Many players off to better-than-expected starts

Many players off to better-than-expected starts

Many players off to better-than-expected starts
If there are Major League players who are surprised by their own success, they're few and far between.

"Am I a surprise?" asked Indians third baseman Jack Hannahan, who six weeks into the 2012 season has a .287/.365/.436 line. "I'm not surprised at myself. I've been known as a defensive third baseman. I know I can hit, and I'm showing that now. I showed it last year and I showed it the first year when I got into the big leagues."

Success -- at least over any worthwhile sample size -- is always rooted in something. Maybe past productivity is being given room for duplication via increased playing time. There's always health. In the case of Hannahan, it was something mechanical: using a heavier bat at one point led him to a better understanding of how to get his hands into the hitting position.

Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that there are few accidents. But this isn't so much about the how and why, though, as the who: The players who, a month and a half into the 2012 season, may seem to have come out of nowhere, or back from the dead, to exceed expectations. They are the pleasant surprises, the names one either never looked for or stopped looking for some time ago.

Red Sox shortstop Mike Aviles knows some fans might look at the box score and wonder, "Who's that guy?"

"Yeah, that's understandable," Aviles said. "When you got a team like the Red Sox with the payroll that they possess, usually they're known for free-agent signings. When there's a shortstop available, you know [fans probably assume] 'We'll go get this [guy], go get that guy,' not let that [unknown] guy try."

Aviles, whom the Red Sox traded for last season before dealing incumbent Marco Scutaro in the winter, is tied for the second-most home runs in the Majors for a shortstop, with five.

Entering Wednesday, rookie Tigers left-hander Drew Smyly, 22, was fourth in the American League in ERA, at 2.31. Baltimore's Jason Hammel, who is in his seventh season and has never finished with an ERA below 4.33, is at 2.68 ERA. Hammel's teammate Wei-Yin Chen, a rookie pitcher from overseas not named (or paid like) Yu Darvish, has a 2.45 ERA -- good for fifth in the AL.

One could look at Lance Lynn as Smyly's National League counterpart. Both are young guys who were drafted high (Lynn in the supplemental first round, Smyly in the second round) who were expected to be contributors, but not at this level so quickly. Lynn, 25, is third in the NL with a 1.81 ERA and was the Majors' first six-game winner this season.

Lynn's durability was questioned earlier in his pro career, and he was once sent home from instructional league.

"He was complaining about aches and pains and such," said bullpen coach Dyar Miller, who was previously the Cards' Minor League pitching coordinator. "Actually, I was a little concerned about [his] durability."

Bryan LaHair of the Cubs hit 38 home runs in the Minors in 2011, and at age 29, was finally given a full-time shot by Chicago's new front office this season. He's responded with 10 homers (third best in the NL) and a .352 average (fourth in the NL). Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs' top first-base prospect, was better known nationally entering the year than LaHair was.

Brandon Beachy, the NL's leader in ERA at 1.60, went undrafted.

"The one thing we saw in the Minor Leagues when we made him a starter at the Double-A level was the outstanding command of his fastball," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "As a young pitcher last year in the big leagues, that left him for a little while. We were hoping he could get that back. I think his command is getting closer to what it was in the Minor Leagues. He's settling down."

It's not just the new guys on the scene who have been pleasant surprises.

In the NL, Ryan Dempster, a quality pitcher for a long time but never regarded as an ace, is second in the big leagues with a 1.74 ERA.

A.J. Ellis of the Dodgers leads all Major League catchers with a .455 on-base percentage. He's long been a high on-base guy in the Minors, but he's now 31. Unless one studied Triple-A numbers or paid close attention to the time Ellis had previously received in the Majors, he's in the midst of a breakout.

It was assumed by most observers that Barry Zito's and Jake Peavy's best days were behind them. It hadn't been just one off year for both former Cy Young Award winners, and at some point players seem less likely to bounce back.

Now, a decade after Zito won the 2002 AL Cy Young Award and last finished a season with an ERA below 3.00, he's at 2.53 in San Francisco. And it's been four years since Peavy, who has a 2.65 ERA, was, well, Peavy.

"The one start against us, and in the starts I've seen him do, he's pitching a lot more than throwing -- like he used to back in the day," said Aviles, a former AL Central opponent whose Red Sox managed to give Peavy (4-1) his only loss in a complete-game effort in April. "Back in the day, he used to throw 95, 97, and sometimes the margin of error is a lot smaller. Whereas [now] he's throwing 90, 92, and he's spotting up, in, out. He has a different style."

Third baseman Kyle Seager's gotten a lot of attention in Seattle. He's gone cold just the past few days, with two hits in his past 16 at-bats, but is still hitting .275.

Seager may be a surprise for some, but he's not for the Mariners' brass.

"You never know how players are going to respond when they get called to the big leagues," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "[Kyle] came into Spring Training, and [when] given the opportunity, he produced. So I don't look at is a victory, I look at it is a good Draft [pick]."

Evan Drellich is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @EvanDrellich. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.