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Can these five players sustain their strong starts?

ProDentim

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We’re about a month into the 2023 baseball season, and as always, there are teams that are overperforming (that’s you, Pittsburgh) and underperforming. It’s not just on the team side either, some players are off to better than expected starts, and while one month playing isn’t enough time to pass final judgment on his season, it’s certainly a sufficient sample size to have a conversation about whether a player has turned a corner.

Let’s take a look at five players who performed better than expected in the first month and try to predict if they will be able to maintain their strong start. (All stats are current for Saturday’s matches)

Joey Gallo: .265/.368/.796 with seven circuits

The poster boy for three true hitters, Gallo has frustrated fans from Texas to New York to Los Angeles in recent years with his tantalizing power but dizzying strikeouts and suboptimal batting averages. Last year was one of Gallo’s worst as he posted just a .160/.280/.357 line with a strikeout rate of just under 40% between the Yankees and Dodgers and hit free agency without much fanfare. The Twins signed him to a one-year, $11 million deal and it already seems to be paying off. Gallo has shaved nearly ten percentage points off his strikeout rate and is still walking at his usual solid clip.

Gallo seems to have a pretty good feel for the zone right now, swinging on more throws into the zone and taking fewer strikes called. I spoke with Betsy Helfand, Twins beat reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, on the MLBTR podcast this week and she detailed some changes Gallo made to his position during the offseason. Perhaps he also benefits from team changes. Gallo shoots the ball more than in recent years, perhaps freed up to play more of his natural style with teams unable to move as aggressively against him.

Either way, there’s a lot to like about Gallo’s start to the season at Minnesota. He’s probably unlikely to continue hitting a home run every seven at bat, but chances are the Twins have a much better version of Gallo themselves than we’ve seen lately.

Yusei Kikuchi: Five starts, 27 IP, 3.00 ERA, 9.3 SO/9, 2.0 BB/9

Kikuchi came into the season hanging on to the last rotation spot in Toronto, but he was a very strong arm for them in the first month. Last season, Kikuchi posted a 5.25 ERA in 20 starts for the Blue Jays and found himself out of rotation at the end of the season. A big reason for his turnaround this year is a significant drop in his walk rate. Last season, Kikuchi was handing out free passes 12.8% of the time. This season? Only 5.7%. He also tweaked his height mix slightly, relying on his fastball less often and increasing the use of his slider and splitter.

Still, a spike under the hood in Kikuchi’s performance raises red flags. He’s still giving up far too many home runs, giving up about two every nine innings, about the same as his pace last year. He also carries a high of 97.2% remaining on base percentage, which is sure to drop from there.

Overall, I’m skeptical, Kikuchi is hanging on to the kind of numbers he’s put up in his first five starts and I’m expecting a decent regression. Maybe that still translates to an improvement over last year and provides the Jays enough to feel comfortable taking him out every five days, but I still think he ends up with a ERA somewhere in the four rather than the three.

Cody Bellinger: .298/.475/.560 with five circuits

After winning the NL MVP in 2019 with the Dodgers, Bellinger has become a below-average hitter ever since, posting a wRC+ of just 78 between 2020 and 2022. offer at the end of last season, and he clung to the Cubs on a one-year, $17.5 million deal. It looked like a costly gamble at the time for Chicago, but it seems to be paying off.

Bellinger nearly halved his strikeout rate from a year earlier, increased his walk rate but still isn’t hitting the ball as hard as he was in his MVP season. In fact, his HardHit% is 31 this year and was 45.6 in 2019 and 38.1 last year. The huge drop in strikeouts is really the most impressive aspect, because that’s where Bellinger has been falling apart in recent years. In 2019, his K-rate was just 16.9%, but he’s climbed into the 27% range in recent seasons, so bringing him back to an elite rate is a firm indication of change. significant in Bellinger’s performance.

So with all of this, maybe he’s kind of back? Especially back? Or maybe on the way back? Either way, he’s still a hugely productive player for the Cubs and the signs are there that even though he’s not on top of Bellinger, he’s still rotated a lot.

John Oviedo: Five starts, 29 2/3 IP, 3.03 ERA, 8.8 SO/9, 3.3 BB/9

Little has been made of the return the Pirates received for Jose Quintana when they dealt him to the Cardinals at the deadline last summer. Still, in Oviedo, with a few changes, they may have unearthed a really solid mid-rotation arm. Oviedo had been a ho-hum arm in the Cardinals’ system, getting mixed results and it didn’t look like his departure would really change much in St Louis.

Yet since joining the Pirates Oviedo has flourished, and I’ll borrow from my colleague Steve Adams’ analysis in a wider Front Office article on Pittsburgh’s impressive start to the season, which includes this on Oviedo:

Oviedo has increased his fastball speed, doubled his curveball usage and gone from a fringe swingman to what looks like a legitimate Major League starter. It’s not an ace, but the tangible changes here and the immediate results are intriguing.

Oviedo’s fastball speed can reach 96.6 mph on average, but he throws the pitch at a career-low 33.7% clip, rather heavily favoring his slider and curveball, all of which have two an odor rate of 34% in 2023, per Statcast. Fewer fastballs and more breakup pitches have led to a sharp increase in ground ball rate – well above the 2023 average of 55.7% – and a glut of weak contacts. He only got an average exit speed of 85.6 mph and a paltry 31.1% hard hit rate.

Steve’s piece is well worth a read, but the key here is that Oviedo and the Pirates coaching staff have made significant changes to their pitching repertoire and are seeing results. With that in mind, it’s hard not to buy into this departure from Oviedo. There may be a bit of regression from the 3.03 ERA, but even though the Bucs landed a solid third or fourth starter that gives them a chance to win every time he takes the mound, it’s a huge victory.

Jarred Kelenic: .325/.380/.663 with seven circuits

Is it finally happening? Kelenic has been one of the game’s top prospects for several years now but has failed to make an impact at the top level. This may change. Kelenic was one of the best hitters on a struggling Seattle team to start 2023, and could become the kind of player the team dreamed of when they acquired him from the Mets.

Of course Kelenic will see some regression from the .385 BABIP he holds right now, but the guy hits the ball and hits it hard. He has already thrown ten balls and his HardHit% stands at 57.6%, which is 22 percentage points higher than last year and his speed out has increased from the previous two campaigns.

As The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal details, Kelenic spent the winter in Arizona revamping his swing with former Mariners batting coach Tim Laker and the results are clear. A career .168/.251/338 hitter in the majors, Kelenic appears to have finally burst in 2023. While his strikeout and walk rates are largely in line with his previous numbers, the fact that he can do more – a lot plus – with the contact he makes is the difference.



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