Important Tips for Being a Baseball Fan in the Month of April
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"Never believe what you see in April from Major League Baseball."
That may be an overreaction—something fans do all too often. "Don't believe everything you see" would be more accurate.
If there is a simple thesis that baseball fans need to follow, it should be that what you see in the first weeks of the season, for the most part, have no bearing on how things will turn out at the end of the year.
Most of that applies to individual performances, because the games still count the same in April and May as they do in September, and teams can clinch playoff berths earlier on the strength of what happens in the first two months.
As we see some of the surprising starts that teams and players are off to, you have to keep a big-picture perspective on these things. Falling into the dangerous small sample size trap is going to lead to a lot of disappointment.
In an effort to prevent you from getting too high—or too low—based on what you have seen after just one week of the baseball season, here are some tips to remember that will help you for the next five months.
Watch out for the historic starts
Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis is a perfect example of this, as he was all the rage in MLB during the first week after hitting a home run in each of the team's first four games and driving in 17 runs.
My B/R colleague Joe Giglio recently wrote an article asking if Davis could be the next Jose Bautista, a journeyman who struggled to find a home and playing time before exploding and becoming one of the best hitters in the sport.
Giglio's answer, in short, was no, because Davis has never had a good approach at the plate, doesn't walk enough and strikes out a lot.
Everyone knew Davis could tear the cover off the ball. He hit 33 home runs and slugged .501 in 2012. It is his 169-37 strikeout-to-walk ratio from last season that gives you a better understanding of what he will do in the future, not a random hot streak at the start of the year.
The 17 RBI that Davis had through four games is also a function of the players hitting in front of him, so it's not like he was doing all the work.
Unless we know that you are a great player—meaning there is a history of greatness to judge by—you need a much bigger sample than what Davis has shown this season to properly determine if he has actually made adjustments in his approach or just picked a great time to start hot.
Pay attention to aging stars
One of the hottest topics in baseball throughout spring training, and now through his first two starts of the regular season, has revolved around Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay.
Coming off an injury-plagued 2012 season in which he threw 156.1 innings (his lowest total since 2005), struck out 7.60 hitters per nine innings (his lowest rate since 2008), walked 2.07 per nine innings (his highest rate since 2004) and had a 4.49 ERA (his highest since 2000), Halladay, at age 35, had a lot to prove this season.
So far, things appear to have gotten worse for the two-time Cy Young winner. Halladay is 0-2 with just 7.1 innings pitched. He has faced 41 hitters and 18 have reached base (12 hits, six walks). Opponents have already hit three home runs against him.
Jayson Stark of ESPN.com wrote a piece in which he talked to a scout after Halladay's first start against Atlanta, when nine of the 10 outs he recorded were strikeouts. But there were 10 other hitters he faced, with nine of them reaching base.
The scout basically said that if the name on the back of the jersey read anything other than Halladay, you would think this "guy looks like a journeyman."
All of this is to say that, while sometimes a small sample size caveat applies, you can also look at factors leading to poor performance and draw some conclusions. Halladay's fastball velocity, per Fangraphs, is 89.6 right now. He is also throwing it a lot less due to the lack of heat (17.9%), relying more on his split-finger fastball (21.1%) and curveball (28.4%) than ever before.
On the hitting side, a player like Josh Hamilton, 31, of the Los Angeles Angels might be entering the time where you start to panic a little bit. His approach at the plate has never been good, but his bat speed and plate coverage was so ridiculous he could get away with chasing bad pitches.
Now, when you see 10 strikeouts in 25 at-bats, it is not crazy to think that Hamilton's bat speed is starting to go away. Once that leaves, Hamilton is going to have to adjust the way he hits and take more pitches to force opponents to throw what he wants.
If he can't do that, his five-year contract is going to seem like an eternity for the Angels.
Between these two players, Hamilton should get a lot more leeway. Remember last season when Albert Pujols hit just .217/.265/.304 with no home runs in April and everyone wanted to declare him done? He wound up hitting .285/.343/.516 with 30 home runs.
Look at whom teams are playing
This mainly applies to the team that gets off to a hot start that no one saw coming, though it can be used for all 30 clubs under the right circumstances.
What is the worst sin fans commit in April?
In 2011, the Cleveland Indians shocked the baseball world by getting off to a 30-15 start. There was talk of a postseason appearance and them actually being the best team in baseball, even though the talent they were putting on the field was inferior to a majority of teams.
So what happened?
They played Boston six times before the Red Sox went on their midseason run that catapulted them to the best record in baseball (then they had their own collapse that garnered some attention).
But more importantly than that, the Indians played 21 of their first 45 games against Kansas City, Baltimore, Minnesota, Seattle and Oakland. Those five teams went a combined 344-466 and Cleveland went 16-5 in those games.
When reality set in, the Indians finished the year going 50-67 in the last 117 games.
There are teams that can get off to a hot start that is real. For instance, Tampa Bay in 2008 or Washington in 2012. The difference between those teams, compared to Cleveland in 2011, was that you could see the seeds being planted with strong drafts, development and players advancing through the system into the big leagues.
Unless you know that your team's system has been churning out talent in recent years and done well signing free agents to plug other holes, don't buy into a fast start until we reach June or July.
A bad bullpen is not the worst thing
The one thing that drives fans crazier than anything in baseball is a bad bullpen. You see the offense do what is necessary to put runs on the board; the starting pitcher puts the team in a position to win; then a reliever comes in and undoes all that hard work with one pitch.
As frustrating as that can be to watch, the dirty little secret is that even the best bullpen isn't going to make that much of a difference for a good team. Especially not in April.
Last year's World Series participants, San Francisco and Detroit, finished 15th and 18th, respectively, in relievers' ERA. Texas, New York and St. Louis also finished outside the top 10 in that category last season, yet all three made the postseason. The Yankees and Cardinals played in their league championship series.
The Cardinals' bullpen ERA skyrocketed on Monday thanks to a dreadful ninth inning where Mitchell Boggs and Marc Rzepczynski gave up nine runs (seven earned) on six hits and five walks.
Teams can put together a bullpen after the season begins. There is always going to be volatility with relief pitchers just due to the nature of the job. Tampa Bay's Fernando Rodney was untouchable last season, giving up five earned runs in 74.2 innings. He has already given up three earned runs in 1.2 innings this year.
Don't get too down if you see your team blow a save here or there, because it happens to everyone at some point. As long as they can find the right way to arrange the pieces, everything will be fine.
And the idea of the "proven closer" is a myth. You have to be able to pitch—plain and simple. If you can do that, you will succeed. If not, you don't have a future in baseball. Period.
Don't overreact to everything you see
This is the biggest problem that baseball fans have. Everything that we have talked about already builds to this one big tip to remember.
What separates baseball from every other sport is the length of the season. Even though it takes six months for the NBA or NHL to complete its regular season, the same duration as MLB, those sports only play 82 games.
Playing in 162 games over six months makes it impossible to draw any strong conclusions from what you see for the first two or three months. We have seen where it takes all six months and 162 games to decide playoff teams.
Because fans have to react in the moment and not worry about what will happen tomorrow, it is hard to put things in proper perspective. The Nationals gave up one run in three games against Miami to start the season.
Then, in the first game of a series at Cincinnati, the Reds teed off on Dan Haren with four home runs. They finished the game with six homers total and won, 15-0.
Reds' fans were on top of the world after that game, likely thinking that all the talk of the Nationals being the best team in the National League, if not all of baseball, was nothing more than media fodder.
Washington came back to win the second game of the series, 7-6 in 11 innings. With Stephen Strasburg and Johnny Cueto on the mound in the rubber match, the Reds got six runs off the Nationals' ace to win the series.
The first line of the Washington Times game recap by Amanda Comak read perfectly, summing up everything that fans should take to heart and what they feel.
When it comes to early series', during that period in the baseball season when it’s far too soon to read much into results though still fun to try, the Washington Nationals’ clash with the Cincinnati Reds was billed as one of the best.
You need to keep a level head at this point in the season. Nothing that happens, good or bad, in April is going to determine the fate of a player or team. Baseball is, as the saying goes, a marathon and not a sprint.
Fast starts and headlines right now are nice, but perspective is what is important.
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