Everything matters

(All stats are through Sunday, April 14.)

As always, the early stages of the baseball season lead to some funky numbers for individuals and teams. There are hot starts, cold starts and mediocre starts. Some players are far exceeding expectations, others are struggling to get their WARs into positive territory, and still others have you looking at their stats and saying, “Yep, that looks about right.”

Which of these numbers are significant? All of them, of course. No, they’re not significant in the sense that we can expect to see Chris Davis, John Buck and Dexter Fowler atop the home run leader board at season’s end—though Justin Upton is a good candidate.

Nor will Jake Westbrook maintain a 0.00 ERA all season long while striking out 2.3 batters per nine innings, and Edinson Volquez won’t post an 11.68 ERA for the year while punching out 6.6 men per nine. The Braves aren’t going to win 92 percent of their games, either, even if they finally get some production from B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward (my preseason pick for NL MVP), who are batting a combined .134 thus far.

These numbers have meaning in the sense that they’re in the books, “and can’t nothin’ take that away” from those who compiled them. Many sabermetricians cry “small sample size” and “it’s early,” and they’re right, but that doesn’t mean we can’t tease out some trends in the early going that are at least worth following.

Want some examples? Okay, how about these…

Whiffs galore

The American League’s newest team, the Houston Astros, are striking out at a record-breaking pace. Through their first 12 games, the ‘Stros have 121 Ks, and that 10.08-per-game rate is over 1.5 strikeouts above the mark of the all-time champions, last year’s Oakland A’s, who had 1,387 Ks, or 8.56 per game. Will Houston continue to whiff at that rate? Certainly not, but the Astros may become the first team ever to strike out once per inning for an entire campaign.

Consider that the Astros are going to be awful this season. They’re young, with only Carlos Pena and Rick Ankiel over 30 among the hitters (and the same constraint leaves only Erik Bedard and Jose Veras among the pitchers). With that youth comes inexperience.

Having traded away several experienced batters (and pitchers, too) the last two or three years, Houston management knew the team would be in for quite a rough stretch, and not surprisingly, those growing pains include learning how to hit against the best pitchers on the planet.

Of course, striking out carries less stigma than it used to, and the parade of bullpen pitchers these days means nearly every moundsman is going full tilt on every pitch. Mix in a new set of opposing hurlers with the move to the AL, and the Astros’ pups are somewhat literally out of their league.

Experience and the law of averages, or regression to the mean if you’re so inclined, should bring Houston’s strikeout totals back to a reasonable level, but perhaps not so reasonable to avoid setting a record for team whiffs in a single season.

Tough breaks, literally

Within a stretch of a few days, both Los Angeles teams had key starting pitchers break bones. First, Jered Weaver broke his left elbow while avoiding a liner back up the middle. Just days later, Zack Greinke was the recipient of a broken collarbone courtesy of Carlos Quentin. Fortunately, the injuries were to the non-throwing sides of their bodies, making their recoveries shorter and less worrisome. Weaver is expected to return in four to six weeks, Greinke in about two months.

Still, losing a major rotation piece stings for both teams. Weaver clearly is the best pitcher on the Angels staff, so even though Garrett Richards should be an adequate fill-in, the LA team from Anaheim is going to be undermanned while battling Texas and Oakland in what is likely to be a three-team scuffle in the AL West.

Slipping a game or two off the pace because of a short-term pitching deficiency could be the difference between a division title or a Wild Card, or maybe between playing baseball or golf in October. Oh, yeah, and the Angels have started the year 4-8, so there’s that little concern, too.

The Dodgers also are likely to find themselves in a season-long tussle, with the Giants their likely arch-rivals. In the National League, there appear to be six teams—those two plus the Braves, Nationals, Reds and Cardinals—battling for five playoff spots.

Throw a sleeper team or two—the Diamondbacks, Pirates, or the mystery team—into the mix, and you have a tough scrum ahead for the next five-and-a-half months. Losing an ace pitcher for one-third of the season is the first ingredient in a recipe for being the sixth-best team in the league and on the outside looking in come playoff time.

Blowing it big-time

Yes, the closer role often is overrated. Many closers are simply failed starters, guys who didn’t have the pitch repertoire, stamina, talent, or health to take the mound successfully every fifth day. Still, the ability to shut down the opponent in the final frame, to slam the door on an attempted comeback, has quantifiable, if immeasurable, impact on a team. We know a win is a win, but we don’t know the psychological impact of finishing off a hard-fought victory or a choking away a seemingly assured win.

The NL Central is ground zero for closer implosions so far this season. With Jason Motte on the disabled list and possibly facing season-ending Tommy John surgery, Mitchell Boggs was handed the closer role. Prior to 2013, Boggs had converted only four of 11 save opportunities, and he’s continued that trend this season, saving two games and failing to do so two other times.

With an 11.37 ERA and 2.05 WHIP, Boggs is instilling very little confidence in the Cardinals or their fans, and too many more blown saves could mean trouble as St. Louis dukes it out with Cincinnati throughout the year. With Trevor Rosenthal also performing below expectations, the Cards may turn to Edward Mujica—who took the loss on Sunday—to close out games. Regardless of who gets the ball in the ninth, the Redbirds need to get their bullpen in order very soon.

Neither the Cubs nor Brewers are likely to be competitive this season, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care if they have a good closer, if only so they can deal him to a contender later this summer. Well, Carlos Marmol and John Axford have seen their already deflated stock values plummet.

Marmol was removed “temporarily” from Chicago’s ninth-inning role, and his 7.94 ERA and 2.12 WHIP explain why. Actually, his 27.00 ERA and 4.80 WHIP at the time of his demotion explained why, as Marmol has thrown four scoreless innings with a 1.00 WHIP since becoming a middle reliever.

Axford currently sports a lovely 18.69 ERA and 2.54 WHIP, and they are that low because he blanked St. Louis for one frame on Saturday. The would-be closer wasn’t used in Sunday’s tight contest at all, indicative of how little trust the team has in him at this point.

Yes, these are microscopic sample sizes, and these pitchers are bound to get better, but with relievers throwing so few innings, it could be a while before their numbers look respectable. And for a team like the Cubs, who are openly looking to deal Marmol, they need those numbers to get better sooner rather than later.

Blown calls

When Marty Foster rang up the Rays’ Ben Zobrist to end Tampa Bay’s recent 5-4 loss to the Rangers—on what was one of the more egregious game-ending calls in the internet era—he set off a firestorm, and apologizing afterward just added fuel to the blaze.

Will that loss cost the Tampa Bay a playoff berth? Possibly. Will the victory push Texas into the postseason? Maybe. Yes, it was only one game, and there are five and a half still to play, but a one-game difference in the standings could be crucial come September.

Aside from the playoff implications of the call, we witnessed yet one more awful call by an umpire. The cries for robotic strike zones rung out once again, and they won’t get any quieter when every play is available quite literally at our fingertips.

With Bud Selig not set to retire until sometime in the next millennium, it’s questionable whether replay will be expanded significantly anytime soon. But with each and every major faux pas the umpires make, we’re getting closer and closer to a time when technology ensures the calls are called correctly.

Near-perfect games

With perfect games becoming so cliche after we saw three last season, and six in the last four years (plus nine more plain-ol’ no-hitters in that time frame), perhaps Yu Darvish was hoping to follow Armando Galarraga‘s example and become more memorable for not quite achieving perfection.

If he’d planned it better, Darvish would have bobbled that comebacker, thrown it to first base at the perfect time to force a bang-bang play, and left us all subjected to countless replays of the ball hitting the first baseman’s mitt at the same instant the runner’s foot touched the bag. Yeah, if only…

Will perfect games and no-hitters become so commonplace that we get bored by them? Are we there already? Just asking those questions reveals how spoiled we become by the recent mound mastery that’s been on display.

Jose Fernandez

The formula for dealing with hot prospects is simple. When they’re ready for the bigs, let them simmer in the minors a few weeks longer so the team will have control over them for an extra season. This goes double for a team out of contention and triple for one on a limited budget, since avoiding Super Two status is a financial windfall.

And then there are the Miami Marlins and the way they are handling Jose Fernandez. After advancing only to High-A ball last season—though he thoroughly dominated hitters all season long—Fernandez seemed destined for Double-A to begin 2013. If he continued to mow down batters, he’d move up to Triple-A, and he might even get a big league look come September.

But with Miami extraordinarily unlikely to be competitive for at least the next two years, even that promotion schedule would have been aggressive. Keep the wunderkind down on the farm, wait until the major league roster is improved, and then unleash Fernandez’s reign of terror on major league hitters.

Nope. The Marlins shocked everyone by putting Fernandez in their major league rotation to start the season, and he has a 0.82 ERA, 13 strikeouts and a 0.73 WHIP in his first 11 innings.

Is this a trend we’ll see other teams follow? Not bloody likely. The Tampa Bay RFays will keep Wil Myers in Durham until they know he won’t cost them a few extra million in 2016. Oscar Taveras and Jurickson Profar are in the minors because of the positional logjams in front of them and the savvy of the front offices that drafted them. These franchises know how to balance the win-now vs. win-later equation. The Marlins are just crazy.

Not that this is news. The team that has won two World Series without capturing a division crown, that squeezed a ballpark out of an apathetic surrounding population (with some helpful governmental intervention) and put a gaudy freak show beyond the left-field wall, that traded for Ozzie Guillen to be its manager—that team does things its own way.

Watching the Marlins pull crazy shenanigans is a trend we can count on to last well beyond the first month of the season.

—–

If your favorite team is in first place, don’t schedule your vacation around the postseason just yet. Or if your fantasy team is blowing away the competition, don’t get prepped for your Yoohoo shower. But it’s certainly a fun time to do a little smack talkin’, even if you know it could blow up in your face.

On the flip side, if your hometown team is in the cellar or your fantasy squad is last in the majority of the categories, don’t panic. However, being in the running come late summer will be that much more difficult, because your team has put itself in a hole that must be dug out of.

It’s early, but the season has begun. The games of spring training meant zilch, but the games of April mean exactly as much as those of September, so pay attention to it all. There’s plenty of noise interfering with the signal, but the message your team is broadcasting has meaning, even if the static makes it difficult to comprehend.

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Comments

  1. Greg Simons said...

    Stuart, thanks for the catch.  I was following the game while working in the yard and missed the pitching change.

  2. MikeC said...

    “The Dodgers also are likely to find themselves in a season-long tussle, with the Giants their likely arch-rivals.”

    I think after decades upon decades you no longer need to say the Giants are the Dodgers “likely” arch-rivals.

  3. Greg Simons said...

    MikeC – from a big-picture perspective, absolutely.  I meant that this season the Giants are the most likely team to compete with the Dodgers for the NL West title.  Perhaps “primary competition” would have been better phrasing.

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