- How good are the Mariners anyway? It's early, but they might be better than we thought. Also, a whole bunch of teams could use Craig Kimbrel.
Who wants to overreact to four games’ worth of baseball?
The first weekend and series of the 2019 season (not counting the A’s-Mariners tilt in Japan) is over, and with it, we have plenty of juicy storylines to read too much into with just under 3% of the schedule complete. The Bryce Harper-led Phillies are undefeated! The Yankees and Red Sox are below .500! The Mariners are the best team in baseball, and Tim Beckham is your AL MVP frontrunner!
Okay, so as that last one proves, it’s far too early to say anything definitive about where the season is heading. But we did learn a lot from our first glimpse at these squads in action. Here are the biggest takeaways with the opening weekend in the books.
The Mariners Are The Best Team In Baseball*
[squints, quintuple checks MLB.com standings]
Fresh off demolishing the defending world champion Red Sox, Seattle holds baseball’s best record (5–1) and has its most runs scored (48). It’s not what you’d expect for a team that sold off most of its best assets this winter, and it was easy to imagine the Mariners disappearing into the swamps of rebuilding for the next two or three years, slowly developing players at the expense of major league wins. But since this wasn’t a to-the-studs teardown, it turns out there are still some competent if not intriguing pieces left, particularly in a lineup that squared up every Red Sox starter it saw en route to three wins out of four. And already, Mariners fans can see pieces to dream on, like Domingo Santana, stolen from the Brewers in a minor deal and who’s clobbered three homers in the early going.
Is this going to last? Oh my, no. For as functional as this lineup may be, players like Beckham and Jay Bruce and Ryon Healy will more likely than not settle into average stats. The rotation is more or less built out of crafty lefties—even the Mariners recognize that—and the bullpen is a mess, particularly with Hunter Strickland hurt and manager Scott Servais rotating through a horde of anonymous middle relievers at closer. The defense, too, is brutal, with nine errors already on the year and weak spots all over the infield.
But even if Seattle’s high-water mark ends up coming this early, it’s still worth savoring for Mariners fans who probably didn’t expect much in the way of highlights this year. If nothing else, this weekend should allay their fears that this team, while not a contender, shouldn’t be a bottom-feeder either.
*I know Seattle isn’t actually the best team in baseball; the Phillies or Brewers or Rays or even Padres probably have the right to hold that title belt aloft right now. But please just let Mariners fans have this.
The Cubs Desperately Need Craig Kimbrel
Chicago's two losses to start the season have been brutal. On Saturday, the Cubs’ bullpen blew a 6–3 lead by surrendering five runs in the seventh and eighth, with the stringy Carl Edwards Jr. giving up a three-run homer to Joey Gallo to finish it. On Sunday, they squandered an 8–5 lead, allowing five runs across the sixth and seventh; this time, it was Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery who had the honors. Ultimately, the Cubs lost, 11–10, on a walk-off wild pitch (!) from fill-in closer Pedro Strop, who has the job while Brandon Morrow recovers from arm surgery.
The Nationals Desperately Need Craig Kimbrel
Washington didn’t have a meltdown quite like the Cubs did, but its bullpen already may be in bad shape. On Saturday against the Mets, the combo of Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Matt Grace and Wander Suero were blasted for seven runs in two innings, turning a 4–4 tie into an easy New York win. On Sunday, Rosenthal, Tony Sipp and closer Sean Doolittle gave away a 5–2 lead in the eighth, though the Nats avoided the loss by the grace of a Trea Turner walk-off homer in the ninth. With how badly the back of the bullpen—particularly the surgically reconstructed Rosenthal—struggled, it would behoove Washington to add a reliable arm like Kimbrel. So that’s an easy solution. Then again…
The Braves Desperately Need Craig Kimbrel
Atlanta’s bullpen against Philadelphia: 11 1/3 innings, 13 runs, five homers allowed, nine walks, and a 10.32 ERA. Granted, the Braves lost all three games, so a closer like Kimbrel wouldn’t have made a difference here. But it’s clear their relief corps provides anything but. So that’s an easy solution. Then again…
Honestly, Like A Dozen Teams Desperately Need Craig Kimbrel
Or at least, you can make a case that several should be calling his agent every hour on the hour. The Brewers lost Corey Knebel for the season. The Phillies watched David Robertson tightrope-walk his way through his lone save chance of the year. The Diamondbacks saw their relievers get torched by the Dodgers, whose own bullpen holds an unsightly 6.16 ERA. It’s still early, and many of these bullpens can get better or round into shape. But instead of relying on that, why not do the easy thing and sign a great closer for literally just money? That may not come to pass, but the start of the season has exposed how silly it is that Kimbrel remains unsigned.
Christian Yelich Says “Bah” To Your Regression Predictions
If you were to check out the FanGraphs page of the defending NL MVP, it wouldn’t take long to find the stat that practically screamed, “2019: REGRESSION IS COMING.” Yelich’s award-winning season was built on home runs—36 of them, to be exact, or 15 better than his previous career high—and an absolutely wild home-run-to-fly-ball rate of 35.0%. Not only was that the majors’ highest mark by a good margin (J.D. Martinez was next at 29.5), but it’s also territory reserved for bulked-up super sluggers like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, not wiry Pete Davidson clones like Yelich. That number had to come down, and with it, Yelich’s value would sink too.
Well, Yelich had other thoughts. Against St. Louis, Milwaukee’s star outfielder banged four homers in four games, apparently determined to see if he can get that HR/FB ratio above 40%. (Current status: 57.1%!) That included this absurd example of loft on Sunday, as Yelich took a chest-high Michael Wacha fastball and launched it to the second deck in Miller Park’s rightfield.
Dip in home runs or no, Yelich was still going to be the engine of the Brewers’ offense. He does so many things well and contributes in plenty of areas other than dingers. He proved that himself later on Sunday, ripping a walk-off hit in the ninth to give Milwaukee the series win over its NL Central rival. But a version of Yelich that hits as if last year’s second half never ended goes a long way toward making the Brewers the favorite in the division. And speaking of home runs…
The Home Run Is Back (Again), Baby
You all remember 2017 as The Year of The Homer, when the league’s home run rates spiked to unseen levels en route to a new record in round-trippers. Much ink was spilled trying to figure out why, with most landing on a different (read: juiced) ball even as MLB insisted that nothing had changed. Weirdly enough, things then dipped back down to (relative) normal in 2018: The league finished with nearly 600 fewer dingers, again for no discernible reason.
After this first weekend of 2019, though, it’s clear that the home runs are once again flying at record rates. Through Sunday’s action, 3.3% of all plate appearances have ended with a homer, which is dead-on with 2017’s rate. This season’s HR/FB ratio, meanwhile, sits at 13.0%, a jump from last year’s 12.7 (though still shy of 2017’s 13.6). And yet again, we’re left wondering where that power surge has come from. Is it the ball again? Slap hitters like Jeff Mathis or Mallex Smith are going bridge with ease suggests that something’s off with the equipment. Keep an eye on this one.
(Note, too, that strikeouts are also way up so far, at a rate of 23.2%, already a big increase from last year’s record 22.3 mark. Add in the 9.4% walk rate—also a jump from 2018—and you currently have 35% of all plate appearances ending in one of the Three True Outcomes. That won’t do wonders for pace of play or in-game action.)