Perhaps the most interesting group of early-season stories are the ones we don’t know quite what to do with. They defy categorization, so we’ll just take a look at the pros and cons and sit back and see what plays out.

1. The A’s. A pair of losses to end April takes little away from the A’s, who nonetheless sit at 17-12, a game out in the AL West with the best run differential and best third-order record in the AL. They’re doing it with a low-profile roster consisting of the players they’ve developed in the past four years, an assortment of castoffs from other organizations, and some productive players from last winter’s big trades.

Now, not to disparage that cast, but it’s hard to figure how the group is 17-12 with a great run differential. The A’s are fourth in the AL in runs scored, in a pitchers’ park, while placing 11th in batting average, sixth in OBP, and 12th in slugging. They’ve hit 15 home runs, just four more than Chase Utley has. They do lead the AL in walks drawn, which without power, speed, or average makes them something of a one-trick pony with a so-so trick. The A’s have scored 14 runs more than their offensive elements would predict, thanks in part to an unholy .309/.407/.431 line with runners in scoring position (Rob Neyer was the first to point this out, on Tuesday). That’s not going to be sustained, and even the addition of Frank Thomas and eventual additions of Eric Chavez and Carlos Gonzalez seem unlikely to make enough of a difference. The A’s don’t have a good offense.

The pitching is a bit less suspect, although still a bit above its head. The return on Dan Haren already looks strong, as Greg Smith and Dana Eveland have combined for 11 starts of 3.21 ERA ball, averaging six innings an outing. The bullpen has been lights out, with Andrew Brown and Santiago Casilla exiting April having allowed one run, unearned, between them. The A’s are in the top three in the AL in strikeouts, walks allowed (the good way), and home runs allowed, which is a very good way to win baseball games. Even if some of the relievers revert to form, the A’s can keep enough runs on the board to be competitive.

Can they do better than that? What’s interesting is that the A’s have gotten two starts from Rich Harden, as well as nothing from Chavez or Gonzalez yet. Jack Cust has a .265 SLG. Their #5 hitter, Emil Brown, has a .299 OBP. There is room for improvement, enough to make an argument that with the Angels still down two starting pitchers and hamstringing themselves in the outfield, and the Mariners just not that good, the A’s could very well hang around the top of the division all year long. If a rebuilding year leads to 84 wins and contention, that’s a good story and a feather in the cap of the forgotten GM, Billy Beane.

2. The Rays. While nodding politely in the general direction of PECOTA, I refrained from going overboard about the Rays this spring. The predictions of above-.500 records seemed exuberant given that the team allowed 944 runs in 2007. That’s nine hundred and forty-four. Giving them full credit for improved pitching and defense, I slotted them for 850 runs allowed and a 77-85 mark, and thought I was being pretty generous. It is hard, damned hard, to lop 150 or more runs off across two seasons.

Well, now it’s May 1, and the Rays are on pace to allow 654 runs. Some of that is a leaguewide downturn in offense, but more of it is defense. In 2007 the Rays had the worst Defensive Efficiency in the 49 years in our database, but they now have the third-best defense in baseball by that metric this time around. That points to a concerted effort to upgrade the defense, to make personnel decisions based on getting more outs on balls in play. That’s paid off in allowing nearly two runs a game less in 2008.

Give the pitchers some credit, too, especially an improved bullpen. The Rays are fifth in the AL in walks allowed and second in home runs allowed. The pen, such a nightmare in 2008, has a 2.52 ERA in ’08. Every reliever with at least four appearances has an ERA of 3.55 or better save for Al Reyes, who found his way to the DL after seven appearances and a 9.00 mark. All of these numbers have been compiled without Scott Kazmir, due back this weekend from a sore elbow that cost him a month.

Now, it’s possible that the Rays will continue to channel the Angels and catch everything, but let’s consider just how impressive a feat it would be. Just to allow 744 runs, the Rays would have to lop 200 runs off of their 2007 mark. Jason Paré looked it up and found just 15 teams that have allowed 200 fewer runs from one season to the next since 1959:

Team     Years      RA    RA2   Diff.
DET    1996-97    1103    790    313
SDN    1997-98     891    635    256
SDN    1977-78     833    598    235
CHN    1962-63     806    578    228
CLE    1971-72     747    519    228
HOU    1970-71     763    536    227
CLE    1987-88     957    731    226
CHA    1970-71     822    597    225
BAL    1996-97     903    681    222
OAK    1979-80     860    642    218
CLE    2004-05     857    642    215
SDN    1970-71     788    582    206
CHN    2000-01     904    701    203
MIL    1987-88     817    616    201
HOU    1967-68     678    477    201

Let’s see… the 1997 Tigers turned over most of their pitching staff after a disastrous season. The 1998 Padres imported Kevin Brown, got better seasons from the carryover starters, and also rebuilt the bullpen behind Trevor Hoffman. I won’t work my way through the list-in some cases teams floated on league-wide trends, such as the two 1988 teams listed here. None are here because they moved into new parks, which I found surprising.

The point is that a team improves by 200 runs on defense about once every three or four years, which is why I remain skeptical about the Rays’ ability to do so. If they really have gone from the worst defense on record to one of the best in baseball, not only is that going to put them on, and perhaps atop, this list, but it’s going to make Andrew Friedman the executive of the year in any book.

3. Cliff Lee. Another great start last night makes it hard to keep Lee on this list. He’s now got video-game numbers, Scherzer numbers, through five starts: a 0.96 ERA in 37 2/3 innings, 32 strikeouts, two walks, one home run allowed. Lee is averaging nearly three fewer pitches per inning than he did last season (17.0 in 2007, 14.2 in 2008; thanks, an amazing turnaround that both illustrates the changes he’s made-and points to the main reason to be skeptical.

Lee’s five starts have come against the A’s (twice), Twins, Royals, and Mariners. The A’s will take a pitch, but as noted above they can’t really hit. The other three rank… well, let’s just run a chart. These are ranks within the AL for Lee’s opponents so far this season.

           OBP   SLG   EQA   Runs  Walks   P/PA
A's          6    12    10      4      1      2
Twins       14    13    13     13     14     13
Royals      13    11    14     14     13     11
Mariners    12     9     7      9     11     10

Cliff Lee may have recovered the skills that made him such a good pitcher in 2005 and 2006, with good walk rates and K/BB marks. He may be emerging as the Indians‘ #2 behind C.C. Sabathia now that Fausto Carmona has no idea where the ball is going. While noting his hard work and obvious talent, it’s just not possible to evaluate his season to date without recognizing that, on the whole, he hasn’t faced a good offense since sometime in 2007. Also note that it was against the best offense in the group, the Mariners, that Lee allowed three of the five runs he’s coughed up this season.

The Royals and Twins are going to make a lot of pitchers, especially lefties, look good this year. We need to see what Lee can do against major leaguers to pass judgment.

4. Josh Hamilton. Hamilton already had an interesting career path through one year ago, but it’s even more so now. See, Hamilton’s injury problems last year spread his rookie season out in a way that arguably prevented the league from adjusting to him. Hamilton missed two weeks around Memorial Day, five weeks in July and August, and the last two weeks of the season. Hamilton played more than six games against just three teams, and against two of those, the Astros and Pirates, he posted terrible overall lines.

Getting traded to the Rangers over the winter extended this nominal honeymoon period-new league, new pitchers, new faces. Hamilton is off to a .330/.379/.591 start, comparable to last season’s, but I think it’s important to note that he hasn’t had to go through the adjustment period many young players do.

Hamilton is a fantastic story and obviously a tremendous baseball talent. In his career, though, he hit .295/.342/.476 in the minors, and he’s at .303/.371/.564 in the majors, all of that coming after playing not a lick from 2003 through 2005, and getting just a few weeks of play in 2006. There’s enough wackiness in that kind of information, and in his path through two leagues over the last 13 months, to warrant some healthy skepticism about his ability to sustain his performance.

5. Offense. I threw out a notion to our internal list last week that it felt-just in watching way too much baseball-like offense was down this year. With a month’s action now in the books, here’s what we have:

AL             AVG   OBP   SLG    ISO   R/G
April 2008    .260  .334  .398   .138  9.04
April 2007    .255  .327  .404   .149  9.36

NL             AVG   OBP   SLG    ISO   R/G
April 2008    .256  .331  .404   .148  9.11
April 2007    .258  .332  .400   .142  9.31

It’s a peculiar thing. The elements of offense are not really down-the triple-slash stats in each league are essentially the same. My personal thought-that power seemed to be down and that it appeared fly balls weren’t going for extra-base hits-isn’t borne out all that well by the data. On the other hand, despite this, run scoring is down a fair amount: about three percent in the AL, and two percent in the NL. This could be a blip, but I’m having trouble understanding why rates would remain the same while scoring would decline. This will require more study as the season plays out, but it’s something to watch, especially because while all declines in power will be laid at the feet of the changes in approach to PEDs, the actual reasons for something like this are usually more subtle.

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