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MLB Leaderboard Watch: What to Make of These 10 Early Stat Standouts

by Chris Brown

Look at MLB leaderboards right now and you’ll see a mix of the expected and unexpected. Aaron Judge is tied for the MLB lead in homers. That sounds about right. Christian Yelich is tied for the worst WAR value of all hitters in baseball. Come again?

We’re still under two weeks into the 2020 Major League Baseball season, and 10-12 game stretches in baseball can be unpredictable, with things tending to more or less even out over a full 162-game schedule. But in a 60-game season, there isn’t that time. Several teams are at or quickly approaching a fifth of their regular season contests being complete. So what statistical standouts at this point are particularly encouraging? Which spell trouble? And which are rather meaningless with the small sample size? Let’s dive right in with 10 teams and players with intriguing numbers to begin the year.

Note: All stats and rankings are accurate as of the completion of games on August 4.

The Cubs have the best starter’s ERA in MLB but the worst bullpen ERA.

It’s pretty incredible that a team with a reliever ERA of 7.64 — almost a run higher than the 29th-ranked club — can be off to a 9-2 start. Craig Kimbrel’s disastrous 2019 season has carried over into this year, as he’s given up six earned runs on four hits, two home runs and four walks while recording just five outs in three appearances. It’s far from just Kimbrel that’s been a problem, though, as six other pitchers who’ve made multiple relief appearances this season have an ERA over 7.00. 

So how do the Cubs have a 9-2 record? It starts with the starters, who collectively have a sensational 2.01 ERA through 11 contests. Kyle Hendricks’ 3.54 mark is the worst of any pitcher in the team’s rotation. Add in the fact that the Cubs’ high-powered offense features seven players with multiple home runs and you can see how the team is off to a strong start. The Cubs rotation will surely not be able to sustain that level of success, though, and David Ross will need much more from his bullpen to make a deep playoff run in 2020.

Corey Seager leads baseball in hard-hit balls.

After returning from Tommy John surgery last year, the Dodgers’ shortstop didn’t flash quite the power of the past and ended up taking a back seat behind the MVP season of Cody Bellinger. He’s off to an incredible start to the 2020 season, hitting .356/.408/.644 and reminding those who had forgotten just how special of a talent he is. The hard-hit ball, as defined by MLB’s Statcast system, is one with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher. As you might expect, good things tend to happen when you’re hitting the ball that hard. Seager has 25 hard-hit balls this season, six more than the second-ranked player, Royals catcher Salvador Perez. On a Dodgers team with the 2019 NL MVP and 2018 AL MVP in the outfield, the player to watch this season may be at shortstop.

The Indians have posted the second-best ERA in baseball but the worst batting average.

We knew Cleveland’s pitching would be a strength, but no one projected its rotation to be this historically good to start the season. Indians starters went at least six innings while allowing two or fewer runs in seven straight games to begin the season, a feat only accomplished by one other team (‘93 Braves) since 1901. On Aug. 4, Shane Bieber brought his season strikeout total to 35, the third-most by any pitcher through his first three games of a season dating back to 1893. Overall, the team’s 2.40 ERA trails only the Dodgers.

Despite that pitching dominance, Cleveland is sitting at .500 (6-6) to begin the year, in large part because of an incredibly weak offense. The team is averaging just 1.4 runs per game over the last week and its .183/.282/.270 batting line for the season is quite poor. Francisco Lindor (3 HR, 8 RBI) and Jose Ramirez (2 HR, 6 RBI) are hitting, but they’re about the only ones. The Indians’ incredible rotation figures to keep them a competitive team all season, but they’re going to need much more from their offense to succeed in October.

Lance Lynn leads all MLB starters in ERA.

The Rangers starter didn’t give up an earned run until his 19th inning of the season, and currently sports a 0.49 ERA through three starts. Entering his mid-30s, Lynn has emerged as one of the best pitchers in baseball over the last year. Last season, he posted a 16-11 record with a 3.67 ERA and career-high 246 strikeouts, finishing fifth in AL Cy Young balloting and ranking third among all pitchers in Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement metric. With a change in his positioning on the mound and increase in fastball usage, Lynn is performing like a top-level ace for a Rangers team that will need strong pitching to have any shot of making the postseason.

Christian Yelich is tied for the worst WAR value in baseball.

The Brewers outfielder tallied 7.3 Wins Above Replacement (via Baseball Reference) in his 2018 NL MVP season and 7.0 last season despite playing in only 130 games. Through the first eight games of the Brewers season this year, Yelich’s WAR value is -0.6, tied with Hunter Pence for the worst mark of any MLB hitter. Yelich has just three hits and three walks in his first 37 plate appearances and looks completely lost at the plate right now. But Yelich has proven himself to be one of the best hitters in the game over the last season, and a poor eight-game stretch — no matter how bad — shouldn’t change that perception. There’s really no reason to believe he won’t snap out of this early-season funk for a team that desperately needs him firing on all cylinders offensively.

The Diamondbacks are last in baseball in home runs, with three times fewer than the 29th-ranked team.

Thirty-six MLB players have more home runs than the Dbacks through Aug. 4. Last season, six Arizona players surpassed 15 homers, with three — Eduardo Escobar, Ketel Marte and Christian Walker — hitting 29+ longballs. Then this past offseason, the team added outfielders Starling Marte and Kole Calhoun, who hit 23 and 33 home runs, respectively, in 2019. The personnel is certainly there for the Diamondbacks to be an above average offensive team, particularly in the power department. There’s no great explanation for the lack of power, but it’s clear with a 3-8 record that in a shortened season Arizona needs to get the bats going sooner than later.

Nelson Cruz leads baseball in RBI at age 40.

Baseball’s leader in home runs during the 2010s hasn’t slowed down one bit to start the new decade. The Twins’ offense — with a +27 run differential — picked off right where it left off after a historic 2019 season, and Cruz is right in the middle of it. The DH is batting .395/.435/.674 with three homers and three doubles through Minnesota’s first 11 games and hitting an absolutely absurd .700 (7-for-10) with runners in scoring position. That eye-popping stat isn’t going to last, of course, but despite his age, betting on Cruz being anything other than one of the best hitters in baseball is just silly at this point.

The Padres are second in MLB in runs scored, ahead of the Dodgers, Yankees, Twins and Astros.

With an 8-2 record, the Rockies have been the biggest surprise in the NL West thus far, but the Padres certainly deserve some attention. San Diego’s 66 runs this season trail only the Braves (69), and the Padres lead baseball in steals by a wide margin with 18. After two disappointing seasons, Wil Myers looks like the high-level version of himself again following an offseason swing change. 23-year-old outfielder Trent Grisham is tied for third in baseball with four homers, Fernando Tatis already has 11 RBI and three steals and Tommy Pham and Manny Machado are off to solid starts. 

On the pitching side, Chris Paddack has delivered with a 2-0 record, 2.65 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in three starts while Dinelson Lamet has impressed with a 1.72 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 15 ⅔ frames. There’s no reason to believe any team other than the Dodgers is going to win that division, but with the expanded playoffs and the young talent on that roster, the Padres are going to be a team to watch the rest of the way.

Nick Castellanos is tied for the MLB lead in home runs.

Many expected a breakout from Castellanos now that he’s made the transition from playing half his games at the spacious Comerica Park to the hitter friendly Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. But no one expected what we’ve seen thus far. Castellanos is tied with Aaron Judge for the MLB lead with six home runs, and all of those have come in his last seven games. He also leads baseball in slugging percentage (.921) and OPS (1.363) through the first roughly two weeks of the season. And Statcast reveals that, while of course unsustainable, these numbers aren’t some complete fluke. Castellanos’ expected batting average is .404 and he’s in the 93rd percentile for hard hit percentage and 99th percentile for barrel percentage. In simpler terms: he’s squaring the ball up well and hitting it extremely hard. 

The White Sox are second in baseball in OPS.

This may not be quite as eye-catching of a stat as some of the others here, but it provides me an entrance to talk about one of the most exciting teams in baseball right now. Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert, both just 23 years old, already look like one of the more exciting outfield duos in the game. Robert is third in the AL in WAR and batting .364/.429/.568 through his first 11 major league games, while Jimenez has tallied three homers and eight RBI. 

Lucas Giolito got off to a rough start on the mound but may have righted the ship. Shortstop Tim Anderson is on the IL with a groin strain while rookie infielder Nick Madrigal and veteran slugger Edwin Encarnacion are both dealing with shoulder injuries. The White Sox are surely hoping to have those key players back in the lineup before long as they look to show they’re finally ready to contend this season. 

Photos by Ian D’Andrea / Flickr (Yelich), Erik Drost / Flickr (Bieber), Andy Witchger / Flickr (Cruz)

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