Burning Questions: Which MLB Player Has Been the Biggest Surprise?

Chris Colabello leads the A.L. in RBI's. Just like we all thought.

Let's see a quick show of hands. How many of y'all had the Chicago White Sox leading the AL in runs prior to the season? Those of you that have your hands in the air are a) liars and b) should probably realize that nobody else can see your hand raised, and you look very silly.

The point of that was not to embarrass you. It was more to show that there are some things in baseball that are just unpredictable, thus the existence of a Twitter account called @CantPredictBall (which I highly recommend following). No matter how much info, insights or voodoo prediction powers you have, some things are going to surprise you. That's what we're talking about with today's Burning Question.

But, as you may have figured out from some of our other columns (I picked Anibal Sanchez to win the Cy Young), we can be pretty dumb sometimes. So we want to hear which individual player you think is the biggest surprise. I posed the question in the numberFire Questions section, and you can answer that here. You can also send us a tweet to @numberFire if you want to party with the cool kids.

Without further ado, here are some of the numberFire baseball writer's biggest surprises so far this season.

Chris Colabello

Chris Kay's Thoughts:

Independent league baseball is many things, but glamorous is not one of them. It’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hitting .400 for a month without anyone noticing.

Every independent league player in the country wakes up in the morning, turns towards Minnesota, and then prays for 30 minutes. This has come about because of Chris Colabello, a seven-year indy ball veteran before being picked up by the Twins in 2012. To understand what that’s like, seven years of indy ball is like 1,000 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Nowadays he’s eating like royalty, and he deserves it. While he likely won’t continue to lead the American League in doubles and RBI, it’s nice to watch. As a 29-year-old rookie, Colabello hit .194 with three doubles and seven home runs in 160 at bats. This season he’s hitting .346 with nine doubles and three home runs.

So, what’s the difference? From a batted ball perspective, his increase in line-drive percentage and decrease in GB/FB ratio are some of the biggest reasons why. In 2013, 13.7 percent of batted balls went for a line drive. That’s a low number to begin with, so the increase by 7.5 percent isn’t too dramatic, as the MLB average currently sits at 20.1 percent.

In 2013, Colabello amazingly had a GB/FB ratio of 2.83 while the average in the MLB was 1.30. To put into perspective how high that number is, Colabello’s 2.83 would have been the highest in baseball by .07, and .21 higher than the third-highest GB/FB. Typically these hitters with high GB/FB ratios are speedy hitters like Norichika Aoki, Jean Segura, and Elvis Andrus. Clearly Colabello isn't a fast runner, and would never be successful with a number like 2.83.

One last batted ball number to consider here is his IFFB percentage. Colabello hit an infield fly ball 17.4 percent of the time, and hasn’t done so yet so far this season. Last season’s MLB average was 9.7 percent. Obviously these are just averages, but these batted ball numbers have to be considered when looking at Colabello’s second MLB season.

Regression is coming though, right? I hate to bring up BABIP, but it’s a number that needs to be looked at in this situation. His BABIP currently sits at an amazing .460. That’s .207 higher than last season. This screams regression, to a certain extent. I do believe his batted ball numbers show a truer Colabello than last season, but not to the extent of a .346 average.

Aaron Harang

Nick Friar's Thoughts:

For a guy who is a decade older than three-quarters of the rest of the Atlanta Braves’ starting pitchers, Aaron Harang has held his own pretty effortlessly. He has been lights out, posting the best start to the season he's ever seen. The 36-year-old starter has a 0.85 ERA, 2.66 FIP and a 0.88 WHIP to this point.

In his 31.2 innings, he's struck out 33 batters, including 11 in his most recent start against the Marlins. Harang has logged at least six innings in all five starts, allowing zero runs twice and one three times.

After logging a 5.40 ERA and a 4.84 FIP in 2013, it's safe to say that most thought it was time for Harang to hang the spikes up. Now he has helped revive the Braves' dwindling staff. Opponents are hitting .110 against him, with a .150 BABIP, too. There has to be some thought that Harang might begin to slip a bit, as he has only allowed two extra-base hits, neither being home runs, though he shows no signs of it.

Although it's early, one other stat to note is that hitters are swinging and missing on 24.3 percent of his pitches, the second-best percentage of his career. If he can maintain these numbers, there is no telling what kind of season Harang can produce.

Charlie Blackmon

Scott Barrett's Thoughts:

Charlie Blackmon has been, without a doubt, the biggest surprise of the 2014 season.

In 78 at bats this season, Blackmon has a .410 batting average with 19 runs, 5 home runs, 16 RBIs, and 6 stolen bases. Among players who have had 40 or more at-bats, he’s leading the majors in batting average. He’s also leading the NL in slugging percentage (as a leadoff hitter). Right now, he's arguably the best hitter of 2014.

Who saw this coming? I’m going to say absolutely freaking no one. He’s turning 28 this season, and in 481 career at-bats before this season, he had a modest 59 runs, 9 home runs, 39 RBI, 14 stolen bases, and a .277 batting average. In almost 2,000 at-bats in the minors, while his average was pretty good (.309), he averaged a home run in only one out of every 50 at-bats, and a stolen base in one out of every five games. This season, he’s averaging a home run in one out of every 15 at-bats, and a stolen base in one out of every four games.

Will a regression come? Of course it will. No one will expect him to keep up his Ty Cobbian .410 batting average for a 162-game season. His BABIP is currently at .406, but for his career it’s .342. He has a career strikeout percentage of 14.1%, but this year it’s at 6.3%. Though regression is inevitable, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s someone you desperately need to try to trade away before his stock plummets. If I had to put money on whether or not he'll be a 20/20 hitter with over a .300 average, right now, I wouldn’t bet against him.

Clay Buchholz

Dan Weigel's Thoughts:

Will the real Clay Buchholz please stand up? Is Clay Buchholz the guy who posted a 1.74 ERA over 108.1 innings last year, or is he the guy who has a 7.71 ERA thus far this season? The answer is obviously both, but the bigger question is what can we expect from Buchholz moving forward? Let’s examine a few of the key numbers behind his vastly different performances and what to expect once they normalize.

The most telling statistics are his ratios for the three true results, which can be combined to form numberFire's own Jim Sannes’ favorite statistic, FIP. In 2013, Buchholz outperformed his FIP, posting a 1.74 ERA despite a 2.78 FIP. In 2013, the script has switched as he has posted a 7.71 ERA along with a 4.74 FIP.

Perhaps more importantly, Buchholz’s xFIP numbers show that his true skill set is roughly between these two extremes. xFIP is similar to FIP, but uses a league average home run rate instead of the actual home run rate, as individual home run rates are often subject to random variance. Buchholz’s xFIP numbers are as follows: 3.41 in 2013 and 3.46 in 2014. Those numbers are almost identical, so what else been the culprit for the giant ERA gap?

The answer is home run rate and hit rate. Buchholz’s home run rate has gone from an unsustainable 0.33 HR/9 in 2013 to an outrageous 1.93 mark so far this year. Additionally, Buchholz enjoyed a career-low BABIP in 2013, but has endured a career high .426 mark this season. Fortunately for him, neither his extreme home run rate nor his crazy BABIP are likely to continue, and both should stand to normalize in the near future. When this happens, we can expect Buchholz to post an ERA somewhere around his xFIP in the mid-3's.

One cause for concern is the drastic reduction in velocity that Buchholz has experienced this year. He's lost velocity every year since 2010, but his significant drop from an average fastball velocity of 91.9 MPH in 2013 to 90.4 MPH in 2014 is certainly worth monitoring.

Alex Wood

Daniel Lindsey's Thoughts:

Coming into the 2014 season the Braves pitching staff was considered their biggest strength. However, seemingly overnight, it supposedly became their biggest weakness as two of the top pitchers had Tommy John surgery and there were last minute veteran additions. After the rotation was finally set, the Braves still managed to put together one of the best rotations in the league just a few weeks into the season.

Four of the five Atlanta starters have a sub-2.00 ERA and have been credited with nine of the Braves' 14 wins. Alex Wood has been one of the brightest spots in a rotation that leads the majors in ERA (2.10) as well as batting average against (.214). Wood has pitched a quality start in four of his five games so far this season, too. It may be a small sample, but he has been one of the best individual surprises in 2014.

In Wood’s five starts, he's given up only one run in four games, surrendering two in the other start. He has gone at least seven innings in four of his starts, with one complete game, and had a career high 11 strikeouts in his latest outing. In the realm of fantasy baseball, Wood is a top 10 pitcher just a month into the season.

One number that Wood has improved upon from last year is his WHIP. After just five starts, Wood has held an excellent 0.97 WHIP, a great improvement from last year’s 1.33 figure in relief and spot start duty. Wood’s WHIP has been just as good as veterans like Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke, and just ahead of teammate Julio Teheran. Two numbers have that helped Wood’s standing: his induced ground-ball rate and his BABIP. Wood has forced 4.5% more ground balls this year over last, and his BABIP has dropped from .333 in 2013 to .276 this season.

If Wood’s 5.3 walk percentage continues to stay low, and if he can continue to improve his strikeout rate, he should be solid mid-rotation anchor for the Braves once Minor returns.

Mark Buehrle

Jim Sannes' Thoughts:

When Mark Buehrle began his Major League career with the White Sox in 2000, we were all getting turnt up for a thrilling presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Buehrle was a 21-year-old, soft-tossing lefty who eventually made waves in the league his second year by posting a 3.29 ERA. He had a promising career ahead of him.

Now, 14 excellent years, 2,900 innings, and a perfect game later, Buehrle is still a soft-tossing lefty, but he's 35 years old. Everybody had thrown Buehrle's career out the window last year when he finished with a 4.15 ERA in his first season with Toronto. However, through his first four starts, Buehrle is leading the league with a 0.64 ERA. That's jaw-dropping surprising.

On the season, Buehrle has 19 strikeouts to only 5 walks. He has a WHIP below 1.00 for the first time in his career with opponents hitting only .206 against him. All of this is while averaging only 82.8 miles per hour on his fastball. It's incredible.

Just as nobody thought Buehrle would be posting numbers like this on the year, nobody thinks that he will sustain it. Of course he won't. Buehrle's left-on-base percentage is 92.9 percent. That will eventually normalize to around his career average of 72.7, and the runs will start to flow. He hasn't allowed a home run yet this year on the 21 fly balls he has allowed, while the league average is about one home run for every 10 fly balls. Yes, regression is coming for Buehrle, but it's still fun to marvel at what he's done.