Some things are easy to predict, such as Mike Trout contending for an MVP Award, Jose Altuve chasing another batting title and Max Scherzer and Chris Sale striking out a gazillion batters. Other things aren't so predictable, such as the Athletics fighting for a division title and the Nationals failing to fight for one. Every season is full of a million little surprises and a similar number of disappointments. Here are some on both sides of the ledger that stand out to me.
Surprise: National League rookie outfielders
First off, we present Ronald Acuna Jr., who has lived up to his preseason billing as the top prospect in the game ... and then some. He's hitting .290/.358/.570 in 79 games with 21 home runs -- that's a 40-homer pace over 155 games and simply amazing power output for a 20-year-old. Only three 20-year-olds have produced a higher slugging percentage than his .570 mark: Mel Ott, Alex Rodriguez and Ted Williams. Acuna has been so good at such a young age that he has established the possibility that he could become the best player in the game.
But fellow NL East phenom Juan Soto's season is even more of a surprise. Acuna was supposed to be here, but the 19-year-old Soto began the season playing for Hagerstown in the South Atlantic League. He buzzed through the Carolina League and played just eight games at Double-A before his promotion to the majors. Despite just 122 games of minor league experience, he's hitting .293/.411/.507. I could give a long list of Hall of Famers who never posted a .411 OBP in a season. That Soto is doing so at age 19 is remarkable.
As Joe Sheehan pointed out, Soto has the best OPS+ (so far) by a teenager (minimum 300 plate appearances). He's already sixth among teenagers with 15 home runs and will soon pass Ken Griffey Jr., who hit 16 his rookie season. The maturity at the plate suggests a player who will have many .400 OBP seasons in his future. He has 61 walks and 74 strikeouts at a time when the MLB average is 2.6 strikeouts for every walk. His chase rate on pitches outside the zone is 13th among the 236 players with at least 300 plate appearances.
The third surprise is Harrison Bader, who leads Acuna and Soto in WAR (and he has fewer PAs, so it's not because of more playing time):
FanGraphs: Bader 3.3, Acuna 2.9, Soto 2.6
Baseball-Reference: Bader 3.7, Acuna 3.4, Soto 2.0
That WAR comes courtesy of some insane defensive metrics resulting from Bader's athleticism and top-shelf speed. Since he got a chance to play regularly, he has hit .280/.349/.444, including .295/.367/.505 in the second half. He's 24, so he obviously does not have the same MVP potential as Acuna or Soto, but he looks like a long-term fixture in center field for the Cardinals.
Disappointment: The other St. Louis Cardinals outfielders
The Cardinals' preseason outfield of Marcell Ozuna (coming off a 37-homer season for the Marlins), Tommy Pham (coming off an 11th-place finish in MVP voting) and reliable veteran Dexter Fowler projected as maybe the best outfield in the game. Instead, the three have combined for just 1.4 WAR, Ozuna and Fowler are on the DL, and Pham is with Tampa Bay. Luckily, the Cardinals' incredible organizational depth came into play, with Bader taking over in center, Jose Martinez getting some time in right field, and Tyler O'Neill bashing his way up from Triple-A.
Surprise: Max Muncy, Dodgers
This is one of the more incredible out-of-nowhere stories we've seen in a long time. Muncy hit .195 with the A's in 2015 and 2016, drew his release and spent all of 2017 in Triple-A with the Dodgers. The Dodgers liked him because he had good plate discipline in the minors and during his stints with the A's and could play multiple positions, but he got a chance to play regularly only due to a series of injuries.
All he has done is mash 30 home runs, and if he had enough plate appearances, he'd be leading the NL in slugging percentage. Yes, you can point to a swing change -- he added a little more of a leg kick while bending over a little more at the plate -- but while you would expect a big change in his fly ball rate from his Oakland days, his 34.6 percent rate is actually lower than the 36.6 percent he had before. Muncy is simply barreling up more balls, hitting more line drives and tapping more into his power, all while starting games at first base, second base and third base.
The plate discipline has remained key as well. He's 21st among players with at least 300 plate appearances in lowest chase rate, and his average of 4.29 pitches per plate appearances is eighth. That has allowed him to hit 11 home runs with two strikes. The Dodgers' lineup has amazing depth, but a guy they weren't counting on has been their best hitter. You can't predict baseball.
Disappointment: Free agents
All winter there was whining and complaining that owners weren't throwing money at free agents. Many cried that there must be some sort of collusion going on. In the end, all the big names got paid ... yet many haven't produced, have been injured or both. Check out the 11 free agents who signed the largest contracts in total value:
Eric Hosmer, Padres, $144 million: 0.7 WAR
Yu Darvish, Cubs, $126 million: minus-0.1 WAR
J.D. Martinez, Red Sox, $110 million: 5.9 WAR
Lorenzo Cain, Brewers, $80 million: 5.8 WAR
Jake Arrieta, Phillies, $75 million: 3.2 WAR
Carlos Santana, Phillies, $60 million: 1.0 WAR
Alex Cobb, Orioles, $57 million: 0.9 WAR
Wade Davis, Rockies, $52 million: 0.3 WAR
Jay Bruce, Mets, $39 million: minus-0.8 WAR
Tyler Chatwood, Cubs, $38 million: minus-0.1 WAR
Zack Cozart, Angels, $38 million: minus-0.1 WAR
Two home runs in Martinez and Cain and a B-plus from Arrieta, but the other eight have to be classified as disappointments (Santana hasn't been terrible, but his signing pushed Rhys Hoskins to left field, which he has played like a first baseman). Heck, FanGraphs rates Hosmer at minus-0.7 WAR -- though that doesn't factor in the clubhouse leadership he has provided to a team that might lose 100 games.
This is going to lead to a potential labor war down the road. Owners are going to be more and more reluctant to give big contracts to risky 30-something veterans. But the union has always built its salary structure on veteran free agents getting the big money, helping drive up the salaries of everyone else in the process. If the union starts reassessing this philosophy -- not necessarily a sure thing -- then negotiations for the next CBA could turn ugly (the current one runs through 2021).
Surprise: Jose Ramirez
Why is a guy who finished third in the MVP voting last year on this list? Because he's having one of the best seasons ever by a third baseman. With 7.5 WAR through 130 games, he's on pace for a 9.3-WAR season. His FanGraphs WAR is even higher at 8.0.
Baseball-Reference has just 11 third basemen reaching 9.0 WAR in a season, topped by Al Rosen's 10.1 for the Indians in 1953. FanGraphs' best season by a third baseman is 9.7, by Darrell Evans in 1973 and Adrian Beltre in 2004. Ramirez should crack the top 10 on both lists. That is a surprise.
Of course, Ramirez's entire career is a surprise. Here's a fun stat: He is a lock to become the 10th player to record 40 home runs and 30 stolen bases (Jeff Bagwell and Barry Bonds did it twice), and he could join Alfonso Soriano as the only players with 45 home runs and 35 steals. He'll also join Bonds and Bagwell as the only players with more walks than strikeouts in their 40/30 season. What a player.
Their over/under from the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook was 75.5 wins. FanGraphs had them at 78 wins. Nobody at ESPN predicted the A's to make the playoffs. Yet here they are fighting the Astros for the American League West lead and solidly up on the Mariners for at least the second wild card. Matt Chapman has turned into one of the game's best all-around players, Khris Davis is on his way to a third straight 40-homer season, and they've received surprising work from rotation fill-ins such as Edwin Jackson, Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson, but perhaps the biggest key has been the stellar, lockdown bullpen.
The A's have yet to blow a game they've led after seven innings, and their win probability added (basically, how clutch the bullpen has been in close games) ranks fifth since 1969. Closer Blake Treinen was kind of a throw-in as part of the Sean Doolittle/Ryan Madson trade last July (prospect Jesus Luzardo was the main get), but he has pumped up his strikeout rate and curbed some of the control issues he had with the Nationals to post a sub-1.00 ERA.
Look, nobody really expected the Orioles to be serious playoff contenders -- except maybe the Orioles. After all, they chose not to trade Manny Machado last offseason, and they signed free-agent starters Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner for a combined $73 million to shore up the rotation. Still, the Superbook put the Orioles' over/under at 72 wins.
I hope you took the under, as the Orioles are going to miss that line by about 25 wins. It has been a disaster of epic proportions, as the Orioles have stumbled to a sub-.300 win percentage. This team has been so bad that the 1988 Orioles laugh at their futility. Only one other team in the divisional era has managed to play so poorly: the 2003 Tigers, who finished 43-119. Chris Davis, with four years remaining on his seven-year, $161 million contract, has been the ringleader, with his .167 average and minus-2.1 WAR. Orioles fans can only hope this isn't the start of another dark era, like 1998 to 2011, when they finished under .500 in 14 consecutive seasons.
Surprise: Nick Markakis
The veteran outfielder has had a solid if unspectacular career, but he parlayed a big first half into his first All-Star appearance in his 13th big league season. Freddie Freeman has been an MVP candidate, Acuna and Ozzie Albies have been the young spark plugs, and Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb have made huge strides in the rotation, but the Braves wouldn't be in first place without the steady Markakis and his .314 average and .376 OBP.
The Braves' rise has coincided with the Nationals' fall to mediocrity. Before the season, the Nationals looked like an easy call as the NL East winners, especially with the Braves and Phillies seemingly a year away. If anything, the Mets were the team that might challenge the Nationals (if they stayed healthy). Well, the Mets didn't stay healthy, and the Nationals have still disappointed.
Surprise: Shohei Ohtani's bat
The dude is slugging .547 and has showcased big power to left-center. And hitting is his second-best talent.
Disappointment: Phillies' defense
For years, the Phillies have been a terrible defensive team: minus-97 defensive runs in 2013, minus-97 again in 2015, minus-57 last season. The Phillies improved their pitching and improved their hitting, but the defense remains awful, ranking last in the majors, with minus-101 defensive runs saved (DRS). Even if you're skeptical of that number -- the more conservative UZR puts them at minus-38 runs (still second worst in the majors) -- Phillies fans tell me that the eye test confirms that the defense has been legitimately bad. Given even average defense, they'd likely be in first place in the NL East.
As Mark Simon outlined in a piece last week, a primary problem is that the Phillies have no good defenders and several really bad ones. Moving Hoskins to left field hasn't worked, as he's at minus-20 DRS. Unfortunately, he's blocked at first base for the time being by Santana. Maikel Franco has once again been a below-average defender (minus-13 DRS), and Nick Williams (-11) and Odubel Herrera (-10) also have struggled.