April often brings surprises in the world of MLB, and this season is no different. Sometimes strong first months lead to breakouts, like when Kyle Wright posted a 1.13 ERA last April and went on to win 21 games and garner Cy Young votes. Other times, they fade away, as they did for Eric Hosmer last year, who had a .389 average and 14 RBI last April only to hit .240 with 30 RBI the rest of the way.
Below we’ll play a game of “Fact or Fiction” with some of this April’s standouts, posing questions related to their performance and assessing whether we think they are likely to come to fruition. Let’s jump right in with perhaps the biggest surprise of 2023 thus far:
James Outman will be the NL Rookie-of-the-Year
Outman’s story is a great one. In his MLB debut last July, he had three hits, one of which was a home run, and three RBI. His stay didn’t last long, though, as he was sent back to Triple-A after only four games. Many Dodger fans clamored for the team to give him a shot this season, but his inclusion on the roster was far from secure after the team added veterans J.D. Martinez, Jason Heyward, and David Peralta in the off-season. Outman earned a roster spot after slashing .283/.391/.566 with three HRs and 11 RBI this spring.
Outman started and homered on Opening Day, becoming a fixture in the lineup. Through Tuesday, April 25, he’s been incredibly productive, ranking as one of the best hitters in MLB as well as an above-average defender:
PLV likes what he’s done thus far as well, ranking him well above average in most categories:
However, a few indicators suggest Outman could be heading for some regression. His 27.8% strikeout rate will make it difficult for him to maintain a high batting average, which a .383 BABIP is fueling. Statcast backs this up as all his xAVG (.286), xSLG (.580), and xwOBA (.408) all lag his statistics. Outman likely evolves into a “three-true outcomes” player who walks and strikes out often while possessing excellent power.
Back to our original question, Outman is off to the best start of the NL rookies and will be in the mix for NL Rookie of the Year. However, Corbin Carroll is also playing well, has a superior skill set, and should be considered the favorite. Even if Outman falls short in the balloting, the Dodgers may have uncovered a diamond in the rough who could develop into one of their core players.
Ronald Acuña Jr. will steal 70 bases
The last player to steal 70 bases in a season was Jacoby Ellsbury in 2009, and this feat has only been accomplished three times since the turn of the century. Acuña has 13 SBs on 15 attempts in his first 23 games, putting him on pace to surpass this total. The Braves superstar stole a base in 5.4% of his plate appearances last year, finishing the season with 29. This year, he’s stealing a base in 11.5% of his PAs, over double last year’s pace. This rate is unsustainable because Acuña is also getting on base at a .442 clip, which won’t last all season. However, his rate should be significantly higher than last year for one big reason: the bases are larger.
In case you are unaware, MLB increased the size of the bases from 15 inches square to 18 this year. That’s an extra three inches for those who are bad at math, and those three inches are making a world of difference. Through Sunday, a total of 455 bases had been stolen across baseball. Over the same period last year, players recorded 314 steals (+45%). Furthermore, efficiency has increased from 73.2% to 79.5%. Teams are running more and having more success.
Getting to 70 will be challenging for Acuña. At his current pace, he’ll need another 500 plate appearances to get there, and as we already mentioned, his OBP is likely to drop. Sixty or more SBs is a strong possibility, but we think he falls short of 70.
Jarred Kelenic will finish the season with an OPS over .850
Thus far this season, Kelenic looks like the uber-prospect we expected when he debuted in 2021, not the guy with the .615 OPS in his rookie season and .534 last year. Here are Kelenic’s stats through April 23:
Kelenic leads the Mariners in several offensive categories and ranks third in OPS among all hitters through Tuesday. But will it last? Small sample sizes are dangerous, but the early indications suggest Kelenic’s turnaround may stick. He’s swinging less, chasing less, and making more contact in and out of the zone. His SwStr% has dropped from 16.2% in 2022 to 10.7%, and he’s hitting the ball much harder than he has in the past. Kelenic’s xAVG/xSLG/xwOBA rates of .327/.691/.448 line up with his actuals, suggesting the breakout is real. PLV agrees, as evidenced by his season-to-date hitter performance, which is near the top of MLB:
Eighty-one plate appearances aren’t a lot to go on, but Kelenic was a top prospect for a reason. Only sixteen players had an OPS over .850 in 2022, but it feels like Kelenic is figuring things out at the major-league level, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Bryce Elder will have a Kyle Wright breakout for the Braves
As we mentioned in the intro, Kyle Wright rode a strong April into a breakout year for the Braves in 2022. Through his first four starts this season, Bryce Elder has posted the following numbers:
Furthermore, Elder’s BABIP is .328, suggesting that, if anything, he’s been unlucky with balls in play. On the surface, everything looks great for Elder, but there are a few warning signs. He has yet to give up a home run, and his FIP, xFIP, and xERA range from 1.4 to 2.5 runs per nine higher than his ERA. His hard-contact rate is 35.4%, which puts him in the bottom 12% in MLB, and his LOB% is in the 85th percentile. Then, there’s this:
PLV pegs Elder as a below-average pitcher thus far, with a PLA of 3.47. His cutter has been excellent, but he doesn’t throw it very often, and his other pitches range from average to slightly below average. Elder looks like a solid back-of-the-rotation option for the Braves, but based on his first four starts, he isn’t likely to emerge as one of the leaders of their staff.
Justin Steele will win 15 games for the Cubs
Justin Steele had a solid 2022, posting a 3.18 ERA and 24.6% K%. However, his WHIP was high at 1.35, and he only won four of his 24 starts. He’s already matched his win total in April and has put up excellent numbers over his five outings:
Steele’s xERA, FIP, and xFIP are much higher than his ERA but are still solid at 2.89/3.36/3.76, respectively. His 91.3% LOB% and.205 BABIP aren’t sustainable, so he’ll regress, but by how much? Here’s Steele’s PLV chart:
Steele is basically a two-pitch pitcher, as he rarely throws his sinker. His slider is elite, but his four-seamer is pretty average. Having only two pitches in his repertoire limits his upside, but he can still excel, provided his slider remains this effective. His win total for the season hinges as much on the Cubs’ offense as it does on his ability to keep them in games. Fortunately for Steele, the Cubs are fifth in runs scored through Tuesday and rank second in team wOBA. The Cubbies look legit, and so does Steele.
Adapted by Chris Corr (@chris_studios on Twitter)
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Question about hitter PLV… some of them don’t seem to make any sense.
For example, I see Connor Joe has a 40 contact score in 2023 but he has an 8.5% swstr rate, average z-contact rate. He has below average o-contact rate (This year, not other years). So the o-contact is dragging him down, but with the 8.5 swstr rate and 22% k rate I have a hard time seeing how he’s a 40 contact guy.