Things We Haven’t Learned

Every team in baseball except Milwaukee and Colorado has played exactly three games at this point in the season. Amazingly, that’s enough for people all over the country to feel that they’ve learned a variety of things about the 2005 baseball season.

They haven’t.

Here are five of the biggest things that people think or thought they learned, but about which we need much more information before we can really saying anything one way or the other.

1. The Boston Red Sox are in Mariano Rivera’s head

Rivera, as I’m sure you’ve heard by now, blew saves in consecutive games against the Red Sox earlier this week. Not only that, but he’s now blown his last four save opportunities against the Red Sox, dating back to last fall’s ALCS.

Even worse, he’s blown 11 saves to the Red Sox since 2001 and only 16 to the rest of baseball in that time. Clearly, the Red Sox have taken up residence in Rivera’s noggin, haven’t they?

Well, I don’t see it. Wednesday’s performance was legitimately bad. Rivera gave up three hits (they were all singles, but Rivera rarely allows multiple hits in an inning) and he had no command, walking three hitters. Still, he would have gotten the save and escaped any damage had Alex Rodriguez turned a routine double play.

The day before, Rivera blew another one-run lead when Jason Varitek hit a two-strike home run. But Rivera struck out two other Red Sox in the inning and didn’t look bad on the mound.

If you want to go back to the ALCS, you’ll probably remember that the second of his blown saves wasn’t really his fault. Tom Gordon had a two-run lead before he gave up a homer to David Ortiz and put runners on first and third with nobody out.

Rivera did well to get out of the inning only allowing a sacrifice fly to Varitek, and then he pitched a scoreless ninth inning to send the game to extra innings.

The day before, Rivera did legitimately blow the save, but he only allowed a walk and a single, with a monumental stolen base in between.

So, the four blown saves that everybody’s getting so worked up over haven’t even been that bad, on the whole. In the four games, he pitched 5.1 innings and gave up three earned runs. That’s not good, but it’s hardly the end of the world.

Obviously, the Red Sox have hit him better and scored at a better rate against Rivera than all the other teams in the AL the last few years. But you know what? The Red Sox have scored more runs than any other team in the AL the last few years, and Rivera never has to face the team that’s scored the second most runs.

Boston scored 2,769 runs from 2002-2004 and the Yankees scored 2,671. The next best teams, Texas and Chicago, were both about 250 runs behind the Red Sox. So it’s more likely that the Red Sox aren’t in Rivera’s head so much as they’re just really good hitters.

As for Rivera’s general effectiveness, he’s going to stop being a great closer at some point, that’s just a fact. It’s possible that this will be the year, but I doubt it. Even if it is, we need more than two games to know for sure, especially since he threw less this offseason and during spring training than he usually does.

2. Theo Epstein changed too many parts of the Red Sox

Epstein’s three big free agent acquisitions did not do well in the first series of the season, and some people were already griping that Epstein tinkered too much with a World Series champion team.

David Wells and Matt Clement, brought in to replace Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, both failed to make it out of the fifth inning in their first start of the season. Edgar Renteria, brought in to replace Orlando Cabrera, not only went hitless in his first 10 at-bats, he hit into four double plays and botched a couple plays in the field.

While the very early returns weren’t impressive for any of the three players, it’s way too early for anybody to be panicking, because all three of them have been above-average to good players for at least a few seasons.

Renteria ended his hitless slump by getting two singles in his final three at-bats Wednesday. His .154/.154/.154 line is still pretty ugly, but all he needs is one 3-for-4 game and he’s hitting .294. At the end of the season, he should have a line that looks just fine.

Clement allowed three runs — two earned — on five hits and three walks with four strikeouts in 4.1 innings. His whole career, he’s had good stuff but had trouble controlling it, and that was what happened Tuesday. He’ll have some more games like that one — or worse — this season, but he’ll also have games where he just dominates teams, and I expect him to finish with an above-average ERA.

Wells allowed four runs on 10 hits and a walk with four strikeouts in 4.1 innings. He just got battered around a little bit, and that might happen sometimes because he’s the kind of pitcher who makes you beat him. He throws strikes and gets you to put the ball in play, and if teams can find some holes, they can score some runs.

Basically, I still expect these three players to outperform what the players they’re replacing did last year. And even if I didn’t think they would do that, I’d know to wait more than one series before claiming that Epstein made a mistake.

He may very well have made a mistake or two this season, but we won’t know for at least a month or two.

3. Paul DePodesta completely screwed up the Los Angeles Dodgers

This might be the funniest overreaction of the early season, simply because it’s so painfully obvious that the people doing the overreacting want this to be true. After the Dodgers lost the first game of the season, 4-2, to the Giants thanks in part to a Jose Valentin error, the Los Angeles media went crazy.

Bill Plashke of the Los Angeles times wrote a column that included the following gems:

  • Two errors in one awful afternoon against the Giants. Four words for Dodger fans: Get used to it.
  • Welcome to this bold new Dodger world, where, in the name of budget and Funnyball, a defending division champion is essentially operating with one hand tied behind its back.
  • The Dodgers amazingly survived after DePodesta’s clubhouse-gutting trade in July, but for them to overcome his latest bit of strange thinking may be asking too much.
  • The good news for Dodger fans, of course, is that there are 161 more games. Hmmm. That could also be the bad news.

Buster Olney of ESPN.com wrote an entry on his Insider blog titled, “Something’s wrong with DePodesta’s Dodgers,” in which he said that the conventional wisdom is that the Dodgers are a mess.

So, after one game of the season, the Dodgers were already eliminated from the playoffs thanks to the worst defense ever assembled. Luckily, they shrugged off the bad news and won the next two games by the combined score of 16-4.

Now, I don’t think it’s particularly impressive to hold this Giants team to eight runs in three games, but the Dodger-hating popular media mostly picked the Giants to win the division. So, if the Dodgers are screwed up beyond repair, how did they take two out of three games from the eventual division champion?

Obviously, it’s too early in the season to tell if the Dodgers are going to be a very good team or not. It’s entirely possible that the defense will be a problem all year, undermining decent pitching, and that the offense won’t be good enough to bail them out.

However, it would be nice if the people who so obviously want that to be the case would wait more than one stinking game to proclaim victory over DePodesta.

4. Moving John Smoltz to the rotation was a bad idea

One of the main topics of conversation this offseason was whether it was wise to move Smoltz from the closer position he had dominantly inhabited the last three years back to the starter’s role he had excelled in up until 2000.

Some people thought Smoltz would contend for the Cy Young award in his new role, others thought he wouldn’t be able to handle the stress of making 30-plus starts and pitching 200-plus innings.

Whichever way you were leaning, you probably didn’t expect Smoltz to implode the way he did in his first start of the season, allowing seven runs — six earned — on six hits and two walks while recording just five outs.

It certainly wasn’t the beginning he or any of his supporters were hoping for, but maybe it shouldn’t have been that big a surprise. Think, for a minute, back to three years ago. After a brief trial at the end of the 2001 season, the Braves were converting Smoltz to full-time closer.

The question then was whether or not he’d be able to go in the other direction, from formerly great starter to closer trying to avoid re-injuring his arm. Three years ago, just like three days ago, the early returns were not good.

Smoltz pitched a scoreless inning in the first game of the season, and then didn’t get into any of the next three. In game five, however, he entered a tie game against the Mets in the top of the ninth. He left 32 pitches and two outs later with the Braves trailing 10-2.

That bit of ugliness put Smoltz’s ERA at 43.20 (even worse than his current 32.40 mark). From that point on, however, he had a 2.40 ERA and managed to finish the season with a 3.25 ERA.

I’m not saying he’ll be as dominant the rest of this season as he was the rest of that season, but one terrible start doesn’t mean he can’t do the job the Braves are asking him to do, just as one horrific relief appearance didn’t mean he couldn’t do the job the Braves were asking him to do three years ago.

5. The Mets can’t contend for a playoff spot after all

After an offseason full of optimism thanks to the free agent signings of Martinez and Carlos Beltran, the Mets got off to the worst possible start this season when they got swept by the Cincinnati Reds.

Suddenly, everybody who thought the Mets might have a shot at reaching the playoffs is in a state of panic. All of those people should calm down.

First of all, the Mets were never a lock to even contend for the playoffs. They had a chance because of what they did in the offseason, but they left themselves some holes on the team and they’re in a division that has four above average (maybe even good) teams.

Still, struggling in the first three or four games of the season is absolutely not a problem. In just the last four years, the National League has seen five teams get off to a slow that and rebound very nicely.

Last year, the Cardinals lost three of their first four games, but wound up winning 105 games and the NL pennant.

In 2003, Atlanta lost its first three games before going on to win the NL East, and Florida lost three of its first four games before going on to win the wild card and then the World Series.

In 2002, Los Angeles lost its first three games and though the Dodgers didn’t end up making the playoffs, they did still win 92 games (I guarantee any Mets fan out there would have taken that before the season started).

In 2001, St. Louis lost its first three games and finished with a 93-69 record that tied Houston atop the NL Central, with the Cardinals getting the wild card on tiebreakers.

The Mets could still contend for a playoff spot because they have one excellent pitcher (Martinez), one solid pitcher (Tom Glavine) and one pitcher who could be solid once he’s healthy (Kris Benson) and because they should have a nice offense.

The Mets could also fall out of contention for a playoff spot because they have two starting pitchers who can’t avoid walking people (Victor Zambrano and Kaz Ishii) and because they don’t have much of a bullpen.

Whichever way it turns out, the fact that the Mets got swept in the first series of the season probably won’t be a determining factor.

As for Reds fans don’t get too excited because it goes the other way too, as you should well know. The Reds won four of their first five games last year, but finished the season at 76-86.

Also last year, Detroit won its first four games of the season and still finished at 72-90. And in 2003, Pittsburgh won its first four games of the season and finished the year at 75-87.

The Reds should have a very good offense if (and that’s a big if) everybody can stay healthy. But they still don’t look like they have enough pitching to get through the season without giving up an awful lot of runs.

Maybe the offense will stay healthy, the pitching will be decent and the Reds will have a winning record. But it’s not something I’d be willing to bet on even after a season-opening sweep.

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