Surprising Starts to the 2023 MLB Season: Which Performances Will Stick and Which Won’t
What you see in Major League Baseball in April is not necessarily what you will get come September.
In fact, you can count on many different looks ahead.
Amid early surprises and disappointments, the 2023 season will become 10% old after the upcoming week of action, so you may already be wondering how long the results will last.
We look at the numbers and predict five surprises that will continue, five that aren’t sustainable and five slow starters who will turn things around.
Five Starts That Will Continue
Adam Duvall, Boston Red Sox
Duvall’s early season roll was jolted on Sunday by an apparent left wrist injury, something that shelved him for much of the second half of last year’s already forgettable season (.213, 12 home runs, 36 RBIs with the Atlanta Braves). If Duvall avoids being sidelined long, consider how he had 38 homers and 113 RBIs just two years ago, and that his pull style of hitting is ideal for Fenway Park’s Green Monster. His patience at the plate (54.3% of pitches taken/112 discipline+) and plate appearances/strikeouts (7.40) were at career-high levels while he opened with a .455-4-14 line in the Red Sox’s first nine games and led the league in raw value+ (RV+), which measures a batter’s discipline, contact and damage done upon contact.
Pierce Johnson, Colorado Rockies
Despite 140 career appearances entering the season, even dedicated MLB fans have been asking, “Pierce who?” The 31-year-old right-hander’s first three career saves have occurred in the Rockies’ first four wins. He boasts an impressive 130 strike+, which measures how good a pitcher is at generating both swings and misses and called strikes. While too many walks and home runs allowed in his career aren’t ideal for Coors Field, he actually does his best work there. Johnson has never allowed a run in 13 appearances in the mile-high altitude, including his first two this season.
Jesus Luzardo, Miami Marlins
Having worked through inconsistency early in his career, Luzardo has now logged at least six innings in 12 of his last 16 starts dating to last season, and the left-hander missed by just one out in his opening win over the New York Mets on March 31. His 40.2% swing and miss rate through two games is second in the majors, his 147 whiff+ ranks seventh and his 29 RV- is ninth among qualified pitchers. They also could foreshadow a big season ahead.
‘New’ Milwaukee Brewers
We’ve grown accustomed to Christian Yelich and the pitching staff leading Milwaukee, but a lot has changed this season. Brian Anderson was supposed to be a reserve after two straight subpar, injury-filled seasons with Miami, but Luis Urias’ opening-day injury opened a starter’s role in a more hitter-friendly park (an early .370-3-10 line). Outfielders Garrett Mitchell and Joey Weimer and second baseman Brice Turang – among the organization’s top-five prospects in recent years – are rookies who have combined to hit .295 with five home runs and 14 RBIs. Newcomers William Contreras and Jesse Winker are former All-Stars who are both hitting over .300. The Brewers are a surprising 11th in MLB with a team RV+ of 106.9 and our model gives them a .562 expected winning percentage after this 7-2 start, which would put them at around 93 wins.
Myles Straw, Cleveland Guardians
Straw is getting on base (.488) and leading the majors with six stolen bases. It’s been a nice rebound from a season in which he batted .221 – 50 points lower than in 2021. The spotlight is off Straw in the No. 9 spot of the batting order instead of leadoff. He’s been successful on 88.0% of his career stolen base attempts, so MLB’s larger bases and fewer pickoff attempts suggest even greater success. Plus, something clicked with Straw after Sept. 1 last season when he closed strong with a .321 batting average and 12 of his 21 stolen bases.
Five Starts That Aren’t Sustainable
Matt Chapman, Toronto Blue Jays
Chapman has slugged at least 27 home runs in each of the last three 162-game seasons, and this year he’s risen from the seventh spot of the batting order on opening day to cleanup. But his major-league-leading .475 batting average simply has to come down – way down. He’s only finished above .250 in one of his first six seasons, and it’s been .219 with an average of 186 strikeouts per season over the last two years. This season so far, he has an above-average discipline+ (113) and contact+ (101), and ranks third in the majors in RV+ (284).
Jhony Brito, New York Yankees
Brito threw 5.1 perfect innings against the Toronto Blue Jays in a late spring training game and he’s built on it with wins in his first two major-league starts. Quite simply, he’s been too good over that stretch, including a .152 batting average against the San Francisco Giants and Baltimore Orioles that’s nearly 100 points lower than his minor league career. MLB Pipeline only ranked Brito as the Yankees’ 27th-best prospect this offseason, and while the 25-year-old right-hander is improving beyond expectations, there will be rough patches much like Deivi Garcia and Luis Gil have experienced in the last few years.
We foresaw the improvement (a 6-3 record), as no team rose more in our preseason roster-adjusted RV rankings than the Pirates (23rd after finishing 30th a year ago). But shortstop Oneil Cruz suffered a fractured ankle on Sunday, and the injury that will sideline him for four months appears disastrous when combined with a pitching staff that faces growing pains. The positives: Bryan Reynolds is mashing like few others this season, and Carlos Santana and Andrew McCutchen were strong offseason additions given their sneaky-good RV+ of 128 and 115, respectively, last year. David Bednar, the team’s 2022 All-Star, continues to close out wins with a 227 whiff+ that leads the majors among those who have worked at least three innings. Still, our model gives the Pirates a .498 expected winning percentage the rest of the way.
Tampa Bay Rays
Granted, a team that wins its first nine games by four or more runs – which hasn’t happened since the 1884 St. Louis Maroons – is due for some rough patches. Wander Franco is healthy again and raking alongside Randy Arozarena for the Rays, who rank a surprising second in team raw value+ (148.2) behind the Los Angeles Dodgers. Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, Jeffrey Springs and Zach Eflin each went 2-0 and combined on a 1.10 ERA and 0.76 WHIP through their first two turns of the rotation, which also ranks second in RV- (58.8) behind the Minnesota Twins. But our 13th-ranked team in the preseason has played the Detroit Tigers, Washington Nationals and Oakland A’s, our 26th-, 29th- and 30th-ranked teams heading into the season.
Jo Adell, Los Angeles Angels
Let’s jump to Triple-A in case you haven’t followed Adell’s streak of home runs in six straight games – seven overall blasts – with the Albuquerque Isotopes. There’s no obvious starting spot if baseball’s hottest hitter is called up to the Angels, but they’ll find one if the home run barrage continues. Baseball’s No. 6 prospect to open the decade, the 24-year-old Adell has little left to prove in the minors, but he’s batted only .215 with 194 strikeouts in 522 at-bats with the Angels since 2020. Adding to the scenario: 12 strikeouts during the six-game homer streak.
Five Who Will Turn It Around
Hunter Greene, Cincinnati Reds
At 23, the Reds’ youngest opening-day starter since 1980 has been hurt by walks – first by a reliever who worked behind him on opening day, then by his own doing against the Philadelphia Phillies. If Greene improves his command (he was right around the league average with a 102 command+ in 2022), there are plenty of strong numbers to build on. While he surrendered 24 home runs in 125.2 innings as a rookie last year, only two came across his final 47 innings, and he gave up just one in the first eight innings this season while also striking out 13 batters. On opening day, the right-hander threw 44 pitches at 100-plus mph while the rest of the majors combined for 38.
Bobby Witt Jr., Kansas City Royals
Starting with a .143 batting average, two home runs, four RBIs and one stolen base through 10 games is not what anybody had in mind following Witt’s exceptional rookie season in which he was one of only two players to collect at least 20 home runs and 30 stolen bases. He owns an 85 RV+ early on after finishing close to the league average with a 94 mark in 2022. But note he had similar numbers last April, hitting .128 with zero home runs, three RBIs and one swipe through his first 10 games.
Houston Astros Bullpen
Closer Ryan Pressly is coming off a 33-save season, but he didn’t have an opportunity in the defending World Series champion’s 4-6 start because the set-up pitchers blew three of their first five chances. Their effectiveness is bound to climb quickly given it’s the same core of Bryan Abreu, Rafael Montero, Hector Neris and Ryan Stanek working in front of Pressly, and the Astros bullpen’s 76.9 RV- was second in the majors last season. Pressly, however, isn’t missing as many bats as he’s used to with a 72 whiff+ early on after posting a 134 mark last season.
Injuries to sluggers Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins and Darick Hall explain why the reigning NL champions are tied for the fourth-fewest home runs (seven) and have scored the fifth-fewest runs (30) in the majors, but the pitching is surely more at fault. High-leverage relievers Seranthony Dominguez, Craig Kimbrel and Gregory Soto have combined to allow 16 earned runs in 11.1 innings. Aces Aaron Nola, who led the NL with a 64 RV- last season, and Zack Wheeler, who had a 1.02 WHIP in his first two seasons in Philadelphia, are due to get into a groove after sluggish starts. The Phillies rank just 25th in baseball in team RV+ (offense) and 15th in team RV- (pitching).
Team USA Pitchers
Colorado Rockies lefty Kyle Freeland (2-0, 0.00 ERA) is the exception among the five pitchers who logged the most innings for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright has since been sidelined by injury, while Cardinals teammate Mikes Mikolas’ .413 BAA is the worst among qualifiers. But Mikolas has 12 Ks against one walk, and his 7.56 hits allowed per nine innings last year were a career high. Arizona’s Merrill Kelly’s 1.14 WHIP a year ago has ballooned to 1.82, but his first two starts were against the Dodgers, who have owned him in his career. Lance Lynn of the Chicago White Sox has allowed four home runs in 10 innings, but note he posted a 1.09 WHIP over the 2020-22 seasons.