Well, it’s been quite an eventful first month of the season. We’ve seen the Dodgers look like the best team in baseball, Shohei Ohtani’s return as a two-way sensation and the worst leaguewide offense in the modern era.
Plenty of story lines are what we expected—Mike Trout is better than ever and Jacob deGrom is still doing his thing—while others were much harder to predict. Sports Illustrated‘s MLB staff weighed in on the biggest surprises of the season after its first month.
The Yankees, a team that led the American League in runs per game last year, and are loaded with star power, are boringly bad. Every team goes through a dip at some point, but the surprise here is not just that New York isn’t hitting home runs, it is also that the Yankees seemingly have no other way to win a game.
The Yankees are the only team in baseball without a triple, and they rank last in the league in bunt hits (0), stolen base attempts (5) and advancing from first to third on a single (5). They did not have a sacrifice fly until their 23rd game. Read that again: Through 22 games the Yankees did not have a triple or a sacrifice fly. That is unprecedented. The worst Aprils with neither a triple nor sac fly were only 13 games (1972 Angels) and 10 games (1966 Twins).
The Yankees are 0–6 when they do not hit a home run. They don’t have a balanced enough or versatile enough offense to win games without homers, and they don’t have the starting pitching (outside of Gerrit Cole) or defense to win games in those ways, either. Entering Friday, New York starters did not make it through five innings 12 times. Their defense? It is a bottom-five defense, according to defensive runs saved.
This start is something of an anomaly. The Yankees will hit home runs, which means they will win games, as was the case when they hit three homers in each of their two wins against the Orioles this week. But until then, watching them play such dull baseball has been most surprising.
The Royals are on the most shocking run right now, but I don’t expect them to be there in July. The surprising team that I think might be for real is the Red Sox. J.D. Martinez is a monster again and the pitching is holding up. The players love manager Alex Cora. Especially as the Yankees sputter, it’s starting to look like this is going to be a fun fall in Boston.
The Royals. While I don’t think they’ll be in first place in the AL Central for too much longer, the fact that the team is here after a month of play is remarkable, and I do think it will continue to play better than many people originally expected. And even though Ned Yost is gone, I appreciate that they’re having this success in an appropriately Royals-y fashion: They lead the AL in stolen bases and sacrifice hits while ranking dead last in home runs. If that doesn’t scream, “Party like it’s 2015,” I don’t know what could.
The Giants vaulting into first place in the NL West on the back of their rotation is a shocker, even with San Francisco’s pitching-rich recent past. In 2020, Giants starters ranked 21st in ERA (4.99) and Kevin Gausman is the only holdover from that group who posted an ERA below 5.40 last season. The current rotation’s 2.20 ERA is the best in MLB by more than a third of a run over the Brewers, and the entire pitching staff’s 2.93 ERA ranks second, just a smidge behind the Padres. Soon, San Francisco could become the second team in MLB history to boast five starters with a sub-2.50 ERA through April, according to Stats By STATS.
Farhan Zaidi added three long arms during the offseason—a veteran innings-eater who recorded a 7.22 ERA in 2020 (Anthony DeSclafani), a lefty who was shuffled between the rotation and bullpen during his two stints with the rival Dodgers (Alex Wood) and a former top prospect who’d struggled to stay healthy and effective since his 2016 breakout campaign (Aaron Sanchez). All have been spectacular so far behind Gausman, the Opening Day starter who’s done everything you’d want from the pitcher with that title. DeSclafani’s ERA (1.50) ranks fifth in the majors, and the former Red is striking out and inducing ground balls at career-high rates after tossing his second career shutout on Monday. Wood is only three starts in after battling back stiffness in spring training, but his strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates are all at career bests after he carried a no-hitter through 17 outs against the Rockies on Tuesday. Sanchez boasts a career-low 3.46 FIP and is keeping the ball in the park more effectively than ever, even though his fastball is down 5 mph from its peak. Even Logan Webb, the low man on the totem pole, hurled seven scoreless against the Marlins on Sunday. The next task for Zaidi is adding depth to the bullpen, which has blown a league-high seven saves to slightly dampen what’s been an auspicious start for a team that wasn’t expected to compete with its in-state rivals.
The most pleasant surprise so far is White Sox breakout star Yermín Mercedes, who went 8-for-8 to start the season and has continued to rake throughout the first month. Entering play on Friday, the 28-year-old is hitting .423 with five home runs and a 1.144 OPS. Mercedes could always hit, but he came through the Chicago system as a catcher whose defensive abilities were suspect. But with Eloy Jiménez on the injured list for another few months, Mercedes has gotten his opportunity to play as the team’s everyday DH.
Mercedes is such a surprise, and fan favorite, that he already has a burger named after him at a local restaurant. He even stopped by to enjoy his own Yerminator burger.
I keep waiting for the Red Sox to slip and fall, but it hasn’t happened yet. Since getting swept in three games by Baltimore to open the season, Boston has not lost more than two games in a row. The Red Sox rank in the top five in both pitching and hitting fWAR, though the former is the development I really didn’t see coming. The quartet of Nathan Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodríguez, Garrett Richards and Nick Pivetta have combined for a 3.74 ERA in 101 innings so far. The bullpen has also been strong, ranking second in fWAR (1.5) and third in FIP (3.08). I’m still not sold on the rotation holding up over the course of a full season—Eovaldi and Pivetta last topped 100 innings in 2018, while Richards hasn’t done so since 2015. If the Red Sox can remain in contention for the next couple of months, the impending return of Chris Sale from Tommy John surgery could provide a huge boost to get Boston back to the postseason.
The relative silence from both New York lineups has been jarring to start the 2021 season. The Bronx Bombers started the season mired in teamwide slump, entering Friday sporting a meager .369 slugging percentage. Aaron Boone’s squad is beginning to turn things around at the plate, but the Yankees’ slow start shouldn’t be completely dismissed. This right-handed, homer-reliant lineup could struggle in October.
The picture hasn’t been much rosier in Queens. Michael Conforto and Francisco Lindor have combined for just two dingers, and Lindor is hitting .203. The Mets are averaging 3.0 runs per game, which ranks last in the National League, and Jacob deGrom’s brilliance stands as the sole reason this team is hovering near .500. We started 2021 dreaming of a potential Subway Series. I’m not so sure that’s in the cards after a middling April.
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