These 12 players look like their old selves through the first seven weeks of the 2019 season. Can they keep it up?
One of the most entertaining trends to follow around Major League Baseball — and, really, sports in general — on a yearly basis is how players bounce back after struggling for extended periods. That’s the case again this year, arguably more than it’s been in a long while, as there are quite a few players in position to make strong Comeback Player of the Year bids if they keep up their early-season production.
Here are 12 players who have bounced back in dramatic fashion over the first seven weeks of the 2019 season, along with guesses at whether their respective bounce backs are legitimate or destined to fall apart in the coming weeks, factoring in recent trends in their performance and Statcast data that could be indicative of whether they’ve really made significant adjustments or are just experiencing some good old-fashioned luck to start the season.
Elvis Andrus, SS, Rangers
After posting a 78 OPS+ last year that was his worst since 2010, Andrus has rebounded by having a career offensive season through the first seven weeks of the 2019 campaign. He’s hitting .325/.373/.510 with six homers and eight steals, a career-best 126 OPS+, a 1.3 bWAR, and a 1.6 fWAR. The two-time All-Star’s 2018 season was marred by a fractured right elbow, but he’s looked like a better-than-ever version of his old self so far this year. His resurgence hasn’t been enough to help the Rangers achieve a record better than 19-22, but it’s helping quite a bit to justify the eight-year, $120 million contract Texas gave him in 2015.
Is it for real?
Well, first of all, it’s not a good sign that Andrus just hit the injured list with a mild hamstring strain. But the injury isn’t expected to keep him out too long, and Andrus’ Statcast data indicates that he’s in line to sustain this tremendous bounce back. His 5.4% barrel rate, 88.8% average exit velocity, and 37.2% hard-hit ball rate are all the highest numbers he’s posted in those categories during the Statcast era.
On the other hand, Andrus appears to have taken a significant step back on defense. He’s posted -4 defensive runs saved this season after collecting three DRS at shortstop in 2017 and five — his highest total in five years — last season. It’s logical that he’d experience a defensive drop-off as he enters his 30s, but if he were to prove that his early struggles in the field have been a fluke and that he’s still close to the defender he was last year, that’d do quite a bit to help his value.
Wade Davis, RP, Rockies
In terms of run prevention and getting the job done in the ninth inning, Davis is having a much better season in 2019 than he had in his first go-round with the Rockies last year. Through 17 appearances, he has a 2.45 ERA with a .218 opponent batting average and 18 strikeouts in 14.2 innings, and he’s a perfect 7 for 7 in save opportunities. That’s a significant improvement, at least in terms of the most meaningful results, from a 2018 campaign during which he posted a 4.13 ERA with six blown saves over 69 appearances, though he did lead the NL in saves with 43 while striking out 78, walking 26, and holding hitters to a .185 average. Davis has several areas in which he needs to improve significantly (more on that in a second), but if the Rockies’ $52 million closer continues to convert in every save opportunity and post a sub-3.00 ERA over the length of his three-year deal, they’ll probably be happy at the end of the day.
Is it for real?
Probably not. He has a 1.50 WHIP, after all. His command is the worst it’s ever been, as he has 6.1 walks per nine innings thus far, and a larger-than-usual chunk of the contact he’s allowed has been hard, as opposing hitters have a 89.3 mph average exit velocity and a 35.1% hard-hit ball rate against him, both the highest he’s allowed in those categories since the beginning of the Statcast era. Thus far, his velocity is relatively consistent compared to what it was last year, but unless he significantly improves his command, he’s probably in for some bad results soon.
Alex Gordon, LF, Royals
While Gordon continued to provide stellar play in the outfield over his three-year slump, it would’ve been fair to argue that he was essentially a sunk cost after re-signing with the Royals on a club-record four-year, $72 million contract following their 2015 World Series victory. He posted a .225/.310/.355 slash line (good for a well-below-average 79 wRC+) from 2016-18, hitting 39 homers in 1,615 plate appearances. Gordon seemed like a guy that’d probably be a defensive replacement/fourth-outfielder type at best on a good team moving forward, and that was evidenced by the Royals trading for Melky Cabrera at the deadline in 2017 and cutting into Gordon’s playing time as they tried to compete for a playoff spot.
Whether it’s been a change in approach, an increased desire to set the example for young players on a rebuilding team, or the fact that he’s looking to end his career on a good note in what he’s publicly suggested may be his final season, Gordon is back in full force this year. Through 180 plate appearances, he’s posted a .289/.378/.526 slash line with eight homers, a 1.6 bWAR, and a 1.7 fWAR. The Royals’ pitching has prevented the club from making a serious push for the AL Central title, but Gordon’s resurgence has been an extremely welcome boost for a Kansas City lineup that has also gotten great performances out of Adalberto Mondesi, Whit Merrifield, and Hunter Dozier this season.
Is it for real?
There’s always the possibility that wear and tear will significantly impact a 35-year-old player like Gordon’s ability to do his job effectively as the long season progresses, but for now, it looks like the bounce back is real. He’s hitting the ball harder than he has at any point in the Statcast era: his 88.9 mph exit velocity is the highest it’s been over that five-year stretch, as are his 10% barrel rate and 40.2% hard-hit ball percentage. His 13% strikeout rate is by far the lowest it’s been during his 13-year major-league career, so it’ll be interesting to see if that holds up. It also remains to be seen as to whether this is the year his defense finally takes a hit — his 1 defensive runs saved this season ties him for seventh among qualified major-league left fielders, which would seem to indicate a drop-off for the six-time Gold Glover.
Dexter Fowler, OF, Cardinals
Fowler struggled so much in 2018 that there were rather widespread suggestions from fans and media that the Cardinals eat or try to unload the three years and $49.5 million remaining on his contract heading into the 2019 season. That seemed like a ridiculous idea, even at the time, but in those doubters’ defense, he did post a .180/.278/.298 slash line with a -1.4 bWAR over 334 plate appearances in 2018. Thankfully for Fowler, after a 2018 season in which he battled general wear and tear, a season-ending fractured foot, and what he referred to as depression during an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold, he’s come back energized in 2019. Regaining his spot as the Cardinals’ primary center fielder after spending the ’18 season exclusively in right, Fowler has put together a tremendous season, hitting .288/.410/.405 with two homers, a 1.7 bWAR, and a 1.2 fWAR. In fact, he leads Bryce Harper — the man so many Cardinals fans wanted to replace him over the offseason — in batting average, on-base percentage, OPS, OPS+, wRC+, and bWAR. His resurgence has been huge for a Cardinals lineup that has seen Harrison Bader endure a bit of a sophomore slump and Matt Carpenter struggle as an on-base threat this year.
Is it for real?
While there are no advanced numbers which indicate that Fowler has made any significant adjustments, he’s performing in line with his career numbers. His hard-hit ball percentage (33.3%) is higher than it’s been than in any other season besides 2017 (37%), but his barrel rate and average exit velocity are roughly in line with what he’s done since the beginning of the Statcast era. His .375 batting average on balls in play is a bit higher than his .331 career clip, but it’s not ridiculously different than what he’s done in other seasons throughout his career. All in all, things are pretty much the same as they’ve always been for Fowler — who was an extremely consistent player until last season, when he dealt with injuries and emotional struggles — so it seems like a fair bet that this bounce-back will hold up and he’ll be a legitimate difference-maker once again.
Greg Holland, RP, Diamondbacks
Holland’s 2018 season always seemed too confusing to be true, so it’s not too surprising to see him bounce back this year. After leading the NL in saves in 2017, Holland and agent Scott Boras apparently overestimated his value heading into the offseason, and he ended up holding out until Opening Day, when he signed with the Cardinals. After being rushed to the big leagues without a spring training, Holland had by far the worst struggles of his career — a 7.92 ERA and a 2.24 WHIP over 32 games — and was released at the end of July. Sure enough, he signed with the Nationals in early August and ended up putting up a dominant 0.84 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP over 24 games down the stretch.
Holland, who signed a one-year, $3.25 million contract with the Diamondbacks in late January, went out and won Arizona’s closer job in spring training and has proceeded to throw for a 1.80 ERA with a 1.07 WHIP, 20 strikeouts, and nine walks over 15 appearances (15 innings) this season. He’s held opposing hitters to a ridiculous .130 batting average and has eight saves in nine opportunities. It’s debatable whether the Diamondbacks will be able to keep up their surprising run and take a stab at a wild-card spot, or perhaps even the NL West title, but if they fall out of contention before July, Holland should be a quality trade piece at the deadline.
Is it for real?
Well, recent trends would indicate that it might not be. After going unscored upon in his first 11 appearances of the season, Holland gave up runs in three straight appearances before a scoreless outing on Tuesday. Holland has done a good job of limiting hard contact this year, reducing his opponents’ hard-hit ball rate from 31.1% last year to 19.4% this season. Other than that, Holland’s Statcast data and average velocities aren’t tremendously different than they were in 2018, but his strikeouts are way up (12.0 per nine, compared with 9.1 per nine innings last year). However, as long as his command remains an issue — he’s had at least 4.1 walks per nine in each of his last four seasons, including at least five in three of those four — he’ll probably struggle to remain exceptionally consistent.
DJ LeMahieu, IF, Yankees
LeMahieu has by no means been terrible at any point recently — otherwise he wouldn’t have earned a two-year, $24 million contract during an era where it’s extremely hard for aging middle infielders to earn market value on the free-agent market — but he hadn’t been the same player who led all major leaguers with a .348 batting average in 2016. And laugh at batting average all you want, but it played a tremendous role in shaping LeMahieu’s value back then, and it has again this year. The 30-year-old infielder has proven that his success as a contact hitter wasn’t just a product of him playing his home games at Coors Field, hitting .322/.371/.434 with two homers in 160 plate appearances. He’s done all this while displaying more versatility than he has at any point since the early part of the decade, playing in 29 games at his primary position of second base (where he has won two straight NL Gold Gloves and three overall) as well as 13 at third base and two at first. He’s been a beacon of consistency in a Yankees lineup where the only other regulars to avoid trips to the injured list have been second-year middle infielder Gleyber Torres, would-be platoon first baseman Luke Voit, and would-be fourth outfielder Brett Gardner.
Is it for real?
It’s real as much as LeMahieu’s success has ever been — that’s to say that his skill set probably hasn’t deteriorated much, but a large part of his offensive value is still dependent on batting average, and if he begins to get out of rhythm at the plate and endure some tough batted-ball luck as he has at times over the past two seasons, his offensive production could suffer significantly. His .361 BABIP isn’t ridiculously out of line with his .344 career clip, but he’ll undoubtedly need to keep that number high if he’s going to keep this level of production up. His barrel rate is about in line with his career numbers, and his average exit velocity is hovering around 90 mph, just as it has since the beginning of the Statcast era. But for what it’s worth, his hard-hit rate (47.6%) is about the same as it was during his banner 2016 season (47.5%), and higher than it’s been at any point since then (41.2% in ’17, 43% in ’18).
Curiously, even with Miguel Andujar out for the season, Didi Gregorius out for at least a few more weeks as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, and Troy Tulowitzki’s future uncertain, the Yankees have continued to move LeMahieu around the diamond rather than allowing him to get comfortable at a position where he won a Gold Glove and posted 18 defensive runs saved just last year. It appears that his defense has suffered as a result, as he’s posted zero defensive runs saved at second and first this year with one at third. It’ll be interesting to see how LeMahieu is utilized following Gregorius’ return — if the Yankees move Torres back to second and keep playing the thriving Gio Urshela at third, that could move LeMahieu into a straight-up utility role.
Mark Melancon, RP, Giants
Melancon isn’t putting up the same type of numbers that made him arguably MLB’s most consistent closer for a stretch during the middle of the decade (1.80 ERA from 2013-16), but he has clearly enjoyed a resurgence this year, throwing for a 2.76 ERA over his first 15 appearances — a clear step up from the combined 3.78 mark he had put up over his first two seasons in San Francisco — while stranding seven of eight inherited runners. He’s also holding opponents to a .708 OPS, his lowest allowed in any season since joining the Giants in 2016.
His average fastball and cutter velocity are up a bit too (92.2 and 91.9 mph this year, respectively, compared to 91.5 and 91.2 in 2018), a sign that while he may not be all the way back and probably never will be, he’s at least in better shape than he’s been for the past two seasons.
Is it for real?
Probably not. On the most basic of levels, Melancon has a 1.41 WHIP, which is an improvement over his numbers in that category over the past two seasons but still a bad mark for any pitcher, particularly a reliever. His walk rate (3.9 per nine innings) is nearly twice his career mark of 2.2, and while his .262 opponent batting average is better than the over-.300 numbers in that category that he’s posted for the past two seasons, it’s still not great. He’s allowing a lot of hard contact, too: he’s allowing an average exit velocity of 88.1 mph and a hard-hit rate of 30.4%, both of which are slight improvements over his 2018 numbers in those categories but much worse than what he did from 2015-17. Of most concern is that after a hot start — 10 straight scoreless appearances and 10.2 scoreless innings to begin the season — Melancon has gotten into a bit of a rut recently, allowing five runs, nine hits, and four walks over his last five appearances and 5.2 innings.
Hunter Pence, OF/DH, Rangers
Pence’s resurgence is arguably the most drastic on this list, yet it was perhaps the most predictable. Pence’s numbers over his last two seasons with the Giants seemed to indicate that he was on the brink of retirement, as he posted a combined .249/.297/.368 slash line between 2017-18 (good for a 77 wRC+). As has been well-documented, the 36-year-old spent a month last season rehabbing a minor thumb sprain with Triple-A Sacramento, and during the course of doing so, he became enamored with the swing adjustments that teammate Mac Williamson had made and decided to make significant adjustments of his own. He went to private hitting coach Doug Latta, who helped overhaul the swings of both Williamson and Justin Turner (among others), and though he didn’t have enough time to implement those changes in a significant way during the second half of last season, it was easy to see the progress he made after the All-Star break, as he raised his OPS over 130 points from the first half (.523 before the break, compared with .658 after it), and hit all four of his home runs in the second half.
After receiving a heartwarming send-off from the Giants last September, Pence went all-in on resurrecting his career, spending three months working with Latta and then implementing those changes during a stint in Dominican winter ball — a move that not many well-established American-born players in their mid-30s make these days — before signing a no-risk minor-league deal with his hometown Rangers in early February.
Pence played his way onto the Rangers’ Opening Day roster by posting a .957 OPS in spring training, and he’s kept up that production — arguably improved upon it — since the regular season began. Through 101 plate appearances, Pence has a .292/.356/.629 slash line with eight homers (doubling his 2018 total) and a career-best 147 OPS+, an astonishing turn of events for a player who’s in his 13th big-league season. It’s been the ultimate feel-good story for a guy who radiates enthusiasm and passion for the game, especially in his return to his hometown team, playing at a stadium where he parked cars as a college kid. Though his playing time going forward could be compromised by the re-emergence of Willie Calhoun, Pence seems to have established himself as a near-everyday player in Texas. It’ll be interesting to see if he can keep this up, and if he does, it’ll be a tough call as the Rangers decide whether to let him play out the year in his native Dallas or to trade the two-time World Series champion to a contender.
Is it for real?
Pence has a markedly less complex swing than he had in prior seasons, so after getting sufficient time to implement the changes, it makes sense that he’d find better results — though few could have predicted that the improvements would be this drastic, and they still may not be in the long run: For instance, he’s hitting .192, albeit with a ridiculous .692 slugging percentage and four homers, over his last seven games. His Statcast numbers indicate that the resurgence is legit, as he has a 92.9 mph average exit velocity, up from 90.8 in 2016, 89 in ’17, and 88 in ’18. His barrel percentage (10.4%) is as high as it’s been since 2015, when it was 11.9%, and his hard-hit ball percentage of 46.3% is the highest it’s been during the Statcast era. Like with Gordon, the caveat must be added that 36-year-old players break down easily, but for now, the odds seem decent that Pence will keep hitting like this for a while.
Josh Reddick, OF, Astros
Reddick, who played a huge role for a 2017 Astros club that won the World Series, is an interesting case in that he’s developed a bit of an Eric Hosmer complex — he’s begun to rotate very good seasons in odd years with average seasons in even years since 2015. Since then, he has posted OPS+ ratings of 116, 130, and now 125 in odd years, with ratings of 105 and 97 in the even years. He’s back to thriving this year and is tied with Jorge Polanco for the AL lead in batting average as of Friday morning, hitting .333/.388/.444 with three homers in 147 plate appearances, a 1.0 bWAR, and a 0.9 fWAR. He’s also had a stellar season in right field, ranking third among qualified major-league right fielders with five defensive runs saved.
Is it for real?
It’s hard to tell. After posting a 26.5% hard-hit ball rate that ranked among the bottom sixth percentile of the league in 2018, Reddick has rebounded with a 32.4% rate that’s about in line with what he did from 2015-17. He’s also cut down on his strikeouts, dropping down to a 12.9% rate that is well below the 15.8% rate he put up last year. However, his exit velocity isn’t tremendously different from his numbers in recent previous seasons. Having just turned 32 years old, it’s certainly possible that age has taken its toll on Reddick and he’ll never replicate his 2017 season. But given the numbers he’s put up thus far and the fact that he’s had such a weird pattern with rotating between really good and really average seasons, it’s a decently safe bet to guess that he’ll continue performing very well at the plate.
Jeff Samardzija, SP, Giants
It may be inaccurate to say that Samardzija is having a true “bounce-back” season, seeing as he’s a 12-year veteran and has really only had a few above-average seasons. But the 34-year-old right-hander — who has always received another chance because of his impressive athleticism and velocity but has continually faltered due inconsistent command and a tendency to give up home runs — really is having a good season, even if he is being coddled a bit by manager Bruce Bochy. He’s averaging just over five innings a start (41 frames over eight appearances), but he has posted a 3.51 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP, 34 strikeouts, and 13 walks. His 115 ERA+ is his best since his lone All-Star season in 2014, when he posted a combined 2.99 ERA between the Cubs and Athletics. That’s especially surprising considering that Samardzija’s career looked like it might be over after a 2018 campaign where he dealt with chronic shoulder pain and posted a 6.25 ERA and 1.63 WHIP over just 10 starts. At his age, with his track record, injury history, and contract (one season left after this on a five-year, $90 million deal), the odds are probably against the Giants being able to move Samardzija to a contender. But he’s certainly experiencing a resurgence that most didn’t think possible after his struggles last season.
Is it for real?
Probably not. Samardzija has a 7.00 ERA and 1.44 WHIP over two starts in May, and he allowed three homers over five innings in a start at Cincinnati on May 5. With that said, his numbers have been much better over four starts at home (2.61 ERA, 1.06 WHIP) than they have in four on the road (4.43 ERA, 1.23 WHIP), and as he gets more starts at Oracle Park, perhaps he’ll make up for that recent dud at Great American Ball Park. Surprisingly, Samardzija’s Statcast data isn’t much different than it was when he was compromised last year, nor is his velocity, with his sinker and cutter actually being a bit slower than last season. The odds aren’t great that Samardzija’s numbers will look as good as they do right now in a couple months, but again, the standards aren’t that high considering what he’s done for most of his career, and if Bochy can continue to limit his innings and avoid overexposing him, perhaps he’ll be able to keep this up somewhat and have one of his better seasons.
Bryan Shaw, RP, Rockies
After having the worst year of his career in 2018 during the first season of a three-year, $27 million contract, Shaw once again looks like one of the best middle relievers in baseball this season — a decently impressive feat for a guy that pitches his home games at Coors Field. Through 22 appearances, Shaw has a 2.08 ERA with a ridiculous .159 opponent batting average over 26 innings. The Rockies can’t seem to get things in sync, but Shaw’s continued success could play a huge role moving forward if Colorado plans on making up ground and challenging the Dodgers for the NL West title — or simply contending for a wild card — over the next few months.
Is it for real?
It’s very possible that it’s not, despite the fact that Shaw has basically been unhittable this year. Shaw has nearly as many walks (12) as he has strikeouts (14), neither of which are really acceptable totals for a guy that has pitched 26 innings. Considering that Shaw’s strikeout rate has fallen off a cliff from his career 8.0 per nine innings, it seems as if the fact that he’s walking over four hitters per nine innings for the second straight season will come back to bite him sooner or later. If Shaw can keep hitters off the basepaths as efficiently as he has so far this season, though, his struggles shouldn’t be as severe as they were last season.
Marcus Stroman, SP, Blue Jays
Stroman had an extremely rough 2018 season, enduring two DL stints due to shoulder fatigue and a blister while posting career highs in ERA (5.54) and WHIP (1.48) over just 19 starts. He’s back to his ace form to begin 2019, though, posting a 2.95 ERA with a 1.29 WHIP, 51 strikeouts, and 19 walks through 58 innings. In a season where pitchers have suffered greatly due to a ball that’s probably juiced, the undersized right-hander is one of just 18 qualified starters in the majors with an ERA under 3.00. If he keeps this up, Stroman figures to make his first All-Star team this summer and perhaps be a key rotation piece on a Blue Jays team that may be truly competitive sooner than expected as they receive a wave of very talented prospects.
Is it for real?
After throwing at least seven innings and allowing one or fewer runs in three of his first six starts, Stroman looked to have hit a roadblock at the beginning of May, as he allowed a combined nine runs over eight innings in two starts to begin the month. He’s recovered a bit over his last two outings, though, making two straight quality starts. Other than his cutter (up from 90.7 to 91.1) and his changeup (82.7 to 85.7), Stroman hasn’t really experienced any notable changes in velocity, and his Statcast numbers are virtually the same. He has experienced an uptick in strikeouts, going up from 6.8 last year to 7.9 this year, and his walks have dropped a bit, going from 3.2 to 2.9 per nine. It’s interesting and perhaps concerning that his peripheral numbers are about the same as they were last year, but maybe all it took was for him to be healthy. He’s been somewhat inconsistent throughout his career, but right now it looks like Stroman is back to his optimal form.