Biggest Takeaways from the First Two Weeks of the MLB Season
At the conclusion of play on April 11, most major league teams had played at least 10 games or one-sixteenth of a six-month schedule. For baseball fans familiar with week-to-week reactions of NFL fans, the 2014 season is at the same stage a football season is after Week 1.
That, of course, can be taken in different ways. No position player has garnered enough at-bats to derive legitimate meaning, nor does any pitcher have enough innings to tell a full tale. Of course, hot or cold starts could be instructive when projecting the rest of the year.
It's not easy to separate the signal from the noise during any portion of a marathon season, but Bleacher Report is going to attempt the nearly impossible: finding meaning through a forest of stats, numbers and narratives that have graced baseball fans over the last two weeks.
What's real? What's bound to change over the next few weeks?
Here are the biggest takeaways from the first two weeks of the 2014 MLB season.
Milwaukee Looks Like a Contender
One year ago, the Milwaukee Brewers were a 74-88 mess, without their best player due to suspension and with little hope for the near future. Through the first two weeks of the 2014 season, they've been the best team in baseball.
Heading into play on April 11, the Brewers were tied for the best record (7-2) and run differential (plus-22) in baseball. The team with matching statistics—the Washington Nationals—was expected to compete for a World Series this season. Milwaukee, despite the return of Ryan Braun, wasn't.
So, what changed?
First, Braun's presence and production (3 HR, 10 RBI, .626 SLG) is a boon for a team that desperately needed the former MVP to return and dominate the National League. Last year, without Braun for an extended period, the Brewers scored just 640 runs. Through nine games, Milwaukee is averaging 5.1 runs per game, putting it on pace for an 828-run output in 2014.
Second, the Brewers have turned into road warriors. They're undefeated (6-0) through two road series after stomping the Red Sox and Phillies. The 2013 Brewers didn't win their sixth road game until April 23.
Last, but perhaps most important, is pitching. Through its first 10 games, Milwaukee has a team ERA of 1.95, good for No. 1 in the National League. Led by Yovani Gallardo (2-0, 0.00) and Matt Garza (2.57), a deep, durable pitching staff could keep the Brewers in contention all summer long.
Pitching Will Carry the Nationals to October
Before the start of spring training, the Washington Nationals had the look of a team that could boast one of the best rotations in baseball history. It wasn't hyperbole then and it sure isn't now as early-season returns have been overwhelming for the Nationals staff.
As Roger Schlueter of MLB.com pointed out, the Nationals staff struck out 105 batters through their first nine games, 12 more than any club over the last 101 years. With Stephen Strasburg's 12 strikeouts against the Miami Marlins on Thursday pacing the way, the Nationals rotation is on the path to greatness.
Amazingly, they are doing it all without Doug Fister. When projecting the Nationals staff to dominate in 2014, Fister's arrival from Detroit was a major reason for the prediction. Although he's not a strikeout artist like Strasburg or lefty Gio Gonzalez, the former Tigers righty is good and very valuable (12.6 WAR since 2011). According to Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post, the Nationals expect their impact arm to arrive sometime in late April or early May after a lat strain landed him on the disabled list.
Led by Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth, the Nationals can have a good-to-very good offense, but pitching will carry them to an NL East title.
Jose Abreu Is Baseball's Next Cuban Sensation
The 2010 season gave baseball fans Aroldis Chapman's electric stuff and triple-digit fastball. In 2012, Yoenis Cespedes arrived, propelling the Athletics with bat speed and overwhelming power. Last June, Yasiel Puig showed up, topping every other active Cuban-born player.
Two weeks into the 2014 season, Jose Abreu is on the path to joining his fellow countrymen as impact players on baseball's biggest stage. Not only is Abreu hitting well (.300/.383/.725) through 10 games, the White Sox first baseman literally hit the cover off the ball against the Indians, per Lindsey Foltin of Fox Sports Ohio.
The true test will come the second time pitchers and teams get a look at Abreu. But if the Cuban slugger gets pitches to hit, he's already proven that he has the ability to do major damage, an AL scout said to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com.
"The first time around the league, teams kind of feel you out," said the scout. "Then the scouting reports start kicking in. I'm anxious to see him the second time around. I thought the ball on the inner half would give him trouble. But he knows how to hit. He's got a nice approach. He goes to right-center field with it. If he sees enough cripple pitching, he'll knock the heck out of it."
Rule Changes Will Take Time to Perfect
When Major League Baseball made the decision to undergo massive rule changes for the 2014 season, few expected things to go smoothly from the moment of implementation. Thus far, that's proven to be prescient. Although instant replay has been a boon, managers are still feeling out when and where to use the ability to challenge.
The new home plate collision rule has generated even more mass confusion, obviously whenever a potential play at the plate is about to occur. Runners are tenuous and awkwardly running toward the plate when the catcher is about to receive the ball, causing confusion among fans as to what is and isn't allowed.
Due to limited spring training playing time, many of baseball's best players didn't have a chance to slide into home before the regular season began. The same can be said for specific in-game situations for managers to consider challenging.
By June or July, the system will run much smoother than it possibly could in April.
The game is better now than it was in 2013, but it may take a few months for the league to make that evident.
Masahiro Tanaka Is More Than an Ace
After Masahiro Tanaka's second start as a member of the New York Yankees, Bleacher Report Lead Writer Jason Catania billed the 25-year-old rookie as the ace of the starting rotation in the Bronx. Not only is he right, the distinction could be selling Tanaka's ability short.
Through two starts, the $155 million Japanese sensation looks like one of the most polished starters in all of baseball. Forget the two home runs allowed and six total runs (five earned) to cross the plate during his outings. Instead, focus on what he can control. For the stat-heavy fans out there, Tanaka's 1.83 xFIP tells the tale.
FanGraphs' xFIP metric takes into account walks, strikeouts and expected home run totals based on league average. The two home runs allowed by Tanaka thus far represent an average of one per start, a figure higher than expected. If he can keep the ball in the park, his 18-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio will likely propel him to the top of all AL pitchers, not just the Yankees staff.
Chase Utley Is Back on the Path to Cooperstown
From 2005 to 2009, Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley was one of the best players to ever play the position. During that span, Utley posted a .301/.388/.535 slash line, 135 OPS+ and provided the Phillies 39.5 WAR.
To put those numbers into perspective, consider this: Only Rogers Hornsby had a higher WAR among second basemen during their respective age-26-30 seasons, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required). Utley's prime put him ahead of all-time greats like Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, Eddie Collins and Craig Biggio. If a path to the Hall of Fame was blazed by those former stars, Utley was on his way to Cooperstown.
Then, injuries and age set in. From 2011 to 2012, Utley only played in 186 total games and watched his OPS+ slip to 116. In the process, talk of Cooperstown and immortality stopped emanating from Philadelphia.
After an .823 OPS in 2013, it was clear Utley could still hit and play when healthy. Thus far in 2014 (.464/.531/.786 heading into the weekend), baseball fans are seeing the Utley of old returning to an elite level. If the 35-year-old can stay on the field for 135-plus games over the next few seasons, expect talk of a future Utley bust in Cooperstown to begin anew around the Phillies.
As of April 11, Utley's 58.4 career WAR (including 0.5 already this season), places him 14th in baseball history. By the end of the season, surpassing Jackie Robinson (61.5) for 13th place isn't out of the question.
Pedro Alvarez Poised for a 40-Plus HR Season
If you've been living under a rock since the end of the steroid era in Major League Baseball, the game has changed drastically over the last few decades. No longer are muscle-bound stars cranking 40 or 50 home runs per season. In fact, only 14 hitters even tallied at least 30 home runs in 2013.
One of those sluggers: Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez.
Now, at the age of 27, Alvarez is poised to jump to even greater heights. With five home runs through his first nine games, expecting a 40-HR season isn't far-fetched for the left-handed hitter. If he continues to cut down on strikeouts (just six heading into play on April 11), raw power could manifest itself in a 50-HR season and MVP consideration.
To be fair, Alvarez is far from a perfect player. He's not great defensively, cannot run and has struck out nearly 400 times since the start of the 2012 season. Despite the flaws, his swing and impact can be gigantic for a contending Pirates team.
Much like Chris Davis in Baltimore last season, don't dismiss this early-season power surge from a former strikeout king. Alvarez might be developing into baseball's premier power hitter.
Power Arms Are on the Rise
As you might imagine, the downturn in power around the sport has been facilitated by a rise of young, dominant pitchers. Despite the week-to-week news cycle churning out torn elbows and Tommy John surgeries on a routine basis, an amazing crop of hard-throwing arms has arrived.
According to FanGraphs' PITCHf/x data, 27 pitchers have averaged 95 mph on their fastballs thus far this season. That data (valid through the end of play on April 10) includes both relievers and starters. If we sort just by starters—eliminating relievers like Craig Kimbrel who routinely rack up triple-digit radar readings—six starters still make the cut: Garrett Richards, Yordano Ventura, Nathan Eovaldi, Wily Peralta, Joe Kelly and Gerrit Cole.
Ventura, a Kansas City Royals rookie, caused a buzz during his first start of the year against the Tampa Bay Rays. According to Ted Berg of USA Today's For The Win, Ventura's fastball averaged 99.5 mph. The idea of a pitcher throwing 100 mph and over is mind boggling, but nearly averaging that type of velocity through six innings is spectacular.
Speed isn't everything and hard-throwing arms aren't guaranteed success, but baseball has reached a point where every team seems to have one or two pitchers capable of blowing away opposing lineups. As attrition sets in during the summer, look for runs to continue to drop as velocity rises.
Salvador Perez Is Baseball's Biggest Steal
From the moment Salvador Perez signed a five-year, $7 million deal with the Kansas City Royals in 2012, the deal looked like a potential steal. After all, if Perez progressed at a decent pace, he would be on the path to earn far more than that through the start of his arbitration years.
Even when factoring in option years from 2017 to 2019—potentially $14.75 million—the Royals currently have the biggest steal in baseball as their starting catcher. After an American League All-Star Game appearance in 2013, Perez has taken his game to a new level in 2014. Through the first two weeks of the season, the 24-year-old is sporting a .594 on-base percentage to go along with outstanding defense.
According to FanGraphs' value calculations, Perez has already been worth $40.1 million to the Royals, including $4.6 million through the first two weeks of the season. If he continues to improve offensively—even if an on-base percentage close to .600 is unsustainable—it's not out of the question for the Royals to get close to $150 million in value for just under $22 million in total salary.
Long-term security is important for some young players, but Perez's rise to stardom under a relatively small contract is unprecedented and a major boon to long-term contention for the small-market Royals.
Parity Is Here to Stay
The first two weeks of the season have confirmed a feeling that I've been trying to convey for years: Parity isn't just a word that should be associated with the NFL.
Yes, market size and salary-structure issues still plague Major League Baseball, but you wouldn't know it by the standings. Outside of teams like the Nationals, Cardinals and Dodgers—all with the ability to run away with their respective divisions—the postseason race could be a season-long process of jockeying for position.
Through two weeks, only the Twins, Astros and Cubs look hopeless in a quest for a 2014 postseason berth. Yes, similar cases could be made for the Phillies, Diamondbacks, Padres and Mets, but there's enough high-end talent on each of those teams to furnish dreams of a push for .500 or better. If that commences, meaningful games in August will be a reality.
Don't expect a slew of 92-win teams this season. On that same note, few teams will lose as many as 92, leaving most of the sport fighting for relevance and the 85 or 86 wins needed to be in the postseason conversation down the stretch in September.
Early-season returns can be proven wrong, but this looks clear right now: The 2014 season is wide open.
What was your biggest takeaway from the first two weeks of the MLB season?