Five of the most unexpected surprise stories this year
Before Opening Day, fans and pundits sit down and try and predict the season. And no matter how well they know the game, or how advanced the computer projections get, there are still players and teams that come out of nowhere and make us reconsider everything we thought we knew about the sport.
Today, let's look at five of those stories from the season's first two months:
1. The Phillies pitching staff
Coming off four consecutive losing seasons, culminating in a 99-loss 2015, the Phillies were supposed to be in for another year of rebuilding in 2016. Instead, behind a roster of impressive and improving youth, they're just two games behind the Nationals in the NL East. With growing pains sure to come, you should still celebrate what they've done.
While a developing offense probably makes a Leicester City-esque title run a longshot for this season, the future in Philadelphia looks very, very promising. And it's due in large parts to their new-look rotation.
That's right, in a division that already has Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Jose Fernandez and the Mets' four-headed rotation monster, the Phillies are building their own super group.
Offseason acquisition Vincent Velasquez, who came to Philly in the Ken Giles trade with the Astros, has already made the Phillies look like geniuses in their belief that he can be a starter -- striking out 16 in a game against the Padres in April. Armed with the kind of late-moving, fire-breathing fastball that has led him to a 2.75 ERA and 10.5 K/9, Velasquez looks every bit the part of a developing ace.
Aaron Nola has followed up 13 promising starts from last year with an ERA below three and a spike in his strikeouts. And, coming off an impressive showing last year, Jerad Eickhoff looks every bit a mid-rotation stalwart for years to come. While he lacks the kind of upper-90s fastball that tends to make an ace, his slider and curve geniunely flummox batters.
Don't forget that there's another arm soon on the way, too. Hanging out in Triple-A is the Phillies' No. 2 ranked prospect and the 50th-best in the game, Jake Thompson.
Woe be to runs in the NL East.
2. Chris Sale is great, Jose Quintana's been better
While most preseason predictors had the Royals or Indians winning the AL Central this year, it's the White Sox who find themselves at the top of the division heading as the calendar flips to June. (Sigh ... yes, Hawk, you can put it on the board.) This time, it's thanks to two starters having nearly perfect starts to the year.
Before a rough outing against the Indians, Chris Sale won his first nine decisions and had a 1.58 ERA. Even after getting roughed up, his ERA is 2.26 and he leads the AL in complete games and innings and has the lowest hits per nine.
What you may not have guessed is that, according to Fangraphs WAR, Jose Quintana has actually been just as good -- his 2.6 mark is the second-best in baseball. That's in addtion to his 2.22 ERA, 8.3 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9. For comparison, Sale's K/9 is 8.7, while his BB/9 is 1.8.
Part Quintana's success may be due to an increased velocity on his fastball. He's set a new career high with an average 92.2 mph heater, up .6 mph from last season.. Thanks to the discovery of a little extra oomf, his fastball has been the most valuable in the Majors this year.
While Chicago will need some help from the rest of the rotation to maintain their division lead, Sale's continued dominance and Qunitana's level-up have PECOTA giving the Sox a 57.4% percent chance of going to the playoffs.
3. Rich Hill
Between 2005-14, Hill had a 24-22 record and a 4.72 ERA. Only once had he topped 100 innings. He had shoulder surgery in 2009 and Tommy John knocked him out in 2011. If anything, Hill should be a coach of his high school team, not pitching in the Majors.
But then something clicked. Finally healthy last year, Hill used a new over-the-top pitching motion and shifted his place on the rubber to earn a September callup with the Red Sox. Now the guy who couldn't catch a break was dominating batters with his breaking ball to the tune of a 1.55 ERA with 36 strikeouts and only five walks in 29 IP.
He parlayed that into a one-year, $6 million deal with the Athletics and has proved that, even at the age of 36, last year's performance was legit. With his curveball that makes a ballplayer question their career choices, he's finally thrived.
He's 7-3, leads the AL with a 2.18 ERA and has whiffed 65 batters in 57 2/3 innings - which already matches his season IP high since 2007. According to Fangraphs' value calculator, Hill has already been worth $13.6 million this year. Not a bad deal for the A's.
4. David Ortiz: 2016 MVP?
When a player announces his retirement, he's expected to fade away -- his hitting line becoming the baseball equivalent of that wilted head of lettuce in the back of your fridge. He's certainly not supposed to be in the midst of his best season ever.
Yet, if Ortiz somehow kept hitting like this, his numbers would be right there with the best he's ever put up. He's not just playing well by Big Papi's standards, though -- he's also having one of the greatest final seasons in baseball history.
He leads the league in doubles and slugging, he's on pace for 40 home runs and he came mere inches away from the cycle. He homered on Opening Day, has a grand slam to his name and, oh yeah, he stole a base, too. At the age of 40, he's become a four tool player (the glove is still absent.)
In fact, if you were allowed to vote for the league's MVP in May, Ortiz would have a legitimate claim to the title. While he'll never do very well in WAR calculations because he doesn't play defense, his American League ranks are: 4th in AVG, 6th in HRs, 1st in OBP, 1st in SLG, 1st in OPS+.
And it's not like he's been doing this on an under-the-radar team. The Red Sox are 29-18 and in first place in the AL East, powered by young guys like Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts. Yet, still, Ortiz has arguably been the best player on the team.
We already were going to miss Ortiz when he retired, now he's just ripping our hearts out.
5. Jose Altuve ... the power hitter?
Altuve won a batting title. He's set the Astros single-season hits record. He's won a stolen base title -- twice, in fact. He had nothing else he needed to prove at the plate. Except that Jose Altuve turns his dreams into reality, and so the 5-foot-7 second basemanset his sights on something new: Dingers.
Last season, Altuve set a career-high with 15 home runs. This year, he's upped his slugging percentage by over 100 points and has already knocked out 9 home runs, putting him on pace for 30 across the full year. These haven't been a few wallscrapers, either. His longest this year was a 448-foot shot. Don't you dare try and throw a fastball by him, either: He's hitting .308 against the pitch.
While not every shocking storyline may last the whole season -- for there are dozens of new ones still to emerge -- the chances that one or two do go pole-to-pole gives plenty of reason to tune in and learn something new every night.