The MLB regular season is winding down as we sit about three weeks away from postseason baseball.
Like every season, there are some players and teams that come out of nowhere to surprise us and the opposite is always true in terms of players and teams that fiercely disappoint.
We will cover both aspects of the coin, but for this piece, let’s identify some of the biggest surprises of the MLB season that few saw coming.
Max Muncy (LAD)
The Dodgers have been dealt a steady blow of poor fortune throughout this season. Corey Seager went down with a season-ending elbow injury on the first of May, Justin Turner didn’t even start his season until May 15th before missing more time around the All-Star break and Clayton Kershaw made just eight starts prior to June 23rd. Mix in injuries to Hyun-Jin Ryu, Walker Buehler, Kenley Jansen, Tony Cingrani and John Axford, and you get the picture.
Muncy has clobbered his way to a massive .325 ISO this season, the highest mark by far among players who have logged at least 400 plate appearances on the season. The next closest players are J.D. Martinez and Mike Trout with identical .302 marks. Considering both of these players are fully in the MVP mix in the American League, it speaks to the season Muncy has enjoyed.
Muncy hit .206 with a .186 ISO in 2015 with the A’s before posting a .186 average with a .071 ISO in the 2016 with Oakland and was released and spent the entire 2017 in Triple-A with the Dodgers organization.
Add it all up, and Muncy is the biggest surprise among position players in the MLB this season.
We’ve seen always-underdog A’s march their way into the postseason before, but what they’ve accomplished this season has been special regardless of how it ends.
On June 15th, Oakland was 34-36 and 11.5 games back of the Astros for the AL West lead. They also sat 11 games behind the Mariners and four behind the Angels.
Fast forward exactly one month to July 15th, and the A’s are now 55-42, have passed the Angels, sit three games behind the Mariners for second place, but still eight games behind the Astros for the division lead.
Hit the fast forward button again to August 15th, and the A’s are two games back of the Astros for first place at a whopping 72-49 and sit 2.5 games ahead of the Mariners for second spot in the division. Today, they are 31 games over the .500 mark at 88-57 and are just three games back of Houston with the Mariners 8.5 games in the rear view mirror.
Still, mix in a potential home run champ in Khris Davis, baseball’s best closer in Blake Treinen and a breakout season from third baseman Matt Chapman, and Oakland has more than surpassed expectations as they march their way towards the playoffs and either a division crown or a Wild Card game against the Yankees. Don’t sleep on the A’s.
Tampa Bay Rays
They aren’t going to be a playoff team, but you can’t look at the Rays and say that you aren’t surprised.
Like Oakland and the Dodgers, Tampa Bay has had zero luck in terms of rotation health to the point where they have turned the game upside down and began the game with a reliever, or a closer, and went from there.
The end result has been 16 different players that have made starts for the Rays this season including Sergio Romo, Ryne Stanek, Johnny Venters, Wilmer Front, Diego Castillo and Hunter Wood. We all saw that coming, right?
Since the bullpen has made the majority of starts this season, we can point to a reliever ERA of 3.64 (9th) as a big reason for their success. We can also look at their starter’s ERA of 3.71 (6th) as another reason for their success. Lastly, we can point to Blake Snell’s Cy Young-type season of a 2.06 ERA, 10.66 K/9 and decreased 3.10 BB/9 as another major factor here.
There’s also the wit of manager Kevin Cash to have the gumption to go with “openers” when his rotation wasn’t healthy enough to move forward.
No matter how you slice it, this Tampa team has been a huge surprise this season, especially given the limitations they were seemingly under earlier in the season.
Trevor Bauer (CLE)
We knew the Indians were going to boast a strong rotation this season, but did we really believe that Trevor Bauer was going to lead a group that also features two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber? I think not.
He’s on the DL right now thanks to taking a line drive off the Fibula, but the season Bauer has put together has been incredible.
In fact, despite not pitching since August 11th, Bauer still ranks second among AL pitchers with a 5.9 WAR while he also sports a 2.22 ERA (3rd), 2.38 FIP (2nd) and 11.60 K/9 (5th).
Bauer is scheduled to throw a bullpen session Wednesday, which is music to the ears of Indians fans, players and staff alike. He’s clearly not someone you want to face in the postseason and makes this Indians rotation silly-good entering the home stretch.
In terms of individual success, Bauer and Snell have certainly surprised to the upside this season.
Miles Mikolas (STL)
There have obviously been some surprising pitching performances around the league this season, but there’s no way anyone saw this coming from Miles Mikolas. Prior to this season, Mikolas had not thrown a pitch in North America since the 2014 season with Texas where he compiled a 6.44 ERA across 57.1 innings, all of which were as a starter.
Like many players, Mikolas needed to explore other opportunities after being cut loose by the Rangers, so he took his talent to Yomiuri of the Japan Central League where he pitched the last three seasons prior to this one, and the results were good.
Mikolas turned in an ERA of 1.92 in 2015, 2.45 in 2016 and 2.25 in 2017. Finally, the Cardinals took a chance on the 30-year-old journeyman and inked him to a two-year, $15.5M contract, a substantial risk for the club as Mikolas had not enjoyed much MLB success despite starring in Japan for three seasons.
It’s safe to say it’s paid off. Mikolas sports a tidy 2.99 ERA on the season while his 3.8 WAR ranks sixth among NL pitchers and leads all Cardinals hurlers.
Sure, he’s outpitched his peripherals a bit with a 3.34 FIP and 3.70 xFIP and he doesn’t strike many guys out. Still, his pinpoint control and 94.8 mph average on his four-seam fastball make him a tough guy to hit. That’s hard to hit on the black.
At the end of the day, the season Mikolas has compiled has been a big reason why the Cardinals were able to stay afloat and work themselves into the postseason picture.
Blake Treinen (OAK)
I mentioned Treinen in the A’s piece above as the best closer in the league, and it has surely taken everyone by surprise.
Treinen has been a reliable reliever in the past with a 3.93 ERA or better in each of his four previous MLB seasons, but this season he owns a 0.87 ERA, the best numbers among reliever by a country mile. In fact, among relievers with at least 50 innings under their belt this season (Treinen has 72.1), the second-best ERA in baseball is Jeremy Jeffresses’ 1.41 mark follow by Jose Leclerc’s 1.71 mark. Simply put he’s been in a league of his own.
Perhaps that should be been a precursor to this season, but I don’t believe we’ve seen a reliever this dominant since Zach Britton and his 0.54 ERA from the 2016 season.
In the process, Treinen has pitched his way into the Cy Young conversation. If you listed favorites for your Cy Young at the beginning of the season, Treinen was certainly among them, right?
I think not, and I don’t blame you. What a season from the best closer in baseball.
The Braves stumbled their way to a 72-90 mark as part of a terrible NL East division last season, which have most of us no hope that they would be able to get back into the postseason as soon as 2018. One again, we were wrong.
Yes, they haven’t maintained the same pace of winning since the first half of the season, but the bottom line here is we did not expect to see the Atlanta Braves atop the NL East. They also have a top-10 offense with a .752 team OPS, a top-five rotation with a 3.49 starter’s ERA and a top-three defense in terms of defensive runs saved at 52. These are MLB rankings, not NL.
The only area where they aren’t above league average is their bullpen as they have missed Arodys Vizcaino at the back end since July 11th with a shoulder issue.
Still, the baby Braves are full-on contenders at this point, something not many people expected as early as 2018.
Diamondbacks Defense and Bullpen
Entering the season, Arizona had a three-way choice for their closer’s role at the back end of their bullpen between the freshly-acquired Brad Boxberger, Archie Bradley and the incoming Yoshihisa Hirano from Japan.
In other words, they didn’t even have a set closer to begin the season, but what they have had since is a three-headed monster at the back end.
And then there’s the defense. While the offense has struggled mightily against right-handed pitching, they are in the playoff race thanks to the bullpen, solid starting pitching and the best defense in baseball by a country mile.
While the Braves had those 52 defensive runs saved mentioned above, the Diamondbacks have a whopping 112 runs saved to lead all of baseball. They are a fine example of a club being competitive without the use of a powerful offense, especially against right-handed pitching.
Add it all up and the D-backs bullpen and defense have been surprisingly good and two huge factors while they remain in the NL West race.
Jesus Aguilar (MIL)
Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich are getting the lion’s share of attention when it comes to the march the Brewers are on, but there’s no way we expected a season like this from first baseman Jesus Aguilar.
Prior to this season, Aguilar was not solely used against left-handed pitching, but what out of the lineup more often than not against a right-handed starter. Still, he crushed right-handed pitching for a huge .250 ISO and .806 OPS in 2017, so he received an opportunity for full-time reps against righties this season, and it’s paid off.
His second half hasn’t been nearly as powerful as his first as he has hit for a .174 ISO and .719 OPS since the All-Star break compared to his first half .324 ISO and .995 OPS, but we weren’t even sure if this guy was going to be a full-time player this season with Eric Thames at first base.
Well, Aguilar has made sure he is indeed a regular in a powerful Brewers lineup and is a long ball threat every time he steps to the dish.
Matt Chapman (OAK)
The upstart A’s have taken up a lot of space in this piece, but Chapman is a must-include thanks to the season he is having.
First, he’s been the best defensive player in baseball this season at third base for Oakland, at least in terms of defensive runs saved. His 27 DRS are by far the most in the big leagues with Andrelton Simmons’ 20 sitting in second spot.
Second, Chapman has crushed the baseball with 22 homers, 38 doubles, six triples, a .241 ISO and an .883 OPS. He’s even sporting some reverse-splits with a .274 ISO and .914 OPS against righties compared to a .167 ISO and .813 mark against lefties.
Add up his league-leading defense and potent bat and Chapman’s 6.4 WAR is the sixth-best mark in baseball among position players. He’s ahead of Paul Goldschmidt, J.D. Martinez, Manny Machado and Christian Yelich, something we did not see coming.
Chapman did post some quality numbers last season as a rookie and displayed plenty of power in the minors, but he has rocketed himself into superstar status in a very short