The best part of the first month of any baseball season is the surprises, whether it’s the feel-good comebacks like Carlos Rodon or the out-of-nowhere stars like Yermin Mercedes.
And every year, a couple of teams picked to finish way back in the pack start out strong. It’s fun for the fans of those franchises, because hope is a cool thing.
Most times, those teams fade and it quickly becomes clear why expectations weren’t high in the first place. But sometimes, what quickly becomes clear is how very wrong most people were when evaluating the chances of those particular clubs.
So today, let’s look at five teams exceeded expectations so far.
2021 record: 12-7, tied for first in AL West
What’s gone right: For a lot of reasons, this makes little sense. Let’s start here: The M’s have eight players with at least 50 plate appearances, and SIX of those eight have an OPS under .703, the current MLB average. Four of those six sit at .562 or worse. Their team batting average is .209, worst in the AL. Marco Gonzales, their best pitcher — the Opening Day starter three years in a row now — has a 6.04 ERA (though he was brilliant in his most recent start). Through 19 games, they’ve scored exactly one more run than they’ve allowed. So how in the world are they five games over .500?
They’re 4-0 in extra innings, which is huge. They’re 6-3 in one-run games, which is key, too. How do you win games like that? Effective relievers. The Seattle bullpen has a 2.62 ERA on the season, and even that’s a bit misleading. Look at the ERAs for the five primary relievers, the guys who have made at least seven appearances:
0.00, Kendall Graveman, 7 games, 8 2/3 innings
0.00, Anthony Misiewicz, 8 games, 6 1/3 innings
0.84, Will Vest, 9 games, 10 2/3 innings
2.35, Casey Sadler, 8 games, 7 2/3 innings
2.61, Rafael Montero, 10 games, 10 1/3 innings
On offensive side, Mitch Haniger has been a nice comeback story; he had his breakout season in 2018, but played just 63 games in 2019 and missed all of 2020 with back issues. He’s batting .316 with a 173 OPS+ and five homers. And Ty France, who had a sneaky good 2020 campaign, is hitting well again in 2021.
Contender or pretender? I think it’s safe to raise expectations from what they were before the season started, when most projections had them competing with the Rangers for last place in the AL West, slotting in right about 70 wins. If the offense comes around a bit and the bullpen is solid, something around .500 is possible. But it’s hard to imagine this club competing for a playoff spot.
2021 record: 11-7, first in NL Central
What’s gone right: Maybe it’s unfair to put the Brewers in the “surprising” category. Most oddsmakers, though, had the Brewers middle of the pack, at best, on their World Series list, and most everyone had them behind the Cardinals (at least) in the NL Central. So we’ll put them here. And here’s the truth: This pitching staff is good enough to win the division, and then win in October. Corbin Burnes has been a revelation, with a 0.37 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings in his first four starts.
Beyond that? Brandon Woodruff has a 1.96 ERA, Freddie Peralta has a 2.00 ERA, Brett Anderson a 2.65 ERA and Adrian Hauser is “last” among Milwaukee starters with a 3.32 ERA. That’s solid stuff, folks. In the bullpen, Josh Hader and J.P. Feyereisen have yet to allow an earned run in 15 1/3 innings, with 20 strikeouts, and veteran Brent Suter has been a solid addition to the bullpen as a multiple-inning lefty. Devin Williams has had a few hiccups, but last year’s NL Rookie of the Year is capable of making even the best hitters look silly.
Contender or pretender? Well, we already gave this away. They’re contenders. Very legitimate contenders for the division crown (the NL Central ain’t great), and if that pitching staff’s healthy in October, it’s not one that any team would look forward to facing. The offense isn’t much, but 2-1 wins count in October just as much as 6-1 wins.
Kansas City Royals
2021 record: 10-7, first in AL Central
What’s gone right: Didn’t we learn in 2014 and 2015 not to doubt a team led by a healthy and magical Sal Perez? He’s healthy and magical again this year, with five homers and a 143 OPS+ in 17 games and walk-offs like this one.
Carlos Santana has been a nice veteran addition, in the lineup mix with an ever-consistent Whit Merrifield. Oh, and speaking of the magic of Royals years past, Danny Duffy has a 0.50 ERA in his first three starts of the season. Wade Davis and Greg Holland are back in the bullpen, too, though they haven’t exactly recaptured their old form, with 5.40 and 6.43 ERAs, respectively.
Contender or pretender? If you’re a Royals fan, there’s reason to allow yourself to be at least a little excited. Your favorite team is in first place, without much production from slugger Jorge Soler, and even if matching his 48-homer output of 2019 isn’t going to happen, it’s reasonable to expect more than what he’s done so far. And Brad Keller, the youngster who was so very good in nine starts last year (2.47 ERA/3.43 FIP) has been mostly atrocious thus far; he has a 12.00 ERA and has been chased in the second inning in two of his four starts. He has to get better, right? That is, at least, the hope.
Realistically, though, competing with the White Sox and Twins — yes, they’ll turn it around — over a six-month season will be tough. If we’re talking about playoff hopes and expectations, Kansas City is more pretender than contender.
Boston Red Sox
2021 record: 12-8, first in AL East
What’s gone right: For starters, J.D. Martinez is healthy and raking again. It’s been a while. He’s just one spot in the lineup, but when he’s hitting like he is right now — .361, 215 OPS+, six homers and 20 RBIs in 18 games — that’s a dangerous Red Sox order. Also in the mix: Rafael Devers (six homers), Xander Bogaerts (.371) and Alex Verdugo (141 OPS+), and Christian Arroyo is batting at a .364 clip, too. It’s not surprising that the Red Sox lead the AL in runs scored.
Nathan Eovaldi’s return to the rotation has been just as important as Martinez’s return to the lineup. The big right-hander has a 3.04 ERA with a strikeout per inning in his four starts. Nick Pivetta and Eduardo Rodriguez have been solid as starters, too. And the bullpen? It’s been pretty much a dream so far. Five relievers have pitched at least eight innings, and all five have ERAs of 2.00 or better. Closer Matt Barnes is 3-for-3 in save opportunities, with a 0.90 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 10 innings.
Contender or pretender? They’re a legit contender. Boston needed a lot of things to come together for this to be something other than a rebuilding year, and that’s happened so far.
San Francisco Giants
2021 record: 12-7, second in NL West
What’s gone right: Well, Buster Posey is back, so of course the Giants are World Series contenders. Why is that surprising? Only the most optimistic of Giants fans were hopeful that a team with older hitters — the average age of their hitters, 31.3, is by far the oldest in the major — and a pitching staff made up mostly of players coming off injuries, ineffective seasons or otherwise hoping for a rebound season could contend.
So far, though? The projects are all panning out. Aaron Sanchez, who missed all of 2020, has a 1.83 ERA in four starts. Anthony DiScalfani, who had a 7.22 ERA for the Reds in 2020, has a 2.14 ERA in four starts. Jake McGee, who had a 5.54 ERA in 2018-19 with Colorado before rebounding with the Dodgers last year, has a 2.61 ERA with seven saves already. Evan Longoria, who hasn’t posted an OPS north of .762 since 2016, is chugging along at .972 in his Age 35 season. Oh, and Posey? He’s batting .310 with a .989 OPS and four homers in 12 games because of course he is.
Contender or pretender? The Giants aren’t going to compete with the Dodgers for the NL West title. That’s just not happening. And competing with the Padres for second place in the division will be tough, too. Is a wild-card push possible? Sure. Never count out Posey and crew.
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