This is one that probably ends up needing a lot of discussion. Some of these guys will presumably go right back to being themselves from here on out, but there are probably a few guys on this list that end up with some pretty spiffy numbers come the end of the season. The perceived falls of some of these guys may have have been quite excessive, but even so, I can say confidently that I didn't expect in March to go, "Wow, Austin Kearns is third among AL outfielders in OPS and wOBA. Didn't he retire?"
But Kearns is just one of many very surprising performances so far this season, and I'll go over some of the ones that are particularly surprising here. Of course, this is probably a distinction that's more likely to weed itself out in the comments though. But we'll start off with Kearns, who's established himself as Cleveland's primary left fielder this season. After posting a 0.6 fWAR (essentially all because of his defense, he had sub-.300 wOBA's each season) in 166 games between 2008 and 2009, he was all but written off coming into 2010. But now Kearns is batting .327/.402/.531, and while his strikeout rate and BABIP are high, his above average power and walk rates have returned. ZiPS now projects him as a +16 bat over 600 plate appearances for 2010, which combined with his plus glove would make him pretty much the only good thing about Cleveland's season so far.
(As an aside, if you asked a Cleveland fan who their worst outfielder would be by 2010, and the choices were Kearns, Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore, do you think that anyone would've been mad enough to choose Sizemore? Isn't baseball nuts?)
Continuing forward, here are a few more candidates:
- Vernon Wells, Toronto: He's already got more WAR in 2010 than in any season since 2006. Not only has his bat bounced back in a big way (projected ZiPS wOBA: .367, +20 per 600 PA), but his defensive metrics are positive again after consecutive seasons with double-digit negative marks. He's on pace for 7 fWAR right now after posting 3.0 fWAR total from 2007 through 2009, to put it another way.
- Two other veteran outfielders known better for their salaries than their performance of late, Alfonso Soriano and Magglio Ordonez, have also started the year off impressively. Maggs is tied for 5th in the AL in fWAR, with superior walk, K/BB, and line drive rate marks than he has in any single season. It'll be really tough for Detroit to avoid that vesting option if he's playing like that. Soriano's resurgence has been arguably more surprising, as he's also tied for fifth in fWAR, but in the NL. His big-time power has returned (.290 ISO) and his plate discipline numbers indicate a hitter making a serious effort to improve his approach (improved contact rate, significantly lower first-pitch strike and swinging strike rates). There's reason to believe that Soriano could return to his ~4 WAR level this season.
- David Eckstein has struck out just twice in 143 plate appearances, roughly 1.6% of the time, but more importantly he's getting on base at a good clip and the metrics have rated his defense quite positively so far. He's currently second among NL second baseman in fWAR, behind that Utley guy, and he's already had his best season since 2006 if he stops playing today.
- I've covered Wigginton before, but he's still third in the AL in wOBA. ZiPS has him finishing the year with 29 home runs in 497 plate appearances, and an OPS over 900. He's pretty much writing the book on how to finish strong in a contract year, just like he did before signing with Baltimore in 2008 (3.2 fWAR in 2008 with Houston). If only some other guys in Baltimore's lineup played remotely close to what was expected.
- Livan Hernandez officially has me baffled. He's not missing bats and he's not inducing tons of groundballs, and his walk rate is only slightly above average. His xFIP and FIP are near 5, but his ERA sits at 1.46 for the year. Between Hernandez and the two guys I mention a little further down this list, I don't know how anyone could really take ERA all that seriously anymore.
- Jose Bautista got a lot of attention on FanGraphs yesterday, being mentioned as part of what we learned in week 6 as well as getting his own individual post about the possibility of him being the "New Ben Zobrist". While I'm certainly not willing to make that distinction yet (and neither is Dave Cameron), Bautista does appear to be on pace for a legitimate impressive showing of power. ZiPS projects him to finish the year with 25 home runs and 27 doubles in 551 plate appearances, good for a career-best .226 ISO (his career ISO is .172, still above average). He's not much of a defender at third, but he's solid in the outfield corners, and that kind of power should play even in left field. Also, I was going to include Bautista's teammate Alex Gonzalez (I mean, he's already got 10 homers), but then I saw his .298 OBP and thought that maybe we should give that one some more time.
- I can't tell how surprised we should be by Francisco Liriano. He was so freaking dominant in 2006, but he looked like a fraction of that pitcher last season. But this year the velocity and command are back, and hitters have gone right back to having serious troubles hitting this guy. He leads the AL in FIP and fWAR, and while his HR/FB is unsustainable he's still fourth in xFIP. The Twins appear to have their ace, and people should be scared of that team if its healthy come October.
- C.J. Wilson and Doug Fister have the two lowest ERA's in the AL right now among starting pitchers. I know, it's kinda weird, right? But of them have FIPs in the low-3's and xFIP's in the 4.20-4.30 range, so expectations should be tempered somewhat. But at this point last season, Fister was a guy returning to the upper minors for the third straight full year and Wilson was an established set-up man. That's surprising, I'd say.
- Jose Lopez leads the league in UZR (by a lot) and DRS (by a little). I know that it'd be reasonable to expect a roughly average defensive second baseman to be slightly better as a third baseman, but his UZR/150 for 2010 sits at +32.3 and his DRS for the year sits at +13. I know that we can presumably attribute some of this to batted ball distribution and possibly some other sample size stuff, but still, those are some big numbers for mid-May.
Certainly, there are more guys that have surprised, it's a rather broad distinction. But hopefully this is a spring board, because the 2010 season has had no shortage of surprises so far.