Can These Five Players Sustain Their Strong Starts?


We’re about a month into the 2023 baseball season, and as is always the case there are teams that are over-performing (that’s you, Pittsburgh) and under-performing. It’s not just on the team side either, certain players are off to better than expected starts, and while a month of play isn’t enough to make a definitive judgement on one’s season, it’s certainly enough of a sample size to have a conversation about whether a player has turned a corner.

Let’s take a look at five players who are have performed better than expectations over the first month, and try and predict whether they’ll be able to sustain their strong start. (All stats are up to date entering Saturday’s matches)

Joey Gallo.265/.368/.796 with seven home runs 

The poster boy of the three true outcome hitter, Gallo has frustrated fans from Texas to New York to LA in recent years with his tantalizing power but sky high strikeouts and sub-optimal batting averages. Last year was one of Gallo’s worst, as he posted just a .160/.280/.357 line with a strikeout rate a touch shy of 40% between the Yankees and Dodgers and hit free agency without much fanfare. The Twins brought him in on a one-year, $11MM deal and it already seems to be paying off. Gallo’s shaved almost ten percentage points off his strikeout rate and is still walking at his usual solid clip.

Gallo appears to have a really good feel for the zone at the moment, swinging at more pitches in the zone and taking fewer called strikes. I spoke with Betsy Helfand, Twins beat reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, on the MLBTR Podcast this week and she detailed some changes Gallo had made in his stance over the off-season. Perhaps also he’s benefitting from the shift changes. Gallo is pulling the ball more than in recent years, perhaps freed up to play more of his natural style with teams unable to shift quite so aggressively against him.

In any case, there’s a lot to like about Gallo’s start to the season in Minnesota. It’s probably unlikely he continues to hit a home run every seven at bats, but there’s every chance the Twins have themselves a much better version of Gallo than we’ve seen recently.

Yusei Kikuchi: Five starts, 27 IP, 3.00 ERA, 9.3 SO/9, 2.0 BB/9

Kikuchi came into the season clinging onto the final rotation spot in Toronto, but he’s been a really solid arm for them over the first month. Last season Kikuchi posted a 5.25 ERA in 20 starts for the Blue Jays and wound up out of the rotation by the end of the season. A big reason for his turnaround this year is a significant drop in his walk rate. Last season, Kikuchi was handing out free passes 12.8% of the time. This season? Just 5.7%. He’s also tweaked his pitch mix a bit, leaning less often on his fastball and bumping up the usage of his slider and splitter.

Yet a peak under the hood of Kikuchi’s performance does raise some red flags. He is still giving up far too many home runs, conceding about two every nine innings, much the same as his rate last year. He’s also carrying a sky high 97.2% left on base percentage, which is bound to drop some.

All in all, I’m skeptical Kikuchi holds on to the sort of numbers he’s putting up over his first five starts and expect a decent amount of regression. Maybe that still results in an improvement on last year and provides the Jays with enough to feel comfortable running him out every fifth day, but I still think he ends up with an ERA somewhere in the fours rather than the threes.

Cody Bellinger: .298/.475/.560 with five home runs 

After winning the NL MVP in 2019 with the Dodgers, Bellinger has descended into a below average hitter since, putting up a wRC+ of just 78 between 2020-22. That led the Dodgers to non-tender him at the end of last season, and he latched on with the Cubs on a one-year, $17.5MM deal. It looked like an expensive gamble at the time for Chicago, but it appears to be paying off.

Bellinger has almost halved his strikeout rate from a year prior, bumped up his walk rate but still isn’t hitting the ball nearly as hard as he was during his MVP season. In fact his HardHit% is at 31 this year, and was as high as 45.6 in 2019 and 38.1 last year. The huge drop in strikeouts really is the most impressive aspect though, as that’s where Bellinger had come undone in recent years. In 2019 his K rate was just 16.9%, but it rocketed up into the 27% range over the past few seasons, so to bring it back down to an elite rate is a firm indication of some meaningful change in Bellinger’s performance.

So with all that considered perhaps he’s sort of back? Mostly back? Or maybe on the way to being back? Either way, it’s still a hugely productive player for the Cubs and the signs are there that even if he’s not peak-Bellinger he’s still very much turned a corner.

Johan Oviedo: Five starts, 29 2/3 IP, 3.03 ERA, 8.8 SO/9, 3.3 BB/9

Little was made of the return the Pirates received for Jose Quintana when they dealt him to the Cardinals at the deadline last summer. Yet in Oviedo, with a few changes, they may have unearthed a really solid mid-rotation arm. Oviedo had been a ho-hum arm in the Cardinals system getting mixed results and it didn’t appear as though his departure would really change much in St Louis.

Yet since coming over the Pirates, Oviedo has blossomed, and I’ll borrow from my colleague Steve Adams’ analysis in a broader Front Office piece on Pittsburgh’s impressive start to the season, which includes this on Oviedo:

Oviedo has upped his fastball velocity, doubled his curveball usage and morphed from a fringey swingman to what looks like a legitimate Major League starter. He’s not an ace, but the tangible changes here and immediate results are intriguing.

Oviedo’s fastball velocity may be up to 96.6 mph on average, but he’s throwing the pitch at a career-low 33.7% clip, instead heavily favoring his slider and curveball, both of which have a 34% whiff rate in 2023, per Statcast. Fewer fastballs and more breaking pitches have led to a stark increase in ground-ball rate – a well above-average 55.7% in 2023 – and a glut of weak contact. He’s yielded just an 85.6 mph average exit velocity and a paltry 31.1% hard-hit rate.

Steve’s piece is well worth a read, but the key here is that Oviedo and the Pirates coaching staff have made meaningful change to his pitching repertoire and are seeing results. With that in mind, it’s hard not buy this start from Oviedo. Perhaps there’s a bit of regression from the 3.03 ERA, but even if the Bucs have landed themselves a solid third or fourth starter who gives them a chance to win each time he takes the mound, it’s a huge win.

Jarred Kelenic: .325/.380/.663 with seven home runs

Is it finally happening? Kelenic has been one of the game’s top prospects for a number of years now but has failed to make an impact at the highest level. That may be changing. Kelenic has been one of the best hitters on a struggling Seattle team to start 2023, and could be blossoming into the sort of player the team dreamed on when they acquired him from the Mets.

Sure, Kelenic will see some regression from the .385 BABIP he holds right now, but the guy is hitting the ball and hitting it hard. He’s already barreled up ten balls and his HardHit% sits at 57.6%, a full 22 percentage points higher than last year and his exit velocity has shot up from the previous two campaigns.

As Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic details, Kelenic spent the winter in Arizona revamping his swing with Tim Laker, a former Mariners hitting coach and the results are clear. A career .168/.251/338 hitter in the big leagues, Kelenic looks to have finally broken out in 2023. Even if his strikeout and walk rates are largely in line with his previous numbers the fact that he can do more – a lot more – with the contact that he is making is the difference.

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