Yet there have been enough unexpected results through the first month of the year to keep any baseball fan on their toes. Strong starts for the Rays, Hunter Dozier and the Pirates’ pitching staff have all been well documented, as have early woes for the Red Sox and Corey Kluber.
Let's give special recognition to some of the other surprises so far this season.
Domingo Germán, Yankees SP
Filling in for the Yankees’ injured ace Luis Severino, Germán has been much better than your typical replacement starting pitcher. In fact, he’s been the among the best starters in the league this season. In seven games (six starts) Germán is 6-1 with a 2.35 ERA and 39 strikeouts.
Germán has always had good stuff, and we could see brief glimpses of his potential in the past few years. What’s changed now is he has better command of his fastball, which has made secondary pitches more effective. His curveball is his putaway pitch, with a 45.2% whiff rate, and his changeup and sinker have been much more effective. Opponents batted .333 against his changeup and .299 against his sinker last season. This year, they’re hitting .100 off the change and .190 off the sinker.
With all the injuries the Yankees have faced this season, Germán is among a group of unlikely contributors for New York over the first month and change. Several Yankee regulars are due back relatively soon, bumping some of their replacements back to the minors, but Germán's place in the rotation appears secure. Severino is out until at least the All-Star break, and upon his return, the Yankees will still have plenty of innings for Germán, who has experience coming out of the bullpen.
Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and the Tigers' rotation
The Tigers’ hopes for this season were non-existent when the year began, with top prospect Casey Mize receiving most of the hype in spring training. Now, well, there’s still almost no shot that the Tigers will be playing meaningful games down the stretch and in October. (Their playoff odds sit at 0.2%, per Fangraphs.)
But there’s still reason to be excited in the Motor City. The Tigers currently have one of the best rotations in baseball, with Matthew Boyd and rookie Spencer Turnbull leading the way. Boyd is 3-2 with a 3.05 ERA and his 1.9 fWAR is the best among qualified starters, while Turnbull is 2-2 with a 2.31 ERA.
Meanwhile, Mize threw a no-hitter in his Double-A debut last week and followed it up with a strong outing on Saturday. The No. 1 overall selection in the 2018 amateur draft, Mize still could be a year away from the majors. However, combining what Boyd and Turnbull have done so far with the potential of Mize, Detroit’s rotation of tomorrow sure looks promising.
The Diamondbacks traded perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt and didn’t re-sign either Patrick Corbin or A.J. Pollock this offseason, signaling a rebuild was in the works. Instead, the players they brought in to replace Goldschmidt, Corbin and Pollock have helped them jump out to a 20-14 record.
New first baseman Christian Walker is slashing .314/.382/.610 and has become a force in the heart of Arizona’s lineup. The Diamondbacks have three other starters—Jarrod Dyson, David Peralta and Eduardo Escobar—batting over .300, unless you count ace starting pitcher Zack Greinke, who’s batting .316 in eight games this year.
Righthander Luke Weaver, who went to the Diamondbacks in the Goldschmidt trade, is 3-1 with a 3.29 ERA and 44 strikeouts across seven starts. Veteran outfielder Adam Jones is playing like a version of his younger self, batting .282 with six homers and 19 RBIs. Last week, Ketel Marte became the third switch hitter in NL history to homer from both sides of the plate in three different games in a single season.
The resulting improvement has the Diamondbacks’ playoff odds climbing to 24.2% after beginning the season 6.2%, according to Fangraphs.
It’s easy to forget the veteran outfielder is only 29, an age when some players are just reaching their full potential. Following a number of disappointing seasons, Heyward is finally starting to perform up to that eight-year/$184 million deal he signed with the Cubs before the 2016 campaign.
Through the first 29 games, Heyward is slashing .305/.409/.505 with five homers, 17 RBIs and 17 runs scored. His elite defense has always made him a far more valuable player than his offensive numbers would suggest—over the last eight seasons (excluding his stellar rookie year in 2010), Heyward has posted a 100 OPS+, exactly league average. This year, he’s increased his walk rate and is hitting the ball with more authority, his barrel percentage up to 6.1 from 2.9% last season, according to Statcast.
With a lineup featuring Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo, among others, the Cubs don’t need Heyward to be a Silver Slugger. But if Heyward continues to produce like he has so far in 2019, the Cubs will be that much more competitive in what should be a tight pennant race in the NL Central.