The more things change, the more they stay the same, except for when they change.
We’re basically a quarter of the way through the season. About 60 percent of the league will have played at least 40 games by the time you read this. This early landmark of the season has a funny way of sneaking up on us, because of the disruptions in the early-season schedule—extra off days, rainouts, and so on—and because of the distractions that keep baseball off the front page of the sports section until summer: the NFL Draft, the NBA and NHL playoffs, etc. We spend so much time (rightfully, by the way) reminding ourselves that it’s early that we eventually risk doing so even when it’s no longer so.
I’m not sure we’re there yet. I’m not sure it’s not still early. Rather than revisit this in two weeks and find I missed the crossing of the Rubicon, though, I figure it’s worth taking stock of what’s changed so far. To do so, let’s examine the 10 teams whose Playoff Odds have moved 12 percentage points or more since the season began. This is an imperfect way of deciding how much has changed, of course. It embraces both PECOTA’s initial estimation of each team’s true talent level, and the system’s rate of change—the way it incorporates new information without giving up the value added by maintaining a long memory and healthy skepticism about relatively small samples. Still, it’s something, so let’s test out the relationship between our intuitions and PECOTA’s projections.
Either the Orioles will rub our noses in it again, or they'll make a little history.
You probably heard that the Orioles have started the season 7-0. This is notable for several reasons. First, this is the first time the O’s have gone 7-0 to start the season, though the team’s progenitor, the St. Louis Browns (nee Milwaukee Brewers), went 9-0 to start its lone pennant-winning season of 1944. Second, it’s an uncommon accomplishment. In the 116 seasons since the modern era began in 1901, this is only the 27th time a team’s started a season 7-0. Third, it’s a harbinger of success, as the 26 teams before this year that started 7-0 all finished at .500 or better, with 11 going to the postseason and five winning the World Series. Fourth, the Orioles were, well, not expected to be really good.
As of this morning, BP’s Playoff Odds simulator projects the Orioles to finish 79-83. That’s not great, but this being the contemporary American League East, a swing of six games would put them in first. So the Orioles could be an okay team, or they could be a mediocre team. The upside, of course, would be the team’s third postseason trip in the past five years. Based on historical precedent, what’s the downside?
Of the 26 teams to start 7-0 before the Orioles, here are the ones that stand out as the weakest.
The Red Sox give Pablo Sandoval's job away, the Orioles are in a snit with Hyun-Soo Kim, and the Rangers and Indians might be the best bet for a last-second big-league swap.
Pablo Sandoval Loses His Job To Travis Shaw
After a flurry of moves that included the signing of Pablo Sandoval, the 2014 Red Sox romped to the American League pennant, then swept the World Series. General Manager Ben Cherington received many an accolade for his work, and Sandoval became an instant fan favorite.
The Braves' outfield battle is down to three contenders, while the Orioles and Yankees try to round out their pitching staffs before Opening Day.
The Braves’ fourth outfield spot is still open to Jeff Francoeur, Michael Bourn, or Emilio Bonifacio Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn may have been a package deal for the Braves at the 2015 deadline, but it’s almost certain that they’ll be parting ways by Opening Day. The Braves are narrowing down their bench candidates, and according to Mark Bowman of MLB.com, Nick Swisher is likely to get the boot by the end of spring training if he fails to net a trade offer. Assuming the Braves offload the veteran outfielder by absorbing the rest of his $15 million contract, they’ll still have to rid themselves of another outfield candidate to set their 25-man roster. That leaves just three outfielders to duke it out: Bourn, clubhouse personality Jeff Francoeur, and bargain backup Emilio Bonifacio.
Finding a place in today's game for one of the great baseball gambits.
I love the Belanger Gambit. It is, perhaps, my all-time favorite baseball thing, the thing I would pick first if I were drafting baseball things. For those who don’t know, here’s how the Gambit goes. Back in the 1970s, Earl Weaver loved having the sparkling glove of shortstop Mark Belanger in the lineup every day for his Baltimore Orioles. When Weaver preached “pitching, defense, and the three-run homer,” Belanger was a huge pillar of that second tenet. On the other hand, and much to the chagrin of his manager, Belanger couldn’t hit a lick. His glove work at shortstop was usually more than enough to outpace his problems at the plate, but he usually put a dent in his team’s offense. His .231 career True Average is (to the delight of baseball history nerds!) the same as that of Aurelio Rodriguez, but also (more helpfully, to you who want to get a sense of who he was as a hitter with some familiar context) halfway between those of Ozzie Guillen and Royce Clayton.
Mark Belanger, Offensive, Defensive, and Value Statistics, Prime Seasons
In the wake of the Fowler spinaround, a look at the deleterious effects and simplest solutions to our collective qualifying offer problem.
Let’s start with the notion that it’d probably be for the best if free agent compensation, and for that matter, the draft itself, were eliminated entirely. Let’s then accept the notion that the latter might not ever happen, and the former is at minimum a major bargaining chip in any CBA talks.
What seems likely to happen, if anything, is some modification to the existing system of compensation for signing and/or losing free agents, because the current system isn’t tenable. On the one hand, it’s working in ownership’s favor on the whole: Suppressing salaries is the name of the game when it comes to free agent compensation, and we’ve seen Howie Kendrick and Dexter Fowler settle for below-market deals to return to the team that wouldn’t lose a draft pick by signing them. While someone gets left out in the cold every year, we’ve seen Diamondbacks’ GM Dave Stewart admit that the Diamondbacks were reluctant to give up their second pick (37th overall at the time), even if they were getting a major-league upgrade in the process. This process seemed to repeat itself in Baltimore with Fowler.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, it appears that clubs are less likely to punt on a given draft by signing multiple QO’d players and absorbing the losses of several rounds of picks than to space out those losses over several years, deciding when and where to lose a first-round pick. It appears, based on their actions and words, that clubs are intensely valuing not just the picks that they speak of but, more accurately, the slot money associated with those picks.