I just can’t seem to find the time to blog. My INTEREST in baseball has not diminished; I watch most Yankee games, and occasionally other games (mostly Phillies and Dodgers) and I watch the MLB Game Recaps faithfully of all games. I often see things I would like to comment on, but I don’t get to the computer, and when I do I have other things to do. I don’t promise to do better, though I plan to try.
Meanwhile, about 10% of the season is done (most teams have played about 15 games) and I have a few minutes, so here I am. Sadly, I advise that you don’t get used to it.
The universally projected division leaders were Tampa Bay, Detroit, Oakland, Washington, St. Louis and Los Angeles. As of this morning, the actual division leaders are New York, Detroit, Oakland, Atlanta, Milwaukee and San Francisco. And the two which match on both lists are not exactly running away with it: Detroit is 7-6, and therefore leads 8-7 Cleveland by .012 and 0 games. Only Oakland, 2 games up on Texas, is where they were expected to be. Atlanta is no surprise, though they were expected to falter with a weakened pitching staff.
Probably the biggest small-sample-size results of the young season are the Yankees, Brewers and Giants. I plan to take a peek under the hood of these three teams. Remember, though, that it is a 15-game sample – many of the fun stuff is not truly meaningful. It is still fun, though, at least to me.
The Giants at 10-5 lead the Dodgers (9-6) by a single game: before last night’s game between the two they were tied. The Dodgers have played well, not surprisingly, but the Giants HAVE surprised: they have scored 71 runs in 15 games, 4.733 per game which is well above the MLB average, and even more above the NL average. They are third in the NL behind the Nationals and Marlins(?) and fifth in baseball, trailing the AL-leading White Sox(?) and Angels. Using wOBA, they are paced by Michael Morse (.408), Brandon Crawford (.406), Angel Pagan (.406), Brandon Hicks (.405) and Brandon Belt (.397). ASIDE: Is San Francisco trying to corner the market on the name Brandon? The only Giant regulars who HAVEN’T hit, so far, are Pablo Sandoval (.277) and Hunter Pence (.244) who were projected to be among their best hitters.
On the pitching side, the Giants have allowed 59 runs, or 3.933 per game, somewhat below the league average. There are LOTS of teams that have done better, however, since the average is driven up by the Diamondbacks (115 runs allowed 6.389 per game). The Giants run prevention currently ranks 7th of 15 NL teams, middle-of-the-pack as it were. They have gone 3 times through the rotation, with each starter making exactly 3 starts. In ERA they range from Hudson (2.35) to Lincecum (7.20). Their bullpen has been strong. The most fun stat, for me: Lincecum has a 7.20 ERA, and a 5.31 FIP, but a 2.37 xFIP, best on the team. What does this mean? Nothing, I expect. But if you believed the small sample size numbers, Lincecum has not been bad, but merely unlucky (that his fly balls allowed have been home runs too often) and that he will go back to being dominant.
Milwaukee has been the story of the early season. The Brewers reeled off a 9-game winning streak, and at 11-4 own MLB’s best record. They have scored 63 runs (4.2/G) while allowing just 40 (2.667/G) so you can clearly say that they are winning with pitching. The offense is paced by Carlos Gomez (.433 wOBA) and Aramis Ramirez (.398) but also features Ricki Weeks (.146!) among others. It is ordinary, and is likely to stay that way.
The pitching, on the other hand, has been extraordinary. They have also had 5 starters make exactly 3 starts apiece, and their ERAs range from Gallardo (0.96) to Garza (3.43). Based on this sample, it is arguable that only Hudson from the Giants would crack the Brewers rotation. FIP is not as high on them, of course, ranging from 2.35-4.57, but xFIP has all of them in the tight range of 3.33-3.95. So, for the most part, they have not outpitched their true talent by that much, and are better than we thought. I think the Brewers will have a tough time sticking in the race, because this division has the Cardinals and the Pirates and the Reds (sorry, Cubs fans) but I DO think their pitching staff will be among the best in the game, barring unusual injuries.
The Yankees, of course, are the team I know the best. I have seen all or part of 12 of their 15 games, and I am pretty amazed that they are 9-6. At the season’s start, I worried about the following things: 1) Can a team really compete with a 40-year-old shortstop who was never a good fielder (despite several gold gloves!), has the highest ground-ball rate in the game, and essentially didn’t play at all last year? 2) Can a team really compete with a first baseman who essentially didn’t play at all last year, and with NO backup at all? 3) Can a team really compete if your other infielders consist of the following: Kelly Johnson, a 30-year-old still looking for his first 1+ WAR season, Brian Roberts, a 36-year-old who hasn’t reached 300 PA since 2009, Dean Anna, a 27-year-old without a major-league PA, and Yangervis Solarte, a 26-year-old without a major-league PA, and NINE minor league seasons behind him? 4) Can CC Sabathia redefine himself after a bad 2013 and the loss of about 5 MPH from his fastball? 5) How much of the recent Yankee success can be attributed to the almost automatic ninth-inning magic from the irreplaceable Mariano Rivera?
We have no answers to these questions, obviously, after 15 games. The Yankees have scored 54 runs, just 3.6 per game, and obviously well below the AL average (in total runs, the easy metric, they have outscored only Kansas City (42), Detroit (42), Houston (44), Tampa Bay (45) and Boston (53). Essentially the AL divides neatly into (so far) terrible offenses (Royals, Tigers, Astros, Rays), bad offenses (Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers, Mariners, Orioles), average offenses (Blue Jays, Indians, Athletics, Twins), and powerhouse offenses (Angels, White Sox).
And two of the questions above already have consequences: the only First Baseman (Teixeira) is already on the DL, as is the replacement closer (Robertson). And the Yankee offense, such as it is, has been fueled by Carlos Beltran (.432 wOBA) which might have been expected, and Yangervis Solarte (.404) which was certainly not. Solarte is playing every day, first because Kelly Johnson was bad, then because the bad Kelly Johnson moved to first to replace the injured Mark Teixeira. Brian Roberts hasn’t been really hurt, yet (though he already missed several games with a bad back) but he HAS been BAD (wOBA .227) and starting for them yesterday (they played 2 games) were not only Solarte and Anna, but also Scott Sizemore and JR Murphy (replacement catcher for injured backup Cervelli). Not only are they not scoring, they DESERVE not to score, with the lineups they are trotting out. For example, one day last week they faced a good left-handed starter, and their lineup contained the following left-handed hitters: McCann, Johnson, Gardner, Ellsbury, Suzuki and Anna. SIX lefties! They rounded out the lineup with switch-hitting Beltran and Solarte, and righty Soriano. Ugh! Yesterday was a typical day at the office: they managed 5 runs in two games, pounding out 14 singles, 2 doubles and one home run in those 2 games.
But THEN there’s the pitching. The concern about Sabathia is still there, as he has not been dominant or even effective in his three starts: ERA 6.63, FIP 4.73, but his xFIP (oddly) is 2.23 – so he may be all right. He HAS struck out a lot of hitters (10/9 IP) and walked very few (1.42/9) which is actually a characteristic of this staff overall. Nova has been himself, winning 2 of 3 despite an ERA of 5.53, a FIP of 4.90 and an xFIP of 4.77. He is NOT a good pitcher, and there is no sign that he will get better. Kuroda is old, and relies on craftiness, but his numbers are good, and consistent: ERA 3.86, FIP 3.58, xFIP 3.83. For two years running he has been good for 3-4 months, then wore down and was bad at the end of the year. BUT the Yankees are currently sporting two young studs: Michael Pineda, out to prove that the trade was NOT irrelevant, is pitching like he did 3 years ago. After 3 starts he has an ERA of 1.00 (!), with a FIP of 2.60 and an xFIP of 3.89. And Tanaka has become just the 2nd pitcher in HISTORY to post 8+ strikeouts in each of his first three starts (the other: Stephen Strasburg, who did it in his first 4). Tanaka has given up some homers, but has been otherwise completely dominant: ERA 2.05, FIP 1.95, xFIP 1.78. So far this young season, there is an argument that Tanaka is baseball’s best pitcher.
The Yankees have also allowed 54 runs this year, 3.6/G but a much better number than the offense. And it is better/worse than this: the anemic offense plays in hitter’s paradise Yankee Stadium, and the pitchers have to toil there, too.
I said in an earlier post that the Yankees would go only as far as their pitching would take them. So far, that is pretty far indeed. And if Sabathia/Nova continue to struggle, Warren, Phelps and Nuno are all waiting their chance, on the roster but in the bullpen.
Some anecdotal info to close: Solarte and his giant BABIP has been totally lucky. He is not a plus defender (the numbers reflect this) and his hits have been a lot of bloops, dribblers, and seeing-eye grounders. Still, he is having a LOT of fun, and his excitement to just be here, after 9 years of minor-league experience, is infectious. I hope he sticks (I would LOTS rather have him than Brendon Ryan, currently on the DL). And Dean Anna actually looks to me like he can play. He IS a plus defender – a better shortstop than Jeter (easy to do) by a wide margin, a better second baseman than Roberts and a better third baseman than Johnson/Solarte/A-Rod. He will never be a great hitter, but he seems to have a solid approach, and I think he could stick.
Last word: I think the Brewers are a fluke, and will wind up fourth in the NL Central. I think the Giants will challenge for the NL Wild Card, but not the division. But I think the ragtag Yankees have caught lightning in a bottle in their two young starters, and will surprise the AL East.