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One Surprise Team From Each Division to Start the 2020 MLB Season

by Chris Brown

We all knew that, by its nature, the 2020 MLB season was going to yield some wild results. That said, few could have predicted that on Aug. 12, the Marlins and Rockies would be division leaders while the Orioles and Tigers would both be playing above .500 baseball. 

The regular season is still less than three weeks old, meaning “don’t jump to any big conclusions yet” is still good advice. But in a 60-game season, just a few weeks is a significant portion of the schedule. Twenty-four MLB teams have played over a quarter of their schedule, with many quickly approaching the one-third complete mark. With that in mind, let’s take a look at one surprise team from each division through the first few weeks of the season. Many are surprise contenders, while others were expected contenders who are off to especially strong starts.

Note: All stats and rankings are accurate through Aug. 11 games.

AL East: Baltimore Orioles (8-7)

In my preseason AL East preview, I asked if the Orioles, who were projected by FanGraphs for the worst record of any MLB team, would win even 15 games this season. After holding on for an extra-innings win over the Phillies on Aug. 11, Baltimore is now more than halfway toward that mark just 15 games into the season. In recent weeks, Brandon Hyde’s club swept the Rays, got swept by the Marlins, and took the first two games of a weekend series against the defending champion Nats before the final game was suspended. The O’s then began a three-game road set with an extra-innings victory over the Phillies. 

So how has the team widely expected to be the worst in the game posted an above .500 record through its first 15 contests? It all starts with the team’s surprisingly dynamic offense, which has posted the best batting average (.260) and second-best OPS (.788) of any AL team to begin the season. Seven Orioles batters have hit multiple home runs, including designated hitter/corner infielder Renato Nunez, who leads the team with five and is showing improved on-base skills to begin the year. Outfielder Anthony Santander’s 15 RBI are the fifth-most in the league. Then there’s Baltimore’s middle infield duo of Jose Iglesias and Hanser Alberto. The glove-first Iglesias, the owner of a career OPS below .700, is batting .395/.400/.579, while Alberto is slashing .348/.366/.565.

On the pitching side, the Orioles’ 4.43 team ERA isn’t impressive, but the team’s relief corps has been solid, pitching to a respectable 3.99 mark with 68 strikeouts in 58 ⅔ frames. Offensive regression is absolutely coming for Baltimore, but I will say this: they’re clearly a better team than I gave them credit for, and clearly not the worst team in the majors this season. With a 16-team playoff format, if the team keeps this up for a few more weeks, we’ll have to start really having the playoff discussion, like it or not.

AL Central: Detroit Tigers (9-6)

If the regular season were to end right now, the Tigers would be a playoff team. Prior to their Aug. 11 loss to the White Sox, Detroit had won four straight, including a three-game sweep of the Pirates. Popular breakout pick Matthew Boyd has not fared well atop the team’s rotation, posting an ugly 9.20 ERA in 14 ⅔ innings. Also not faring well to begin the season: Ivan Nova (5.74 ERA), Michael Fulmer (6.35 ERA) and Rony Garcia (7.36 ERA). That’s four of the five pitchers who’ve made multiple starts for the Tigers this season. The only rotation member who’s found real success: Spencer Turnbull. The 27-year-old right hander has pitched to a 2-0 record and 2.00 ERA, striking out 18 batters in 18 innings.

On the offensive end, Miguel Cabrera seems to be experiencing… some sort of semi-revival. The 11-time All-Star is hitting just .189 but does have four homers through 15 games, which is a third of his season total from 2019. The true offensive start to begin the season is center fielder Jacoby Jones, who’s hitting .311 with a 1.113 OPS, five longballs, four doubles, 12 RBI and four steals, the second-highest total in baseball.

Overall, though, Detroit’s early success looks even less sustainable than Baltimore’s. The Tigers’ team ERA of 5.11 is the second-worst of any AL team, and the team’s offense, despite some early overperforming, is still middle-of-the-pack by many measures. The Tigers will be back near or at the bottom of the division standings before long, I believe, but it’s certainly been interesting to see what they’ve done so far.

AL West: Oakland Athletics (12-6)

Unlike the Orioles and Tigers, it’s not a surprise that the A’s are competitive. What is a surprise is that Bob Melvin’s team leads the American League West by four games on Aug. 12. That’s of course partly because the clear division-favorite Astros are two games below .500, but it’s also due in large part to the fact that Oakland leads the AL in wins. The Athletics have dropped two games in a row, but were riding a nine-game winning streak prior to that. 

The team’s offense was clearly one of its greatest strengths going into the season, and it’s been … fine to start the year. Matt Chapman and Matt Olson have combined to hit 11 home runs, though Olson is slashing just .145/.321/.387. And outfielders Robbie Grossman and Ramon Laureano have also put up strong numbers to begin the season. But Stephen Piscotty (.217 AVG, 1 HR), Marcus Semien (.205 AVG, 1 HR), and Khris Davis (.150 AVG, 1 HR) have all struggled out of the gate, and the team is middle of the pack in the AL in runs scored and OPS. It’s actually easy to be encouraged about the team given their 12-6 record despite slow offensive starts for some key players.

The greatest aspect of the A’s performance to date has undoubtedly been its pitching. Oakland’s pitchers have posted a collective 3.27 ERA thus far, the third-best mark in the majors, despite two starters — Mike Fiers and Sean Manaea — with an ERA above 6.80. Frankie Montas, the most recent winner of the AL Player of the Week award, has posted a 1.57 ERA with 22 strikeouts to nine walks in 23 innings. Chris Bassitt has somehow been even better, pitching to a 1.08 ERA in 16 ⅔ frames, while 22-year-old Jesus Luzardo has posted a 2.60 mark in four appearances (two starts). And while there were certainly some questions about the A’s bullpen heading into the year, the group — highlighted by Liam Hendricks, Yusmeiro Petit, Joakim Soria and Burch Smith — has posted the second-best ERA (2.25) of any relief corps in the AL. 

While some negative regression is to be expected from the pitching staff, there will also likely be some positive regression from Oakland’s hitters moving forward. If the Astros don’t get things going pretty quickly following their rocky, injury-plagued start, the A’s could begin really running away with the AL West.

NL East: Miami Marlins (7-4)

It’s Aug. 12, and the Marlins — who missed more than a week of action due to a COVID-19 outbreak — have as many wins as last year’s AL champion and one more win than the defending World Series champions. It’s only more impressive when you consider the amount of roster turnover on the team due to their outbreak. On Aug. 8, the team became the first in MLB history to have a different pitcher start each of the team’s first nine games. 

You’d think with all that in mind — plus, it’s the Marlins — that the team’s pitching numbers would be pretty lackluster at best. Instead, Miami has posted an impressive 3.35 ERA — the fifth-best in the NL — this season. One of the team’s best performers has been Pablo Lopez, the 24-year-old, who’s allowed just two earned runs while striking out 11 batters in 10 innings. 

On the offensive side of things, the Marlins have been predictably poor, with their team OPS in the bottom third of MLB. Corner infielders Brian Anderson (.306 AVG, 10 RBI) and Jesus Aguilar (.282 AVG, 4 HR) have been really the only two bright spots who’ve played consistently. 

The Marlins still sit atop the NL East standings despite having four fewer wins than the Braves. After winning five straight after their return to action post-coronavirus outbreak, Don Mattingly’s team has now dropped three games in a row, a sign that things may be evening out. Miami’s start to the season has been incredible, but there’s really no reason to expect it to last on any significant level.

NL Central: Chicago Cubs (11-3)

Like the Athletics — and unlike the other three teams above — the Cubs were certainly expected to compete in 2020. But in a highly competitive NL Central with no team really considered to be great, first-year manager David Ross has guided his team to the best winning percentage (.786) in baseball and a 4.5-game division lead. 

We all knew the abilities of the Cubs’ core group of hitters, and they’ve largely delivered to begin the year. While Kris Bryant (.195 AVG, 1 HR) has slumped to begin the season, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez (3 HR each) have gotten off to fine starts, and center fielder Ian Happ (1.063 OPS) appears to have found a new level. The Cubs rank fourth in the NL in OPS as a team.

What’s been really surprising about the Cubs, though, is the success of their rotation. Thirty-six-year-old Jon Lester, coming off a really poor year, has posted a 1.06 ERA in 17 innings to begin 2020. Fellow veterans Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks have also impressed, posting ERA’s of 2.12 and 3.54, respectively, and right-hander Alec Mills has surrendered just two earned runs in 13 innings.

The rotation was my biggest concern about the Cubs entering the 2020 season. Age, injury history and performance history makes me still uneasy about this rotation remaining so successful moving forward, but there’s no denying the results thus far. There’s also plenty of reason for concern about a bullpen that’s posted a 6.80 ERA this season and features a seemingly broken Craig Kimbrel. If I was re-predicting division winners today, I’d have to switch from the Reds to the Cubs in the NL Central. That being said, the race to the finish line in that division is still far from over.

NL West: Colorado Rockies (12-5)

I may regret writing this later, but here goes: the Rockies look like legitimate contenders this season. Bud Black’s team currently holds a 1.5-game edge over the Dodgers and Padres for the division lead, and while that’s unlikely to hold, I have several reasons to believe the Rockies can sustain a high level of success based on their early-season performance. 

First off, the Rockies’ run differential of +28 is the second-best in baseball, trailing only the Dodgers. They haven’t just gotten lucky and eked out a number of close victories. Second, the team’s offense has, despite the lack of significant additions this past offseason, been one of the best in the league. Colorado’s 96 runs trail only the Braves (101), and the team’s .783 OPS ranks third in the NL. Outfielder Charlie Blackmon is hitting .500 — that’s really not a typo — through his first 68 at-bats in one of the best starts to a season in MLB history. Not to be lost behind that storyline: Daniel Murphy (.358 AVG, 13 RBI) and Matt Kemp have both shown a resurgence and Trevor Story (6 HR, 4 SB) and Nolan Arenado (4 HR) are off to strong starts as well.

But the biggest factor that makes me optimistic about the Rockies as competitors is the early success of the team’s pitching staff, which last year posted the worst ERA (5.56) in the NL. Through 17 games in 2020, Colorado pitchers have posted the league’s third-best ERA (3.64). German Marquez (2.08 ERA in 26 IP), Kyle Freeland (2.45 ERA in 25.2 IP) and Antonio Senzatela (2.65 ERA in 17 IP) have all really impressed in the early-goings. Jairo Diaz (3.86 ERA) and Daniel Bard (3.00 ERA) have admirably filled in the back-of-the-bullpen void left by the injured Wade Davis and Scott Oberg. The Rockies surely won’t keep up this pace, or likely win the NL West, for that matter, but there’s reason to believe they’ll be in the mix for a playoff spot the rest of the way.

Photos by Ian D’Andrea / Flickr (Blackmon), “Corn Farmer” / Flickr (Mattingly), “jnashboulden” / Wikimedia Commons (Chapman)

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