As we roll on into the second full month of baseball season as small sample sizes turn into substantial numbers that we can rely on, new names start to emerge as 2018's breakout stars. Everyone knows about the elite players, such as Bryce Harper, Craig Kimbrel and Mike Trout, but often forgotten are the lesser known players who emerge as difference makers for their teams.
Here, we'll take a look at a player at each position who is in the midst of a surprising season and deserves more recognition for their accomplishments thus far. We'll also look at if the numbers indicate if their early success is sustainable or they will fade off later into the season. We'll start off this series by looking at the player who as of now is the best catcher in baseball statistically.
C -Francisco Cervelli, Pittsburgh Pirates
2018 Statistics: .305/.414/.571, .416 wOBA, 167 wRC+, 168 OPS+, 1.8 fWAR
When the Pittsburgh Pirates entered the season, many expected the team's lineup to reflect a transition. The trade of Andrew McCutchen left only a few veterans in Pittsburgh's lineup and even with potential growth from Gregory Polanco and the continued success of Starling Marte, this lineup wouldn't be good enough to contend in the National League.
We've already highlighted the incredible transformation and success of outfielder Corey Dickerson, but Pittsburgh's greatest star this year is Cervelli. The 32-year-old catcher came into the season with a combined .257/.362/.343 slash line, 96 wRC+ and ,317 wOBA across 697 plate appearances between the 2016 and '17 seasons. While he be the team's every day catcher in 2018, mostly because his defense did the heavy lifting behind his 1.0 fWAR last season.
Instead, Cervelli's came through with an age-32 breakout season that has made him the best catcher in baseball this season. Whether you look operate off FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement (1.8), wRC+ (167), wOBA (.416) or Baseball Reference's adjusted OPS (168 OPS+), Cervelli is the gold standard for catcher play this season. His excellence this year does not stop short at the plate, it carries over defensively, where he leads all qualified catchers in Defensive Rating (3.2).
So what changed for Cervelli this season? In terms of his approach at the plate, his strikeout rate (18.8 percent) is near his career mark (18.4 percent) and he is drawing walks at a slightly improved rate this season (12.5 percent) compared to a career 10.1 walk rate. Another area we tend to look towards is batting average on balls in play and while Cervelli's .338 BABIP in 2018 is a bit higher than his .311 BABIP last season, it's right in line with his career .335 BABIP across nearly 600 games in the majors.
There are several dramatic changes we've seen from Cervelli this season. First, the 32-year-old's average exit velocity shot up dramatically from last season to now. In 2017, Cervelli's average exit velocity sat at 87 miles per hour, this season it's nearly five miles per hour faster with a 91.8 avg. EV, according to Baseball Savant. Furthermore, Cervelli's 41 hard-hit balls this season in 128 plate appearances are already approaching his total hard-hit balls (64) from last year, while his hard-hit rate is up from 31.8 percent in 2017 to 49.4 percent this season. After he registered a Brls/PA just three percent of the time last season, that number now sits at 8.6 percent in 2018, according to Baseball Savant.
The numbers are stunning and when you combine them with other changes, it greatly explains the jump in power. From Cervelli's jump in isolated power from .086 between 2016-'17 along with his 25.4 percent fly ball rate and 5.2 percent HR/FB rate to a .267 ISO, 49.4 percent fly ball rate and 14.6 percent HR/FB rate this year. It all ties in with the most radical jump, Cervelli's launch angle skyrocketed 6.3 degrees in 2017 to 19.2 percent this season. The spread of hitters seeking to improve their launch angle carried over to Cervelli and the change has been nothing but positive for the veteran.
Tracing back the roots of this dramatic change can be found in spring training. After dealing with numerous injuries, including a broken hamate bone in 2016 and a wrist injury last year, Cervelli changed his dietary habits, training routine and sought to improve his overall health. More than a year removed from the broken hamate bone, which are known to diminish power for months even upon the player's return and after an injury-marred '17 season, Cervelli used the offseason to shorten his swing and take a quicker, more direct path to the ball. With the change, improved health and by joining the launch angle revolution, Cervelli is hitting the ball harder, further and better than ever before.
Perhaps there will be some regression, but Cervelli's .615 expected SLG and .434 expected wOBA, are greater indicators that much of his success will only continue if he continues to drive the ball with the same launch angle and maintains an exit velocity of 90-plus MPH. If these numbers hold, paired with his work behind the plate, Cervelli should be the starting catcher in the All-Star Game and make his case for a Silver Slugger award.