Here’s the thing about picking some of the most notable surprises and disappointments of 2019: You have to adjust for the baseball. Is it a surprise that Jorge Soler has 45 home runs? Yes. Did he always have power potential? Yes. Did anybody predict 45 home runs from him? No, of course not; he hit nine last year. So, he could be No. 1 on this list if you want. I won’t throw up a block on that one.
Is it a surprise that Eugenio Suarez has 48 home runs? Well, he hit 34 last year in 143 games, so reaching 50 with the rocket ball isn’t that ridiculous. I mean, it is; nobody would have predicted Suarez would hit 50 home runs, and he might do it.
But you get the point. I don’t want this list to just be a list of surprising sluggers — although we’ll include a few.
To the list!
Surprise: Yankees power hitters
The Yankees are neck and neck with the Twins for the all-time home run record, which isn’t the big surprise since the Yankees just set the mark in 2018. The surprise, of course, is the source for so many of those home runs: Not Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton combining for 90 to 100 of them, but guys such as Gio Urshela and DJ LeMahieu and Brett Gardner and Mike Tauchman and Mike Ford. We knew Gleyber Torres was good, but I don’t think anybody believed 40 home runs was in his 2019 equation.
Put it this way: The Steamer preseason projections had a combined 41 home runs for those six guys. Instead, they’ve combined for 131, with LeMahieu and Gardner both shattering their previous highs. (They were projected for nine home runs each, and they have combined for 49.) The biggest surprise, however, has been Urshela, filling in at third base for the injured Miguel Andujar and hitting .325/.364/.550 with 20 home runs. It’s almost as if Brian Cashman did indeed make a pact with a certain Mr. Applegate.
Surprise: Mitch Garver
Speaking of those power-hitting Twins, they just became the first team with five 30-homer players in one season. In 335 plate appearances as a rookie in 2017, Mitch Garver hit seven home runs. In 338 plate appearances in 2019, he has bashed 30. He is slugging .636 with a 1.000 OPS. Only 12 catchers have batted at least 300 times and produced a 1.000 OPS. Garver’s power outburst has helped Twins catchers hit a combined 42 home runs — one shy of the single-season mark of 43 shared by the 1953 Dodgers (led by Roy Campanella), 1997 Dodgers and 1999 Mets (both led by Mike Piazza) and 2003 Braves (led by Javy Lopez).
Here’s the unpredictable nature of baseball: Garver was a teammate at the University of New Mexico of D.J. Peterson, the Mariners’ first-round pick in 2013. The Twins drafted Garver in the ninth round that year. Peterson hit .185 at Triple-A for the White Sox this season, before getting released and ending the season with Sugar Land of the Atlantic League; and his less-heralded college teammate is having one of the great part-time seasons for a catcher in MLB history.
Disappointment: Phillies’ offense
2018: Averaged 4.18 runs per game (National League average of 4.37)
2019: Averaging 4.86 runs per game (NL average of 4.80)
OK, they’ve gone from slightly below average to slightly above average. That hasn’t been enough to push the Phillies into the postseason for the first time since 2011, as the rotation has been inconsistent and the bullpen faced an unending string of injuries. There are 55 qualified regulars with a .500 slugging percentage in 2019 — none of them plays for the Phillies.
Disappointment: Red Sox
The defending champs began the season with an 11-game road trip to Seattle, Oakland and Arizona and went 3-8 — a stretch in which the rotation posted an 8.57 ERA. In a sense, the Red Sox never recovered from that opening trip, never found their 2018 mojo. In fact, when they lost their home opener to fall to 3-9, it put them six games out of first place. The closest they got to first after that was three games for one day on May 12.
The major culprit was the starting rotation. Rick Porcello (5.77 ERA) never got it going. Chris Sale, signed to a big extension in spring training, racked up big strikeouts but had a 4.40 ERA before his season ended with a an elbow injury. David Price (wrist, elbow) has pitched just 107 innings, and Nathan Eovaldi, re-signed as a free agent, has pitched just 56 with an elbow issue. It all cost Dave Dombrowski, head of baseball operations, his job.
Surprise: Most improved White Sox
You can make the case that the most improved position player in the league is White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson and the most improved pitcher is White Sox starter Lucas Giolito. Anderson entered the season with a .258 career average in more than 1,500 career plate appearances, and now he is hitting .335 to lead the American League. If he does win the batting crown, it would be the lowest career average entering the season for a batting title winner (from Elias):
Tim Anderson, 2019: .2576
Gary Sheffield, 1992: .2585
Terry Pendleton, 1991: .2586
Giolito, meanwhile, was so bad in 2018 — 6.13 ERA and an AL-worst 90 walks in 173⅓ innings — that you wondered if he had the stuff to pitch in a big league rotation. He got stronger, ditched his two-seamer, started throwing harder and pounding the strike zone, and in just three more innings than in 2018 struck out 103 more batters and lowered his ERA to 3.41. (His season is over with a mild lat strain.)
Which player is more likely to hold his gains in 2020? I’d bet on Giolito. Anderson still has one of the worst strikeout-to-walk ratios in the league at 102 to 12. His average exit velocity, while up from last season, is still below average, and Anderson’s Statcast metrics suggest a predicted average of .291. That’s still a big improvement from .258, however, so along with Yoan Moncada and Eloy Jimenez, the White Sox are building a young foundation.
Surprise: Sonny Gray, back from the dead
OK, Gray wasn’t exactly dead, but after posting a 6.98 ERA at Yankee Stadium in 2018 (admittedly, he was much better on the road), he was run out of the Big Apple for the gentler pastures of Cincinnati. All he has done is go 11-7 with a 2.80 ERA and 199 strikeouts in 170⅓ innings. Check out his NL rankings:
Strikeout rate: 8th
BA allowed: 1st
wOBA allowed: 3rd
He could finish in the top five of the Cy Young voting. No doubt being reunited with Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson — his pitching coach at Vanderbilt — helped Gray rediscover his form. In March, he blamed his stint in New York on the Yankees wanting him to throw more sliders, a pitch he said he had poor control over. The only trouble with that assessment is Gray has thrown a higher percentage of sliders in 2019 than he did in 2018. Whatever the fix, it has worked, and the four-year extension he signed after the trade looks like a bargain for the Reds.
Speaking of New York … maybe Edwin Diaz would prefer the gentler pastures of Seattle again after his nightmare 2019. After recording 57 saves and averaging 15.2 K’s per nine innings with the Mariners, Diaz has averaged 15.2 K’s per nine with Mets. Which only goes to prove there is a lot more to successful pitching than strikeouts. Out of 309 relievers with at least 20 innings, Diaz ranks 306th in win probability added.
Cano has played better in the second half, but his .262/.309/.436 line is the worst of his career — and that’s without adjusting for the increased offense across the league. His WAR: 0.3. He has barely been a replacement-level second baseman. This trade will sting even more down the road when Jarred Kelenic wins the 2024 MVP award for the Mariners.
Surprise: Ketel Marte
Man, this guy has won a lot of fantasy leagues for folks this year. His transformation from a slap-hitting, speedy shortstop to a power-hitting center fielder/second baseman went to a new level, as he has hit .329/.389/.592 with 32 home runs. Here’s a question: Who’s better over the next five years: Marte or Manny Machado?
Disappointment: Kyle Freeland
I don’t know if there’s a way to study which type of pitchers have been most harmed by the juicy ball, but I would suggest a left-hander without a big strikeout rate who pitches at Coors Field might be the answer. Regression would have been expected after Freeland’s stellar 2018 campaign, but I was buying him heading into the season. Instead, he went 3-11 with a 6.98 ERA and 25 home runs allowed in 99⅓ innings. Freeland, German Marquez and Tyler Anderson combined for 16.1 bWAR in 2018. This year, just 2.0 WAR.
Surprise: Yordan Alvarez
Among this year’s rookie sluggers, I might classify Alvarez as a bigger surprise than Pete Alonso. Put it this way: Alonso hit 36 home runs in 132 games in the minors last year. Factor in the major league rabbit ball and it’s not outrageous (in retrospect) to think he could hit 40 home runs. He has done better than that — he is up to 49 — but the big power numbers aren’t a big surprise. In Alvarez’s case, we knew about the raw power, but it’s his all-around hitting ability that has been off-the-charts impressive. He is hitting .318/.419/.671 with 26 homers in 79 games. Alvarez is insanely talented, doesn’t strike out as much as Alonso and has best-hitter-in-the-game potential.
Disappointment: Nationals’ bullpen
What’s with the NL East? No wonder the Braves are running away with the division. Not that we expected the Nationals to have a lights-out bullpen, but one of the worst of all time? The Nationals’ 5.84 bullpen ranks last in the majors (even worse than the Orioles’), their relievers are last in win probability added (easily the worst figure in the past decade) and they had to turn to 42-year-old Fernando Rodney at the trade deadline.
Here is what’s weird: In May, the Nationals traded Austin Adams to the Mariners. Adams had fanned 169 batters in 105⅓ innings with just three home runs allowed over the past two seasons in Triple-A. They couldn’t use a guy like that? Adams has been pretty solid with Seattle, registering 50 K’s in 29 innings.
Surprise: Mike Soroka
Soroka was a top prospect and pitched well in five starts last season, but the baby-faced 21-year-old entered spring training (A) having to prove he was healthy after throwing just 55 innings last year between the minors and majors; and (B) having to win a job in the rotation. He actually began the season with two starts in Triple-A, but Soroka has put together a remarkable rookie season with a 2.57 ERA. In the year of the home run, he has done a superb job of limiting home runs (and hard contact, which helps him succeed without an elite strikeout rate). I love the consistency and efficiency, and he is one of the big keys to the Braves making a World Series run.
Surprise: Oakland Athletics
Is there a surprise team in 2019? Not really. And since the A’s won 97 games last year, you can’t classify them as a shock. But who thought they would win 97 games again? They’re at 92 after Wednesday’s 1-0 win over the Royals. Of the 31 people polled in ESPN’s preseason picks, only nine predicted the A’s would make the playoffs (although two picked them to win the World Series). Among readers, more of you picked the Angels to win the AL West than the A’s. The A’s are 22½ games up on the Angels. So, the A’s are your underdog story of 2019.