In Major League Baseball, there are always some impressive presences emerging through the season and some disappointing figures to balance it out. Often, analysts can be quick to jump to conclusions and declare a team or player as a surprise or a letdown too early in the season, just to see their sample sizes expand and their performance regress to the mean.
But now we’re almost midway through the 2019 season — with every team having played at least 71 games and as many as 78 — and it’s fair to proclaim an underperforming club or player as such, while the surprises from early in the season have enough time under their belt to really look like they’re here to stick around.
In this article, we will look over the biggest surprises and letdowns of the 2019 MLB season.
Most Surprising Teams
The Twins have been not only the most surprising team of the 2019 season, but perhaps the most exhilarating and infectiously fun one. An underdog club not only beating, but dominating, the American League Central, Minnesota is out to an unprecedented 48-25 start with a .657 winning percentage that only one team in the sport (Los Angeles Dodgers) bests them in.
They’re doing it with homegrown stars like Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, and Jose Berrios, as well as some of the veterans they brought in this winter like Marwin Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz, and C.J. Cron. Unlike their main AL Central rivals, the Cleveland Indians, Minnesota is being rewarded for their front office and young core committing to playoff contention.
Tampa Bay Rays
They have benefited from the slow starts of the Boston Red Sox and injured New York Yankees, but the Rays are clearly here to stay in the AL pennant race. Their pitching is the best in the AL by a large margin, with the club posting an accumulative 3.19 ERA (Houston is next best at 3.58), and their offense has been serviceable as well, currently 10th in MLB in batting average (.258).
At 43-31, the Rays are on pace for their second consecutive 90-win campaign, after years in the cellar of the AL.
While the rise of the Twins and Rays were foreseen to a degree, the meteoric ascent of the Rangers was completely unsuspected. With a rotation made up entirely of cheap recollection projects like Mike Minor and Lance Lynn, as well as an offense whose best hitter sports a career .213 batting average, Texas has gotten incredible contributions from everyone in their revolving door of a dugout.
Minor boasts a 2.63 ERA and 4.5 bWAR, Lynn hasn’t missed a start and is third on the team in bWAR (2.7), and their offense has been insanely good. Joey Gallo leads the AL in slugging percentage (.653), while former All-Stars Hunter Pence and Shin-Soo Choo have provided a necessary spark in the middle of a lineup diverse with lefties and righties. Currently just a half-game out of the second AL Wild Card spot, the Rangers might stick with their guns and make a run at the postseason.
New York Yankees
Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Andujar, James Paxton, Clint Frazier, Dellin Betances, Greg Bird, Jonathan Loaisiga, Troy Tulowitzki, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jordan Montgomery, Masahiro Tanaka, C.C. Sabathia, Domingo German, and more. That’s a list of players that are currently unavailable to the Yankees, or have missed considerable time due to injury this season.
The Yankees are 46-27 and own first place in the AL East with guys like Gio Urshela, Luke Voit, Mike Tauchman, and Cameron Maybin playing critical roles. The thought that this team is above .500 is mind-boggling, and one that they could win a division title with a club held together by duct tape and rusty nails is borderline incomprehensible. Kudos, Aaron Boone.
Most Underwhelming Teams
Boston Red Sox
If the playoffs started now, the Red Sox — the defending World Series champions and 108-game winners last season — would just barely qualify. Their starting pitching has been incredibly disappointing, with ace Chris Sale leading the charge in the aisle of anticlimax; Sale is 3-7, Rick Porcello is 5-6 with a 4.31 ERA, and there has been little depth behind the solid David Price.
Their offense has remained its splendid self, with 2018 AL Most Valuable Player Mookie Betts and All-Star slugger J.D. Martinez leading an offense with the second-most hits in baseball (703). We know what the Red Sox (41-35) can be, but what they have been early on this season is massively underwhelming.
When you accomplish next to nothing in free agency, despite enjoying a competitive window never before seen in your franchise’s history, you pay the price for it. While a few of their own pre-established players have been abysmal, like Jose Ramirez and Jason Kipnis, the front office’s neglect of obvious offseason needs is the main issue for a team that sits at 39-34, nine games behind the Twins for the division lead and two games out of the postseason.
At least the Cleveland Browns are looking up.
New York Mets
Before the season begun, we all knew that the National League East would be as competitive of a division as any. As a member of a deep NL East table, the Mets have not been able to emerge as the pennant contenders they were projected to be, by some. Not because the club, which sits at 35-39 and fourth in their division, didn’t do anything this offseason; they acquired Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Jed Lowrie, and others, and it isn’t a lack of contributions from their young core either, as Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil have been incredible.
Baseball just hates the Mets.
There is less hope for this franchise than years past, when Bryce Harper took the field and captivated fans in the nation’s capitol with his swagger, skill, and energy. This is a new era in Nationals baseball, without the former NL Most Valuable Player, but still one with loads of talent in the batting order and perhaps the best rotation in MLB.
And they still can’t get it done. Washington is third in the NL East, behind the Atlanta Braves and Harper’s new club, the Philadelphia Phillies, with a record of 35-38. Not even 1980s action movie billionaire supervillian Max Scherzer can save this team right now.
Most Surprising Players
Not only has Minor been the Rangers’ most valuable player in 2019, he has also embodied the spirit of what has made the surprising Rangers a sneaky Wild Card contender: He really shouldn’t be here, but he’s giving it his all regardless. Multiple surgeries and multiple full seasons missed under his belt, the left-hander is having a career year and has put up Cy Young-caliber numbers through 15 starts: 6-4, 2.63 ERA, 1.181 WHIP, 99 strikeouts, 188 ERA+.
A lot like Minor, Ryu is a contact-first left-hander whose injury history makes a resurgent 2019 campaign that much more enjoyable. But while Minor has been merely the ace on a decent team, the 32-year-old Ryu has been the best pitcher in baseball this year. The Dodgers southpaw is 9-1 with a microscopic 1.26 ERA, 0.817 WHIP, 85 strikeouts, and only five walks in 93 innings pitched (17 strikeouts per walk). For any pitcher, those stats are remarkable, but for Ryu — whose left elbow is held together with Elmer’s school glue — that’s impossible.
For the Pittsburgh Pirates fans who have spent the last three years or so wondering when Josh Bell was finally gonna break out, now is your time to rejoice. Bell hasn’t just broken out, he has emerged as an MVP candidate in an NL flooded with players worthy of the award. The 26-year-old is slashing .315/.383/.649 with 20 home runs, a major-league best 66 RBIs, and an unheard-of 50 extra-base hits, fueled by an MLB-high 27 doubles.
By the way, Bell is casually on pace to crack the top five in the single-season extra-base hit record, and his pace puts him just five hits off the top spot, a record that belongs to Babe Ruth‘s 119 and has stood for 98 years.
In Polanco’s only full season before 2019, he hit .256 with a below-league average 92 OPS+ in 2017. This year he leads the AL in batting average, sporting a .326/.387/.543 slash line, along with 10 home runs, 37 RBIs, and 36 extra-base hits, all of which put him on pace for career highs in those categories. The Twins have gotten contributions from just about everyone this season, but Polanco has led the charge in a big way.
One person in all of MLB has more home runs than Pete Alonso, 24, and that guy is Christian Yelich (27), the reigning NL MVP. Alonso’s rookie season is just a sign of what’s to come from the bulky first baseman; the dude just rakes. Alonso is jumping to the front of the NL Rookie of the Year conversation with his 3.0 bWAR, .271/.357/.617 slash line, 24 bombs, 57 RBIs, and 158 OPS+.
At least there’s something nice happening for Mets fans.
Most Underwhelming Players
In each of the last two seasons, Ramirez has been a finalist for the AL MVP, a Silver Slugger, and an All-Star. In 2019, he looks like a shell of himself. The switch-hitting infielder is hitting .204 with just five home runs, after a .270, 39-bomb season in 2018. His ghastly campaign is essentially a symbol of the troublesome season for the Indians as a whole, and as a baseball fan at heart, seeing someone as purely talented and fun as Ramirez struggle is difficult.
Sanchez has not been nearly as good as he was in 2018, and his role as a depth starter in Washington hasn’t really gone over well, as the veteran is 3-6 with a 3.84 ERA, and he has gone six innings in just four of his 13 starts. It’s not that big of a deal that your fourth starter is having a poor season, but I mean, I wrote in the offseason about how good Sanchez would be. Come on, man.
There is a lot of value to be had from a center fielder as talented on defense as JBJ, but he is an offensive black hole and has become somewhat detrimental to the Red Sox with his struggles at the plate. His .210/.310/.366 slash line and lack of consistent power basically offsets any positive value he might have in the outfield grass and along the baselines.
The Reds had, and still have, plans to contend for an NL Wild Card spot this season, and therefore, their best players really have to show up. Votto has done the opposite through the first half of 2019; a year after leading the NL in on-base percentage for seventh time, he is slashing .256/.351/.397 with just six home runs, 65 strikeouts, and only 33 walks. Perhaps Votto is just slumping, but at 35, this might be the start of his decline.