Each team’s most pleasant surprise … so far

Detroit Tigers

Each new baseball season brings with it plenty of unexpected outcomes and performances. Whether it’s a highly touted rookie living up to some lofty expectations or a career journeyman suddenly breaking out with a new club or a team’s expected weakness instead proving to be a strength, every team has its share of surprises.

With that in mind, MLB.com’s beat reporters picked the most pleasant surprise for each team to this point in the 2021 season.

Here’s a closer look at what they came up with:

BLUE JAYS: The shutdown bullpen

The Blue Jays lost Kirby Yates for the season, and at times, have already been without Jordan Romano, Julian Merryweather, Rafael Dolis, Tyler Chatwood and David Phelps. That’s every high-leverage reliever on the roster, but somehow, they’ve made it work. When those names have been healthy, along with hard-throwing lefties Tim Mayza and Ryan Borucki, plus some hidden gems like Anthony Castro, this bullpen has locked down the later innings with one of the lowest late-game ERAs in baseball. That’s critical, because with a lineup as talented as Toronto’s, the Blue Jays are always, at most, one big inning away from a late comeback.

The Orioles are thrilled with the steps that Cedric Mullins has taken on the position-player side of things, but the selection here has to be Means, who has emerged as one of the AL’s top starters in his third MLB season. The surprise isn’t that Means is good — it’s how good. He’s an ace, the type of frontline starter the O’s arguably haven’t had in a decade, sporting an AL-best 1.21 ERA through eight starts and fresh off his historic May 5 no-hitter against the Mariners. Nobody saw that coming, especially considering the Orioles hadn’t had a complete-game no-no since Jim Palmer in 1969. What else does the lefty have up his sleeve this summer?

RAYS: Production from behind the plate

Yes, the Rays have seen Tyler Glasnow take another step toward becoming a legitimate ace in their rotation. They’ve helped 41-year-old Rich Hill get back on track over the last month. They’ve unleashed hard-throwing rookie pitchers Shane McClanahan and Luis Patiño. And they’ve built a strong relief corps despite having an entire bullpen’s worth of injuries. But that’s all stuff Tampa Bay typically does with its pitchers, so really, is it that surprising? What the Rays aren’t used to is the kind of offensive production from their catchers that they’ve seen from Mike Zunino and Francisco Mejía. Zunino ended the weekend with eight home runs, tied with Austin Meadows for the team lead, and an .810 OPS. Mejía, acquired in the Blake Snell trade, is slashing .290/.348/.435. They’ve split time when healthy, occasionally keeping an inconsistent Tampa Bay lineup afloat and giving the Rays the highest OPS of any catching group in the AL.

RED SOX: Dominance of Matt Barnes

Sunday’s blown save notwithstanding, Barnes has gotten the job done nearly every time manager Alex Cora has called on him. The Red Sox thought highly enough of Barnes to name him the closer at the end of Spring Training following a battle with veteran Adam Ottavino for the job. But it would have been hard for anyone to project that Barnes (9-for-10 in save opportunities) would be as dominant as he has been. Barnes has a ridiculous K/BB of 11.6, having struck out 35 while walking just three in 20 1/3 innings. Hitters have a .118 batting average against Barnes, with just one home run and a .376 OPS. Always a quality setup man in the past, Barnes has never pounded the strike zone like he has this season and it has been the key to his success. WIth Barnes displaying pinpoint control of his fastball, hitters have been unable to be as selective with his breaking ball.

YANKEES: Starting pitching

Considering Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon and Domingo Germán combined for all of one inning last year, there was concern about the state of the rotation behind Gerrit Cole. No doubt, Cole has pitched like an AL Cy Young Award candidate, but the rest of the rotation is pulling its weight. Yankees starters have allowed three earned runs or fewer in 22 of their last 26 starts since April 18, posting a 3.07 ERA with 168 strikeouts over that span. They’ve also allowed two earned runs or fewer in 13 of 19 starts since April 26.

When Shaw reported to Spring Training on a Minor League contract, he was confident that he’d be a weapon out of the Indians’ bullpen. But how many pitchers say that at the start of the season? Shaw was fresh off a year in which he spent the majority of his time at Seattle’s alternate training site after two shaky seasons in Colorado. And at 33 years old, it was easy to think he was nearing the end of his career. Instead, Shaw proved he indeed reinvented himself while in the Mariners’ organization and he has been everything Cleveland could’ve asked for in relief. He’s pitched to a 1.80 ERA with 16 strikeouts over 15 innings in 16 appearances. Not only has he been lights out, Shaw has also been the wild card the bullpen needed. He brings a tremendous amount of flexibility for manager Terry Francona and his coaching staff, presenting a reliable option to pitch in the sixth if a starter exits early or to get called on for a save in the ninth, as he did on Thursday.

It’s a contract year for Duffy, and Mr. “Bury Me a Royal” is pitching like he has something to prove. After three consecutive seasons with an ERA over 4.00, Duffy has posted a 1.94 ERA through seven starts to begin 2021, with 48 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings. He’s been the Royals’ best and most reliable starter, often picking up the club when it needs it the most. Kansas City knew it would need his arm as an innings-eater this season, but the way Duffy has started the season has given a spark to this pitching staff. In the final season of a five-year, $65 million contract, Duffy has often talked about his calming mindset this season, and Royals coaches and staff have been impressed with the 32-year-old’s presence on and off the field. What comes next for Duffy is unknown, but the club’s longest-tenured pitcher is hoping to make one more postseason push with Kansas City this year.

The Rule 5 Draft pick has statistically fallen off since his record-setting start, but he’s still providing quality at-bats — including seven walks in 31 May plate appearances — and earning regular playing time all over Detroit’s outfield. It’s all more than anyone expected from the 22-year-old former Twins prospect who made the jump all the way from Class A following a lost Minor League season in 2020.

TWINS: A glimpse of full-strength Byron Buxton

Buxton is on the injured list now with a right hip strain, but before he was sidelined with the ailment, he was finally playing at the MVP-caliber level that Twins fans envisioned when the organization selected him with the No. 2 pick in the 2012 MLB Draft. He’s slashing .370/.408/.772 with nine homers, 10 doubles and five stolen bases through 24 games and won the AL Player of the Month Award for April after leading the club in hits, doubles, homers, OPS and steals at the time of his injury, complementing his signature stellar defense. He ranks in MLB’s 100th percentile in hard-hit rate and 99th percentile in sprint speed, showcasing the raw ability that has, at last, showed up in full force on the field — something the Twins are now sorely missing amid a tough start to the season.

WHITE SOX: Yermín Mercedes

Where would the White Sox be without Mercedes? The designated hitter certainly is not the lone reason for the team’s success with the bat through the season’s first six weeks, but he has stepped up as a truly surprise force in the face of significant injury losses suffered through left fielder Eloy Jiménez (surgery to repair left pectoral tendon rupture) and center fielder Luis Robert (right hip flexor tear). Mercedes broke camp basically as a third catcher/bench option, but he went 8-for-8 to start the season, and he has an MLB-leading .358 average while establishing himself as an everyday constant in the lineup

Walsh had a breakout rookie year in 2020, but given the shortened season, the first baseman still had plenty to prove this season. But so far, Walsh has kept it up and has been one of the best hitters in baseball. Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon get all of the headlines, but offensively, Walsh is right there with all of them. His performance also led to the decision to release future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, as Walsh has earned the everyday job at first base going forward.

García has filled in admirably as the team’s fifth starter in place of injured veteran Jake Odorizzi. García made the rotation for one turn through before being moved to the bullpen, but he didn’t stay there long. He started in place of Lance McCullers Jr. in snowy Colorado and went 5 2/3 innings on April 20. The right-hander has made four starts for Odorizzi, going 1-3 with a 3.34 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 35 innings overall.

Nobody expected Irvin to be in the mix for a rotation spot at the start of Spring Training. He was acquired from the Phillies in a January trade that was viewed as a Minor League depth move. But halfway through May, he continues to perform as arguably the best starter on the A’s staff. The left-hander doesn’t have overpowering stuff, though his constant ability to pound the zone with strikes has made him effective, even against lineups that feast on pitchers early in the count. Dating back to April 17, Irvin has posted a 1.89 ERA over six starts. Overall, his 3.02 ERA is lowest among Oakland’s starting pitchers.

MARINERS: The new-look — and dominant — bullpen

It’s not just that the Mariners’ bullpen has improved upon an AL-worst 5.92 ERA last season, it’s that their relief corps is thriving and essentially taking up one rotation spot in light of the onslaught of injuries that Seattle’s starters have weathered. Such was the case on Sunday, when Robert Dugger and Paul Sewald delivered five scoreless, one-hit innings against Cleveland in place of No. 1 starter Marco Gonzales. Neither pitcher was on the Opening Day roster, yet here they were, outdueling Shane Bieber. And those aren’t even the Mariners’ high-leverage arms, who have been nails after entering the season with a level of unknown. Most notable are Rule 5 Draft selection Will Vest and former starter Kendall Graveman, whose career was in question after a benign tumor near his neck surfaced last season. Seattle’s relievers had a 3.55 ERA entering Sunday, ninth-best in the Majors.

RANGERS: Isiah Kiner-Falefa

When manager Chris Woodward announced this offseason that Kiner-Falefa would replace longtime shortstop Elvis Andrus in 2021, many outside of the organization were shocked. But Woodward was confident in that decision, especially after Kiner-Falefa won an AL Gold Glove at third base last season. And while not a surprise internally, he has broken through atop the AL and MLB leaderboards. At the plate, Kiner-Falefa entered Sunday ranking among the AL leaders with six three-hit games (second), 14 multi-hit games (tied for third), 48 hits (tied for third), seven stolen bases (tied for third) and 27 runs (tied for sixth). At the conclusion of Sunday’s game, he held a slash line of .293/.339/.449. Defensively, he continues to shine at shortstop, ranking first in defensive runs saved among shortstops.

Though Ynoa had a rough outing on Sunday, he has been one of this season’s biggest surprises. He seemed targeted for the bullpen before he added a few ticks to his fastball and developed more depth with what has been one of the game’s most effective swing-and-miss sliders. With Mike Soroka’s availability this year in question, Ynoa’s success will continue to significantly influence the Braves’ bid for a fourth straight division title. He has allowed four hits or fewer and two runs or fewer in six of eight starts.

When offseason addition Anthony Bass was unable to close out his first two save chances, the club turned to setup man García, who had just two career saves. García has gone 7-for-8 in save opportunities with a 1.65 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. His change in role coincides with the revamped bullpen’s turnaround. Before the switch was made, the ‘pen had a 6.43 ERA and an MLB-worst -0.7 WAR. Since April 10, it ranks first in the Majors with a 2.70 ERA and second with a 1.9 WAR.

Imagine what baseball experts must have thought after the Mets signed Walker to a two-year deal with a player option at the start of Spring Training. They were probably stunned since Walker didn’t have much of a track record. He has had an injury-prone career dating back to his second year in the big leagues in 2014. Remember, it took him almost two years to recover from Tommy John surgery a couple of years back.  But Walker has proven to be a stable option in the rotation. His 0.7 WAR is fourth on the team behind only Jacob deGrom, Pete Alonso and Brandon Nimmo. After deGrom, Walker is the second-best pitcher on the Mets. He’s tied for the team lead in wins and opponents are hitting just .170 against him.

When Kurt Suzuki departed Washington via free agency this winter, the Nationals tasked Yan Gomes with catching 100-plus games this season. The 10-year veteran has done more than anchor the Nats behind the plate — he’s been hot swinging the bat, too. Gomes, a career .247 hitter, is batting .364 (16-for-44) in 12 games this month. He has tallied two doubles, one triple, three home runs, eight RBIs, one walk and eight runs during that stretch, including a career-high five hits (a homer shy of the cycle) on Friday against the D-backs.

The Phillies acquired Coonrod from the Giants in January for right-hander Carson Ragsdale, whom they selected in the fourth round of the 2020 Draft. Coonrod has been a godsend to the Phillies’ bullpen. He has a 1.00 ERA over 18 innings in 16 appearances. He has struck out 19 and walked just two. Simply, Coonrod is striking out more batters and walking fewer than he did with the Giants. His walk rate has plummeted from 13.2% in 2019 to 9.9% in ’20 to 2.9% this season. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate in those seasons has jumped from 17.5% to 21.1% to 27.5%, respectively.

Sunday was the exception, when Feyereisen took the mound with an 8-0 lead to get some work and wound up charged with four earned runs on two hits and two walks while recording only one out. Even with that ugly line, the Wisconsin native’s ERA is 2.45 in a team-leading 20 appearances, and he’s emerged as a critical bullpen cog for manager Craig Counsell ahead of setup man Devin Williams and closer Josh Hader. The Brewers knew going into the season that they would need an unproven arm or two to step forward in the bullpen mix, and Feyereisen, with his nasty slider and changeup, has been the guy so far.

It’s been truly remarkable to watch the Cardinals’ 39-year-old catcher put together the finest offensive season of his career, with Molina on pace for career-high marks in OPS and slugging, while also catching his 2,000th career game. Molina is doing so by bucking the analytics, swinging at seemingly anything that comes his way, as he’s also on pace to set career highs in swing rate and whiff rate. No matter; 41 games into 2021, he’s been the club’s most dependable hitter.

Some injuries and other circumstances led to a shift in the Cubs’ use of Kris Bryant, who has not started a game at third base since April 20. And while Bryant has continued to hit at an MVP-caliber level — while bouncing around all three outfield positions — veteran utility man Duffy has come off Chicago’s bench and given the lineup an unexpected spark. Going into Sunday’s game, Duffy ranked third in the Majors (minimum 90 plate appearances) in contact rate (90.8%), which has been a trouble area for the Cubs’ offense in recent years. Duffy’s consistent ability to put the ball in play, especially with two strikes, has had a trickle-down impact on the lineup, as a whole. A recent example arrived Saturday, when Duffy had three go-ahead hits (each with two strikes) in a five-RBI performance. Due to Duffy’s showing, Bryant has remained in the outfield mix, even as some sidelined players have returned from the injured list.

The Pirates signed Anderson to a one-year deal at the outset of Spring Training, providing another veteran arm and a voice that the front office saw value in. A quarter of the way through the season, he’s been arguably the most reliable starter in a rotation that hasn’t had Steven Brault the entire season and Chad Kuhl for nearly the past month. Anderson is the only starter who has gone at least five innings in each outing, and the four runs he allowed last time out marked the first time he’d given up more than three in a start. Even on a one-year pact, the 31-year-old could be a valuable Trade Deadline piece and potentially net the Pirates a high-ceiling prospect.

REDS: Offense from the catching tandem

Tucker Barnhart had endured a couple of poor offensive seasons, but an offseason of focusing on hitting improvement has paid off so far. Barnhart, a two-time NL Gold Glove winner including 2020, has combined with rookie Tyler Stephenson to form the Major Leagues’ leading hitting tandem among catchers. Barnhart, who stopped switch-hitting last year to bat exclusively left-handed, has flashed some line-drive power and has three homers. Stephenson, a right-handed hitter, came with a pedigree for offense, but he has not appeared overwhelmed at all by big league pitching.

Smith made the Opening Day roster in part because of an injury to starting right fielder Kole Calhoun, but Smith has quickly established himself as a mainstay in the D-backs’ lineup. Drafted as a first baseman out of Virginia with the seventh overall pick in the 2017 Draft, he added corner outfield to his list of positions last year, and this year, he has filled in at center field, when needed. Smith has a good feel for the strike zone, and as he has gotten more experience, he has begun to drive the ball with authority more often.

The Dodgers have been hit with a ton of injuries this season, creating more opportunities for other players. For the first few weeks of the season, Zach McKinstry was able to provide an unexpected spark, but then he went down with an oblique injury. Lately, it’s been Beaty to the rescue for the Dodgers. His role to begin the season was a left-handed bat off the bench, but with AJ Pollock out for at least a few weeks, Beaty will now serve as the starting left fielder. He has responded to the challenge, hitting .343 with one homer and 18 RBIs since April 27.

No one knew what to expect from the 34-year-old Posey after he sat out the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, but the Giants’ franchise star is turning back the clock to ‘12, when he won the NL MVP Award and became only the fourth NL catcher to capture a batting title. Posey hasn’t accumulated enough plate appearances to be considered a qualified hitter this year, but if he had, he’d easily lead the Majors with a .382 average. His power has been an unexpected development, as well, as he’s crushed eight home runs through his first 25 games after hitting only seven in ‘19. Posey is on pace to reach double-digit homers for the first time since ‘17, a sign that his surgically repaired right hip is back to full strength.

The Padres signed Melancon to an extremely team-friendly one-year deal, in large part because he so desperately wanted to win a World Series. He turned down more lucrative offers from other clubs to pitch in San Diego, and he’s been a revelation in the closer role. Melancon won that job during Spring Training and has converted every save opportunity so far, while leading the Majors with 14 saves. He was the NL Reliever of the Month in April — facing 43 batters and allowing only four singles and a walk, while posting a 0.69 ERA.

Spring Training began with Daza unsure if he’d be on the outside looking in. He batted .206 during a 44-game trial in 2019, then spent all of last season — his final year of Minor League options — at the alternate training site. This spring, having to make the team, Daza arrived physically stronger and more controlled with the bat. The early season struggles of Sam Hilliard, who has been optioned to Triple-A Albuquerque, opened playing time and Daza has responded, hitting .347 through his first 35 games. Daza has always been considered an above-average fielder, but it’s his bat that will get him opportunities. He doesn’t hit for power, though, so he needs to maintain his on-base percentage (.370) to become part of the long-term plan.

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