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April 30, 2014
The Lineup Card
10 Things We Learned in April
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
3. Martin Perez may yet realize his potential
4. The Brewers are good
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
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?
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
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.
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
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
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
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