Christian Yelich is doing amazing things this year for the Brewers, following up on his MVP season with a year that – if he continues to produce at a similar pace all year – will be incredibly great. But it wasn’t impossible to see that coming. After all, we just witnessed what he did in the second half of the 2018 season.
What we’re doing today is looking at five people – well, four people and one team – doing things that would have seemed pretty damn impossible to believe just a couple of months ago. Four of them are very good surprises, but one is decidedly bad.
Let’s jump in.
Tommy La Stella, Angels
What he’s doing: La Stella has been the best Angels’ hitter not named Mike Trout this year. In his first 62 games in his new uniform, the lefty who spent the first five years of his career primarily as a utility/pinch-hitter type has become a stalwart in manager Brad Ausmus’ lineup. He’s popped 15 home runs to go with a .307 average and .900 OPS. Only one other AL hitter equals/beats La Stella’s numbers in those three categories: George Springer (though Trout is close, with a .295 average).
Why that’s, um, surprising: In his 396 games in the major leagues heading into 2019, covering parts of five seasons, La Stella hit exactly 10 home runs. Last year for the Cubs, La Stella played in 123 games but only started 24 of those in the field. He was a reliable pinch hitter for manager Joe Maddon, posting a .402 on-base percentage in 90 pinch-hit plate appearances, but he only had six extra-base hits (five doubles and one homer) in that role. In the offseason, La Stella was traded to the Angels because he didn’t fit into Chicago’s plans, and he wasn’t a lock to make his new team’s roster this spring, either.
Lucas Giolito, White Sox
What he’s doing: Giolito leads the AL with his 2.46 FIP, is third in the league with his 2.28 ERA and is one of only 14 pitchers in the bigs to throw a shutout so far this season. In 75 innings, he’s allowed only 47 hits, 22 walks and four homers, while striking out 89. In his past seven starts, Giolito has a 0.88 ERA and he’s working on a scoreless streak of 22 innings. Yeah. Super impressive.
Why that’s, um, surprising: Look, we’ve long wanted to believe in Giolito. He has the talent and the raw stuff to be successful in the big leagues. That’s why he was a first-round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft and why he was a centerpiece in the trade that sent Adam Eaton from the White Sox to the Nationals. But, yikes, 2018 was ugly. Giolito made 32 starts and posted a 6.13 ERA. To put that in perspective: In all of baseball history, only 10 pitchers have ever made at least 32 starts with an ERA worse than 6.13. Yeah. Any realistic hopes for the big right-hander in 2019 involved him staying in the rotation and being serviceable, at best.
What they’re doing: The Twins are tied with the Astros and Dodgers for best winning percentage in baseball (.672); Houston and Los Angeles have more wins (45 each to Minnesota’s 43), but they’ve both played three more games. With a 10.5-game lead over second-place Cleveland, the Twins own the largest division advantage in baseball. Their starters have the fourth-best ERA in the sport (3.59) and the fourth-best BB/9 (2.31). The offense has produced 14 more runs than any other team in baseball and 125 homers (Seattle tops MLB at 126). The team batting average (.274), OPS (.856), wOBA (.357) and wRC+ (124) all easily lead baseball.
Why that’s, um, surprising: The Twins were pretty disappointing last year, so much so that manager Paul Molitor was fired after the season, a year after he was named the AL Manager of the Year for 2017. Those stats mentioned in the previous graph? Here’s where the Twins ranked in those categories in 2018: starter’s ERA (22nd, 4.54) and BB/9 (29th, 3.79), and on offense: runs (13th, 738) homers (23rd, 166), average (15th, .250), OPS (18th, .723), wOBA (18th, .313) and wRC+ (19th, 95).
Derek Dietrich, Reds
What he’s doing: In his first at-bat for the Reds, Dietrich slugged a three-run pinch-hit home run in the seventh inning of a game Cincinnati won 5-3. He hit two home runs against the Pirates in just his third start of the year, on April 7, then hit a solo homer and a two-run triple against the Cardinals on April 12 – and a folk hero was born. Dietrich had another two-homer game against the Giants on May 3 and a three-homer game against the Pirates on May 28. So far this year, Dietrich has 17 homers and a .984 OPS in just 169 plate appearances.
Why that’s, um, surprising: Despite his positional versatility – he’s started at least 50 big league games at second base, third base, left field and first base – and 16 homers in 149 games with a 112 OPS+ in 2018, the Marlins designated Dietrich for assignment last November. He remained in the world of free agency until late February, when he signed a minor league deal with the Reds. Dietrich had spent his entire big league career with the Marlins; a second-round pick by the Rays in 2010, he was traded to the Marlins after the 2012 season and made his MLB debut in May 2013.
Kyle Freeland, Rockies
What he’s doing: We’ll finish this piece with a downer. Sorry about that. Freeland is currently in Triple-A Albuquerque, a stunning development that was necessary after the lefty posted a 7.13 ERA in 12 starts for the Rockies. In those dozen games, Freeland allowed 16 homers, 47 earned runs and 68 hits in 59 1/3 innings. In his final three starts before the demotion, the lefty lasted a total of 8 2/3 innings, allowing 21 hits, 15 earned runs and almost as many homers (four) as strikeouts (five). And this wasn’t just a Coors Field thing; in six road starts, Freeland’s ERA was 5.04, too. In his first Triple-A start, Freeland allowed nine hits and four runs in five innings, striking out only two hitters.
Why that’s, um, surprising: I had an NL Cy Young vote last year, and I spent hours evaluating Freeland’s season before casting my ballot with his name in the fifth spot. His season wasn’t in the class of Jacob deGrom or Max Scherzer, or even Aaron Nola, my third choice. But Freeland was damn good at limiting damage. Last year he held opposing hitters to a .546 OPS with runners in scoring position; in 2019 that number is 1.051. Yeah. Expecting him to improve on 2018 might have been unrealistic, but not nearly as unrealistic as what has actually happened this year.
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