This is an article about surprising hitters, oodles of them, all over the place, like that video where the guy pokes the pile of black fuzz and thousands of baby spiders emerge DON’T GOOGLE THAT. These aren’t your typical April and May surprises, the kind you can chalk up to sample size, the kind that will go away by July. These are bizarre stories that make me reevaluate just how much I know about baseball.
I didn’t know a lot before. Now I’m really screwed.
One of you messed with the settings in the menu screen, and I’m begging you to change it back.
The best way to explain what I mean is that I’m writing about surprising hitters, but I’m not going to include Aaron Altherr. The Phillies outfielder is hitting .294/.379/.538 with nine homers this season, a year after hitting under the Mendoza Line with a 60 OPS+. He’s not being included because I can explain his success in terms that I’m used to. He’s 26. He developed. He made strides. He’s coming into his own. Happens every year to a few young players. Good for him.
These are about a different kind of hitter.
Start with Zack Cozart. He was a poor man’s Brandon Crawford for years, and that was fine. He was valuable defensively and hit just enough. Now, at the age of 31, he’s hitting .351 and slugging .623. Just for good measure, he’s six walks away from his career high. Now instead of a poor man’s Crawford, he’s a rich man’s Carlos Correa.
SABERMETRICIAN: Actually, it’s all about the launch angles. See, last year Cozart’s ...
That’s not the point. He’s Zack Cozart. He’s 31. There are rules.
For five seasons, Marwin Gonzalez was a nice utility infielder. His career line was .257/.298/.389. He was a known quantity. That’s the key phrase with a lot of these players. “Known quantity.” When a player has a career on-base percentage under .300 and he’s about to turn 28, there shouldn’t be a lot of surprises. He’s hitting like he’s a cloned Lance Berkman wearing Marwin Gonzalez’s skin. That is, .314/.409/.636. He’s a homer away from a career high, in 342 fewer at-bats.
SABERMETRICIAN: Well, when you pair his improved exit velocity with a slight change in swing path ...
Justin Smoak was a perennial tease, a top-10 draft pick as a college first baseman, which is usually a recipe that leads to at least one All-Star appearance. He was a career .223 hitter who averaged 15 homers a year. In seven combined seasons, he was worth a total — a total — of 1.5 WAR. That is, he was a replacement-level first baseman, more or less. Just a guy.
He’s already doubled his career WAR this season, hitting .291/.353/.597. He’s hit 17 homers. If he went 0 for his next 100, his season line would look roughly like last season’s.
SABERMETRICIAN: Ah, this one is obvious. He’s hitting more balls in the air, which he’s combining with increased thumb strength. The roles of thumbs in hitting, as you well know, have been debated for...
No, no, no. He’s 30. This is not the time for a career-defining surge.
He’s not even the best example from the top half of the 2008 Draft, either. Yonder Alonso was the story of April, and he’s the story of May. He was the Justin Smoak of first basemen for years, hitting just enough to try again, never hitting enough to be excited about it. He’s nearly doubled his career high in home runs in just 156 at-bats, and it’s not like he’s doing it in Coors Field, either.
Alonso is also 30.
Logan Morrison is 29, and he’s also doubled his career WAR this season. After seven seasons of .245/.325/.416, his home run percentage looks like this:
2013 - 1.8%
2014 - 3.0%
2015 - 3.3%
2016 - 3.5%
2017 - 7.0%
Just another guy doubling his home run rate at an age when there shouldn’t be any mysteries left.
SABERMETRICIAN: Yeah, alright, I’m running out of explanations.
And, again, this isn’t including the players who are still in their mid-20s. Justin Bour is a beastly fellow at the moment, but, fine, he’s developing. Aaron Hicks was always a top prospect, even if this is getting a little freaky. The Rays acquired Corey Dickerson for a reason, so it’s not like his success should be that surprising. Chris Taylor was overlooked in the minors, perhaps, where he generally found success.
This isn’t about players returning to form, either. Ryan Zimmerman was an All-Star before, so him emerging as an MVP frontrunner isn’t the strangest thing that baseball has thrown at us. Alex Avila was an MVP candidate when he was 24, so even though there were five mostly decent-to-forgettable seasons since then, I guess there’s some explanation for his amazing surge.
This is about Tyler Flowers with a .459 OBP, looking like he’ll set a new career high in walks by the All-Star break. This is about Eric Sogard, who has a 1152 OPS in 68 plate appearances. While that’s a ludicrously small sample, it’s enough for his ratio of 14 walks to five strikeouts to mean something, actually. He missed a year, reinvented himself, and I’m including him here because, heck, why not? He makes as much sense as Smoak, Alonso, Cozart, Morrison, and Gonzalez.
I have not presented irrefutable evidence that everyone is Justin Turner now, that dozens of older players are crawling out of crevices and improving their slugging percentage by 100 or 200 points. But help me out by going through a list of last year’s first-half OPS leaderboard and seeing how many comparable players there were. Wilson Ramos was doing amazing things, and it looked like Michael Saunders had reached a new level, but it doesn’t have the same feel to it. A couple of lists:
2017 OPS leaders (through June 8)
- Freddie Freeman
- Mike Trout
- Ryan Zimmerman
- Aaron Judge
- Alex Avila
- Zack Cozart
- Bryce Harper
- Yonder Alonso
- Marwin Gonzalez
- Michael Conforto
2016 OPS leaders (through first half)
- David Ortiz
- Josh Donaldson
- Anthony Rizzo
- Mike Trout
- Matt Carpenter
- Daniel Murphy
- Jake Lamb
- Kris Bryant
- Yoenis Cespedes
- Jose Altuve
The second list makes sense. There’s a young player coming into his own, and there’s a surprising veteran making the move from good-to-great, but there aren’t a lot of absolute stunners.
The first list makes me stare a lot.
Now, the difference between the two lists is that one runs through today, and the other one got an extra month. Eyeballing the month-by-month lists last year, it looks like Aaron Hill and Danny Valencia both had a bonkers May, and Steve Pearce was in the middle of a career year. They all calmed down.
So that’s my answer. For now. Time will settle everything down, and while a couple of these players will have proven to enter a new stage of a previously unremarkable career, most of them will regress to the mean. Oh, that’s a lovely phrase for a confused soul. Regression to the mean. So comforting.
Because if that’s not what’s happening, it will completely hose my ability to do this job, and I was hanging on by a thread anyway. I wasn’t prepared for a world in which Justin Smoak and Yonder Alonso were the players their teams hoped for in a best-case scenario when they were drafted. And if that’s the world we’re living in now, I’m awaiting instructions with the rest of you.