With the calendar flipping from April to May, I wanted to do a bit of a recap of an exciting first month of the baseball season with a little feature I’m calling Studs and Duds.
Stud: Christian Yelich
Wow. Has this guy been Barry Bonds lite or what? 2018’s NL MVP appears to have only gotten better this season, with a great BB%:K% of 16%/16%. To say that Yelich has been good is too light a superlative—a BA north of .353, a wOBA approaching .500 (.499), and 214 wRC+ are almost superhuman, and we should all appreciate what we’re watching right now. Yeli has been so good that he’s made up for the underwhelming starting pitching and lack of contribution from 2018 stud Jesus Aguilar, who hit his first two dingers of the year this week.
Stud: Minnesota Twins
The Twins are 17-9 so far in 2019 (yeah yeah, I know they’re 6-0 against the Orioles). Chicks must dig the Twinkies because they’ve hit 50 long balls this month, which is good enough for 3rd amongst all teams. Minnesota’s offense has been elite thus far, and their team hitting statistics reflect that: 117 wRC+ (3rd in MLB) and .351 wOBA (1st). The Twins have also relied heavily upon their starters. Despite not throwing many innings (144.0 IP—20th most among MLB teams), Twins starters have achieved a 4.06 FIP, but are outperforming their xFIP of 4.42. The bullpen has been saved by the starters pretty often, only throwing 85.1 innings thus far (5th fewest in baseball), but has been slightly worse than the starters, showing a 4.15 FIP (4.60 xFIP). Starters have been particularly good of late, going 4-0 with a 1.38 ERA in the recent 4 game win streak. I’m not sure how tenable this success is, but the Twins are in good position so far, especially with the Indians’ early season struggles.
Stud: Cody Bellinger
The 2017 NL Rookie of the Year had a down sophomore campaign in 2018, struggling to hit for power (over a 100 point drop in ISO year over year). Despite playing 162 games and helping the Dodgers to consecutive NL Pennants, it was clear that Bellinger could do more. So far in 2019, he’s raised his level to that of an MVP, having already reached more than half (14) of his 2018 HR total (25). Bellinger has had the approach of a seasoned veteran thus far in 2019, getting deeper into counts that has resulted in a greater percentage of walks (14.1% vs. 11.7% in 2017 and 10.9% in 2018), fewer Ks (11.7% vs. 26.6% in 2017 and 23.9% in 2018), and a ridiculous ISO of .472. While Bellinger’s .400 BABIP indicates that his current .434 BA won’t hold and he likely won’t achieve the first .400 season since Ted Williams, his performance over the first 30 games of the season playing all over the diamond reflect a confident young player that has the potential to carry the Dodgers deep into October yet again.
Dud: Red Sox Rotation
Maybe it’s the number of innings that the Sox’ rotation threw down the stretch during the World Series run in 2018 or a championship hangover, but the staff has been underwhelming to begin their title defense. Red Sox starters enter May with a 5.69 ERA, only better than the White Sox (6.18) and Rangers (5.95). While Boston’s FIP (4.80) and xFIP (4.38) indicate that these results are partially due to poor defense and bad luck, it is clear that a turnaround is needed. The Red Sox have suffered from a lack of control, it appears, having issued nearly 4 walks per 9 innings, again only better than the White Sox and Rangers.
These struggles are highlighted by worldbeater Chris Sale’s poor performance through 6 starts (0-5, 5.22 FIP). Sale’s K numbers are down significantly from his excellent performance since he arrived in Boston after the 2016 season, and he is issuing more than one walk extra per 9 IP than last year. Even his xFIP of 4.31 is two runs greater than his xFIP of 2.31 last season. One additional issue related to contact for Sale is the home runs he’s allowing. While his ground ball rates have been consistent since last season, more than 20% of fly balls hit against the 2017 AL Cy Young Runner-Up have gone for home runs. We’ve seen Sale start strong in past seasons and then tire in the later months, so it will be interesting to see if he can reverse his current malaise and return to his elite form.
Dud: Nationals’ Bullpen
The Nationals have the second worst bullpen by ERA (6.25) in baseball over the first month, issuing nearly 4-and-a-half walks per inning pitched and stranding less than 2/3 of runners. The Nationals have thrown the second fewest innings of any bullpen (80.2) and have recorded the fewest saves (3). It looks like GM Mike Rizzo will again need to make deals to shore up the bullpen at the deadline if the team is still in contention. Of course there’s no guarantee of that latter position, as Washington’s rotation has been average thus far and the offense has looked putrid at times.
Dud: Giants Offense
With the exception of Kevin Pillar going deep a few times after being acquired by new GM Farhan Zaidi, the Giants’ offense has looked pretty meh. Buster Posey had offseason hip surgery, and hopes that his power will return remain just that—hopes. Brandon Belt continues to be punished by his home park. The Giants as a team have the fourth lowest ISO (.135) in all of baseball, the fourth fewest HR (24), the third lowest BA (.214), the lowest wOBA (.271), lowest wRC+ mark (67), and find themselves in the NL Central Cellar again. It appears as though the fly ball revolution has left the Giants behind. Interestingly enough, the team’s continued poor offensive output has renewed calls to remake the newly christened Oracle Park’s dimensions to create an environment more conducive to run scoring, particularly for left-handed hitters. Check out Eno Sarris and Andrew Baggerly’s thorough piece on the Athletic for more on that discussion.