Monday April 13th, 2015

The first week of the season is in the books, and three teams currently stand out as surprises: The Tigers, Royals, and Braves have gone a combined 17-1 thus far, with Atlanta suffering the trio’s only loss. There’s obviously correction to come, but do these hot starts suggest that these teams are each better than we thought, or are these early results as meaningless as a September hot streak for a long-since eliminated team? Having taken a look at Detroit's brilliant first series last week, let’s check on Atlanta and Kansas City in reverse order of their preseason projections. Note that all statistics below are prior to Monday’s games.

Atlanta Braves (6–1)

Last year, the Braves posted a losing record for the first time since 2008, finishing 79-83 and scoring the second-fewest runs scored in the majors. This off-season, they traded three of their four best hitters—Evan Gattis (to Houston), Jason Heyward (to St. Louis) and Justin Upton (to San Diego)—and the day before their season began, they traded the best closer in baseball, Craig Kimbrel, to the Padres. The most accomplished player Atlanta received in any of those deals was righthander Shelby Miller, a 24-year-old who posted a 98 ERA+ and 1.74 strikeout-to-walk ratio with the Cardinals last year in his second full season in a major league rotation. Yet, here is Atlanta at 6-1 with a two-game lead in the National League East and the fourth-best run differential in baseball, having lost their only game by the score of 4-3. What gives?

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It's not the offense. In five of their first six games, the Braves averaged just 3.4 runs per game, which is completely in character with their 3.5 runs scored last year. Over the weekend, Atlanta took two of three from the Mets in a series in which no game was decided by more than two runs. Two of the Braves' 13 runs in the series were unearned, thanks to throwing errors by New York shortstop Wilmer Flores, and seven of the remaining 11 were scored against the Mets’ fifth starter, Dillon Gee, and rookie reliever Rafael Montero.

It was certainly a positive weekend for an Atlanta team from which little was expected, but it is not a particularly shocking result. Prior to that, the Braves swept the Marlins, but even that series wasn’t wildly out of line. On Opening Day, Atlanta won 2-1 behind ace Julio Teheran. Two days later it won 2-0; Miller made his Braves debut, pitching five innings and getting a no-decision. The game was scoreless into the seventh, when veteran backup catcher A.J. Pierzynski hit a two-run home run off tiring Miami starter Tom Koehler.

The big outlier here is a 12–2 victory last Tuesday in a game against intended Marlins ace Mat Latos, who the Braves defeated again Monday night, 3-2. Seven of those runs last Tuesday came against Latos, who didn’t make it out of the first inning, increasing concerns about the health of his pitching elbow. Take away Atlanta's production against Latos alone, and the Braves have scored 3.66 runs per game this season, a figure that still would have been second-worst in the majors last year.

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Instead, the key to Atlanta's early success has been its pitching. The Braves lead the majors with just 2.2 runs allowed per game and a 1.83 staff ERA. That’s obviously not going to last, but with all the focus on the big-name hitters they traded this off-season, it is possible that we underestimated their pitching staff to a certain degree. In Teheran, Alex Wood and Miller, Atlanta has a strong trio of 24-year-olds heading up its rotation. In the bullpen, Jason Grilli, 38, rediscovered his All-Star form of 2013 after a mid-season trade from the Pirates to the Angels last season, and he has yet to allow a run in his first three outings for Atlanta. Similarly, 32-year-old Jim Johnson, an All-Star closer in '12, has displayed improved velocity, command and a dominant ground ball rate in the early going and has not allowed a run in four appearances.

Still, the Braves lack pitching depth. Fourth starter Eric Stults was a non-roster invitee this spring after posting an 82 ERA+ for the Padres over the last two seasons, and fifth starter Trevor Cahill, who will make his Braves debut Tuesday night, pitched his way out of the Diamondbacks’ rotation in spring training and was virtually given away by Arizona at the beginning of the month. The underside of the bullpen is not much more impressive, and that lack of depth, both in the rotation and the 'pen, will be exposed as Atlanta gets deeper into the season, faces better-hitting teams and is forced to contend with additional injuries or poor performances.

All of which is to say that, despite their 6-1 start, the Braves are still the team we thought they would be, and they should reveal their true selves on the field before too much longer.

Kansas City Royals (7–0)

The Royals capped 2014 by winning eight straight playoff games, then pushing the eventual world champion Giants to the brink in Game 7 of the World Series. So why are we surprised that Kansas City is 7–0 to start the '15 season? Because all signs pointed to last year being a fluke.

The Royals won 89 games last season to claim the top wild-card spot in the American League, but their run differential suggested they were merely an 84-win team. Third-order wins, which calculate expected runs scored and allowed from the components of run production, had Kansas City as a mere 79-win team. Add in low expectations for free-agent additions Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios and Edinson Volquez—the last charged with replacing James Shields in the starting rotation—and it was difficult to be terribly optimistic about the Royals’ follow-up season.

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Then Kansas City went out and swept the White Sox and the Angels before taking the first of a three-game series in Minnesota. Chicago is a team some thought might leap-frog the Royals in the AL Central standings after adding Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, David Robertson and Jeff Samardzija over the winter, and Los Angeles posted the best record in baseball a year ago.

Kansas City won those two series convincingly, scoring at least four runs in every game and averaging 6.66 runs scored per game while allowing just 2.5 per game. Overall, the Royals have outscored opponents 52-18. No team has scored more runs thus far, only the Braves and Cardinals have allowed fewer and no team has a larger run differential to this point.

The Royals have spread their hits around, with Rios and Morales showing renewed form, and Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas leading the charge among the team’s young core. There’s obvious regression to come for all, but there’s also reason for optimism. Moustakas is just 26, Perez just 25 and Cain is building off a strong postseason performance at the age of 29 in what is just his third full major league season. All three have thus far shown impressive control of the strike zone (they have combined to draw six walks against just eight strikeouts), and Moustakas has demonstrated an increased use of the opposite field, with all but one of his seven hits going the other way.

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Meanwhile, the 32-year-old Morales has shown both power and patience (he leads the team in walks and is tied for the lead in extra-base hits), an early indication that his awful 2014 season was indeed a casualty of his late start due to the draft pick compensation attached to his price the previous winter. I remain less convinced about Rios, who is seventh on the team in extra-base hits and one of just two Royals to have had an at-bat yet remain walkless thus far. Still, his hot start is certainly fuel for those crediting his poor showing last year to a series of injuries. He looks healthier, adding a pair of stolen bases to his .360 average, and, at 34, Rios is certainly young enough to arrest his recent decline, but he hasn’t given a strong indication that he will as of yet.

As for their run prevention, Kansas City continues to rely heavily on its dominant bullpen and outstanding team defense, but both remain in top form. The Royals' relievers have yet to allow a run in 16 1/3 innings, striking out 17 against just three walks, and the team ranks behind only the Cardinals and A’s in park-adjusted defensive efficiency. The Royals are obviously bound for to start losing games at some point, but it’s possible that, rather than regressing to the level off their underlying performance from a year ago, they will raise their performance to match their actual results of their magical 2014.

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