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#pounditFriday, December 9, 2022

5 MLB teams off to surprisingly hot starts

Cincinnati Reds

Results from the first week of Major League Baseball season should be treated with extreme caution. Many teams that start hot will fade over the course of the year, particularly if expectations were low for them to begin with.

However, it is certainly worth noting the teams that have gotten off to hot starts. These squads have people wondering if perhaps they’re better than expected. One or two of these teams tend to stick as the season drags on and become the surprise of the year.

Perhaps one of these five teams will prove to be that when all is said and done in October.

5) Los Angeles Angels (6-2 entering Wednesday)

The team that was written off as “Mike Trout and a bunch of nobodies” has definitely exceeded early expectations. Trout has been his usual productive self, delivering 7 extra-base hits and driving in eight runs already. It is the rest of the team, though, that is helping the Angels lead the league in hitting.

Andrelton Simmons and Yunel Escobar are both hitting over .340. All but two of the team’s regular starters have homered at least once. New addition Danny Espinosa has driven in eight runs, as many as Trout. Their remarkable 10-9 win on April 9 — a game in which the Angels stunned the Seattle Mariners by scoring seven runs in the bottom of the ninth — is evidence of their offensive prowess so far. The very next game they came back from down 5-0 to win 6-5 in extras.

If the Angels want to keep this up, they’ll need the pitching to improve to compensate for the inevitable regression of the offense. Starting pitchers Matt Shoemaker and Tyler Skaggs have both had their share of issues so far, and Garrett Richards has already landed on the DL. His injury is expected to be a brief one, though, and he and Shoemaker both have the capability to pitch much better and give the team a decent one-two punch at the top of the rotation. If they can, the Angels may be better than people think.

4) Baltimore Orioles (5-2)

Every year, people expect the Orioles to take a step back, but they always seem to find a way to persevere and contend once more. The 2017 iteration of the team has won five of its first seven games, beating division rivals Toronto and New York in the process.

Baltimore’s success remains predicated on the bullpen.

Closer Zach Britton and setup man Brad Brach have yet to give up a run in nine combined innings this season, meaning the Orioles win close games on the strength of that pairing. Impressively, they won many of their games early before their homer-reliant offense began to hit its stride.

Two regulars, Jonathan Schoop and J.J. Hardy, are hitting under .200. Kevin Gausman and Ubaldo Jimenez have delivered mediocre starts. Despite all this, they’ve still been winning. That bodes well for their hopes this season.

3) Arizona Diamondbacks (7-2 entering Wednesday)

There’s a term in baseball often used to describe players, and that term is “post-hype.” It relates to former top prospects who have struggled at the big league level and fallen off the radar a bit, only to slowly come into their own once the focus moves away from them. The Arizona Diamondbacks are the team version of the post-hype sleeper, They’re a team that invested heavily in heir 2016 team, only to see it all blow up spectacularly due to a combination of injuries and under-performance.

The pressure is off the 2017 Diamondbacks, and they’ve responded positively.

The offense has scored a league-best 53 runs. Three players — Paul Goldschmidt, Jake Lamb, and David Peralta — have two home runs a piece. Second baseman Brandon Drury is hitting .357, with the team as a whole over .300, not including pitchers.

The pitching has still lagged behind, but is definitely better. There was some concern over Zack Greinke’s spring training, but he has a 2.31 ERA in his first two starts and has looked more like the ace the Diamondbacks thought they were getting. Patrick Corbin has been a nice boost as well, giving up two earned runs in 10 innings so far. The bullpen has not been airtight, but the Diamondbacks have been plating so many runs, it hasn’t mattered all that much. They won’t keep hitting at this pace, but if they can continue to score freely, the 2017 Diamondbacks may end up looking a lot like the 2016 team was supposed to.

2) Minnesota Twins (5-3)

The Twins lost their first nine games in 2016 en route to a 103-loss season. It doesn’t look like any such thing will be happening this year.

Minnesota jumped out to a 5-1 start, powered largely by what has been the team’s primary weakness: pitching. The sample size is much too small to draw any long-term conclusions, but Twins starters Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, and Hector Santiago were all very impressive during their first turn through the rotation. A solid performance from the bullpen contributed to the Twins having the best team ERA in the American League through the first week of the season.

They’ve hit, too, ranking near the top of the American League charts in batting average and on-base percentage. Catcher Jason Castro looks like a quality signing, with a .542 OBP through seven games. Miguel Sano looks like the power prospect that Minnesota hoped he’d be, hitting two home runs and driving in eight in his first eight contests. Jorge Polanco has also impressed, hitting nearly .300 in the early going. It might not keep up, and the Twins may well come back to earth, but this is clearly a better team than 2016’s edition was.

1. Cincinnati Reds (7-2)

If you had the Cincinnati Reds leading the National League in ERA after a week of baseball, raise your hand. Now put your hand down, you liar, because not even the most optimistic Reds fan could have seen the team pitching this well.

Starters Scott Feldman, Brandon Finnegan, and Amir Garrett have been excellent so far, all with sub-three ERAs. The bullpen, led by hard-throwing Cuban closer Raisel Iglesias, has been nearly untouchable. That’s even more remarkable considering how bad that unit has been in recent years, plus the fact that the Reds’ Great American Ball Park is notoriously hitter-friendly.

And that’s the thing — if the Reds pitch well, they’ll typically find ways to win, because it’s comparatively easy for the offense to handle that ballpark. It’s even easier when you have the likes of on-base king Joey Votto, who hasn’t even been that good. Adam Duvall, a revelation who hit 33 home runs last season, is flashing his power stroke again as well.

The Reds will find ways to hit — their offense wasn’t loaded with talent on paper last season and they still finished in the middle of the pack in he NL in terms of runs scored — but it’s the pitching that’s truly surprising everyone and spurring the team’s hot start.

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