What has helped make the Mariners’ offense the third-most productive in the American League is the production from unexpected contributors.
TORONTO — In a quick glance at the Mariners’ season stats, the production numbers of Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz are easy to pick out. The two former All-Stars are doing what they are supposed to be doing at the plate — putting up numbers from their middle of the order spots.
But what has helped make the Mariners’ offense the third-most productive in the American League at 4.89 runs per game and second in runs scored (181) is the production from unexpected contributors, particularly their young corner outfielders. Before he suffered a strained oblique, outfielder Mitch Haniger was leading the Mariners in most offensive categories, and his numbers are still impressive: .342 batting average, 1.054 on-base plus slugging percentage, seven doubles, a triple, four homers and 16 RBI in just 21 games.
But he isn’t alone, Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel, who were both acquired last season, are also providing early production that probably wasn’t anticipated coming into the season.
Heredia, who missed two years of organized baseball as part of his defection from Cuba, had a nice season in 2016 in his first year in the U.S. He was expected to be a fourth outfielder in a possible platoon role this season. But swing changes in the offseason and the demotion of Leonys Martin have allowed Heredia to take over as the everyday left fielder. He’s hitting .310 with a .789 OPS, three doubles, two homers and six RBI in 23 games.
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Gamel was acquired from the Yankees on Aug. 31 for two minor-league pitchers. Even though he would be named the International League Most Valuable Player for his solid season with Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre — .302 batting average, 26 doubles, five triples, six homers, 51 RBI, 19 stolen bases — Gamel didn’t seem to have a place in New York’s immediate plans.
He lost the battle for the fourth outfield spot with Heredia in spring training but was recalled when Haniger was injured and has flourished in right field. He’s hitting .328 with a .952 OPS, five doubles, two homers and 11 RBI in just 15 games.
Here are five other players having even better, but somewhat unexpected strong starts to 2017:
Aaron Judge, OF, Yankees
The enormous outfielder with enormous power is a reason why Gamel was expendable. The Yankees believed Judge had power potential, but he struggled in his September call-up last year. In 27 games, he hit .179 with a .608 OPS, two doubles, four homers and 10 RBI. The 42 strikeouts in 95 plate appearances were alarming.
He hasn’t had those problems this season. He’s cut down on his swings and misses and made more solid contact, which has led to ridiculous power production. In 31 games, Judge is hitting .315 with a 1.150 OPS, four doubles, two triples, 13 homers (most in the AL) and 29 RBI.
A power-hitting youngster playing for the Yankees? Judge may force the people that started working on the Hall of Fame plaque for teammate Gary Sanchez last year to postpone it and start working on one for him.
Eric Thames, 1B, Brewers
Much has already been written about Thames’ magical start to the 2017 season. A washout in the big leagues in 2012 and following a 2013 season spent mostly in the minor leagues, Thames migrated to Korea in search of a decent paycheck. Facing pitchers who threw an assortment of breaking pitches, Thames revamped his swing, found an approach and reinvented himself as a player. The Brewers took a chance on him as a low-cost option at $16 million for three years. He’s rewarded them with a .320 batting average, a 1.141 OPS, nine doubles, 13 homers and 25 RBI in 34 games.
Ryan Zimmerman, 1B, Nationals
Shoulder injuries leading to a scattershot throwing arm robbed him of his ability to play third base. It also looked like his hitting was on a frightening downward trend that might make him a bench player. A year ago, he hit .218 with a .642 OPS, 18 doubles, a triple, 15 homers and 46 RBI.
But fully healthy this season, Zimmerman has been one of the most productive hitters in baseball and is helping the Nats run away early with the NL East. In 33 games, Zimmerman is leading the NL or MLB in almost every offensive category, including a .393 batting average, which includes 48 hits, most in baseball, 13 doubles, 13 homers, 34 RBI and a 1.251 OPS.
Miguel Sano, 3B, Twins
He was inconsistent last season, hitting just .236 with a .781 OPS, 22 doubles, 25 homers and 66 RBI. He struck out 178 times in 495 plate appearances. Part of the problem was that the Twins bounced him from position to position trying to keep his bat in the lineup.
This season he’s stayed mostly at third base and he’s grown as a hitter, showing more discipline at the plate. He’s hitting .305 with a 1.128 OPS, six doubles, two triples, 10 homers and 30 RBI to lead a resurgent Twins team. Sano’s on-base percentage of .443 is tops in the AL. He’s drawn 26 walks and struck 43 times in 131 plate appearances.
Joey Gallo, 3B, Rangers
In brief stints in 2015 and 2016, Gallo played in a combined 53 games, hitting .173 with a .649 OPS, three doubles, a triple, seven homers and 15 RBI. In 153 plate appearances, he struck out 76 times. But this season with Adrian Beltre on the disabled list, Gallo was forced to play on a daily basis and he’s responded with some power. Sure he has 54 strikeouts in 136 plate appearances, but he’s also bashed 12 homers and driven in 27 runs, including a walkoff homer on Friday.