The Pirates, winners of their past seven entering Tuesday, have been led by a starting rotation that keeps on rolling (or spinning). They've outscored their opponents by 25 runs, and they've secured at least a split in each of their last three series. What's more is that they've lost just two of their first seven series.
Now, it's only fair to point out that the Pirates aren't going to maintain this pace. Their talent level is improving relative to past years, but their preseason forecasts were unfavorable for a reason. Furthermore, there are some statistical indicators that they've been fortunate, in a respect. They've secured 12 of their wins against teams with losing records; only the Tampa Bay Rays have more wins against inferior competition. The Pirates have also won five of their six contests decided by one run. Generally speaking, extreme performances in either direction in that category tend to even out over time.
Whether or not the Pirates can continue to outpace their projections is to be seen. What matters right now to most people is that they've had a strong opening month. You know who else has had a good first month of the season? The four players we've chosen to highlight below. Scroll with us, won't you. (Do note that the players are presented in alphabetical order.)
1. Cody Bellinger, CF, Cubs
On paper, it should be difficult for a 27-year-old former Most Valuable Player Award recipient to qualify as a "pleasant surprise." Bellinger, though, is an understandable inclusion. He won the hardware for his 47-homer effort in 2019, had a solid if disappointing 2020, and then completely cratered. The sum of his OPS+ in 2021-22 was 123 -- he's currently sporting a 153 mark in 2023.
Even Bellinger's success is coming in an unexpected manner. His average exit velocity is sitting around 87 mph, which would be the lowest mark of his career. He's not thumping the ball left and right. What he is doing is making a great deal more contact. Bellinger has whiffed on just 20% of his swings thus far, a drastic reduction from the 28% clip he was running the past two years.
What's interesting, and perhaps concerning if you want Bellinger's resurgence to hold, is that his batted-ball profile hasn't changed. He's hitting a lower percentage of grounders than at any other point of his career, and he's currently tied for the major-league lead with 11 pop-ups.
Making more contact, specifically on non-fastballs, is a point in Bellinger's favor; making less impactful contact, all the while continuing to sky the ball, is not. We'll see which wins out, but for now we're just glad he's having success.
2. Aroldis Chapman, LHP, Royals
Chapman's career appeared to be finished last October. He was coming off a miserable season when he decided to make matters worse by skipping a mandatory workout. The Yankees, in turn, expelled him from their playoff roster. As it turns out, there's not much of a market for entitled 34-year-old relievers, and Chapman had to settle for a one-year pact worth $3.75 million.
To Chapman's credit, he heeded the wakeup call. He's been brilliant in the first month: throwing more strikes, missing more bats, and showing improved stuff. When you think about Chapman, you think about elite velocity. He's pumping his heater in at 99.6 mph this season, his highest mark since 2017. He's also generating more spin on his fastball than he has since 2016.
Fluky things of the statistical nature can happen in a month of relief work. For example, Chapman's average exit velocity is not going to stay at 78.8 mph all year. It's much harder to fake this kind of velocity and stuff uptick. If Chapman can stay healthy (and happyish) the rest of the first half, he'll once again be a sought-after commodity -- this time at the trade deadline.
3. Josh Lowe, OF, Rays
Lowe, Tampa Bay's first-round pick in 2016, took the scenic route to becoming a fixture in their lineup. He had a miserable introduction to the majors last season, but he's validating the Rays' decision to stand by him. In his first 17 games, he's notched four home runs (and stolen bases) en route to a 187 OPS+.
As with Bellinger, it's unclear if Lowe's excellent start will continue based on his underlying data. Coming up through the minors, he was regarded as a power-over-contact hitter. It's shocking, then, to see him in possession of an average exit velocity that puts him in a league with the likes of Tony Kemp and CJ Abrams -- two light-hitting middle infielders. Making matters even weirder Lowe is making more contact, specifically in the zone -- he's doing so despite swinging more frequently, even if the pitches happen to be balls.
Maybe we're missing something and both Bellinger and Lowe will keep flourishing, but this is certainly not what we would have envisioned a Lowe breakout looking like entering the year.
4. Brandon Marsh, OF, Phillies
Who needs Bryce Harper or Rhys Hoskins when you have Brandon Marsh? He's off to a tremendous start, having homered and tripled four times apiece while posting a 228 OPS+. He's already walked 11 times, too, which doesn't sound remarkable within itself … except he walked just 28 times in 134 games in 2022.
Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long is well-regarded throughout the industry and Marsh is showing some encouraging signs of being his latest success story. Compared to last season, Marsh has greatly improved his contact and chase rates; he's hitting a higher percentage of his batted balls 95 mph or harder; and he's hitting a comparable percentage between 10 and 30 degrees.
We're not saying Marsh will keep up this caliber of play. But if his plate discipline improvements prove to be legitimate, he might be on his way to establishing a higher baseline performance.