As you may have heard, the Chicago Cubs started the season pretty well. As of the end of May, they were 35-15, playing exactly .700 ball. That projects to a 113-49 record over 162 games, which would be the most wins in a season since the Mariners won 116 in 2001, and the most in the National League since, well, since the Chicago Cubs won 116 in 1906.
But that wasn’t the only notable end-of-May record. The Twins and Braves were both 15-36, on pace for 48-114. The Reds, at 17-35, were on pace for 53-109. The 20-33 Padres projected to 61-101, raising the question of how Padres owner Ron Fowler would describe the Twins, Braves, or Reds. On the other hand, the 32-20 Red Sox were on pace to finish 100-62, the 33-21 Giants were on track for 99-63, the 32-21 Nationals on pace for 98-64, the 31-21 Rangers for 97-65, and the 30-21 Mariners for 95-67. So there were, at the end of May, four teams with a shot at 100 losses and six that could win 100.
As an aside, I am fully cognizant that “on pace for” is intellectually lazy and ignorant, unless it’s wielded cleverly by the likes of Jayson Stark or Cespedes Family Barbecue. (Especially the Cespedes Family Barbecue link. You should check it out. Go ahead, it won’t take long. I’ll still be here.) So no, I’m not implying that there actually will be four teams with 62 or fewer wins and six with 62 or fewer losses. I’m just setting the tone. Play along with me here.
Julio Urias gets hit again, Zack Greinke is basically back, and the Padres out-do themselves.
The Thursday Takeaway
Statistically, you’re unlikely to be a nuclear physicist. There are certainly some of you that are nuclear physicists, but almost assuredly, the average reader of this columnist is unlikely to currently be a nuclear physicist. It’s substantially more likely, however, that there are many physics majors reading this. Yet, of course, a physics major doesn’t make one a nuclear physicist.
In a sport that fetishizes comebacks, it can be difficult to tell a return from a redemption.
I was following along, like maybe a lot of you, with the Matt Bush story the past few weeks. Bush likely needs no real intro to a committed baseball readership, but here’s the short version for context’s sake. Bush was drafted as a shortstop with the first overall pick in the 2003 draft by the San Diego Padres. He was bad at hitting—which led to his conversion to pitching—and bad at avoiding injury. Worse than either, though, were his problems with drugs, domestic violence, and DUI. He spent three years in prison.
Now, he’s with the Texas Rangers—the team most closely associated with another former first-overall draft pick/recovering substance abuser—and pitching in the major leagues for the first time ever. He’s throwing 98 miles an hour, he’s on a zero tolerance policy for drugs or booze, and he’s rapidly climbing the ladder in the Rangers’ bullpen. In short, Matt Bush has reinvented himself.
I’m taken in easily by stories like Bush’s, and that can be a problem. Bush’s anomalous transformation, his ability to become something different in order to succeed in what is a brutal game of failure, makes it tempting to forgive and (more problematically) forget his past sins. And while we all might have different opinions on the value of redemption or retribution, the fact is that we can’t really enjoy the rise of Matt Bush without asking ourselves some serious questions about our relationship to the actions that made him fall.
Bush’s sins aren’t of the Josh Hamilton variety, after all—there’s an easy link by way of substance abuse, and I’ll admit I’ve drawn it without thinking a few times. But Hamilton’s problems were self-destructive, limited for the most part to his own abuse of drugs and his fight to get over that. Bush hurt a lot of people on his way back to the majors, the most famous example of which was running over a man’s head while fleeing a hit-and-run DUI. (The man survived thanks to his wearing a helmet.) While this incident is what landed Bush in prison for a little over three years, he was also involved in the assault of a high school lacrosse player with a golf club (getting him released from the Padres) and he threw a baseball at a woman’s head (which got him kicked off the Blue Jays). In short, Matt Bush made his bed in a fairly dramatic and troubling way. He was awful.
But now he’s back, and it’s tempting to revel in the baseball return story. After all, the comeback is one of our most treasured genres as fans, and for good reason. These stories make us believe, however briefly, in our ability as people to beat the odds. I mentioned Hamilton above, and his story is likely one of the most inspiring in this way, as he kicked his drug habit and tasted some of the Mickey Mantle-esque appeal he had when being drafted first overall by the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays. And while Hamilton’s journey has been a little windy since then, the fact that he saw any success after flaming out for years in the minor leagues is remarkable. Baseball, as I’ve said before and I’ll say again, is powerfully unforgiving.
And so when we see most of the nameless first-round busts or snake-bitten injured phenoms go the way of our Brian Bullingtons and Mark Priors, we’re rightly amazed to see a happy ending. When Rich Hill can stick to the pursuit of baseball as long as he has, and then end up pitching beyond our wildest expectations at 36, that’s pretty cool. That’s a story we can tell our kids about all the great, warm fuzzy feelings baseball is classically supposed to give us: perseverance, self-confidence, belief. These guys beat the odds in a game that is literally already about beating long odds, and we remember and revere them for that.
Bethancourt livens up a lousy day, the Cubs lose behind Arrieta, and Mookie gets... three homers.
The Tuesday Takeaway James Shields added another chapter to a sadly long story of soul-crushing outings Tuesday—his fifth career game with 10 or more runs allowed, tying him for the most of any pitcher since 1940, as BP author Aaron Gleeman pointed out on Twitter. The first and second innings began by following the same pattern, with Shields getting two quick outs to start each one before falling apart as he let walks and singles pile up. At the end of the second, though, the pattern broke, as Kyle Seager introduced the first piece of power to the game with a three-run homer, and things only went downhill from there.
The last-place Yankees continue to suffer, the Blue Jays offense breaks out, and Colin Rea hacks the feed for two hours.
The Thursday Takeaway
A game that stays scoreless into the 10th sounds like a textbook example of a pitchers’ duel. This presumption gets a bit weaker when the teams in question are the Orioles, who had not scored in 12 innings heading into Thursday, and the last-place Yankees, who have hardly been a model of offensive capability this year. Regardless, keeping the scoreboard empty into extras is a feat, and both Masahiro Tanaka and Kevin Gausman looked sharp yesterday—particularly Gausman, who held New York to three hits with no walks over eight innings.
In the four years since Gausman was drafted, he’s been seen (among other things and in no particular order) as: a top prospect, a question mark, a disappointment, a popular example of every question around the Orioles’ pitcher development, and a young man painfully familiar with the road between Baltimore and Norfolk. Right now, he’s a back-of-the-rotation starter, and on Thursday, he was a very good pitcher.
What did we learn about various players and teams this month? Less than we'll learn in the next one.
Early season baseball is full of articles about “What we’ve learned so far” after a week, or two weeks, or a month of play. You can’t really blame the sportswriters and TV sports producers and podcast hosts who come up with these pieces. They have to talk about something, and there aren’t any pennant races or awards competitions to discuss in April.
As Russell Carleton has demonstrated, though, most measures of baseball performance take far longer than a week or three to stabilize. Drawing conclusions from a 10- or 20-game sample is akin to statistics problem sets involving drawing balls from an urn. A really, really big urn. With lots and lots of balls in it. When you draw a few balls from a really, really big urn with lots and lots of balls in it, you don’t get a good picture of what’s really in the urn.
We can look at the relevance of April numbers by correlating them to players’ full-year figures, and comparing the correlation in April to that of May, June, July, August, and September. (Throughout this analysis, April includes a few days of March play in the relevant years, and September includes a few days of October games.) To do this, I selected batting title and ERA qualifiers from each of the past 10 seasons and compared their monthly results to their full-year results. I had a sample of 1,487 batter seasons with corresponding monthly data in about 87 percent of months and 850 pitcher seasons with corresponding monthly data in 86 percent of months.
Admittedly, there’s a selection bias in April data, and it applies mostly to young players. Since I’m comparing monthly data to full-year data for batting title and ERA qualifiers, I’m selecting from those players who hung around long enough to compile 502 plate appearances or 162 innings pitched. If you’re a young player who puts up a .298/.461/.596 batting line in April, as Joc Pederson did last April, you get to stick around to get your 502 plate appearances, even though 261 of your plate appearances occurred during July, August, and September, when you hit .170/.300/.284. On the other hand, if you bat .147/.284/.235 in April, as Rougned Odor did, you do get a chance to bat .352/.426/.639 in 124 plate appearances spread between May and June, but you get them in Round Rock instead of Arlington. So there’s a bias in this analysis in favor of players who perform well in April (giving them a chance to continue to play) compared to those who don’t (who may get shipped out). This shouldn’t have a big impact on the overall variability of April data, though, since the presence of early-season outperformers like Pederson who get full-time status on the strength of their April is canceled, to an extent, by early-season underperformers like Odor who don’t.
So is April more predictive than other months? Here’s a chart for batters, using OPS as the measure, comparing the correlation between batters’ full-year performance and that of each month.