What's real and what's fake in MLB as Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado and more get out to hot starts | Sporting News

2022-06-25 07:47:09 By : Ms. Polly Maggie

MLB season is now well underway. As we approach the one-month mark and every-day players start to see fewer massive jumps in their ratio statistics, a few players are standing head and shoulders above the rest.

Baseball eventually humbles most players, but it can be difficult to tell what's real and what's fake in the box score.

There are tons of factors playing into this year as well, including controversial ball choices, low temperatures, and a shortened offseason.

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Here is an attempt, to the best of our ability, to decipher which of these hot players will stay hot and which are due for a return to earth in both the American and National Leagues.

Is this the year Mike Trout MVP fatigue finally wears off? He's been nothing short of sensational for the Angels so far. Not only is Trout leading MLB in OPS, he's in the 90th percentile or better of nearly every advanced metric. His expected slugging is in the 99th percentile, his hard-hit percentage is in the 90th percentile, his barrel percentage and expected on base average are both in the 100th percentile.

Trout is one of the few players in baseball who never seems to regress to the mean, but even for him, this start is utterly ridiculous. The analytics clearly back up this isn't a fluke for him and Trout, who played in just 36 games in 2021's disappointing Halos campaign, looks like he's right back on track.

Fresh off a five-year, $124 million extension this offseason that many experts pegged as a steal, Ramirez is already paying off the Guardians' investment. The AL Player of the Month in April, Ramirez has racked up an utterly absurd 29 RBI to start the year. In 24 at-bats with runners in scoring position, he has seven extra-base hits and an average of .409. In short, he's been one of baseball's most clutch hitters.

Although Ramirez isn't putting up the ridiculous advanced numbers at the plate Trout is, he is a career .296 hitter with runners in scoring position and counting. Although his RBI total so far has been his calling card, his approach has been better all season. He hasn't reinvented himself, but what he's doing at the plate has been far more effective.

Is it real?: Yes, with caveats: The RISP and RBI stats will likely mellow out as the season goes on.

Although the Mariners have struggled in May so far, J.P. Crawford is yet to do so. The shortstop is batting .375 with a home run in the second month of the season, with an OPS of 1.036. He's been sterling for Seattle so far, and it couldn't come off a better time fresh off receiving a five-year extension of his own this offseason.

The numbers, however, are slightly illusory. For as good as he's been, Crawford's hard-hit percentage and barrel percentage are relatively low. His average exit velocity ranks in the fifth percentile among MLB hitters. Five of his hits are infield singles away from the shift always employed against him. As managers start to adjust to Crawford, we'll likely see his numbers drop throughout the year.

Following the trend of Trout, let's start with another superstar who lost most of or all of 2021 due to injury. Coming off Tommy John Surgery, Justin Verlander has been outstanding for the Astros, He's 3-1 on the year and his velocity is about on par with where it was in 2019. 

A deeper look, however, shows what Verlander has really lost: a putout pitch. The whiff percentage on his slider is at just 28 percent, a precipitous drop from the 40 percent whiff rate on the same pitch in 2019. Movement on the pitch has suffered dramatically, as it's now below league average both vertically and horizontally. His lack of a strikeout pitch is reflected in his strikeout percentage, which is seven points lower than in 2019 (26.3 percent vs. 33.3 percent).

Verlander is still an ace with ace stuff, but we'll need to see him carry these numbers through May to call the 39-year-old hurler's start real. With that being said, Verlander has defied the odds before.

Kevin Gausman has been absurd this season. Leaning on the best splitter in baseball, he's yet to walk a batter through five starts and he has 41 strikeouts. Gausman's fastball has a ridiculous 12 inches of horizontal break, whereas his splitter falls off the table with 35.4 inches of drop. The overlay highlights how hard it is to hit.

Kevin Gausman, 93mph Fastball (foul) and 85mph Splitter (swinging K), Overlay. pic.twitter.com/t01GvRoEIH

When talking about a two-pitch pitcher with auxiliaries like Gausman (he throws his slider and changeup a combined 18 percent of the time), it's hard to know how sustainable what he's doing is. However, this has been his MO -- it's why Toronto signed him. Add in whatever the Blue Jays did to help Robbie Ray win a Cy Young last year, and you have a pitcher who's doing what he's does best and succeeding.

Is it real?: Yes, but Gausman will probably walk someone this season.

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Logan Gilbert has emerged as a bit of an enigmatic ace for Seattle. He's tied for the MLB lead with four wins, he holds baseball's best ERA, and it's hard to pin down exactly what makes him so good. His left-on-base rate is a ridiculous 99.2 percent, so he's a bit like Jose Ramirez with RISP ...  but on the mound.

Gilbert is aggressive and he's comfortable pitching to contact in a way many pitchers aren't. Gilbert's FIP is down to 3.06 from 3.73 last year, something he'll have to keep down to succeed. Gilbert's changeup is the key to his success. It's the closest thing he has to a putout pitch, so if batters start to key in on it, we may have to see Gilbert adjust later in the year.

Is it real?: Yes, but not at this pace. Gilbert will regress, but don't expect it to be drastic.

When the Cardinals traded for Nolan Arenado before 2021, they had a good idea of what they were getting. A .293 career hitter with great power who plays outstanding defense. Arenado lived up to that billing in his first year as a Cardinal, raking 34 home runs despite struggling a bit in his approach at times. Arenado finished with a .255 average, just two points above his career-low set a year prior in 2020 (forgivable, given how the 2020 season played out).

This season, Arenado is hitting like a new man. His barrel percentage is approaching 10 percent, he's seeing fastballs better than he has in his career, and he's showing a consistent approach. Although the slash line may be a bit fluky, Arenado's power is clearly present.

Is it real?: Yes, with some BA regression imminent.

The Padres may not be the buzzy name they were heading into 2021, but they seem to like it that way. In the absence of Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado has emerged as the unquestioned star in San Diego with an absolutely scorching start. He leads the league in hits at 37 and yet, somehow, he doesn't even have the best average on his own team (Eric Hosmer is edging him out at .376). Machado leads MLB in both fWAR and bWAR for the time being, and the Padres are 17-9, hot on the tail of the Dodgers in the NL West.

Although his chase rate is still high, Machado's contact right now is among the best in baseball. His average exit velocity is approaching 90 mph, his walk percentage is a career high, and he's doing it on a team that is battling a myriad of injuries. After a two-home run night on Thursday, Machado looks like he's waking up even more. He'll be a dangerous part of the Padres order no matter where he's slotted as they get healthier.

Is it real?: See Arenado.

Perhaps the most surprising team in baseball, the Rockies are on a vindication tour of sorts after they were scoffed at for signing Kris Bryant this offseason. The Rockies are 15-10 on the season, and C.J. Cron has been a huge part of that. Cron's career average was .261 heading into this season, so needless to say his .313 tear has been a bit remarkable. He's tied with Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo with nine home runs for the league lead.

Cron's numbers are, frankly, confusing. He's batting an insane .467 against offspeed pitching this year, up from .225 last season. The only pitches hitters are struggling against this year are breaking balls, although MLB scouting being what it is means he should expect to see a steady diet of them as the year goes on. Cron's ceiling is always among the hardest-hitting players in baseball, but expect to see his surface-level stats diminish as the year goes on.

Is it real?: The power is real, the consistency is not.

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Another big offseason acquisition, Carlos Rodon was meant to replace Gausman in the Giants' rotation. The southpaw has lived up to the billing, posting impressive early season numbers and a career-high strikeout percentage of 37 percent.

Rodon is accomplishing this through his deadly 1-2 punch of fastball-slider, the latter on which he's getting a 50 percent whiff rate. Rodon is one of the hardest-throwing left-handed starters in baseball, which can be a deadly combination. He isn't doing much different this year, and don't expect much to change either.

The first pitcher to [start] a no-hitter this year, Tylor Megill has lived up to his default Opening Day billing after Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer started the year injured for the Mets. With four pitches in different speed ranges, he's nigh on impossible to guess against, and that's translated into the stat sheet. Megill looks like he's ready for his moment as the Mets continue their hot start to the season.

Megill's hard-hit percentage and whiff percentage look good for the Mets, but his walk rate is getting to a cautionary level. He's walked five batters in his last two starts after walking three in his first three. If he continues to dance around the zone, then an overcorrection figures to be incoming, which leads to more hits. Megill is a pitcher who has very good stuff, but there may be some choppy waters ahead after his very good start to the year.

Is it real?: It's real with a yellow flag if the walk trend continues.

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Pablo Lopez has been one of baseball's most surprising pitchers this season. The Marlins are 12-13 on the season, with Lopez accounting for a quarter of those wins, and he's been the best in baseball at pitching within himself. While not a strikeout pitcher by any means, he doesn't give up much hard contact.

Lopez has been around since 2018, and has generally put up fairly pedestrian numbers. He isn't even doing anything different than he did in 2020 or 2021; players just aren't hitting him well. He leans on his changeup as heavily as his fastball, with his sinker serving as a complement. Lopez's average EV, chase rate, and hard-hit percentage are higher than the 80th percentile among pitchers. But without a big difference in his stuff, it's difficult to pin down exactly what's different this year for the NL Pitcher of the Month.

Is it real?: Yes, so long as his changeup keeps changing.