Monday

4-26-10: Surprises, Disappointments & Confusion

Hello again everybody...

Welcome back. How was your weekend? We had some pretty dreary weather here in the upper Midwest. But it was perfect for getting lots of sleep and doing a little laundry. Yep, that's pretty much all I did. And I loved every minute of it.

Oh, and I watched plenty of baseball too. But that goes without saying right?

It struck me this weekend - though I suppose it happens every year - just how many surprising, disappointing and confusing teams there are in the big leagues this season. And if you were wagering that my next thought was, “hey, there's a column”, you'd be 100% correct.

Did your club make the list? Which column did I put them in? Read on and find out!

Onward!

”The Constitution gives every American the inalienable right to make a damn fool of himself.”
- John Ciardi (1916 - 1986), American poet, translator and etymologist


Writing for the Cycle Corollary: Baseball rules allow for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals.

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Surprises, Disappointments & Confusion

Surprises
Teams off to good starts that I didn't see coming

San Diego Padres:

The Padres are 11-7 and on top of the NL West.

I'll let that sink in for a moment. A club that went 75-87 in 2009, and whom I picked to finish dead last in the NL West in 2010 is leading the division as April draws to a close.

How the heck did this happen?

When a team surprises you, the first place to look is at their pitching. The Padres lead the NL with a Team ERA of 2.73. That's a run and a half lower than the league average.

Jon Garland opened the season for San Diego, but it's Kevin Correia that's emerged as their best starter. Correia is 3-1 with a 3.13 ERA, a 1.13 WHIP and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is better than 2:1. Outside of his wins, none of those numbers land him in the top 10 in the NL, but they're all rock-solid.

You'd expect closer Heath Bell to be the star out of their bullpen, and while he has 4 saves, it's been Tim Stauffer who's been darned near unhittable. In his 10.1 innings-pitched, Stauffer has two wins, 10 strikeouts, a 0.77 WHIP and a 0.00 ERA. Yeah, that's pretty good.

Hitting-wise, as you'd expect, 1B Adrian Gonzalez leads the club with a 1.095 OPS. But it's actually 3B Chase Headley that leads the team with a .371 batting average. Gonzalez has been more productive with his hits, which is why I'm starting to focus more on OPS than on batting average and RBI's. But for a team that wasn't supposed to hit much, they're in the top 10 in the NL in OPS and Runs Scored.

Combine better than expected pitching and hitting, and you get a surprising start. I'm not sure if it'll last long, but Padre fans should enjoy it for however long they can!

Oakland Athletics:

The A's are 12-8 and two games ahead of my pick to win the West, the L.A. Angels.

Another team I picked to finish last in their division who's leading in the last week of April. Coincidentally, they also finished 75-87 in 2009, just like the Padres. Maybe there's something about that record that's motivating clubs?

Also just like the Padres, the A's are leading their league in Team ERA (3.08). Dallas Braden leads the team in Wins (3) and Strikeouts (18), and leads the entire AL with a 0.85 WHIP. Justin Duchscherer leads the team and is 7th in the AL with a 1.82 ERA, having only surrendered 5 Earned Runs over his 24.2 Innings Pitched.

In their bullpen, Andrew Bailey has been as good as advertised in the closers role. Tyson Ross, however, has been nearly as valuable with 11 K's in his 12 Innings Pitched. His 1.00 WHIP and 2.25 ERA are nothing to sneeze at either.

Unlike San Diego, Oakland is relying far more on their pitching than their hitting. They're in the upper half of the AL in Runs Scored, but their team OPS is well below league average. Daric Barton leads the club with an .860 OPS, but that's over 250 points lower than the AL Leader, Texas' Nelson Cruz (1.183). Manufacturing runs is a good start, but it will only get you so far. They'll have to find power somewhere (they're 12th in the AL in home runs), or they simply won't score enough runs to stay on top of their division.

So far, it's been a great start for baseball in the Bay Area with both Oakland and San Francisco off to solid starts.


Tampa Bay Rays:

The Rays are 14-5 and have the best record in the big leagues.

Granted, the Rays aren't as big a surprise as the Padres and Athletics, but I picked them to finish third in the AL East, so that qualifies them a surprise in my book.

Oakland has the best Team ERA (3.08) in the AL, but Tampa's right behind them at 3.38. All five starters have .500 records or better. Matt Garza's 2.17 ERA has him in the top 10 of the AL, and Jeff Niemann's 1.05 WHIP likewise has him near the top of the AL. The bullpen hasn't been called on a ton, but when they have, they've produced. Five of the seven Rays relievers who've made appearances have ERA's of less than 3.00.

On offense, Tampa leads the Major Leagues with 107 Runs Scored coming into yesterday's games. That's an average of nearly six runs per game. They don't have any players in the top 10 in OPS or home runs, but what they do have is a line-up that can produce, one through nine.

3B Evan Longoria is making a bid for an MVP award with a .924 OPS, and is second on the team only to Carl Crawford with 37 total bases. Crawford, meanwhile is making a bid for a big contract (whether that's with Tampa or not is yet to be determined) with a .906 OPS and seven stolen bases. He's a primo lead-off hitter and will get a lot of attention from teams who have holes in the outfield and at the top of the line-up (*cough* Yankees *cough*). Also a free agent, Carlos Pena leads the club in RBI (18) and Walks (13) making him another highly valuable piece of the puzzle.

The Rays are red-hot right now, but they do play in the AL East, meaning that the best record in baseball has them only one game ahead of the Yankees.


Disappointments
Teams I expected to play better than they have

Baltimore Orioles:

The Orioles are 3-16, by far the worst record in baseball.

In this year's MLB Preview, I talked about how much I liked Baltimore's young talent. So far, that talent has utterly failed to produce.

The O's are last in the league in Runs Scored and are hitting 50 points below the AL average in OPS. C Matt Wieters' .767 OPS is well below the “Mauer with Power” level he'd been advertised at. OF Adam Jones, who's supposed to be a table-setter has a woeful On-Base Percentage of .230. And free agent acquisition 3B Garett Atkins has an OPS below .600 (below .700 is considered pretty poor).

Brian Matusz has been the only bright note on an otherwise dismal starting staff. His two wins are the only two the starters have produced. Kevin Millwood was supposed to add some veteran savvy, but he's 0-3 with a 3.38 ERA.

The only club with a worse bullpen ERA is the Kansas City Royals. Mike Gonzalez was brought in to be their closer, but his 18.00 ERA has quickly put that experiment to an end. Matt Albers has pitched 8.2 innings, walked seven and struck-out six. Ugh.

Can the Orioles rebound from this terrible start? Their next 13 games are against the Yankees, Red Sox (whom I hate) and Twins. Yeah, probably not.


Boston Red Sox (whom I hate):

The Red Sox (whom I hate) are 8-11 and in fourth place in the AL East.

Consider this one to have a big ol' asterisk on it. While the Red Sox (whom I hate) have failed to live up to most pundits' expectations, I can hardly call myself “disappointed” when my least favorite team does so poorly, right?

I broke down their problems in last Wednesday's column, so I won't rehash them here.

Suffice to say that they trailed in all three games of their most recent series against Baltimore. You know, the team I just told you was so horrible? Sure, Boston (whom I hate) came back to win two of those games. But comeback wins against the O's are nothing to brag about this season.


Cincinnati Reds:

The Reds are 8-11 and in fifth place in the NL Central.

Granted, I picked them to finish only fourth in that division, but after Houston's lousy start, to be a half-game behind them is a disappointment for Cincy fans.

The Reds' problems begin with their pitching. Their Team ERA of 6.14 is only ahead of Pittsburgh's gaudy 6.99. Mike Leake is the only starter to produce a win. One measly win amongst their 5 starters?! That's worse than Baltimore! Johnny Cueto was supposed to be an up-and-coming star, but the only thing astronomical about his performance so far is his 5.73 ERA. Oof.

You want to know how dysfunctional their bullpen is? Nick Masset is tied for the team lead with 2 wins, and he's got a 12.38 ERA. Micah Owings may be their best reliever so far, leading the pen with 13 K's. His 4.09 ERA isn't stellar, but his 1.27 WHIP is pretty good.

Offensively, 3B Scott Rolen has been a nice pick-up with his .970 OPS. SS Orlando Cabrera? Not so much. For a guy who needs to get on-base to be effective, his .267 On-Base Percentage isn't going to get it done. 1B Joey Votto needs to be productive for this club to win, and his 20 strikeouts are a problem. OF Jay Bruce made a splash as a rookie, but hasn't been able to sustain that success and has a below-average .718 OPS this season.

Manager Dusty Baker has to be on the proverbial hot-seat at this point. There's talent on this club, but it hasn't produced so far. Perhaps a new voice in the clubhouse would shake things up a bit?


Confusion
Teams that I have no clue what to make of

Cleveland Indians:

Cleveland is 8-10 and in third place in the AL Central.

I saw some Indians games in Spring Training and they looked awful. I saw them play the Twins last week, and they looked awful. So how are they threatening .500?

You can start with Fausto Carmona who's 3-0 with a 2.96 ERA. Carmona won 19 games in 2007, and has been awful since then. Whatever he lost, he's seemingly found it. And as nasty as his stuff can be, if it stays found, Carmona will be a problem for opposing hitters all season.

Mitch Talbot is right behind him as a quality starter with a 2.25 ERA and a minuscule 1.10 WHIP. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is pretty poor, but so far, he's been able to work out of most of the jams he's put himself into.

While their pitching has kept them in games, the offense hasn't held up their end. Cleveland's scored the second fewest runs of any team in the AL, and their team OPS of .651 is dead-last in the league.

OF Shin-Soo Choo has been the lone bright spot in the line-up. The only regular within 100 points of his .983 OPS is Austin Kearns, and Kearns has four-times as many strikeouts as Runs Scored, and twice as many K's as RBI.

Unless the offense starts producing, I don't expect Cleveland to go anywhere but south in the standings.


Milwaukee Brewers:

The Brewers are 8-10 and in third place in the NL Central.

How frustrated must Brewer fans be? Just look at the last week's worth of games:

Sun @ 4/18 vs. Washington, won 11-7

Tues 4/20 @ Pittsburgh, won 8-1

Wed 4/21 @ Pittsburgh, won 8-0

Thurs 4/22 @ Pittsburgh, won 20-0

Fri 4/23 vs. Cubs, lost 8-1

Sat 4/24 vs. Cubs, lost 5-1

Sun 4/25 vs. Cubs, lost 12-2

Now, the level of competition between the wins and the losses is obviously disparate. But to go from a three-game series where you score 36 runs, to a three-game series where you score 4? That's about more than just which team you're playing. Brewer fans aren't going to like this, but Prince Fielder is a large part of the problem. He's struck out 20 times in just 62 At-Bats. When your MVP-candidate/chief run-producer has an OPS of .744, your offense will stumble more than occasionally.

Milwaukee's consternation comes from more than just inconsistent offense. Sub-par pitching has played just as large a role in their confounding start.

The Brewer starters are just 4-7 in their 18 games. Yovanni Gallardo is supposed to be the budding ace of the group, but his 4.30 ERA and team-leading 11 walks aren't the numbers of an ace. He's also not getting as deep into games as you'd like, averaging less than 6 Innings Pitched per start.

Milwaukee's bullpen has been hit or miss. Carlos Villanueva and Manny Parra have been outstanding. LaTroy Hawkins and Trevor Hoffman, not so much. The problem is that Villanueva and Parra are on the front end of the pen, and Hawkins and Hoffman on the back end. When your poorest performing relievers are the ones who have been tasked with finishing off wins, that's a problem.

There are reasons to think Milwaukee can and will get better. Fielder will come around eventually. Hawkins and Hoffman are too experienced to be this bad all year. The starting pitching? That could be a trouble spot all season. If they can find a way to keep their club close in games, Milwaukee can contend.


Arizona Diamondbacks:

The Diamondbacks are 8-10 and in fifth place in the NL West.

Those of you who checked out Friday's DFTU, read about Arizona's hot start being wasted by terrible relief pitching in recent games. I finished by kvetching about having to face the league-leading Phillies over the weekend.

Two wins over the two-time World Series participating Phillies later, I'm just as confused by the Snakes as I ever was.

Arizona pounded their way to a 7-4 win on Friday, lost a 3-2 nail-biter on Saturday, and finished off the series victory with a 8-6 slug-fest on Sunday.

Unless the relief pitching improves, that pattern may be the only way the Diamondbacks can win this season - just pound out enough runs to make up for the sub-par pitching.

Obviously, you can't contend over the long-term that way. Hitting will always go into a slump at some point, and when it does, poor pitching gets exposed.

There are positives for Arizona's starters at least. Dan Haren is 2-1 despite his 5.19 ERA. That last number will most certainly drop over the course of the year. Kris Benson has come up and performed solidly in a couple of starts. That's a bonus the Diamondbacks weren't counting on. And the two starters Arizona brought in via trade this past off-season, Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy, have had more good starts than bad so far. If the starters can start going deeper into games - they've averaged just over 6-innings per start - then that could take some pressure off the bullpen.

As with the previous two “confusing” teams, if Arizona can just get a little more consistent with the quality of their outings, they have the talent to contend.


So there you have them. Nine teams who've surprised, disappointed and confused me so far this season. Maybe I'll check back later in May to see what's changed with them.

That's going to wrap things up for today. I'm back on Wednesday, and get this... it probably won't be a baseball column! I know. You're floored, right?

Until then, thanks for reading!

2 comments:

  1. You know, for as math-oriented as baseball stats are, who decided on the nomenclature 0.1 = 1/3 and 0.2 = 2/3 for innings pitched?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I understand why that would annoy a math guy like you, and you're right to point out the dichotomy between baseball being so mathematic and the incorrect decimal usage.

    I don't know the etymology of it, but I would speculate that given the relative education level of your average major leaguer, perhaps they figured they'd understand .1 and .2 better than .3 and .6?

    ReplyDelete