Looking around the American League Central landscape three weeks into the 2019 season, it comes as no surprise to see strong production from some expected sources, like Trevor Bauer, Carlos Santana, Nelson Cruz and Adalberto Mondesi. But there have been several players or elements of the game that have made
Looking around the American League Central landscape three weeks into the 2019 season, it comes as no surprise to see strong production from some expected sources, like Trevor Bauer, Carlos Santana, Nelson Cruz and Adalberto Mondesi. But there have been several players or elements of the game that have made largely under-the-radar -- but still significant -- contributions to each team's overall success.
With that in mind, here's a look around the division at a "secret weapon" for each team thus far in 2019.
Indians: Adam Cimber
When evaluating the weapons that the Indians have at their disposal in 2019, the starting rotation is the obvious choice. Although the team lost Mike Clevinger (upper back strain) and had rough outings from Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco over the weekend, the Tribe still entered Thursday leading all starting staffs in strikeouts per nine innings (11.55). But because the star-studded rotation absorbs most of the attention, there has been much less focus on a reliever who has served as the Indians’ secret weapon through the first few weeks of the season.
The Indians entered Spring Training this year with no certainties in their bullpen other than Brad Hand, but Cimber has had a stellar start to his 2019 season. In nine appearances, the righty has given up two hits, struck out six batters and has been charged with just one run on a two-run homer off Oliver Perez on Monday. Entering the week, he owned the second-lowest barrel rate of all qualified pitchers who have thrown at least 200 pitches, according to Statcast, dating back to the start of the 2018 season (1.8 percent). He's stayed in the top 4 percent of the league in exit velocity since last season (84.7 mph in 2018; 82.4 mph in '19) and was in the top 1 percent in xSLG (.166), wOBA (.080) and xwOBA (.137) entering Tuesday.
“I think he’s excelled,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “He got a chance to pitch full innings and he’s taken advantage of it.”
Royals: Martín Maldonado
The Royals feel they were lucky to be able to sign Maldonado in Spring Training after catcher Salvador Perez was lost for the season because of Tommy John surgery. Maldonado, who won the Gold Glove in 2017, is renowned for his defense, particularly his framing skills. According to recent data, the percentage of pitches out of the strike zone that are called strikes have been up this season from last (6.1 percent from 4.8 percent) with Maldonado behind the plate, and the percentage of pitches in the zone that are called balls are down (3.6 percent from 4.7 percent).
Royals catching coach Pedro Grifol agrees that Maldonado’s pitch framing skills have been more than solid so far.
“He would be in our elite category,” Grifol said.
The Royals’ analytical department has its own system to grade framing skills based on a points system -- basically, catchers are rewarded the more a pitch is outside the zone is called a strike, and penalized vice versa. Maldonado is around plus-12 for the season, Grifol said.
“He has been everything we thought he would be,” Grifol said. “He has tremendous framing skills, and so does [backup] Cam Gallagher.”
Tigers: Matthew Boyd
Boyd isn’t exactly a secret after his emergence last year, but his maturation into a front-line starter has gone relatively unnoticed. The lefty finished his fourth start Tuesday leading all big league pitchers with 1.2 fWAR and 1.70 Fielding Independent Pitching, tied for the Major League lead with 36 strikeouts and second with 13.32 strikeouts per nine innings.
His slider has become one of baseball’s most devastating pitches, generating strikeout and whiff rates better than 45 percent, according to Statcast, while yielding a mere .209 expected batting average. With Michael Fulmer and Matt Moore out and Jordan Zimmermann trying to get his repertoire back in order, Boyd is the unquestioned leader of the Tigers’ staff.
Twins: Aggressive infield shifting
The Twins were the third-most aggressive shifting team in the Majors last season, with shifts on 28.5 percent of opposing plate appearances, but they have taken their positioning to a new extreme this season, shifting on 44.3 percent of plate appearances, including a MLB-leading 36.7 percent shift rate against right-handed batters.
This is significant considering that four of the Twins' core pitchers -- Kyle Gibson, Taylor Rogers, Blake Parker and Trevor May -- have induced ground-ball rates of 50 percent or higher this season, while Martin Perez is also over 50 percent in his career, and Jose Berrios and Michael Pineda both have career marks above 40 percent. Opponents have a .219 wOBA on ground balls against the Twins this season, fifth lowest in the American League.
"Our infielders have been -- they've played along very well and are very open-minded to some of the suggestions that are a little bit unorthodox and a little different," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "They've not just got along with them, but kind of embraced what is going on here. And they've done a great job, because it's not an easy thing to put players in spots on the field that they're not used to playing in."
White Sox: Yoán Moncada
After striking out 217 times during his first full season in the Majors, Moncada took it upon himself in the offseason to adjust his approach. White Sox manager Rick Renteria terms it as “attacking early and defending late,” manifesting itself in one way through Moncada not taking a called third strike this season. He topped the Majors with 85 called third strikes in ’18.
Moncada also has a 69.5 percent swing rate at pitches in the zone vs. 62.3 percent last year, and his 96.4 mph average exit velocity is up this season from 90.6. A position change from second to third also seemed to help Moncada, but through 17 games, his new approach not only was producing All-Star numbers but seemed sustainable.
Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.