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10 MLB Players Whose Strong Start to 2013 is Legit

Jeff Samardzija
Joe Robbins, Getty Images

The early part of the baseball season is tough on fans. You are thrilled that baseball has returned to become a part of your nightly routine for the next six months, but the performances can be tough to interpret properly.

If players on your favorite team are off to a hot start hope it’s legit and lasts the entire season. However, if they are struggling, then you start believing in the powers of regression as a means to keep yourself sane, lest you start thinking your beloved hometowners are headed for 120 losses.

The fact is that some of these hot starts are going to stick and be the foundation for big seasons while others will cool off as the summer heats up.

Here are 10 players off to hot starts who should keep it up all season.

* All stats are through games of Thursday, April 25


JUpton

Justin Upton, ATL

 
 

It wasn’t exactly bold to crush the Diamondbacks for dealing a 25-year-old star talent, but their handling of Justin Upton was one of the worst spells of front office management I’ve ever seen. They publicly denounced their cornerstone player multiple times and painted themselves into a corner. After several mistakes, they had to trade Upton.

Upton has joined forces with brother B.J., who was brought in via free agency, and he is making the D’Backs look foolish daily with a league-high 11 homers to go with his .316/.402/.797 line. When your “down” season is .280/.355/.430 with 17 homers and 18 stolen bases, you’re destined to be a superstar. Upton did all that while gutting out 150 games with a thumb injury. He has an MVP award in his future – it might even be this year.

It appears as though he will finally log his first 100-RBI season, too, especially once his brother (.225 OBP) and Andrelton Simmons (.289 OBP) start getting on base more often in front of him.

 
CSantana

Carlos Santana, CLE

 
 

Carlos Santana, like Upton, gutted out some nagging injuries that affected his ability to perform at peak levels, but it didn’t stop him from being the fifth-best catcher by Fangraphs’ wRC+ statistic, which is a composite value measure for hitting titled weighted runs created-plus.

His power was sapped a bit and an early concussion did a number on his batting average, but he rallied with a brilliant second half. Santana has carried that over into the start of 2013 with a .352/.435/.704 line that includes four homers, nine RBIs, and 11 runs scored. Santana made it into my AL Bold Predictions earlier this year for 100 RBI and a .400 on-base percentage.

If he continues to get on at his current .435 clip, he could score 100 runs, too.

 
SChoo

Shin-Soo Choo, CIN

 
 

Shin-Soo Choo has built himself a nice cushion toward my Bold Prediction of him scoring 110 runs this year by already logging 18, which paces out to 127. He’s been tearing the cover off of the ball hitting at a .378 clip, but he’s getting on base as a .523 (!) clip thanks to both a league-high 31 hits and an MLB-high 10 hits-by-pitch. He had 14 HBP in all of 2012. Choo has always been a favorite of mine, and I loved his prospects for a superstar-level season in the Cincinnati ballpark and lineup.

Early on, Choo appears to love his new digs, too, hitting .418/.568/.691 in Great American Ballpark, including all three of his home runs plus another five extra-base hits. He’s been great before, so it’s not a terribly thin branch to walk out on and believe in this start, but I think the 30-year-old outfielder is in for a career-year, which is a lofty bar to clear based on his 2010.

 
ASanchez

Anibal Sanchez, DET

 
 

Sanchez sputtered a bit after a late-July trade to the Tigers. He was out of the Miami/Florida Marlins franchise for the first time in his career and he was joining a new league, so his 7.97 ERA through his first four starts was somewhat understandable. Or, maybe it was just an ill-timed bump in the road that we retroactively attributed to his league change. Either way, he righted the ship quickly and closed the season with a 2.15 ERA in 54.3 innings over eight starts, while striking out 21 percent of the batters he faced and walking just three percent.

It looked like Sanchez might leave via free agency when the Cubs were reported to have a deal in place, but he gave the Tigers a chance to match.
They did and early returns suggest they made a nice move, as Sanchez has a 1.75 ERA and 1.13 WHIP through his first four outings with a 23 percent strikeout rate and 7.6 percent walk rate in 25.7 innings.

Dating back to that August 22, 2012 outing where he seemed to turn the corner with the Tigers, Sanchez has the second-best ERA in the American League at 2.02 in 80 innings, trailing only Yu Darvish. If you count his sparkling playoff performance, he is at a 1.97 ERA in 100.3 innings (and still second to Darvish). It’s not even fair that the Tigers have him as their No. 4 starter behind Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Doug Fister.

Note: This was written & submitted before the 17-strikeout game against Atlanta. Of course, that only adds to the belief in his strong start. 

 
MLatos

Mat Latos, CIN

 
 

Mat Latos has had three full seasons of great work since making his 10-start debut back in 2009. However, one thing has kept him from having those dominant Cy Young seasons that often require six months of excellence: April. Coming into 2013, Latos' best opening month ERA was 4.98 back in 2011, and he went 0-4 to boot. In his breakout 2010 (2.92 ERA in 184.7 IP), he had a 6.20 ERA in 20.3 April innings. Maybe he finishes higher than eighth in the Cy Young voting with a better start that year. Last year, Latos was at 5.97 ERA in 28.7 innings, giving him a career 5.73 April ERA.

Barring just an unthinkable implosion start on Monday, Latos will have his best April ERA this year. He is currently riding a 2.16 mark in 33.3 innings (though he is just 1-0 – thanks for nothing, team!), while also striking out 25 percent of the batters he has faced and walking just four percent. The 25-year old seems to have finally overcome his April woes, whether by getting more prepared in spring training or doing something in the off-season that set up a much better opening month.

I’m not sure exactly what changed. I know Justin Verlander used to have April issues before finally deciding that he was going to act as if spring training games were the real thing and prepare the same way he would  as if it were a June 29 outing. Verlander has since become the world’s best pitcher.

 
JSamardzija

Jeff Samardzija, CHC

 
 

Jiza actually squared off against Latos in one of the week’s best matchups, a 1-0 ace duel. The Cubs newly minted ace can relate to Latos’ win woes as his 1-4 record isn’t at all indicative of how well he has pitched thus far: 3.03 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 29 percent strikeout rate, and a 7.5% BB rate.

After years of nondescript middle relief, Samardzija transitioned to the rotation last year, and he was a revelation for a forlorn, 101-loss club. His time in college as a Notre Dame wide receiver plus the aforementioned years of relief work have eaten away some time, so he isn’t exactly a young pup at 28 years old, but he is an emerging ace who should be around for the next quality Cubs team as they seem to have a real plan in place for the future. It would be nice if they rewarded his excellence with some wins.

 
AOgando

Alexi Ogando, TEX

 
 

I was clamoring for the Rangers to put Alexi Ogando back in the rotation all of last year. Even though I loved watching him zip throngs of 97-99 MPH fastballs by batters out of the pen, Ogando had more value as a starter, even if he “only” then threw 94-96 MPH.

Though the Rangers appeared to be putting him in the rotation regardless, injuries made it a certainty. So far, Ogando has been better than he was in 2011, when he first transitioned into a starter’s role. He has a 3.12 ERA while fanning 22 percent of the batters he has faced.
His 9.2 percent walk rate is a tick higher than I’d like, but back-to-back seasons around 6-6.5 percent suggest he can trim that a bit as the season progresses.

The concern with Ogando has always been that he is basically a two-pitch pitcher with a devastating slider accompanying his blazing heater, but this year he has shown exceptional growth in his change-up. He is using it a career-high 12.2 percent of the time (previous high was 4.8 percent) and batters are managing a pathetic .100/.100/.100 off of it.

 
DFowler

Dexter Fowler, COL

 
 

I have been waiting on Dexter Fowler for what feels like an eternity, as he has posted four straight seasons of underwhelming numbers, especially given his home ballpark. Equipped with all the tools a player could want, he did take a step forward last year netting a .300/.389/.474 line with career bests of 13 home runs and 53 RBIs. It was hard not to think there was more trapped inside his 6’4, 190-pound frame, but he always seemed to crumble on the road and do all of his damage at home. Fowler has a career .886 OPS at home compared to a .711 road mark. Through 21 games, he may be reversing that trend en route to a breakout season.

Fowler already has seven homers along with a .286/.382/.623 line in 89 plate appearances. He also has four of those seven home runs on the road along with an impressive .270/.400/.622 performance in his 10 games outside of Coors Field. This is taking a tiny 21-game sample and parsing it down even further.

That said, this is about the start I believe in based on the small samples, and I’m putting my money on Fowler to fully deliver on the potential that made him the 15th overall prospect in baseball back in 2009 according to Baseball America.

 
ACobb

Alex Cobb, TB

 
 

If you’ve ever listened to my podcast with Jason Collette, then you probably have Alex Cobb on your fantasy team(s). Hearing us gush about the unheralded 25-year old righty from Jason’s favorite team probably gets tiresome, but it is paying off now as he has a 1.82 ERA and 1.05 WHIP through 29.7 innings, with a strong 3-1 record in four starts.

Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones discussing Cobb this year, and he became something of a sleeper darling – one of those sleepers who appears on so many lists that he is no longer a sleeper and actually kind of overrated. So far, Cobb is paying massive dividends and his groundball-heavy approach paired with just enough strikeouts is a winning recipe to keep it up all year long.

 
Coco Crisp, Jed Lowrie

Jed Lowrie/Coco Crisp, OAK

 
 

I paired teammates Jed Lowrie and Coco Crisp together for a few reasons. First off, I believe in the talent of both of them. They are off to blistering hot starts, and while they will tone it down a bit, they can definitely keep hitting at a very productive clip.

However, I also paired Lowrie and Crisp together for a negative reason: they can’t stay healthy. Lowrie’s next 100-game season will be his first, and that’s not even particularly special as you need a lot more than that to log 500+ plate appearances. Crisp, meanwhile, has never topped 145 games in his career — 136 has been his high mark the last six years.

Lowrie has shown glimpses of his power before, logging nine homers in just 197 plate appearances back in 2010 and then 16 last year in his career-best 387 PA. He is on pace for 21 this year with three so far, while his .365/.443/.576 has been a major contributor to Oakland’s MLB-best 126 runs scored.

Crisp has built his value on his speed. He has swiped 39 and 49 bags the last two years despite playing 120 and 136 games, respectively. He has three seasons of double-digit homers including last year’s 11, but it’s never been a key component to his game, making this year’s five (and 35 pace) particularly surprising. His .296/.400/.605 work atop the lineup has been the catalyst for the A's brilliant start.

It isn’t a matter of whether or not these players will continue to hit; they have the talent to do so without question. It’s whether or not they will stay healthy. I’m betting on Lowrie to set another career-high in playing time while Crisp will set a seven-year high in playing time, eclipsing 2010’s marks of 136 games and 583 plate appearances.

 

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