We’re about a month into the 2023 baseball season, and as is always the case there are teams that are over-performing (that’s you, Pittsburgh) and under-performing. It’s not just on the team side either, certain players are off to better than expected starts, and while a month of play isn’t enough to make a definitive judgement on one’s season, it’s certainly enough of a sample size to have a conversation about whether a player has turned a corner.
Let’s take a look at five players who are have performed better than expectations over the first month, and try and predict whether they’ll be able to sustain their strong start. (All stats are up to date entering Saturday’s matches)
Joey Gallo: .265/.368/.796 with seven home runs
The poster boy of the three true outcome hitter, Gallo has frustrated fans from Texas to New York to LA in recent years with his tantalizing power but sky high strikeouts and sub-optimal batting averages. Last year was one of Gallo’s worst, as he posted just a .160/.280/.357 line with a strikeout rate a touch shy of 40% between the Yankees and Dodgers and hit free agency without much fanfare. The Twins brought him in on a one-year, $11MM deal and it already seems to be paying off. Gallo’s shaved almost ten percentage points off his strikeout rate and is still walking at his usual solid clip.
Gallo appears to have a really good feel for the zone at the moment, swinging at more pitches in the zone and taking fewer called strikes. I spoke with Betsy Helfand, Twins beat reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, on the MLBTR Podcast this week and she detailed some changes Gallo had made in his stance over the off-season. Perhaps also he’s benefitting from the shift changes. Gallo is pulling the ball more than in recent years, perhaps freed up to play more of his natural style with teams unable to shift quite so aggressively against him.
In any case, there’s a lot to like about Gallo’s start to the season in Minnesota. It’s probably unlikely he continues to hit a home run every seven at bats, but there’s every chance the Twins have themselves a much better version of Gallo than we’ve seen recently.
Yusei Kikuchi: Five starts, 27 IP, 3.00 ERA, 9.3 SO/9, 2.0 BB/9
Kikuchi came into the season clinging onto the final rotation spot in Toronto, but he’s been a really solid arm for them over the first month. Last season Kikuchi posted a 5.25 ERA in 20 starts for the Blue Jays and wound up out of the rotation by the end of the season. A big reason for his turnaround this year is a significant drop in his walk rate. Last season, Kikuchi was handing out free passes 12.8% of the time. This season? Just 5.7%. He’s also tweaked his pitch mix a bit, leaning less often on his fastball and bumping up the usage of his slider and splitter.
Yet a peak under the hood of Kikuchi’s performance does raise some red flags. He is still giving up far too many home runs, conceding about two every nine innings, much the same as his rate last year. He’s also carrying a sky high 97.2% left on base percentage, which is bound to drop some.
All in all, I’m skeptical Kikuchi holds on to the sort of numbers he’s putting up over his first five starts and expect a decent amount of regression. Maybe that still results in an improvement on last year and provides the Jays with enough to feel comfortable running him out every fifth day, but I still think he ends up with an ERA somewhere in the fours rather than the threes.
Cody Bellinger: .298/.475/.560 with five home runs
After winning the NL MVP in 2019 with the Dodgers, Bellinger has descended into a below average hitter since, putting up a wRC+ of just 78 between 2020-22. That led the Dodgers to non-tender him at the end of last season, and he latched on with the Cubs on a one-year, $17.5MM deal. It looked like an expensive gamble at the time for Chicago, but it appears to be paying off.
Bellinger has almost halved his strikeout rate from a year prior, bumped up his walk rate but still isn’t hitting the ball nearly as hard as he was during his MVP season. In fact his HardHit% is at 31 this year, and was as high as 45.6 in 2019 and 38.1 last year. The huge drop in strikeouts really is the most impressive aspect though, as that’s where Bellinger had come undone in recent years. In 2019 his K rate was just 16.9%, but it rocketed up into the 27% range over the past few seasons, so to bring it back down to an elite rate is a firm indication of some meaningful change in Bellinger’s performance.
So with all that considered perhaps he’s sort of back? Mostly back? Or maybe on the way to being back? Either way, it’s still a hugely productive player for the Cubs and the signs are there that even if he’s not peak-Bellinger he’s still very much turned a corner.
Johan Oviedo: Five starts, 29 2/3 IP, 3.03 ERA, 8.8 SO/9, 3.3 BB/9
Little was made of the return the Pirates received for Jose Quintana when they dealt him to the Cardinals at the deadline last summer. Yet in Oviedo, with a few changes, they may have unearthed a really solid mid-rotation arm. Oviedo had been a ho-hum arm in the Cardinals system getting mixed results and it didn’t appear as though his departure would really change much in St Louis.
Yet since coming over the Pirates, Oviedo has blossomed, and I’ll borrow from my colleague Steve Adams’ analysis in a broader Front Office piece on Pittsburgh’s impressive start to the season, which includes this on Oviedo:
Oviedo has upped his fastball velocity, doubled his curveball usage and morphed from a fringey swingman to what looks like a legitimate Major League starter. He’s not an ace, but the tangible changes here and immediate results are intriguing.
Oviedo’s fastball velocity may be up to 96.6 mph on average, but he’s throwing the pitch at a career-low 33.7% clip, instead heavily favoring his slider and curveball, both of which have a 34% whiff rate in 2023, per Statcast. Fewer fastballs and more breaking pitches have led to a stark increase in ground-ball rate – a well above-average 55.7% in 2023 – and a glut of weak contact. He’s yielded just an 85.6 mph average exit velocity and a paltry 31.1% hard-hit rate.
Steve’s piece is well worth a read, but the key here is that Oviedo and the Pirates coaching staff have made meaningful change to his pitching repertoire and are seeing results. With that in mind, it’s hard not buy this start from Oviedo. Perhaps there’s a bit of regression from the 3.03 ERA, but even if the Bucs have landed themselves a solid third or fourth starter who gives them a chance to win each time he takes the mound, it’s a huge win.
Jarred Kelenic: .325/.380/.663 with seven home runs
Is it finally happening? Kelenic has been one of the game’s top prospects for a number of years now but has failed to make an impact at the highest level. That may be changing. Kelenic has been one of the best hitters on a struggling Seattle team to start 2023, and could be blossoming into the sort of player the team dreamed on when they acquired him from the Mets.
Sure, Kelenic will see some regression from the .385 BABIP he holds right now, but the guy is hitting the ball and hitting it hard. He’s already barreled up ten balls and his HardHit% sits at 57.6%, a full 22 percentage points higher than last year and his exit velocity has shot up from the previous two campaigns.
As Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic details, Kelenic spent the winter in Arizona revamping his swing with Tim Laker, a former Mariners hitting coach and the results are clear. A career .168/.251/338 hitter in the big leagues, Kelenic looks to have finally broken out in 2023. Even if his strikeout and walk rates are largely in line with his previous numbers the fact that he can do more – a lot more – with the contact that he is making is the difference.
no, no, no, yes, no
I just want to point out I was one of the ones advocating for the Braves to take a shot on Bellinger but of course they did nothing and continue to run Ozuna and Rosario out there instead.
Meanwhile all the Braves homers incapable of any constructive criticism toward the team on this board were all totally fine with doing nothing for the outfield.
In b4 someone posts their record which has nothing to do with the fact they have a glaring hole that could have been addressed with minimal effort/cost and still did nothing. Unacceptable no matter how they finish.
Jorge Mateo. Holy smokes. It’s like he’s unlocked a new level in the video game and is ready to take on a boss.
I realize regression to the mean is coming but this video game version of his offense is so much fun to watch.
Matt Olson is on pace for 48 HRs/150 RBI and absurd amount of strikeouts. Glad to see vintage Olson.
Elder should be on this list if he keeps it up–with others like outman.
Once again, no love for Alex Cobb.
Hard to fit everyone!
Kikuchi is probably going to finish with a great year, 3.50ish with 150 k
Wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the #3 in the playoff rotation. It won’t be Bassit and Berrios only gets that role if he’s better than Kikuchi.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that,,, Seinfeld
Jaysfan- on multiple occasions YK had Mariners fans thinking the very same thing. We’d think “look at that fastball, the movement, the stuff, at times it looks unhittable.” Just when you think he’s put it all together he gives up 4 HR’s and can’t make it out of the 3rd inning. He is one of THE most frustrating pitchers to watch. Because we all know the stuff is there……until the command goes and then the confidence.
He’ll be in the bullpen by August. Haha
ROY candidate Corbin Carroll, Dbacks
Filling up the stat sheet
Daily Highlight: So fast, he ran right up Geraldo Perdomo’s tailpipe last night scoring on Josh Rojas’ double.
Right up his tailpipe? Things sure are getting frisky in the desert.
James Outman LAD is making a pretty good case.
Why are you guys bringing up ROY candidates, not the premise of the article. Completely irrelevant.
Speaking about rookies with strong starts and their possibility of sustaining it in an article about players (i.e. rookies) sustaining their strong starts — hmm — not that hard.
He’s fast, but that tailpipe thing happened because Perdomo was tagging at second in case the ball was caught.
Looks like maybe the mariners need to make former hitting coach their current hitting coach
…and their current hitting coach, their “former”.
Seems to b helping Kelenic. Other than that Teoscar down a bit and JRod is down. Suarez, Pollock, Wong, France,Crawford are all what they are.
Angels & NL West
Lot of guys to choose from, but I expected to see Brandon Marsh. He’s slashing .346/.427/.679. I’m guessing he was omitted due to his unsustainable .469 BABIP.
Kelenic is finally here.
Kelenic is hitting everything and from both RHPs as well as lefties.
I’m buying in.
Yes, no, yes, no, no.
Oviedo is likely a legit starter but probably more like a 4/5 type on most teams.
Thomas Ricketts has around 4 billion reasons to relocate the team of the city/state of Chicago doesn’t pay for and build a new stadium for him by 2031.
Kelenic/Oviedo—yes. Gallo/Kikuchi—no. Bellinger—maybe
Anyone looking at Jarren Daran? You should be
Duran has had almost half as many AB as Kelenic, who is on the list (44 vs. 87). I get we’re talking about a small sample size with these, but Duran’s hot streak is a fart in the wind so far, despite what the Boston media telling you he’s Ted Williams reincarnated.
I’m going with Gallo/Bellinger/Kelenic yes, Kikuchi no, and Oviedo not sure
Jim Thome is my homie
If Oviedo can work on his BB/9 he’ll be a 3/4 for the Pirates for a while. The entire pitching staff has adopted heavy on the off speed, and up until now it’s been paying off.
It also needs to be said that having a solid catcher in Austin Hedges is paying dividends for the entire staff.
Obviously would like to see Oviedo walk a few less batters but with his pitch mix and usage rates, specifically the curveball that drops a ton, he gets a lot of batters to just beat pitches into the ground which makes the walks more tolerable.
The biggest rotation surprise on the Bucs this season though is Vince Velazquez. I have no rational explanation for how he is pitching so well right now and I don’t care to try to figure it out. Just gonna enjoy the ride while it lasts with him.
Buuba ho tep
obvioiusly the writer underestimates the pirates and overestimates his SO CALLED journalistic abilities