- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to our LeBron-free zone. You'll find no talk of that Kings-Blackhawks series here. And this is not the place to shop for your latest Johnny Manziel tidbits, either.
No, sir. Your attention, please. You can turn your gaze away from all of that, because it is now safe to start paying attention to the 2014 baseball season.
That occurs every year at this time, once all 30 teams have finally played their first 40 games -- the line of demarcation we used to know as baseball's "quarter pole." Except the last time I wrote one of these recaps of the season "at the quarter pole," I got reprimanded by horse-racing aficionados, who reminded me that in the horse world, the "quarter pole" rolls around with a quarter-mile to go, not a quarter of the way into the race.
So thanks for the semantics lesson. We'll hereby no longer refer to the "quarter pole" in this column. What we will do, though, is announce that we're now deep enough into the season that it's permissible to take a long look at what this first quarter of the season has brought us. Ready? Here we go:
NL MVP of the first quarter: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
Only one man has ever won an MVP award while playing his home games a mile above sea level. That would be Larry Walker in 1997. Only two other Rockies -- Dante Bichette in 1995 and Matt Holliday in 2007 -- have ever gotten more than one first-place vote in any election. So it's clear as a sheet of Saran Wrap: There's an altitude bias among MVP voters that "60 Minutes" should probably look into. Nevertheless, anyone who would pick any NL player other than Tulo for this honor needs immediate acrophobia therapy. OK, I know he's hitting .552/.627/1.030 at Coors and .247/.375/.519 when he returns to earth orbit. Whatever. He leads the entire sport right now in Wins Above Replacement, all three sabermetric triple crown categories (AVG/OBP/SLG), runs scored and total bases. He leads the NL in home runs and times reaching base. And he's a spectacular defender who tops all NL infielders (at any position) in defensive runs saved. In other words, he has been the best player in baseball -- at any altitude.
AL MVP of the first quarter: Josh Donaldson, Athletics
My fingers started shaking as soon as I began typing in a name other than Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera, because face it, those were the only two names that were even allowed in any MVP conversation over the past two years, by edict of the Supreme Court. But the best player in the AL so far hasn't been either of those two luminaries. It's actually been the insanely underrated Donaldson, who has followed last year's bust-out season with another tremendous quarter-season for the team with the best run differential (plus-98) in baseball. If you want to argue that Jose Bautista, Victor Martinez or even Jose Abreu have had more impact with the bat alone, you're probably right. But Donaldson is a fill-up-the-stat-sheet offensive player who's on pace for 137 runs scored, 36 homers, 76 extra-base hits, 126 RBIs, 176 hits and 263 times on base. And by any defensive metric you choose, he's been the best defensive third baseman in the AL over the past two years. So he's "the man" -- at least until Trout and Cabrera stage a bloodless coup to recapture their heretofore mandatory place on this mountaintop.
NL Cy Young of the first quarter: Johnny Cueto, Reds
I was dying to pick Jeff Samardzija here, just so I could ask the wisenheimer question: "Could a guy with zero wins still win a Cy Young Award?" But that's just a rhetorical question, because Cueto was the clear-cut choice -- over Samardzija, Adam Wainwright, Zack Greinke and Julio Teheran -- until he gave up almost as many runs Tuesday in Washington (eight) as he'd allowed in his first nine starts combined (10). But I still think Cueto holds a narrow edge over that really formidable field. For one thing, he still leads the league in WHIP, strikeouts and opponent average. For another, there was the historic nature of the nine starts that preceded Tuesday's clunker. Since the invention of earned runs -- which slightly predated, say, the iPad -- no pitcher ever has kicked off a season with nine starts that dominating. With an ERA as low as 1.25, for instance. Or an opponent batting average of .135. Or nine straight starts of seven innings or more, and five hits or fewer. Other Cueto tidbits I love: He's faced 18 hitters this season with runners in scoring position and two outs. None of them have gotten a hit. Meanwhile, 48 runners have reached first base against him. Exactly two have even tried to steal. And when he throws his fastball, the league is hitting .118 against it. That's impossible, right? Well, guess not.
AL Cy Young of the first quarter: Max Scherzer, Tigers
Did you know that only three men have ever reeled off back-to-back AL Cy Young seasons -- Pedro Martinez in 1999-2000, Roger Clemens twice (1986-87 and '97-98) and Jim Palmer (1975-76)? But Scherzer is positioning himself to join that esteemed group, by designing the kind of free-agent marketing campaign Scott Boras fantasizes about. Scherzer leads the league in ERA, strikeout ratio and opponent average, which are always helpful when you're making Cy Young arguments. With two outs and runners on base, the hitters are a laughable 0-for-28 against him, with 16 strikeouts. And here's a feat Pedro, Clemens and Palmer never pulled off in their Cy Young repeats: After winning a Cy Young in one season, Scherzer has shrunk his ERA the next season by more than a run (from 2.90 to 1.83). Now all he has to do is keep that up for four more months.
NL rookie of the first quarter: Chris Owings, Diamondbacks
Let's just say this: It's early. So it's possible the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year isn't even in the big leagues yet. This means you, Gregory Polanco. Or Oscar Taveras. Or Noah Syndergaard. Nobody has grabbed hold of this award yet and acted as if he can't possibly let go. So it's wide, wide open for a Wil Myers-type scenario. But in the meantime, this just in: Owings can play. The D-backs shortstop was a .290/.320/.441 hitter in the minor leagues. He's been almost an identical player in the big leagues this year (.285/.329/.423). And he's a fabulous defender, who is even out-UZR-ing Andrelton Simmons so far. Owings' home/road splits (.388/.438/.552 at home, .186/.219/.300 on the road) and BABIP (.352) are slightly troubling, though. So as we were saying, it's early.
AL rookie of the first quarter: Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
New York Yankees
Can I issue a formal apology to Jose Abreu for not handing him this prestigious quarter-trophy right now? (And Yordano Ventura, too, for that matter.) Thanks. Had Abreu not gotten hurt, and if he and Tanaka had continued along on their incredible early-season paces all year, we'd have had a ridiculous decision on our hands in four months: Would we vote for a 50-homer guy for rookie of the year, or a pitcher who went like 28-1? Luckily, there are no wrong answers to that dilemma. But right this minute, I'm in Tanaka's corner. After all, he's headed for the greatest strikeout/walk ratio (10.3-1) by any rookie starter in modern history. And the best WHIP (0.97) by any rookie starter since the mound was lowered 45 years ago. And one of the top five strikeout ratios (10.26 per 9 IP) by any rookie starter in modern times. And it isn't just that he's doing it on the biggest stage in baseball that makes that extra special. It's that pitching on that stage has actually brought out the best in him. Amazing.
NL manager of the first quarter: Bruce Bochy, Giants
If you want to amuse yourself (at our expense), feel free to check out the preseason predictions by 44 of us ever-psychic ESPN baseball geniuses. If you do, you'll notice something: Exactly three of us picked the Giants to win the NL West. Three of 44. A bunch more of us did predict they'd be a wild-card team, so it's not as if we all thought they were about to go 48-114. But almost none of us foresaw this -- a team with the third-best record in baseball (28-18). And even if we had foreseen it, I guarantee you we wouldn't have thought the Giants would have, or could have, done that in a season in which their vaunted rotation was tied for ninth in the league in quality starts (nine behind the Brewers). But that's how this team has functioned under Bruce Bochy. No matter how the pieces fit together, he figures out a way to make it work. Some managers just get it. He's at the top of that list.
AL manager of the first quarter: Bob Melvin, Athletics
Meanwhile, on the other side of the bay, it's just another year in the life of Bob Melvin, the best manager in baseball whom nobody ever talks about. The A's lose two starting pitchers before they play a game. They mix and match lineups nightly. They have two position players on their team making more than $5.25 million a year. And Melvin takes this paintbox and paints a masterpiece with it, year after year. So with apologies to Brad Ausmus, who deserves a rookie-manager-of-the-year award at the very least, Melvin is back in business, doing that thing he does yet again.
Best free agent: Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
Just so we get this straight, I'm not saying Tanaka was the best signing of the winter, dollar for dollar. That's a whole separate competition. I'm just trying to imagine the Yankees without him. They have a .778 winning percentage (7-2) when he starts, and a .457 winning percentage (16-19) when anyone else pitches. His ERA is 2.39. The ERA of the rest of their rotation is 4.72. He has nine quality starts in nine trips to the mound. The rest of their starters have combined for 13 quality starts -- in 35 trips to the mound. He finally lost a regular-season game this week for the first time, on any continent, since Aug. 19, 2012. CC Sabathia has lost 20 times since then. So ... get the idea? Yeah, I understand that the Yankees just out-dollared the world on this one. But they also knew they had to have this guy. And we're remembering why!
Best trade: Seth Smith, Padres
San Diego Padres
Here's a sentence I never thought I'd type: Where would the Padres be without Seth Smith? No. Seriously. He's second in the league (behind Tulo) in OPS. His offensive winning percentage, according to baseball-reference.com, is .825 -- meaning a team of all Seth Smiths would project to go 134-28 this year. He's slugging almost .600 (.593, to be exact), on a team where only one other regular (Chris Denorfia) is even slugging in the .400s. All right, so it's possible he won't sustain that 1.240 OPS in Petco all season. Or that .368 average on balls in play. But this award isn't about where he's going over the next four months. It's about the first quarter of the season. And Seth Smith for Luke Gregerson (who has done just fine himself, to be honest) is still the trade of the year (barely), over Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder. (But more on that Fielder deal momentarily.)
Most surprising team: Colorado Rockies
Bet you didn't know the Rockies have the second-best run differential in baseball right now (plus-52). Bet you didn't know they've already scored 105 more runs than the Braves. Bet you didn't know that if the season were to end today (which is unlikely), the Rockies would be getting ready to host the NL wild-card game. Well, it's all true. So did you see that coming, after a season in which they finished in last place, 18 games behind the Dodgers? We sure didn't. Only one ESPN baseball know-it-all (Steve Wulf, of ESPN The Mag fame) predicted that this would be a playoff team. But is it too late for a rewrite? Yeah, it would be easier to believe in this club if it didn't have the customary 264-point gap in home/road OPS (.975/.711). But any lineup where Carlos Gonzalez has the seventh-highest batting average is officially terrifying. And did you know this pitching staff ranks third in the league in WHIP (behind the Braves and Cardinals) in games not played at Coors Field? In other words, this Rockies team could prove all of us wrong if it stays reasonably healthy.
Most disappointing team: Tampa Bay Rays
So why the Rays over, say, the Pirates, Red Sox or Diamondbacks? Or even the Cardinals or Dodgers? Go take another look at that ESPN predictions page. You'll find that 40 of us (out of 44 "geniuses") picked the Rays to play in October, 25 of us said they'd win the AL East, 15 of us predicted they would get to the World Series and six of us (including yours truly) thought they'd win it all and then spend Halloween parading through the streets of, well, somewhere or other. (Uh, Madeira Beach is lovely that time of year.) Well, that all seemed sensible at the time. But in actual life, the Rays have the fifth-worst record in baseball (19-27). And that's not good. Granted, there's a reasonable explanation for that. When a team that's built around its rotation loses three-fifths of that rotation, that's always an excellent formula for trouble. But then we recall that the Braves and A's lost two starters apiece, for the entire season, and found enough reinforcements that they both sit in the top three in baseball in starting-pitching ERA. The Rays, on the other hand, rank 21st, with the fewest innings per start of any rotation in either league. They're 5-22 when their starter doesn't make it through the sixth. And there's been far too much of that going on for a team like this to overcome.
Most disappointing player: Prince Fielder, Rangers
You think, when the Rangers traded for Prince, and took on $138 million of his Prince-ly contract over the next seven years, they figured they'd look up on May 21 and find he was being outhomered by Jonathan Villar and Yangervis Solarte? Or that he'd have a lower slugging percentage than Scooter Gennett and Alcides Escobar? Well, it's all happening. Really. For the record, Kinsler is outslugging Prince by 93 points (.454-.360). And enjoying every point of it.
One last history lesson
Finally, we know what you're thinking. You're undoubtedly asking yourself (or maybe the person sitting next to you on that bar stool): What do the standings mean at this point?
Well, glad you asked. Since this is Year 3 of the two-wild-card era, I took a look back at the standings after 40 games in the first two years of this system and found:
Of the 20 teams that made the playoffs, 13 (or 65 percent) were in playoff position after 40 games.
Six of the other seven were no more than three games out of a playoff spot.
And the final team -- the 2013 Dodgers -- made all that math moot by going 53-13 between late June and early September.
But those 53-13 streaks don't come along every year. Or every decade. Or even every century. So if a team you root for is more than three games out right now, ummmm, might be time to rent a beach house. That'll make the summer fly by. Right?
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