By Will Leitch
Not everything has gone perfect for every team this year, because hey, how could it? Somebody’s got to win and lose every one of these games, after all. But for all the expectations — and all the analysis and prognostication — heading into the season, there are all sorts of things that happen that no one could have seen coming. The surprises are what make it all fun.
And each team has a player who has surpassed even the most optimistic scenarios. Whether it’s a young player who came out of nowhere, a veteran who had struggled but found his stride this year or an up-and-comer who made that big leap forward, somebody has been the pleasant surprise. Here’s every team’s pleasant 2022 surprise.
Blue Jays: Alejandro Kirk, C
Key stat: Has the 4th-lowest strikeout rate among qualified hitters (10.7%)
Last year, the young catcher hit .242 in 60 games and had a best-case scenario of being the young catcher who kept the seat warm for the young backstop the Jays were really excited about. This year, he was a slam-dunk All-Star.
Orioles: Anthony Santander, OF
Key stat: Team-leading 27 homers
You could really go with “the whole team” here, but Santander was indicative of Baltimore’s leaps forward this year: A below-average hitter who became a lineup mainstay this year, is going to end up with 30 homers and might just be one of the young players who sticks around a while.
Rays: Shane McClanahan, LHP
Key stat: Leads all starters with 26.9% K-BB rate
He was a solid pitcher last year — he finished seventh in AL Rookie of the Year voting — but even believers in the Rays’ pitching lab likely didn’t predict he would make a run at a Cy Young this year. Injuries may have cost him that trophy, but for most of the year, he was the favorite.
Red Sox: Michael Wacha, RHP
Key stat: Career-best 2.69 ERA
The 2013 postseason hero had been dropped by the Rays and Mets and looked to be making his last career stop with an organization that badly needed pitching. Now he’s 11-1 with the lowest ERA of his career. 31 is the new 21.
Yankees: Matt Carpenter, UTIL
Key stat: Leads MLB with .471 wOBA (min. 150 PA)
The temptation here is to say “Aaron Judge,” but Carpenter’s emergence as the second best hitter on the team was even more shocking. You’ve seen how much the Yankees have struggled with him gone, and how much they need him back.
Guardians: Andrés Giménez, 2B
Key stat: Ranks 4th among position players in bWAR (6.4)
The centerpiece of the Francisco Lindor trade spent most of last year in Triple-A. But he has tapped into all that potential this year, and his breakout season might just be the primary reason the Guardians could win the AL Central.
Royals: Vinnie Pasquantino, 1B
Key stat: Among top 35 hitters in BB/K rate and hard-hit rate (min. 200 PA)
He’s never spent any time on any top 100 prospects list, but he has kept hitting and hitting and hitting … and it hasn’t stopped since he made it to the Majors. Is he now the Royals’ first baseman for the next decade?
Tigers: Eric Haase, C
Key stat: Tied for 9th among catchers with 115 OPS+
The Tigers haven’t had many positives, surprising or otherwise, this year, but Haase sneakily becoming one of the best-hitting catchers in the Majors is definitely one of them.
Twins: Jose Miranda, 1B
Key stat: Leads AL rookies with 32 RBIs since All-Star break
How long until people start going up to the creator of Hamilton and asking him if he’s related to the awesome hitter for the Twins? Soon, right?
White Sox: Dylan Cease, RHP
Key stat: Allowed only 6 ER over 14-start span from May 29-Aug. 11
There was optimism that Cease could make a step forward this year, but no one saw him as a Cy Young contender this quickly. The White Sox have had all sorts of issues, but starting pitching hasn’t really been one of them, particularly lately.
Angels: Taylor Ward, OF
Key stat: Had MLB-best 206 wRC+ through June 3 (min. 150 PA)
You could also go with “Shohei is better than he was last year” here, but Ward, for the first two months of the season, was matching teammate Mike Trout swing for swing. The fact that Ward, who slumped in the second half, is the answer here, shows you that it has been a tough year for the Angels overall after Ohtani and Trout.
Astros: Justin Verlander, RHP
Key stat: Leads all qualified starters with .227 wOBA and career-best 1.78 ERA
He had pitched one game over the last two seasons. Now he might win his third Cy Young.
Athletics: Sean Murphy, C
Key stat: Leads AL catchers in fWAR (4.7)
He has been a good player before, but he’s never been the best player on his team. That’s exactly what he has been this year, though.
Mariners: Eugenio Suárez, 3B
Key stat: 7th in MLB with 15.1% barrel rate
He was the “other” guy coming over with Jesse Winker in the trade with the Reds last winter. Now he’s one of the best hitters on the team and invaluable during Seattle’s run to the playoffs.
Rangers: Martín Pérez
Key stat: 4th among qualified starters with 0.58 HR/9 rate
The onetime Rangers prospect has returned to Arlington — albeit in a new stadium — and has taken a very circuitous route to fulfilling all the promise they once had for him.
Braves: Michael Harris II, OF
Key stat: 1 of 3 players with .300 AVG, 15 HR, 15 SB (Aaron Judge, Trea Turner)
The Braves were excited about him, but in large part because of his defensive skills. But he has transformed the lineup as well and might just win the NL Rookie of the Year for his troubles.
Marlins: Sandy Alcantara, RHP
Key stat: Has more complete games (4) than any other team
He was already thought of as Miami’s ace, but you didn’t see his name atop very many Cy Young boards heading into the year. Now he’s got a good chance to win this franchise’s first one.
Mets: Edwin Díaz, RHP
Key stat: Leads MLB with 49.3% strikeout rate and 17.18 K/9
Look, Díaz was good last year. He has been good almost his entire career. But c’mon. You didn’t see any trumpets coming into this year. Who thought he was capable of being this?
Nationals: Joey Meneses, 1B
Key stat: .323 AVG leads all rookies with 150+ PA
The career Minor Leaguer finally got a chance to play in the Majors on a daily basis once the Nats traded Juan Soto and Josh Bell, and he has rewarded his team by being its best hitter since.
Phillies: Seranthony Domínguez, RHP
Key stat: 1.57 ERA entering Friday ranked 4th among NL relievers with 40+ IP
He had thrown exactly one inning since 2019. This year — before allowing five runs in two-thirds of an inning on Friday night to raise his ERA to 2.51 — he had given up only eight runs in his first 45 innings and helped improve one of the most famously cursed bullpens in baseball.
Brewers: Rowdy Tellez, 1B
Key stat: 30 HR are career high and rank 7th in NL
The Brewers have been toggling back and forth between first base options for years, but in Tellez, they may have finally found a guy who will stick.
Cardinals: Albert Pujols, DH
Key stat: With 19 HR this season, now ranks 4th all-time with 698
There have been some real surprises in St. Louis this year, from Brendan Donovan to Lars Nootbaar to Andre Pallante. But seeing Pujols suddenly turn into the MVP of 15 years ago has been one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen in sports.
Cubs: Christopher Morel, UTIL
Key stat: 1st Cubs rookie with 10+ HR and SB since Kris Bryant in 2015
Never considered one of the Cubs’ top prospects, he has electrified the team since arriving. He’s one guy you never take your eyes off when he’s on the field.
Pirates: Oneil Cruz, SS
Key stat: 122.4 mph single on Aug. 24 is hardest-hit ball in Statcast era
We all knew he might be good. We didn’t know he was going to break so many Statcast metrics.
Reds: Alexis Díaz, RHP
Key stat: 1 of 8 relievers (along with Edwin) with sub-2 ERA and 75+ K
Yeah, it turns out Edwin has a brother who’s almost as good as he is. Good to know!
D-backs: Daulton Varsho, CF
Key stat: Tied for lead among MLB outfielders with +13 Outs Above Average
He can hit, we suspected that, but who knew how well this former catcher could play the field?
Dodgers: Evan Phillips, RHP
Key stat: 1.30 ERA is 2nd-lowest among relievers with 50+ IP
As if the Dodgers needed anything else, they got a dominant reliever season out of … Evan Phillips. (Tyler Anderson and his 15-3 record with a 2.62 ERA is another acceptable answer here.)
Giants: Alex Cobb, RHP
Key stat: Fastball velocity is up 1.9 mph in 2022 (93.2 mph to 95.1 mph)
The Giants’ signing of the veteran righty has paid off, as Cobb has made 24 starts with a 3.48 ERA and his most strikeouts in a season (133) since 2014.
Padres: Ha-Seong Kim, SS
Key stat: +5 Outs Above Average as shortstop
Not all the surprises in San Diego have been pleasant this year, but learning that Kim can hold down shortstop for a whole year was definitely one they very much needed.
Rockies: Daniel Bard, RHP
Key stat: Career-high 30 saves tied for 4th in NL
Question the contract extension if you want, but no team in baseball wants to face Bard in the ninth inning right now.