Impressions After One Month of the MLB Season

Just over one month has passed in the MLB season, and a lot has changed since I made my picks for the season back in early April.  That being said, it’s still very early in the season’s proceedings, so a lot can change, but a month of games is still enough to have some idea of what is going to take place over the next five months before the postseason in October.

Here’s a look at my impressions after roughly 35 games, or about one-fifth, of the 2015 campaign.

The Cardinals are really good

St. Louis was my World Series pick before the season, and so far they haven’t disappointed, starting the season a big league-best 23-10 to take a five game lead over the Cubs in the NL Central, which is tied for the largest current division lead in baseball.  The Cardinals are doing it with pitching, as they always seem to do, as they lead all of baseball with a 2.74 team ERA, which is 0.25 better than anyone else, and is due in large part to a 1.61 bullpen ERA.  And those numbers are, since April 25, without ace Adam Wainwright, who is out for the year with a torn Achilles.  The Cards won the World Series without him in 2011, although they did have Chris Carpenter at the time.  Complementing the pitching is an offense that ranks fourth in batting average (.273) and 11th in runs (150), and the offense and the pitching staff have merged to create the second best run differential in baseball (+50).  A lot is made of the Giants’ streak of winning the World Series the last three even-numbered years, and rightfully so, but the Cardinals have reached the Fall Classic in the last two ensuing odd-numbered years.  It’s 2015, an odd-numbered year right after another Giants title, and the Cardinals are positioned very well to continue that pattern and potentially reach another World Series.

The Dodgers are good too… and they’re not even healthy

Don Mattingly’s team is playing very well to begin their quest for a third straight NL West division title, which they were favored for coming into the season.  Their 22-11 record has given them a five game lead over the Padres, which is tied for the biggest division lead.  They lead baseball in homers (53), are second in runs (174), and are third in batting average (.269), supplementing a pitching staff that is fourth in team ERA (3.19).  That combination of pitching and hitting has given the Dodgers the best run differential in baseball (+63).  These numbers are remarkable, considering that Carl Crawford, Kenley Jansen, Joel Peralta, Yasiel Puig, and Hyun-Jin Ryu are all currently on the disabled list temporarily, and Brandon League and Brandon McCarthy both out for an extended period of time.  This team will only get better when they get healthier, which is a scary thought for the rest of the National League.

The Nationals will be just fine

A Nationals team picked by many to reach and even win the World Series didn’t live up to the billing for the first three weeks of the season.  After a loss to the Braves on April 27, Washington was 7-13 and in the midst of a six game losing streak, and was in last place in the NL East, eight games behind the division-leading Mets.  The next night, they trailed 10-2 in the fifth before coming all the way back to win 13-12 on a ninth inning Dan Uggla homer, and since they have won games in groups of no less than three games, and haven’t lost back to back games, resulting in an 12-3 stretch to move them to second in the East, one and a half games behind the Mets.  While their pitching has been solid the entire season, the Nationals team average was .236 in April, but is .296 in May, thanks in large part to Bryce Harper catching fire, hitting six homers in a three game stretch last week.  The offensive success has been without Anthony Rendon, who hasn’t played a game yet due to knee and oblique injuries.  Once he gets healthy, a Nationals team that is now suddenly playing up to its potential will be even better, so the team’s current record of 19-16 shouldn’t worry anyone in Washington, but rather the rest of the NL East.

That being said, with the Mets pitching being so strong, ranking second in baseball with a 2.99 team ERA, I don’t see them going on any extended losing streaks.  The NL East race between the Nationals and Mets should be a great one all year, although I expect the second place finisher in the division to be one of the National League’s Wild Card teams.

Tigers-Royals should be an excellent race

Speaking of excellent division races, the AL Central race between Detroit and Kansas City should be great to watch all year long.  This is another race where I expect the team who finishes second to play in the Wild Card Game, but there is such an advantage to winning the division and advancing to the Division Series that the teams surely will want to avoid the one-off Wild Card playoff at all costs.  Last year, these two teams fought all the way to the finish, with the Tigers winning the Central by a single game, but the Royals advancing from the Wild Card Game all the way to the American League pennant.  The Royals are off to the better start, ever so slightly, at 21-13, tied for the best record in the American League, while the Tigers are a game back at 20-14.  The Royals are doing it with pitching, as they are fourth in the AL with a 3.52 team ERA, featuring a 1.63 bullpen ERA which is the best in baseball, but also with their offense, with the team leading MLB in batting average (.285, which is 15 points higher than the next best), and tied for third in runs scored (167).  The Tigers are just behind the Royals with the second best batting average in baseball (.270), but strangely are 16th in runs (142).  Detroit is also mid-pack in the major pitching categories, and it is very curious that they are 20-14 despite a run differential of only +2 (142 for, 140 against).  The Royals look much better statistically than the Tigers, and have won four out of seven head-to-head meetings thus far, so the Royals, who I picked to win the American League, remain the favorites to win the Central and then the pennant.

The Astros could be for real

It’s been a long few years in Houston since reaching the World Series in 2005.  The Astros have only had more 100-loss seasons (3) than winning seasons (2) since, and were 72-90 last year with a lot of young players as they continued their rebuilding process.  Before the season I thought this year’s team, which had added the likes of veterans Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus, Jed Lowrie, Luke Gregerson, and Pat Neshek to solidify their young roster, reminded me a little of the 1991 Braves, who went from “worst-to-first” and nearly won the World Series, with strong pitching, young hitting with potential, and some veterans brought in in the offseason.  That being said, I picked the Astros fourth in the decent AL West, but they are off to a 21-13 start, which is tied for the best record in the AL, and have a four game lead over the Angels.  The pitching is the key, with a 3.43 team ERA ranking second in the AL, with a bullpen ERA of 2.18 also second in the league.  The team’s starter’s ERA is 4.13, which ranks 16th out of the 30 teams, but the rotation is led by two very strong pitchers in Dallas Kuechel (4-0, 1.39), who is one of the early favorites for the Cy Young Award, and Collin McHugh (4-1, 3.50).

There are two big questions for whether or not the Astros can contain their early season success.  One is their offense, which ranks in the middle of the pack in runs scored (12th, 145), and second in home runs (49), but dead last in batting average (.225).  That last stat likely needs to improve for the team to continue its success over the course of 162 games.  The other question is how the Astros will handle the pressure over the summer from the chasers, particularly from the Mariners and Angels.  Both teams have started around .500 but are playing well the last few days, and as divisional opponents of the Astros will have plenty of head-to-head opportunities to gain ground.  The Astros look very solid right now, but there’s still too many questions around this team to say whether or not they should be a playoff team.  The Astros could be for real.

The Yankees could be the Yankees again

The New York Yankees are the most successful franchise in baseball, with 27 World Series championships to prove it, but have missed the playoffs in back-to-back years, finishing 12 games behind the Red Sox in 2013 and the Orioles in 2014 in the AL East.  Without any major offseason acquisitions coming into this season, expectations were for the team to likely finish over .500, as they’ve done every year since 1992, but not necessarily be a postseason threat.  After a 1-3 start, however, the Yankees are now 21-14, and lead the Rays by two games in the AL East.  Some (including me) thought pitching could be a concern, but the Yankees’ staff leads the AL with a 3.33 team ERA, with the bullpen’s 2.18 ERA ranking third in the AL. Michael Pineda (5-0, 2.72) is leading the rotation, while the best one-two punch in any bullpen so far this season, closer Andrew Miller and setup man Dellin Betances, have yet to allow an earned run in 36.2 innings between them.  The Yanks have also struck out more batters (311) than anyone.  Offensively the team ranks sixth in runs (164), tied for third in home runs (43), and they are eighth in OBP (.324) despite ranking just 17th in batting average (.251).  Pretty much the entire Yankee lineup is performing well, but particularly Mark Teixiera (.246, 11 HR, 28 RBI) and Alex Rodriguez (.241, 8 HR, 20 RBI), who is outperforming expectations after coming back from a year-long suspension at age 39.  The Yankees are the fourth oldest team in baseball, and have the oldest offense by nearly two years, so health will be a question.  But if this team can stay healthy, they can be a real threat, as on baseball-reference.com‘s Simple Rating System (combining run differential and strength of schedule), they have the best rating in all of baseball by a fairly wide margin.

The Red Sox aren’t what we thought they were

Below the Yankees, and below everyone else in the AL East too, sit the Boston Red Sox.  The team is trying to become the first worst-to-first-to-worst-to-first team in MLB history, after winning the 2013 World Series in between two last-place seasons, but is not off to a good start at 16-18.  To their defense, the AL East is the only division where that record would even be close to last place.  But there are definitely some issues this team needs to address if it wants any chance at the division title they were predicted to win.  The team ranks in the top half of the league in runs and home runs, although they are 27th in team batting average (.230).  With the slugging types of David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, and Mike Napoli, those ups and downs offensively could be expected.  The issue for the Red Sox is their pitching staff, with a team ERA of 4.90, which ranks next to last in baseball (last place Colorado plays half their games at altitude, and generally has a high ERA).  While the bullpen ERA is 3.75, which isn’t terrible but does rank 12th out of 15 in the AL, the rotation ERA is 5.65, the worst in baseball.  The best Sox starter in terms of ERA is Rick Porcello at 4.50, and the next lowest is Wade Miley at 5.60, with two of Boston’s starters at 6.35 or worse.  It doesn’t matter how good the offense is when the pitching is that bad, plain and simple.  The current result is that the team is still winning about half their games despite a fifth-worst run differential of -30, but they can’t keep the record even this decent all year unless their pitching really improves.

“Way Too Early” Award Winners

American League
MVP:  Nelson Cruz, Mariners (.346, 15 HR, 29 RBI) (Also considered: Stephen Vogt, Athletics; Mark Teixiera, Yankees; Mike Trout, Angels)
Cy Young:  Dallas Kuechel, Astros (4-0, 1.39 ERA) (Also considered: Felix Hernandez, Mariners; Andrew Miller, Yankees; Sonny Gray, Athletics)
Rookie of the Year:  Devon Travis, Blue Jays (.275, 7 HR, 25 RBI) (Also considered: Mark Canha, Athletics; Steven Souza Jr., Rays; Roberto Osuna, Blue Jays)
Manager of the Year:  A.J. Hinch, Astros (Also considered: Paul Molitor, Twins; Joe Girardi, Yankees; Kevin Cash, Rays)

National League
MVP:  Bryce Harper, Nationals (.308, 12 HR, 31 RBI) (Also considered: Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers; Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks; Matt Carpenter, Cardinals; Joey Votto, Reds)
Cy Young:  Zack Greinke, Dodgers (5-0, 1.52 ERA) (Also considered: Max Scherzer, Nationals; Matt Harvey, Mets; Shelby Miller, Braves; Bartolo Colon, Mets; A.J. Burnett, Pirates; Michael Wacha, Cardinals)
Rookie of the Year:  Joc Pedersen, Dodgers (.255, 10 HR, 21 RBI) (Also considered: Kris Bryant, Cubs; Jung Ho Kang, Pirates; Archie Bradley, Diamondbacks)
Manager of the Year:  Terry Collins, Mets (Also considered: Joe Maddon, Cubs; Don Mattingly, Dodgers; Mike Matheny, Cardinals)

 

 

MLB Standings

AL East
1. N.Y. Yankees 21-14
2. Tampa Bay 19-16, 2 GB
3. Toronto 17-18, 4 GB
4. Baltimore 15-17, 4.5 GB
4. Boston 16-18, 4.5 GB

AL Central
1. Kansas City 21-13
2. Detroit 20-14, 1 GB
3. Minnesota 19-15, 2 GB
4. Chi. White Sox 14-17, 5.5 GB
5. Cleveland 12-20, 8 GB

AL West
1. Houston 21-13
2. L.A. Angels 17-17, 4 GB
3. Seattle 15-18, 5.5 GB
4. Texas 15-19, 6 GB
5. Oakland 13-23, 9 GB

NL East
1. N.Y. Mets 20-14
2. Washington 19-16, 1.5 GB
3. Miami 16-19, 4.5 GB
4. Atlanta 15-19, 5 GB
5. Philadelphia 12-23, 8.5 GB

NL Central
1. St. Louis 23-10
2. Chi. Cubs 18-15, 5 GB
3. Cincinnati 17-17, 6.5 GB
3. Pittsburgh 17-17, 6.5 GB
5. Milwaukee 12-23, 12 GB

NL West
1. L.A. Dodgers 22-11
2. San Diego 18-17, 5 GB
3. San Francisco 17-17, 5.5 GB
4. Arizona 15-18, 7 GB
5. Colorado 11-19, 9.5 GB

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