With another week of games in the books, overreactions to the opening week begin to look foolish, while other trends growingly look worthy of concern. Poor starts by the Blue Jays, Cardinals, Rangers, and Giants are beginning to look more legitimate, while the hype generated by the Angels, A’s, and Twins hot starts begin to fizzle. Aside from team performances, the growing trend towards three true outcome baseball (strikeouts, walks, home runs) puts added pressure on the league to address the declining action in MLB games. On a more frivolous note, the MLB deal with Stance Socks is making timeless baseball uniforms look cluttered and chaotic. All in all, week two is another step towards providing more clarity for the upcoming summer of baseball, both in regards to the legitimacy of individual teams as well as league wide trends.
The March Towards Three Outcome Baseball:
The most concerning takeaway from the early weeks of the MLB season is the decline of action in MLB games. Not only are strikeouts on the rise for the 10th straight season, but walks have also increased in the early going. The former trend was more or less predictable due to a changing philosophy within the game to elevate more fly balls in an attempt to hit more home runs at the expense of accepting more strikeouts. The latter trend, however, is more startling. While the league discussed shrinking the strike zone in the offseason by changing the definition of a low strike from “the top of the knee” to the “hollow in the knee cap”, no institutional reform was ever officially made. Despite the strike zone remaining unchanged in the rule book, the uptick in walks may indicate that umpires are calling fewer low strikes than ever. In the first week of the season, the league BB% was the highest for any given week since 2014. This trend started to crystallize in week two of the season with the BB% remaining above 9.0% in consecutive weeks for just the second time in the last three seasons. If hitters are incentivized to swing less due to a shrinking zone, pitch counts will soar and walks will continue to rise, which means not only a slower game, but fewer balls put in play. While shrinking the zone is an attempt to decrease strikeouts, all it has done in reality is produce more free passes. With pitchers all across the league featuring more electric stuff, the league needs to accept that high K% are now an unavoidable part of modern baseball. Rather than trying to limit strikeouts, the league must take care to not implement rule changes seeking to reverse this trend without considering the unintended consequences.
An Annoying Sock Trend:
Before I delve into the future outlook for some of the league’s early surprises, I need to mention the annoying sock trend that has arisen in the season’s first two weeks. In the offseason, the MLB and Stance Socks reached an agreement that made the trendy sock supplier the official sock of the MLB. For as long as baseball has been around, the variety of styles a player can choose to wear their socks has been a fun and unique aspect of the MLB uniform. However, as all aspects of MLB uniforms now display the logo of the company that supplies the uniform piece (New Era for hats, Majestic for uniforms, Nike for undershirts), socks are no longer an exception to the rule. It is hard to describe the cluttering effect that Stance Socks have on the aesthetic of MLB uniforms, so I will provide a few pictures to illustrate my point:
Upon signing the deal to become the MLB’s official on-field sock, Stance declared they were “making baseball socks fun again.” Making anything more fun in the MLB is usually a movement I can get behind, but as the socks in the pictures above show, these over-the-top socks only make MLB uniforms look clownish and makes the MLB appear like it is trying too hard to appeal to a younger generations. I hate to rant on about something as inconsequential as socks, but someone needs to tell the players who are sporting these flamboyant eye sores on their feet that they look foolish.
Contenders and Pretenders:
Now that I am done boring you with nearly 300 words on socks, I’d like to look at the staying power of the teams that are off to unpredictably hot starts in order to determine who is a contender and who is a pretender. I will start this list with the biggest surprise team of them all: the Minnesota Twins.
Minnesota Twins: Pretender
The Twins ranked 28th in the MLB in ERA in 2016 so the fact that the Twins currently lead baseball in this category with a staff ERA of 2.46 is a stat that jumps off the page. Normally when such a drastic change occurs, we can point towards offseason acquisitions or the call-up of an elite prospect to understand the reason for the sudden change. But in the Twins case, neither has occurred. The Twins largely have the same rotation they did for most of 2016 and there is little reason to believe the early season dominance of career middle-of-the-rotation starters Ervin Santana and Hector Santiago are going to continue for much longer. Both pitchers have FIPs that are more than 2.50 points higher than their ERAs and the starting rotation as a whole doesn’t have anyone with a K/9 over seven. Sure, the elite pitch framing off newly signed catcher Jason Castro will help Twins pitchers steal a few more strikes here and there, but the Twins starting rotation has no high octane pitchers capable of sustaining season-long dominance. The Twins superb starting pitching is the primary reason for their early season success, but we can’t lose sight of their track records. This team lost 103 games a season ago and none of the peripheral stats suggest this cellar-dwellar is poised to make a playoff run.
Cincinnati Reds: Pretender
I hate to label the Reds a pretender because there really is a lot for Cincinnati fans to be excited about. Not only does the Reds lineup feature two of the fastest players in baseball in Billy Hamilton and Jose Peraza in the top two spots in the order, but they also have perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto and power threat Adam Duvall slotted next in the lineup to drive them in. Despite Votto’s confusing relinquishing of plate discipline in the early going, the Reds lineup is more dynamic and offensively capable than they get credit for.
The highlight of this Reds team is their revamped bullpen. In a marked departure from last season in which the Reds finished dead last in the MLB with a 5.09 ERA, the Reds are now in the top 3 in the NL with a 2.65 bullpen ERA. Unlike the Twins, the Reds revitalized bullpen is the result of tangible personnel changes. The Reds bullpen currently features four relievers capable of pitching multiple innings as well as seven guys who are striking out more than a batter an inning. Manager Bryan Price is also wisely disregarding traditional bullpen roles in the early going as he is employing top relievers Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen in high leverage situations regardless of inning rather than insisting on them only throwing the 8th and 9th inning of games.
While the Reds bullpen has shown a ton of promise, the lack of experience in the starting rotation will surely be a hindrance on their playoff chances going forward. Brandon Finnegan has struggled with control issues and just landed on the DL. Don’t let Scott Feldman’s early success fool you, he is nothing more than a number 5 starter. Rookie Davis has pitched with the inconsistency that his name suggests. Bronson Arroyo belongs with Jered Weaver and Matt Cain in the phylum of starting pitchers who are only employed because they are recognizable names. Amir Garrett has been a bright spot for the Reds, but even he is probably not much more than a number 3 starter when it’s all said and done.
The Reds have proved that they are better than previously advertised, but even a 15 win improvement from 2016 would make them barely a .500 team.
Colorado Rockies: Contender
Finally we get to the Rockies. While the Rockies received some admiration by some baseball pundits as a possible sleeper team in the preseason, I don’t think anyone predicted that they could be this good. Despite losing opening day starter Jon Gray for about a month and having starting outfielders Ian Desmond and David Dahl on the DL, the Rockies organizational depth has carried them in the early going. The Rockies rotation now features three legitimate options in Gray, Tyler Anderson, and Tyler Chatwood at the front end and top prospects Antonio Sentazela, Kyle Freeland at the back of the rotation. Colorado is well-equipped to handle the inevitable pitcher injuries with flame throwing right handers Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez waiting in the wings.
The Rockies bullpen is also much improved. National League saves leader Greg Holland appears to be the steal of the offseason and Mike Dunn and Adam Ottavino are more than capable set-up men. The Rockies biggest problem last season was their wildly unpredictable bullpen, which had a league worst ERA of 5.18 as a group. Similar to the Reds, the Rockies have undergone wholesale changes to their relief corps and with a league high K/9 of 11.30, it appears that the Colorado bullpen is no fluke.
Lastly, we come to the Rockies offense. Despite playing half their games at Coors Field, the Rockies position players have struggled thus far. As a team, they rank 29th in the MLB with a 68 wRC+, but with names like Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu, Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, and Carlos Gonzalez on the lineup card, and Ian Desmond and David Dahl set to return from the DL soon, it is hard to imagine their offensive woes continuing.
The Rockies have been able to win on the backs of their young pitchers, which is a huge departure from how they have traditionally tried to win games. Once the bats get going, and they will get going, the Rockies will get more attention as a legitimate contender. I do not think the Rockies have any chance to upend the Dodgers as NL West division champions, but with the Giants and Cardinals struggling mightily, a potential playoff berth is looking more likely by the day.