The answers to questions regarding the top five surprising teams in the early going on the season:
Q: What is fueling the Tigers’ first-place run in the American League Central?
A: Pitching and defense. “This is about throwing the ball over the plate and catching it,’’ Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said to the Detroit Free Press. “But we can’t get too high on this stuff. There’s a long way to go.’’ The Tigers get a big test starting tonight when they play Cleveland in a series they’ll go up against pitchers Corey Kluber, Shane Bieber and Trevor Bauer. Former National Jordan Zimmermann is healthy for a change and he’s turned into the Zimmermann of old with a 0.66 ERA in his first two starts. Tyson Ross is also making a comeback with early success in the rotation and their third-best starter is Matt Boyd.
Q: Are the Mariners for real?
A: Their bats appear to be, but never count on run production to carry a team through an entire season of contending. Through their first 12 games, the Mariners lead the AL with 98 runs, 32 home runs and a team .287 average, 22 points higher than the second-place Yankees. Jay Bruce, acquired from the Mets in a trade, has six home runs, Daniel Vogelbach five, and Tim Beckham, Domingo Santana and Edwin Encarnación four each. The pitching staff, though, has a 3.93 ERA and ranks ninth in the league. Four of the five starters - Mike Leake, Félix Hernández, Wade LeBlanc, and Marco Gonzales - each have allowed more hits than innings pitched. Chances are good the Mariners will fall back.
Q: What is going on with the Rays?
A: As usual, the Rays are getting pitching. With 90 wins last season, they were an after-thought because the Red Sox won 108 games and the Yankees 100. But this year, given the struggles of the Red Sox and Yankees, the Rays could be serious postseason contenders, thanks to their pitching. Blake Snell, the lefty who won the 2018 AL Cy Young Award, has 27 strikeouts in his first 19 innings. Tyler Glasnow, acquired in a trade from Pittsburgh, has a 0.87 ERA and former Astro Charlie Morton is at 1.64.
Q: How about the Diamondbacks?
A: The Diamondbacks have had a ton of injuries, but thanks to former Oriole Adam Jones, they have the third-best OPS, at .859, in the National League. It’s a story because Jones had trouble finding a team, signed late with the Diamondbacks and had just 15 spring-training at-bats. But he’s hitting .364 with four home runs and his defense has been strong in right field. The strong offense is significant because Arizona traded first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and lost A.J. Pollock to the Dodgers in free agency. Also, outfielder Steven Souza, Jake Lamb - Goldschmidt’s replacement at first base - and catcher Alex Avila are each on the injured list.
Q: What’s Manny Machado doing with the Padres? Is he the reason for their good start?
A: The signing of Machado has lifted the spirits of Padres fans, and while he’s made some strong defensive plays, his bat has yet to heat up. He’s hitting .256 with two home runs and a .370 on-base percentage. Eric Hosmer, the first baseman and another free agent signing from the previous season, is at .244 with one home rung going into Tuesday. The rebuilding Padres rank 10th in run production, but their young pitching - led by Joey Lucchesi, Chris Paddock and Nick Margevicius - has been outstanding. The Padres have the third-lowest ERA (3.40) in the NL, but the team pitching leaders in the league are a surprise too. The Pirates have the best ERA in the NL (2.93) followed by the Giants (3.35). The Reds are fourth at 3.68.