Prior to the start of the season, many people around the game complained about the lack of parity in the game. When looking at the pre-season standings, it appeared as if the division winners were already set in stone. With such a top-heavy league in terms of talent, experts and casual fans alike expected to be watching the same familiar clubs when October rolled around. The Red Sox and Yankees would battle for the AL East with the loser getting the first Wild Card, the Indians and Astros would dominate their respective divisions, and a group of maybe three or four teams would scratch and claw for the chance to compete in a one-game playoff. The competitive imbalance in the National League was not quite as pronounced, but each division still had heavy favorites that seemed destined to secure a playoff berth. Two months later and the Yankees and Red Sox are deadlocked for first in the AL East, while the Astros, Indians, Cubs, Nationals, and Dodgers are all either leading their respective divisions or within a game of the lead. So while baseball fans may find themselves fatigued by having to watch the same teams duke it out every October, it is the storylines that exist in between the playoff races that draws us in and captivate us while the slog of the baseball calendar wears on.
Matt Kemp Leads the Dodgers in WAR:
This list is not ranked in order of what I deem the most surprising, but the fact that Matt Kemp is leading the defending National League Champions in WAR has to be one of the most improbable developments in baseball this season. When the Dodgers traded for Kemp this offseason, the exchange was thought to be purely financial. Los Angeles unloaded the big money they were paying to Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, and Adrian Gonzalez, all of which was spread out over multiple years, and in exchange, they received Kemp’s outlandish contract for just the one year. This move was so clearly made for luxury tax purposes that the Dodgers front office went on to incessantly deal Kemp all offseason but to no avail.
Sometimes the best move is no move at all and this was certainly the case for the Dodgers with Matt Kemp. While trading him to another team would have put them safely under the luxury tax, they would have lost their best position player. Offensively, Kemp is having his best season since his 2011 campaign in which he came just shy of winning the MVP in what was considered a very controversial vote. When you look at his .335/.367/.555 slash line, regression is probably the first word that comes to your head, but that may not be the case for Kemp. Do I think he is going to finish the year hitting .335? Of course not. But by raising his Hard% (hard contact rate) by 12% compared to last year and lowering his chase rate by almost three percent, there are plenty of indicators that his offense is here to stay.
Perhaps most impressive about Kemp’s 2018 campaign is his dramatically improved outfield defense. For the last several years, Kemp was considered to be one of the worse defensive outfielders in baseball, which significantly hurt his value. This offseason, Kemp rededicated himself to his fitness by losing up to 30 pounds, which helped him become more athletic and aggressive in left field. A year removed from being by far the worst defensive left fielder in baseball with -17 DRS, Kemp has rededicated himself to his defense. By no means is Kemp now a Gold Glove candidate or anything close to it these days, but with just -3 DRS, he is serviceable enough to be an everyday left fielder if he continues to dominate opposing pitchers.
Just to illustrate the increase in agility that shedding 40 pounds can provide someone, lets get a side-by-side look of Atlanta Braves left fielder Fatt Kemp and the much trimmer Dodgers left fielder Matt Kemp.
2. Ozzie Albies the Power Hitter:
When then 19-year-old Ozzie Albies got the call-up to the bigs last September, he was regarded as a glove-first second baseman with above-average speed and a contact-oriented approach at the plate. While scouting reports can vary, no website that puts out publicly available 20-80 grades gave Albies greater than a 30 power grade, with most sources giving him the minimum 20 grade. While these power projections were wildly inaccurate, I can understand the reasoning behind giving the diminutive Albies such a low power ceiling.
Albies stands 5’9″, 160 lbs. and never hit more than 9 home runs in a minor league season. While he did hit 20+ doubles at every minor league level, predicting that his gap power would ever develop into 25+ home run potential would be beyond bold. Whether its added strength, an attempt to more frequently lift the baseball or the added power boost that comes from hitting the MLB ball, Albies has far surpassed his power projection.
One explanation for the power surge is a pretty clear change in his approach. Albies is hitting flyballs at a 41.9% clip, which is nearly four percent higher than any of his minor league flyball rates. Similarly, Albies has traded groundballs for line drives as evidenced by his nearly 5% decrease in groundball rate and 5% increase in line drive rate. Whatever the cause of Albies power breakout, the Braves welcome it. With 16 home runs, Albies leads both MLB second baseman and leadoff hitters in that category.
The Indians Bullpen Collapse:
If I was forced to bet on which bullpen was the least likely to be last in ERA this season, the Indians would likely have been my choice. For the past few years, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen have been perhaps the best set up/closer duo in the game. While Andrew Miller was lights out in a fireman role that often times required him to pitch multiple innings, Cody Allen was used in the more traditional closer role. Between 2015 and 2017, the two combined for a 2.08 ERA in 272.1 innings pitched to go along with 397 strikeouts.
Of course, having an effective bullpen requires more than just two pitchers, which is something the Indians are well aware of after middle reliever Bryan Shaw left for free agency in the offseason. While Shaw was a reliable workhorse that helped bridge the gap to the Miller / Allen dynamo in the later innings, his departure was just one of the many events that helped break a relief corps that led the MLB in ERA last season.
It is impossible to pinpoint a single reason for why the Indians bullpen has been so abysmal because virtually every pitcher who has come out of the Cleveland bullpen this season has been dreadful. The reliever with the lowest ERA (minimum 15 innings pitched) is currently Cody Allen with a 4.18 ERA. If that is the high point, you can probably guess the numbers get much worse from there. A year removed from posting a league-leading 2.89 bullpen ERA, the Indians have experienced an unprecedented collapse as they now rank dead last in the MLB with a 5.60 bullpen ERA.
As with any collapse of such dramatic proportions, the Indians have experienced some misfortune with injuries, specifically a strained hamstring that caused Andrew Miller to miss over three weeks. Since coming off the DL, however, Miller has not been his old self and he is not the only one failing to live up to expectations. Despite having nearly identical personnel as they had in 2017, nearly every reliever that performed a year ago has come apart in 2018.
The table below compares Indians relievers in 2017 and 2018.
Indians Most Used Relievers in 2017:
Indians Most Used Relievers in 2018:
With the exception of Cody Allen’s WHIP and Dan Otero’s K%, all five of the Indians most used relievers have declined in every category. The Indians will hope that these once reliable late-inning options will refind their form, but for now, the club should be obsessively scouring the trade market in hopes of adding someone who can stabilize what has been a dreadful bullpen.
4. Kyle Schwarber Becoming a Capable Defender:
Kyle Schwarber came up as a big-bodied catcher who could absolutely mash. Schwarbs was a bit of an adventure behind the plate as he failed to block balls in the dirt on a routine basis. To be fair, he had an absolute cannon behind the plate, but with his receiving skills years away from being adequate and a bat that was MLB ready, the Cubs had no other choice but move him away from the position. With a heftier body type, finding Schwarbs a position was no easy task, so they did what all teams do when they have a positionless slugger they need to insert into the lineup: stick them in left field.
Teams generally try to hide defensively handicapped fielders in left field and hope that there aren’t too many balls hit in their direction, but as Schwarbs would soon find out, the ball always finds you. To be fair, being thrust into an unfamiliar position and be expected to perform at the game’s highest level is a near impossible task, but that doesn’t mean the big-bodied outfielder wouldn’t go on to provide us with endless GIF-able gaffes in the months to come.
— Jake Spiwak (@JakeSpiwak) March 29, 2018
BREAKING: Kyle Schwarber still can’t play the outfield pic.twitter.com/vAN6DB2ibo
— Jake Spiwak (@JakeSpiwak) March 29, 2018
This offseason Kyle Schwarber shed over 30 pounds in an effort to develop more range on defense. While his instincts in the outfield will always be subpar, he is much lighter on his feet than he used to be and rarely makes a fool of himself on challenging flyballs or liners. What he lacks in range and experience in the outfield, he has been able to make up for with his arm this season. According to the advanced fielding metrics available at FanGraphs.com, Kyle Schwarber ranks 3rd among all left fielders in defensive runs saved, due in large part to his exceptional arm. Schwarber currently leads all qualified left fields in rARM (a statistics that measures the number of runs a player is able to prevent based on his throws). Unsurprisingly, Schwarber’s range is still below league average, but if he can continue to hold his own in left field, maybe the perennial rumors about him getting dealt to an AL team to play DH will become a thing of the past.
The Seattle Mariners Success:
Before the season began, if you told me that the Mariners would sit atop the AL West standings in the middle of June, I would be surprised, but not totally shocked, After all, the title window for Seattle is right now and GM Jerry DiPoto has done everything within his power to address any flaw through the trade market. With an aging core of position players, time is running out a club that has the longest playoff drought in professional sports, so DiPoto has every reason to be aggressive in making moves for the present.
The fact that the Mariners currently possess a 44-24 record is amazing, but the truly shocking part of this story is how they have been able to overcome adversity to get to this point. Not only did the club lose Hisashi Iwakuma and just about their entire bullpen (David Phelps, Juan Nicasio, Dan Altavilla, Nick Vincent, Erasmo Ramirez) for an extended period of time, their franchise cornerstone Robinson Cano also got suspended 80 games for taking performance enhancing drugs. All of these losses make the club look extremely thin on paper, especially compared to divisional powerhouse Houston, but what the M’s lack in raw talent, they are making up for in grit.
Generally, I am statistically oriented when it comes to how I build my arguments, but the Mariners desire to win is directly observable every time you see this club step on the field, which is why I believe their 21-9 record in one-run games is more of a credit to their heart than an indication of future regression. With that being said, the M’s have very little margin for error if they want to play games in October. In order to continue the suceess they have enjoyed in the season’s first two months, they will need guys like Jean Segura, James Paxton, Edwin Diaz, and Mitch Haniger to continue to play at an elite level. Unfortunately for Seattle, even if they grind their way into a second wild card spot, they will have to travel across the country to play the juggernauts that are the Yankees or Red Sox in a Wild Card Game.