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Reality or Mirage: Which of the Season’s Most Surprising Starts Will Last?

Can Aaron Judge be stopped? Is Wade Miley actually a front-line starter? Do the White Sox have baseball’s newest relief ace? The data tells us.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

It’s early enough in the baseball season that the big, shiny, back-of-the-baseball-card numbers are still in daily flux. Consider: Red Sox designated hitter Hanley Ramírez began the year in something of a slump, hitting .256 with a .725 OPS through May 1. The next night, he bashed two home runs off back-end Baltimore starter Alec Asher, and by the next morning, he had raised those marks to .267 and .807, respectively. By the numbers, he went from a below- to an above-average hitter in the span of two plate appearances; "slump" busted, order restored.

It’s imperative, then, to look at a player’s underlying statistics to assess whether his early performance is sustainable. Individual pitch and swing data can be more revealing than broad summative stats at this point for sample-size reasons, as a single good day can move the latter in leaps but will affect peripherals with only a slight nudge. With that in mind, let’s play Reality or Mirage for seven of the season’s hottest and most surprising starts.

Jason Vargas, Royals

It’s hard to get excited about a pitcher with Vargas’s track record: Besides last season, when he threw only 12 innings due to injury, he has pitched more than a decade in the majors without posting a single season with an ERA below 3.71 or a FIP below 3.55. Yet through five starts in 2017, he ranks fifth in MLB with both a 1.42 ERA and 2.10 FIP. Those numbers don’t lie; despite 12 years of evidence to the contrary, Vargas might now be an ace.

Vargas is running career bests in strikeout rate, walk rate, and ground ball rate. He’s allowing his lowest percentage of hard contact since 2009 and is throwing in the strike zone with his greatest frequency since 2011. Never in his career has he induced a higher whiff rate on swings. The strange part about Vargas’s April is that he didn’t add a new pitch or change his usage patterns, nor did he start throwing faster or impart his pitches with any additional movement. He’s pitching as he always has, just better and with more confidence, and while his stingy home run rate is likely to increase as the season continues, all available indicators point to Vargas’s breakout as legitimate.

Verdict: Reality

Aaron Judge, Yankees

Scroll to the very top of FanGraphs’s WAR leaderboard for batters. There you’ll find Mike Trout in his expected spot, first, and Bryce Harper about where he belongs, in third. Freddie Freeman’s up there, and best-story-of-April Eric Thames, and Eugenio Suárez, who makes an appearance later in this post. Almost at the peak, nestled between Trout and Harper in second place, is a rookie-eligible outfielder who, in his first shot in the majors last summer, struck out 42 times in 95 plate appearances and hit .179. If the baseball world seems to be lavishing Aaron Judge with extra attention this week, that — plus his ability to dent TV screens from 450 feet away — is why.

Judge fields well and runs OK, but the most notable element of his game is his prodigious power, with which he leads the league in home runs. Only five players in MLB history knocked more homers than Judge’s 13 in their respective teams’ first 26 games. Such a tremendous rate is unsustainable, as more than half of Judge’s fly balls have passed over the fence this year; since 2002, Ryan Howard (39.5 percent in his 58-homer 2006 campaign) is the only player to exceed 35 percent over a full season.

Judge’s homer-every-other-game pace will relent as some of those flies go for doubles or loud outs instead, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he hovered around that 35-percent mark — if anyone’s casual fly balls are going to turn into homers, it’s Judge, who has the luxury of flexing his substantial hitting muscles in front of Yankee Stadium’s short fences. He certainly hits the ball hard enough to do so: According to the Statcast numbers tracked at Baseball Savant, Judge has hit eight balls with an exit velocity of at least 115 miles per hour this season. The entire National League has five.

The best indicator for Judge going forward is his improved plate discipline. Compared with last season, Judge is swinging at more would-be strikes and fewer would-be balls, and he’s boosted his contact rate by 12 percentage points, in the process dropping his strikeout rate from 44 percent last year to 26 percent in 2017. He’s still good for more whiffs than the average hitter, but Judge doesn’t need to put the ball in play as frequently as teammate Brett Gardner to experience success. He just needs to connect with enough pitches to increase his chances at more home runs — because even if his HR rate dips, he should remain a potent force in New York’s exciting lineup.

Verdict: Reality

Wade Miley, Orioles

Baltimore’s latest fifth starter with a combination of tantalizing strikeout totals and command problems (move over, Ubaldo Jiménez) is a curious choice for that designation because prior to this year, Miley had never been known for either of those attributes. From his first full season (2012) through last year, he ranked 103rd out of 173 qualified starters in strikeout rate and 95th in walk rate, but this year, he’s gone full Nolan Ryan with the majors’ 10th-highest K% and third-highest BB%.

Thus far, that novel trade-off has worked, as Miley’s 2.32 ERA is a career best by more than a run, and he hasn’t allowed more than three runs in any game. For a Baltimore staff that is still missing the injured Chris Tillman and has received basically nothing from the ineffective Kevin Gausman, Miley’s success has been crucial to the team’s 17–10 start. It probably won’t last, though. Miley is stranding 89.4 percent of opposing base runners, the fourth-highest rate among qualified starters and a mark that no pitcher has ever maintained for a full season, so he won’t be able to continue preventing all those walked batters from scoring.

Moreover, his lofty strikeout rate is fluky: Miley has a swinging-strike rate of 9.6 percent, while every other pitcher in the top 10 in K rate has a swinging-strike rate of at least 13 percent, with an average of 14.6. Essentially, Miley is getting as many strikeouts as pitchers like Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer while getting about 50 percent fewer swings and misses. It’s hard to strike out batters without generating plenty of whiffs; for Miley, it will be just as hard to maintain such a low ERA with his current lack of control.

Verdict: Mirage

Avisaíl García, White Sox

Still just 25, the White Sox outfielder has been one of the majors’ most productive hitters this season. His .370/.420/.609 slash line gives him a top-10 wRC+ among qualified hitters, which is quite a turn for a player who posted a bottom-10 wRC+ from 2015–16. But aside from hitting fewer balls on the ground this year, he hasn’t changed his approach much from the past two seasons.

He’s not walking more or whiffing less, and he’s not hitting the ball any harder. That last column — batting average on balls in play — is the largest explanation for García’s aberrant start to 2017. Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman is the only qualified hitter with a higher BABIP, and while the "inflated BABIP, ergo regression" maxim is simple, it applies to such an outlier as García. He’s already easing back to the bounds of regular expectations: Through April 18, he was hitting .440/.481/.680; since then, he’s hit .286/.348/.524. That’s still an above-average performance, but as García’s BABIP slides back to normal, his overall batting line will follow.

Verdict: Mirage

Tommy Kahnle, White Sox

Kahnle has thrown nine innings in relief this year, which places him in a pool of 332 pitchers with at least that many innings. With a 57.6 percent strikeout rate, Kahnle ranks first out of the 332. With a negative-0.84 FIP, he also ranks first. With a 19.6 percent swinging-strike rate, he ranks eighth, sandwiched between Kenley Jansen and Cody Allen.

Taken out of percentage form: Kahnle has faced 33 batters this year, whose plate appearances have generated 19 strikeouts, one walk, one extra-base hit, and one run. Anything can happen in nine innings — just in Chicago team history, Philip Humber once threw a perfect game — but Kahnle already looks like a relief ace.

Dig into his underlying numbers and it’s easier to find reasons Kahnle will sustain his dominance rather than fall back to his pre-2017 numbers (4.04 ERA, 22.7 K%). As FanGraphs’s Jeff Sullivan wrote last week, Kahnle appears to have turned his front foot to be in better alignment with the catcher when pitching, aiding the control that had deserted him in previous years. That tweak allows Kahnle to flash his natural talent: As Sullivan noted, Kahnle is second only to Aroldis Chapman in perceived fastball velocity, which measures how quickly a pitch actually reaches a hitter by factoring in both the pitch’s velocity and how far a pitcher extends his arm toward the plate before releasing it.

As I wrote earlier this week, as a team, Chicago has the largest FIP vs. ERA differential of any team, which helps explain the staff’s start and team’s winning record. The James Shieldses of the team won’t keep performing so well, but Kahnle looks like a flame-throwing exception.

Verdict: Reality

Eugenio Suárez, Reds

Cincinnati’s third baseman was roughly a league-average hitter in his first three seasons in the majors, but like García, he’s boosted his stock with one of the best starts to 2017 for any hitter. Suárez’s .322/.408/.611 line has him thumping the ball as well as Nelson Cruz this year, and unlike with García, his underlying numbers suggest that he’s adopted actual changes to his approach, rather than relying on batted-ball luck.

From his previous career norms to this year, Suárez has increased his walk rate by five points while cutting his strikeout rate by seven, thanks to a more discerning batting eye — he’s swinging at more pitches in the zone and fewer outside the zone — and an improved contact rate. And when he does make contact, he’s faring better, too, with a hard-hit rate 8 percent higher than he had managed prior to this year.

He won’t continue hitting this well, as his home run rate and BABIP will normalize somewhat, but they’re not so stratospheric now that his overall numbers will plummet when they do. Suárez of old was an average hitter; Suárez with plate discipline could be a star.

Verdict: Reality

Gio González, Nationals

In addition to the best offense in baseball, the Nationals boast one of the best rotations. That’s no surprise. What is a surprise is that the rotation’s best ERA doesn’t belong to defending Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, or to All-Star Stephen Strasburg, or even to Tanner Roark, who led Washington’s starters in ERA last year. Rather, the rotation’s best ERA — a 1.64 mark that ranks eighth in the majors — belongs to Gio González, who hasn’t allowed more than two earned runs in a game.

That’s about where the encouraging news ends. González’s underlying numbers might be worse than Miley’s: He hasn’t walked hitters so frequently since his 34-inning debut in 2008, and he hasn’t struck out hitters so infrequently since 2010, when the leaguewide strikeout rate was much lower. González is succeeding with a 92.2-percent strand rate — even higher than Miley’s — and a .257 BABIP that represents the lowest mark of his Nationals tenure. His Gibsonian ERA sparkles, but FIP is a better indicator of future performance, especially this early in the season, and no qualified starter has overperformed his FIP by a greater margin than González. By FIP, González (4.11) has been about as effective as Wei-Yin Chen and Jhoulys Chacin, which is about where he’ll settle once his luck reverts to normal. He’s had stretches with a miniscule ERA before in Washington but has never preserved them for long.

Verdict: Mirage

All statistics through Wednesday’s games.