The Small Sample Size All-Stars: 10 players off to surprising hot starts
The Pirates' Edinson Volquez will take the mound against the Brewers on Thursday nigh with a 1.29 ERA. That figure comes as a mild surprise, given that Volquez has posted a 5.09 ERA over the last three seasons, but it's also come over just 14 innings across two starts and one relief appearance on the young season. A lot of unexpected things can happen over the course of two weeks of baseball. When it happens at midseason as just a small part of the larger season, we tend not to notice. However, when those two weeks comprise the entire season to date, as they do in mid-April, those fluky performances are hard to ignore. Here, then, are 10 of the most unexpected performances from the first two weeks of the 2014 baseball season, listed in order of OPS and ERA.
Season Stats: .442/.464/.635, 5 2B, 9 RBI
On April 4, Blackmon went 6-for-6 with three doubles, a home run, five RBIs and four runs scored. That performance greatly padded his opening week statistics, but in 39 plate appearances since, he has hit .389/.410/.500 (albeit with only three more extra-base hits). The 27-year-old Blackmon hit .309/.336/.467 in 258 plate appearances last year and has Coors Field to his advantage, so he may wind up putting up solid numbers over the season as a whole. Still, don't expect him to finish the season ranked where he is now in OPS (1.099, fourth in the majors) or batting average (second).
Dee Gordon, 2B, Dodgers
Season Stats: .404/.453/.553, 10 SB
Formerly the team's shortstop of the future, Gordon, who turns 26 next week, hit .229/.289/.285 in 436 plate appearances over the last two seasons and was not expected to be a regular this season. He only drew the start at second base in the second game in Australia because Cuban signee Alexander Guerrero had failed to win the position in camp and there happened to be a righthanded pitcher on the mound that day. Gordon went 3-for-4 with a double in that game, a 7-5 Dodgers win, and has run away with the second base job since. He leads the majors with 10 stolen bases, which have come in just 11 attempts and only 13 games, but his speed was never in doubt. It's that batting line, which has been inflated by a .450 batting average on balls in play, that is the fluke. With Guerrero off to an even hotter start in Triple A -- 8-for-13 with two doubles and two homers -- it may not be long before he takes over the job for good.
Season Stats: .348/.434/.478, 6 2B, 7 RBI
The first surprising thing 26-year-old journeyman Solarte did this spring was beat out Eduardo Nuñez for the Yankees' utility infielder job. He then went 3-for-3 with a double and a walk in his first major league start and 2-for-5 with two doubles the next day in a game in which Mark Teixeira landed on the disabled list with a hamstring strain. That injury required Kelly Johnson to move from third base to first base, opening up the hot corner for Solarte, who has started every game for New York since.
Solarte hit .282/.332/.404 in the Pacific Coast League over the last two years, and should eventually see his performance this year settle down around that level, but with the age and fragility of the Yankees' infield, that level of production could be enough for Solarte to remain a regular in their lineup all year, or at least until they acquire outside help.
Season Stats: .306/.346/.490, 6 2B, 15 RBI
Colabello is more than just the AL's surprising leader in RBIs. He's also a 30-year-old sophomore who spent seven years in the independent Canadian-American Association before signing with Minnesota in February 2012. Last year, Massachusetts native Colabello starred for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic and made his major league debut, but he hit just .194 for the Twins in a season most memorable for his late May wardrobe mix-up. He entered this season on the short side of a lefty/righty platoon with lefthanded-hitting Jason Kubel (also off to a hot start after a disastrous 2013 season), but five hits in his first 10 at-bats and subsequent injuries to outfielders Oswaldo Arcia and Josh Willingham have resulted in Colabello becoming the Twins' everyday cleanup hitter.
Don't be surprised if Colabello keeps it up. He caught Minnesota's attention with a .317/.390/.514 career line in independent ball and hit .352/.427/.639 with 24 home runs in 391 plate appearances in Triple A last year. He's not going to lead the AL in doubles and RBIs, as he is now, but he's proven himself capable of putting up a batting line even better than his small sample performance so far.
Season Stats: 2-1, 0.96 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 2.83 K/BB
It was hard to figure out why the Braves preferred Harang to Freddy Garcia when they set their rotation at the end of camp, but it's even harder to argue with the results. Harang has thrown six or more innings in each of his three starts this season and allowed no more than one run in any of them. He struck out nine Mets two turns ago, and his other two starts came against the Brewers, whom he no-hit for six-plus innings, and Nationals, hardly pushover teams. His only loss came in a game in which the Braves were shut out. The regression will come, but, as I wrote last week, Atlanta only needs Harang's success to last until Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd are ready to come off the disabled list.
Michael Pineda, RHP, Yankees
Season Stats: 2-1, 1.00 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 5.00 K/BB
Pineda is the most talented player on this list. His performance over his first three starts wouldn't even qualify as a surprise if it had happened in April 2012. Coming after two years of injury and rehab, however, it's easily one of the most surprising performances of the young season, and one of the best stories, as well.
Robbie Ross, LHP, Rangers
Season Stats: 1-0, 1.00 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 1.63 K/BB
With their rotation wrecked by injuries this spring, the Rangers decided to fill two spots by converting two of their best relief pitchers from a year ago, righty Tanner Scheppers and lefty Robbie Ross, into starters. That hasn't gone particularly well so far for Scheppers, who has a 7.88 ERA and a 1.63 WHIP. For Ross, who had far more experience starting in the minors, however, the conversion is going well. Since striking out seven Phillies in a Texas win in his first start of the season, Ross has allowed just one unearned run in 13 innings over his last two starts against the Red Sox and Mariners, throwing 7 2/3 scoreless frames in Arlington against the M's on Tuesday night.
Ross's peripherals have been all over the place, however. He walked six Boston batters in his second start, and though he didn't issue any free passes on Tuesday, he had as many hit batters (2) as strikeouts in that game. The jury remains out on Ross, but, at the very least, he should outlast Scheppers in the Rangers rotation as the team's injured pitchers return to claim their spots.
Season Stats: 1-1, 1.20 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 5.00 K/BB
Pressed into action in Cincinnati's rotation by Mat Latos' injuries, Simon has been fantastic in his first two starts. In fact, he's the only pitcher to make this list without having made at least three starts (his next turn comes against the Cubs on Friday). Both of Simon's outings this year have lasted at least seven innings and both saw him allow just one run and one walk, giving up three fewer hits than innings pitched. In his last start, he worked eight innings against the Rays and allowed only two men to reach third base.
Given that Simon will turn 33 in early May and before this year hadn't made a major league start since 2011, when he went 3-8 with a 4.96 ERA in 16 starts for the Orioles, he may not be a good bet to keep this pace up. But with Latos recently diagnosed with flexor mass strain in his pitching elbow, the Reds may have to hope he can.
Jesse Chavez, RHP, A's
Season Stats: 0-0, 1.35 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 11.00 K/BB
Chavez entered A's camp this year as a 30-year-old journeyman reliever on his seventh professional organization who had made just two starts in six major league seasons and owned a career ERA+ of 74. However, he had been used primarily as a starter in Triple A over the previous two seasons, showing solid results thanks to the development of a cut fastball, improved control and a veteran's ability to mix his pitches. Thus, when Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin opened the season on the disabled list, Chavez, who had a great spring working as a starter, landed the final spot in Oakland's rotation. The results thus far speak for themselves: Three quality starts, with each of the last two featuring nine strikeouts against no walks in seven innings and just one earned run allowed. Chavez might be for real, giving the A's a major find if he is.
Roenis Elias, LHP, Mariners
Season Stats: 1-1, 2.16 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 1.67 K/BB Elias was the beneficiary of Randy Wolf's refusal to sign a 45-day advanced-consent release form. Wolf won the final spot in Seattle's rotation in March, but his refusal to sign the release form resulted in his being let go, passing that job to 25-year-old rookie Elias, who has thus far run with it. Elias, who defected from Cuba four years ago, was not considered a prospect coming into the season and had not pitched above Double A since signing with the Mariners in May 2011, but he had a solid spring and has thus far acquitted himself admirably through three major league starts. Unlike Chavez, however, Elias's performance, both in the spring and the regular season, doesn't carry many encouraging signifiers. He's not striking out many batters, his control isn't anything special, he's not generating an excess of ground balls and he has been lucky on balls in play. Of course, all of the above pitchers have been lucky on balls in play, but only Harang and Simon, proven veteran mediocrities, have BABIPs lower than Elias's .222 thus far.