing % of 29.7%, a bad number at this point. He has been making contact at a low rate on those pitches he chases, as well, an O-Contact % of 58.8%, the lowest it has been since 2005. On pitches he is making contact with, he has a 15% line-drive rate and a 36.3% fly-ball rate. Do these numbers show why Pujols' power numbers have returned? Likely. He has also shown to be completely healthy for the first time in a long time and that may be a bigger reason than numbers can quantify. The chase rate is not something that is a trending upward stat, but for the sake of baseball, you have to somewhat hope that the return to prominence of perhaps the greatest player of this generation is on its way back.

 

All statistics provided via Fangraphs

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