Are They For Real? Clubs off to Better Than Expected Starts

What teams have managed to exceed expectations in the 2024 season?

Last week, our own Pablo Figueroa covered a handful of struggling teams that have failed to live up to their preseason hype during the first month of the season. This time, we’re flipping the script and giving praise to the teams that have taken off running and exceeded expectations in the early goings of 2024. Winning in baseball is hard, but sustaining a winning season is much, much harder. So, let’s dive into a few early-season standouts in the standings and discuss whether these teams are contenders that we might see come October, or pretenders that will be watching from the sidelines with the rest of us.


Milwaukee Brewers – 20-14 record – 53.5% playoff odds


Coming into the 2024 season, many viewed this as a “transition” year for the Brew Crew following the sudden departure of longtime manager Craig Counsell to the Chicago Cubs and the trading of staff ace Corbin Burnes to the Baltimore Orioles. Coupled with the loss of Brandon Woodruff for the season due to injury, the Brewers looked to be facing an uphill battle, even in an underwhelming NL Central, with a PECOTA projection of 79 wins for the season.

So, what do you do when faced with a depleted pitching staff and a new manager? Well, as the saying goes, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. The Brewers currently rank fifth in team OPS this season, only behind powerhouse squads such as the Dodgers and the Orioles. Perhaps the most surprising part is that they’ve done it all with some of their key players either hurt or underperforming for a good chunk of the young season. Christian Yelich has missed a few weeks with a lower back strain but should return this week and boost the offense even higher. The Brewers also bought into top prospect Jackson Chourio for the long haul by inking him to an 8-year, $82-million contract before the season began. Though he started hot, Chourio has yet to fully adjust to big-league hitting, with a .619 OPS in just over 100 at-bats.

While these players have underperformed, the rest of the Brewers lineup has picked up the slack to keep them atop the NL Central alongside the Chicago Cubs. William Contreras has been the team’s best hitter and is one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball, trailing only Salvador Perez and his brother Willson in OPS at the position. Willy Adames is off to a strong start, with his .791 OPS being a marked improvement over years past. Rhys Hoskins has also proved to be a value signing for Milwaukee and provided strong power numbers, while Brice Turang is running rampant on the basepaths – his 14 steals are tied for second in the league.

It’s a ragtag group of hitters, but sometimes that’s what works best for small-market teams like Milwaukee. Though the pitching hasn’t been what we’re used to seeing in years past from this team – their 3.99 ERA and 1.30 WHIP are both middling marks – this team keeps finding ways to win and will at least improve the bullpen when Devin Williams returns from injury later this year. Milwaukee’s Pythagorean Winning Percentage gives them 19 wins to this point of the season, showing they aren’t just getting lucky with their victories, either. Based on early season returns, the race for the NL Central crown should be one of the best competitions in 2024, but the Brewers could sneak in via the Wild Card even if they don’t come out on top.


Cleveland Guardians – 23-12 record – 50.6% playoff odds


The Minnesota Twins might be the hottest team in baseball, but it’s the Cleveland Guardians that currently sit atop the AL Central at 11 games above .500 with a +44 run differential, the fifth-best mark in the majors. Though this division was seen as firmly “up for grabs” in the preseason with no clear standout team, Cleveland is vastly outperforming its projected 83 wins by starting on a 106-win pace through the first month-plus of the season.

Much like the Brewers, the Guardians are a team used to earning wins through its rotation and bullpen rather than an overpowering offense. Unlike Milwaukee, however, Cleveland’s need for offensive production to overcome pitching depth woes came as a surprise when staff ace Shane Bieber was unexpectedly lost for the season. Many criticized the combination of the Guardians’ lack of aggression in signing free agents and an unwillingness to trade Bieber or star closer Emmanuel Clase in the offseason, but the lineup has stepped up to the plate and delivered in a big way thus far to keep them in the playoff hunt.

At face value, Cleveland’s offensive stats don’t jump off the page – they’re 13th in team OPS and 12th in hits so far but have scored the sixth-most runs, thanks largely to good situational hitting. With runners in scoring position, the Guardians jump from 13th to fifth in team OPS, meaning they’re delivering their biggest hits when it matters most. Josh Naylor has been a key contributor for this offense from the cleanup spot, leading all first basemen in the MLB with an .897 OPS and 26 RBI. Steven Kwan has also been one of the best leadoff men in the league with a fantastic .353 average and 28 runs scored, but is currently on the mend for at least four weeks with a hamstring injury.

There’s no doubt that the Guardians have impressed this season, and their Pythagorean record backs this up, with 22 projected wins, just below their actual total. What remains to be seen is if they’ll be able to continue this hot streak without one of their best bats and arms and if they’ll be willing to be aggressive in adding assets should they continue to trend up. The schedule for the Guardians is relatively soft over the next several weeks, meaning they have the potential to continue this early-season surge and push for a division title or Wild Card spot in the highly competitive American League.


Kansas City Royals – 21-15 record – 23.7% playoff odds


Speaking of hot AL Central teams, next we have the Kansas City Royals, who many predicted would outperform their projected win total of 70 for the season. So far, the Royals have exceeded even those optimistic expectations, thanks in large part to the dynamic Bobby Witt Jr. and a surprisingly effective staff led by Cole Ragans and free-agent signing Seth Lugo. The Royals are the first team on this list to be underperforming based on their Pythagorean record, with a +45 run differential indicating 23 expected wins at this point of the season.

The big question for the Royals at this point is whether or not they can sustain the level of production long enough to make a meaningful run at the playoffs. In some cases, such as the aforementioned Lugo, it seems that some regression is due. Lugo’s 1.60 ERA is second among all qualified pitchers, but an underlying 4.16 xERA suggests that Lugo may be the beneficiary of some good fortune and great defense thus far. That’s not to say that Lugo can’t still be an effective pitcher – he’s proven to be a solid starter across his career – but he’ll need to improve his 17.6% strikeout rate to prevent the BABIP gods from coming back with a vengeance.

Another player that’s been key to the Royals’ success is veteran Salvador Perez, who drank from the fountain of youth and is enjoying a career year in his 13th major league season. Unlike his battery mate, however, many underlying metrics support Salvy’s success, with an xBA of .302 and xSLG of .634. Perez is also showing his best plate discipline ever in 2024, sporting the best K% and BB% marks of his illustrious career.

As a team, the Royals are impressing in 2024 but still have room to grow, especially on the offensive side of the ball. A .692 team OPS likely won’t be enough to push for the playoffs when the pitching staff inevitably faces some hiccups, and Bobby Witt Jr. can only do so much to keep the lineup moving. Still, the Royals have shown promise and a willingness to be aggressive in making moves to compete, as evidenced by their offseason signings to bolster the rotation. They’ll likely need to place second or better in their division to claim a playoff spot, as there’s only so much room for error in 2024’s AL.


Oakland Athletics – 17-19 record – 2.1% playoff odds


Okay, yeah, as I’m typing up this article, the Athletics are currently down 15-2 in the fifth inning to the Texas Rangers and will be sporting a 17-20 record by the time this article goes up. Still, I was shocked to see this team at a respectable two games below .500 at this point of the season, especially when considering their 65 projected season win total. Over the past several weeks, the Athletics have series wins against teams such as the Tigers, Rangers, and Orioles, as well as a four-game split with the Yankees. Even more impressive is that all of these series wins have come on the road, a feat even the league’s best would happily take.

So, what’s been going well for Oakland in their (relatively) hot start? One group that has helped this team is the pitching staff, especially the bullpen, led by standout closer Mason Miller. Oakland’s relievers sport a 3.26 ERA, good for seventh best in the majors. As a complete staff, only four teams have allowed fewer home runs than the Athletics this year, a statistic they were among the league’s worst in for 2023. The lineup has also heated up at the plate in the past few weeks, with veterans such as Brent Rooker and Abraham Toro supplying solid production.

Overall, the playoff hopes for Oakland still look grim, but there are at least things to be excited about for fans of this historic franchise. In a season plagued by off-the-field storylines and distractions, it’s great to see the players in Oakland giving the fans something to root for. Here’s hoping the Athletics can continue on this upward trajectory and get back into playoff contention soon. Baseball is better with the A’s in the hunt.


Featured Image by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Christian Otteman

Christian Otteman is a hopelessly optimistic Cubs fan living in Milwaukee just looking to share his love of this beautiful game with others. He is especially a fan of the wild and weird things that only a game like baseball can produce. While he's not watching baseball, Christian is playing golf, hosting trivia, and working on his Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Marquette University.

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