By Michael Levitt
More than a month of the baseball season is in the books and it is a good time to check in on the most surprising stories over that span. From the San Francisco Giants’ veterans having bounce-back seasons to everyone’s favorite new player (Yermin Mercedes), there are plenty of stories that nobody saw coming before spring training began.
Starting with the most surprising story, Chicago White Sox designated hitter/hitter extraordinaire Mercedes was not even expected to make the opening day roster before left fielder Eloy Jimenez got hurt. But Mercedes capitalized on his opportunity, starting the season off with hits in his first eight at-bats and continuing his torrid stretch and parlaying it into a .415 batting average and 1.113 on-base plus slugging percentage. Even though he has cooled off in May, he still leads the majors in batting average at a cool .373, eight points ahead of the ultra-consistent Mike Trout, who is in second place. And now with White Sox center fielder Luis Robert sidelined for most of the season with an injury, Mercedes will have even more importance in a Chicago lineup that is waiting for stars like catcher Yasmani Grandal and first baseman Jose Abreu to produce at their normal levels. He will likely not keep up this pace and has already started to slow down a bit, but it is fun to see him succeed in what is essentially his first shot in the major leagues (he had one at-bat last year) after spending almost ten years in the minor leagues.
A little-known pitcher who has been making noise is Atlanta Braves starter Huascar Ynoa. Ynoa made his first appearance of the season out of the bullpen before making a spot start his next time on the mound. He impressed on both occasions, throwing six shutout innings between the two appearances, which convinced the Braves to keep him in the rotation. It did not hurt that they had an open spot for longer than they anticipated since Mike Soroka’s injury kept him sidelined for longer than they were planning. Since Ynoa has been in the rotation, he has continued to surprise, compiling a 2.96 earned run average during the month of April and lowering that to 2.23 during his two starts in May so far. But the pitching mound is not the only place Ynoa has excelled. He has also excelled at the plate, hitting two home runs while knocking in six runs on the season. He also has a .400 batting average on the year, though only in 15 at-bats. However, pitchers are not expected to get hits in two out of five at-bats, so Ynoa has surprised all-around. People could use this as a reason to permanently establish the designated hitter in the National League, though an equal argument on the other side could use Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Zac Gallen’s forearm fracture this spring that he suffered while swinging a bat. Wherever you stand on the issue of the universal designated hitter, try to forget about the long-term debates and enjoy the unexpected success Ynoa is having at the plate right now in addition to his success on the mound. He seems to have locked up a spot in the Braves’ rotation for a while, barring a severe drop-off in his performance, and could make it a hard decision for Atlanta to decide who to bump from the rotation when Soroka is ready to come back, likely around the middle of June.
The most surprising team in baseball this year has been the Giants, who are tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for the best record in the National League. While San Francisco may not keep this pace, it bodes well for their future that they are competing in a year where their division was expected to be dominated by the Los Angeles Dodgers-San Diego Padres rivalry. However, most of San Francisco’s production has come from veteran players, such as catcher Buster Posey and third baseman Evan Longoria. Posey already has eight home runs this season, which is his most in a season since 2017, and has a .385 batting average with a 1.191 on-base-plus plus slugging percentage. Longoria has cooled off in May but had a .292 batting average and a .949 on-base plus slugging percentage in April, far better than his .254 batting average and .722 on-base plus slugging percentage during 2020. And the pitching has not been shabby either. Led by offseason addition Anthony DeSclafani and the injury-prone Kevin Gausman, San Francisco’s rotation has made it easy on a bullpen that has not had much success this season, except for set-up men Tyler Rogers and Caleb Baragar. Gausman had excelled to the tune of a 1.97 earned run average in over 45 innings, although he has probably gotten a little lucky considering his fielding independent pitching, which measures how much control a pitcher has on the outcomes of at-bats, says his earned run average should be 2.97, a full run worse than what it is. DeSclafani has a 2.40 earned run average in over 40 innings and helped pick up some of the slack when veteran pitcher Johnny Cueto got hurt. At ages 30 and 31, respectively, Gausman and DeSclafani are not a part of San Francisco’s future, but they, along with the club’s other veterans, can help the team succeed this year and make it easier for the younger players to have success in the future.
The season is only about a fifth of the way done, so there is still plenty of time for both players and teams who are not finding success to turn it around. However, that also means that there is plenty of time for players and teams who are having success to falter. It can be fun to see who is having success about a month into the season, but that does not mean that things are going to be the same at the end of the year. After all, the Washington Nationals started the season 19-31 in 2019 and still won the World Series. So, sit back, enjoy the fun while it lasts, and get ready for an exciting rest of the season.