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  • Jacob Barnes, Avisail Garcia, Mitch Haniger and Brad Peacock are among the biggest surprises of the season's first month, but not all of them figure to make that performance last all year long.
By Tom Verducci
April 25, 2017

Brewers slugger Eric Thames may be the biggest breakout star of the season, but he's far from the only one. Below are four other players who have grabbed headlines this April with their strong starts, as well as an examination of what turned things around for them and whether or not they can keep it up throughout the grind of a six-month season.

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The past: A former 14th-round pick who posted a 5.78 ERA at Florida Gulf Coast College, Barnes is a converted starter who took six years to reach Triple A (and the majors) last year. He is not to be confused with the narrator and protagonist of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

What’s new: Life in the bullpen is good for the 27-year-old Barnes. Like many converted starters, his stuff has played up out of the bullpen and he doesn’t have to worry about throwing a third pitch. His fastball and power slider are plenty good enough to face hitters just one time around each outing.

The April breakout: He has thrown 11 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run while punching out 14 batters and holding hitters to a .103 batting average.

Sustainability Factor: High. Like Edwin Diaz and Ken Giles, Barnes is perfectly suited for today’s bullpen-oriented game. He snaps off 91 mph cutter/sliders 61% of the time (he has hit 93.5 with it) and 96 mph fastballs 39% of the time (he has maxed out at 99.6 mph). In other words, he is flat out throwing the tar of the baseball on every pitch and does so in short doses. He has yet to face more than five batters in an outing this year.

(Barnes calls his slider a cutter, but it has such nasty, late tilt to it that it resembles a power slider.)

Moreover, Barnes’ power stuff is even more effective because he is a long-strider, cutting the distance between his release point and home plate by about seven inches compared to league average—which makes his power stuff get on top of hitters that much more. It would not be a surprise if Barnes supplants Neftali Feliz as Milwaukee’s closer later this year.

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The past: After more than 1,500 major league plate appearances in his first five seasons, Garcia entered this season with an adjusted OPS of just 92 (100 would be league average). At 6'4" and 240 pounds, he was a thickly-built corner outfielder with no above-average skill—not hitting for average or for power, not getting on base, not running the bases and not putting the ball in play.

What’s new: Garcia reduced his candy intake and showed up at spring training in better shape.

The April breakout: Garcia, who turns 26 in June, leads the AL with a .380 batting average start with a .577 slugging percentage, well above his career norms (.258 and .385).

Sustainability Factor: Low. Garcia still hits a ton of groundballs (50% through Monday, only slightly down from 55% last year), and his hard-hit ball percentage is the same as last year (34.8). His better-looking numbers are attributable mostly to a crazy increase on his batting average on balls in play, from .309 to .457. The sample size is still too small to know whether Garcia can hit close to this well.

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The past: A first-round pick by the Brewers in 2012, Haniger was demoted to A ball at age 24 and traded twice by 25.

What’s new: When he was sent to Class A ball by Arizona in June of 2015, Haniger decided it was time for a change. An outfielder with middling power—he had hit one home run in Double A at the time of his demotion—he began researching the swing changes made by Josh Donaldson and A.J. Pollock, under the guidance of hitting instructor Bobby Tewksbary, and the philosophies of hitting instructor and former big leaguer Jacob Cruz.

Haninger adopted a leg kick with an early start, a trigger mechanism to create rhythm with his hands, and a shallower swing path, rather the old-school method of “dropping” the barrel down to the baseball. The key to the trend of launching baseballs (damage is created by getting the ball airborne, not hitting it on the ground) is to get the barrel into the zone as quickly as possible, which takes the “steepness” out of the swing and keeps the barrel in the hitting zone longer. The longer the barrel is in the hitting zone, the more “time” a hitter creates for himself. The hitter can let the ball travel deeper. To enhance the feeling of getting the bat into the plane sooner, Tewksbary has talked with some clients about feeling as if the bat will hit the catcher when it is behind the hitter. If it sounds revolutionary, it’s not; it’s essentially how Ted Williams hit.

Donaldson, Pollock, Daniel Murphy, Trevor Story, J.D. Martinez, Jose Bautista, Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger are just a few of the many players who have adopted this kind of swing change to produce more balls in the air.

Haniger broke out in a big way in 2016 with his new swing: 30 homers and 111 RBIs across three levels (AA, AAA, MLB). The Mariners spotted a bargain and obtained him with shortstop Jean Segura in the deal that sent pitcher Taijuan Walker to Arizona last November.

The April breakout: Haniger, now 26, has a 1.042 OPS through his first 21 games, including a .600 slugging percentage, and he leads the league with 20 runs scored.

Sustainability Factor: High. Haniger has terrific athletic skills. Now he has a swing change to maximize his offensive potential.

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The past: A 41st-round pick by Washington in 2006, the 29-year-old Peacock entered this season with a career record of 11-17, a 4.57 ERA and 4.3 walks per nine innings.

What’s new: Actually, it started last year, when Peacock started taking some velocity off his slider and throwing it more. It has good horizontal run to it, rather than a true power slider with tilt. And while he had an extended run as a starter in 2014 with Houston, Peacock seems better equipped as a reliever. His fastball has a bit more velocity and he can throw his slider more. Check out the change in his use of that slower slider:

Year

USage

BAA

2013

10.4%

.206

2014

15.2%

.284

2015

17.7%

.167

2016

30.9%

.175

2017

33.1%

.083

April breakout: In 9 2/3 innings Peacock has allowed no runs and one hit while striking out 15.

Sustainability Factor: Medium. His statistics so far are insane. Peacock has a strikeout line reminiscent of Aroldis Chapman's, but he shouldn’t be expected to be that kind of a dominant reliever. But Peacock does appear better suited for relief work than starting, and the change in his slider should keep him effective.

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