7 biggest surprises from first quarter of the season

May 15th, 2024

Can you believe the 2024 season is already more than one quarter complete? It’s true: The majority of teams already have made it through at least 25 percent of their schedule, and the rest should do so later this week. It really does happen fast. It feels like we just got started, and here we are, through the first of four laps.

This is a good time to reflect, to both look back and look forward. If you’re off to a great start, a face plant over the next quarter of the season will erase all that, and if you’re off to a miserable start, well, you’ve got a whole three quarters of the season to make up for it. It wasn’t long ago that we all had big plans and predictions about what was in store for us, and a lot of those predictions look a little embarrassing already. But that’s what a quarter of the season can do: It can alter everything you thought you knew, maybe forever.

Here's a look at the seven biggest surprises of the season's first quarter. Who knows what the next quarter will bring? (Stats below are through Monday’s games unless otherwise noted.)

1. Check out that American League Central

For years the AL Central has been a bit of an afterthought. That certainly was the case in 2023, when the Twins won the division, easily, at 87-75, with both the White Sox and Royals topping 100 losses. There have only been two seasons out of the past 16 in which multiple AL Central teams won more than 90 games, and the division has not had a representative in the ALCS since Cleveland in 2016.

But it doesn’t look like 87 wins will cut it this year -- not even close. The AL Central is downright deep. The Guardians, despite being mostly idle in the offseason, were one of the hottest teams over the first month, but despite being 10 games over .500, they’ve got not one but two teams hot on their trail. The first is not surprising: The defending division champion Twins went on a torrid, sausage-driven win streak to nearly catch up with the Guardians. But the true shock has been the Royals, who have ridden terrific starting pitching and excellent starts from Salvador Perez and Bobby Witt Jr. to a 25-18 record. And don’t forget about the Tigers, who have cooled a bit after a strong start but still have plenty of talent.

Only the White Sox feel like an AL Central team of old. Four winning teams in the AL Central? Who saw that coming?

2. The Yankees are thriving even without Gerrit Cole

There were a lot -- a lot -- of observers and commentators burying the Yankees after it came out in mid-March that Cole would miss “months” with an elbow injury. This was already a team that had missed the postseason in 2023, winning only 82 games, with a front office and manager squarely on the hot seat.

But the Yankees, after sweeping a thrilling four-game Opening Series with the Astros, have looked like the Yankees we’ve all come to know and love (or hate): They have stars everywhere, a rotation staying afloat and a tendency to win close games that feels very Yankee-like. Juan Soto is a downright perfect fit, Giancarlo Stanton has been healthy and launching homers, Anthony Volpe has taken a step forward and Aaron Judge has awakened after a slow start. Now Cole is ramping up to return.

The Yankees were facing a make-or-break year. This thing doesn’t look like it’s breaking any time soon.

3. The Astros look like shells of themselves

The most remarkable streak in all of baseball right now is that the Astros have made seven consecutive ALCS appearances. Seven in a row! That is so hard to do. You knew that streak would have to end at some point, and quite possibly as soon as this season. After all, while this Astros team was thought to be good, there were enough question marks to think they wouldn’t be quite at the same level as some of their previous incarnations.

But that four-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees at home to open the season portended bad, bad times for the Astros. They haven’t risen higher than fourth place in the AL West since, and even after winning four of five games entering Tuesday, remained nine games below .500. This is despite terrific starts by Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker and Ronel Blanco, of all people, who even threw a no-hitter. (Less than terrific starts: Alex Bregman, Cristian Javier, Josh Hader and, especially, José Abreu.)

The only saving grace for the Astros is that no one else in the AL West has run away with things in their absence. Both the Mariners and the Rangers have had the opportunity to break away, and neither has done so. So the Astros very much remain within striking distance, but they also haven’t looked this mortal in a long, long time.

4. The Brewers haven’t missed a beat (but in an unexpected way)

There was an industry-wide sense that the Brewers would take a big step backward this year, and you can understand why. Craig Counsell is one of the most respected managers in baseball, and he not only left, he went to the division-rival Cubs. He was followed out the door shortly thereafter by staff ace Corbin Burnes, who was traded to Baltimore. (Oh, and star closer Devin Williams got hurt, too, and has yet to pitch in 2024.)

The Brewers won the National League Central last year, but how in the world could you expect them to do so again without those guys? Well, they have just kept winning, going toe to toe with Counsell’s Cubs. Yet they are doing so in a completely different fashion from the one we have become accustomed to seeing from them. That’s to say: They’ve been raking. Brice Turang has been the perfect sparkplug; Willy Adames is having the best year of his career; Christian Yelich has flashed MVP form again around an IL stint; Rhys Hoskins and Gary Sánchez were perfect late-offseason additions; William Contreras has been one of the best hitters in baseball.

The pitching hasn’t quite been up to its old tricks, but it hasn’t needed to be -- not with one of the highest-scoring offenses in MLB. The Brewers just might be slugging their way to first place. When, in recent history, have they ever said that?

5. Shohei’s … better?

We all knew that Shohei Ohtani wasn’t going to pitch this year, which didn’t really make anyone less excited to see him debut in Dodger Blue. He is still Shohei Ohtani. But it was reasonable to think his recovery from Tommy John surgery would slow him somewhat, right?

Well, after a (slightly) slow start, Ohtani is, incredibly, having the best offensive season of his career so far, putting up an MLB-high-tying .354 average while leading the NL in slugging (.659), OPS (1.081) and total bases (108); he's also tied for the lead in hits (58) and doubles (15). (He even has nine steals. He might end up with a 30-30 season.) Despite being a full-time DH who can’t accrue any defensive value, he once again ranks right near the top of MLB in WAR.

You watch Ohtani and you think there isn’t much more he could do that would amaze you. And then he does something else.

6. The best starters are the most unlikely ones

Here are some names that were on MLB.com’s preseason Cy Young favorites piece this year: Spencer Strider. Kodai Senga. Gerrit Cole. Logan Webb. Pablo López. You won’t find any of them anywhere near the top of MLB in ERA so far this year. But you know who you will find? Here are some of the pitchers in the top 10 entering Tuesday.

  • Shota Imanaga, Cubs (1st, 0.96)
  • Ranger Suárez, Phillies (3rd, 1.50)
  • Seth Lugo, Royals (4th, 1.66)
  • Javier Assad, Cubs (5th, 1.70)
  • Ronel Blanco, Astros (8th, 2.23)
  • Kutter Crawford, Red Sox (T-9th, 2.24)
  • Tanner Houck, Red Sox (T-9th, 2.24)

You know what Lugo, Assad, Blanco, Crawford and Houck have in common? None of the five was a full-time Major League starter as recently as 2022 (or in some cases, even 2023.) It’s tough to find great starting pitchers. And apparently, it’s even harder to predict who they will be.

7. The young hitters are struggling

This was going to be the year when the youngsters took over, led by the Jacksons: Holliday of Baltimore and Chourio of Milwaukee. The best prospects in the game were going to make their mark, immediately. But it turns out that hitting in the Majors is, uh, difficult. Look at the numbers for the most heralded hitting prospects -- all ranked in the Top 25 on MLB Pipeline’s preseason Top 100 list -- to make their debut this year:

  • Jackson Holliday, Orioles: 2-for-34 (sent back to Triple-A)
  • Jackson Chourio, Brewers: .207/.254/.322
  • Wyatt Langford, Rangers: .224/.295/.293 (on injured list)
  • Colt Keith, Tigers: .174/.238/.200

There is little question that these are going to be terrific Major League players … eventually. But it’s not happening so far this year.

Baseball: It’s hard!