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The Strike Zone

Five Alive: The five players off to the hottest starts this season

Chase Utley TK (Nam Y. Huh/AP)Chase Utley has 11 hits, five of them for extra bases, in his first 24 at-bats of 2014. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Monday marks the start of the second full week of the 2014 baseball season, an awkward stage in the young season during which we can compare players' performances over the span of multiple series but must do so with the understanding that every sample is too small to be meaningful. After all, most teams have played less than four percent of their season to this point. That doesn't make such comparisons any less fun, however. So in the name of fun, let's take this occasion to list the five players off to the hottest starts this season. All five are sure to cool off to one degree or another over the next six months, but don't be surprised if one or two makes a serious run at one of the year-end awards, like Chris Davis and eventual Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw did after hot starts last year.

Josh Hamilton, RF, Angels

Season Stats: .500/.560/.864, 2 HR, 5 RBI

Hamilton ranked high on the list of players with something to prove coming into the 2014 season given his dismal debut season for the Angels last year. So far, so good. I'm not sure if it says more about his lousy 2013 or his hot start to 2014, but his first six games of this season have been more productive than any six-game stretch he had last year. Hamilton leads qualified American Leaguers in all three slash stats, hits (11) and total bases (19), and the majors in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS (1.424), and OPS+ (294), and has had multiple hits in four of his six games, with an extra-base knock in all four of those. The Angels are not taking advantage, however: Their only two wins on the season have come in the two games in which Hamilton has had three hits, including a home run.

Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies

Season Stats: .458/.536/.833, 2 HR, 6 RBI

Utley had a welcome comeback season in 2013 at the age of 34, turning in his best season at the plate by numerous measures since 2009, and was rewarded with a two-year extension in August. Thus far this season, he is doing everything he can to return the favor to his long-time employer, leading the National League in slugging, OPS, and OPS+ (285), collecting a hit in all six games on the young season, and reaching base twice in all but one of them.

Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves

Season Stats: .421/.560/.789, 2 HR, 2 RBI

Speaking of extensions, Freddie Freeman hit the motherload with an eight-year, $135 million contract in February, the richest deal ever handed out by the Braves. That deal was largely predicated on the belief that Freeman's strong 2013 season, which saw him make his first All-Star team and finish fifth in the MVP voting, was a harbinger of even better things to come. Given that, the Braves have to be especially encouraged by their 24-year-old first baseman's hot start, which has him tied for the major league lead in on-base percentage and the National League lead in walks (six).

One quirk of Freeman's hot start is that he has yet to drive in a run outside of his two solo home runs. Freeman drove in 109 runs last year (86 of them scored by runners other than himself), but he has had only had five appearances with runners on base thus far this season thanks to cold starts by Jayson Heyward (.259 OBP) and B.J. Upton (.120 OBP). He is 2-for-3 with two walks in those three chances, but both hits came with just a lone runner on first base.

Emilio Bonifacio, CF/2B, Cubs

Season Stats: .500/.548/.571, 4 SB

The last 18 months of Bonifacio's career have been interesting. He was part of the massive Marlins-Blue Jays trade in November 2012, played sub-replacement-level ball as a utility man for the last-place Blue Jays for four and a half months, then was sold to the contending Royals and thrived as their second baseman, stealing more bases, drawing more walks, and collecting nearly as many hits in 42 games for Kansas City as he did in 94 games for Toronto. In January of this year, the Royals gave him a one-year, $3.5 million contract to avoid arbitration. Then, just two weeks later, they designated him for assignment and ultimately released him. Bonifacio caught on with the Cubs on a minor league deal just as camps opened, and made the team as the moving part in a complex platoon between right-handed second baseman Darwin Barney and left-handed centerfielder Ryan Sweeney. The first two games of the Cubs' season totaled 26 innings, over which Bonifacio went a combined 9-for-12 with three stolen bases. That performance comprises the bulk of his hot start above, as well as his major league-leading hit (14) and steal (four) totals, though he has hit .313 (5-for-16) since, as well.

Jose Fernandez, SP, Marlins

Season Stats: 2-0, 0.71 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 17 K

Last year's NL Rookie of the Year, Fernandez finished the 2013 season by going 10-3 with a 1.50 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, and 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings over his final 18 starts and has somehow bettered all of those numbers in his first two starts in 2014 (his strikeout-per-nine rate on the young season is 12.1). In late February, the 21-year-old Fernandez said his goal for the 2014 was was to post a 1.95 ERA. Well, after two starts totaling 12 2/3 innings, he's sitting at 0.71. He also leads the NL in WHIP and strikeouts and has walked just two batters.

Honorable Mention: Charlie Blackmon, Mark Trumbo, Yovani Gallardo

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