Real or not? A midseason verdict on MLB’s biggest surprise stars of 2022

Real or not? A midseason verdict on MLB’s biggest surprise stars of 2022 post thumbnail image

Cardinals shortstop Tommy Edman recently made a play where he started on the shortstop side of second base before ranging well to the left of the bag to make a spinning, off-balance fling to throw out Christian Yelich at first base. It was a difficult play that Edman made look rather routine.

Bally Sports Midwest summed it up in five words: “Tommy Edman: good at baseball.”

That’s perfect, isn’t it? Edman doesn’t hit the ball the hardest or for the highest average, he might not have the strongest throwing arm, and he’s not the fastest guy in the league, although he’s certainly plenty fast. But on any given night, he can beat opponents with his bat, or his glove, or his legs, and often enough this season, all three. He finds ways to win that go beyond just hitting home runs, and, frankly, we could all use a few more Tommy Edmans in our baseball lives.

As we reach the end of June, it’s time to check in for another edition of Real or Not, this time looking at some of the biggest surprises of the 2022 season. Are these surprising performances, like Edman’s 2022 breakout, real signs of full-season stardom, or are they first-half flukes destined to fade as the year plays out?

Tommy Edman, St. Louis Cardinals (.271/.341/.401, 4.1 WAR)

The surprise isn’t so much that Edman is putting up a solid season at the plate, something he did in his rookie season of 2019, but that value metrics like WAR say he’s been one of the best players in the league — indeed, right up there with his MVP candidate teammate, Paul Goldschmidt. As I dig into this on Tuesday morning, Edman is second behind Goldschmidt in WAR among National League position players and fourth in FanGraphs WAR.

Much of that value comes from outstanding defensive metrics:

  • Defensive runs saved: +14 (tied with Ke’Bryan Hayes for best in the majors)

  • Outs above average: +10 (tied for second in the majors)

  • FanGraphs defense: +9.3 runs (third in majors)

Edman has been superb at both second base — where he won a Gold Glove last season — and shortstop, where he has eventually moved on a full-time basis after the demotion of Paul DeJong. The weird thing here is, I don’t think the Cardinals knew what they actually had. I get that maybe they were reluctant to move Edman off second base, but when DeJong was sent down and before Nolan Gorman was called up, the Cardinals initially platooned Brendan Donovan and Edmundo Sosa at shortstop — even though Donovan had barely played there in the minors.

Edman, who did play plenty of shortstop at Stanford and in the minors, looks like a natural there: range, quickness and enough arm to make the long throw. He’s kind of a more physically talented version of David Eckstein, another player whom many doubted could play shortstop in the majors but helped the Cardinals win the 2006 World Series.

Verdict: Real. I’m not sure he’ll stay at an under-the-radar MVP level (his bat has fallen off after hitting .300 in April), but the defensive value is legit.

1. Yes, you look at his build, and this feels impossible. But there is a precedent for this type of player: Oscar Charleston, Hack Wilson, Yogi Berra, Smoky Burgess, Kirby Puckett, not to mention the short but powerful types like Joe Morgan, Jimmy Rollins and Jose Altuve. None of them, however, were listed at 5-foot-8 and 245 pounds.

2. He has more walks than strikeouts.

3. He’s 23 years old.

Verdict: The question isn’t if he’s for real (absolutely he is), but whether he’ll be one of the top 10 hitters in baseball at year’s end (he’s ninth in OPS right now).

Two years ago, Cortes made a few appearances for the Mariners and gave up 14 runs and six home runs in 7⅔ innings. You can hardly blame the Mariners for letting him go at season’s end. (Well, you can, but nobody was predicting this kind of success in his future.) He did make one legitimate change — adding a cutter in 2021, which has played well off his fastball and slider.

Cortes posted a 1.50 ERA through his first 10 starts; however, he has a 5.68 ERA over his past four and has allowed six home runs in those 19 innings (at least all six were solo home runs). After the Astros roughed him up Sunday, Cortes said his command hadn’t been as sharp of late.

Something to watch: Four of the home runs have come against his cutter, perhaps a sign that it hasn’t had the same late movement as earlier in the season. As a fly ball pitcher, it’s also not surprising that his home run rate has spiked as the weather has warmed.

Verdict: Not real, although that’s not the same as saying not effective the rest of the way. Much of this is just natural regression from an unrealistic first two months, and I expect Cortes to continue providing valuable innings for the Yankees. The club has also suggested it will have to monitor his workload a bit in the second half — an occasional extra day of rest, that sort of thing. In the end, I can see him keeping his ERA around 3.00, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Cortes in the bullpen in the postseason, which speaks to the overall quality of the Yankees’ rotation.

Let’s see. No Trevor Bauer. Clayton Kershaw missed some time. Andrew Heaney started off hot and then got hurt. Walker Buehler wasn’t sharp and is now injured. So of course Gonsolin steps up. He hasn’t lost a game and leads the majors in ERA for a Dodgers rotation that has the lowest ERA in the majors. Dave Roberts manages him very carefully — he hasn’t gone more than six innings, 94 pitches or 23 batters faced in any start, and he has pitched on four days of rest just three times. But the results could make him the All-Star Game starter.

Gonsolin’s fastball isn’t particularly impressive — 93.2 mph, with batters slugging .512 against it — but he throws it enough to help make his splitter, slider and curveball dominant pitches. Look at his career numbers on those pitches:

  • Splitter: .143 average, .406 OPS

  • Slider: .108 average, .363 OPS

  • Curveball: .129 average, .367 OPS

In terms of stuff and repertoire, I compare him to former Mariners starter Hisashi Iwakuma, who finished third in the 2013 American League Cy Young vote. The splitter has always been a favorite pitch of many Japanese starters, and Gonsolin is one of the few U.S. starters to deploy it — and he rarely hangs it (just two career home runs off it in 223 at-bats). What makes it especially tough is he throws it in the strike zone almost 50% of the time, so batters can’t just spit on it and expect it to be below the knees.

Verdict: His numbers will certainly regress to some degree, but the track record for Gonsolin is now long enough — a 2.45 career ERA over 200-plus innings — that it’s time to start buying into him, even if his career has been chopped up by injuries and COVID-19. The biggest concern is his durability over 30 starts. Gonsolin has been a pro since 2016 and hasn’t pitched more than 128 innings in a season. He had three separate IL stints last season because of shoulder inflammation. Even if he stays healthy, he might top out at 150 innings, so his Cy Young chances are probably slim — and one or two bad starts will get that ERA back over 2.00. For the record: The most wins in a season without a loss is Tom Zachary’s 12 for the 1929 Yankees.

Andrés Giménez, Cleveland Guardians (.309/.354/.493, 8 HR, 2.9 WAR)

OK, Cleveland fans, answer this honestly: Assuming money is no factor, would you trade Giménez straight up right now for Francisco Lindor? Right? You have to think about it — and the answer might be that Giménez is the more valuable player right now. He has hit better than Lindor so far in 2022, he has the higher WAR and he’s five years younger.

Is the bat for real? Giménez had been a top-100 prospect based on his defense, speed and potential double-digit power, but he hit just .218/.282/.351 for Cleveland in 2021 and had to fight for a role on the team this spring. The metrics, however, say his .300 average and power are no fluke: 54th percentile in hard-hit rate, 93rd percentile in expected batting average, 81st percentile in expected slugging percentage.

The biggest negative is a low walk rate and a below-average chase rate, but here’s what I like to see: His chase rate has dropped 10% from last season, when it was in Javier Baez territory. He’s not walking, but he’s maturing as a hitter.

Don’t underestimate that prospect status. He was the second-rated player in his international class and he was always very young for his leagues. This is a player the scouts have always liked. The interesting thing is that Terry Francona has settled into a lineup of Giménez at second base and Amed Rosario at shortstop — he must be seeing something that doesn’t show up in some of the fielding metrics (which still show Rosario as below average at shortstop). Either way, Giménez’s defensive metrics at second base are excellent, as you might expect given his range and arm.

Verdict: I’m going real — maybe he’s not a .300 hitter, but the improvement is legit and the good defense will help prop up his WAR.

Unlike Cortes (added the cutter) or Gonsolin (just needed to stay healthy), Pérez’s hot start is more difficult to pinpoint. He’s been around a long time and hasn’t had an ERA under 4.38 since his rookie season in 2013. He’s not throwing harder, he doesn’t have a new pitch, he doesn’t induce many swing-and-misses. But he’s allowed just two home runs in 93⅓ innings and is basically one bad start (12 hits and seven runs against the White Sox on June 11) from being the best starter in baseball so far.

Earlier this year, Pérez became just the third pitcher since 1913 to have an eight-start stretch in which he didn’t lose, didn’t allow a home run, pitched at least six innings each game and allowed one or fewer earned runs in each outing. OK, that’s a mouthful of qualifiers, but the only others to do that were two dudes named Walter Johnson and Bob Gibson.

Still, something is going on here. After all, this is a guy whom the Red Sox pulled from their rotation last August and then he went back to the Rangers on a one-year deal this winter. The two things we can see: He’s throwing his sinker a lot more (36.7% of the time compared to 25.3% last year and 17.7% in 2020) and his cutter is working again after batters hit .331 off it in 2021. His walk rate is a career low. So that’s three things. Toss in a new level of confidence. Four things.

Verdict: Basically, there is nothing in the numbers that say this is a fluke, other than the middling strikeout rate (and the previous track record). As with Cortes and Gonsolin — and this is certainly a result of the high velocity era we’re in — we’re always going to remain more skeptical if a pitcher doesn’t throw 95. It’s easier to understand success when a pitcher is just blowing it by hitters; it’s harder to grasp the finer points of pitching that we’re seeing from Cortes, Gonsolin and Pérez. Maybe Pérez has simply figured it out. Maybe he just had the three best months of his life. I’m going with not real (he just can’t keep up this home run rate), but he wouldn’t be the first pitcher to be better in his 30s than his 20s.

This guy is going to win a lot of people their fantasy leagues: He leads the majors with 22 stolen bases — including 17 in June, as he’s been running with abandon (but not reckless abandon, as he’s been caught just twice all season). He’s also getting on base and helping the Marlins with his Swiss Army knife defense, starting games at five different positions (mostly at third base). Berti has been around a bit — this is his fourth season as the Marlins’ utility player — and has shown the ability to run in the past, but nothing like this clip.

“It’s kind of like hitting,” Berti told the Miami Herald recently. “You get into a good rhythm with it, you pick your spots and then you just be aggressive.”

What makes this fun is Berti is doing this at 32 years old — not usually the age when you start stealing more bases. But he’s been a late bloomer in his career (not reaching the majors until he was 28), and he has kept his speed, ranking in the 94th percentile in sprint speed. Here’s a goal: The most recent player age 32 or older to swipe 50 bases in a season was Juan Pierre in 2010.

Of course, to run you have to get on base. Berti has done that thanks to a high walk rate — and a batting average on balls in play that is hovering around .400 and is likely to drop. There is also the issue of how he’ll hold up as he plays more, given he hasn’t batted 400 times in a season since 2015.

Verdict: The steals are real, but the bat will fall off. Look for 40 stolen bases as a result, not 50.

Of the top 30 players in the majors in OPS, the two big surprises are Kirk and Drury. While Kirk is a young up-and-coming player, Drury is a 29-year-old veteran who has bounced from the Diamondbacks to the Yankees to the Blue Jays to the Mets to the Reds and spent much of 2021 in Triple-A. Now he might end up being the Reds’ All-Star representative (especially with Tyler Stephenson out with a broken thumb).

After a solid rookie season in 2016, Drury’s upside has always been limited by an aggressive approach, but he’s controlled that somewhat this year and has seen a spike in his hard-hit rate while cutting way down on his swing-and-miss rate (always in the bottom half of the league, he now rates in the 86th percentile). He has also loved hitting in Cincinnati, where he’s batting .315 compared to .222 on the road.

Verdict: This isn’t some BABIP-driven hot start. The last time Drury played regularly was with the Blue Jays in 2019, when he hit just .218, so maybe he just needed the opportunity. On the other hand, players don’t usually suddenly get better at 29. There are some real positives here and I also like how he has optimized his launch angle from his early years in Arizona (when he hit more grounders). Still … a top 30 OPS guy? Probably not. Top 50 at season’s end? Even that feels like a stretch.

Clay Holmes, New York Yankees (4-0, 0.49 ERA, 14 saves, 1.9 WAR)

I went back and checked the video on the three runs he has allowed this year. The first one came in the first game of the season. Xander Bogaerts hit a bouncer over the third-base bag for a double and then Alex Verdugo singled up the middle against a drawn-in infield. The Rays scored on him on June 20. Francisco Mejia hit a hard grounder past a diving Anthony Rizzo for a double and Manuel Margot drove him in with a two-out trickler down the third-base line. The third run (unearned) came on Tuesday and only after a catcher’s interference kept the inning alive for Oakland. Stephen Vogt hit a broken-bat blooper to right, and Elvis Andrus hit a hard liner up the middle. Holmes is not far away from a 0.00 ERA.

As you might guess from that play-by-play, it’s been almost impossible to elevate Holmes’ 97 mph sinker, which he throws more than 80% of the time. Baseball analyst Joe Sheehan pointed out that Holmes’ current groundball rate of nearly 82% would be the highest of the past 20 years, topping even peak Zack Britton.

Verdict: Yes, he’s for real, and if he keeps this going, we’ll have to start researching the best single-season relief seasons of all time. Damn Yankees.




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