10 biggest surprises so far this season

May 12th, 2023

If you can believe it, the MLB season is now somehow a quarter of the way completed. It’s crazy how quickly that sneaks up on you, isn’t it? One minute, you’re like, “Hey, baseball has a pitch timer now?” and the next you’ve not only gotten used to it, you don’t even notice it anymore. It’ll be October before you know it.

Suffice it to say, the season has not exactly gone the way anyone could have anticipated. Sure, the Braves appear to be running away with the NL East already, Shohei Ohtani is doing the unthinkable again and most of the teams in last place are the ones you might have expected. But there’s plenty to be stunned by from the first fourth of the season. Here’s a look at the 10 most surprising developments so far.

1. Rays! Rays! Rays!
Look, a lot of people thought the Rays would be good this year. (Not me, necessarily. But a lot of people!) They have made the playoffs four consecutive seasons, after all. No one in the world saw 30-9 coming, though. The Rays have done just about everything right. They have an .855 team OPS, which is best in the Majors, and a 2.93 team ERA -- also the best in the Majors. They’ve got a legitimate MVP candidate in Wander Franco and a legitimate Cy Young candidate in Shane McClanahan. They’ve got the biggest lead of any American League division leader despite having the third-, sixth- and seventh-best teams in baseball in that very division. That’s the only bad news here: To win that division, they might just have to keep this up all year.

2. The Yankees are in last place (and the Mets have a worse record)
Good thing the Knicks are still fighting their way through the NBA Eastern Conference playoffs, because the baseball teams have had a hard time living up to their lofty preseason expectations. We’re probably more down on the Yankees than we should be: They are 21-18, after all, despite dealing with a barrage of injuries and a slower-than-you’d-like start for Aaron Judge. But that 21-18 doesn’t change the fact that they’re in last place. The Yankees! In last place! The Mets’ record is worse, at 18-20, thanks largely to a struggling rotation, worrisome because, of course, that’s what the Mets were supposed to be good at. There’s plenty of hope for each of these teams -- FanGraphs has both their playoff odds well over 50 percent -- but you can already see both these dugouts start to sweat a little bit. It was supposed to be easier than it has been so far.

3. All that Cardinals drama
The Cardinals have had just one (1) losing season this century (2007), but it’s more than just that: The Cardinals are forever the efficient, professional operation, the one without much internal drama and tabloid intrigue. But not this this year. From the “hustle” battle between manager Oliver Marmol and outfielder Tyler O’Neill, to stunningly losing the first game of each of their first 11 series to start the season and, most notoriously, pulling top free agent acquisition Willson Contreras off the catching position a month into the season. The result, shockingly, has been the worst record in the National League. The Cardinals are too talented to stay in last place for long, but they essentially have to play like a 100-win team the rest of the way to even have a chance at the postseason. Does this look like a 100-win team to you?

4. Hey, didn’t you guys just make the World Series?
It was a thrilling World Series last year, wasn’t it? The Phillies securing the final NL Wild Card bid and running with it all the way to the Fall Classic, the Astros finally silencing the doubters and winning their second championship. Fans of each team should hold those memories close, because 2023’s start hasn’t looked anything like October. The Astros, thanks largely to pitching injuries and a lineup that's clearly missing the injured Jose Altuve, are looking up at the Rangers and the Angels in the standings, but the Phillies might be in an even worse spot: under .500 in third place, with a struggling Trea Turner and Aaron Nola, something no one could have seen coming. There isn’t much margin for error in that division. The Phillies may have already used theirs.

5. Jarred Kelenic isn’t a lost cause after all
Kelenic has been on quite a reputational big league journey. At first he was the next Mets superstar … then he was the hot prospect they supposedly foolishly traded to the Mariners for a washed Robinson Canó … then he reached the Majors and couldn’t hit a lick, making the trade look like a genius move for the Mets, who now had Edwin Díaz. You can be forgiven for wondering if he were a lost cause. Turns out: He isn’t. Kelenic has been the Mariners’ best hitter, lifting a lineup that needs every run it can get. (By the way: Julio Rodríguez's slow start is not something anyone saw coming either.) Kelenic now looks, once again, like he’s central to the Mariners’ future. Which makes sense: He is, after all, still only 23.

6. The best hitter in baseball is … Brent Rooker?
Last November, the Royals -- a team that isn’t exactly overflowing with hitters -- waived Rooker, and the A’s picked him up, almost on a whim. The guy who had a total of 10 homers in three seasons for three teams was inserted into the A’s starting lineup, and he has exploded, hitting 10 homers already this year and leading the Majors in both slugging and OPS. He’s coming by it honestly too, with a batting eye that has resulted in a .424 OBP, just one point behind AL leader Matt Chapman. There isn’t a lot going right in Oakland right now, but Rooker, a 28-year-old journeyman, is perhaps the most out-of-nowhere happy story in the sport at this moment.

7. Eduardo Rodriguez is the most dominant pitcher in baseball
Rodriguez has had a tumultuous few years to say the least. After finishing sixth in the AL Cy Young voting in 2019 with Boston, he missed the 2020 season after contracting Covid and then being diagnosed with myocarditis. He struggled to get back to form for the Red Sox in 2021, before signing a big free-agent contract with the Tigers that November. His first season in Detroit was marred by a rib injury and then a stint on the restricted list to deal with personal matters. It was impossible to know what to expect in 2023, but he has looked better than he has at any other time in his career, and that includes that 19-win 2019 season. Rodriguez currently has a 1.57 ERA through 51 2/3 innings (eight starts), and has walked just 10 batters. The Tigers are only a couple of games out of first. The inspiring story of E-Rod is one of the main reasons why.

8. The Pirates are in first place?
It might not feel that way right now for the Pirates, who have lost nine of their last 10 games, but they really are in first place, still, a quarter of the way through the season. A blistering start is obviously the reason for that, with surprising starting pitching, a shutdown bullpen and a resurgent Andrew McCutchen, who looks as perfect as he always has in that uniform. They’re going to have to pull out of their skid soon to stay up here, but honestly, that the Pirates are in first place on May 12 is one of the best things to happen to this franchise in quite a while.

9. The Marlins are 12-0 in one-run games
That’s incredible: What a stat! That is a truly jaw-dropping run, one unprecedented in Major League Baseball history: It has been since 1972 that a team (the Mets) even started 11-0 in one-run games. Going 12-0 in one-run games is how a team with the worst run differential in the National League -- and the third-worst in baseball entering Thursday, ahead of only the A’s and the White Sox -- has a .500 record. Is this sustainable? It would seem awfully unlikely. But not any more unlikely than going 12-0 in their first 12 one-run games.

10. Who needs deGrom and Seager?
If you were concerned about the Rangers signing Jacob deGrom -- and many were -- it was likely not because you didn’t think deGrom would be good, but that he would be both: a) unavailable; and b) not enough. Didn’t this team have more holes to fill than ace? Well, apparently not: Despite deGrom making only six starts in the early going (which isn’t bad for him, though it'll be at least a few more weeks until he returns) and Corey Seager barely playing at all because of injury, the Rangers are in first place! The offense looks particularly deep, and it’s led by Marcus Semien, who looks like an MVP candidate again, and Jonah Heim, who has emerged as one of the best hitting catchers in the game.