Biggest Takeaways from the First 5 Weeks of the MLB Season
An important day has arrived, baseball fans. With the 2014 Major League Baseball season graduating from April to May and five weeks of play in the books, it's officially time to stop using "small sample size" to justify or defend statistics, trends and narratives.
With each passing the day, results from 2013 matter less and early-season headlines become more debatable as we dissect what is happening on the field. Every pitch, inning and game gives us a clearer picture of those surprise teams and players.
When this column series began three weeks ago, rises from the Milwaukee Brewers, Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Abreu dominated the early-season takeaways. Before long, pitching dominance in Atlanta and Albert Pujols' return to form headlined the week. Last week, Pujols' 500th homer, Troy Tulowitzki's special talent and Cliff Lee's path to Cooperstown took center stage.
Another week of baseball provided more answers, talking points and storylines to watch. Here are the biggest takeaways from the first five weeks of the 2014 MLB season.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted, and are valid through the start of play on May 2. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.
Oakland Is Dominating
The Oakland Athletics never cease to amaze. Despite losing two projected starters—Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin—to arm injuries before the season began, the Athletics are more than surviving in the ultra-competitive AL West. In fact, the A's are dominating.
Heading into play on May 2, Oakland owned the best record in the American League at 18-10. More impressive than early-season success in the win column, though, the team had a staggering plus-59 run differential.
While some fans focus on early-season victories as the key to a successful campaign, run differential is a more predictive way of looking at future success. If a team is winning close games on miracle outcomes, it's hard to imagine sustained success. On the other hand, blowing opponents out suggests a team built to win over the long haul.
Since the 2003 season, only three teams—the 2003 New York Yankees, 2010 Tampa Bay Rays and 2012 St. Louis Cardinals—have owned a better run differentials through May 2 of their respective seasons.
Of course, to be fair, not every season yields the same number of games played through a specific date, especially when unpredictable weather factors in. Even taking that into consideration, though, Oakland's run differential is extraordinary and a good barometer of how good this team can be.
On average, the three aforementioned squads won 95 games. All three of the teams listed made the postseason, with the Yankees qualifying for the World Series.
Watch out for these Athletics, folks.
Francisco Rodriguez Is Back
At 20-9, the Milwaukee Brewers are the story of the 2014 season. With a free-swinging, power-hitting lineup and dominant starting pitching, a surprise contender has emerged. After taking a midweek series against the Cardinals, the Brew Crew entered play on May 2 up five full games in the NL Central race.
Individually, names like Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez and Matt Garza have been cited for the turnaround in Milwaukee. But while the 20 victories racked up have been a team effort, it's time to give credit to a former star who has reclaimed dominant status: closer Francisco Rodriguez.
The numbers—a major-league record 13 saves before May 1, 13-of-13 in save opportunities, 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings, 1.18 FIP, 16 games finished—are staggering for the former Los Angeles Angels and New York Mets closer. Yet, at the age of 32, Rodriguez's ascent back to the throne of dominant ninth-inning man is even more fascinating.
From 2005 to 2011, Rodriguez racked up 277 saves, including 62 during a landmark season in 2008. When the then-27-year-old bolted Los Angeles for New York after the 2008 season, the apparent heir to Mariano Rivera's title as the best closer in the sport was just across the Whitestone Bridge. If anyone could threaten Rivera's impending career-saves record, it was Rodriguez.
Then, suddenly, the saves and save opportunities vanished. Rodriguez pitched poorly, lost his role and eventually bounced from the Brewers to the Baltimore Orioles. Now, he's back in Milwaukee and finishing games the way he did in his mid-20s.
While 600-plus saves and a trip to the Hall of Fame now seem out of the question, Rodriguez does stand alone in one area among stoppers. Through their respective age-32 seasons, no closer in baseball history owns more saves than Rodriguez's current mark of 317, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).
Braun recently put Rodriguez's career path into perspective, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today.
"People forgot how great he's been throughout his career,'' Braun said. "They're remembering in a hurry."
Yasiel Puig Is a Winner
Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig has been labeled many things since he arrived in the big leagues as a must-see attraction in June 2013. From "immature" and "undisciplined" to "dynamic" and "talented" to a slew of words probably unfit for print, the gifted (there's another) right fielder has been a lightning rod for those around the game.
While we're searching for adjectives to truly describe the five-tool sensation, let's settle on at least one designation that's inarguable: winner.
As Aaron Gleeman of Hardball Talk pointed out, the Dodgers have gone 78-41 in games Puig has started since his major-league debut. That's good for a winning percentage of .655, a mark reached or exceeded by only one team—the 2001 Seattle Mariners—in this century.
On the day the Dodgers called him up from Double-A Chattanooga, the team sported a 23-32 record. Although other factors and impact players have been major reasons for success as well, the Dodgers went from laughingstock to juggernaut on the back of a transcendent star.
Joel Hanrahan Will Help Tigers
After weeks of speculation about Joel Hanrahan's eventual free-agent destination and timeline for actually contributing in the big leagues, the former Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Red Sox closer has signed with the Detroit Tigers, per Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.
As Heyman reported, Hanrahan is almost exactly one year removed from the Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2013 season and chance to be part of a World Series winner in Boston. Now, he'll get that chance in Detroit.
For the Tigers, the addition of a former All-Star to rescue an ailing bullpen is a tremendous move. By adding Hanrahan now—even if he's not ready to throw a pitch until around June 1—the team was proactive in putting a Band-Aid over an area of need.
With Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, the Tigers offense should thrive. The starting pitching staff, led by Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and, when healthy, Anibal Sanchez, is as good as it gets across the sport.
If the Tigers have had any reason to worry about a run to the top of the AL Central and a deep march through October, it centered around a bullpen that carried a 5.37 ERA into action on May 2, per ESPN. Thus far, unreliable performances from closer Joe Nathan (5.06 ERA) and Al Alburquerque (4.50) have undermined work done by manager Brad Ausmus' staff.
When Hanrahan is activated, he'll be an instant upgrade and drop pitchers like Alburquerque and Joba Chamberlain down a notch in the bullpen pecking order. If Nathan continues to struggle or suffers an injury, the Tigers now have a logical replacement ready to emerge in the ninth inning.
AL East Looks Flawed
As highlighted earlier, the Athletics are sporting an outstanding run differential and dominating opponents on a nightly basis. In the American League East, though, it's impossible to pick out a team that can be praised based on the merits of run differential.
The reason? Every team in the division has been outscored by its opponents. In fact, take a look at what the American League standings would look like if divisions didn't exist and run differential took precedence over wins and losses:
|Los Angeles Angels||+40|
|Kansas City Royals||+5|
|Chicago White Sox||+4|
|Toronto Blue Jays||-2|
|Tampa Bay Rays||-10|
|New York Yankees||-13|
|Boston Red Sox||-14|
Two things jump off the page: The majority of the American League has been outscored, and not one team in the vaunted AL East is in the positive.
As the season makes the jump from April to May, it's unfair to simply use small sample size to explain anomalies. Thus, a theory emerges: The AL East is flawed. Until a team or two separates itself from the pack, it's becoming possible that a war of attrition will overtake talented but flawed teams across the East.
Last week, Boston's issues—especially at home—were highlighted. Meanwhile, pitching injuries in New York and Tampa Bay have made potentially game-changing rotations into delicate units. Toronto's roster screams mediocrity. And in Baltimore, Buck Showalter's group—despite reason to worry, according to Dave Cameron of FanGraphs—is profiling as the best team right now.
Every season is full of surprises, but the entire AL East sporting negative run differentials as of May 2 may be the biggest shock of all.
Matt Wieters' Bat Has Arrived
Matt Wieters arrived in the Orioles lineup in 2009 as a 23-year-old catching prospect with the potential to change a franchise. Hyperbole aside, the former Top Five overall draft pick was billed as "Mauer with power" after posting a 1.014 OPS across 578 minor-league at-bats.
In 2009, both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus named Wieters the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball. Depending on your definition of success and failure, the first five major-league campaigns for Baltimore's everyday catcher could have been deemed a disappointment.
While two Gold Glove Awards, two trips to the MLB All-Star Game and 87 home runs is far from failure for any catcher, Wieters entered the 2014 season with a career 99 OPS+. When taking into account the hitter-friendly conditions of Camden Yards, the former stud hitting prospect was truly nothing more than an average offensive player.
Over the first five weeks of the 2014 season, that's changed. Wieters' offense has arrived in a major way for the Orioles. After a walk-off home run to end a marathon double-header on Thursday, the 27-year-old entered play on Friday with a .342/.372/.582 slash line. Those numbers have helped make him the most valuable catcher in the AL, per FanGraphs.
If the switch-hitting backstop can hold a wRC+ (weighed runs created plus) mark anywhere near the 160 he's currently sporting, the "Mauer with power" designation might resurface this summer.
Jayson Werth Was Worth the Money
When the Washington Nationals signed Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract prior to the 2011 season, baseball executives slammed the deal and made the investment seem like a free-agency disaster before the right fielder played a single game.
"It makes some of our contracts look pretty good," Alderson said. "I thought they were trying to reduce the deficit in Washington."
Four seasons later, they—along with much of the baseball world—couldn't have been more wrong about Werth's value and the cash the Nationals allotted for the all-around star. Although a poor first season in Washington buoyed the original thought process and injuries have kept the now-34-year-old right slugger from playing back-to-back full seasons, Werth's talent and impact on the Nationals is evident.
Since the start of the 2013 season, he ranks fourth among all outfielders in wRC+, fourth in wOBA (weighted on-base average), 12th in walk percentage and has been worth $27.1 million to the Nationals, per FanGraphs' value calculations.
Last season, FanGraphs rated only 15 outfielders as $20 million players. As you can likely imagine, Werth was one of them. In fact, he ranked eighth. Some players that Washington's expensive star was more valuable than include Jose Bautista, Jay Bruce, Adam Jones and Alex Gordon.
When the Nationals offered Werth life-changing money to leave the Phillies, it wasn't just about changing the culture in Washington or bringing in a player with World Series experience. It was about signing an impact player who could help carry a team.
Over the last few seasons, Werth has been just that. And with Bryce Harper now out with a thumb injury, the deal looks even sweeter for the Nationals. Instead of scouring the trade market for an impact bat to help keep the club in contention, the team has one.
Years after baseball blasted the signing, Werth has proved to be a solid investment.
What was your biggest takeaway from the first five weeks of the MLB season?