Wednesday April 20th, 2011

With several teams now having played as many as 18 games -- that's one-ninth of the 162-game slate -- the first inning of the 2011 season is in the books. Here, then, is a look at 10 underrated storylines of the early going, five that are trending upward and five downward:

1. Western starters

With Angels aces Dan Haren and Jered Weaver leading the way, a disproportionate number of the game's best starters in the early part of 2011 hail from the western divisions. Of the top 14 starters, as ranked by ERA, nine of them pitch for either an AL West or NL West team -- that's 64.3 percent of the leaderboard while the nine teams in those two divisions account for only 30 percent of the league.

Oakland's Gio Gonzalez ranks first with a 0.47 ERA -- he makes his fourth start Wednesday afternoon -- while Haren (1.20), Matt Harrison (1.23) and Weaver (1.30) fill in the third through fifth spots on the leaderboard. Also ranking highly are San Diego's Aaron Harang (1.50), Oakland's Brett Anderson (1.63), San Francisco's Matt Cain (1.42) and Tim Lincecum (1.67) and Colorado's Jhoulys Chacin (1.64), meaning the game's best pitching is happening after much of the nation has gone to bed.

2. Relievers converted into starters

Need a new starter? Check the bullpen. Several of the game's best starters so far spent most or all of last season working as relievers. While it remains to been seen if these pitchers can sustain their success over the long season the way the Rangers' C.J. Wilson did last year, two have the chance to get advice from Wilson.

Texas' Alexi Ogando was a full-time reliever last year who is 2-0 with a 2.33 ERA in three starts this season; he gave up no runs and only two hits in each of his first two outings, both of which were at least six innings. His teammate Matt Harrison has spent most of his career as a starter but made 31 of his 37 major-league appearances last year out of the bullpen. In three starts this season Harrison is 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA over 22 innings.

Also enjoying success after transitioning to the first inning are the Cardinals' Kyle McClellan (2-0, 1.89 ERA in three starts) and the Tigers' Phil Coke who as a starter this year is 1-2 but with a 2.08 ERA in 19 1/3 innings. Others who started much of last year but spent the season's final month as relievers -- the Indians' Justin Masterson (3-0, 1.33 ERA) and Dustin Moseley (1.83 ERA despite an 0-3 record), now with the Padres -- have had similar success.

3. Bronx Bombers

Home runs are back in a big way for the Yankees.

• The Yankees lead the majors in total home runs with 29; no one else has more than 24.

• There have been more home runs hit (22) at Yankee Stadium than any other park in the majors.

• The AL's top four leaders in AB/HR ratio are all Yankees: Mark Teixeira (8.83); Jorge Posada (9.40); Alex Rodriguez (9.75); and Curtis Granderson (10.20).

• There are 16 American League players with at least four home runs, and six of them are Yankees.

• The Yankees are scoring a whopping 62.2 percent of their runs on homers, also the most in the majors.

4. Finally breaking out

From those who had seemingly washed out entirely (the Royals' Alex Gordon) to those who had spent a couple years on the verge of becoming big stars (the Diamondbacks' Justin Upton and the Dodgers' Matt Kemp), the first month of 2011 has seen several players starting to live up to their hype. Kemp, who had a disappointing 2009 season, now leads the majors in four categories with a .438 average, eight stolen bases, a 221 OPS+ and 22 runs created.

The top two picks of the 2005 draft are off to great starts as well. Upton has cut down his number of strikeouts and has a batting line of .300/.391/.583, all of which would be career highs if he can sustain this pace. And Gordon, who was drafted with the pick after Upton and has spent much of the past two seasons back in the minors, has resurrected his career. He leads the AL with 26 hits and has an impressive line of .361/.387/.528.

5. Stanford baseball, circa 2003 and '04

Three of baseball's hottest players -- White Sox rightfielder Carlos Quentin, Rays leftfielder Sam Fuld and Red Sox infielder Jed Lowrie -- were teammates sharing the same college dugout for two years in Palo Alto.

Quentin is among the AL leaders in several offensive categories; he ranks first in extra-base hits (13) and doubles (10) and sixth in slugging (.600), to go along with a .308 average and .375 on-base percentage.

Fuld and Lowrie, meanwhile, weren't even starters at the beginning of the year. Lowrie at least knew he'd make Boston's roster as a reserve infielder, but Fuld, who had never previously logged a major league at bat before July while playing parts of three years with the Cubs, wasn't a lock to start the season with Tampa Bay.

Now, however, Fuld is Tampa Bay's starting leftfielder and he leads the AL with seven stolen bases, ranks third in the league with a .368 average, is the only player in the majors with two four-hit games and missed a cycle on April 11 when, needing only a single in the ninth inning, he raced past first for his second double of the game.

Lowrie, on the other hand, has pried most of the playing time at shortstop away from starter Marco Scutaro. He's batting .457 in his 35 at bats, and in the four-game series against the Blue Jays went 9 for 15 with two home runs.

Also on those Stanford teams was Phillies outfielder John Mayberry Jr., who hit a walkoff RBI single in his club's home opener.

1. Recent AL MVPs

Four of the five most recent AL MVPs -- Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton (2010 MVP), Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez ('07), and Twins catcher Joe Mauer ('09) and first baseman Justin Morneau ('06) -- haven't started the year the way they had hoped due to injury, a slump or both.

Rodriguez has been outstanding when he's been on the field -- his slugging (.821) and OPS (1.321) lead the majors while his OBP (.500) leads the AL -- but he has been sidelined the past three games with a sore back.

The other three have combined for zero home runs, while Hamilton is now on the disabled list for six-to-eight weeks with a broken bone in his upper arm, Mauer has suffered both from leg weakness and a viral infection and Morneau has missed three straight games with the flu. Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia ('08 MVP), who missed the second half of last season with a broken foot, has been the exception to the bad luck so far as he has played every inning this year while batting .305 with a .414 OBP.

2. Recent AL Cy Young winners

Seattle's Felix Hernandez (2010 Cy Young winner) dazzled in a complete-game win on Opening Day but has been a mortal ever since, going 0-2 with a 5.50 ERA in his last three starts. The misfortune for the Yankees' CC Sabathia ('07) has been due more to run support and bullpen failings, as he has yet to notch a win in four starts.

Cliff Lee ('08) and Roy Halladay ('03), now both members of the Phillies' dynamite rotation, both have had their season lines marred by an ugly outing; each allowed 10 hits and six runs in a start, as Lee did in 3 1/3 innings against the Braves on April 8 while Halladay did so on Tuesday night against the Brewers.

Zack Greinke ('09) hasn't pitched for the Brewers because of a fractured rib, and Johan Santana ('04 and '06) is still rehabbing for the Mets after undergoing elbow surgery last fall.

3. Juiced balls

There were 136 home runs hit in the first 66 major league games played this year, a rate of 2.06 per game and a pace for 5,006 homers in the majors' 2,430 games this year. That's a notable uptick over 2010's home-run rate of 1.90 per game and, if continued, would have equated to an increase of 389 home runs over the season.

Throwing fuel on the fire was this tweet from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Braves beat writer David O'Brien, who noted that an anonymous bullpen catcher said the balls were harder this year, an allegation of juiced baseballs.

But there was only smoke, no fire. At that point in the season 18 teams had played home games, including seven of the nine most homer-friendly parks in 2010: Rogers Centre in Toronto, (2.92 per game), Yankee Stadium (2.80), Milwaukee's Miller Park (2.40), Denver's Coors Field (2.31), Baltimore's Camden Yards (2.20), Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park (2.18) and Rangers Ballpark in Arlington (2.15). The only two bandboxes not to have hosted a game at that point were Chase Field in Phoenix (2.48) and U.S. Cellular, home of the White Sox (2.35).

Similarly, only four stadiums witnessed fewer than 1.5 home runs per game, and only one of those four, Oakland's McAfee Coliseum (1.33), had been used; the other three -- Seattle's Safeco Field (1.28), Citi Field, home of the Mets, (1.36) and Minnesota's Target Field (1.43) -- had yet to see a game.

Now that the season is three weeks old and every stadium has been used, what does the data say? Well, there have been 446 home runs in 250 games, which is a pace of 1.78 per game -- a rate that is actually lower than last year, meaning the 2011 season is on pace for 278 fewer homers than 2010's already reduced number.

4. Departed Rays

It was apparently a bad time to leave Tampa Bay. The Rays had an almost unprecedented turnover -- 42 percent of their plate appearances and 39 percent of their innings pitched left via trade or free agency -- and most of those players happen to be slumping in their new homes. No one is struggling more than Red Sox leftfielder Carl Crawford, who is batting .143 with just three runs scored, two steals and two RBIs; his OPS+ (for which 100 is league average) is negative-1.

He is joined in his rough start by each of these former teammates:

• Cubs first baseman Carlos Peña (.214 avg., 0 HRs)

• Cubs starter Matt Garza (0-2, 6.27 ERA)

• Yankees reliever Rafael Soriano (7.04 ERA in 7 2/3 IP)

• Padres shortstop Jason Bartlett (.196 avg., 0 extra-base hits)

• Padres first baseman Brad Hawpe (.135 avg., 0 HRs)

• Dodgers reliever Lance Cormier (11.57 ERA in 7 IP)

• A's reliever Grant Balfour (4.26 ERA; 1 blown save)

• Marlins reliever Randy Choate (3 runs allowed in 3 IP; two of those runs were unearned, but they scored as a result of Choate's own throwing error)

• Unemployed DH Willy Aybar

The only exceptions are a pair of relievers, the Tigers' Joaquin Benoit and the Padres' Chad Qualls, both of whom have posted 1.17 ERAs in eight appearances.

5. White Sox bullpen, past and present

With the exception of J.J. Putz, who is excelling as Arizona's closer (four saves and a 1.29 ERA), most of the other recent key members of Chicago's bullpen have struggled mightily. Former closer Bobby Jenks left for Boston via free agency, where on Friday he entered in the seventh inning of a tied game and promptly gave up four runs and took the loss. Octavio Dotel, who was a set-up man for the White Sox in 2008 and '09, is now in Toronto where he has a 6.75 ERA and 2.00 WHIP in five appearances.

And the men remaining in the bullpen have been even worse. Matt Thornton has blown his first four save chances and has a 7.94 ERA, 2.82 WHIP and an 83 percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score; Chris Sale, who is 1-for-2 in save opportunities, has a 7.36 ERA and 1.64 WHIP and has allowed both runners he's inherited to score; Will Ohman has an 11.81 ERA and Tony Peña has a 6.75 ERA. The only two positives have been Sergio Santos, who has yet to allow an earned in 8 2/3 innings, and Jesse Crain, who has allowed two runs in 9 1/3 innings.

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