HomeTrending MLB NewsLet’s Celebrate Some Small-Sample Superstars While We Still Can

Let’s Celebrate Some Small-Sample Superstars While We Still Can

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Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

We’re far enough into the 2024 regular season that a lot of the extreme flukes and outliers have tumbled back to Earth. Mookie Betts leads the league in position player WAR; Shohei Ohtani leads in wRC+; Patrick Corbin doesn’t quite lead the league in earned runs allowed, but he’s close, and everyone ahead of him on the leaderboard has made more starts.

Nevertheless, we do have a few surprises hanging around at or near the top of various leaderboards. I’d like to take a moment to highlight a few before they disappear. These (mostly) aren’t surprising rookies; rather, they’re players you’ve probably heard of, but might have forgotten about in the past few years while they sorted some stuff out.

Ben Lively, Cleveland Guardians: 21 2/3 IP, 2.08 ERA, 2.96 FIP, 24 SO, 6 BB

The idea for this article bubbled up a couple days ago when I was paging through the Guardians’ depth chart and saw that their best starting pitcher so far this season was someone named Ben Lively 라이블리. “Oh, that’s odd,” I thought to myself. “Surely this isn’t the same guy the Phillies acquired from the Reds the second time they traded away Marlon Byrd almost 10 years ago.” Ben Lively isn’t a very common name.

But no, it’s the same guy, now 32 years old. You know a player’s had a wild ride when our player linker slaps some Korean characters next to the name of a current American-born major leaguer. Lively spent two seasons in the KBO before returning to the team that drafted him; he made it back to the majors last year, where in 88 2/3 innings a decent strikeout-to-walk ratio got swamped by an enormous home run rate. Opponents dingered off Lively on 18.7% of fly balls in 2023, or 2.03 times every nine innings. That’s almost as much as Lance Lynn.

For a pitcher who works in the air as much as Lively does (38.9% fly ball rate last year; 44.4 this year), moving out of Great American Ball Park can only be a good thing. And Lively has thrived since his arrival at the other end of Ohio. His repertoire is a six-pitch smorgasbord, as right-handers who throw 90 mph have to get by through whatever means necessary. But his four-seamer and sinker are playing off each other much better this year; the four-seamer’s added a couple inches of movement in both axes, and he’s shed nearly 140 points of opponent batting average on that pitch. Lively’s strikeout rate is up to 28.6% from 20.6%, and his HR/FB% is back down in the single digits.

It’s only been four starts, so I don’t expect him to continue to be such a perfect Shane Bieber replacement all year. But Lively wasn’t awful last year — homers notwithstanding — and if he can keep the ball in the yard, he ought to remain a useful starter.

Ryan Jeffers, Minnesota Twins, 124 PA, .299/.379/.598, 176 wRC+, 1.7 WAR

The Twins, the team that originally gave us Mitch Garver, love a slugging catcher. But among the 205 big league hitters with at least 100 PA so far this year, Ryan Jeffers is seventh in wRC+. We’ve known for a while that Jeffers — listed at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, with a maximum exit velocity of 117.4 mph last year — can put a charge into the ball.

There were some indications that Jeffers was outperforming his batted ball quality last year already (including a .359 BABIP), and he’s taken an even bigger step forward this year despite not hitting the ball as hard. Jeffers’ EV50 is down from 101.8 mph to 99.0, and his barrel rate and hard-hit rate have taken precipitous dives. Nevertheless, he’s swinging more and making gobs more contact. Jeffers has cut his strikeout rate by more than a third — some 10 percentage points — which takes him from roughly the bottom quartile of the league to the verge of the top quartile. I don’t think this new contact-happy Jeffers is going to remain among the 10 most dangerous hitters in baseball, but after posting 2.3 WAR in 96 games last year, he’s already banked 1.7 WAR in his first 31 games this year.

Simeon Woods Richardson, Minnesota Twins, 20 2/3 IP, 1.74 ERA, 1.84 FIP, 21 SO, 5 BB

Surely you remember Simeon Woods Richardson; he got traded for Marcus Stroman in 2019, then he got traded for José Berríos in 2021. He won a silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics, made his big league debut in October 2022, and from that point through Opening Day this year, he made all of two major league appearances totaling 9 2/3 innings, while posting a 4.91 ERA and a 12.3% walk rate in Triple-A.

But since returning to the majors in mid-April, Woods Richardson — who is still somehow only 23 — has made four starts, allowing no more than two runs in any of them. The most recent was a six-inning, eight-strikeout, one-hit gem against the Mariners on Monday. So if some of the shine had come off of this prospect’s star, it’s time to think about putting it back on.

Woods Richardson’s fastball is averaging 92.9 mph this year — that might not knock your socks off at first glance, but it’s 2.5 mph faster than his heater averaged in either the majors or Triple-A in 2023. He’s also tightened up his slider and added more than four ticks of velocity to that pitch, and is holding hitters to a .172 batting average and a .168 xBA against his primary breaker. If nothing else, maybe the Twins can flip him for another undersized right-handed starting pitcher down the line.

Spencer Turnbull, Philadelphia Phillies, 34 1/3 IP, 1.57 ERA, 3.32 FIP, 36 SO, 11 BB

Spencer Turnbull has been underrated his entire career because he has a history — dating back to his days at the University of Alabama — of delivering good performances for forgettable-to-outright-bad teams. Like, in his first full season in the majors, 2019, he put up a 99 ERA- and an 87 FIP- in 30 starts, which was good for 2.8 WAR in only 148 innings. But because the Tigers went 47-114 that year, nobody paid attention. And even if they had, Turnbull got charged with 17 of those losses, which is not what you want. Then there was the pandemic, and a year lost to Tommy John, and when Turnbull finally did return to the majors last year, he posted a 7.26 ERA in seven starts. Which is just outright bad. Can’t really blame the team for that one.

Then, after close to three years off the radar, Turnbull showed up in Phillies camp as part of a reserve army of Triple-A starting pitching depth. (Alongside Kolby Allard, just for context.) Turnbull started throwing a hellacious new sweeper, and when Taijuan Walker started the season on the IL, Turnbull broke camp in the rotation. He went at least five innings in his first two starts without allowing an earned run, then in start no. 4, he went seven innings and allowed only one hit. And because Phillies fans have high anxiety and short memories about their starting pitchers, he became a cult hero in the span of about three weeks.

Now, Walker’s healthy, and for the moment, the Phillies are in the unusual position of having more good starting pitchers than they can use. Turnbull made his first appearance in his new role as a multi-inning reliever against Toronto on Monday, but the state of the human UCL being what it is, one imagines he’ll get back into the rotation eventually.

There is significant regression risk here; you can see that Turnbull’s FIP is more than twice his ERA, and while some pitchers can reliably post a low BABIP, nobody since the Dead Ball era can reliably post an opponent BABIP of .173. So while his stock is certainly higher now than it’s been since 2019, Turnbull might actually be leaving the rotation at the right time. He’s not going to make the Phillies rip up the last two and a half years of Walker’s contract, but he might be the best no. 6 starter in baseball at the moment.

(All stats current through May 7.)

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