It’s Time To Take These Three Surprise MLB Teams Seriously

The Red Sox, Pirates, and Nationals have all outperformed expectations this season. As we enter July, it's time these teams start to get the respect they deserve.

Jarren Duran #16 of the Boston Red Sox is doused with water after hitting the game winning RBI against the Toronto Blue Jays during the ninth inning at Fenway Park.
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - JUNE 24: Jarren Duran #16 of the Boston Red Sox is doused with water after hitting the game winning RBI against the Toronto Blue Jays during the ninth inning at Fenway Park on June 24, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images)

At this point of the MLB season, with the All-Star break right around the corner, we are beginning to enter the standings-watching part of the baseball calendar.

The teams that sit toward the top of the standings right now have earned that place, and fans can expect them to stay there for the remainder of the season; we are too far into the summer to chalk teams’ success up to flukey streaks.

To that point, three teams that have outperformed expectations this year and proven their success is at least somewhat sustainable are the Boston Red Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Washington Nationals.

Boston Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox have been one of the biggest surprises in baseball this season, a surprise that began almost straight away; they went 7-3 through their first ten games. And while no one expected the team to be so good, the most surprising aspect of that road trip was that it was the starting pitching that led to Boston’s success.

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While the Red Sox have certainly had their ups and downs since that West Coast road trip to start the year, the team has gotten hot at the right time and finds itself in playoff position.

The pitching staff’s initial breakout was unsustainable, but the starters have remained a strength for the team.

Boston currently ranks 10th in baseball in starter ERA and FIP. Even more impressive, their starters’ xFIP is fourth in baseball. That indicates they have actually been unlucky and can be expected, at the very least, to stay steady as a top-10 staff, if not improve their surface-level numbers.

The reason this production has been so impressive is that starting pitching looked like a weakness for the Red Sox entering the season.

Boston fans had hoped for a big free agent signing, which ultimately never came. Lucas Giolito was the team’s biggest acquisition on a two-year, $38.5 million deal.

Early injuries to Giolito and Garrett Whitlock quickly hampered the staff, but new pitching coach (and cult hero in Boston) Andrew Bailey has gotten the most out of Tanner Houck, who has been the best pitcher in the American League this season; Kutter Crawford; and Cooper Criswell.

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If presumed ace Brayan Bello can somehow turn his season around, this will be a formidable rotation heading into September and possibly October.

What has truly sparked Boston’s most recent surge, though, has been the team’s youth movement. Young players Jarren Duran, Ceddanne Rafaela, David Hamilton, and Wilyer Abreu have brought energy and athleticism to the lineup, creating chaos for opposing defenses.

This athleticism was on full display when the Red Sox stole nine bases against the Yankees a couple of weeks ago on Sunday Night Baseball to win the game and series.

Duran, in particular, has been absolutely phenomenal this season, consistently finding himself among the top 10 in fWAR in the American League. In a lot of ways, this young lineup is similar to that of the Arizona Diamondbacks of last season, and Red Sox fans are hoping that a similar magical run may be in their future.

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates have had an exciting young core developing for the past several seasons, with players like Bryan Reynolds and Ke’Bryan Hayes graduating to the big leagues, signing extensions, and slowly but surely improving the talent on the MLB roster.

This year, the team is starting to truly reap the benefits of the rebuild. After a torrid start last season, an unfortunate injury to cornerstone shortstop Oneil Cruz derailed the rest of the campaign. Yet this year, the Pirates find themselves back in the playoff mix in a wide-open National League Wild Card race.

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With comments from the front office suggesting the team is going to buy at the deadline, there is real optimism in the Steel City.

While the Pirates’ home-grown position players have been producing, the real story for the Black and Gold this season has been the three-headed monster at the top of the rotation: Mitch Keller, Jared Jones, and the recently promoted Paul Skenes. With 3.20, 3.66, and 2.06 ERAs, respectively, the trio has helped the Pirates starting rotation to 6.4 fWAR, which is 12th best in baseball.

With all three performing extremely well and under contract for many years to come, there is no better time for the Pirates to push their chips into the middle of the table and make a playoff push.

What has the Pirates just on the outside looking in on the playoff picture right now has been their anemic offense, which ranks 25th in runs and 27th in wRC+. The team has the fourth highest strikeout rate in baseball at 25.1%.

Reynolds, though, has continued to be a steady producer, leading the team in average, OBP, home runs, and RBI. 

That said, the Pirates would do well to add another bat to pair with Reynolds and Cruz, the latter of whom has been a Statcast darling as usual (even if his surface-level stats are closer to league average). Cruz has really been the only Pirates position player to stand out in terms of Statcast batting metrics this season, as he ranks in the top 4% of MLB in barrel percentage, hard-hit percentage, and exit velocity.

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Still, the pitching has been so good, and shows no signs of slowing down, that even just a couple of deadline acquisitions to bring the offense up to league average could be enough to get the Pirates into the playoffs.

Washington Nationals

The Washington Nationals were believed to be one of the worst teams in MLB entering the 2024 season, but they find themselves way ahead of schedule in terms of their post-World Series rebuild.

Although they sit below .500, they are still in the conversation to earn a Wild Card spot despite playing in an incredibly tough NL East.

The Nationals’ pitching has been absolutely outstanding this season, as they rank sixth in fWAR as a staff. They limit the home run ball extremely well, ranking sixth in HR/9 with a sub-1.00 mark. Even more impressive, their 3.96 ERA is higher than their 3.77 FIP, indicating that their pitchers have actually been throwing the ball even better than their surface-level results would suggest.

Jake Irvin and MacKenzie Gore, in particular, have been outstanding for the Nationals, posting 3.03 and 3.60 ERAs, respectively. Both pitchers boast a FIP below 3.60.

The Nationals have also recently called up exciting pitching prospects DJ Herz and Mitchell Parker, both of whom rocketed through the Nationals system thanks to unbelievable swing-and-miss stuff.

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Washington’s offense, while it has struggled at times, is anchored by a relatively young core that the team can build around moving forward. CJ Abrams, who was part of the return in the Juan Soto trade along with Gore, is blossoming into a superstar at just 23 years old.

Abrams is leading the team in hits, average, extra-base hits, home runs, slugging, and fWAR. His breakout is speeding up the timeline for the Nationals to return to contention, and that can only mean good things for the organization.

His running mate up the middle, Luis Garcia Jr., has also been impressive at just 24 years old. The two figure to make up the middle infield in Washington for a long time to come.

Similar to the Red Sox, the Nationals have been able to take advantage of youth, athleticism, and the new rules to play a fun brand of baseball. They have six players with double-digit steals already this season, and the havoc they’re wreaking on the basepaths has helped them create runs, which has been particularly important as the team lacks power at times.

With Abrams, Garcia, fellow 24-year-old Jacob Young, 28-year-old Lane Thomas, and the recently promoted 21-year-old James Wood, the youth movement is in full swing in Washington, and this team will only continue to improve moving forward.