Can Padres’ Jackson Merrill and these 5 surprising stars stay hot?

Padres Jackson Merrill leads a list of five hitters looking to prove their impressive 2024 start isn’t a fluke.

Padres Jackson Merrill swinging a bat next to Orioles Jordan Westburg

Every offseason in MLB, the game’s brightest minds spend nearly six months building their perfect projections for the coming year. Then every April, a select group of players comes along to bust those projections into smithereens. Padres rising star Jackson Merrill has been a clear example.

The hot April start is one of the great mysteries of the sport. Because the season is so long, and the nature of hitting is such a roller coaster, we rarely can tell a true breakout from a lucky stretch bound for regression. But that’s exactly what we’re going to try to do today.

Below are five hitters having awesome months of April, all of whom are giving us reason to believe they might be on their way to stardom. We’ll look at their results, past and present, to determine if what looks like a 2024 breakout season on the surface is destined to continue.

Jackson Merrill, Padres

Watching Jackson Merrill put up a stellar April in his rookie campaign has to be the freshest breath of air Padres fans could have asked for. After an offseason of shedding payroll amid an uncertain future, center field looked like a black hole for the team, until A.J. Preller and Mike Shildt decided their top shortstop prospect could go ahead and switch positions at the age of 20. Now, they just have to hope that the groin tightness he’s feeling as of Thursday is only a one-day absence.

And not only has Jackson Merrill more than held his own at his new position defensively, but he’s looked advanced beyond his years at the plate. Merrill makes contact, and hard contact at that, much more frequently than the average major league hitter.

With a .318 batting average and .787 OPS, Merrill is giving San Diego everything it could ask for from a center fielder at the plate and it’s clear his ceiling is a lot higher.

It’s obvious Jackson Merrill’s floor is a very productive big league hitter, but the early success he’s having seems to point to much bigger things in his future. The power is often one of the last things to develop for a young hitter and even if Merrill isn’t hitting it out of the park, he’s hitting it plenty hard. It’s a bold statement, but it’s possible Jackson Merrill really could be the best Jackson in this year’s rookie class long term.

Josh Naylor, Guardians

Cleveland Guardians designated hitter Josh Naylor (22) celebrates his two-run home run in the fifth inning against the Oakland Athletics at Progressive Field.David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
It almost feels wrong to call what Josh Naylor is doing a “breakout,” because he was downright fantastic in 2023. Naylor had an .842 OPS and 97 RBI in just 121 games in his age 25 season. But it’s clear his production so far has ticked up into another stratosphere and now we have to ask ourselves whether he is, in fact, one of the best hitters in the sport.

And there are a good few reasons to believe that is indeed the case. Naylor’s strikeout percentage has waned, his walk rate is up, he’s barreling the ball more consistently and he’s punishing all pitch types, particularly making improvements against change-ups and splitters.

Entering play Thursday, Naylor’s .927 OPS was 15th in all of baseball and that’s after hitting a few fly balls into the frigid Cleveland air the past few days that may well have been extra base hits elsewhere.

So is Naylor one of the 15 best hitters in all of baseball? The track record might indicate he’s just outside that cut line. But he’s going to be in at least very serious discussion to make his first All-Star bid and if he keeps this production up a while longer, we’ll have no choice but to acknowledge his superstardom.

Jordan Westburg, Orioles

It really feels unfair that the Baltimore Orioles can confidently say they have several better prospects in their system than Jordan Westburg. Because all the 25-year-old former first rounder has done is barrel everything in sight, put up a .941 OPS through 23 games and take home an American League Player of the Week award.

Though he does chase and whiff at rates higher than the Orioles might like, everything else about Westburg’s offensive profile is a big thumbs-up. His hard-hit rate of 58.2% is in the 97th percentile, a truly elite pace to maintain, and he’s proven he can muscle the ball out of the cavernous left field at Camden Yards that torments most right-handed hitters.

The 6-foot-2, 210 pound Westburg also plays more than enough defense to stick at third base long term, which is a spot the Orioles have struggled to stabilize ever since losing Manny Machado. If he makes a run at an All-Star bid and solidifies himself as the starter for the full season, he’ll be a part of a terrifying future in Charm City. And for all intents and purposes, Westburg looks like the real deal.

Brice Turang, Brewers

Of all the remarkable one-year turnarounds happening in baseball, Brice Turang’s might just be the most impressive. With a .585 OPS in 2023, Turang looked like he might not stick in the majors very long. But in 22 games to start the new season, he’s skyrocketed to an .848 OPS and is a huge reason the Milwaukee Brewers are out of the gates in pole position in the NL Central.

Turang doesn’t need to continue on this torrid pace to prove his worth to the Brewers, which is probably a good thing. His expected batting average of .263 is significantly lower than the .320 clip he’s currently on.

But that .263 number would also be a totally acceptable number for a great fielding second baseman at the bottom of the lineup. So the truth probably lies somewhere between a baby step back and full-on regression, but either is an acceptable outcome.

What’s the best case scenario, you ask? Perhaps Turang could be 75% of Luis Arraez’s offensive output and significantly better defense. That’s a borderline All-Star, folks. Still just 24 years old, Turang will get every chance to prove he belongs in the lineup each and every day.

Logan O’Hoppe, Angels

Los Angeles Angels catcher Logan O'Hoppe (14) runs after hitting an RBI double against the Baltimore Orioles during the third inning at Angel Stadium.Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Catchers who hover around an .800 OPS do not grow on trees. And the Los Angeles Angels may well have landed themselves one when they acquired Logan O’Hoppe in 2022 in the deal that sent Noah Syndergaard and Brandon Marsh to Philadelphia, truly one of the most fascinating trades of the last five years in MLB.

With an .839 OPS and 139 OPS+, O’Hoppe has been a top six catcher offensively this season, in a company with the Contreras brothers, Cal Raleigh, Salvador Perez and Will Smith. It’s elite company for a player who still has just 78 games in MLB and based on everything Baseball Savant has to say about his propensity for hard contact, it looks like it’s fully sustainable.

O’Hoppe is the key to the Angels building a fearsome lineup out of the young pieces they currently have in house. Alongside Zach Neto and Nolan Schanuel, O’Hoppe looks to be part of a core that can help Ron Washington and Co. climb out of the purgatory they’ve occupied in the American League playoff picture.

A few more home runs would help solidify O’Hoppe as a well-rounded offensive threat and allow the Angels to pencil him in as their long-term backstop.

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