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Offensive decline leads list of 10 early-season trends to watch

Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Big league hitters are once again being dominated by pitchers.

The second quarter of the season began this week, with the first quarter having ended with six playoff teams from last year back in postseason position (the Yankees, Rangers, Tigers, Braves, Cardinals and Reds) and four non-winning teams from last year joining them as unqualified surprises (the Indians, Red Sox, Diamondbacks and Pirates). It's too early to start selling playoff tickets, but in some cases it's not too early for panic for some major market teams with four of the top nine payrolls in baseball (the Angels, Dodgers, Blue Jays and Phillies).

Here is some of what we've learned so far:

1. Hitting in the major leagues is fundamentally broken

What will it take for teams to start admitting that this passive-aggressive, run-up-the-pitch-count philosophy isn't working? Apparently almost a decade of declining results isn't enough. Entering this week:

? The number of hits per game is down for the seventh straight year.

? On base percentage has been stagnant or down for the seventh straight year.

? Strikeouts are up for an eighth straight year.

? Batting average has sunk to an all-time low (.253) since the DH was instituted 40 years ago.

? Runs per game is tied with the rate from 2011 for the lowest rate since 1992.

When you go to a baseball game today you will see fewer hits on average than at any time since 1972 -- and yet the game is taking more than 20 minutes longer to play. That's more than 20 minutes of added dead time without the ball put in play.

And yet you see hitter after hitter giving pitchers strike one and taking 2-0 and 3-1 fastballs. It's like a major corporation with seven straight years of operating at a financial loss insisting that nothing is wrong.

2. Matt Harvey is the biggest breakout star of the season

With apologies to Jean Segura, Manny Machado and Matt Moore, Harvey is the most exciting new personality in the game. Every one of his starts commands your attention. Harvey is 5-0 for a Mets team that is 12-25 otherwise.

3. The teams that won the winter may be out of contention already

The Angels, Dodgers and Blue Jays began this week with the fewest wins and worst run differentials than every team except the Marlins and Astros.

Keep this in mind when you think about how urgent the season has become for the Angels, Dodgers and Blue Jays: In the 17 full seasons of wild card play (1996-2012), there have been 153 teams that were five games or more below .500 on May 31. Only seven of them made the playoffs -- a 95.4 percent failure rate.

4. The Phillies are headed for a month of reckoning: July

Philadelphia is scoring runs at its lowest clip since the 1972 outfit that lost 97 games, and with the lineup it sends out there every day, there is no reason to expect it will improve significantly. Roy Halladay underwent shoulder surgery and Ryan Howard, who still hasn't found his power stroke since tearing his Achilles two seasons ago, has a balky knee. The bullpen doesn't make hitters miss. The team is old and has played below .500 baseball for eight months.

Barring a remarkable turnaround in the next eight weeks, general manager Ruben Amaro faces a difficult decision: Does he continue to ride this out and hope the team gets hot in the second half? Or does he cut his losses and start shopping Michael Young, Chase Utley and Cliff Lee?

5. Miguel Cabrera is even better than we thought

What will he do next? Cabrera could win a second straight Triple Crown, he could finish with more extra base hits than strikeouts (which he has done through a quarter of the season), he could join Manny Ramirez as the only hitters with 162 RBIs in the past 75 years or he could join Rogers Hornsby as the only righthanded hitters in the past 100 years to win three straight batting titles. Anything seems possible when you're talking about the undisputed best hitter in the game at the peak of his career.

CORCORAN: Is Cabrera headed for best Triple Crown encore season ever?

"I know this," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland, "there's never been anyone in the history of baseball with more opposite field power than Miguel Cabrera. Nobody."

The most amazing part of his three-home run game Sunday night was that Cabrera was behind on the count 0-and-2 three times -- and went single, homer, homer in those three at-bats. He saw 13 pitches with two strikes: he took seven for balls, fouled off three and smashed the other three for hits.

6. The Indians and Pirates are the biggest surprises in baseball

This Rust Belt revival might not be sustainable. At the quarter mark, Cleveland ranked eighth in the AL in starting pitching and Pittsburgh ranked seventh in the NL. But each team is winning often at home and winning enough close games, and that can turn hoping to win into expecting to win. See: 2012 Orioles.

7. The two most expensive free agent position players are unqualified disasters

Outfielders Josh Hamilton of the Angels and B.J. Upton of the Braves signed contracts worth a combined $198 million last winter. Between the two of them, they have a .184 batting average, 101 strikeouts and just eight home runs.

8. Interleague play is boring

The AL leads the NL, 30-27, in the first year of season-long interleague play. Do you even care? Did you even notice? The Red Sox, Athletics and Cardinals haven't even played an interleague game yet. The Nationals are 5-0 against the AL and 18-22 against the NL. The lousy idea of two 15-team leagues (it must have looked better on paper to some people) has dulled the schedule into something more like what the NBA has. It will look even worse in September.

9. Closers are overrated

Haven't we learned this lesson yet? Last year the Giants, Yankees and Reds all lost their closers for virtually the entire season and had no trouble making the playoffs. Now 2012 All-Star closers Joel Hanrahan, Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel, Fernando Rodney, Chris Perez and Jim Johnson all have been injured or wobbly this year. And Jason Motte, John Axford, Andrew Bailey, Sergio Santos, Phil Coke, Carlos Marmol, Brandon League and J.J. Putz also have been hurt or shaky.

The best? Jason Grilli, a 36-year-old righthander for the Pirates who began the year with five career saves. Other than Mariano Rivera, closers are basically guys with a hot hand until the next guy comes along.

Keep this in mind the next time your team gives pampered status to your closer as if he's something special: In the previous 10 years, 74 different pitchers saved 30 games in a season.

10. We are way overdue for a no-hitter

Not since 2009 have we played the first quarter of a season without a no-no. We saw seven no-hitters last year (at least one in five of the six months) and 16 over the past three seasons. And with strikeouts rising again, hits per game falling again and the Astros and Marlins playing some of the most atrocious baseball since the 1962 Mets, the lack of a no-hitter so far may be the biggest surprise of all.

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