EARLY SEASON SURPRISES

Last week in this space I wrote about my perception that in general, fundamentals have eroded in major-league baseball.

This week I take a more positive tone. There are several early-season surprises that put a smile on my face.  The players I write about below have started their season with the type of success they haven’t normally achieved in their respective careers to date.

I’m always worried about jinxing guys that have started out strong at the beginning of the season. But I’ll take my chances.

Of course, the list is far from exhaustive. Plenty of major-league players are achieving beyond their career norms. However, these players stand out in my WORLD.

Statistics for this article are as of Friday morning April 27, 2018.

JED LOWRIE- OAKLAND ATHLETICS

It isn’t quite true that Lowrie is a newby to success. In fact, he had a terrific 2017 season. He increased his batting average 14 points over the previous year.  He hit 8 more home runs than he did in 2017, while driving in 100 runs. That was a year-over-year increase of 35 RBIs.

Lowrie seemed to come to life last season. But this year, he appears to be building on that success and providing tremendous offensive spark to younger players on the Athletics like Matt Olsen and Matt Chapman, as well as other young core players.

Lowrie has had a tremendous April. He is hitting for average and for power. He is driving in runs and scoring runs. So far this season, Lowrie is hitting a very robust .352 with 6 homers and 24 RBIs. There isn’t much more Lowrie can do to prove his value.

Because Lowrie and his shortstop partner Marcus Semien are playing so well, highly touted Athletics infield prospect Franklin Barreto can’t break into the 25-man major-league roster.

Barreto is an excellent offensive player with a line-drive gap bat that in time will evolve into over the fence power.

Perhaps the Athletics will choose to move either Semien or even Lowrie in trade during the season to shore up another position, making room for Barreto in the infield.

For now, however, through the first month of this 2018 season, Jed Lowrie is making nightly highlight reels with his potent, timely offensive production. And yes, I think it remains a bit of a surprise.

Dansby Swanson

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

DANSBY SWANSON-ATLANTA BRAVES

True confession time. I am not a big Dansby Swanson fan. I have never believed Swanson to be worthy of the 1st round draft status he achieved in 2015.  The Arizona Diamondbacks chose Swanson ahead of Alex Bregman (Astros), Brendan Rodgers (Rockies), Dillon Tate (Rangers), and Kyle Tucker (Astros) in that order.  Andrew Benintendi went at No. 7 to the Boston Red Sox.  Highly touted pitcher Walker Buehler, who made his debut with the Dodgers this week was selected at No. 24 by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Teams don’t carry a crystal ball with them in the draft room. They don’t cling to a rabbit’s foot when making their picks. They do their homework, vet every player and make a choice.

In the 2015 draft, there wasn’t much consensus on what player should be chosen No.1 overall.

Arizona settled on Swanson. And then, in December of that year, almost six months to the day of his signing with the Diamondbacks, the team traded Swanson to Atlanta along with pitcher Aaron Blair and outfielder Ender Inciarte for left-handed pitcher Gabe Speier and veteran right-hander Shelby Miller.  Miller is now recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he had been very ineffective for the Dbacks prior to his elbow surgery.

That trade has long been a focal point of discussion and criticism for Dbacks fans and their critics. It began when Swanson was drafted in the first place. But then trading him right away, along with promising outfielder Ender Inciarte for Shelby Miller was not popular.

But in his first two seasons with Atlanta, Swanson really didn’t live up to his No.1 draft slot. In his first year, he went to the plate 129 times and hit .302/3/17 in 38 games. Not a bad start, but the sample size was small. Then in his first full season, 2017, he finished at .232/6/51. Diamondbacks fans reminded the world of their initial feelings about Swanson.  They even became quieter about how lopsided the trade was to Atlanta.

This season, at the age of 24, Swanson has had a breakout April. He is making contact and has been above .300 all month. He is hitting .316 with 2 homers and 13 RBIs. While he stole only 3 bases all of last year, he has already swiped 2 so far in April.

Can Swanson keep up this pace? He very well may be a .300 hitter as he has learned National League pitchers and as he has matured as a player. Or maybe last year was the real Swanson. Regardless, he’s had a good, and yes, surprising start to the new year.

KEVIN PILLAR-TORONTO BLUE JAYS

I spoke with a Blue Jays scout while I was at Spring Training in Florida. The scout and I have known each other for years, both of us having graduated from Scout School and we always share our thoughts.

The scout told me to keep an eye on the revised and refined hitting approach of Kevin Pillar. He was excited about adjustments that he felt would lead to a better overall batting average and better plate coverage overall.  He felt Pillar’s refinements could make him a more complete player, adding value to his game which already saw him as a tremendous centerfielder on defense.

So far in 2018, the scout was right on the money.  Pillar finished 2017 hitting .256/16/42.  While the batting average wasn’t horrible, his RBIs were 11 fewer than his 2016 season. He had lost 10 points of batting average in just 41 more trips to the plate.

This year the story is completely different. Pillar is driving the ball, with six doubles and a triple in his first 85 plate appearances. Instead of a mediocre guy in the lineup and a possible liability at the plate at times, Pillar is showing signs of life and hitting in the neighborhood of .300, a place he has never been in his six-season career. Right now he is hitting .292/1/10.

So far, the right-handed hitting Pillar is feasting on right-handed pitching, the arm side he will see most often.

Pillar’s early season is a surprise.  At the age of 29, he may finally have discovered a swing and hitting approach that can bring better and more contact and solid offensive results.

MITCH HANIGER-SEATTLE MARINERS

I include Mitch Haniger in this list, but his success this season shouldn’t be seen as a total surprise. When healthy, Haniger could always hit the baseball. Hard. The right-handed hitter is in his prime at the age of 27, but he has never really been given a sustained chance to prove his value.  And, he’s been hurt.

Now fully healthy, Haniger is mashing the ball for Seattle. Never a .300 hitter in his previous two years at the major-league level, Haniger is flirting with.300 at .294. He’s hitting home runs and driving in runs. He already has 8 homers and 24 RBIs to land him among the league leaders.

Haniger has had an interesting past. He was signed by the Brewers after having been drafted in the 1st round as the 38th overall pick in the 2012 draft.  The Top 10 drafted that year were, in order, Carlos Correa (Astros), Byron Buxton (Twins), Mike Zunino (Mariners), Kevin Gausman (Orioles), Kyle Zimmer (Royals), Albert Almonte (Cubs), Max Fried (Padres) Mark Appel (Pirates), Anthony Heaney (Marlins) and David Dahl (Rockies). Slugger Joey Gallo (Rangers) was taken right after Haniger.

The draft was loaded and impact players from that draft dot the major-league landscape this year.  But Haniger didn’t stick with the Brewers. The team traded him along with Anthony Banda to the Arizona Diamondbacks in July 2014 for outfielder Gerardo Parra, who now plays for the Rockies.

The Diamondbacks sent Haniger, pitcher Zac Curtis and infielder Jean Segura to the Seattle Mariners in November 2016 for infielder Ketel Marte and pitcher Taijuan Walker.

The deal has been a benefit to both teams. However, the way Segura and Haniger are playing for the Mariners and with Walker out due to an elbow injury that requires Tommy John surgery, the deal is skewing to the Mariners with each passing day.

When healthy, Haniger is an impact, toolsy player with a profile that is still far lower than his overall value to his team.

Christian Villanueva

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

CHRISTIAN VILLANUEVA-SAN DIEGO PADRES

Villanueva’s early season success is a good story. At the age of 26, and turning 27 in June, Villanueva still has rookie status in major-league baseball.

Villanueva played in the Rangers organization since he began in 2009 at the age of 18.  His first taste of big league baseball came with the San Diego Padres in September 2017, when he played third base and went hitless in a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

In parts of eight minor league seasons, he had a batting average of .269.  He hit 102 home runs and drove in 501 runs. But Villanueva could never make the big league club.

The Rangers traded Villanueva and pitcher Kyle Hendricks to the Chicago Cubs for pitcher Ryan Dempster in July 2012 at the non-waiver trade deadline.  Then, the Cubs released Villanueva and he was granted free agency in December 2016 before he ever played for his new team.  The Padres signed him ten days after his free agency was declared. He made their team last September.

This season, Villanueva’s hot bat has sent Chase Headley to the Padres bench. Villanueva, a right-handed hitter is playing both corner infield positions for San Diego. More often a third baseman, Villanueva is tearing up National League pitching and hitting

Maybe Villanueva is a”late bloomer”. Or maybe, like so many players, he just never was given a chance to prove his value. Now, however, that chance has come and if he keeps on hitting, Christian Villanueva may find himself on the National League All-Star team.

Villanueva has been shut down at times due to hamstring issues. If he can stay healthy, he can likely put up some big numbers over an entire season. Currently dealing with one of those hamstring flare-ups, Villanueva is due back soon.  He is hitting .355 with 7 homers and 16 RBIs.

Villanueva has the ability to keep up that pace if he stays healthy.

PATRICK CORNIN-ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Is the success so far this season of Patrick Corbin a surprise? Yes, it really is.

Drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in the 2nd round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft out of Chipola College in Marianna, Florida, the 6-foot-3 lefty is now a reliable, consistent and impactful pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Traded to the Dbacks along with Tyler Skaggs, Rafael Rodriguez and Joe Saunders in 2010 for pitcher Dan Haren, Corbin is clearly coming into his own on the mound.

Corbin has been fantastic as a member of the Diamondbacks starting rotation that includes Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, Zack Godley and Corbin. Each has pitched tremendously so far. But Corbin stands out. Why? Because he is finally healthy.  After having Tommy John surgery in 2014 and being used carefully since his full-time return in 2016, Corbin is showing signs of new life.  He still has zip on a 92-miles per hour fastball, but it is his increased use of a wicked slider and a newly developed curveball that have made quite a difference in his game.

Now working deeper in games, Corbin has increased his strikeout rate to a whopping 13 per nine innings from 8.4 per nine innings last season. That’s a remarkable increase. His walk rate has been reduced from 2.9 walks per nine innings to 1.6 walks per nine this year.

When I watch Corbin pitch I see renewed self-confidence, a trait that was missing in his outings while he was trying to return from Tommy John.

A free-agent to be at the end of the season, Corbin is having his best season ever. Given the Diamondbacks lack of organizational pitching depth, it will be very difficult for the team and their fans if the Diamondbacks fail to sign him to a new contract.

So far this season, Corbin has a record of 4-0 with a 1.89 ERA and a 0.66 WHIP. If the All-Star Game were to be held this week, Corbin would be there and he might be starting the game.

Having the humidor at Chase Field may give Corbin and the Dbacks pitchers a bit of a boost on well-hit fly balls, but he deserves tremendous credit for the improvement we have seen in his outings so far.

NICK PIVETTA-PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

After selecting Nick Pivetta in the 4th round of the 2013 draft, the Washington Nationals traded him to the Philadelphia Phillis for pitcher Jonathan Papelbon and cash in July 2015. Pivetta is now part of a young and surprising Phillies rotation in the metrics-driven Phillies organization.

Now in only his second major-league season, the 25-year-old right-hander is raising some eyebrows with his mound presence, command and control. Pivetta has reduced his walk rate so far this season from 3.9 in his rookie year to 1.3 this season so far.  Pivetta had a 6.02 ERA as a rookie with Philadelphia, going 8-10 in 26 starts.  Pivetta’s rough freshman year included a WHIP of 1.51 compared to 1.00 at this point this year.

Pivetta’s fastball velocity has increased from 94.8 miles per hour to 95.3 miles per hour so far this season. He has also incorporated a two-seam sinking fastball to his repertoire.  Pivetta’s changeup, slider and curveball give him a very complete and effective arsenal that allows him to miss bats while changing the eye level and altering the balance of the hitter.

Watching Pivetta use his fastball/curveball combination on hitters, I have seen him fool his opponent by being unpredictable.

Pivetta was not seen as a highly rated prospect as he worked his way through his development program. As a result, one might be correct in wondering if Pivetta can sustain his early season success so far. However, his command and control seem to be ironed out to the point of consistency. Repeating a good delivery has helped lead him to a very good start as one of the big surprises so far this season. He has a 1-0 record and a 2.57 ERA with a WHIP of 1.00.

Mike Clevinger

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

MIKE CLEVINGER-CLEVELAND INDIANS

It really is very easy to like the Indians Mike Clevinger. He’s off to a fantastic start for the Central Division Championship Cleveland Indians.

Clevinger, a big, lanky looking right-hander at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, is among the major-league pitchers with long flowing hair.

In the 4th round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, the Angels selected Clevinger out of Seminole Community College in Sanford, Florida. The Angels traded him to the Indians for right-handed pitcher Vinnie Pestano in an August 2014 deal. The Indians are very grateful for that transaction.

Clevinger began to show value as a starter last season, throwing 121 innings in 21 starts and 27 total appearances for Cleveland. He pitched to a fine 3.11 ERA and 1.24 WHIP.  He got better and better as the season progressed.

This season, Clevinger has started 4 games and has won 2 without losing. He has a terrific 1.75 ERA and 1.05 WHIP following a complete game shutout of the Baltimore Orioles.

Clevinger continues to pound the strike zone with his four-seam fastball that touches 93 miles per hour. He also misses bats with a changeup, a slider and a wicked curveball.  His curve sits at 76 miles per hour, change the balance and pace from his fastball.

Particularly interesting regarding Clevinger’s success so far is the manner in which he uses his complete repertoire. He mixes his pitches and uses any pitch at any point, regardless of the count.

Clevinger is a better pitcher from the windup. Getting him in the stretch is the key to throwing off his timing, his pace and his rhythm. However, so far the opposition really hasn’t had many men on base to alter his delivery and pace.

Clevinger scuffled in his latest start against the Mariners. But overall, he currently has a 2-0 record with a 2.52 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP.

BUNTS

Atlanta Braves fans were vocal in their criticism of the Braves front office for not bringing top prospect Ronald Acuna to the team until late April. Early April came and went, mid-April came and went, and no Acuna. Finally, he is on the Braves roster and showing how great he can be.

The National Football League holds their draft right in the middle of baseball season. Fans are conflicted, but football wins the ratings during football draft week. Why doesn’t MLB hold their draft during football season?  I’d like to see some headlines stolen during say…the football playoffs. No, that’s not being mean. It’s good business. Football does business well.

Yankees fans have so many interesting infielders to follow with the addition of highly touted prospects Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar. Will one of those two be traded to shore up the team’s pitching staff? I doubt if it’s either of those two.  And what happens when Brandon Drury returns?  Somehow I think the Yankees will use an infielder and/or Clint Frazier to fetch some pitching help.

I have a Twitter follower who insists that Didi Gregorius isn’t as good as his statistics indicate. He is adamant that his results are skewed by his poor road play and that his numbers are generated at home.  Well, I’ll take him any day of the week. At home or on the road, Gregorius makes things happen. I thought the Diamondbacks would rue the day they traded him. If I were in their shoes, I’d be pretty upset right now for trading him away. But the Reds were the first to make that mistake when he first signed a professional contract and the Reds traded him.

I still don’t understand why some players get much more publicity than Mike Trout?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—baseball should have billboards all over the country with Mike Trout’s picture.  He’s an incredible baseball player.

Next week I think I’ll write about guys that are driving on flat tires. These will be guys I thought would light up the night, but really, their balloons aren’t holding air.

Follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff. Feel free to let me know your thoughts and feel free to send questions my way on Twitter. I welcome interacting with you, my readers here in the Clubhouse.

About The Author

Bernie Pleskoff is a former professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Bernie's work has been featured on MLB Pipeline, MLB.com and FanRag Sports, among others. You can follow Bernie Pleskoff on Twitter @BerniePleskoff