No matter how much you research and study, no matter how much baseball you’ve watched in your life, no matter how much you may think you know this game, it will always, always surprise you. Some things are going to happen that no one could have possibly anticipated. And some players will just come out of nowhere.
Nearly three weeks into the season, when you look at who the best players in baseball have been so far, you find a lot of familiar names. According to Fangraphs WAR, the best player in the sport so far has been Ronald Acuña, Jr. The second best has been Gerrit Cole. Makes sense! Those two are superstars, after all.
But when you go down the list and see some of the players in the top 25, there are several pretty shocking names. They might not be able to keep it up all year, but this far into the season, it’s awfully wild to see who some of the best 25 have been so far.
Here’s a look at the six most unlikely -- and inspiring -- top 25 players so far. (All were in the top 25 in Fangraphs’ WAR entering Tuesday’s games.)
Jorge Mateo, SS, Orioles
Key stat: 8 steals in 9 attempts
Mateo was one of the pieces the Yankees sent to the A’s in the Sonny Gray trade back in 2017, but he never really developed as anything other than a stolen-base threat, and he was ultimately traded three years later to the Padres -- and waived by San Diego a year after that. Always looking for under-the-radar talent, the Orioles grabbed him in August 2021, hoping they could mold something out of the guy who once stole 82 bases in 117 games in the Yankees organization back in 2017.
Mateo actually led the AL in steals last season, with 35, but he couldn’t steal first, putting up a wholly inadequate .267 OBP. But it has been the perfect storm for him this year: He’s getting on base at a .431 clip, he has the green light to run and, hey, look, the bases got bigger. That has led to eight steals so far, to go with three homers and a .372 batting average. Obviously he won’t keep this up all year, or even all month, but he doesn’t have to be this good to be a huge plus for Baltimore.
Patrick Wisdom, 3B, Cubs
Key stat: 8 homers
A first-round pick for the Cardinals way back in 2012, Wisdom never could stick in St. Louis and bounced around from there to Texas to Seattle, mostly in the Minor Leagues. He finally got a chance with the rebuilding Cubs in 2021 and thrived, hitting 28 homers in 106 games and finishing fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. He held onto the third base job most of 2022, putting up roughly league average numbers, but he's gotten off to a roaring start for the surprising Cubs, smashing eight homers. What’s most remarkable about those eight homers is that five of them came in the first four days of the Cubs’ current road trip, including two Monday night against the A’s.
James Outman, OF, Dodgers
Key stat: .404 OBP
Outman, already 25 (he’s older than Juan Soto), certainly hasn’t come out of nowhere: He was a Top 10 Dodgers prospect by MLB Pipeline heading into the season, after all, and he was impressive in a four-game cameo with the Dodgers in 2022. But wow, what a player he has been so far. The player the organization once said had a “caveman’s” swing has been everything the Dodgers could have hoped, hitting for power, playing terrific defense and changing games with his speed -- he has a league-leading three triples so far. Teammate Miguel Vargas affectionately calls him “Tarzan,” saying, “he is whatever he wants to be, he’s the greatest.” So far, it’s difficult to argue: He can do anything.
Thairo Estrada, 2B, Giants
Key stat: .365 batting average
In 2018, the year before he made his MLB debut with the Yankees, Estrada was shot by attempted robbers in his home country of Venezuela; the bullet was not removed until six months later, once the Minor League season had started. He bounced up and down between The Bronx and Triple-A Scranton before the Yankees designated him for assignment in April 2021 -- a week before they traded him (for cash considerations) to the team known for finding useful guys who didn’t fit with other teams: the Giants.
Estrada fit in immediately and had the best year of his career in 2022. But this season he has shown surprising power with three homers so far and is hitting a stunning .365 while often batting in the No. 2 hole. There may not be a more Giants story than Thairo Estrada turning into an All-Star on their watch.
Jarred Kelenic, OF, Mariners
Key stat: .723 slugging
Well: It’s finally happening. Kelenic, for a couple of years, was the example of a supposed lack of Mets foresight after the team traded him to Seattle for a (very expensive) Robinson Canó and (briefly disappointing) Edwin Díaz. The Mariners were going to reap the benefits of Kelenic’s supposed prospect brilliance. And then … he was terrible. He hit .181 in 93 games in 2021. He was somehow worse last year, hitting .141 in 54 games. You wondered if the Mariners would just give up on him.
Fair to say it’s a good thing they didn’t: He at last looks like the star we all thought he would be, hitting homers in four straight games last week and, somehow, being the team’s best hitter so far. (One of the big reasons for the turn: He seems to be able to finally crush a slider.) People were excited about the Mariners this year before we knew Kelenic might have turned a corner. People should be really excited about them -- and him -- now.
Josh Lowe, OF, Rays
Key stat: .359 batting average
Of all the reasons for the Rays’ hot start -- and it should be noted that there are four Rays among the top 30 WAR leaders, including Brandon Lowe, who pronounces his surname differently -- Josh Lowe may be the biggest, and definitely the most surprising. It’s Lowe’s extra-base-hit ability that has stood out so far: He has five doubles and four homers in only 43 at-bats. Oh, and he has stolen a couple of bases too and played terrific defense.