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April 30, 2014

The Lineup Card

10 Things We Learned in April

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Nothing
Okay, so maybe "nothing" is a little too strong, but let's remember a few things. Many statistics that we use to judge players have not yet stabilized, so we can't really be sure whether your early season crush on Martin Perez is just infatuation or it will stand the test of time. And beyond that, even if you can build your case on stable stats, those are the kinds of skills where players can (and do) make changes... sometimes not intentionally.

I'd be interested to see which set of predictions by whatever panel of experts you wanted to select were more accurate, those made on April 1, when they are thinking ahead to the whole season or those made on May 1, when they are looking at a month's worth of already established, in-the-books data, bur perhaps over-reacting to it. My guess is that some howlers would be made in both cases. —Russell A. Carleton

2. The Astros' High-A affiliate is loaded with talent
There's no surprise that the Houston Astros High-A affiliate, the Lancaster JetHawks, is teeming with top talent, after the organization assigned five of its top 10 prospects as ranked by Baseball Prospectus to that squad. But having attended several of the team's games this month, declaring the Lancaster roster a top-heavy one is unfair to the rest of the rest of the club, which is filled with interesting prospects. Teoscar Hernandez is a prospect on the rise; Danry Vasquez showcases a smooth, fluid swing from the left side; Tony Kemp is a small second baseman who can hit and run; Josh Hader is a unique southpaw who is making improvements. As someone who will be spending much of the summer at minor-league games, the Lancaster roster will always be receiving my undivided attention. —Ronit Shah

3. Martin Perez may yet realize his potential
I learned that Martin Perez may reach that no. 2-starter ceiling after all, prospect fatigue be damned. He's been on fire in the early going, tossing two shutouts in April, while compiling a 1.42 ERA and 2.59 FIP. Perez is relying heavily on his sinker, which has quelled hitters to the tune of a .265 batting average and .286 slugging percentage, and his changeup, which is against which they are hitting .067 and slugging .100. Right-handed hitters have a .213/.275/.255 against, Perez in part because of his nasty changeup. Perez will have to induce more swinging strikes in order to sustain these numbers. There is likely a bit of regression coming, but he looks like one of the best southpaws in baseball right now. —Jordon Gorosh

4. The Brewers are good
I can honestly say I thought the Brewers were good before the season, though not this good. I don’t use this entry just to brag about a pick that looks good after a whopping one month sample—as I was one of three to tab the Brew Crew for a wildcard spot—but rather to marvel at just how good they have been thus far. Depth of quality starting pitching was a key driver for me in picking them for the playoffs, but I didn’t see four of the five starters toting sub-3.00 ERAs as we close out the month.

However, even with that hot start from the starting five, I would’ve expected the offense to carry a large part of the load that got them to 19-7 and yet their modest 4.08 runs per game total slots just 16th in the league. That leads to my biggest takeaway from their fast start: their bullpen is ridiculous. They’ve held batters to hilarious .194 average with a 31.1 percent strikeout rate and 6.9 percent walk rate in 78 1/3 innings. Francisco Rodriguez has led the charge as the closer, having not yet yielded a single run, while former prospect Tyler Thornburg, trade acquisition Will Smith, and former closer Jim Henderson give the pen its depth. And Zach Duke is apparently a sick reliever?

It won’t all last with the bullpen—I know I’m nuts to suggest that those five arms won’t allow seven runs per 61 innings as they have thus far, bear with me—but that doesn’t mean it’s set to implode, either. They all have strikeout and walk numbers conducive to huge seasons, even as their minuscule BABIPs and non-existent LOB rates regress. Additionally, there is reason to believe that the regression can be tempered by improvement from the offense. Consider that only Carlos Gomez (.894 OPS) and Ryan Braun (.952) are excelling at the dish. This team has the makings of emulating what the Pirates did last year except with a far more imposing offense top-to-bottom which alleviates some of the burden on the bullpen to be near-perfect as it was in Pittsburgh a year ago. —Paul Sporer

5. The Diamondbacks are terrible at sports
(Maybe not ALL sports, but definitely the one they're getting paid to play. They could be tremendous curlers, and if they are I'd like to hang out with them this winter.)

Their only pitcher with an ERA below 5.00 as a starter is Josh Collmenter, who was forcibly typecast into a long reliever two years ago. Yes, they're missing Patrick Corbin for the year, but that excuse won't fly in The Year Of The UCL. Nor does it explain the itinerant command of Trevor Cahill or the elasticity of McCarthy's and Wade Miley's pitches off the bat. Even the last-minute splurge of Bronson Arroyo is backfiring. They also aren't holding runners well and the defense behind them isn't doing any favors.

Their horrid beginning is mostly the pitching, yes. But Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo can only hit so many cool home runs to sustain the lineup; cloning technology is severely lacking for what we expected 100 years ago. But even then, they would have no starting pitchers to clone, leaving their last option to pray to any and all baseball regression Gods that they finally start laying down some good innings to avoid 100 losses. —Matt Sussman

6. The dream of the ‘90s is alive in… Colorado?
Most of the baseball world, especially Mr. Selig himself, would like to believe that “The Steroid Era” is a thing of the past. And for the most part, they’re right: Runs per game are down by almost a full run from their 2000 peak, and could see their stingiest mark of the new millenium by season’s end. Home runs, the main culprits of the late-90s/early-00s scoring binges, are way down, too, flirting with lows not seen since 1993. Drug-related suspensions still crop up now and again, but for the most part, the league seems to have sharply curbed steroid use and the steep run totals that went with it.

Before we engrave the tombstone, though, we may want check what’s in the water in Colorado, because the Rockies are making offense cool again. (Don’t worry, I’m not accusing anyone of any illicit activity. I’ll save that for Murray Chass.) The team is demolishing the baseball, slashing .295/.347/.478 with 34 home runs. Their .825 OPS is exactly 50 points ahead of the second-place White Sox; for reference, no team has ever outpaced the league’s second-most potent offense by that wide a margin. Nolan Arenado is progressing, Justin Morneau is resurrecting his career, Tulo is being Tulo, and Charlie Blackmon has developed split-personality disorder in which his alter ego is Ted Williams. All told, the Rockies are posting a downright gaudy 5.49 runs per game.

But what makes this year’s Rockies a true throwback is that the same fireworks show happens when they take the field. Colorado pitchers have already given up 30 home runs, meaning that between home runs hit and allowed, the Rockies are by far the league’s most homer-happy team.* According to the Casual Fan Index—invented a minute ago and defined as home runs per dollar spent on tickets—the Rockies are the layman’s most entertaining team in the league at a mere $23.65 a pop. Essentially, they’re hitting like they did in the heydays of Helton and Walker, and selling seats at a pre-Bush discount.

So, catch a Rockies game if you have a chance. They might just remind you of the delightful insanity of the summer of ‘98.

*(Small sample size though it may be, these numbers don’t seem merely attributable to the infamous effects of Coors Field. Despite often posting Fair Run Averages worse than this year’s, the Rockies have finished in the top ten of home runs allowed only three times in the past decade. They’re offensive output is similarly unassuming: the Rockies are twelfth in home runs over that same timeframe.) —Nick Bacarella

7. The Cubs are mediocre at being awful
One of the things about two little kids the same age is, inevitably, one of them will try to copy the other. The first kid will see the second kid drinking box drinks and playing video games and he’ll want to drink box drinks and play video games. The Cubs and Astros are these two little kids. The Astros lost a ton of games and played embarrassing baseball for two years in order to get draft picks and re-start the organization. So now, of course, the Cubs have to do the same thing. Last year the Cubs lost a trillion games (Editor’s Note: 96) and the Astros lost 111. After the season was over the Astros called the Cubs to gloat.

/rrrring
Cubs: Hello?
Astros: Guess what?
Cubs: What?
Astros: Nanny-nanny boo-boo, we lost more games than you
Cubs: /cries

So now you know the Cubs are going to try to lose 111 games too. So guess what? They Cubs are on pace to lose 110.16 games.

/rrrring
Cubs: Hello?
Astros: You suck at sucking!
Cubs: /cries

Despite their best efforts the Cubs aren’t the worst team in baseball. The Diamondbacks are on pace to lose 117 games. Heck, the Astros, who are kinda even trying this season, are on pace to lose 108 games. 111 games is nothing. The Cubs aren’t last in hitting, they aren’t last in pitching, and they aren’t last in defense. In fact, they’re even kinda good at defense. What is up with that?

If we’ve learned one thing about the Cubs this April, they’re lousy at being the worst. —Matthew Kory

8. The big-name imports are for real
The White Sox and Yankees took risks this offseason on big contracts for players who never played a single major league game. Early returns suggest the rewards will match the risk. Jose Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka are not only looking like the first- and second-place finishers in the Rookie of the Year voting, they may even contend for the MVP award. One is leading the AL in slugging percentage, while the other leads in xFIP.

There will obviously be a period of adjustment as opponents learn more about the new talents. Still, there seems to be an advantage that Abreu and Tanaka have from playing at the highest level in their own countries. What has impressed me the most about Tanaka is his maturity and confidence on the mound. Part of that is his makeup, but I think part of it is also simply a result of facing hitters for long enough to understand how they approach him—and developing a strategy to counter them. Hitters facing him know that once they fall behind in count, they will probably see his dreaded splitter. They might be tempted to jump on an early fastball. Tanaka knows this and has opted to throw a looping curveball (75 mph) on about 17 percent of his first pitches, to throw off their timing and keep them guessing.

So yes, it was risky to give Tanaka $22 million for seven years and Abreu $11 million for six. But Tanaka is 25 and Abreu is 27. They are both young and mature—entering their primes and with experience facing quality opponents. Are those deals really that much riskier than, say, signing any major-league veteran over 30 for a comparable amount? —Dan Rozenson

9. Cam Bedrosian can strike everybody out on his way to the majors
As Matt Welch wrote in this year's BP Annual, the Angels for a while last decade seemed to defy the business cycle, winning at the big-league level while also consistently carrying one of the best farm systems in the game. While the former came undone sometime around the Scott Kazmir and Vernon Wells trades, the latter hit its snag in 2010, the draft after the Mike Trout (and Garrett Richards/Tyler Skaggs) haul. As in 2009, the Angels were loaded with first-rounders--five of them, compensation for losing Vladimir Guerrero, Chone Figgins and John Lackey. But this time they got no Trout. While Kaleb Cowart and Taylor Lindsey might still have futures, neither has developed into a sure thing, while Ryan Bolden and Chevy Clarke are abject failures as top picks.

Then there's Cam Bedrosian. He missed all of what was to be his first full year in the organization after surgery, then was a complete mess in his second, with more walks than strikeouts and an ERA over 6.00. The Angels insisted that, on certain nights, when his secondaries were working, he could look special, and after a pretty good 2013 season and a conversion to relief, something special is finally happening. In 10 2/3 innings this year he has struck out 26 batters—nearly 22 per nine. Exactly two-thirds of the batters he's faced have gone down on strikes, while just three have drawn walks (and four scratched out hits). It's not triple-digit heat, so much as newfound pinpoint command, according to one observer of the system who saw him in Double-A. With the Angels' bullpen again in disarray, Bedrosian could be the first of that first-round class to contribute to the majors, as the Angels try to somehow regain that last-decade dominance. —Sam Miller

10. Batting average is endangered
BP’s all-in-one offensive rate statistic, True Average, is tied to what has historically been the batting average scale, which means that a .260 TAv is league average. These days, though, a .260 league average makes TAv look out of touch with the times. TAv’s scale hasn’t changed, but batting average’s has: major leaguers haven’t hit .260 since 2009, dropping to .253 in 2013 and .248 so far this season.

That average is almost certain to rise as the weather gets warmer. In 2012, for instance, the league hit .249 in April but finished at .255. However, it’s likely that we’re heading for the lowest batting average since the late-1960s/early 1970s. And while power isn’t down to quite the same extent, we’re still seeing the lowest league-average Isolated Power (ISO) since the last strike.

No, Bud Selig didn’t raise the mound or do away with the DH while you weren’t looking. But there are two other obvious culprits: the rising strikeout rate, and the increased emphasis on shifting and player-personalized defensive positioning. As a result of the strikeouts, hitters are putting fewer balls in play per plate appearance. And as a result of the shift, hitters are finding it harder than ever not just to hit ’em, but to hit ’em where they ain’t. That’s a recipe for a lot of extra outs.

The rise in strikeout rate could be reversed if MLB takes steps to encourage contact, and shifts could become scarcer if hitters take steps to discourage them. As we’ve seen this April, though, the trend toward fewer hits has some staying power. —Ben Lindbergh

5 comments have been left for this article.

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Pebble Hunting: The Me... (04/30)
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The Lineup Card: 10 of... (04/23)
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The Lineup Card: 10 It... (05/07)
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