Two percent of the way through a Major League season, as we are right now, is a dangerous place to do any real analysis. Half the teams haven’t had home openers yet; Shohei Ohtani has a .118 batting average; Eloy Jiménez has not yet swung and missed. It’s safe to say those things won’t last long. Probably.
So what can you take away from such a small amount of time? Nothing is guaranteed to last, but with all the data we have now, there are a few things that can stand out as being meaningful: throwing harder, hitting harder, having a pitch move differently, etc. Here are some of our favorites through the first weekend of the 2022 season.
All stats current entering Tuesday's games.
1. Santiago Espinal might have thump now.
Espinal, 27, and listed at just 5-foot-10, 181 pounds, fit all the stereotypes of being a light-hitting, defensively versatile infielder on his way up through the pro ranks. In parts of five Minor League seasons with the Red Sox and Blue Jays, who traded for him in 2018, he slugged just .392. In parts of 2020-21 in the bigs for Toronto, he slugged .390 -- with a hard-hit rate that was legitimately one of the weakest in the sport.
But Espinal talked this spring about bulking up, reporting to camp with more muscle. In Spring Training, he hit three balls harder than he’d ever hit in the Majors before. In the first two days of the season, he hit two balls harder than that. So, in the past three weeks, Espinal has hit the five hardest balls we have on record for him, all between 104-107 mph. When told he’d hit one 107 mph, he said "They told 107. ... It didn’t even feel like I hit it 107. Crazy."
Then, on Tuesday, when he had three hits in Toronto's 3-0 win over the Yankees, two of them were struck at over 100 MPH. He's done that five times in 2022, already putting him nearly a third of the way to his 2021 total of 17 across an entire season.
He is not the new Giancarlo Stanton, needless to say. He’s not even necessarily a starting player in a stacked Toronto lineup, since he’s splitting time with Cavan Biggio at second and backing up stars at short and third. But even just competent power to go along with plus defense could turn him from a backup into a regular. He's a lot more interesting than he was a week ago, is the point.
2. Seiya Suzuki’s eye comes as advertised
When Suzuki came over from Japan to the Majors, it was with a reputation as having an extremely advanced eye for the strike zone. After all, look what he did over his final three seasons for Hiroshima -- he walked 263 times and struck out only 243 times.
So, while all the attention was on the home run he smashed at 110.9 mph off the bat on Sunday -- and it was impressive -- we were more interested in what he chose to swing at. Suzuki saw 57 pitches against the Brewers, and he went after 12 of them. But 11 of those 12 were in the strike zone, which means that he expanded the zone to chase just one(!) of the 29 balls he saw.
Put another way, the entirely-too-early chase rate leaderboard -- that’s swings at non-strikes -- looks like this.
3.4% – Suzuki
3.7% – Martin Maldonado
4.3% – Mitch Garver
4.5% – Ji-Man Choi
6.7% – Christian Yelich
6.7% – Will Smith
Dating back to 2015, and among those who saw 500 out-of-zone pitches, the lowest single-season chase rate was Juan Soto, last year, at 12.2%. We’re not saying Suzuki has Soto’s eye. No one does. But that’s what he’s aiming at.
Hilariously, the one single time he went outside the zone to swing worked out. With men on the corners, Brandon Woodruff threw a sinker up and in. Suzuki got enough of it to bloop it to center, scoring a run. Even his “bad” choices are good ones, apparently.
3. Kutter Crawford is the most interesting rookie pitcher you don’t know.
Or maybe you do now, because he struck out three Yankees to help Boston win on Sunday Night Baseball. But don’t overthink a 0.00 ERA, in the same way that Blue Jays fans shouldn’t worry that José Berríos has a 108.00 ERA. (Yes, really.) What’s more impressive than the whiffs is what the data says about how his pitches move, and how he got there.
So, consider this. Crawford’s four-seamer this season has shown rise nearly four inches more than average; that would have been top-five in 2021. His curveball has nearly six inches more drop than average; that would have been top-20 last year. And his kutter -- er, cutter -- has three inches more break than average, which would have been top-five last year.
Everything moves, is the point, and the 95.4 mph fastball velo (now that he’s a reliever) is better than the 93.8 mph he showed in a lone start last season. Everything is pointing in the right direction here.
4. Unless Félix Bautista is.
Are we overreacting to 16 pitches? We absolutely are. It’s overreaction season, friends. Bautista’s whole story is interesting, really, getting released by Miami way back in 2015 after two unimpressive seasons, then slowly, so slowly, working his way up through the Baltimore system over the past six years.
Bautista’s fastball, however, caught eyes, collecting a 70 grade (on the 20-80 scouting scale) on MLB Pipeline's Orioles list, tying him with Grayson Rodriguez, who is merely the best pitching prospect in baseball. On Sunday -- his mother’s birthday -- he made his debut and showed exactly why. Bautista faced five Rays, striking out two, including Wander Franco, one of the hardest hitters in baseball to whiff.
It’s true that he touched 99 mph, blowing the ball past Franco. But 99 isn’t that hard to find these days. What’s far more interesting is the obscene amount of rise he got on it, which is to say that his fastball dropped only 6.6 inches on the way to the plate, and while some of that is about velo -- gravity requires time, does it not? -- it’s still an absurd number given that last year, no fastballs dropped less than 10 inches.
It has, to put it another way, 37% more rise than the average fastball at his velocity. Just look at what it does to Franco, who is, again, an elite contact hitter.
Then, once you've done that, dropping in a changeup that also moves makes Franco look like, well, this:
Last year, across three Minor League levels, Bautista struck out 15 per 9, though with some issues throwing strikes. You get why now. After all this time, he still won’t even be 27 until June, and we didn't even mention the slider that also has outstanding movement. Suddenly, the Orioles have someone who’s must-watch.
5. Pitchers aren’t going to make it any easier on hitters.
Fastballs being thrown harder than ever is nothing new; the increase in velocity is by far the number one culprit behind increasing strikeout rates over the last decade. Fewer fastballs being thrown is nothing new, either; more and more pitchers are happy to throw secondaries first, because "establishing the fastball" is dead.
But consider those things together. Through the first weekend of play, 45% of all pitches were breaking or offspeed pitches, a new high. That’s up from 42% the last two years, and wildly up from the 34% it was in 2008. Of those remaining pitches, the fastballs, 27% of them are 95 mph+, which is also a new high, and more than double what it was back in 2008.
So, if you put all that together, that 60% of pitches are either “fastballs thrown real hard” or “bendy pitches with lots of movement,” that means that fastballs under 95 MLB -- i.e., the kind that hitters love to smash -- are continually on the decline.
If you're wondering if that matters, yeah, it does. Fastballs below 95 mph last year had a .281 average, a .479 slugging, and a 16% strikeout rate. Fastballs 95 and over had a .235/.380 BA/SLG, with a 26% strikeout rate. And pitches that aren't fastballs at all, the breaking/offspeed pitches? Now we're down to .218/.366, with a 29% strikeout rate.
Batters feast on fastballs that aren't quite so fast. There are fewer and fewer of them each year.
6. Tylor Megill’s story is about more than just velocity.
Speaking of “wildly more velo,” Megill stunned on Opening Day when he threw five shutout innings, touching 99 mph and averaging 96.1, more than capably filling in for an injured Jacob deGrom. The velo is going to be the talking point, understandably. It might be a game-changer.
But it’s not the only thing that Megill did differently, either. Last year, Megill’s slider got 34 inches of drop, somewhat below average at his velocity. This year, in his first start, it was 39 inches, or 5 inches more than his average last season. On Opening Day, he threw it 14 times; half were called or swinging strikes, and two more were ground balls. Whether it's a new version of the slider or just a better one, it's considerably different than what he showed last year.
When he makes his start against Philadelphia on Tuesday, you’ll watch the radar gun, sure. Just don’t forget about that new slider.
7. The Blue Jays are shifting like mad.
Last year, Toronto shifted just 22% of the time, which was a well below-average 26th-most. Against lefties, it was 19th-most; against righties, it was 23rd-most, a mere 9 percent of the time. There's nothing terribly exciting or interesting about any of this.
That, however, was last year. In the first four games of the 2022 season, they shifted 83% of the time; no other team was even at 60%.
2022 shift rate
83% -- Blue Jays
59% -- Cubs
57% -- Mariners
54% -- Twins
53% -- Reds
The wildest thing, however, is how they’re doing it. Sure, they’re shifting a lot more against lefties, though others do it more. But against righty batters, they are shifting 87% of the time. The next-highest team? The Mets ... who are shifting righties only 49% of the time.
In the first series against Texas,, only twice did a righty come up and not get shifted, and both times came with David Phelps on the mound, which might be less about the batter and more about Phelps’ comfort or lack thereof with it. Toronto seems to be all-in here.
What’s fascinating, mostly, is that new third baseman Matt Chapman is so rangy that you wouldn’t think you’d need to shift -- and that the righty shift has become less popular over the last year or two, as data indicates it’s actually not that useful.
Now, we can’t stress this point enough: It's four games. It's two opponents. It’s exceptionally possible that there’s something specific about the teams they have seen, and that this won’t look like this in a week. But this is so overwhelming that it can’t just be ignored, either.
8. Mitch Keller is interesting in a different way than you think.
All winter, we heard that Mitch Keller was hard at work on his fastball, attempting to add velocity in a bid to overcome last year’s 6.17 ERA. Consider that part successful; in his first 2022 start, he averaged 96.1 mph, the hardest of any game of his career and well above last year’s 93.8 mph.
Last year, Keller’s third pitch was his curveball, which had decent drop, at 4 inches above average. Of course, it got pounded, allowing a .452 average and a .565 slug. This year, at least in the very early going, it’s got nearly 8 inches of drop. Just look at the different shapes in a pair of curves against Paul Goldschmidt -- one last year that hung up and got hit hard, and one this year that dove for a called strike.
The fastball velocity helps, of course, because it makes it harder to time up the breaking pitches. But if the fastball is still straight, it might not be the most interesting change to Keller's pitch arsenal.