Do Surprise MLB Teams Have Staying Power?

A look at five MLB clubs off to great starts

On Thursday, I wrote about five teams that weren’t living up to expectations to various degrees.  Of course, along with teams that have disappointed through May, there are teams that have surprised.

Fans of teams that exceed their expectations by this point are in a weird position.  Like the struggling teams, now that we’re at the end of May it’s not easy to write it all off as just being early season baseball.  Still, when a team isn’t expected to make a run coming into a season, people are hesitant to buy into a great start too much and get their hopes up only to see them inevitably dashed.

Buy in too much, and you might throw the baseline for what you want from a team so high that they’ll never be able to meet it.  Fans can be suckered into long-term optimism by very short-term success.  Look like playoff contenders once, and the young players are suddenly the core of the future and people are Cooperstown-bound.

So with that in mind, it’s time to look at this year’s crop of surprising teams.  Just missing the cut:  The Angels (the best team Mike Trout’s played for, and they just might be for real), the Reds (will not be contending this year, but they know what to build around now and that goes a long way), the Orioles (we should have expected them to be good again, honestly), and the Cardinals (we need to stop expecting the Cardinals to collapse).

Also:  This week I was on The Sunshine Boys podcast along with Ryan Fagan of The Sporting News, where we discussed a lot of these same teams with Ira Kaufman, Joe Henderson, and Jim Williams.

New York Yankees (28-18, first place in AL East)

New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays
AP Photo: Chris O’Meara

The Yankees have been one of the breakout stories of 2017.  After last season, where they made some decidedly un-Yankee-like trades to add prospect depth, they looked to be in a period of rebuilding for the first time since the mid 1980s.  The Yankees lead the American League in runs, and they’re second in the AL in homers behind only the Rays.  They have the third highest on base percentage in all of baseball.  In other words, the New York Yankees have a potent offense.

Aaron Judge, of course, has become the headliner.  He’s hitting .316 with 15 homers already, and even challenging Mike Trout a little bit on that Wins Above Replacement leaderboard.  The 25 year old right fielder can do it all, and he’s getting plenty of help from a strong middle infield as Starlin Castro seems to be working on his career year while Didi Gregorius is hitting well over .300.  The bullpen has been more than just Aroldis Chapman, who is currently injured, with Dellin Betances in particular emerging as a key guy.

In recent years we’ve seen a number of teams with stellar prospects start to jell and peak a year or two earlier than expected.  The Cubs were supposed to be slowly building their team, now they’re defending champions.  The Mets were on a long-term plan, made the World Series in 2015, and might have to consider breaking up their young team already.  In this era of truncated rebuilding schedules, the Yankees fit right in.  People expected they might show promise for the future, but not like this.

Maybe they’re really this good:  Keep in mind that they’re doing all this without last year’s sensation Gary Sanchez picking up where he left off.  The young catcher set records for home runs in a debut, but this year has just four.  He’s splitting time with Austin Romine behind the plate.  In other words, this isn’t a case of all the young guys peaking at once.  This insulates the Yankees, to some degree, from the inevitable rookie streakiness.  Judge may have a month or two where he doesn’t look like a world-beater anymore.  By the looks of it, that shouldn’t in and of itself sink New York.

Just hold on a second:  Let’s take a second to appreciate Aaron Judge, and not who came before him.

Chances are, you’ve heard Judge’s name listed as a potential extension of that long line of Yankee legends.  I’ve heard it at least four times this season already; that Judge will pick up where Jeter left off and continue work built upon by Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth.

Now, Aaron Judge is a fantastic young baseball player.  His emergence has changed the outlook of this Yankees team, causing fans of the team to flock back to their televisions or their expensive Replica Yankee Stadium seats.  Fans of every other team now have a reason to watch and root against the Bronx Bombers again, which in and of itself is good for the game.  Not a word out of place or a noticeable flaw in his game that could lead to a step backward.

That all being said, consider a few facts:

-Aaron Judge was not, at any point, the highest rated Yankee prospect.  Here’s an SB Nation article that ranked him tenth in the organization coming into the year.  So unless nobody saw this coming, Judge might have some growing pains.  Even great prospects usually do.

-As polished as his interviews are, “picking up where Derek Jeter left off” is a tall order and then some.  This is going to put some pressure on Aaron Judge to not just perform, but to do so consistently and in the biggest moments possible.  Reminder:  He’s a rookie right now.  This is his first Major League season.

-When your rookie season comes at age 25, you’ve either had some minor league setbacks or some injuries.  Judge has dealt with both.

-Being a talented young outfielder, Judge will already be weighed against guys like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Mookie Betts.  Trout’s name will come up a lot, as many expect the Yankees will give all they’ve got to signing the Angels star when he hits free agency.  On top of those comparisons, now he’s going to get weighed against some of the greatest players in the game’s history?

That’s why I say to appreciate Judge for what he is; a fantastic rookie who has electrified a fanbase that doesn’t just give out that kind of attention.  There is no need to compare him to legends of old just yet.  He’s not Derek Jeter.  He’s Aaron Judge, a gigantic right fielder currently hitting the cover off the ball.  For the time being, that’s more than enough.

Colorado Rockies (32-19, first place in NL West)

Charlie Blackmon
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Rockies were expected by some to be much improved, possibly even in contention for a Wild Card spot.  Few, if any, expected Colorado to have a lead in the NL West and the best record in the Senior Circuit through Memorial Day Weekend.

Nolan Arenado is crushing home runs and doubles.  Mark Reynolds has found his swing again at 33, hitting .316 with 13 homers.  Catcher Tony Wolters is getting on base at an incredible rate.

To allay any complaints about Coors Field providing a physics advantage teams just can’t prepare for, the Rockies have a much better winning percentage on the road.  They went 16-10 in April, so far 16-9 this May.  At the moment, Colorado is the surprise team of the year, and people are curious about their staying power.

Maybe they’re really this good:  Pitching is typically the problem in Colorado, as the thin air leads to home runs which emphasizes pitching woes.  Well, the Colorado rotation is mostly filled with young guys that have limited experience.  The senior starter is 27 year old Tyler Chatwood.

They’re doing most of this without Jon Gray, who only pitched in three games thus far.  That Colorado is in front without its best pitcher speaks volumes.

What’s more, all that rotation has to do is leave with a lead.  Colorado is incredibly good at protecting leads, because they have an excellent bullpen.  Jake McGee, who the Rockies got from the Rays a couple years back, is emerging as a top-notch setup man.  Adam Ottavino’s slider makes him one of the best setup guys in all of baseball (and by the way he’s had that slider since college).  Greg Holland has been lights-out as the closer.

Bullpens can often determine the difference between a contender and a pretender.  Colorado’s bullpen looks to be one of the finest in the National League.

More than that, they’re also doing all of this without getting much out of Trevor Story.  One of last year’s early breakout guys is hitting under .200 at the moment with seven home runs.  He’s likely to rebound from that to some degree, though he’s establishing himself as a streaky hitter at this early point in his career.

Of all the surprise teams, I’d suggest Colorado might have the most staying power.  The Yankees have a better lineup and a bullpen every bit as good, but all that’s gone right for them only has them two games ahead of a Red Sox team whose first two months have been generally seen as mediocre.

Just hold on a second:  Here is the Colorado rotation:  Antonio Senzatela (22), Tyler Chatwood (27), Kyle Freeland (24), Tyler Anderson (27), and German Marquez (22).  The first four have a FIP above 4.00, which is to say the advanced metrics think they’re due for a rough patch.  To keep this up, the Rockies have to get Jon Gray back sooner rather than later, and even then their rotation will be questionable.

The Rockies also have a dangerous stat going for them right now:  They’re 9-1 in one-run baseball games.  While that bullpen is probably the reason why this is the case, an abnormally high record in one-run games is often an indicator that a team is playing a bit above their heads.  An injury to any of their three top relievers, for example, changes this in a real hurry.

Having mentioned divisions earlier, the Rockies will have to contend with a big market juggernaut of their own with the Dodgers breathing down their necks.  Los Angeles is just 1.5 out of first place right now, meaning they’re one series away from flipping the division.

Given all of this, Colorado might be in a strange position come late July.  As the trade deadline approaches, will they continue their youth movement or try to make a play for a pitcher, even if only as a rental?  Would they be willing to part with Marquez to do it?  Marquez is in the rotation largely because of Gray’s injury, and he’s a flyball pitcher.  The former makes him expendable in the short-term, the latter makes him a pitcher who probably shouldn’t stay in the NL West too long.  Too much thin air in Arizona and Colorado to keep the ball in the sky.

Minnesota Twins (26-19, first place in AL Central)

Of the five teams this column will look at, Minnesota has the largest division lead at three games over the Indians.  They also have the weakest division, as nobody below Cleveland seems likely to make a run.

The only batting or pitching category in which the Twins are near the league lead?  They’ve allowed the fewest base hits in Major League Baseball.  Every other category, they look like a pedestrian baseball team.  Statistics cannot wrap themselves around the Minnesota Twins.

It’s largely defense that has been the Twins’ calling card.  They’re the best team in baseball when it comes to Defensive Efficiency.  Advanced metrics that track defense have the Twins as head and shoulders better than anybody else when it comes to glovework.

The Twins’ road record is the best in baseball, with just five losses away from Target Field.

Maybe they really are this good:  As recently as 2015, the Twins looked like possible playoff contenders.  They surprised for most of that season, finishing with a winning record and second place in the AL Central.  Twins legend Paul Molitor had proven effective in his first season.

While Minnesota lost more than 100 games last season, they also saw a flash of greatness from second baseman Brian Dozier, who put up 6.5 WAR despite the team’s struggles.  This year, it’s young third baseman Miguel Sano that is carrying the offense.

Sano is hitting .290, getting on base at a .405 clip, and he’s hit 11 homers so far.  Joe Mauer, who has defined an era of Minnesota baseball, is hitting a solid .265.  Dozier isn’t as great as he was last season, but he’s hit ten doubles.

Young right fielder Max Kepler has proven himself to be a tough out as well, hitting .267 and leading the Twins with twelve doubles.

Moreover, Ervin Santana is having the season of his life, putting up a 1.80 ERA so far with two complete game shutouts.  Santana has been nothing short of an ace, and the best pitcher so far in the AL Central, which says a lot.

Just hold on a second:  The Twins lack depth in a big way.  Santana has been stellar, and young Jose Berrios has been great in his three starts, fanning a batter per inning.  Outside of that, their rotation looks beatable in a way most contenders don’t have to worry about.  Kyle Gibson has an ERA north of 8 in his 11 starts.  Phil Hughes was ineffective, now he’s hurt.

Berrios has only started three games, so penciling him in through September is tough to do, especially as he’s 23 and will certainly set a lifetime high in innings this year as rookies usually do.  Minnesota will either need to explore a trade for a pitcher, or cobble together something involving young players going back and forth from AAA.

The bullpen is up and down as well.  Brandon Kintzler has been a very good closer thus far, and Craig Breslow is having a great bounceback season as a setup man, but the Twins need more than two effective relievers to hold onto their position.  This is especially true with the Indians and their loaded bullpen being the Twins’ division opponent to worry about.

While Minnesota has the fewest possible competitors of anyone we’ll discuss today, they’re also likely to be passed by their sole competitor.  The Indians are still the favorites in the AL Central.

Milwaukee Brewers (26-23, first place in NL Central)

If nothing else, the Brewers’ early success has given the MLB fan an excuse to listen to Bob Uecker call a game.  With Vin Scully now retired, Uecker is baseball’s elder announcing statesman after all.

The Brewers have established themselves as a power hitting team filled with a bunch of guys too young to be true “journeymen” but too well-traveled to be much of anything else.  Yes, that is Matt Garza at the back end of their rotation.  That’s longtime Oakland A Eric Sogard in those glasses.

Coming into 2017, the Brewers’ most notable player could be best described as infamous.  Ryan Braun is out indefinitely right now, but he was hitting .262 with seven homers when he had to step away this weekend.

Maybe they really are this good:  At age 30, Eric Thames has returned to the Major Leagues after time in Korea’s KBO.  Thames’ 13 home runs are good for the most on the team, and tied for ninth in the league.  He has been the subject of apparently-not-at-all-a-low-blow speculation on the part of John Lackey.  (Which is funny, because I imagine John Lackey would push for the death penalty for anyone who would dare make a similar suggestion about him.)

Meanwhile, Travis Shaw leads the team in RBIs, having come over from Boston in a trade for a relief pitcher who is already hurt and has yet to actually pitch for the Red Sox.  Shaw was a solid player for much of last year, and he’s picking up where he left off.  He also leads the Brewers in batting average.

The Brewers’ lineup is not exactly star-studded, but it can get the job done.

Just hold on a second:  None of the above mentions Milwaukee’s pitching, and with good reason.  Chase Anderson is currently the ace of the staff.  He’s also the only pitcher with an ERA under 4.

The bullpen might be even worse.  Neftali Feliz has been an adventure as the Brewers’ closer, currently holding a 5.57 ERA.  Carlos Torres has been the more effective reliever, but it’s to the point where pretty much everyone in Milwaukee’s bullpen has been called on to finish a game.

In short, Milwaukee will struggle to get people out all season long, and their lineup isn’t strong enough for that.  In fact, expect the Brewers to go into a hitting slump at some point, as Thames and Shaw are both very streaky hitters.  Remember, Travis Shaw got off to a great start last year in Boston as well.

Sabermetric note:  All of the teams I’m looking at today have an above-average BAbip, or batting average on balls in play.  While not perfect, that’s a statistic that looks to see which teams are “luckier” than others.  Milwaukee is hitting .307 in that department, when the historic mean is more like .300.  This is not drastic enough to say much, but all five teams being explored today are on the luckier side of matters.

Arizona Diamondbacks (31-20, second place in NL West)

The National League’s Western division was supposed to come down to two teams:  The Dodgers and Giants.

Those two teams looked better than the rest on paper.  Both had made the 2016 postseason.  The Giants have quite a pedigree at this point.  The Dodgers have an eye-popping lineup and payroll to match.

So naturally the NL West is currently led by the Rockies, with Arizona in second.

The Diamondbacks have a strong pitching rotation led by a yet-again-resurgent Zack Greinke.  Paul Goldschmidt is worth the price of admission.  The lineup is loaded with talent under 30.

Shelby Miller, who was a disaster last season and whose trade was immediately seen as an embarrassment for the Diamondbacks (who gave away Dansby Swanson in the seal), has been pretty good in his four starts.  Only one Arizona starter has a FIP above the league average, and Patrick Corbin’s not far off the pace in that respect.

Maybe they really are this good:  Torey Lovullo is making the most of his opportunity to manage.  Lovullo had been John Farrell’s bench coach in Boston since 2013, and filled in as manager when Farrell had his run-in with cancer in 2015.  As Farrell has been embattled for most of his time in Boston, for most of the time Lovullo was in Boston he was a rally cry for certain fans and media members who wanted Farrell to go.  Most notably, Lovullo is given much credit for the quick rise of Mookie Betts.

Lovullo is getting a lot out of his pitching rotation, with Greinke returning to form and Miller looking salvageable.  Jake Lamb has turned into a force of a power hitter under his tutelage, and Goldschmidt might be putting together his MVP campaign.

Focusing on Goldschmidt isn’t a bad idea, since most people only know him as the destructive force that helps wreck every fantasy baseball league year in and year out.  Right now he has twelve doubles, eleven homers, and twelve steals while hitting .317.  People think Mike Trout is underappreciated, he’s a rock star in baseball circles compared to Goldschmidt.

Certainly, Paul Goldschmidt is the most complete ballplayer to play first base that I remember.  If one guy can carry a team to the playoffs, he’s a candidate to be that guy.

Just hold on a second:  You know who closes games for the Arizona Diamondbacks right now?  Fernando Rodney.

J.J. Hoover has found his way as a solid middle reliever in 20 appearances.  Andrew Chafin has been excellent.  Tom Wilhelmsen and Jorge De La Rosa, however, not so much.  Both have ERAs north of 4.  Again:  Fernando Rodney is the team’s closer.

When you wish you had the Washington Nationals’ bullpen, there is a problem in the bullpen.

That potent lineup strikes out a lot, but that’s no sign that Arizona is doomed.  They have three people listed on baseball-reference as utility men, which adds to their depth, but should one of their big bats go cold they might not have much of a backup plan.  Only three members of their everyday lineup have knocked in more than 20 runs.  That implies a top heavy team that could be prone to slowdowns.

Another issue facing Arizona is that the Dodgers have already won 30 games.  While the Giants have fallen off the pace already, Los Angeles still looks like a title contender and in fact might be as good as ever.  This means their NL West competitors cannot afford prolonged slumps.  So much as one rough road trip could take them out of position and suddenly they’re looking up at LA.