April is over, so it's time to start making some calls. Yes, it's still early, but we have enough information to at least reach tentative conclusions about several surprising players, teams and issues. So that's what we'll do in this column: Evaluate what's real, what's not and what we're on the fence about.
This year's version of the D'backs can also score: to the tune of a .278
The bullpen isn't reprising its 2007 work, which was to be expected. Set aside
This year Morris, 33, struck out nine men and walked seven in five starts, allowing at least four runs and six hits each time he took the mound. He gave up six homers in just 22 1/3 innings and was released over the weekend with a 9.67 ERA. The decline of a pitcher who works on the margins -- as Morris did for a number of years -- can be steep and ugly. That's what happened here. Morris isn't just allowing contact and being let down by his defense, he's being hit so hard that no defense can save him. There's always a chance that he could help a team just by taking the ball every fifth day so that a young pitcher doesn't have to, but the chance that Morris will even be average again is slim.
The Pirates, by the way, paid about $13.5 million and some fraction of
That's not a fluke: MLB has spent most of the 2000s working toward NFL-style competitive balance, and that's what it now has. Whether that's best for baseball remains to be seen -- the game is at its best when great teams fight out great races in the regular season -- but it does provide a heaping helping of hope and faith.
Keep in mind that the offense is the best thing about the Marlins. Their defense has improved from wretched to average, at least by
The combination of a soft early schedule (14 games against the Nationals, Pirates, and Astros, in which they went 9-5) and some luck in close games (3-0 in extra innings to go with that 6-2 record in one-run affairs) has served to make the Marlins April's mirage. Not only will they be evicted from first place soon enough, they could plummet rapidly come the end of the next month, which features a 10-game road trip through New York, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. At least there aren't a lot of people who will be disappointed when it happens.
They're winning this game of chance thanks to a strangely low home-run rate: just 19 allowed, third in the NL, in 243 1/3 innings. That number almost has to go up when you look at the pitchers on the staff. Just to pick on one guy,
There's a reason beyond the pitching staff for these figures. The Cards have played the weakest schedule in baseball. It's weak largely because it's been populated by teams that can't hit. The Cards have played seven games against the Giants (.365 SLG, 14th in NL; 14 HR, last); six against the Astros (.410 SLG, seventh in NL); five against the Brewers (.385, 11th; almost all innings pitched by RHPs) and nine others against the Nationals, Rockies, Pirates, and Reds. The Cardinals have played 75 percent of their schedule against teams with below-average slugging percentages. When that changes, they'll allow more home runs, more runs, and slip away from the top of the NL Central.
Whether they win or not is going to be up to the pitching staff, which has been terrible. The Tigers are 13th in the AL in walks allowed with 119. Of their five Opening Day rotation starters, three have walked more men than they've struck out, and
Arroyo's real problem has been that old bugaboo, BABIP. The Reds aren't a good defensive team by any stretch -- they rank 16th in Defensive Efficiency at .706 -- but when Arroyo has been on the mound, balls have found more holes than usual. Arroyo has allowed 43 hits despite striking out nearly a man an inning, largely thanks to a BABIP of .375. Even if that reverts to his career high of .313, set last year, it will bring his ERA down, and the rest of his numbers make him a good mid-rotation starter, an asset for a Reds team that can be a factor in the wild-card chase.
While a good story, Dempster's low ERA is more about a .190 BABIP than anything else. He has a 21/14 K/BB in 31 innings, which won't get you very far. However, as with Kyle Lohse, a good defense and a new affinity for groundballs (2.17 G/F, by far his highest as a starter) are keeping the hits and extra-base hits (four) off the board. Dempster is due for a correction shortly.
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.
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
The pitching is a bit less suspect, although still a bit above its head. The return on
Can they do better than that? What's interesting is that the A's have gotten two starts from
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
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
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.
Let's see... the 1997 Tigers turned over most of their pitching staff after a disastrous season. The 1998 Padres imported
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.