Brent Rooker, Mitch Keller highlight 2023’s most surprising MLB breakouts

The 2023 MLB season has been full of surprises, including some unexpected names making a big impact at the major league level.

Let’s take a look at five surprising names who have made a strong impact for their respective MLB teams this season.

Alex Verdugo, outfielder, Boston Red Sox

After losing Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez, it was clear the Red Sox needed more than just Rafael Devers to step up if they desired an elite lineup this season. Alex Verdugo has been that guy for Boston, stepping up in the clutch and already delivering three walk-off hits so far in 2023. Overall, Verudgo has been a consistent leadoff bat for Boston, posting a .299 average with five homers already this season. This five homer run mark has Verdugo on pace for a career-high in this department, potentially surpassing his career high of 13 which he eclipsed in 2021. Boston’s outfield has been full of pleasant surprises this season, with Masataka Yoshida and Adam Duvall also flourishing in their new home of Fenway Park.

Yennier Cano, relief pitcher, Baltimore Orioles

While Baltimore may not have the flashiest lineup, there’s no denying the pitching as a whole has been excellent so far this season. An unsung hero of this pitching staff is 29-year-old Cuban reliever Yennier Cano, who is undeniably the best reliever in baseball right now. Over 19.2 innings, the rookie hasn’t allowed a single earned while striking out 22 batters. Don’t look now, but the bullpen combo of Cano and Felix Bautista might just be the strongest setup-closer duo in the game. This lights out Orioles bullpen will play a key role in their playoff run down the stretch this season.

Jarred Kelenic, outfielder, Seattle Mariners

Isn’t it crazy that Kelenic is still just 23 years old? After a highly anticipated call-up with Seattle in 2021, Kelenic hit 14 home runs but failed to establish any sort of consistency, posting a poor .181 batting average. Now in his third MLB season, Kelenic is finally establishing hard barrel contact at the plate, boosting his average up to .287, already mashing eight homers. Kelenic has seen rises in exit velocity (+6.2 jump from last season) and hard hit rate (19.8% rise from last season), earning him strong offensive numbers and metrics so far this season. Kelenic is the age old example of how mistaken we are when writing off prospects at such a young age. A former first-round pick and number one overall prospect, the tools and talent were always present with Kelenic. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; it was only a matter of time before the young outfielder put it all together.

Brent Rooker, outfielder, Oakland Athletics

Who is Brent Rooker? You probably remember him as a solid rookie for the Twins, who quickly fell off after his rookie season. Now on his fourth team, the 28 year old is finally breaking out in Oakland of all places. Rooker is currently MLB’s leader in OPS (1.070), while also being tied for fourth in homers (11). With the A’s clearly still rebuilding, Rooker will be an intriguing piece at this year’s trade deadline. But there are still many questions to be answered when breaking down Rooker’s potential market. For starters, can he sustain these incredible numbers until late July? What would a potential package look for the left fielder, who currently has several years left of team control on his current contract? Based on his current trajectory, it seems almost imminent that Rooker will be a marquee name at this year’s deadline.

Mitch Keller, starting pitcher, Pittsburgh Pirates

Did someone say ace? Keller has emerged as the clear leader of this Pittsburgh starting staff, catching absolute fire in the month of May. In three starts, Keller has posted a 0.43 ERA with 29 strikeouts over 21 innings. It’s a very encouraging sign for Pirates fans, who were originally very disappointed with Keller. When called up to the majors in 2021, Keller was highest rated pitching prospect to debut on the squad since second overall pick Gerrit Cole. Keller struggled mightily in his first two seasons, excluding the month of September in 2022 where he posted a 1.80 ERA over five starts. The now 27-year-old is looking like a viable ace for this team for years to come, serving a pivotal piece for Pittsburgh’s potential Wild Card run this season.