It would be nice to believe that skill trumps all. If success were earned only through merit, it would establish a pleasing order in the universe, one that allowed us to value talent and hard work above all else.
But as anyone who’s ever watched baseball knows, that’s just not how it works. Though talent and hard work count for a lot over a 162-game season, sheer luck often dictates who wins and who loses on a day-by-day basis. So, compared with everything we do know after three weeks, there are probably more things we don’t know yet.
Today’s four featured teams have all been heavily hit by bad luck. Now, that doesn’t mean any of these unlucky clubs don’t have real, lasting weaknesses: Their shortcomings can’t be entirely attributed to the whims of the angry baseball gods. But despite these teams’ flaws, a combination of factors gives us reason to believe that what we’ve seen so far from three of them might not fully reflect their true abilities. As for the fourth — well, even magic has a shelf life.
So let’s offer up a cigar and a glass of rum, and then pray. It’s Week 3 of The 30.
Best Reminder That Jose Bautista Does Not Suffer Fools
One of these days, the Baltimore Orioles will learn to stop throwing at — or anywhere near — Jose Bautista. On April 12, the Jays slugger ducked under a ball screaming toward his head, and then responded by blasting a two-run homer off Darren O’Day. As he watched the pitch sail over the left-field wall, Bautista violated about 100 unwritten rules of baseball decorum, skipping his way toward first base.
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No matter how many new-school strategies teams might deploy to gain an edge on the competition, old-school retribution remains alive and well in today’s game. So when the Jays pummeled Baltimore pitchers en route to an 11-4 lead Tuesday night, O’s Rule 5 pickup Jose Garcia decided to vent his team’s collective frustrations.
First, the right-hander fired a fastball that sailed behind Bautista, whizzing past his back. Then, four pitches later, Garcia challenged Bautista with another fastball — but this one tailed back over the middle of the plate, and Bautista crushed it to Saskatchewan. Then he stood and watched the ball clear the fence, flipped his bat dismissively, and began a slooooow trot toward home. As the Jays right fielder rounded the bases, O’s second baseman Ryan Flaherty yelled something, so Bautista yelled back. Adam Jones trotted in from center field and started yelling, too, so Bautista yelled back again. It was ridiculous, and it was glorious.
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Asked after the game why he made a big show of his home run, Bautista didn’t mince words: “You throw at me, I’m not going to forget. And if I get you right after, then I’m going to enjoy it, and I did.”
He’s hitting .149 so far this year, and he’s dealing with a sore shoulder that has kept him out of the lineup the last few days. Still, the Orioles (and the rest of the league) would do well to remember this simple lesson: Don’t mess with Jose Bautista.
Seven teams still searching for answers.
30. Milwaukee Brewers (4-15 record, minus-47 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Philadelphia Phillies (7-12, minus-34, LW: 29)
28. Minnesota Twins (8-10, minus-21, LW: 28)
27. Texas Rangers (7-11, minus-15, LW: 27)
26. San Francisco Giants (8-11, minus-20, LW: 26)
25. Chicago White Sox (8-9, minus-9, LW: 24)
24. Miami Marlins (8-11, plus-7, LW: 25)
It took about 17 seconds for the Marlins to go from popular sleeper pick to popular “first team to dump its manager” pick. Giancarlo Stanton recently complained that the team lacked fire, and while that may be true, what the Marlins need most is a visit from the luck fairy.
Pitching injuries struck the first blow. Coming into the season, Miami knew that Jose Fernandez would need until at least June to recover from Tommy John surgery, so they added Mat Latos, Dan Haren, and David Phelps via trades.1 But the loss of Henderson Alvarez to a shoulder injury two weeks ago compounded the problem, and Alvarez still might need another three weeks to heal. Without him and Fernandez, Miami has had the 10th-worst starting pitching results in the majors by park-adjusted ERA and the fifth-worst by park-adjusted FIP.
They also subtracted erratic righty Nathan Eovaldi.
Still, the Marlins pitching staff probably isn’t this bad. Latos, Haren, Phelps, Tom Koehler, and Jarred Cosart man the rotation with Fernandez and Alvarez out. While that’s a group with mediocre credentials, it still consists of five major league starters with experience and enough ability to be better than a bottom-feeder staff.
Phelps could be the wild card here. The Marlins promoted him to the rotation after Alvarez’s injury, and in his first two starts this year, he has tossed 11.2 innings and allowed just one run on four hits. Sure, he’s benefited from some luck on balls in play, he’s walked five batters in those two starts, and one of those outings came against the Phillies, but the Fish have been bullish on Phelps based on the flashes of effectiveness he showed last year as a Yankee, in addition to a strong showing during spring training. Although his four-seam fastball rarely overwhelms, his two secondary pitches — a cutter and a changeup — show promise. In other words: If David Phelps is your no. 7 starter on a fully healthy staff, you should be able to absorb a couple of injuries better than Miami has so far.
In addition to health issues, the Fish have been particularly unlucky with run prevention. They’re getting hammered with runners in scoring position, a small-sample-size-based glitch that isn’t likely to last. The bullpen, a top-10 group last year that returned most of the key contributors this season, has given up tons of runs, but that’s thanks largely to a fluky .305 batting average on balls in play that’s one of the highest marks in the majors. Given those stat quirks, it’s not surprising to see the Marlins lose four of their first six one-run games this year. Don’t expect that .333 mark in close games to last, either.2
Given the chaos a couple of 9-1 games can cause in the calculus, run differentials are about as unreliable as win-loss record this early in the season. Still, it’s interesting to note that the Marlins have scored more runs than they’ve allowed, and could be two games better in the standings if nothing else went their way other than more typical run distribution.
The anomalies don’t end with close-game randomness. Multitalented left fielder Christian Yelich was a popular breakout pick this year, then he started the season with a .200 average and no power, and finally landed on the DL with back problems. And given his shaky defense, Jarrod Saltalamacchia won’t win a Gold Glove any time soon, but he’s batting below .100 (!!) so far, and that obviously won’t last.
As expected, Stanton is making bleacher bums run for their lives:
But beyond that, almost nothing about the Marlins met expectations for most of these first three weeks. The good news is that they’re now riding a five-game winning streak that has hoisted them up from the depths of baseball hell. Once Alvarez and Fernandez return, things could get really interesting.
Subject to Change
Expect multiple teams to soon rise or fall out of this eclectic tier.
23. Arizona Diamondbacks (8-10, minus-4, LW: 19)
22. Cincinnati Reds (8-10, minus-10, LW: 22)
21. Atlanta Braves (9-8, plus-1, LW: 18)
20. Cleveland Indians (6-11, minus-7, LW: 15)
19. Seattle Mariners (7-11, minus-22, LW: 16)
18. Oakland A’s (8-12, plus-11, LW: 11)
17. Colorado Rockies (10-8, minus-3, LW: 17)
16. Houston Astros (11-7, plus-6, LW: 23)
Say it loud and say it proud, Houston fans: The Astros are in first place. And while multiple division rivals boast better talent, you can’t chalk up the team’s hot start to good luck. In fact, they’ve been spectacularly unlucky in multiple ways.
For starters, they’re getting hosed on balls in play. The average batting average on balls in play so far this season is .290, and Houston is batting just .272 on those, 21st in the majors. With runners in scoring position, things get even worse: The Astros are holding just above the Mendoza Line, ranking 27th in baseball in those high-leverage spots.
Go through the lineup and you’ll see some loopy individual results, too. Shortstop Jed Lowrie and no. 9–hitting center fielder Jake Marisnick are both off to hot starts. But Chris Carter, George Springer, and Evan Gattis, the three hitters you’d expect to lead the team in home runs, have more than negated those good early tidings. The three boppers combined to bash a home run for every 14.8 at-bats last year, and they’ve managed just four round-trippers among them so far this season. Throw in some microscopic batting averages for the trio, and they’ve roughly equaled the batting production of a one-armed pitcher.
Gattis has been the worst of the bunch. In his first five games as an Astro, he went 0-for-20, striking out 12 times, including one two-game stretch in which he whiffed in eight straight at-bats.3 After he got shipped out by the Braves over the winter, you could argue that Gattis is getting used to AL pitchers and still adjusting to the day-to-day life of being a DH. But whatever the reason, he’s looked lost so far, hitting a brutal .156/.194/.250 while posting the eighth-highest swing-and-miss rate in baseball.4
That was the first time any player in Astros history had ever struck out four times in a game for two games in a row.
As badly as Gattis has scuffled, though, he’s still able to hit wet-fish high fastballs down the middle, as he did in delivering a game-winning double off Tyler Clippard Sunday afternoon.
If you’re wondering who’s whiffed more than Gattis, Carter ranks no. 5 on that swing-and-miss list. The hulking slugger batted just .227 last year with 182 strikeouts, but he still enjoyed an excellent season, swatting 37 home runs in 145 games, including a thunderous second-half stretch in which he seemed to homer every night. This year he’s again swinging at lots of air, as he’s struck out in more than one-third of his at-bats. However, he’s no longer pounding pitches when he does make contact the way he did last year, and that’s how you get an overall batting line of just .150/.261/.200. In 2014, Carter ranked among the AL’s leaders with a Well-Hit Average5 of .194, compared to the leaguewide average of .167. This season, Carter has struggled to square up pitches, posting a weak .125 Well-Hit Average versus the leaguewide average of .153.
ESPN Stats & Info’s statistic looks at the frequency with which hitters make solid contact on pitches.
After notching back-to-back multi-hit games over the weekend against the A’s, Springer has at least started to dig his way out of his early trench.6 After he fanned 114 times in just 295 at-bats during his 2014 rookie campaign, we expected Springer to strike out a bunch, and sure enough he’s whiffing in nearly one-third of his at-bats, too. The big difference is that, compared to last year, his power pace is way down, and his .188/.284/.333 batting line makes him 24 percent worse than league average after adjusting for park effects.
As a nice bonus, he has also swiped four bases already.
In sum, we have a lineup that can’t find holes when it puts the ball in play, can’t do anything in RBI situations, and can’t get any power out of three players expected to make a run at 90 combined home runs. Yet we also have a team that’s two games over .500 and leading the AL West. Given all that has gone against them so far, some better luck — like one or all of Gattis, Carter, and Springer finally waking up — might even help the Astros hold near the top of the division for a little while longer.
AL East Logjam
All five combatants jockey for position in baseball’s most confusing division.
15. Washington Nationals (7-12, minus-16, LW: 5)
14. Los Angeles Angels (9-10, plus-1, LW: 12)
13. Baltimore Orioles (9-10, plus-2, LW: 7)
12. Toronto Blue Jays (9-10, plus-4, LW: 9)
11. Boston Red Sox (10-9, minus-7, LW: 8)
10. Tampa Bay Rays (11-8, plus-5, LW: 21)
9. New York Yankees (11-8, plus-21, LW: 20)
8. San Diego Padres (11-9, plus-18, LW: 10)
7. Chicago Cubs (10-7, plus-11, LW: 14)
6. Pittsburgh Pirates (11-8, plus-19, LW: 13)
The Rays rolled into spring training with the AL East’s most talented group of starting pitchers. In Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, and Jake Odorizzi, they had a young foursome under years of team control that was capable of putting up big results. With Matt Moore eyeing a possible return from Tommy John surgery over the summer and several less-heralded but still capable young pitchers looking like decent bets to keep the no. 5 spot respectable, the Rays — despite an offense not powerful enough to inspire much confidence from pundits — looked to have the ingredients to remain competitive in a highly unsettled division.
Then the injury anvil fell on their heads. Cobb (forearm tendinitis) and Smyly (shoulder tendinitis) started the year on the DL. So did Alex Colome, one of the leading candidates to take over the fifth spot. The bullpen also got hammered: Fireballing lefty closer Jake McGee hit the DL after elbow surgery, and potential supporting contributors Burch Smith, Jeff Beliveau, and C.J. Riefenhauser got hurt, too. Add injuries to a handful of position players, including James Loney, Nick Franklin, and John Jaso, plus a 6-8 start that included eight games with three runs scored or fewer, and there didn’t seem much reason to pay close attention to the Rays over the first 14 games.
A five-game winning streak has at least temporarily changed that. And with the Rays allowing fewer runs per game than any AL team other than the Royals and Astros, in addition to an expected uptick in health as more guys come off the DL, the future could get even brighter.
Loney smacked a two-run homer in his return to the lineup on Friday, and he’ll bolster an offense that, surprisingly, has been performing at a top-10 clip. Despite only one homer so far, Evan Longoria has bounced back from a disappointing 2014 campaign with a .306 batting average, .413 OBP, and as many walks as strikeouts.7 While Wil Myers is off to a hot start in San Diego, Steven Souza isn’t exactly causing buyer’s remorse with his line of .254/.347/.492. Throw in impressive contributions from role players like Tim Beckham, and you have an offense that has been a lot better than anyone expected.
He also has seven hits in his last seven at-bats, going 4-for-4 on Saturday and 3-for-3 on Sunday.
Still, the more sustainable reason for optimism remains the Rays’ pitching staff. Smyly also returned on Friday night, and though he was on a limited pitch count, he showed good command for a pitcher making his first start of the regular season, striking out five, walking none, and giving hope to those of us still on the Smyly bandwagon. As for the others: The latest timetable on McGee has him potentially returning next week. Cobb could be back in less than a month, and Moore could return by mid-June. With Odorizzi’s impressive 1.65 ERA and Archer dominating so thoroughly that he hasn’t allowed an earned run since Opening Day,8 that best-in-the-division pitching staff prediction very well might still come true.
If you’re looking for some secrets to Archer’s success, Jason Collette notes that both Archer’s improved pitch sequencing and a heavier reliance on his changeup have paid dividends.
While the offense might regress out of the top 10 as the season wears on, there are two other reasons for optimism down in Tampa. First, according to cluster luck, the Rays have been the fifth-unluckiest team in baseball so far this season. Second, the loss of Joe Maddon has had little to no effect on the the team’s ability to successfully go against the grain when it comes to traditional baseball strategies. Take what happened during the Rays’ 7-5 win over the Red Sox Wednesday night: With the score tied 5-5 in the seventh inning, manager Kevin Cash called on Brad Boxberger, the Rays’ best relief pitcher, to face the heart of Boston’s order: David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, and Mike Napoli. Boxberger set that trio of big bats down 1-2-3, and the Rays scored two runs in the bottom of the frame to take the lead. Two innings later, middling right-hander Steve Geltz ended up nabbing the save. But no matter what conventional wisdom might tell you, pitching with a two-run lead in the ninth is easier than pitching with a tie in the seventh.
Due to several talented divisional foes, the Rays, like the Astros, will still face an uphill battle to hold on to first place over the long haul. However, with the sportsbooks pegging them as a 79-win team, the over always seemed likely. And thanks to a pitching staff that’s still getting healthier and Cash looking like a potential value-add as a rookie manager, this team will almost certainly exceed Vegas’s expectations. The real question is, by how much?
And Then There Were Five
A thinning top tier features four 2014 playoff combatants … and the Mets!
5. St. Louis Cardinals (12-5, plus-25, LW: 4)
4. Los Angeles Dodgers (11-7, plus-15, LW: 3)
3. New York Mets (14-5, plus-25, LW: 6)
2. Kansas City Royals (12-6, plus-30, LW: 2)
1. Detroit Tigers (13-6, plus-14, LW: 1)
The St. Louis Cardinals are, of course, a model organization, one that’s built on scouting and developing great players in addition to gaining analytical edges in every facet of the game. But even the biggest Cardinals loyalist would have to concede that at least some of the team’s recent success can be chalked up to a force that goes beyond superior management: #CardinalsDevilMagic.
This past weekend’s series against the Brewers demonstrated how quickly that magic has evaporated. The biggest blow for the Cardinals came in the fifth inning of Saturday’s game in Milwaukee, when staff ace Adam Wainwright sustained what at first appeared to be an ankle injury. Hours later, we learned that it was actually an Achilles injury, and the latest reports suggest that Wainwright will likely miss the rest of the season.
The injury has prompted lots of debate about the utility of letting pitchers continue to hit, but using a single injury to make a broader point seems a bit opportunistic — and also misguided. For me, the reason the National League should stop requiring pitchers to hit is pretty simple: They stink! NL baseball would be more entertaining if we didn’t have to deal with this pathetic display every time a team went through the order:
But back to the Cards. If Wainwright were the only significant Cardinal felled by an injury, it’d be a big loss, but arguably a manageable one, too: PECOTA, Steamer, and ZiPS projected Wainwright as a four-to-five-win pitcher this year, so counting from late April on, you might expect the Cardinals to lose three or four wins compared with a replacement-level pitcher, and maybe two to three wins compared with a serviceable arm. With Lance Lynn emerging as one of the steadiest starters in the league9 and a supporting cast that includes veterans John Lackey and Jaime Garcia, as well as young guns Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, and Marco Gonzalez, the Cards do boast plenty of starting-pitching depth when all hands are on deck. However, additional injuries have thinned out that depth considerably: Garcia has made just 16 starts since the beginning of the 2013 season and might be out until June with a shoulder injury, and Gonzales is also on the DL and won’t be ready as hoped for a spot-start opportunity on Thursday.
Sunday’s lousy start in Milwaukee notwithstanding.
Then there are the injuries to Jason Heyward and Yadier Molina. While neither one appears to be as seriously injured as the team’s ace, their day-to-day status isn’t helping to ease the nerves of everyone in St. Louis. After knee and chest injuries knocked Molina out of the lineup, Tony Cruz took control of catching duties over the weekend. Meanwhile, Heyward left Sunday’s game after suffering a groin injury while chasing down a Gerardo Parra triple in the right-field corner. Molina has been merely average so far this year on the offensive end, and Heyward is hitting just .208 with a .230 on-base percentage, but these are still two of the best defensive players in the game at their respective positions. While the extent of their knocks still isn’t clear, losing either player for any notable length of time would make the run-prevention challenges the Cards face without Wainwright, Garcia, and Gonzales all the more daunting.
Even with the health concerns, though, St. Louis isn’t necessarily in major trouble: Projection systems remain bullish on the team’s chances to three-peat as NL Central champs. But the talented Cubs and Pirates have both looked good to start the season. Combine that with the Cards’ suddenly thin starting rotation, thanks to Wainwright & Co.’s injuries and the offseason trade of Shelby Miller to Atlanta,10 and you’ve now got a division race that looks like it could turn into a dogfight.
This was partly triggered by Oscar Taveras’s offseason death and the need for a new right fielder.
Don’t be surprised if St. Louis is scouring the trade market for reinforcements in a few months. Rotten luck will do that to you.