Out-of-nowhere players offer pleasant surprises
Sudden success raises question of sustainability, but clubs happy to ride it out
The "Million Dollar Arm" movie that comes out Friday tells the story of two natives of India thrust into baseball via a reality TV competition and signed by the Pirates.
Now that is an out-of-nowhere baseball story.
A Major League player blossoming at a late stage of his career pales by comparison.
But one of the things we love about the baseball season is its unpredictability, and every year there are at least a handful of guys whose performances seemingly emanate from oblivion.
The questions that arise are: "Where did this come from?" and "Will it continue?" Let's address both in a rundown of 2014's early surprises.
Dee Gordon, Dodgers: Leading off with Gordon, who is doing a fine job leading off for his team. Once considered Los Angeles' shortstop of the future, he only got an opportunity at second base in March because of the Spring Training shortcomings of Alexander Guerrero and the Dodgers' matchup against a right-handed starter in the second game of the season.
Since going 3-for-4 with a double in that game, the 26-year-old Gordon has earned his playing time, batting .324. He might be a hair slower than Billy Hamilton, but he's been the more dynamic baserunner this season, swiping 24 bags in 27 chances. That's a product of the opportunities Gordon has created with a .365 on-base percentage.
Gordon has long been an intriguing player (I know of at least one manager who urged his general manager to make a play for him at the 2012 Winter Meetings). But he's gone from intrigue to impact this year for three reasons: fewer swings outside the strike zone, a higher contact rate and a batting average on balls in play (.379) that the stat heads will tell you is unsustainable.
For Gordon to remain a viable leadoff threat, he's going to have to improve his walk rate (5.7 percent), especially as that BABIP stabilizes. The good news is that he did show improved plate discipline at Triple-A last season, drawing walks in 11.8 percent of his plate appearances. And as we've seen, if Gordon's on base, he's a problem for the opposition.
Charlie Blackmon, Rockies: Another leadoff wonder, Mr. 6-for-6 remains a source of fascination long after that April 4 bombardment. His .352 batting average is second only to that of teammate Troy Tulowitzki (.395).
At 27, Blackmon, like Tulowitzki and many others before him, is certainly taking advantage of the confines of Coors, to some degree. By improving his contact rate and drastically limiting his strikeout rate (it is at 8.9 percent this year after reaching 19 percent in an 82-game sample in 2013), Blackmon has broken out. The real key is a 4.6 percent swing-and-miss rate in a league in which the average is 9.3. There is nothing in Blackmon's history, both in his limited time in the big leagues and his time in the Minors, to suggest what we've seen from him this first month-plus, from a contact perspective, is anything other than an outlier.
It's on opposing pitchers, therefore, to try to feed Blackmon pitchers' pitches outside the strike zone and get him to start chasing. Otherwise, the Blackmon phenomenon rolls on.
Tom Koehler, Marlins: The 27-year-old Koehler entered Monday's start against the Dodgers tied for fifth among Major League qualifiers in ERA (1.99) and left it tied for 19th (2.57). Such regression was not exactly unforeseen, as Koehler entered this season with a career adjusted ERA 13 percent below league average (in 24 starts) and entered Monday with an extremely fortuitous .195 batting average on balls in play.
The Marlins are undoubtedly pleased with what they've seen from their fifth starter this season, especially now that it looks like they'll be without ace Jose Fernandez for a long while. But considering Koehler already walking 4.04 batters per nine innings, he is due for some more bumps in the road if those balls in play start finding more holes.
Jean Machi, Giants: After bouncing around in the farm systems of the Rays, Blue Jays and Pirates and a stint in Mexico in 2011, Machi earned a legit Major League opportunity last year on the might of his drastically improved control.
While it would seem foolish to assume the 32-year-old Machi, who has a 5-0 record and a 0.49 ERA at this early stage, will still look like Cy Young material at season's end, there is a decent amount of meat on the bone here. In his first extended Major League look last year, Machi posted an above-average strikeout-to-walk rate (4.25), and he got ground balls at a 54.4-percent clip.
By that measure, what Machi has done this season, from a control and command standpoint, is not a shock. He might not be able to continue vulturing wins at the rapid rate he has established early, but the Giants do appear to have found a steady setup man here.
Chris Colabello, Twins: Minnesota plucked him virtually out of nowhere a couple years back, and he was a hero for Team Italy in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. After a scorching spring, Colabello was afforded an opportunity on the Opening Day roster, and he stocked up on April RBIs, with 27.
As we know too well, though, RBIs can be the equivalent of empty calories in some circumstances, and the 30-year-old Colabello has been slumping of late. He has a .129 average (8-for-62) with a .388 OPS over his last 15 games, driving in just four runs in that span. The recent RBI drought is not all Colabello's own doing, as a slumping Trevor Plouffe and hobbled Joe Mauer limited his opportunity in the early days of May. But it would appear the league has adjusted to the Twins' overnight sensation.
Yangervis Solarte, Yankees: After eight years in the Minor League systems of two teams, the 26-year-old Solarte is shining on the New York stage, contributing a ..330/.405/.473 slash line and 21 RBIs for a team that was uncomfortably close to calling upon Yankee Stadium ushers to man third base.
There's just something about those pinstripes that seem to bring out the best in people. But then again, weren't we saying the same thing about Vernon Wells a year ago?
Solarte had a .736 OPS over the last two seasons at Triple-A and a .733 OPS in his extensive Minor League career -- numbers that don't exactly scream, "Everyday player." But give Solarte a ton of credit: He recovered quite nicely from a recent 0-for-13 funk in which it seemed the jig was up. Solarte has a .905 OPS in May, so he's no April illusion.
At worst, Solarte is a versatile infielder who's shown decent plate discipline, and that's an asset for the Yanks. At best, he's as out of nowhere as a big league star can be. Either way, Solarte has been a nice find.