As the Major League Baseball season heads into a third week of action, we’re seeing plenty of drama on the diamond. That’s reflected in our rankings, as our panel of voters took stock of whose hot starts to take seriously — hello, Colorado Rockies — and which teams doing better than expected might be discounted.
While the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins all held on to the top spots, we saw two new teams crack the top five as the A’s and Braves broke in. The Cubs’ strong start also earned consideration, as they moved up to No. 6. And while the Padres cracked the top 10 — bumping no less a team than the reigning champs, the Nationals — the Rockies made an even more dramatic nine-slot jump up in the rankings to No. 12. So expect more movement in the rankings in the weeks to come.
We’re also seeing some clubs come back from early postponements related to COVID-19, while the Cardinals’ ongoing issues wreak havoc with their schedule and that of others. Upon their safe return, the National League playoff picture — and their place in the rankings — could change dramatically.
National baseball writer David Schoenfield offers his picks for a pleasant surprise player for every team along with this week’s rankings.
Week 1 ranking: 1
Jake McGee allowed 21 home runs the past two seasons with the Rockies, but the lefty reliever looks great early on and has worked his way into a prominent role in the bullpen. With rookies Dennis Santana and Brusdar Graterol also in the mix, the Dodgers’ pen looks much deeper than last year. Check back in October.
Week 1 ranking: 2
It’s not necessarily a surprise that Aaron Judge is mashing home runs, but what is interesting is that he is walking a lot less. His walk rate the past three seasons was 16.5%, but in 2020, it’s just 3.1%. His swing rate is up from 41.1% to 46.8%, so that’s part of it (although his contact rate is actually down slightly). His percentage of pitches in the zone is actually down 1%, so he isn’t seeing more strikes and his strikeout rate has remained at 30%. He has been a little aggressive in the zone, but four of his first seven home runs came with two strikes and only one in the first two pitches.
Week 1 ranking: 3
Randy Dobnak came out of nowhere last season, from offseason Uber driver to starting Game 2 of an American League Division Series despite just 28⅓ career innings. He didn’t figure to make the opening rotation, but he earned a spot when Jake Odorizzi started the season on the injured list with a back strain. Dobnak has since gone 2-1 with a 0.60 ERA in three starts. He isn’t going to whiff a ton of batters, but he gets ground balls. And with Homer Bailey and Rich Hill now on the IL, Dobnak is in the rotation to stay.
Week 1 ranking: 8
Chris Bassitt had an under-the-radar 2019 campaign (10-5, 3.81 ERA), and at the age of 31, he is better than ever. He isn’t as flashy as some of the younger pitchers in the A’s rotation, relying on a 92 mph sinker, but he has a five-pitch mix and has yet to allow a home run.
After Ramon Laureano is hit by a pitch for a second time, he exchanges a few words with the Astros before rushing at the Houston dugout in anger and causing a fight.
Week 1 ranking: 6
Marcell Ozuna has always hit the ball hard, but he hasn’t been able to match the big 2017 season he had with the Marlins. So far, his hard-hit rate and exit velocity remain among the best in baseball, but his overall numbers are better than the past two years. Bonus: His chase rate is way down, so his walk rate and OBP are up. And with Nick Markakis back, that will hopefully keep Ozuna at DH and out of the outfield, where his glove work has been an adventure.
Week 1 ranking: 10
This space was going to be designated for Tyler Chatwood, until he returned to Earth and gave up eight runs in his most recent start, but we can still go with the entire rotation that has posted a 2.83 ERA. Before we get too excited, seven of its 13 games came against the Pirates and Royals and three against a Brewers team that doesn’t have a good offense, either. Still, it’s a positive start that has the Cubs off to a nice lead in the NL Central.
Week 1 ranking: 4
Cristian Javier dominated the minors in 2019 (170 K’s and just 51 hits in 113⅔ innings), but he wasn’t regarded as an elite prospect because he doesn’t have a big fastball. Instead, he changes speeds with his fastball and curveball; and in his first two starts replacing Justin Verlander, he allowed two runs and six hits in 11⅔ innings. He did get roughed up for three home runs on Sunday, so the jury is still out.
Week 1 ranking: 7
Zach Plesac has been a pleasant surprise — at least until he was sent home for violating the health and safety protocols for leaving the team hotel. He had a 3.81 ERA as a rookie in 2019, but his underlying numbers weren’t really that impressive — 4.94 FIP, just 6.8 K’s per nine. In his first three starts, two of those against the White Sox, he has gone eight, seven and six innings and fanned 24 batters while allowing just three runs.
Week 1 ranking: 5
Frankly, it has been a disappointing start for the Rays, as they’re not hitting and Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell haven’t even gone five innings in a start yet. How about Oliver Drake picking up a couple of saves? The funky-delivery reliever has pitched for seven teams since 2017 and been claimed on waivers five times. Drake had a good 2019 for the Rays, and he is now one of their most important relievers.
Week 1 ranking: 11
Eric Hosmer started off red-hot with a revamped swing and then landed on the IL with a stomach ailment not related to the coronavirus. But Jake Cronenworth has admirably filled in at first base, with several highlight-reel defensive plays and six extra-base hits among his first nine hits. Acquired from the Rays in the Tommy Pham deal, Cronenworth hit .334/.429/.520 at Triple-A last year, so while he is an older rookie at age 26, he could be a nice role player.
Week 1 ranking: 9
With the missing games, Juan Soto missing time, Stephen Strasburg‘s IL stint, Anibal Sanchez‘s struggles, a teamwide slow start on offense and Max Scherzer‘s early departure in his most recent outing, this is mostly about what has gone wrong. OK, surprise: Daniel Hudson has at least locked down the ninth inning, and Tanner Rainey could be a dominant late-inning arm.
Week 1 ranking: 21
Just as predicted, 35-year-old Daniel Murphy and 35-year-old Matt Kemp are leading the way. Murphy’s first year in Colorado was a big disappointment, as he hit just .279 — 20 points fewer than he had hit the year before without the benefit of Coors Field. Kemp was so bad with the Reds in 2019 — 19 K’s, one walk — that they released him and no team bothered to pick him up. I’m not sure Kemp can keep this up — his hard-hit rate is in the bottom-third percentile and his swing-and-miss rate is in the bottom 10% — but he has helped the Rockies get out to a nice start.
Week 1 ranking: 15
The surprise here is some of the production from the expected bench players: Leury Garcia, Danny Mendick, Adam Engel and James McCann have all been effective at the plate, making up for the slow starts of newcomers Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnacion and Tim Anderson‘s IL stint. The back of the bullpen — Alex Colome, Aaron Bummer and Evan Marshall — also has been superb.
Week 1 ranking: 12
Adrian Houser made his MLB debut back in 2015, but he didn’t break out until last season, when he had a 3.72 ERA over 111⅓ innings. He was much better as a reliever (1.47 ERA) than as a starter (4.57 ERA), but he has two good outings in the rotation so far. The Brewers are depending on Houser and Josh Lindblom to step up behind Brandon Woodruff.
Week 1 ranking: 16
It’s not a huge surprise that Sonny Gray and Trevor Bauer have been good, but remember that Bauer struggled with the Reds last year after coming over from Cleveland, and it was just two years ago that Gray appeared to be in decline. The Reds aren’t off to the start they wanted, but would you want to face Gray, Bauer and Luis Castillo in a short series?
Week 1 ranking: 17
Not much to go on here after they missed a week of action, but it was nice to see Zach Eflin have a nice first start against a tough Yankees lineup, allowing just two unearned runs. Eflin looked like a breakout candidate heading into the 2019 season, but he was 10-13 and 4.13 and saw his strikeout rate dip. He is still just 26 years old, and he used his sinker almost exclusively against the Yankees as his fastball of choice rather than his four-seamer. We’ll see if the new approach works.
Week 1 ranking: 13
They haven’t played since July 29, so there’s not really anything to go on here with just five games and one trip through the rotation. The big test when they start back up will be getting through all the doubleheaders that will have to be added to their schedule — even seven-inning doubleheaders will present a formidable test for the depth of the pitching staff.
Week 1 ranking: 14
Well, um, let’s see … Robinson Cano was hitting .412, before — in true Mets fashion — landing on the IL with an abductor strain. He is expected to return after the minimum 10 days, but the best part of his start is he was stinging the ball, ranking in the 93rd percentile in hard-hit rate and 96th percentile in xwOBA (expected wOBA).
Week 1 ranking: 19
Max Stassi entered the season with a .204 career average after hitting .136 with one home run in 132 at-bats for the Astros and Angels in 2019; but with four home runs already, he is going to steal some playing time away from Jason Castro behind the plate.
Jo Adell runs back to catch a hit by Nick Solak and has the ball pop out of his glove and over the fence for a four-base error.
Week 1 ranking: 18
Teoscar Hernandez is among the early leaders in home runs and OPS and ranks in the 97th percentile in hard-hit rate. There is a lot of swing and miss here, and the approach is probably overaggressive (he swings at the first pitch over 60% of the time), but when he does make contact, he hits it hard.
Week 1 ranking: 29
That’s the first-place Marlins, thank you very much. They beat the Orioles four games in a row after coming off their coronavirus outbreak. They had 17 new players on the roster, so give them props even if it was the Orioles. You know we’re going to see one shocking team making the playoffs, and do the Mets and Phillies really look that imposing in the NL East?
Week 1 ranking: 20
While three-fifths of the rotation has struggled, at least Zac Gallen is showing that his impressive rookie season wasn’t a fluke. He has a 2.81 ERA through three starts, and his 21 strikeouts in 16 innings shows he can still generate swing-and-misses despite a fastball that is neither big-velocity nor has a high spin rate.
Week 1 ranking: 22
Umm, I’m trying to find a nice surprise here, but let’s be real for a moment. The surprise is Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez and Andrew Benintendi are hitting a combined .154 with two home runs and seven RBIs in 149 at-bats. If those three aren’t hitting … aren’t they basically the Orioles?
Week 1 ranking: 23
Lance Lynn had a great 2019, finishing fifth in the Cy Young voting, and he continues to remake himself as a better strikeout pitcher in his 30s than he ever was with the Cardinals. After 246 K’s last year, he has 30 in 23⅓ innings and just three runs and 10 hits allowed (2-0, 1.16 ERA). He is throwing his four-seam fastball at 94 mph — and throwing it more often than he ever has. He could give Shane Bieber and Gerrit Cole a run for short-season Cy Young honors.
Week 1 ranking: 24
Spencer Turnbull was better than his 3-17 record last year suggests, but he did struggle in the second half. He has had three solid starts (2-0, 2.00 ERA), and two reasons to believe in him are a solid 31.7% swing-and-miss rate and no home runs allowed.
Week 1 ranking: 25
Mike Yastrzemski was a 28-year-old rookie last year, so it felt a bit like “veteran minor leaguer has a fluke season.” But he looks even better in 2020, drawing walks at a high rate to give him one of the best OBPs in the league, bashing extra-base hits and playing a good enough center field. Is he too old to be part of the Giants’ future? If so, he could be interesting trade bait.
Week 1 ranking: 26
Trevor Rosenthal‘s most recent big season as a closer was way back in 2015; and last year, he allowed 24 runs and 26 walks in 15⅓ innings. So of course, he is saving games again. (Throwing strikes helps!) You can’t predict baseball.
Week 1 ranking: 27
Yusei Kikuchi is suddenly one of the hardest-throwing lefty starters in the majors, averaging 95.1 mph with his four-seam fastball as compared to 92.5 mph last year. The 5.28 ERA isn’t great, but his other metrics are positive: no home runs allowed, a high swing-and-miss rate (90th percentile) and a solid K rate (6.5 per nine from last year is up to 9.4).
Week 1 ranking: 30
Yes, that’s Jose Iglesias who will become the first batter since Ted Williams to hit .400! OK, as I write this on Saturday night, his average has already dropped from .455 on Friday to .405 … but even if a 60-game .400 season is obviously not the same thing as a full season, it would be super fun if somebody can make a run at it.
Week 1 ranking: 28
Trevor Williams had that amazing run in 2018, when he had a 1.00 ERA over a 12-start stretch in the second half. But after he posted a 5.38 ERA last year, the Pirates didn’t know what they had. He is 0-3 so far, but he is better than his record indicates and is back to allowing more of the soft contact, like he did in 2018.