May 25, 2024

The 10 biggest surprises of the MLB season, from sensational Shota Imanaga to underwhelming Astros


The big surprises are one of the best parts of the start of each MLB season. Every year, the fans, media, players, field staff and front office members make predictions on where every team is going to finish and who’s going to win the major awards. And every year, some of those predictions feel like such sure things.

Then, without fail, things happen that no one sees coming.

Who would have guessed, about a quarter into the season, that the Astros would be “battling” for last place in the American League West, or that Nationals righty Trevor Williams would be arguably one of the best starters in baseball, or that Julio Rodríguez would have only two home runs, or that the Red Sox pitching staff would lead the majors in team ERA?

The unpredictability is part of what makes our game so great.

Here are my top 10 surprises of the 2024 season (so far). Let me know what others stand out to you in the comments section.



Alex Bregman’s Astros have their work cut out for them. (Troy Taormina / USA Today)

1. The Astros’ dismal start to the season

Most analysts, including me, had Houston once again making the playoffs, either as a division winner or with a wild-card berth, yet here we are in mid-May and 12 other AL teams have a better record than the juggernaut Astros (15-25). Their starting rotation has been in disarray, the bats have been cold and their bullpen has been a huge disappointment. Most of the fault goes to the pitching staff, which has been decimated by injuries. However, starters Hunter Brown (7.79 ERA), Spencer Arrighetti (8.44 ERA) and J.P. France (7.46 ERA before being demoted) have struggled in the rotation, while closer Josh Hader (5.29 ERA) and set-up man Ryan Pressly (5.65 ERA) have underwhelmed as the bullpen, projected to be such a strength, has blown eight saves.

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2. Shota Imanaga has been better than Yoshinobu Yamamoto

The Dodgers committed $325 million to Yoshinobu Yamamoto this past winter and, so far, he has lived up to that contract despite opening his MLB career with a one-inning start against the Padres in South Korea. However, he’s rebounded from that bumpy beginning to go 4-1 with a 2.79 ERA over eight starts. That’s not a surprise. The surprise is that fellow free agent Shota Imanaga, who signed with the Cubs for two years and $22.5 million guaranteed (with options and escalators that can take the deal to $80 million over five years), has not only outpitched Yamamoto, but also every other pitcher in the National League. Imanaga is 5-0 with a 1.08 ERA and 0.816 WHIP over seven starts. He’s done it with a 91-93 mph fastball at the top of the zone and a wipeout split-finger that gets strikeouts in and out of the zone. Incredibly, he has both an elite chase percentage (97%) and walk percentage (97%) to start the year.

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3. The Red Sox leading MLB in team ERA

The Red Sox finished last year with a 4.52 team ERA that ranked 21st in the majors. This season, their staff has posted a 2.75 ERA overall, including a 2.45 mark by their rotation. Four Red Sox starters — Cooper Criswell, Kutter Crawford, Tanner Houck and Garrett Whitlock (injured list) — have ERAs under 2.25 to start the year. Incredible! It’s particularly impressive because their biggest offseason acquisition to improve the staff was signing Lucas Giolito to a two-year, $38.5 million deal, and he subsequently blew out his elbow before pitching a single regular-season game for them. New chief baseball officer Craig Breslow and new pitching coach Andrew Bailey have changed the Red Sox pitching philosophy as they’ve embraced and leveraged their pitchers’ strengths and decided, for the most part, to not have them throw fastballs more than 30 percent of the time. It’s worked unbelievably well so far, but can they sustain the success?

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4. The early season struggles of four elite prospects

Most analysts, including me, predicted four of the top rookies this year would be Orioles second baseman Jackson Holliday, Brewers outfielder Jackson Chourio and a pair of Rangers outfielders, Evan Carter and Wyatt Langford. That just hasn’t been the case as Holliday is back in the minors after going 2-for-34 in his major-league debut, Chourio is batting .214 with a .262 on-base percentage, Carter is batting .216, and Langford is on the IL with a hamstring strain after hitting one home run in 116 at-bats and reaching base at a 29 percent clip. It’s no surprise to see young players, even supremely talented ones, struggle early in their major-league careers. All four likely have long careers ahead of them. But most of us expected them to fare better this year than they have so far.

5. Brice Turang’s impact on offense

I knew Brice Turang was a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman, but I wasn’t expecting him to be one of the best offensive second basemen in the game this season. Last year, Turang hit .218 and reached base at a paltry 28 percent clip in 448 plate appearances, not a small sample. But this year he’s been a huge surprise offensively, slashing .301/.365/.421 with 10 doubles, two homers and 16 stolen bases in as many attempts. He’s making a strong statement to be an All-Star this July.

6. Julio Rodríguez and Bo Bichette have two homers apiece

It’s hard to get your head around how superstars Julio Rodríguez and Bo Bichette continue to struggle as much as they have to start the year. Rodríguez hit 28 homers as a rookie in 2022 and 32 last year. Bichette hit 24 in 2022 and 20 last year. Yet each has only two homers so far this year. Bichette’s OPS has dropped from .814 last season to .552 this season. Rodríguez, who had a slow start last year, has seen his OPS fall from .818 last season to .633 this season. Both young stars are in their primes but finding the long balls few and far between. And speaking of power outages, how about Spencer Torkelson? After hitting 31 homers last season, the Detroit slugger has only one to start this year.

7. The A’s have more wins than nine other teams

The A’s, who finished last year 50-112, have more wins this season than nine other major-league teams. That is not a typo. This is not a joke. The A’s have a better record than the Blue Jays, White Sox, Astros, Angels, Marlins, Pirates, Reds, Cardinals and Rockies. And with 19 wins, they’re tied with four other teams. Brent Rooker (10 homers, 1.012 OPS) and Shea Langeliers (nine homers, 24 RBIs) have led the way offensively. The bullpen is much improved — their relievers’ 3.40 ERA ranks ninth in the majors — led by closer Mason Miller, who has a 103 mph fastball and a 1.10 ERA and has converted all eight of his save opportunities.

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Let’s make a deal: A.J. Preller swung two big trades before May 5. (Orlando Ramirez / USA Today)

8. The Padres have already made two major trades

On one level, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised because it’s A.J. Preller making these moves. But I can’t remember a team trading for two All-Stars in two different deals before Cinco de Mayo. Ever. First, in spring training, the Padres’ president of baseball operations acquired Dylan Cease in a five-player trade with the White Sox. Since arriving, Cease has pitched like he did two years ago when he finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting, starting the year 5-2 with a 2.19 ERA over eight starts. Then, in the beginning of May, Preller doubled down and landed Luis Arraez in a five-player trade with the Marlins. The two-time batting champion is hitting .308 with a .354 on-base percentage this season, including a .344 average and .382 OBP since joining San Diego. Yes, we knew Preller was a shrewd wheeler-dealer who loves big trades, but it’s still surprising he pulled off two deals of this magnitude so early in the baseball calendar. (The Arraez swap was finalized 87 days before the July 30 trade deadline.)

9. The AL Central is the only division with four teams at .500 or better

If you had told me in March that a quarter of the way through the season the AL Central would be the only division with four teams at .500 or better, including three at .595 or better, I would have laughed so hard I would have gotten stomach cramps. If you’d asked me to rank the divisions then, the AL Central would have been sixth out of six. To my surprise, the Guardians are 25-16, the Twins 24-16, the Royals 25-17 and the Tigers 20-20. And that’s why we play the games!

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10. Trevor Williams is 4-0 with a 1.96 ERA

Last year, Trevor Williams went 6-10 with a 5.55 ERA and 5.98 FIP. He led the National League in home runs allowed with 34. This year, he’s 4-0 with a 1.96 ERA and 2.48 FIP and he hasn’t yielded a home run in 36 2/3 innings for the Nationals. In an era of high-90s fastballs and elite spin rates, Williams has bucked the trend as his average fastball is just 89 mph and he throws it about 50 percent of the time. (He has a four-seamer and two-seamer.) His slider and sweeper are only 81 mph and 77 mph, respectively, and combined he throws them about 30 percent of the time. His changeup comes in at 83 mph and he throws it 18 percent of the time. And every once in a while Williams, 32, will even mix in a curveball. By the way, I miss his podcast.

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(Top photo of Shota Imanaga: Griffin Quinn / Getty Images)





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