Every year, all baseball fans and media have at least a general idea in their heads of how each division will shake out. Sometimes those predictions are based in reality and/or statistical projections, and other times they are wildly inaccurate, not based in reality at all, and/or just bad. That is half of the fun of the time leading up to the season...speculating on who will and won’t be in contention and then letting the games play out and see who was right, who was wrong, and why.
It is the middle of May now, and a lot of the teams that were predicted to be good are, in fact, quite good. The Yankees and Red Sox look like they are going to be in a division race for the ages as the rest of the AL East looks up at them all year. The Astros still have a young, terrifying lineup and Gerrit Cole has been great for them in the rotation. The Nationals have seemingly moved past their early season struggles and are among the hotter teams in baseball.
Conversely, many of the teams that we all thought were going to be bad are living up to their billing. The Marlins were thought to be the worst roster in baseball and although they have not been that bad, they are in the cellar in the surprisingly good NL East. The Reds are appear to be rebuilding and, although they are like the Marlins in that they have been a bit better than expected, their record still leaves a lot to be desired. The White Sox were expected to have a down year and they currently sport the worst record in baseball, edging out the Orioles and Royals for that honor.
However, there are a few teams that are either over-performing or under-performing expectations and are surprising us all. Here is a look at five teams that are the surprises of the season so far.
There might not be a more surprising team in major league baseball than the Braves this season. They currently sit at the top of the NL East and have the best record in the National League at 26-17 when most predicted them to finish in the middle of the division at best while flirting with a .500 record. The amount of young talent that the Braves had in the minor leagues was never in question, but most thought their window would start to open in 2019.
Well, arguably the most underappreciated star in Major League Baseball, Freddie Freeman, has continued to be excellent. Ozzie Albies is among the league leaders in home runs and is quickly playing his way into All-Star and awards conversations already. Nick Markakis is having a career year at the plate in the last year of his contract to the shock of basically everyone. Ronald Acuña Jr. was/is the best prospect in baseball and off to a strong start to his major league career and the sky is the limit for his potential. While their offense has certainly carried a heavy load, the pitching has been good as well with Sean Newcomb and Julio Teheran being the anchors in the rotation thus far.
What is most remarkable about the Braves’ start is that it feels sustainable. They get contributions from different players up and down the lineup each night which will help prevent prolonged slumps. The bullpen has been dodgy at times, but Shane Carle and Dan Winkler have been studs this year in relief and AJ Minter could end up in that group by season’s end. The Braves will have to avoid the injury bug (Dansby Swanson is about to return from the DL after a strong start to 2018 and talented righty starter Mike Soroka just went on the DL with a sore shoulder), but with the depth on their roster as well as the minor leagues (third baseman Austin Riley and lefty starter Kolby Allard at lurking in Triple-A), they could easily be in the race for the division title late in the season.
The Dodgers are basically the inverse of the Braves this season. Most pundits and lowly bloggers thought that the Dodgers would be the prohibitive favorites to win the NL West (with a bit of a challenge from the Diamondbacks and Rockies) and among the best teams in the National League. Any team with that much talent led by types like Clayton Kershaw, Cody Bellinger, and Corey Seager is going to be ridiculously good....right?
Thus far, the answer to that has been a resounding “nope” as the Dodgers currently sport a 17-26 record and has struggled against even the bad teams around the league. Admittedly, a good chunk of their struggles have been due to injuries to very important players. Kershaw has not pitched since the beginning of May due to biceps tendinitis and it looks like it will be a while before he returns. The news was even worse for Seager as his season was ended by Tommy John surgery. When your best pitcher and best hitter aren’t playing, there are definitely going to be consequences on the field.
Complicating matters for the Dodgers are that they aren’t having a lot of folks stepping up on offense to fill the void. They are currently relying on production for Yasmani Grandal and Matt Kemp to stay afloat and, in the case of at least the latter of those two, banking on that continuing is questionable. Bellinger is going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting with some help from guys like Yasiel Puig in order to turn this thing around. The news isn’t all bad, though. Walker Buehler looks like he is going to be a stud if he can stay healthy and when Kershaw is right, he is probably the best pitcher on planet Earth. There is plenty of time to save the Dodgers’ season, but this isn’t the start we expected from them.
With the Phillies outperforming expectations along with the Braves, the NL East is shaping up to be a bit of a bloodbath in the coming months. The Braves have had the Phillies’ number this year, but they are pretty much the only team that has been able to solve them consistently as they sit at 25-17 and second place in the NL East. The Phillies raised a few eyebrows with the signing of Jake Arrieta this past offseason since many thought they would be a year or two away from contention much like the Braves, but thus far that signing has proven prescient as the Phillies rotation has been among the best in baseball this season. Aaron Nola has been awesome in posting 1.7 fWAR through his first nine starts of the year, Arrieta has been solid, and Nick Pivetta has quietly posted a strong season as well.
The offense hasn’t been quite as consistent, but there is still a lot to like in the lineup. Odubel Herrera has posted a 169 wRC+ through the season’s first 42 games and looks like he is going to be a star. Cesar Hernandez is an on-base machine and while Rhys Hoskins isn’t quite lighting the world on fire like he did during his debut last year, he is still a very dangerous bat in the middle of the order and gets on base at a high clip as well.
A couple of things to keep an eye on are the season long slump of Carlos Santana and the development of Scott Kingery and JP Crawford. Kingery was so good last year in the minors that the Phillies extended him before he set foot on the field. He started the year well, but has slumped badly of late. JP Crawford was among the better prospects in baseball at one point, but has struggled at the plate in the major leagues and has been out with a forearm injury and won’t be back until at least June it appears. As for Santana, he has been hitting some bombs, but not much else...although his ridiculously horrid luck on balls in play this season (.174 BABIP in 182 plate appearances) will likely normalize. If the Phillies young players develop and Santana can start producing consistently again, the Phillies are going to be tough to keep up with all season. If not, well...they had better hope their pitching staff can keep this pace up or they are going to fall off in a hurry.
There is nothing surprising about the Indians current place in the standings. Many expected them to win what appears to be a pretty week AL Central division this year. With a pitching staff led by the indomitable Corey Kluber and then Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor in the lineup, it is easy to see why they were and are favorites to win the division and compete for a World Series spot.
The surprise? Their record: through the season’s first 43 games, the Indians are below .500 with a 21-22 record. Lindor and Ramirez have been great, but the rest of the lineup has ranged from okay to not so okay. Edwin Encarnacion is still hitting for power, but the .215 batting average and 0.0 fWAR to start the season are unslightly. The rotation with the aforementioned Kluber plus Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer has performed very well, but the Indians’ bullpen has been one of the worst in baseball this season. Andrew Miller has not been his usual dominant self in the reliever corps and two of the more used bullpen pieces on the team, Zach McAllister and Nick Goody, have combined for -0.8 fWAR this season. That is not good.
Fortunately, the rest of the division has not punished the Indians for their slow start. Even with a sub-.500 record, the Indians still lead the division by 1.5 games as of today and they are still incredibly talented. It is hard to envision any of the other four teams in the NL Central catching them even if the Indians continue to underperform their overall win-loss projections. However, if the team wants any realistic shot at advancing in the playoffs, they are going to have to shore up the bullpen and get Ramirez and Lindor some help at the trade deadline.
If you had said that the NL Central had the potential to be one of the toughest divisions in baseball at the start of the season, few would have argued the point. The Cubs look built to win for a long time, the Cardinals seems to be in contention every year, and the Brewers made some big acquisitions in Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich. However, one team that folks DIDN’T think would be among the powerhouses of the division were the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates lost Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen from their roster, so it would be understandable if there was some drop-off. Instead, they are right near the top of the division with a 26-18 record and they have been great at home with a 15-7 record.
It has been their offense that has been carrying them as they are among the league leaders in runs while also being among the best in not striking out. Francisco Cervilli has put up a 165 wRC+ this season and before he was placed on the DL recently, Starling Marte had been excellent as well. Corey Dickerson continues to do Corey Dickerson things and consistently produce in the outfield even if it isn’t the most flashy, eye-popping production. The pitching staff has been middling this season, but there is real talent on the roster with Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow.
The trick for the Pirates will be to continue to produce offensively from sources that we don’t normally expect this level of production, especially with Marte out. Austin Meadows got the call from the minors and has a lot of potential at the plate, but how he will fare against major league pitching is a wild card. If the offense comes back to earth without some significant improvement from the starting rotation, the Pirates may very well turn back into more of a .500 club than one competing for the top spot in the division.