May day- MLB Check-in

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Spring felt like it was a long time in coming this year.

After a relatively mild winter, we got a taste of warm weather back in March, and just when everyone had packed up their muk-luks and thermal gear, we got hit with a fresh batch of freezing temperatures and blowing snow. Thanks to the weird weather, it’s just now starting to feel like spring, which naturally, means it’s time to start taking baseball seriously. I don’t believe in overreacting to early results on a serious level, and even at this point of the year, it’s easy to cry out “small sample size”, but as crazy as it seems,  we are 20% of the way through the season, which is plenty to go on for our purposes.

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My happy place.

Every year, my dad and I both pick the standings and records for all the teams in baseball, along with our MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year winners. A big chunk of my life was spent a long distance away from my dad, so this was always a fun way for us to stay connected. For as long as I can remember, it doesn’t matter where I live, or how often I’ve talked to him, we’re both going to make our picks and then sit down and talk about them. Thanks to his other annual habit of spending his winters on the west coast, we weren’t able to have this discussion until yesterday afternoon, but there’s never a question between us that the picks were made before the season began.

With the way the baseball season plays out, there’s a standing logic that with a few exceptions, every team is going to win 60 games and every team is going to lose 60 games. What separates the good teams from the bad is what you do with the other 40. Thanks to how long the season goes on, and the injury attrition that brings, everything tends to get muddled toward the middle. We’ve seen more truly awful teams in recent years thanks to “tanking” strategies, but even those terrible teams win 60 games. With that being said, it wasn’t shocking that our picks for division winners and games won by team were remarkably similar; we picked 8 out of 10 playoff teams identically and our records for each team were very close, but it was still laughable how close our lines of thinking were to each other.

After all the comparisons and crowing over our good foresight, we looked at the sustainability of surprisingly good starts or the possibility for turnaround in unexpected  bad situations.

Pleasant Surprises:

Philadelphia Phillies:

My dad and I were both less than enthralled with the Phillies’ potential this season, as we both picked them to win less than 70 games, but so far, we could not be more wrong. As of today, the Fightin Phils are sitting in 3rd place in the N.L. East with a record of 19-15 despite an offense that ranks in the bottom 5 in all major categories and a negative 30 run differential. With those pitiful looking numbers, it’s smart to wonder how they’re still holding tight in the Wild Card race. They’ve gotten solid contributions from a young pitching staff that has been better than expected, with Aaron Nola and Vince Velasquez looking like a true top of the rotation starters. The two of them have combined for 9 quality starts, 6 wins and a 2.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) rating so far. Not bad for two guys with a combined 45 career starts and an average age of 22.5 years old. While those two will probably tail off a little bit, their level of success is probably sustainable over the long haul. The thing that isn’t sustainable is Philly’s success in tight ballgames. To this point, they’ve gone 12-3 in 1 run games and a perfect 3-0 in extra innings. Historically speaking, 1 run games are a 50/50 proposition, and no other team in the league has more than 8 such wins. This years’ Philly team reminds me of the 2005 Nationals, a similarly young team that went into the ’05 All-Star break at 52-36 thanks to a 22-9 record in 1 run games. Unfortunately for them, that was unsustainable as they went 8-22 in 1 run games in the second half of the season to finish at 81-81. A respectable record to be sure, but a warning to Philly fans: enjoy the ride for right now, but be very wary of the regression to the mean.

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Enjoy the party while you can, Phillies’ fans.

Seattle Mariners: 

People who know me are familiar with the fact that I spent 6 years of my early childhood as a resident of the Pacific Northwest in Tacoma, Washington. The other thing people know about me is that I have a habit of strongly disliking local teams and traditions. Part of this is due to my loyalty to the teams I like, but I also am a bit of a contrarian who enjoys going against the grain. Due to those two facts, the Seattle Mariners are a bit of a point of disagreement between my father and I. He has a soft spot in his heart for the M’s and I still couldn’t care less about their fortunes. 

Despite that difference in emotions, we had similar projections for them; a brief string of relevance before tailing off into mediocrity with 80 wins or so. There’s still a chance that this could happen, but right now, Seattle sits comfortably in first place in the topsy-turvy A.L. West. Like Philly, Seattle is being buoyed by a sterling pitching staff and not being held back by a mediocre offense. Unlike Philly, Seattle is not a rebuilding franchise and has pieces in place to sustain their early season success. They were ridiculed for the Robinson Cano signing a couple of years ago, and 7 more years is definitely unpleasant to think about, but in the short term, his presence is paying huge dividends. After a horrendous start to last season, Cano has been on a tear, hitting .325 with 27 home runs and 82 R.B.I. in 420 at bats since last years’ All Star Break. He’s shown some definite signs of aging, but he’s still one of the smoothest fielders in the league at his position and with his bat as hot as it is, he joins with Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz to form one of the better hitting trios in baseball.

While the offensive success may not be sustainable over the long haul, the superb pitching is here to stay. There’s never any question about what Felix Hernandez brings to the table, and Hisahi Iwakuma is one of the most underrated pitchers in the league, but the key to the Mariners’ pitching staff has been the strong performances from the other pieces of the pitching staff. Taijuan Walker is leading the staff in strikeouts, WHIP and K’s per 9 innings. Pretty impressive stuff when King Felix is your ace. Walker has been a top prospect in the Seattle system, so his performance isn’t a complete surprise, but it’s always nice for a team to see players realize their potential (albeit in a small sample size).   The real found money for this staff has been the contributions from journeymen pitchers like Steve Cishek and Nathan Karns. Cishek has saved 11 games in 16 appearances with a WHIP and ERA under 1 and has already provided 1.0 WAR. He’s on a 6.5 million dollar contract, so while he’s not a high priced closer per se, he’s also not a complete unknown. Karns on the other hand is on a league minimum deal and his 3rd team in his 4 year career. After a solid year in Tampa last season, he’s carried that success over and given Seattle a dependable 4th option they haven’t had since John Halama and Jamie Moyer.

Seattle looks great so far, and most of that division is a mess. The offense will never be a juggernaut, but the top end talent is good enough to keep them at least in the middle of the pack. Combine that with the high end pitching, and Seattle looks like they’re built for the long haul this season.

Biggest Disappointments:

Minnesota Twins:

Most fans don’t remember this now, and it seems odd with the Twins raking in cash in their new stadium, but back in the early 2000’s there was a strong push for the Minnesota Twins franchise to be contracted from Major League Baseball. After the 2001 season, MLB owners realized that they were hemorraging money and voted 28-2 to eliminate two franchises: the Montreal Expos and the Minnesota Twins. To make a long story short, public outrage prevailed and while the Expos were eventually relocated to Washington as the Nationals, the Twins stayed put in Minnesota, signed franchise cornerstone Joe Mauer to a gigantic contract, built a gigantic new stadium and rebuilt the entire organization around smart scouting and fundamental baseball. Thanks to this revamping, the Twins won an average of 89 games per season from 2002-2010, establishing their reputation as a premiere franchise and earning my eternal hatred. Every year, no matter who was on the roster, the Twins would grind out wins, never make mistakes and pitch and run you into oblivion. If it happened in any other division, I’d love them, but they tormented me 25 times a season and I couldn’t stand them. After the 2010 season, they entered into a full rebuild and finished 148 games under .500 between 2011 and 2014. Last year, it looked like the next generation of young players had arrived, and they scrapped and overachieved their way to 83 wins and a legitimate run at the last Wild Card spot. With that in mind, they were the trendy pick to take a step forward this year. They signed Korean star Byung Ho-Park and expected continued growth from Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Brian Dozier.

33 games into the season, things have not gone according to plan and Minnesota is a complete dumpster fire. They sit at 8-25, 14 games back of the division leading White Sox and have a -63 run differential. They come in at 28th in the league in runs scored, 26th in OPS and 25th in Home Runs. The pitching hasn’t been any better, as the come in at 26th in ERA, 29th in Quality Starts and 28th in WHIP (Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched). There isn’t a whole lot to say about those numbers. Nobody in the lineup is hitting up to the expected levels, with only Joe Mauer and Eduardo Nunez hitting above league average levels, and have gotten a negative .5 WAR from the starting pitching thus far. The only real hope they have has nothing to do with this season, as their playoff expectancy sits at .4% right now. There’s a remote chance they could make a historic run to contention, but I’m skeptical of them beating the odds in that way. Their hope lies in the depth of their minor league system. Byron Buxton was sent back down to Triple-A to get more at bats and hopefully retool his swing, but the outfielders average 24 years of age and current stalwarts Brian Dozier and Byung Ho Park are only 28 and 29 respectively. 5 of their top-10 prospects are pitchers, so there’s some help on the way, but the current staff doesn’t look so good. Luckily for Twins’ fans, the franchise is still one of the most stable in the league and not likely to make any stupid choices. It’s painful, especially after last years’ fun season, but they’ll be fine for the long haul, even if they’re doomed to be terrible this season.

 

The Entire N.L. West:

Every division in baseball except for the N.L. West has one team at least 7 games out of first and one team at least 8 games above .500. By contrast, the N.L. West has all 5 teams at or below .500 with the last place San Diego Padres sitting just 2.5 games out of first place. As a division they have a cumulative -23 run differential and 4 teams with losing home records. You can dress those things up and write them off to small sample sizes to some extent, but at the end of it all, that’s a steaming pile of yuck.

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Arizona’s off-season activity

The Arizona Diamondbacks cleared out their farm system to acquire Shelby Miller and backed up a Brinks truck to Zack Greinke’s house to bring them both  to Phoenix. With Paul Goldschmidt getting all sorts of preseason MVP buzz and A.J. Pollock poised to make the leap, the D-Backs were the ballsy darlings of the off-season. Things got off to a terrible start, with Pollock injuring his elbow and going on the shelf for at least 3 months and just got worse from there. The starting pitching has been an abject disaster, with only Rubby De La Rosa posting a positive WAR and Miller and Greinke combining for a -.9 rating so far, and even the unexpected offensive contributions from Wellington Castillo and Jean Segura haven’t been enough to make this team good. There’s some reason to believe that Greinke and Miller will improve, but the rest of that team looks really broken and (pardon my pun) snake-bitten. It’s one thing to be bad when you’re rebuilding, it’s another to be bad the year after you emptied your farm system.

The Giants and Dodgers may be even more frustrating for fans, as they’ve both flashed signs of being the dominant teams that everyone expected. When either team has things rolling, they look completely unstoppable. You can look at either lineup or pitching staff during a good stretch, see the depth and overall talent levels and find it hard to see them ever struggling. Then during bad stretches, you see the flaws. The back end of the rotations can be shaky, the bullpens have holes and their are inconsistent players up and down the lineups. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. There’s too much talent in these two organizations for them to stay at this mediocre level and both teams have help available in the minors. Eventually they’ll take a step away from the junk in this division.

Last, and probably least, both the Rockies and Padres came into the year in full fire sale mode. Like a hipster couple moving from their parents giant home into a trendy tiny house, everything they had was available for a reasonable price. If a player has any value or an expensive contract, they’re much better served by a month to month apartment lease than anything long term. So far, both teams have actually been decent, with the Rockies hovering near .500 and the Pads taking 2 out of 3 from the Cubs this week, but my advice for any fans of these teams remains the same as it was at the start of the year: Embrace the bad, enjoy the little successes and celebrate them like you just won the World Series.

 

 

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