Which players are off to the best starts for their new teams? Cliff Corcoran picks his top five, including Dodgers righthander Kenta Maeda.
We’re now two weeks into the 2016 season, and every team has played between ten and 14 games and gone through their rotations between two and three times. With that in mind, Jay Jaffe and I thought we’d take a quick look to see which players who changed teams this off-season are off to the best and worst starts this season and what that might mean for their new teams. Below, you'll find the five players who have impressed the most for their new clubs; Jay Jaffe's picks for the five worst starts are here.
Players are presented alphabetically. All stats are through Monday, April 18. League leading statistics are in bold, major league leading statistics are in bold and italics.
Kenta Maeda, SP, Dodgers
Season Stats: 2–0, 0.47 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 3.75 K/BB, 3 GS, 3 QS, 840 ERA+
Zack who? Former Hiroshima Carp ace Maeda has created as many runs at the plate as he has allowed through his first three major league starts, all of which have come against National League West rivals. In his first two starts, the 28-year-old righty held the Padres and Diamondbacks scoreless over six innings. In his third, against a Giants team that is fourth in the majors in runs scored, he gave up just one run, that coming on a solo home run by Joe Panik. He's matched that one run allowed with a solo homer of his own in his major league debut against San Diego in Petco Park, depositing an Andrew Cashner pitch beyond the leftfield wall in the fourth inning of that game.
With Scott Kazmir off to a rough start (he's allowed 10 runs in eight innings in his last two starts, both against the Giants), Maeda—who won his second Eiji Sawamura award (Nippon Professional Baseball’s equivalent of the Cy Young) last year—has emerged as Los Angeles' replacement for the departed Zack Greinke. Maeda won’t post a 1.66 ERA this season as Greinke did last year, but his deep repertoire (fastball, sinker, slider, curveball, changeup), excellent command and control (he has walked just three unintentionally in 19 innings) and years of experience and success in his home country all suggest that the Dodgers can count on him to be their No. 2, at least for as long as his elbow holds up.
Daniel Murphy, 2B, Nationals
Season Stats: .415/.500/.732 (223 OPS+), 2 HR, 8 RBIs
Murphy's combination of batting average and home runs might suggest that 2016 has not been a continuation of his late-2015 power surge, but rather a typical early-season average spike. His .469 batting average on balls in play, compared to his previous career mark of .314, would lend weight to that. While that batting average will surely come down at least 100 points, however, a quick look at Murphy's slugging percentage shows that he is hitting for more power than his two home runs would suggest. Beyond that pair of homers lie two triples and three doubles, meaning that seven of his 17 hits have gone for extra bases. That gives him a .317 isolated slugging, compared to his career-high of .168 last year.
That number will come down as well, but it’s certainly encouraging to the Nationals that Murphy has been able to sustain his power surge in the new season. He’s also drawing walks at more than twice his previous career rate, off-setting the reversion of his strikeout rate to pre-2015 levels.
Mark Trumbo, RF, Orioles
Season Stats: .386/.413/.750 (224 OPS+), 5 HR, 11 RBIs
It’s not Trumbo’s fault that the Orioles have asked him to play the outfield. His play in the field does significantly undermine his production (as does Murphy’s, albeit to a lesser degree), but Baltimore got him from the Mariners to hit home runs, and he is doing that. Trumbo’s five round-trippers tie him with former teammate Robinson Cano, new teammate Chris Davis and 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson for the most in the AL, and his slugging percentage trails only those of NL rookie sensation Trevor Story and defending NL MVP Bryce Harper among qualified hitters.
Again, there’s an obvious batting average spike here. Trumbo’s AL-leading average is built on an unsustainable .387 BABIP (his previous career mark is .290), but that is significantly less fluky that Murphy’s .469 mark. There are also other positive indicators in Trumbo’s plate approach. He’s still not drawing walks—he has just one in 46 plate appearances, in fact—but his strikeouts are down significantly, with Trumbo whiffing in just 17.4% of his plate appearances this year compared to 24.9% in his career. If we dig deeper, we find that he’s making more contact (75.8% up from 70.1% career), seeing more pitches (3.87 up from 3.75) and, perhaps most significantly, swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone (29.9% down from a career rate near 40%).
Given the lack of walks and poor play in the field, Trumbo may need to hit close to .300 to be above average overall. His career .253 batting average suggests that won’t happen, but those early indicators suggest that he just might best his career-high mark of .268.
Vincent Velasquez, SP, Phillies
Season Stats: 2–0, 0.00 ERA, 0.60 WHIP, 15.0 K/9, 8.33 K/BB, 2 GS, 2 QS, 1 SHO, 0.39 FIP
Velasquez has made just two starts this season, but what a pair of starts! In his first, he held the defending NL champion Mets scoreless for six innings, striking out nine. In his second, against the Padres in Philadelphia, he twirled a shutout, allowing just three singles and no walks and striking out 16. That performance is one of just three shutouts in the majors this season (lefties Chris Sale and Jaime Garcia, the latter on the same afternoon as Velasquez, authored the others) and arguably the best of the bunch, tying Garcia for the highest game score of the year at 97. Velasquez's second start was just the eighth since 2013 in which a pitcher struck out 16 or more without issuing a walk or allowing a run and, at 23, he is the third youngest of that group to accomplish that feat after 19-year-old Dwight Gooden in 1984 and 20-year-old Kerry Wood in his 20-strikeout game in '98.
Velasquez re-matches against the Mets on Tuesday night in Philadelphia, and it will be interesting (and perhaps telling) to see how that very competent lineup responds to seeing him a second time in such a short span of time.
Justin Wilson, LHP, Tigers
Season Stats: 6 G, 5 1/3 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 K, 5 HLD
Wilson, who posted a 2.69 FIP in 74 appearances for the Yankees last year, has been exactly what the Tigers ordered as a lefthanded setup man. All six of his appearances this season have come in games in which Detroit had the lead, and in five of them, that lead was three runs or less. In all six of those appearances, Wilson handed the lead forward without allowing a run to score, five times earning holds, and five times he did that with a scoreless inning of work. In the lone exception, he came in with two outs and one on in the sixth to face the potential tying run in Pirates lefty Gregory Polanco and got him to ground out to end the inning, stranding his only inherited runner this season. The Tigers went on to win all six games in which Wilson has appeared.
It’s a tiny sample, of course, even more so than for the first four men on this list, but I wanted to include a relief pitcher on this list. No reliever has been better for his new team this season than Wilson has been for a Detroit team that desperately needed exactly the sort of performance he has delivered thus far.