It is not surprising to look on MLB leaderboards and see names like Cody Bellinger on it. Your current American League WAR leader is Mike Trout. Of course he is! Reigning National League MVP Christian Yelich leads the Majors in home runs … yep, that checks out. Most of the superstars, in the early going, are acting like superstars. It’s nice to have some normalcy in this crazy world.
But some rather surprising names that you might not immediately recognize, or at least not immediately expect, have gotten off to fantastic starts this season, as well. Some of these are young players putting it all together; some are veterans elevating their career norms; some are just off to a hot start. But they’ve all been among the best 50 players in baseball to start the 2019 season. They’re having an amazing year so far … even if you maybe haven’t noticed.
Josh Bell, 1B, Pirates
Bell has been a slowly rising performer for the Pirates for a few years now, but he hadn’t had his culmination year yet. In 2017 he hit for power; in '18 his power dropped, but his on-base percentage rose. In '19 so far, he has figured out how to do both at the same time. He already has nine homers, just three fewer than he did in 148 games in '18, and his OBP is at a career-high .371. He has even improved his defense at first base. He leads the Pirates in nearly every major offensive category and is a key reason the team is keeping its head above water in the tough NL Central.
Michael Brantley, LF, Astros
Brantley always felt like a natural fit with the Astros -- a player being as perfect a match with a team as it is with him. But even the most optimistic Astros fans couldn’t have anticipated Brantley, at age 31 (he turns 32 on Wednesday), having the best season of his career so far, putting up career highs in OBP and SLG and leading the AL in hits. Even his defense, perhaps with the help of the Astros’ positioning, has taken a step forward. Brantley reached three postseasons with the Indians, but never got to play in a World Series. This might be his chance.
Luis Castillo, RHP, Reds
You can be forgiven, with all the baseball players there are these days, of thinking, “Wait, the slap-hitting Marlins infielder is a pitcher now?” But this Luis Castillo has emerged as one of the most exciting young pitchers in the game and the linchpin of a Reds staff that has been a lot better than many anticipated. After a step back last year following a promising rookie season, Castillo has given the Reds a chance to win every time out in 2019, putting up a 1.97 ERA in eight starts. His walk rate is up, but his strikeout rate is way up, and he’s allowing only one hit every 1.7 innings. This is the sort of pitcher the Reds can build around.
Paul DeJong, SS, Cardinals
When DeJong was first called up, he was considered a power-hitting third-base prospect who struck out too much and didn’t walk enough. But slowly, over his now three years in the Majors, he has meticulously improved every aspect of his game, to the point that the shortstop is putting up All-Star-caliber numbers. The walk rate is up, the K rate is down, but he hasn’t lost a bit of the power. And he has quietly become one of the slickest-fielding shortstops in the game. DeJong is currently third in baseball in bWAR, and locked into the No. 3 spot in the order between Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna. He’s as valuable as anyone on this club.
Hunter Dozier, 3B, Royals
The 2013 first-round pick had lost almost anything resembling prospect status after years of disappointing in the Royals organization. He rattled around three levels in 2017 and hit a combined .243 in all of them at the age of 25: That usually means washout. But boy has he ever exploded this year, second in the AL in OPS. This looks potentially sustainable, too: He isn’t walking a ton, but he also isn’t striking out. For some guys, it just takes a while to click.
Jason Heyward, RF, Cubs
After his first three years at Wrigley, the conventional wisdom on Heyward was that his contract was an albatross the team would be dealing with for years to come, but maybe it was still worth it for that famous rain-delay speech in Cleveland in the 2016 World Series. But so far this year, he has been worth every penny, hitting not just like he did during his one year in St. Louis, but also like he did back in his glory days in Atlanta, when we all thought he might be a Hall of Famer in the making. He's hitting .286, and his .398 OBP and .495 slugging percentage would both be the highest of his career. And he’s even holding down center field.
Brandon Lowe, 2B, Rays
In 43 games last year, Lowe flashed some power and plenty of plate discipline, but hit into some bad luck. The luck is going his way early this year. He has just as much power -- he has more homers so far than last year despite 11 fewer plate appearances – but is getting on base a ton more, despite an increase in strikeouts. He won the AL Rookie of the Month Award in April, and he looks like the ideal leadoff hitter for this surprising team.
Nick Markakis, RF, Braves
Markakis, who was by far the most accomplished active player never to make an All-Star team until he finally reached one last year, is off to an even better start than he leapt out to last year. His .313/.405/.484 slash line are some of the best numbers of his career, and, for the first time in his career, he’s walking more than he’s striking out, nearly unheard of in today’s game. At this point, let’s make it to two All-Star Games in a row.
Mike Minor, LHP, Rangers
The general Rangers rotation strategy this offseason was to bring in as many veterans as possible to see if any of them stick. The one veteran who was already there was Minor, who has been magnificent in the early going, putting up a 2.40 ERA in seven starts and tossing what was the only shutout by an American League pitcher this year until the A's Mike Fiers threw his second career no-hitter late Tuesday night.
Jorge Polanco, SS, Twins
The Twins quietly signed Polanco to a modest five-year extension in February and have been rewarded with Polanco’s breakout season, which has them in first place and feeling like this might be their year. Polanco, still only 25, has increased his power and his batting average, and he’s even walking more, previously not a strength for him. And he has been a whiz at short. You win division titles with guys like this.