It's late to say it's early: Here are the season trends with staying power (you've arrived, Houston) and those certain to fade (sorry, Dee Gordon)
When the Astros traded for Evan Gattis and Luis Valbuena and signed Colby Rasmus and Jed Lowrie last winter, they were making a statement—they didn't care about strikeouts in building their offense. A quarter-season later that strategy has been vindicated: Yes, the Astros have struck our more than every team but the Cubs, but they also lead the majors in home runs, are fourth in the AL in walks and third in runs scored, and got off to a 29--17 start. Houston has scored 49% of its runs on long balls, a number that would be second highest all-time (after the 2010 Blue Jays) if sustained all season.
It's not just the offense, however. The Astros are fourth in the AL in runs allowed. Dallas Keuchel is repeating his breakthrough 2014 with a 1.98 ERA, thanks to command of a two-seam fastball that helps produce the lowest fly ball rate, and second highest ground ball rate, in the majors. Keuchel doesn't miss many bats, but the defense supporting him has been better than average at turning balls in play into outs. Houston has also put together its best bullpen in a long time, perhaps its best ever, so the leads those home runs generate are far more likely to be maintained. The group's 2.14 ERA is second in the majors and half—half—the ERA of any Astros bullpen since 2009. The '14 Astros were 61--28 (.685) when leading or tied after six innings; this year's team is 26--2 (.929).
June 1, 2015
The improvements in the bullpen and defense are real and should be sustainable. There are concerns about the offense, which because of all those strikeouts has a poor .303 OBP, and the rotation outside of Keuchel, which has struggled. The team has called up pitching prospect Lance McCullers and could later follow up with righty Mark Appel and shortstop Carlos Correa, drawing from minor league depth few teams can match. The Astros aren't supposed to win the World Series until 2017, but their improvements along with the struggles of other AL West contenders have made them a threat two years early.
No modern tactic has caused as much gnashing of teeth as defensive shifts, the aggressive positioning of infielders in nontraditional spots. The availability and reliability of data on where batters are likely to hit the ball has freed managers to do what their counterparts in the NFL and the NBA have done for years: to place their defenders where they are most likely to make plays. Despite some pushback this winter, which included new commissioner Rob Manfred noodling about restricting the practice, even more teams are on the bandwagon this season. Per ACTA Sports, the frequency of shifts is on pace to grow by 36% this year, as teams such as the Diamondbacks, Rockies and Tigers begin to shift more often, and early adopters such as the Astros and the Rays get even more aggressive. Maybe, instead of complaining about "shifting," it's time to just start admiring it as "defense."
DINGERS AND K'S
After dropping to just over four runs per game per team last year, scoring has rebounded to roughly where it was in 2013, 4.20 runs per game.
Batting averages and OBPs are the same as last year—the entire scoring bump is due to slugging, which is up to .394 from .386. That number is due to more fly balls leaving the yard: 10.6% of them, after just 9.5% did a year ago. Despite some small changes in walk and strikeout rates, again just rolling them back to 2013 levels, the game is still dominated by the K, with more than one in five plate appearances ending in a strikeout and teams relying more than ever on the long ball to score runs.
Famously, no player has hit .400 since Ted Williams's .406 in 1941. But even the rate of challenges to that number has slowed in the last 20 years. No player has batted as high as .370 since Ichiro Suzuki hit .372 in 2004; no player has hit .380 since Tony Gwynn hit .394 in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. High batting averages have been eliminated by rising strikeout rates caused, in part, by the specialization and high velocities of modern pitchers.
So Dee Gordon's early-season hot streak gets your attention. The second baseman, picked up by the Marlins from the Dodgers over the winter, was batting .400 or better throughout most of May, dipping to .376 through Sunday. Gordon, a career .272 hitter coming into this season, has doubled down on his aggressive approach—swinging at a career-high 52.1% of pitches he's seen—and keeping the ball on the ground. He leads the majors with 16 infield hits and a whopping 32 hits on ground balls, good for a .360 average.
In those numbers, though, are the best indicators that Gordon won't be able to finish at .400—or close to it. Just one player hit even .350 on ground balls last year (Marcell Ozuna, .360), and modern infield defenses are machines designed, through skill and positioning, to turn grounders into outs. Gordon has no power to speak of and is on pace to strike out 100 times—an 0 for 100 that is nearly impossible to overcome on contact. Gordon has made himself into a far better player than most people expected, and he's a bright spot in a Marlins season spiraling out of control. He's just not going to challenge Williams—or even Ichiro.
They're not leading their division—O.K., they're barely in second place—but the Twins are quietly building a playoff cushion, up 3½ games in the wild-card race through Sunday. Among the teams off to surprisingly hot starts, however, the Twins are the likeliest to fall apart quickly. They are sixth in the AL in runs but just 11th in OBP and 12th in slugging and have been disproportionately good with runners in scoring position, something that will be hard to sustain. They pair the worst strikeout staff in the majors with a below-average defense, so it's hard for them to keep other teams off the board. They're seven games over .500 while outscoring their opponents by just 13 runs. Even with their good start, the Twins will struggle to finish .500 this year, much less reach the playoffs.
Expected to contend for the NL Cy Young Award, the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg has a 6.50 ERA and has averaged less than five innings per start. Look deeper, though, and you see a pitcher who is fundamentally the same as he was in 2013, when he had a 3.00 ERA in 30 outings. Strasburg is still hitting 95--96 with his fastball, and he still has a terrific changeup and a low walk rate. This year, however, every ball hit off Strasburg seems to find a hole: His .396 batting average allowed on balls in play leads the majors (minimum: 30 IP) and is more than 10 points higher than second-most-unlucky pitcher. (He's allowed a .385 batting average on ground balls.) Strasburg's ERA is a fluke driven by terrible luck; he'll be one of the best pitchers in baseball over the next four months.
High batting averages have been almost eliminated by rising strikeout rates and modern infield defenses, so Dee Gordon's early-season hot streak gets your attention.
SHIFTS PER SEASON
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
Data from ACTA Sports
Runs per team per game so far in 2015, up from 4.07 last year
MLB-wide slugging percentage, up from .386 in '14
Home run rate on fly balls this season, up from 9.5% last year
Percentage of pitches Gordon has swung at this season, a career high
Ted Williams's average in 1941, the last time any player topped .400
Tony Gwynn's average in 1994, the last time a player topped .380
Ichiro's average in 2004, the last time a player topped .370
Gordon's MLB-leading average through Sunday