5 MLB stats we believe in: Early 2017 numbers that can be sustained

The one-quarter mark of the season, by now reached by a majority of clubs, traditionally serves as the first true barometer of team and individual performance.

No longer is the “small sample’’ caveat applied to every surprise development, but that doesn’t mean all we’ve seen so far has staying power. We don’t really expect Edwin Encarnacion to hit .203 any more than we think Xander Bogaerts will go the whole season without a home run, do we?

To separate reality from mirage, we hereby present our Five Stats We Believe In after 40-plus games for most teams.

The Astros’ .707 winning percentage

Not to say Houston will continue winning seven out of every 10 games, but it wasn’t far-fetched before the season to envision the Astros as one of the game’s powerhouses. Heck, Sports Illustrated saw that coming three years ago, predicting Houston would win this year’s World Series.

The Astros have assembled an enviable core of 27-and-under everyday players with the likes of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer and Alex Bregman, but what has really spearheaded their majors-best record is the return to form – and health – of starters Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers.

They have gone a combined 11-1 with a 1.45 ERA to set the pace for a rotation that leads the majors in wins (20) and ranks third in ERA (3.49).

And as opposed to two years ago, when the all-or-nothing Houston offense relied heavily on the home run, the club now has a balanced attack that’s better suited to withstand slumps.

Bryce Harper’s 1.202 OPS

That $21.65 million contract the Washington Nationals granted their young superstar for next season is a hedge on Harper having another monster year like in 2015 and costing them more than $25 million in his final year of arbitration before free agency.

The investment looks awfully smart right now, when Harper is putting to shame some of the numbers that won him NL MVP honors two years ago, let alone those of his subpar 2016. Harper’s eye-opening OPS – which remarkably ranks only second to Freddie Freeman’s 1.209 among all big league hitters – comes accompanied by a .479 on-base percentage. In other words, he’s getting on base nearly once every two plate appearances.

The shoulder injury Harper may have endured last season – he never confirmed it – seems to be a thing of the past. He’s also surrounded by a stronger lineup thanks to the revival of Ryan Zimmerman, although the loss of A.J. Pollock for the season stings.

Besides reducing his strikeouts to a career-low 16.6% percent, Harper is going to the opposite field more frequently than at any point since his rookie season, better than 30% of the time. That’s a powerful combination capable of keeping his OPS in the stratosphere.

Four under .500 

The NL East loomed as a two-team race between the Nationals and the New York Mets this season, with the other three teams scrambling to win more than they lost.

Now it looks like a runaway for Washington, with no serious competition. No other team in the division is within five games of the break-even mark.

The Mets are broken down, with key pitchers Noah Syndergaard and Jeurys Familia out for months, not just weeks. The Atlanta Braves are putting the pieces back together after a tear-down, and discovering betting on starting pitchers in their 40s is not a wise strategy. The Philadelphia Phillies have the majors’ second-worst ERA (4.92), one notch ahead of the Mets. And the Miami Marlins, still reeling from the Jose Fernandez tragedy, rank in the league’s bottom four in runs scored and ERA.

The Nationals might as well start printing those playoff tickets now.

Miguel Sano’s 101.8 mph average exit velocity

Admittedly this is bit of an esoteric number, based on Statcast data the majority of the fans don’t quite grasp yet. Anybody who follows baseball knows throwing 100 mph is a big deal. Well, reaching triple digits in batted balls is pretty significant too. Only four players are currently at the level – Aaron Judge, Khris Davis and Joey Gallo are the others – and Sano tops them all.

What’s most impressive about the Minnesota Twins slugger is his ability to square up balls consistently despite striking out about once every three plate appearances. The 6-4, 260-plus-pound Sano has achieved an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher in 65% of the balls he has hit, currently the highest figure in the majors, followed by Miguel Cabrera, Davis and Gallo.

Always a pretty selective hitter for a young slugger, Sano has been chasing outside the strike zone less and walking more than in his first two seasons, reasons to believe he can continue to clobber balls on a regular basis.

Alex Gordon’s .489 OPS

The three-time All-Star has been at the heart of the Kansas City Royals’ offensive woes this season, one of the main culprits in the club ranking last in the majors in runs scored and next-to-last in OPS.

Gordon’s dismal 2016 season – a .220 batting average and .692 OPS – has been followed by an even worse first six weeks this year. His .168 batting average and sickly OPS lend credence to the notion his career descent has begun even though he’s just 33. Gordon missed more than a month with a broken hand in 2016, but seems to be healthy this season. Most troubling is that in both years he has struggled to hit fastballs after mashing them during his heyday.

Gordon, who’s under contract for two more seasons after this one, showed signs of coming alive at the plate with three singles in six at-bats in the series against the New York Yankees before getting Thursday off. He’ll need to do a lot more than that to make up for lost time.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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