Early Returns

by

It’s no secret that our society has the attention span of a juvenile squirrel. We’ve condensed everything down as far as possible. We had Facebook posts and when those got too long, we switched to Twitter and when 140 characters became too much, we switched to Snapchat to get our message out even more quickly. Similarly, we live our lives seeking as much instant gratification as possible. This doesn’t just affect our social (or social media) interaction, it bleeds over into our interests as well. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and all the other ways we have to watch TV has changed how we consume media. We binge watch shows because we can’t stand waiting for another new episode; if the show is currently airing, it drives us absolutely crazy having to wait a WHOLE WEEK to find out what happens. When it comes to the consumption of sports, its common practice to watch a game while simultaneously tweeting your reaction in real-time. It’s not enough to just see the play happen, you want to share your opinion and know the opinion others have of what you just saw. This shift in viewing habits has matched up perfectly with football’s condensed schedule, basketball’s uptempo play and even golf’s shot by shot importance. The one sport that could seemingly left behind is baseball.

 

Between the slow pace, relative lack of scoring and ridiculously long schedule, baseball definitely lends itself to a longer term way of consuming entertainment. In a world built around immediate reactions and judgements, the game preaches patience and dedication. With that being said, it’s still possible to glean some nuggets from what we’ve seen so far and also have some absurdly early reactions. So after two weeks, here are some way too early reactions, as well as my top and bottom 5 teams in the league.

https://i2.wp.com/mlb.mlb.com/assets/images/1/3/0/110137130/BartoloColon1_fdgq8sqp.jpg

Baseball; it’s supposed to be fun

The American League is a giant cluster-muck of mediocrity: As of April 19th, we still have no idea who the best teams in the A.L. are. 7 teams have a positive run differential, 2 have an even differential and 6 teams have a negative differential. The best run differential is the Tigers at +15 and even that has been a bit fluky with some of their big performances. The Orioles would be the obvious choice for best team as started off 7-0, but those games were against the dregs of the league in Minnesota and Tampa Bay and they’ve started to come back to earth now that the schedule has toughened up a bit. Some of the preseason favorites have disappointed a bit as the Astros have the worst run differential in the league,  the Royals can’t score a run to save their lives and even the mighty Blue Jays’ offense is sputtering beyond the superhuman efforts of Josh Donaldson. With the even distribution of talent across the board, this clustering was a strong possibility coming into the year, but the playing field has been more even than anyone expected. You can look at this in two different ways: either you can be bored by a lack of dominant teams or you can view it as unpredictable and exciting.

The National League’s bottom half is completely un-watchable: As even and unpredictable as the American League has been, that’s how polarized things have been in the Senior Circuit. The top of the league is ridiculously stacked with the teams having the 5 best run differentials in all of Major League Baseball residing in the N.L. The Cubs have posted an obscene +45 differential through 13 games which averages out to 3.46 runs per game. To put that in perspective, the 1939 Yankees have the all time record for run-differential in a season with a +411 or 2.67 runs per game. I know this is a small sample size, but April wins and runs count the same as any other month, and that pace is absolutely insane.  On the flip side, The 4 worst differentials in baseball are also in the National League, with the Brewers leading the way after being outscored by 32 runs already this season. The Padres set an all time record by being blanked 3 games in a row to start the season, and the Braves have thankfully won 3 in a row to raise their record to 3-9. Oof. It’s downright painful to watch this many rebuilding teams at one time. I know it’s more advantageous to bottom out than to be mediocre, but that is some seriously bad baseball.

Free Agency is a total coin-flip: Every year, teams dole out hundreds of millions of dollars in free agency money, and even with the uptick in scouting and analysis, it’s still impossible to know for sure whether a signing will work out or not and throwing huge money at players on the open market is truly terrifying. It’s a fools’ errand to evaluate these transactions so early on, but that’s what we’re here for. This last off-season had a glut of high-end talent with Jason Heyward, David Price, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Zach Greinke and Jordan Zimmerman all cashing in, and so far the results have been 50/50. Greinke and Leake have been abject disasters, Cueto and Zimmerman have been electric and despite a 2-0 record, David Price has been remarkably mediocre. The hardest to evaluate by far has been the Heyward deal, since most of his value comes from his elite defense. He’s hit like a Minor Leaguer so far this year and the Cubs are lucky to have enough talent around him to keep things going while he works through his issues. With all these guys, it’s important to remember that they are still human beings who have had to adjust to a new surrounding. We won’t really know for months, or even years, whether these contracts were good or bad, but the law of diminishing returns confirms that you’re still better off developing and re-signing your own players rather than picking off other teams’ leftovers.

My too-soon Power Rankings:

While a few teams have performed in an unexpected way (Orioles going 7-0!!) ,We haven’t had a ton of surprises. The Cubs, Giants, Blue Jays and Royals are pretty good and the Braves, Phillies, Brewers and Padres are dumpster fires. A few teams have underperformed; the Astros have been a big letdown, but they’ve shown signs of working out the kinks, and teams like the Twins and Yankees while far from sure things were expected to be better, but for the most part, things have played out according to plan. This early on, the records aren’t necessarily going to reflect how good a team has been, fluky things can happen in a small sample size, but we can tell a lot based on a teams’ run differential (Runs scored vs. Runs Surrendered) . With a few exceptions, good run differentials lead to good records, and vice versa. So for these early rankings, I’m focused much more on indicators of success, rather than results. I’ll present the record, run differential and my take on whether these results are legit or a mirage.

Top 5:

  1. Chicago Cubs  10-3 (+45): Even with the loss of Bam-Bam Schwarber for the season, this team is still inhumanely loaded. Thanks to the hot start from Dexter Fowler and the lights out pitching from the entire staff, they’ve gotten off to a historic pace, even with Bryant, Heyward and Rizzo scuffling a bit. What makes this team truly terrifying is the ceiling they have. Even when the pitching takes an inevitable small step back, the regression to the mean on offense from those big bats will be enough to balance them out and keep them going through the season. Verdict: Legit. 
  2. Los Angeles Dodgers 8-5 (+24): It seems unfair that the team with the most money available also seems to be one of the smartest when it comes to franchise development. When the new owners took over the team, the biggest fear people had was that they were just going to buy talent, and while they’ve done that to some extent with the Adrian Gonzalez trade, most of their efforts and cash have been poured into the scouting and development side of the organization. Thanks to a (somewhat) patient approach (letting Greinke walk, not signing Cueto), and smart middle market signings (Scott Kazmir, Howie Kendrick, Justin Turner), this team is deep at every position, and has plenty of help on the way (top-5 farm system). It helps when you have Clayton Kershaw and Adrian Gonzalez as your big-ticket players, but this front office has to be applauded for how strong they’ve kept this team, despite the “who’s who” they have on the DL right now. This team is already good, and with Corey Seager on his way from the minors, and Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson and Hyun-Jin Ryu coming off the DL, they’re going to get better. Verdict: Legit
  3. Kansas City Royals 8-4 (+8):  I keep waiting for this pitching staff to take a step back, I keep looking like a fool. Despite the offensive ineptitude this year (no player with more than 7 RBI),  the Royals show no signs of any “World Series Hangover”. Ned Yost still reminds me of the greeter at Wal-Mart who isn’t all there and the starting pitching is sure to regress a tiny bit, but they can’t hit much worse, and they just keep beating people. It’s hard to dislike the Royals, since they play hard, play smart and seem to play the right way, but I’m starting to get there. Unfortunately, they’re really good. Verdict: Legit.
  4. Washington Nationals 9-3 (+22): When you play sports video games, you have the option to do “Create-a-Player” mode. In some games, you have the ability to make a player with attributes all at a ‘100’ rating. You can basically make a player so good that it ruins the integrity of the game. Bryce Harper is that player. After last years’ MVP season, there was some question of how he could improve as a player, but at least in the early going, he’s shown us exactly how that can be done. Despite a drop of 140
    macur-master675

    400 Million bucks can buy a lot of hair gel.

    points in his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) from last year, he’s hitting at a higher clip, driving the ball better, walking more and striking out less. He’s essentially turned into late career Barry Bonds, where he knows he’s not going to get pitches to hit very often, but when he does get one, he crushes it. There’s no one else on the roster that’s hitting at all other than Daniel Murphy, so the Nats’ continued success is based mostly on Harper and the continued dominance of the pitching staff. Luckily for Washington, they’re up to the task thus far. Verdict: Semi-Legit

  5. St. Louis Cardinals 7-6 (+30):  It’s rare that an early season series tells us a lot about how a team’s season is going to go, but this weeks’ Cubs/Cardinals tilt feels like one of those rare times.  St. Louis has been the gold standard for a long time now, but between last years’ playoff failure and the Cubs’ momentum, there seems to be a bit of a power shift. Matt Carpenter is really good, and I like the pitching staff, but Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday are showing definite signs of aging. I still like the Cardinals overall talent and ability to develop prospects, but I’m not as sold as I was coming into the season. Verdict: Semi-Mirage

Despite all appearances, I am a caring and soft-hearted guy. So in order to save fans of these teams any additional pain, I won’t go into great detail about why they’re so bad. Some of them are rebuilding, and some are just stuck in a bad place, so we’ll rate their season on a 1-10 “Long Term Hopefulness scale” rather than going too far down the rabbit hole. (Authors note: All scales are completely arbitrary and have no actual meaning. Deal with it.)

My Bottom 5:

30. Milwaukee Brewers 5-8 (-32) : This team was good for a few years, despite being in a middling market and built on aging talent. They’ve started to unload everything that isn’t tied down to rebuild the farm system, but there’s not a lot of faith in the current regime to put things back together.Hopefulness Rating– 1/10

29. Atlanta Braves 3-9 (-25): Oof. It took a three game winning streak to get them to this point. Luckily for them, they have smart people in place who know how to rebuild in a hurry and this franchise has been through this before in the pre-Maddux/Smoltz/Glavine days of the late 1980’s. Hopefulness Rating- 3/10

28. Minnesota Twins 4-9 (-15): Like Atlanta, they started out 0-9 before their recent win streak. Unlike Atlanta, this team was expected to contend this year. They’ve got loads of young talent to go with proven vets, and since they reside in the clustered up A.L. Central, all is not lost. Hopefullness Rating-9/10

27. Philadelphia Phillies 6-8 (-21): Another franchise that won based on old and high-priced talent, the Phillies waited as long as possible to do a total tear down and rebuild, but those days are here. They’ve done a great job restocking a barren system so far, and the young pitching they’ve stockpiled is very impressive. Unfortunately, that young pitching isn’t quite ready, and they flat-out can’t hit. Hopefulness Rating 4/10

26. San Diego Padres 4-9 (-17): Oh, San Diego, you deserve so much better. San Diegans have some of the best food, one of the best ballparks and the most beautiful weather in all of baseball, and thank God they have something, because this team is hot garbage. For years, they tried to piece things together and keep afloat in a vain attempt to sneak into the playoffs. After last years’ misguided free agency spree, they’ve already auctioned off most of the excess parts and are actively trying to unload the remnants of the last 5 seasons. On the positive side, they’re reintroducing the brown uniforms on an occasional basis, and when the game is over, you can still go to the beach. Hopefulness Rating 2/10

padres-new-unis

It’s not all bad, Padres fans.

I said it at the top of the piece, and it bears repeating. Baseball has a long and slowly developing season. It feels like we’ve seen so much, but we’re only 8% of the way done. If your team stinks, own it. Celebrate every run and victory like it’s the biggest thing that ever happened to you. If your team is good, enjoy yourself, but play it cool, so as not to anger the baseball gods. They are wrathful and often very attentive to your cockiness and premature celebration. Above all else, remember to embrace the process of watching baseball: enjoy the slow pace, have a hot dog and a cold beverage or two and above all else; relax, we’ve got a long way to go, and a lot of cool things to see.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: