The weather around these parts hasn’t consistently warmed up yet (a sort of “Prague Spring”), but already the baseball season has reached the quarter-mark, with most teams having played about 40 games.
The baseball has been similarly lukewarm, so far it’s mostly been characterized by the high number of teams treading water at a winning percentage of .500 or so. Of the 30 MLB teams, 23 are within five games of either side of the break-even mark. If you wanted to use a tighter standard of say, three games either side of even, there are still 18 teams there, which seems high even at this still early point.
Only four teams are significantly above .500 – the Tigers (24-12), A’s (25-16), Giants (26-15) and, perhaps surprisingly, the Brewers (25-15). (I say perhaps in the Brewers’ case because they were a consistent contender recently until falling into a big hole last year, when their star slugger Ryan Braun was forced to take an extended timeout for drinking his classmates’ apple juice.) The good news is that there are only three teams far below the .500 mark – the Astros (14-27), the Cubs (13-25) and Arizona (16-27). The first two are hardly a surprise, but few expected the D-backs to be this bad. Everybody else is just kind of plugging along, winning a few, losing a few, week in and week out.
There are all sorts of ways to break this down, most of them offering mild to jarring shocks. For example, the two teams who played in last year’s World Series – Boston and St. Louis – are a combined one game above .500 (the Cards are even and the Red Sox a breathtaking one game over). The five N.L. teams who made the post-season last year – the Braves, Cards, Reds, Pirates and Dodgers – are a combined one game below, at 98-99. Last year’s A.L. entries have fared a little better at 15 games above (106-91), but this is entirely due to the strong play of the Tigers and A’s, the others (Red Sox, Rays and Indians) have been average at best.
Obviously, to effect this across-the-board mediocrity, there have been both under- and over-achievers. In the A.L. the under-achievers would include all the East division teams (except maybe the Blue Jays), the Indians in the Central and the Angels and Rangers in the West. In the N.L. the Braves, Nationals, Cards, Pirates, Reds and Dodgers have played below expectations, but some teams (other than the Brewers and Giants) have been surprisingly decent. Both the Mets and Marlins have over-achieved so far (thanks, Jays) and the Rockies and Padres have been pretty good too.
This sort of thing happened years ago in the NFL and its commissioner Pete Rozelle, no marketing slouch, sold the equality as “parity”, rather than “parody”. To be sure though, the evenness of this baseball season is not entirely a bad thing. While there are clear-cut front-runners in the West and Central divisions of both leagues, the East divisions are entirely up for grabs and this could mean some exciting, multi-team pennant races, especially with the two wild cards in play in each league . Sometimes baseball seasons settle into this pattern of competitive balance, at least in some divisions. A classic example was the 1973 N.L. East. As late as the last week of the season, five of the six teams were within a game or two of first place, each of them passing the others in the night like stealthy submarines in a futile game of Battleship, all of them within inches of .500. The Mets finally took it with a stunningly average record of 82-79, barely ahead of the Cards (81-81), Pirates (80-82), Expos (79-83) and Cubs (who, surprise, surprise, faded late to 77-84). The Mets were a force in the post-season though, beating the Big Red Machine in a famously scrappy NLCS and giving Oakland all they could handle before losing the Series to the A’s in seven nail-biting games. It wasn’t real pretty but it was exciting and we could be looking at a couple of scenarios like this in the East divisions this year, it’s certainly possible. That’s the silver lining of having all these middling records so far, there are still plenty of possibilities left.
Nowhere has this flirtation with the median line been more surprising than the A.L. East, where the cumulative record of all five teams is two games below .500 (98-100), believe it or not. This represents a major step down for all of the teams except maybe the Blue Jays, as none of the presumptive juggernauts in the division has really dominated or put anything strong together. The Orioles, who seem to have the best eight-man daily lineup when healthy, looked to be distancing themselves from the pack in first place, but have lost their last four in a row to come back. The Yanks and Red Sox, despite their Rockefeller payrolls, have each struggled with holes and inconsistency to a 20-19 record. The Rays were somewhat surprisingly stumbling around in last place, victims of pitching injuries, bullpen and run-scoring problems, but they’ve steadied themselves lately and are only 3 1/2 games back.
The Jays’ record of 20-21 is nothing to brag about, but represents a step in the right direction from last year, when they were already about ten games below .500 at this point. Despite some obvious weaknesses, they are a considerably better team, as advertised and hoped for. Much of the improvement has been on defense, one of their unforeseen Achilles’ heels of last season. Due to the much improved health of Melky Cabrera, Brett Lawrie and (mostly) Jose Reyes, the defense has been much better in left field, at third base and shortstop. The glaringly weak catching situation of last season has been shored up, as both Dioner Navarro and Josh Thole have been solid defensively and have hit well too (although Thole has only had about 40 at-bats, I’ll still take .375, thanks). Not to kick a guy when he’s (still) down, but J.P. Arencibia is hitting a robust .140 with the Rangers and has yet to throw out a base-stealer. (I don’t know what they’re thinking down there in Arlington, but the Rangers are going nowhere fast with ex-Jays deadwood like Arencibia and Alex Rios, and the Kinsler-for-Fielder trade looks pretty disastrous too – Kinsler’s much better at everything except hitting home runs, but even so, has more RBI and HRs than Fielder so far.) The Jays’ situation at second base has been a bit of a revolving door, but at least the defense there has been better than last year, regardless of who’s played. The Jays are above average to solid defensively at the other positions and it’s helped.
The Jays’ offense has been solid too, slightly better than expected despite a low team batting average. They’re among the league leaders in important categories like runs, home runs, RBI and slugging percentage. New hitting coach Kevin Seitzer seems to have come up with some plans and approaches tailored to each individual and a lot of them seem to be working. Bautista is showing more discipline than the past two years, he’s back to taking bad pitches and not getting over-anxious or too argumentative with the umpires. He’s been an on-base machine and the power is there, as always. Adam Lind has looked good with the bat and they’ve finally figured out how to use him – sit him against lefties, especially tough ones. The batting averages of Colby Rasmus (who I’ll never figure out) and Lawrie are not where you’d like them to be, but both have flashed home run power and Lawrie has been extraordinarily efficient with runners in scoring position – he has 24 RBI on 30 hits, which is remarkable. Cabrera’s hot hitting has been mostly a matter of his restored health – it’s amazing what not having a walnut-sized tumour on the spine can do for a guy. This may seem like a premature exaggeration (and it is), but in Juan Francisco, the Jays may have found their David Ortiz. Francisco reminds me of Ortiz a lot, except Juan seems to have some defensive value too. He’s big, left-handed, extremely strong with quick wrists, will hit with a lot of power and for a decent average despite striking out a lot, because he’s also patient and disciplined, with a good eye. He’s made a difference, the two-through-seven spots in the Jays’ batting order have been almost formidable.
The strength of Francisco’s bat has led to an interesting conundrum, namely how to keep it in the lineup everyday. Encarnacion and Lind are both hitting well and ensconced as the regular first baseman and DH against right-handed pitching respectively, so the Jays use Francisco as the DH against lefties and to spell the other two occasionally. But with the Ryan Goins experiment shelved and the costly loss of Maicer Izturis cutting down on their options at second base, the Jays have tried an assortment of Munenori Kawasaki, Jonathan Diaz, Chris Getz and Steve Tolleson. Each of them have had their moments, while none has seemed to be the permanent answer with either the bat or glove. With the offense going so well, some think the Jays should choose the best defensive player and carry his bat, which they can afford to do provided it’s not too weak. Settling on one guy would help, I’m inclined toward Tolleson. But the Jays have been toying with another possibility – playing Brett Lawrie at second and Francisco at third, which is both intriguing and controversial. Those against this point to the failure of last year’s brief Lawrie-at-second experiment, the injury-prone aspect of both Lawrie and that position, his defensive excellence at third, and how shifting could negatively impact his game, given his already volatile psyche. These are all good points, but could be countered with the following: Last year was last year, an entirely different situation. Lawrie was still coming off an early season injury at the time of the switch and his performance, concentration and confidence were all badly shaken, plus they didn’t give him much time or warning, the whole business only lasted a few days. He seems much more settled, focused and mature this year, plus he moves all over the diamond in their various shifts anyway, so playing him at second base could work. I can see the value if it gets Francisco’s bat in there more often but it will only succeed if they commit to it fully and for some time. Trying it for just two weeks or constantly shifting Lawrie back and forth between or during games isn’t fair to him and will sandbag the idea, they need to make up their minds. I think it’s worth trying, but of course it isn’t just about Lawrie, it’s also about how well Francisco can handle third base, which remains to be seen. The other option to maximize Francisco’s bat would be to make him the full-time DH and either trade Adam Lind or use him off the bench as a pinch-hitter, utility-DH guy, which they might also try. Mostly, where to put Francisco’s bat is a nice problem to have.
So they can catch the ball and hit the ball, but the Jays haven’t thrown the ball very well; apart from Mark Buehrle, their starting pitching has been spotty at best and this has cost their bullpen of late. R.A. Dickey has been up and down, but mostly good of late, though he often leaves games earlier than he’d like and with runners on base. It’s not saying much, but Drew Hutchison has pitched better than his record shows. Dustin McGowan has been okay but can’t seem to get past the fourth inning with any consistency; everybody but Buehrle has walked far too many batters. And then there’s Brandon Morrow. Like many, I saw Morrow as the key to the rotation – Buehrle and Dickey could be counted on at the top, the bottom was uncertain, so Morrow with his good stuff in the middle would be the difference-maker. That’s all out the window now, because for the third straight year, Morrow will miss significant time with another injury and one wonders if he’ll ever have a healthy full season or realize his potential. The only silver lining to his injury was that he was pitching so poorly that they might have had to replace him anyway and this saved them that decision. I can’t recall seeing such pitching inefficiency, even in this day and age – he was throwing way too many pitches without getting many outs – usually about 100 by the fourth or fifth inning, by which time he was gassed. As Gregg Zaun pointed out, Morrow has an electric fastball around 95 m.p.h. with good movement, but he was only using it about 50% of the time, which isn’t nearly enough, plus he wasn’t locating it. This just isn’t good enough, the jury’s out on Morrow even though he’s only 29. So now they have to replace him with J.A. Happ, who may or may not be be marginally better, but it looks like they’re going to have to replace McGowan soon too, as they want him in the bullpen, but with who? Either Esmil Rogers or Todd Redmond I guess, Marcus Stroman sure doesn’t look to be ready yet. The failure to land an established starting pitcher in the off-season will probably cost them, a shame because they’re right there in a division that may be wide open for once.
Indeed, if not for the recent rough patch by the bullpen, the Jays might be in first place right now. The injury to Casey Janssen lasted longer and proved more costly than expected, it moved each reliever’s role up a notch and some of them weren’t ready for this. Plus they’ve been overworked because of the general failure of the starters to go more than five or six innings. I still think that long-term, the bullpen is a strength of this team, there’s quality and depth there provided they aren’t stretched too thin.
Returning to the subject of .500 baseball….The stated aim of many teams whose fortunes are up in the air is to keep close in the early going, stay around .500 until the break, then try to put a run together. It’s one thing for teams to utter this cliche, but quite another to see so many of them actually doing it. Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising though; after all, the cumulative win-loss percentage of all teams in all games played since the very beginning of baseball is .500. This may not sound right, but it’s true – it has to be, because in every game played, there’s a winner and a loser – that adds up to .500, every time. Usually, a few teams are doing more of the winning and a few others are doing more than their share of the losing. The difference so far this year is that most of them are sharing this around equally, a rare kind of baseball democracy.
© 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.