Crazy numbers, early trends, and the meaning of what we've seen so far
Just like any other small slice of the season, crazy things can happen in a 15- or 16-game sample. When it happens at the start of the season, however, it’s like we all turn into Howard Beale in “Network” and go a little bit crazy. I like to point out that the Cubs went 5-15 over one stretch last season. Kris Bryant won National League MVP honors, but over one 25-game stretch he hit just one home run and drove in four runs. The Twins lost 103 games, but had a 12-6 stretch from July 2-23. Anything can happen over three weeks.
Still, beginning-of-the-season numbers and trends are fun to examine. Here are a few noteworthy ones and what they may mean.
This is how you become a fan favorite:
1. Sign with a team because you say the city has great beer and “I love beer.”
2. Hit like Babe Ruth.
Not everyone is buying Thames’ hot start. Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio and starter John Lackey both seem to be hinting at PEDs with Bosio saying, “So, yeah, it’s a head-scratcher because nobody knows who this guy is” and Lackey winked and told reporters Thames’ performance “makes you scratch your head.”
I don’t know, maybe the Cubs need to get tested for fleas.
One other thing Bosio said is that Thames is “doing stuff that I haven’t seen for a long time.” What? Guys get hot for 15 games all the time. I picked a random date, last Aug. 1-15. Ryan Braun hit .381/.449/1.000. (OK, maybe not the best example.) Charlie Blackmon hit .429/.478/.937. Heck, from Aug. 16 to Aug. 31, Bryant hit .443/.533/.902, so Bosio saw somebody on his team hit like this just last summer. Gary Sanchez hit .429/.515/1.018 that same stretch. The Cubs win a ring and start whining like Red Sox fans.
Will Thames keep it up? I’ll buy that he’s legit because he’s clearly a much smarter hitter than he was before he went to South Korea. A free-swinger before, he’s now laying off pitches out of the strike zone, with one of the lowest chase rates in the game. He has talked about how playing in South Korea, where they throw a lot more breaking balls and didn’t challenge him as much, forced him to improve his plate discipline. That’s a big reason for his start.
There’s a case to be made that Freeman is now the best hitter in the NL. Yes, Bryce Harper looks like the Harper of 2015 and Bryant is the reigning MVP, but Freeman looks like he’s maintaining the power surge from his blitz through the league in the second half of last season. What makes Freeman so impressive is his power is to all fields. Look at all the opposite-field home runs in 2016 and this season:
If the new park plays as a more of a hitters’ park than Turner Field, Freeman should improve on the 34 home runs he hit last season.
I’m not buying this one. Yes, he dropped a lot of weight and some in the organization believe nearly getting released over the winter was a wake-up call. His plate discipline has been a little better, so maybe he’ll improve on 2016’s numbers, but I’ll be surprised if he ends up close to .300.
When the Cubs rallied from a five-run deficit against the Brewers on Tuesday, it was already the sixth time a team overcame a deficit of five or more runs to win a game. The Angels and Astros did it twice, the Mariners and Cubs once. The sixth such victory last season didn’t come until May 28.
Those games are rare and maybe it’s just a weird oddity that there were so many big comebacks this early. Let’s compare leads after six, seven and eight innings and how often teams are winning those games compared to 2016:
Leading after six: 1,838-290 (.864 winning percentage)
Leading after seven: 1,983-192 (.912)
Leading after eight: 2,106-92 (.958)
2017 (entering Thursday)
Leading after six: 168-33 (.836)
Leading after seven: 182-21 (.897)
Leading after eight: 191-8 (.960)
So the percentages are down a bit in the seventh and eighth innings, but the Mariners’ blowing a six-run lead in the ninth notwithstanding, the ninth-inning guys have been just as effective.
Overall bullpen numbers look pretty similar:
2016: 3.93 ERA, 22.7 percent SO rate, 9.0 percent BB rate, .246 average
2017: 3.90 ERA, 23.8 percent SO rate, 9.6 percent BB rate, .237 average
(Starters’ ERAs, however, are down from 4.34 to 3.88, which may not mean anything just yet because most rotations are healthy at the start of the season.)
Rockies’ bullpen ERA: 2.62
Team trends this early can be just as dubious as individual numbers, but this may be the most important team split/breakdown so far. The Rockies had the worst bullpen in the majors last year, but the addition of Greg Holland and Mike Dunn, plus a healthy Adam Ottavino, have given the Rockies a stellar back-end group. The pen has allowed 40 hits in 55 innings with 65 K’s and just 15 walks and two home runs.
When the Rockies have been good — making the playoffs in 2007 and 2009 — they’ve had good bullpens. Considering it can be difficult to get length out of your starters playing half your games in Coors Field, having a deep bullpen is vital to the Rockies’ success. The 2007 World Series team ranked sixth in the NL in bullpen ERA (impressive given its home environment) and had seven relievers who pitched at least 48 innings with an ERA under 4.00. The 2009 pen wasn’t as good, although closer Huston Street was 35 for 37 in save opportunities.
Diamondbacks’ rotation: Stellar
With the Rockies and Diamondbacks off to good starts, maybe we’ll get some new blood in the NL West. Arizona had the second-best rotation ERA in the NL behind the Mets entering Thursday as all five starters have had their moments. While I have to mention Robbie Ray‘s strikeout rate — 24 in 18 1/3 innings! — the encouraging bright spot has been Shelby Miller rediscovering his mechanics. Through three starts, he has a 17-7 SO/BB ratio in 18 innings with 16 hits allowed. If they get solid performances from Taijuan Walker and Patrick Corbin — and stay heathy — the rotation could keep the D-backs in the playoff race.
When he got knocked out in the fourth inning in his first start, Yankees fans moaned, “Same old Pineda.” In other words, lots of strikeouts, few walks, but too many runs allowed. His next two starts have been stellar, however, and Buster Olney mentioned on Baseball Tonight that Yankees teammates believe Pineda has turned the corner, learning to invest in every pitch. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is still insane. We’ll see if he can keep focused and minimize the pitches in the center of the zone. Remember, the Yankees are playing well without Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius. If Pineda is Masahiro Tanaka‘s wingman, watch out.
Nobody liked the way the Cardinals played defense last year. They moved guys around too much, Matt Holliday lacked range in left field, and a weird Kolten Wong experiment in the outfield was quickly abandoned. So, for 2017: More stability in the infield, no Holliday, Dexter Fowler in center field and … MATT ADAMS IN LEFT FIELD?!?!
Entering Thursday, the Cardinals ranked last in the majors with minus-17 defensive runs saved. The Diamondbacks (minus-13) were the only other team with 10 runs. It’s not just Adams, as Fowler, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty all rate below average and shortstop Aledmys Diaz has struggled. Looks like an issue to watch.