Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Ten most important things we've learned
By David Schoenfield
We're about 25 percent of the way through the season. After writing about my 25 percent AL and NL MVPs earlier, here are 10 important things we've learned so far.
1. Offense is down and not going up.
OK, it's not quite 1968, but entering Tuesday the major league batting average was .251, lowest since 1972, and the slugging percentage was .389, lowest since 1992. What this means is we have to mentally adjust our calculations of player performance from what we've been used to the past 15 years.
For example, Cliff Lee has a 3.84 ERA. Pretty good, right? Well, the NL overall ERA is 3.82, so before making park adjustments and so forth, Lee has been about average. He's 33rd among 61 NL starters in ERA. He's allowed a .262 batting average, which also placed him 33rd. Jimmy Rollins isn't having a great year with a .276/.355/.374 line? Actually, that makes about a league average hitter, and very good for a shortstop.
2. Parity rules the day.
Only three teams are at least seven games out of first place -- the White Sox, Twins and Astros.
I checked a similar point in the schedule for each of the past 10 seasons, seeing how many teams were at least seven games out at the quarter point:
Obviously, those totals can be affected by a supremely hot start by a team in your division (such as Seattle starting 31-9 in 2001). The Indians and Phillies are the only teams playing .600 ball so far, but we also have fewer bottom feeders than usual. Every injury, every blown save, every late-inning comeback or costly error will be even more important this season.
3. Never overreact to the first two weeks.
We do it every year. We'll do it again next year. It's a rite of baseball, alongside hot dogs, the seventh-inning stretch and four-hour Red Sox-Yankees games. Tampa Bay started 1-8. Boston started 2-10. A month later, the Rays are in first place and the Red Sox are over .500.
4. Thus, while the Yankees have issues, there is no need to panic yet.
The Yankees are kind of doing what everyone has expected, aren't they? Their offense is second in the AL in runs, the starting rotation has the 10th-best ERA and their bullpen has the fifth-best ERA. But a 6-10 record so far in May has New York in a bad state of mind. But history shows us the Yankees often have a bad month on the way to a winning season. Here is their worst month each of the past 10 seasons:
2010: 12-15 in September (95 wins)
2009: 12-10 in April (103 wins)
2008: 13-15 in August (89 wins)
2007: 9-14 in April; 13-15 in May (94 wins)
2006: 14-12 in June (97 wins)
2005: 10-14 in April; 12-14 in June (95 wins)
2004: 12-11 in April (101 wins)
2003: 11-17 in May (101 wins)
2002: 14-12 in June (103 wins)
2001: 15-14 in August (95 wins)
So that's only six losing months in 10 years, but it's evidence (for me) that an under-.500 May doesn't mean the Yankees have to push the panic button. (Although it's fun to watch the fans and media overreact.)
Few teams could survive the loss of a Cy Young contenders, but so far St. Louis has withstood the loss of their ace. Led by the fearsome foursome of Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and Colby Rasmus, St. Louis has the best offense in the NL, leading the league in runs, batting average and on-base percentage entering Tuesday. It's been their pitching that has been a pleasant surprise. They have 25 quality starts, tied for fourth in the league, and they're doing it despite slow starts from Chris Carpenter (1-3 4.95 ERA through nine starts) and Jake Westbrook (3-3, 6.07 ERA). But Jaime Garcia pitched another gem Tuesday night and he's looking like one of the best starters in the NL. Kyle Lohse has been excellent and Kyle McClellan a nice bonus moving over from the bullpen. The bullpen is getting straightened out ... and Pujols hasn't even heated up yet.
But are the Blue Jays? Toronto is 21-20, right in the thick of the AL East race. The Blue Jays are hanging in there despite some dreadful starts by some of their regulars: Edwin Encarnacion and Aaron Hill haven't homered yet, Travis Snider is hitting .184 and Juan Rivera is hitting .203. If those guys start hitting, the Jays could turn the East into a four-team race.
7. Speed is more important than it has been in years.
With scoring down, teams are placing more of an emphasis on stealing bases, manufacturing runs and gaining that extra base. Stolen bases are averaging .68 per team per game, the highest since the same total in 1999. From Baseball Prospectus, the top five baserunning teams (incorporating steals and advancement on base hits, etc.).
For hitters, Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer is the first of a wave of talented prospects about to arrive in Kansas City, with pitcher Danny Duffy debuting Wednesday. A pair of catchers -- J.P. Arencibia in Toronto and Hank Conger with the Angels -- look like future middle-of-the-order hitters. Down in the minors, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper and Angels outfielder Mike Trout are living up to their billing as two of the best hitting prospects we've seen in years.
9. The defending champs will have to fix, repair and adjust on the fly like last season.
Shortstop Miguel Tejada is on his final leg. Aubrey Huff, last year's cleanup hitter, is hitting .229. The outfield has been a revolving door of slumping hitters, hot streaks and injuries. Will top prospect Brandon Belt return anytime soon, and where will he play? Does Nate Schierholtz have enough bat to remain in the lineup? The starting pitching remains solid and the bullpen looks excellent, but can Bruce Bochy arrange his chess board with the same magical results as 2010?
10. The Indians aren't going anywhere.
They easily have the majors' largest run differential (+63). They actually haven't taken advantage of a soft schedule, as their strength of schedule has been top 10 in the majors so far. The lineup leads the AL in runs scored and that's without their Nos. 3 and 4 hitters (Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana) meeting projected numbers.
If the Indians remain baseball's Cinderella story ... well, let's just say no city deserves it more.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
On Tuesday, baseball lost one of its best -- a great, Hall of Fame player and true gentleman.