The Atlanta Braves pulled off an impressive sweep in St. Louis over the weekend to take over the first place in the National League East. Most impressively, they did it by scoring 23 runs in the three games. While it's not a surprise the Braves are contenders early on, what is surprising is they've done it more with their bats than their arms. Here is our list of top 10 early season surprises.
1. The Atlanta Braves' offense.
As Diane Firstman wrote the other day on the SweetSpot blog, the Braves have a chance at a historic turnaround on offense. A year ago, they averaged 3.96 runs per game, 8 percent below the major league average of 4.28 runs per game. This year, they're averaging 5.40 runs while the major league average has fallen to 4.18. That's 29 percent better, a 37 percent increase over 2011. Only a handful of teams have shown a 30 percent improvement like that year-to-year.
Some of the improvement was expected --- Jason Heyward and Martin Prado hitting better, for example. Michael Bourn has been superlative in the leadoff spot, hitting .336 with a .399 on-base percentage, but the biggest surprise has perhaps been the old man, Chipper Jones, who is hitting .299 and slugging .506. He has 22 RBIs in 24 games. With rookie shortstop Tyler Pastornicky holding his own, the Braves go eight deep and the scary thing is catcher Brian McCann hasn't really started to hit and you get the feeling Heyward is ready to explode.
2. The Baltimore Orioles are in first place.
The Orioles bounced back from losing three of four to the Texas Rangers by winning their weekend series against the Rays to maintain a one-game lead over Tampa. The Orioles live and die by the home run on offense -- they lead the majors with 54; their .310 OBP, however, ranks just 17th in the majors. Jake Arrieta got pounded again on Sunday and has allowed 13 runs his past two starts after that eight-inning shutout performance against the Yankees. That means three-fifths of Baltimore rotation has an ERA over 5.00. So, yes, there are obvious question marks here. But for now the Orioles have Matt Wieters and Adam Jones mashing, a lights-out bullpen and Jason Hammel pitching like an ace.
I heard a lot of mocking of the A's and Astros heading into the season -- predictions of 105 losses, 110, maybe even 115. Both teams have played solid baseball. The A's are 18-17 and as always Billy Beane has constructed a pitching staff that will keep the A's respectable. Brandon McCarthy, Bartolo Colon and Tommy Milone throw strikes, while rookie Jarrod Parker has looked good in his first four starts. Set-up man Ryan Cook, acquired with Parker in the Trevor Cahill trade, hasn't allowed a run in 16.2 innings (and hardly a hit -- opponents are batting .060 against him.)
The Astros, meanwhile, are 15-19 but have actually outscored their opponents. Jose Altuve is as fun as any player in the game, Jed Lowrie has played well and veteran Wandy Rodriguez could be an attractive trade chip if he keeps pitching like this. The Astros aren't going to be playoff contenders, but at least they've giving their fans a reason to show up this summer.
The Chicago Cubs are bad team but have two of the season's best individual stories. Minor league vet LaHair is putting up All-Star numbers, hitting .340/.437/.670. Samardzija has been a revelation in the rotation, considering he had trouble throwing strikes as a reliever in 2011. His average fastball velocity of 94.7 mph trails only Stephen Strasburg among starters and his changeup has become one of the best strikeout pitches in the game. With a 4-1 record and 2.89 ERA, the former Notre Dame wide receiver has turned into must-see viewing for Cubs fans.
5. Derek Jeter.
Admit it, you saw more decline, you thought maybe he was just about done. Maybe you wanted him to be done. Jeter is hitting .372, has 14 extra-base hits, hasn't missed a game, and is playing like 27-year-old Jeter, not 37-year-old Jeter.
6. A.J. Ellis.
OK, Matt Kemp has been superhuman and Chris Capuano and Ted Lilly are both 5-0 but my favorite story on the team that owns baseball's best record is their obscure 31-year-old catcher who ranks third in the majors in OBP -- his .462 OBP higher than Josh Hamilton's .455. Ellis' 21 walks has been boosted by five freebies but the on-base skills are legit. Hey, Don, how about moving Ellis in front of Kemp in the lineup?
7. Bryce Harper.
The Nationals suffered a devastating injury with the loss of catcher Wilson Ramos this weekend, the latest in a string of injuries that includes Michael Morse, Jayson Werth and Drew Storen. Despite that, the Nationals are just a half-game behind the Braves in the NL East thanks to their dominant rotation. We certainly didn't expect Harper to be up so soon, but the 19-year-old has held his own. Trouble is, however, the injuries mean Harper may have to do more than hold his own. I wouldn't bet against him.
8. Parity rules the day.
The Red Sox, Angels and Phillies are in last place.
9. David Wright hitting .400.
When Wright fractured his pinkie four games into the season, Mets fans feared the worst for their franchise third baseman who has battled a string of injuries in recent season. Instead, Wright missed a few games and hasn't stopped hitting since. He's hitting .444 over his past 14 games and the Mets are 19-15 and should not be underestimated.
10. Pitchers are still throwing strikes to Hamilton.
Only Clint Barmes has swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone. Hamilton swings at the first pitch over 50 percent of the time. And yet ... OK, easier said than done. As Chipper said after Hamilton swatted four home runs against the Orioles, "He's a bad man."
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