MLB

MLB’s 10 biggest surprises so far including White Sox lefty Carlos Rodón and Orioles All-Star Cedric Mullins

Major League Baseball’s regular season is nearly 70 percent of the way finished. Every team has completed at least 110 of their scheduled contests as of Tuesday night, providing us with a good outline of what their years will look like, even if there are finer details left to fill in. It’s that time of the year, then, when we feel more comfortable writing about broader concepts. 

That analytical freedom includes, as you might’ve picked up on from the headline, highlighting 10 players who are having surprisingly good seasons. These exercises are always more art than science, but we crafted this list using some basic ground rules. Number one, a player had to have at least 45 innings or 200 plate appearances to be considered; number two, the player had to have exceeded expectations and/or their past performances in a big way. 

To use an example, Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Bryan Reynolds entered Wednesday hitting .305/.388/.526 (146 OPS+). He’s having a phenomenal season, no doubt about it; he’s not on here, though, because just two seasons ago he hit .314/.377/.503 (129 OPS+). Reynolds is having a better season now than he did then, but we don’t think his success counts as a “surprise.” 

With that out of the way, let’s get to it. (Do note the players are presented alphabetically.)

When the Tigers selected Akil Baddoo No. 3 in last winter’s Rule 5 Draft, we praised his power-speed combination and warned that he might be overexposed against big-league pitching this season thanks to reps lost to injuries and the pandemic. He’s made those concerns look foolish by hitting .267/.333/.467 with 10 home runs, 24 troubles (that’s triples plus doubles), and 14 stolen bases (on 18 tries) in his first 333 plate appearances. It would be easy to scoff at Baddoo’s success because of his unimpressive 85.3 mph average exit velocity (it ranks in the 2nd percentile), but part of his game’s charm is his ability to reach on choppers, rollers, cue balls, and other mishits. Sure enough, his .308 average on batted balls with an exit velocity no greater than 70 mph is the 11th highest in the majors. Given the circumstances, he would be a clear win for Al Avila and the Tigers even if his production was significantly worse.

The Athletics acquired left-hander Cole Irvin in January for cash considerations when the Philadelphia Phillies needed to create a roster spot for Matt Moore. Not only has Irvin outpitched Moore since, he’s become an important part of the A’s rotation by posting a 3.45 ERA (119 ERA+) and a 3.92 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 130 frames. He doesn’t throw hard or miss bats, and he doesn’t stand out in any of the other trendy ways (spin rate, extension), but he pounds the zone and he locates well and sometimes that’s still enough to get the job done.

Cedric Mullins was on the trade market this spring, as the Orioles were unsure if he’d crack their Opening Day roster. He did, and now the Orioles have to be glad they couldn’t find a suitor. Mullins has hit .320/.385/.551 (155 OPS+) with 20 home runs and 21 steals (on 28 tries) in his first 109 games. He’s striking out less often and walking more often, of course, but the most interesting part of his season pertains to his launch angle. Mullins’ 15.1 degrees mark is almost identical to the 15.6 he posted last season, yet a closer look reveals that he’s sent fewer batted balls into the extremes, either by popping it up or hitting it into the ground. As a result, a higher share of his batted balls have the potential to do damage — and do damage they have. It’s fair to write that if Mullins is traded at some point this upcoming winter, it’ll be for much more than he would’ve fetched in spring.

Tyler O’Neill entered the spring with a career slash line of .229/.291/.422 in 450 plate appearances. The Cardinals nevertheless still seemed to believe in his ability to become something greater, and he’s rewarded their patience to date. O’Neill has hit .280/.346/.518 (138 OPS+) with 18 home runs in his first 89 games this season. His 93.3 mph average exit velocity is the ninth highest in the majors, and he’s hit the ball within the 10-to-30 degrees sweet spot the third most among batters with at least 300 plate appearances. That’s a heck of a combination, and it explains why O’Neill has been St. Louis’ best hitter this season.

The future Guardians acquired Cal Quantrill as part of last summer’s Mike Clevinger trade. They left him in the bullpen then, and they appeared to be willing to do the same this season until injuries wiped out their rotation. With few other cards to play, Cleveland installed Quantrill as a starter in mid-June, and that decision has worked out beautifully. In 11 outings, he’s mustered a 3.10 ERA and a .230 average against while notching just over five innings per pop. It’s unclear if Cleveland intends to leave Quantrill in the rotation heading into next spring, but if he keeps performing like he has, then it might not be a matter of consideration. 


Carlos Rodon

SP •

ERA2.38

WHIP.96

IP109.2

BB30

K160

According to league sources, Carlos Rodón was unwilling to entertain offers over the winter that required him to pitch out of the bullpen. What seemed like a misjudgement at the time — he hadn’t been an effective big-league starter since 2018 — now looks like the decision of someone who knew better days were coming. Prior to hitting the injured list on Wednesday, Rodón had accumulated a 2.38 ERA (178 ERA+) and 5.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 109 innings. His velocity is up, from 92.8 mph to 95.8 mph, and his signature slider remains a bat-missing weapon, evading lumber on more than 40 percent of the swings taken against it. He’s got one of seven the no-hitters this season; back in April when he threw one against Cleveland. Add in an improved feel for the strike zone, and Rodón now looks like the pitcher he was supposed to become when he was drafted third overall in 2014.

When the Marlins signed Zach Thompson as a minor-league free-agent over the offseason, they couldn’t have envisioned him becoming part of their big-league rotation — not after he’d stalled out with the White Sox as a reliever. Yet Thompson was cast into Miami’s rotation in June and has since held his own in 10 outings, accumulating a 3.09 ERA (132 ERA+) and a 2.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He doesn’t throw hard, but his cutter, curveball, and changeup have helped him stay afloat. One other key to his success has been careful management: the Marlins have allowed him to face 19 or fewer batters in six of his 20 starts. It’s to be seen if Thompson, who looks a little like Matt Harvey in the face, will be able to hold down a rotation spot heading forward. At minimum, he could have a future in a multi-inning relief role.

Farhan Zaidi is earning a reputation for pulling off lopsided trades. It was Zaidi who acquired Mike Yastrzemski for Tyler Herb a few springs ago, and it was Zaidi who traded Shaun Anderson to the Minnesota Twins for LaMonte Wade Jr. back in February. Anderson has since hit the waiver wire three times while the only thing Wade is hitting is big-league pitching — to the tune of a cool .249/.332/.519 (126 OPS+) slash line with 13 home runs. Since tweaking his swing, he’s hitting the ball harder; he’s pulling it more frequently; and he’s launching it at a more optimal angle more frequently. Factor in Wade’s defensive versatility (he’s split the season between first base and the corner-outfield spots) and he’s been a nifty pick-up. 

Garrett Whitlock, the No. 4 pick in last winter’s Rule 5 Draft, is the only reliever to make the cut — and he’s not of the single-inning variety. Rather, he’s recorded at least six outs in 16 of his 33 appearances. To flip that stat on its head, Whitlock has notched three outs or fewer in just nine of those 33 games. Why’s he so effective? Partially because Whitlock chucks mid-90s sinker after mid-90s sinker; partially because he creates more than seven feet of separation from the pitching rubber to his release point; and partially because both his changeup and his slider have held opponents to a sub-.200 batting average and have generated whiff rates over 30 percent. To get a pitcher like this in the Rule 5 Draft is a coup; to effectively steal from the Yankees in the process makes it all the sweeter.

More than nine years have passed since Patrick Wisdom was selected in the first round by the Cardinals. He’s just now starting to make good on his draft slot by hitting .267/.335/.564 (140 OPS+) with 17 home runs in 67 games. His ability to impact the ball has been impressive, as he ranks seventh among batters with 100-plus plate appearances in percentage of batted balls measured at 95 mph or higher, right behind Fernando Tatis Jr. and right ahead of Shohei Ohtani. He does whiff  at an extreme frequency, but there’s a chance he’s the Cubs‘ version of J.D. Davis. Chicago’s front office so believes in Wisdom that they traded Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo at the deadline to ensure he’ll have a spot in the lineup everyday. (We kid, we kid; they did that because the Cubs ownership group is a nihilistic bunch.) 



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