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Eight Surprising MLB Starts in 2018

Eight Surprising MLB Starts in 2018
The presence of advanced statistics in baseball creates the ability to make informed decisions about players and teams more (and earlier) than ever these days. Every now and then, though, those same players and teams find a way to buck the trends we see from the data.

With about a month-and-a-half worth of baseball under our belts, the following 10 players have authored surprising starts when it comes to personal performance.

Matt Kemp, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

The Surprising Start

The only real reason Matt Kemp returned to the Dodgers was so that Los Angeles could get under the luxury tax threshold. And the only reason he reported to Spring Training as a Dodger was because the front office couldn’t find someone to take him via trade.

For a team that’s struggled out of the gate in many ways, Kemp has actually been their best hitter based off his 155 wRC+. Between 2015-17 — a span of 1,787 plate appearances and 425 games played — the outfielder was worth just 1.4 fWAR. Through 117 plate appearances this year, his performance has already produced a 1.0 fWAR.

What’s Helped

Kemp has seen his chase rate take a dip compared to recent years, and while his .392 BABIP has plenty of stabilizing to do, it can at least be justified by a 50.0% hard-hit rate and 29.8% line-drive rate. For this particular batted-ball event, the right-handed hitter has produced a 354 wRC+ and 64.0% hard-hit rate.

Matt Davidson, 3B, Chicago White Sox

The Surprising Start

Matt Davidson immediately stole headlines on Opening Day thanks to a three-homer performance. He’s still waiting for his first home run in May, but the third baseman is slashing .252/.372/.551 with 9 homers and 19 RBI in 129 plate appearances. These vast improvements have shown up in his .394 wOBA (.297 in ’17) and 149 wRC+ (83 in ’17).

What’s Helped

While he did slug 26 dingers as a rookie, Davidson clearly didn’t do much else. Among players with at least 400 plate appearances in 2017, his 37.2% strikeout rate was second-worst in baseball, and his 4.3% walk rate was among the 15 worst. Those numbers have drastically improved to 31.8% and 14.7%, respectively, thanks to a chase rate that’s dropped nearly 10 percentage points.

Having a 50.7% hard-hit rate doesn’t hurt, either.

Nick Pivetta, SP, Philadelphia Phillies

The Surprising Start

If it wasn’t for back-to-back rough appearances against the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals, Nick Pivetta’s start would look much more impressive. Still, his current 0.9 fWAR through 39 innings is nearly equal what he produced last year in 133 innings (1.1).

His 25.6% strikeout rate isn’t much different than 2017, but his 6.1% walk rate is (9.8% in ’17). Pivetta has also seen a significant drop in homers allowed per nine innings (1.69 in ’17, 0.92 so far in ’18) and hard-hit rate allowed (35.5% in ’17, 24.5% so far in ’18).

What’s Helped

Of the four pitches Pivetta throws — fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup — only his curveball has increased in usage, while the other three have decreased. After throwing it 14.8% of the time as a rookie, he’s currently using it at a 23.0% clip. Opposing hitters have mustered a 66 wRC+ against it (they produced a 120 mark against it last year).

Nick Markakis, OF, Atlanta Braves

The Surprising Start

Through his first three years in Atlanta, Nick Markakis never produced better than a 106 wRC+, .746 OPS, or a .129 ISO. Through 165 plate appearances, those numbers currently sit at 167, .967, and .208, respectively.

What’s Helped

The veteran outfielder’s 12.1% walk rate is a couple ticks above what he’s accomplished in recent years, but his 7.9% strikeout rate is one of the lowest in baseball. And although his 34.1% hard-hit rate isn’t a huge change from the last two seasons, his 40.2% ground-ball rate is near career-low levels, while his 26.5% line-drive rate is near career-high levels.

Cole Hamels, SP, Texas Rangers

The Surprising Start

After producing the worst season of his accomplished career in 2017 — his 1.5 fWAR and 17.1% strikeout rate were career lows — things weren’t looking great for Cole Hamels. He’s currently allowing a tremendous amount of hard contact right (46.5%), but his 3.85 SIERA is much more in line with his career number (3.55) that last year’s 4.90 mark. And if the season ended today, his 25.5% strikeout rate would be the highest that number has been since his rookie year in 2006.

What’s Helped

Hamels is simply learning how to pitch differently. With a declining average four-seam fastball velocity, he’s throwing that pitch just 36.0% of the time, which would easily be a new career low. The major shift has gone to using his cutter, which he’s throwing at a 28.8% clip.

That pitch has produced a 51.9% ground-ball rate, 11.9% swinging-strike rate, 32.7% strikeout rate, and a 40 wRC+. We also need to give his changeup a shoutout — while throwing it 22.0% of the time, it’s produced a ridiculous 27.2% swinging-strike rate.

Kyle Gibson, SP, Minnesota Twins

The Surprising Start

Kyle Gibson’s first-half performance in 2017 was so bad that the Twins actually sent him down to Triple-A at one point. His second half was much better, and he’s continued that roll into this year.

He owns a 3.49 ERA through 38.2 innings, and while his 11.0% walk rate could stand to improve, he’s paired with a very impressive 26.8% strikeout rate. After posting a career-high 10.0% swinging-strike rate last year, that number has bumped up to 12.2% at the moment.

What’s Helped

The right-hander has decreased his slider usage down to 13.7%, but the results have been just filthy. Hitters have produced a -32 wRC+ against the pitch, which includes a 0.0% walk rate, 68.4% strikeout rate, and 30.3% swinging-strike rate.

Francisco Cervelli, C, Pittsburgh Pirates

The Surprising Start

In just 115 plate appearances, Francisco Cervelli has already matched last year’s dinger total (5), and his current 1.6 fWAR is already way ahead (1.0). A 161 wRC+, .405 wOBA, and .250 ISO would all easily be new career-high marks if the season ended today, and he’s paired that with a sparkling .302/.400/.552 triple slash.

What’s Helped

Cervelli has become the latest to join the fly-ball revolution. The backstop posted a ground-ball rate above 50.0% the past three years, but that number is currently down at 33.3%. His fly-ball rate has gone from 27.1% to 48.7%.

His current 38.5% hard-hit rate is on pace to be a new career high, but it’s what he’s done with line drives that’s rather eye-popping. This sample size only consists of 14 plate appearances, but he owns a 2.357 OPS, 572 wRC+, and 57.1% hard-hit rate for this batted-ball event.

Joey Lucchesi, SP, San Diego Padres

The Surprising Start

Lucchesi’s 3-2 record and 2.98 ERA may not be all that surprising since he produced a career minor-league ERA of 1.99. However, the 24-year-old southpaw had just 181 innings under his belt before reaching the majors, with none of them coming above Double-A.

Opposing hitters have produced a .292 BABIP despite a 39.3% hard-hit rate and a 43.6% ground-ball rate. So there could be some correction coming, but it’s still a stellar start for the rookie.

What’s Helped

While Lucchesi has paired a 26.7% strikeout rate with a solid 11.3% swinging-strike rate, he’s also had the luxury of throwing the majority of his innings at Petco Park.

Of the 42.1 total innings he’s pitched, 31.1 have come at home, where he owns a 2.87 ERA and .298 wOBA allowed. His performance on the road hasn’t been too shabby, but the environment for his starts has typically been optimal.


About Matt Musico

Matt Musico currently manages Chin Music Baseball and contributes to The Sports Daily. His past work has been featured at numberFire, Yahoo! Sports and Bleacher Report. He’s also written a book about how to become a sports blogger. You can sign up for his email newsletter here.

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