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#pounditMonday, May 10, 2021

5 surprise MLB players off to great starts

Eric Thames

There are some pretty standard names if you look near the top of the MLB statistical leaderboards two weeks into the season. Bryce Harper, Ryan Braun, Francisco Lindor, and Freddie Freeman are all pretty big stars who have gotten off to good starts.

However, there are a few other names on that list who, at first glance, don’t seem to belong in the same category as those star players. The numbers don’t lie, though.

These five players may not have big names, but they’ve definitely been among the most successful players early on in 2017. Here’s a look at five surprise players who have gotten off to great starts this season.

5) Zack Cozart, SS, Reds

Cozart is a seven-year big league veteran with a reputation as a light hitter and a solid defender. His career batting average through 2016 stood at .246, and his lifetime on-base percentage is below .300. He’s there as a solid, steady presence, particularly in the field.

So imagine how surprised the Cincinnati Reds must be to find Cozart leading the National League in hitting in mid-April.

The shortstop is off to a 16-for-37 start, good for a .432 average, and his .488 OBP is also a league best. Cozart also has a remarkable three triples, which paces the league and gives him a slugging percentage of .730. Six of his 16 hits have been for extra bases, in fact. None of it has translated to a lot of runs scored or RBIs — this is a guy who’s populating the part of the lineup generally reserved for pitchers and weak-hitting regulars — but the Reds must be pleasantly shocked by Cozart’s success at the plate.

4) Mitch Haniger, OF, Mariners

Haniger is a rookie outfielder who was regarded as a throw-in piece in the trade that saw the Seattle Mariners get Jean Segura from Arizona in exchange for Taijuan Walker. The 26-year-old has proven to be no bonus piece, though, and is showing that the five home runs he hit in 109 at-bats for Arizona were no fluke.

Seven of Haniger’s 16 hits have been for extra bases, including four home runs. That’s a pace that could take him to around 30 homers on the season.

Haniger has also shown a good eye at the dish, drawing nine walks in his 14 games so far, good for a .400 OBP. Even better, he’s not just an offensive threat — just check out this home run robbery on Texas’s Joey Gallo Saturday.

The Mariners may well have found themselves a steal here.

3) Avisail Garcia, OF, White Sox

Avisail Garcia was once a highly-rated prospect, making his MLB debut in 2012 for the World Series-bound Detroit Tigers before ultimately being traded to the White Sox in a 2013 deadline deal that involved Jake Peavy and Jose Iglesias. Chicago has exercised immense patience with the toolsy outfielder in the hope that he would finally blossom, but the 25-year-old had failed to do so through the end of 2016. Garcia has cracked double-digit home runs just twice, managed OBPs just above .300, and shown little ability to walk, while striking out way too much.

Could 2017 be the year Garcia starts fulfilling his potential? He’s off to a fine start in his efforts to do just that.

Garcia leads the entire majors with a .440 average, and his 22 hits lead all players as well. That goes along with three homers, a double, and a triple.

The only concern for Garcia is that the strikeouts are still high — he has 12 in 50 at-bats. If he keeps hitting the ball like this, though, Chicago will learn to live with that. They’ve hoped for improvement from the outfielder for several years now, and they’re finally getting it.

2) Marcell Ozuna, OF, Marlins

Ozuna’s talent has never been in question. The 26-year-old outfielder hit 23 home runs in 2014 and 2016, but he hasn’t really flashed a consistent power stroke or displayed the ability to work walks. He’s not old by any means, but he’s getting to the point in which former prospects need to either put up or shut up if they still have designs on fulfilling their potential.

Ozuna chose to put up in 2017 — as in put up huge numbers to start the year. His .373 average leads all MLB outfielders, and his 18 RBIs pace the entire league as well. He’s driven in those runs not with doubles and triples, but with sheer fence-clearing power to the tune of five home runs in 51 ABs. He’s been so hot that he qualifies as one of the hottest players in the league, under-the-radar or not.

The mercurial outfielder has had his share of hot streaks before, so it’s best to proceed with caution. That said, he’s never been hotter than this, and in his age 26 season, the Marlins have to be hoping that, while he won’t stay this hot forever, he can mature into one of the better hitters in the National League. Ozuna is certainly capable of it.

1) Eric Thames, OF Brewers

At this time in 2016, Eric Thames was playing for the NC Dinos, a Korean League team based in Changwon. He was a star there, hitting 47 home runs in 2015 and 40 more in 2016. After a middling MLB career that had seen him hit 21 home runs over parts of two seasons with Toronto and Seattle — and be a part of this strange incident — it seemed that Thames had finally found a home.

The first baseman wasn’t satisfied, though, and at the age of 30, he wanted another shot in the United States. His exploits overseas were enough to convince the Milwaukee Brewers to give him a three-year deal with a player option for a fourth season. It was a risk, to be sure, but it is paying off handsomely for a Milwaukee team that has offered little excitement on the field for the past few seasons.

Thames has taken Major League Baseball by storm, showing that the power stroke he perfected in Korea is totally legitimate. He has homered in five consecutive games starting on Apr. 13, including a two-homer game against the Cincinnati Reds on Apr. 15. His seven homers easily lead the league, and he’s done more than that, adding four doubles and drawing some walks, too. That adds up to a triple slash of .405/.479/1.000, and he’s a huge part of the reason the Brewers are above .500 at 8-6.

How long can he keep it up? It’s impossible to say, and it’s probably unreasonable to actually expect Thames to replicate his absurd numbers in Korea, but so far, he’s proving everyone wrong. He may well have plenty more to come.

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