Now two months into the Major League Baseball season, we’re done with “small sample sizes.” Most everyday players have surpassed 200 plate appearances, and all 30 clubs have played about 50 games. We have enough information and time under our belts to really evaluate players.
We’re going to look at five players who have overachieved and surprised onlookers early on; guys with lower expectations who have completely blown the roof off the shed. On the flip side, we’ll address the most underwhelming and disappointing players of the first third of the 2018 season. Without further ado, let us dive in.
I contend that the five-year, $110-million contract J.D. Martinez and the Boston Red Sox agreed upon in the offseason has been the best new contract signed all season. Martinez has been making that argument easy, hitting .320/.377/.639 with baseball’s third-highest home run total (16), 42 RBIs, and 1.8 bWAR while playing designated hitter and corner outfield for the Sox.
As he was last season with the Detroit Tigers and Arizona Diamondbacks, Martinez has been a lethal middle-of-the-order presence for Alex Cora‘s first-place squad. You might be wondering how he ended up on a list of surprising players after hitting 45 home runs and leading baseball in slugging percentage (.690) last season, but if you’re forced to wait until February 26 to sign a free-agent contract, it’s clear you’re being overlooked.
Martinez is silencing the naysayers this season.
Mostly a utility player by trade, the Cincinnati Reds are reaping the benefits of giving infielder Scooter Gennett an extended offensive role in 2018. Nearing 200 at-bats, Gennett is hitting .340 with an OPS of .935, tacking on 10 home runs, 37 RBIs, and 110 total bases. The second baseman is pacing the Reds (the team with National League Most Valuable Player Award finalist Joey Votto) in bWAR at 2.2 after Sunday’s action.
Gennett is on pace for career highs in practically every meaningful offensive statistic, including total bases (110) and OPS+ (151). Last season, Gennett played five different positions for the Reds, just trying to find a place to stay in the batting order. It looks like he has found that spot, though for the measly 19-35 Reds.
Nick Markakis has had a long, respectable career, but he has never been an All-Star and has never received a single vote for a league MVP award. With how the 34-year-old outfielder has played so far in 2018, it seems that will change. Leading an Atlanta Braves team whose average player is much younger than himself, Markakis has slashed .340/.409/.512 with seven home runs, 35 RBIs, and more walks (25) than strikeouts (21).
The two-time Gold Glove recipient has made his name known throughout his career on the defensive end, and has three defensive runs saved and a .991 fielding percentage for his efforts this season. Though fans in the Atlanta area look forward to the future of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna at the dish, Markakis and his MLB-leading 69 hits are a good present day.
Patrick Corbin was once a heralded prospect acquired in a trade deadline swap that involved Dan Haren, but before this season, he had been a below-average starter. A career losing record and an ERA over 4.00 highlighted Corbin’s early career, but in 2018, the left-hander is throwing like an ace for the D-Backs. At 5-1 with a 2.47 ERA, a National League-best 0.894 WHIP, and 88 strikeouts to 19 walks, Corbin has propelled himself into Cy Young Award discussions.
With the NL West division being as competitive as ever, Corbin picked a great time to have his best season to date. Look for the NL leader in hits per nine innings (5.6) to appear in his second All-Star Game this summer.
Christian Villanueva does not project to be someone who can hit .290 yearly, or a guy who will draw walks at will. But when he gets a hold of a ball, the powerful infielder knocks it out of the park with ease. Despite a .239 batting average, Villanueva is making an impact with the San Diego Padres with 14 home runs, 31 RBIs, and a 136 OPS+, totaling a 1.2 bWAR rating for a Padres club that is, very surprisingly, still in the thick of things in the NL West.
Villanueva’s 14 home runs are good for eighth-best in MLB, more than Giancarlo Stanton, Francisco Lindor, Nolan Arenado, Khris Davis, George Springer, Kris Bryant, and Freddie Freeman, among many others.
This should probably be a bigger story than it is right now, but Paul Goldschmidt in 2018 has been horrible. The five-time All-Star, three-time Silver Slugger, and three-time MVP finalist is hitting .203/.323/.380 with six home runs, 16 RBIs, and a league-high 69 strikeouts, good for an OPS+ of 86. Last season, the D-Backs first baseman hit .297 with 36 long balls and 120 runs driven in, pacing Arizona hitters in basically every offensive category; this season, he’s an afterthought.
Goldschmidt has proven himself as a consistent player with the ability to bounce back fast and well from offensive setbacks like these. The right-handed hitter is due for a break out, but he has had a miserable season to this point.
The Philadelphia Phillies inked Carlos Santana to a three-year, $60-million free-agent contract in the winter, and at the time, it looked like a formidable agreement — a valuable, experienced, veteran presence on a budding team full of youngsters, even if it’s an overpay. Santana has been a flop, hitting .207/.326/.430 with a respectable nine home runs and 32 RBIs. At the very least, he has always been a hard out and a disciplined hitter, and has 32 walks compared to 30 strikeouts.
One thing the addition of Santana did was, by accordion effect, move Rhys Hoskins to the outfield. Hoskins has been horrid out in the grass (-9 DRS) and would be better suited for first base, a position occupied by the under-performing Santana. With five 20-home run seasons in his past, Santana needs to be swinging the bat better and more towards his career batting average of around .250.
In the absence of injured All-Star pitchers Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, San Francisco Giants right-hander Jeff Samardzija should be able to shoulder the load in a perfect world. In actuality, Samardzija has been one of the worst starters in the bigs, posting a 1-3 record, 6.23 ERA, and -0.5 bWAR after seven starts of 34.2 combined innings. He has almost as many walks (23) as strikeouts (25) and owns a 1.644 WHIP.
Samardzija is not an ace, but he led the NL in innings pitched (207.2) and walks-per-nine (1.4) last season. Even if you can’t count on him to be a number-one starter, he should be better than his 2018 form. With the Giants hovering around a .500 winning percentage and hanging tight in the NL West race, “The Shark” will have to improve.
4) Kole Calhoun
If it weren’t for his outstanding defensive efforts (seven outfield assists, seven DRS, 1.000 fielding percentage), I could probably write that Kole Calhoun has been the worst player in baseball in 2018. His slash line reads .153/.201/.190, he has one home run and 11 RBIs, and his OPS+ is (not a typo) 10, which is equal parts unbelievably bad and hilarious. Calhoun isn’t an offensive catalyst by any stretch, but has previously hit 26 home runs in a season and boasts a career .255 average — he shouldn’t be this bad.
The Los Angeles Angels certainly don’t need Calhoun to put up MVP numbers with Mike Trout a few dozen steps away in the outfield, but in third place at Memorial Day in the AL West standings, they need a boost from one of the only everyday left-handed hitters in the lineup.
This one is a hard pill to swallow, because Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is perhaps the easiest player in the game to root for. But he has been very disappointing to watch at the plate for the Cubbies this season. Hitting .273 with 32 home runs in 2017, Rizzo’s 2018 season has taken a sharp turn, and the lefty is hitting just .215/.323/.361 with six long balls and 11 extra-base hits through 40 games this campaign.
The three-time All-Star has been one of the best hitters in the NL over the past four seasons, earning MVP votes in each of the past four voting cycles. The season is far from over, but the lefty will have to step up his game to assist the Cubs, who sit third in the NL Central standings at 27-22.