Baseball's Most Surprising and Disappointing Teams So Far
The standings after the first 30 days of the baseball season can be misleading -- some teams launch out of the gate and don't look back. Others get off to a great start but then get lost in the dog days of the summer. Some teams left for dead in April find a way to get into the pennant race in the month of September.
It's a challenging sport to predict, but we can look back at our preseason predictions and algorithms and compare them to the current power rankings to see who's hot and who's not using our nERD metric. Each team's nERD indicates how many runs that team should beat an average team by on a neutral field. Below are the three biggest surprise teams of the first 30 days of the season as well as the biggest disappointments.
Three Big Surprises
Pre-season nERD: -0.36; Current nERD: 1.39
Evan Gattis has finally started to come around for the Astros after a rocky start. He didn't collect his first hit until the seventh game of the season or his first RBI until the ninth game of the season. But then he started off May by hitting four home runs and nine RBI, after two home runs and nine RBI in all of April. Meanwhile, the Astros were able to put together a 10-game winning streak.
While Gattis was adjusting throughout April, Jose Altuve kept providing the drive for the team. Altuve has gotten on base at least once in all but three games this season so far. He also leads the team in RBI, on-base percentage, and hits. Throw in 12 RBI by George Springer and 7 home runs from Luis Valbuena, and the Astros have a five-game lead in the AL West. This has given the Astros staying power in the top-three of our power rankings, the biggest surprise of the season so far.
Kansas City Royals
Pre-season nERD: -0.08; Current nERD: 1.64
The defending American League champions weren't expected to be back in the thick of things at the beginning of the season. It was supposed to be Cleveland's year in the American League Central, but the Indians are tied for fourth in their division after notching their 10th win.
After losing star pitcher James Shields and having some turnover offensively, regression was expected for this team -- but no one told Edinson Volquez. Even though he's only notched two wins in five starts, his 2.10 ERA and 2.71 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) are career bests and rank 15th and 10th, respectively, among all starting pitchers.
But that's just the start of the Royals' success. They've received offensive contributions from everyone, and they lead all of baseball in average thanks to having six of their regulars hitting .291 or better and are second to the Dodgers in wOBA (.338) and wRC+ (115). The Royals are also one of two teams to have three qualified hitters in the top 30 in fWAR, led by Lorenzo Cain, who's contributing as much as Jose Altuve is this season.
New York Yankees
Pre-season nERD: -0.13; Current nERD: 0.79
Like the Royals, the success of the Yankees has started with the pitching, and Michael Pineda is leading the way. Pineda is sporting a 2.97 ERA on the season, but more telling are his FIP (2.15), which ranks second among qualified starters. Pineda also owns the seventh-best nERD of all starting pitchers.
Having two of the best relievers in the game right now doesn't hurt either. Andrew Miller has notched 11 saves in the closer role thanks to 15.15 strikeout per nine innings rate, and Dellin Betances' strikeout rate is just a touch better at 15.26. They rank ninth and eighth, respectively, in our nERD metric.
Alex Rodriguez has received a lot of attention after being away for a year, but it's the rebirth of Mark Teixeira and resurgence of Jacoby Ellsbury that are notable offensively. The power we're used to seeing from Teixeira has returned in the form of 10 home runs (tied for second) and 23 RBI (tied for fifth). While his pace of 60 home runs is highly unlikely, it seems as this year could rival Teixeira's 2011 season of 39 home runs and 111 RBI.
Ellsbury doesn't bring a lot of power to the plate, but he is bringing balance to the offense with 11 steals (third) and a .427 on-base percentage (10th) and ranks 23rd among all batters in nERD (2.98). Ellsbury is also posting the best walk rate (8.9%) of his career and a strikeout rate (12.9%) that is his lowest since 2010. After our algorithms pegged the Yankees for last in their division, they're one of the biggest surprises as a division leader so far this season.
Honorable mention: Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles
Three Big Disappointments
Pre-season nERD: -0.03; Current nERD: -1.86
The Brewers find themselves in this position thanks to the second worst offense, according to Fangraphs, as they rank second to last in offensive WAR (-36.3). The Brewers can't figure out how to hit, get on base, score runs, or even get on base. They rank fourth-worst in runs scored, RBI, and walk rate, third-worst in strikeout rate and wOBA, and second-to-last in wRC+. Not even Ryan Braun's 13 RBI can save this team.
The pitching staff is equally as bad -- they boast the seventh-worst ERA and second-worst FIP. It's not like our numbers expected much out of the Brew Crew, and their preseason nERD indicates they should be at least an average team. But at this point, no one looks like they'll even save them from the cellar of the National League Central.
Pre-season nERD: -0.64; Current nERD: -2.45
The only offense that's worse than the Brewers in some of the above categories? That'd be the Phillies, who rank last in in wOBA and wRC+. They also rank last in slugging percentage and have the second-fewest home runs in the league (15). Ryan Howard and Chase Utley lead the team in RBI, but only four regulars have a fWAR north of zero, and the highest is just 0.8.
At least they boast a slightly better pitching staff than five other teams, ranking as the sixth-worst in ERA and FIP. But it's not Cole Hamels saving the day for the staff right now -- it's journeyman Aaron Harang. Harang is posting a career-best 2.35 ERA and 2.57 FIP while Hamels is posting a 4.14 ERA and 5.41 FIP. Still, the Phillies may be stuck in last in our power rankings unless the Brewers get even worse.
Pre-season nERD: 0.58; Current nERD: -0.67
It's not as though our algorithms projected the Brewers and Phillies to be great teams this year, but they're also performing worse than expected. However, the Nationals may take the cake, as they were number-two in our preseason rankings and a favorite to win the title after signing Max Scherzer to his massive deal. But what's the source of the problem?
The problem certainly isn't the pitching, as Scherzer is living up to his contract with a 2.11 ERA and 10.34 strikeouts per nine innings. His ERA is a career low, and he ranks as the second-best starting pitcher according to our nERD metric (3.98). Throw in excellent performances by Gio Gonzalez and closer Drew Storen and the Nationals staff ranks just outside the top-10 in both fWar and FIP.
With the pitching staff holding its own, the offense is dragging the team down. Despite the recent heroics of Bryce Harper, the Nationals are bottom-10 team in wOBA (.300), wRC+ (88), and strikeout rate (21.4%). Sal Cacciatore dug deeper into their offensive woes, but until it's more than just Harper, the Nationals will be lagging behind in the weak National League East.
Honorable mention: Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago White Sox