Baseball's 10 Biggest Surprise Players in 2017
Happy New Year, everybody!
The calendar has flipped to 2018 (although most of us will still be typing "2017" as we re-work our brains to develop new muscle memory), which means it's time to do one of two things -- look ahead and predict what's to come or look back and review what happened.
Right now, we'll do the latter, taking a look back at the performances that were among the biggest surprises last season in Major League Baseball. These are players who either made a huge splash on the scene or veteran players who surprisingly had the best seasons of their careers, seemingly out of nowhere.
Aaron Judge - New York Yankees
Many of the players on this list are well known by baseball fans but may not necessarily be household names yet. Such is not the case with New York Yankees star outfielder Aaron Judge, 2017's unanimous American League Rookie of the Year and runner-up to Jose Altuve for league MVP. There's no need to delve into the heroics of Judge in too much detail here since his exploits are so well known. Suffice it to say no one saw him putting up 8.1 fWAR with a league-leading 52 home runs, 128 runs scored, 127 walks and an OPS of 1.049 in his rookie season -- especially since some prospect lists had Judge as the Bronx Bombers' sixth-ranked prospect heading into the year.
Tommy Pham - St. Louis Cardinals
Tommy Pham was not a player on anyone's list of best players heading into 2017, but the St. Louis Cardinals' outfielder ended the year as one of the 10 best players in the sport. He finished the season with a 6.4 WAR, 10th-best among position players last season, and had he played a full season, it would have been even higher. In just 128 games (530 plate appearances) Pham hit .306/.411/.520 with 23 homers, 25 stolen bases, and a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 148, which was tied for eighth-best in baseball -- all while playing above-average defense in the corner outfield. Those are superstar numbers, gang.
Marwin Gonzalez - Houston Astros
Marwin Gonzalez was one of the most valuable members of the 2017 World Champion Houston Astros, thanks to his offensive contributions and positional flexibility. He improved from a slash line of .254/.293/.401 in 2016 to .303/.377/.530 last year with an uptick in homers (13 to 23), RBIs (51 to 90), walk rate (4.2% to 9.5%), wRC+ (88 to 144) and WAR (1.2 to 4.3). He also played six different positions last season -- first base, second base, third base, shortstop, left field and right field. Gonzalez has that rare combination of production and flexibility that MLB general managers salivate over.
Rhys Hoskins - Philadelphia Phillies
The Philadelphia Phillies' first baseman didn't make his MLB debut until August 10th, but that didn't stop him from accumulating 2.0 WAR and 18 home runs in just 50 games (212 plate appearances). Rhys Hoskins set a Major League record by slugging those 18 dingers in his first 34 games, getting to 18 homers faster than anyone ever had. He slumped over the last two weeks as he fatigued (he played 165 games last season between the minors and majors), but his performance certainly surprised the heck out of everybody at the end of last year.
Matt Olson - Oakland Athletics
As impressive as Hoskins was, it's possible the power display put on by Matt Olson, a fellow rookie, may have been even more impressive. Unlike Hoskins, Olson got an 11-game cup of coffee with the Oakland Athletics in 2016 and played sporadically in June and July. But starting on August 27th, he went on a crazy homer binge of his own, slugging 16 taters in 23 games to finish the season with 24 blasts, a WAR of 2.8 and an OPS of 1.003. Olson always displayed decent power in the minors, but nothing like what he showed last September.
Chris Taylor - Los Angeles Dodgers
Last year, Chris Taylor went from being a bench guy to an everyday star. Before 2017, he had never played more than 47 games in any season, starting with his rookie campaign in 2014, and had posted WAR totals of 1.5, -0.8, 0.0, and -0.1 before last year's shocking 4.8 WAR season. In 140 games (568 plate appearances), the versatile Taylor batted .288/.354/.496 with 21 homers and 34 doubles, and he displayed above-average glove work at five different positions, emerging as a dynamic leadoff hitter for the National League pennant winners.
Justin Smoak - Toronto Blue Jays
Only once before had Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak hit 20 home runs. Only three times in seven seasons had he had a positive WAR. His career slash line heading into last season was .223/.308/.392 for an OPS of .700. By all accounts, Smoak's career was going nowhere. Then, at 30 years old, he became an All-Star for the first time for the Toronto Blue Jays, hitting .270/.355/.529 with an OPS of .883, 38 bombs, 90 RBIs, and a WAR of 3.2. Talk about a stud season that came out of nowhere.
Jimmy Nelson - Milwaukee Brewers
In 2017, Jimmy Nelson established himself as the ace of the Milwaukee Brewers and one of the best pitchers in the National League. Unfortunately, after partially tearing his labrum diving into first base last year, Nelson is also expected to miss a chunk of time in 2018 following surgery to repair it. Nelson burst onto the scene before the injury, however, going 12-6 with a 3.49 ERA, a 126 ERA+ -- ultimately finishing ninth in the NL Cy Young voting. After leading the NL in walks given up in 2016 (86), he issued just 48 free passes in 2017 and saw his strikeout totals jump from 140 in 2016 to 199 last year.
Chase Anderson - Milwaukee Brewers
One of the reasons the Brew Crew came within a game of winning the NL wild card last year was the emergence of Nelson and Chase Anderson as quality young starting pitchers. From 2014 to 2016, Anderson made 78 starts for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Brewers and went 24-24 with a 4.26 ERA and 4.50 fielding independent pitching (FIP) while striking out 7.2 batters per nine innings. But in 25 starts last year, he went 12-4 with a 2.74 ERA, 3.58 FIP and 8.5 punchouts per nine. Among MLB starters with at least 140 innings pitched last year, his WHIP of 1.09 was ninth-best.
Charlie Morton - Houston Astros
While most people will remember Charlie Morton's heroics out of the bullpen for the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the World Series, it's important to recall he was also a dramatically improved pitcher in the regular season. After missing virtually all of 2016 with a hamstring injury, the 10-year veteran made 25 starts with Houston and went 14-7 with a 3.62 ERA and 3.46 FIP in 146.2 innings. And while those numbers are impressive, it's the improvement in his raw stuff that was most surprising as he increased his strikeouts per nine from a career mark of 6.3 in his first nine seasons to 10.0 last season. Opponents hit just .226 off him and, at age 33, Morton increased his average fastball velocity from 92.9 miles per hour in 2015 to 96.1 miles per hour last year.