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April 24, 2009

What We've Learned

Three Weeks In

by Baseball Prospectus

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Will Carroll: I've learned that there's still no answer to an oblique strain. The recent rash of this injury best exemplifies the problems that injuries cause for teams. While it was sensible to think that Chris Carpenter, Ricky Romero, or any other pitcher might be unable to pitch for reasons related to their arms, up jumps a muscle that no one could even find on their body ten years ago. All of the off-season conditioning, stretching, massages, and modalities fail as the body count continues to rack up days and dollars lost. What's next, some new diagnostic technique creating an outbreak of hip surgeries among elite infielders? Oh, wait...

Steven Goldman: One thing we've learned thus far is that jumping onto a bandwagon is a good way to sprain one's pride; sometimes you have to just wait and see. Already we've had attempts to argue that the Marlins were grossly underestimated during the offseason, and that one of the reasons why is that Emilio Bonifacio can be the new Paul Molitor (in his early-career "Igniter" phase); that Jeff Francoeur (one home run, one walk, and a below-average .328 OBP) was sufficiently chastised by his weak showing last year to reinvent himself as a more selective hitter; that the leadership of Livan Hernandez would make the Mets' starting rotation better; and that the Blue Jays having gone 63-42 since Cito Gaston's return somehow means they can continue to survive an injury-decimated pitching staff and an offense that's overdue for a return to Earth. We will soon be hearing "definitive" statements on CC Sabathia's hangover from his 2008 innings total, Matt Holliday's inability to hit away from Coors Field; the impossibility of Milton Bradley forging a truce with with Lou Piniella, the Chicago fans, or both; and that Pittsburgh's pitching staff can make it a true contender this year. We don't even know if Carlos Quentin is going to win the AL MVP, though that line is already forming. In every case, it's all too soon to do more than speculate.

Kevin Goldstein: We entered a golden age for shortstops in the late 1990s, especially in the American League, where Jeter and Nomar led a very talented group. With that in mind, I get the feeling that we might be entering a similar age for center fielders in the National League. Dexter Fowler surprised many by making the big-league club out of spring training, but he's been very impressive, and he, a surging Colby Rasmus, the very impressive Jordan Schafer, and even a struggling Cameron Maybin all have star potential, and there's one more on the way, as the early reports out of Pittsburgh on center fielder Andrew McCutchen at Triple-A have been nothing short of outstanding. This quintet is good now, at least five years away from their prime, and could help see the National League revert to a far more entertaining brand of baseball, where both power and speed rule up the middle.

Jay Jaffe: While I don't want to get too worked up as to the degree to which it will be true because of the impact of warm weather on a couple of weeks' worth of games, it certainly looks as if this will be a year in which home runs increase. By itself, that's not terribly interesting, given the fluctuations we've seen over the past decade and a half, but it finally seems likely that whatever spike occurs won't be dismissed as steroid-related. I've been carping for years-since contributing a chapter to Will Carroll's The Juice: the Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems-that it's the ball that's juiced. Such a mechanism more easily explains the various peaks and valleys we've seen over recent years, and the continuous introduction of new ballparks has been a contributing factor as well. It appears as though both of those components are on display thus far, and by the end of the season we might actually have learned something about fluctuating offense levels that has nothing to do with speculation about who's sticking needles into their butts.

Christina Kahrl: I tend to move ponderously when incorporating the new, and quickly when dealing with the old, so I'm still mulling if there are any lessons three weeks in. Confirmation biases are a human weakness that I'm as guilty of as most; a review of the standings this early tells me that my pre-season feeling that there's enough talent in Miami to make the Marlins the best fourth-place team in baseball still holds true. The AL West's early results similarly reflect that the Mariners are a more realistic long shot than most, especially when the A's look like a hasty pudding of rushed-up worthies while the Angels were already headed back to the pack before tragedy added to their rotation woes. That either the Cubs, having released Chad Gaudin and designated Luis Vizcaino for assignment, had too much pitching-which I doubt-or the difficulty in getting a deal done involving anybody making seven figures in this market is worse than we could have anticipated. I'm pleased by the suggestion that Ryan Ludwick's here to stay, not that there was really any reason to think otherwise; new is not necessarily unusual, and his combination of health and a team that trusts that he can slug will see that trust appropriately rewarded; add in Tony La Russa's creative spread of playing time among more regulars than he has lineup slots, and it makes for a box score worth checking out every day.

Marc Normandin: It's going to be a great season for hitters. April is not normally a month for offense, but this year has been an exception, with 487 home runs hit already for an average of 2.15 per game. That blows last year's rate for the year (2.01) out of the water, as well as last April's mark of 1.78. The long ball usually flies as the weather heats up, which means that things are just going to get more lively from here on out. Greg Rybarczyk of Hit Tracker measures homer distance adjusted for weather and temperature, and based on his analysis, it seems that the ball is traveling roughly eight feet further than last year. Brian Cashman has even noted this in the Yankees' investigation of their new, seemingly homer-friendly stadium. The ball is most likely responsible, which should surprise no one (especially Dr. James Sherwood) who knows what the testing process for Major League baseball's involves.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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