Last week, we ran our All-Disappointment Team. Such negativity! This is the flip side to that: the All-Surprise Team.
Here are some happy thoughts on a bunch of guys you wish you would have drafted for your fantasy team.
Severino gave up 10 runs in his more recent start, raising his ERA from 2.92 to 3.32, but let’s chalk that outing up to being “one of those days.” In his previous five starts, he had allowed just five runs. With 166 strikeouts in 143.2 innings, the guy who once looked like he might end up in the bullpen has pitched like an ace and ranks fifth in FanGraphs WAR among all major league starters. He still has to prove he can do this over 32 starts, not just 23, but the electric quality of his stuff backs up the numbers.
In contrast to Severino, the D-backs did move Bradley to the bullpen after he posted a 5.02 ERA as a starter in 2016. And in 2017, he has been one of the keys to Arizona’s wild-card push while posting a 1.36 ERA. You’re always reluctant to move an arm like Bradley’s to the bullpen until you’re absolutely sure he can’t start, and given that he has made just 34 starts in the majors, there’s always the chance he could be tried in the rotation again in 2018.
He was good last season, so this is more about confirming that he has become one of the best all-around catchers in the league. He is third in WAR, behind Buster Posey and Willson Contreras, and has made incremental improvements in his game: higher walk rate, lower strikeout rate, more power. He has thrown out 34 percent of base stealers, which is markedly better than the league average of 28 percent. He even runs well, hitting leadoff on a few occasions. Note to Derek Jeter: Don’t trade this guy.
He started the All-Star Game, and he is proving his big first half wasn’t a fluke, as he has been even better since the break. Given his age, past production and tenure in the majors, it’s one of the most surprising seasons in recent memory. His career high in home runs had been 20; now he’s on pace for 44. The obvious improvement is that he has matched his fly ball rate from 2016 (which was up from the previous two seasons) while also cutting his strikeout rate from 33 percent to 21 percent, so more balls in play means more home runs (the juiced ball is probably helping, as well).
Schoop was rushed to the majors in 2014 when he was just 22 years old, and he was overmatched that first season, hitting .209 with 122 strikeouts and 13 walks. He flashed power over the next two seasons, reaching 25 home runs in 2016, but it appeared his overly aggressive approach would limit his ceiling. He already has hit 25 home runs this season, however, while batting .302 and ranking third in wOBA among second basemen, behind only Jose Altuve and Daniel Murphy.
Schoop has cut his chase rate from 41.9 percent to 31.6 percent. It’s amazing what can happen when you stop swinging at so many pitches off the plate. His chase rate is still high and he doesn’t walk much, but the improved patience has allowed him to attack more fastballs, and he’s hitting .332 against them. The good sign is he has held his swing rate in check all season, so this looks like legitimate improvement in his approach.
Jose Ramirez of the Indians has taken his game to a new level, but Shaw’s season has come out of nowhere. Brewers general manager David Stearns acquired him from the Red Sox for reliever Tyler Thornburg; and the trade looks bad now for the Red Sox, with Thornburg missing the entire season, while Shaw is hitting .292/.363/.553 with 25 home runs. But it’s not like Shaw was that good in 2016. He hit .242/.306/.421, a below-average bat and well below average for a third baseman/first baseman. At best, he looked like a second-division starter at third base or maybe a bench bat.
Like Schoop, he has benefited from cutting down his chase rate (31.4 to 26.6 percent), and his swing-and-miss rate is down nearly 5 percent. That has resulted in a higher well-hit average and thus a higher average on balls in play. The other impressive thing has been his solid defense at third base — plus-3 defensive runs saved — which is impressive for a guy who spent so much time at first base in the minors. That he has played at this level even though his newborn daughter had open-heart surgery in June is even more remarkable.
Cozart’s breakout might be even more surprising than Smoak’s. Let’s compare:
Smoak, 2010-2016: 95 OPS+
Smoak, 2017: 148 OPS+
Cozart, 2011-2016: 82 OPS+
Cozart, 2017: 153 OPS+
Cozart was worse, but now he has been better on a per-plate-appearance basis, thanks to a .404 OBP. Guess what: Cozart has cut down on his chase rate. Of course, it’s not so easy just to say “swing less,” but you do wonder why it kicked in so suddenly for a 31-year-old.
Perhaps the MVP of our All-Surprise Team, Taylor leads all left fielders in WAR (although he has started at five positions). He has hit for average, he has hit for power and his defensive metrics are good in left field, even though he had never played the outfield before this season. He also has taken over the leadoff spot lately.
The Dodgers acquired Taylor in a minor transaction last June, trading minor league starter Zach Lee to get him from Seattle. Lee never appeared in the majors with the Mariners before they waived him in December. Smart trade, but even the Dodgers will acknowledge they got lucky here, as Taylor turned himself into a better player.
Taylor always hit in the minors, and he was set to be Seattle’s starting shortstop in 2015, before he fractured his wrist in spring training. He hit .170 in 102 plate appearances with Seattle that year and fell out of favor. And after hitting .207 in 62 PAs with the Dodgers in 2016, he was viewed as roster depth more than potential contributor and began the season with Triple-A Oklahoma City.
Taylor, however, had remade his swing over the winter. He told the Orange County Register in May that he saw “the adjustments others players have made that have kind of turned their careers around.” He worked with hitting consultant Robert Van Scoyoc in Arizona, added a leg kick and changed his hand position, but mostly he simply started driving the ball more.
“Pretty much my whole life I’ve tried to put the ball on the ground,” Taylor said.
There’s certainly a little luck involved — he owns a .397 BABIP — but he has become a key cog in the Dodgers’ lineup.
Like Taylor, Pham began the season in Triple-A, which was a bit of an odd decision, considering Pham had proved himself as a competent fourth outfielder over the past two seasons. Pham wasn’t called up until May 5 — heck, the Cardinals even tried Matt Adams in left field before giving Pham a chance — and St. Louis won the first six games Pham started, with him hitting .417 and three home runs. Manager Mike Matheny likes the hot hand. That start kept Pham in the lineup, and he has been the team’s best hitter (along with Paul DeJong, another All-Surprise candidate). Like Taylor, Pham is riding an unsustainable .386 BABIP; but in playing every day, he has improved his walk and strikeout rates and played solid defense.
RF: Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
OK, he has slumped in the second half, but a strong finish can still keep him in the MVP conversation. He wasn’t a sure bet to keep the Yankees’ right field job all season, let alone become the toast of baseball.
The 28-year-old utility player has been with the Astros since 2012 and has quietly served as one of baseball’s top reserves during the past few seasons, adding a little pop and starting all over the field. Turn the page to 2017 and … he has cut down on his chase rate! His overall swing rate is down, his miss rate when he does swing is down and all his numbers are up. This is why those idiots who scream at Joey Votto to expand the strike zone when he has runners on base are idiots. Swing at strikes, don’t swing at balls. Anyway, Gonzalez has started at five positions and ranks 11th in the majors in wRC+. Incredible.
And I have to include this guy: Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
Bellinger is slugging .620. The only Los Angeles Dodgers to slug .600 are Gary Sheffield, Mike Piazza and Adrian Beltre (plus Duke Snider, Babe Herman and Roy Campanella in Brooklyn). Bellinger has hit 34 home runs in 97 games for a pace of 57 over 162 games. He’s the real deal, and he’s going to rank among the home run leaders for many seasons to come with that sweet swing.