Biggest Takeaways from the First 6 Weeks of the MLB Season

Joe GiglioContributor IMay 10, 2014

Biggest Takeaways from the First 6 Weeks of the MLB Season

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    At the conclusion of play on May 8, almost half of the teams in baseball had played at least 35 games or more than 20 percent of the 2014 schedule. By the end of the weekend, every team will reach the 20 percent pole of the season, giving fans a chance to sit back and analyze what narratives to focus in on when summer approaches.

    On a day-to-day basis, Major League Baseball players and teams can confound, confuse and frustrate. Yet, over a full season of innings, at-bats and plays, the best individuals and groups emerge to form the backbone of the sport. 

    When this column series began four 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.

    Two weeks ago, Pujols' 500th homer, Troy Tulowitzki's special talent and Cliff Lee's path to Cooperstown took center stage. Finally, last week brought an appreciation for Oakland's AL West dominance, Francisco Rodriguez's revival and Jayson Werth's value. 

    With another week in the books, more perspective has been delivered for the baseball community. Here are the biggest takeaways from the first six 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 9. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.

Detroit Could Cruise to October

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    Prior to the start of the season, the Detroit Tigers felt like the most likely team to emerge as the American League World Series representative because of an easy route to October: the American League Central division.

    Despite young, ascending rosters in Kansas City and Cleveland, the division did not look ripe with teams capable of reeling off 95-plus victories and knocking the Tigers from their perch and guaranteed spot in the AL postseason.

    Thus far, nothing has changed. In fact, Detroit's stranglehold on the division looks even stronger than expected. At the end of play on May 8, the Tigers owned the best record in the AL (20-10) and topped their division by five full games over the second-place Chicago White Sox.

    To put that in perspective, the first- and last-place teams in the National League East—Atlanta and Philadelphia—were separated by just four games. 

    Amazingly, the Tigers have jumped out to a great start without expected excellence from Miguel Cabrera (.793 OPS), a black hole at shortstop (.541 combined OPS, per ESPN) and inconsistency from Joe Nathan in the bullpen. 

    Unless the Royals can escape mediocrity, the Tigers could soon build an insurmountable double-digit division lead. While the AL East and AL West teams slug it out for coveted division crowns, an older Tigers team could have the luxury of resting players throughout the season in preparation for a trip to October baseball.

Tulowitzki, Arenado Forming a Special Infield Duo

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    Over the last decade, teams like the Yankees, Mets, Marlins and Rangers have put together prolific and dynamic shortstop-third base combinations. From Derek Jeter-Alex Rodriguez to Jose Reyes-David Wright to Reyes-Hanley Ramirez to Elvis Andrus-Adrian Beltre, teams have featured star duos on the left side of the infield.

    In 2014, Colorado's pairing of Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado is poised to crash that party. In fact, if the two Blake Street Bombers continue to dominant National League competition, all future infield duos could be measured up to them.

    By now, Tulowitzki's outstanding start to the 2014 season has been chronicled. Although Mike Trout is still playing at a brilliant level in Los Angeles, it's not unfair to say that the Rockies shortstop is the best player in baseball right now. If he stays healthy, don't expect him to fall from that perch anytime soon. While an OPS of 1.272 may be unsustainable, an MVP run for the face of the Rockies isn't.

    When Colorado's MVP glances to his right, the National League's next star third baseman is there in the form of Arenado. Heading into play on May 9, the 23-year-old owned a 28-game hitting streak. It's too early to evoke visions of a run at Joe DiMaggio's 56-game streak, but the Arenado watch is on.

    Of course, this duo isn't just about offense. In Colorado, Tulowitzki-Arenado is the total package, including defense. Thus far, Baseball-Reference.com has noticed. Through 37 team games, the site credited Tulowitzki with 3.7 WAR and Arenado with 1.6. If that pace continues, the Rockies shortstop and third baseman will be worth 15.7 and 7.0 WAR, respectively.

    With that, a place in baseball history could commence.

Miami Is Dangerous

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    Watch out, NL East. The Miami Marlins look like a dangerous team.

    After Thursday night's 3-1 victory over the San Diego Padres, the Marlins entered play on May 9 alone atop the division, winners of five consecutive games and sporting the best run differential (plus-31) in the league east of the Rocky Mountains. 

    On the last day of April, manager Mike Redmond spoke about how much he liked the energy and direction of the club heading into May, per Christina De Nicola of Fox Sports Florida.

    "I think we had a great spring training and we talked about getting out the chute quick and we still have a long ways to go," Redmond said. "But I really like the energy and the way this team's coming together and the confidence."

    Even after a five-game winning streak and a run to the top of the standings, the Marlins do have a long, long way to go to become serious contenders this summer. Yet, led by Giancarlo Stanton's run-producing bat (11 HR, 40 RBI, 169 OPS+) and a dominant starting rotation (3.08 ERA, 3.22 FIP), the Marlins have a chance to put a scare into division rivals like Washington and Atlanta.

    If you're not ready to buy into the Marlins after only 35 games, remember what the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates did on the path to October baseball.

    After 35 games, the current Marlins are 20-15 with a run differential of plus-31. After 35 games, last year's Pirates were 19-16 with a run differential of just plus-four, per ESPN.

San Francisco Is an NL West Threat

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    When the season began, the Los Angeles Dodgers looked poised to be the Detroit Tigers of the American League, basically assured a postseason spot due to a combination of high-end roster talent and an underwhelming cast of rivals unable to challenge them over a full summer.

    Thus far, the NL West has been far more competitive than that. Led by the aforementioned Tulowitzki-Arenado combination, the Rockies entered play on May 9 as one of the NL's biggest surprises. Behind them: the perennially dangerous San Francisco Giants.

    From 2010 to 2013, the Giants made the postseason twice and missed out on October festivities twice. In both years the Giants entered the playoffs, they won the World Series. It will take time to find out if this particular group is good enough for that type of pinnacle, but the pieces are in place to make a run at excellence.

    Led by the rise of Brandon Belt (9 HR) and smart offseason additions of Mike Morse (.571 SLG) and Tim Hudson (1.99 ERA, 2.75 FIP), the Giants have surrounded franchise cornerstones like Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain with enough to challenge the Dodgers over the long haul.

    After taking the first game of a weekend set against the Dodgers on Thursday, the Giants owned a run differential of plus-25 and a 59.4 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason, per ESPN. Only one NL team, Colorado, entered the weekend with better playoff odds at this juncture of the season.

Jose Bautista Is a Special Hitter

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    If you're a Toronto Blue Jays fan or MLB.tv subscriber, every single Blue Jays game this season has featured one distinct event: Jose Bautista reaching base.

    After reaching base on Thursday evening against the Philadelphia Phillies, the Toronto right fielder upped his consecutive-game streak to 36. That streak includes Bautista's first 35 games this season and his final game of the 2013 campaign. 

    While an on-base streak doesn't generate the buzz of a hitting streak or power surge, Bautista's offensive prowess deserves attention. Since morphing into an everyday player in 2010, few outfielders in the history of baseball have been more prolific. 

    The Blue Jays star owns a 159 OPS+ since the start of the 2010 season. That mark puts him in rare company among superstar outfielders at the same age, per Baseball-Reference. In the history of the sport, only 14 outfielders posted higher adjusted OPS marks at the same age. 

    That's it, folks. Just 14 outfielders in history. Calling Bautista the 15th-best outfielder ever would be hyperbole, but he's performed to that type of offensive level since his career trajectory changed in Toronto during the 2010 season.

    With only 220 home runs and a career WAR of 24.4, talk of Cooperstown likely won't ever surround Bautista because of his late-blooming career.

    Yet, if the 33-year-old star can keep a 180 OPS+ throughout the season, only six outfielders—Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Tris Speaker and Shoeless Joe Jackson—will have reached that number in more seasons, per Baseball-Reference (login required). 

    When you talk about the special hitters in baseball, include Bautista in the conversation.

Buck Showalter Has Baltimore on Track for a Big Season

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    When Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter was hired in 2010, the franchise had become baseball's laughing stock. After qualifying for the ALCS in 1996 and 1997, the team didn't crack the .500 mark again for more than a decade, finish any higher than third in the American League East or play anything close to competitive baseball.

    Showalter—along with shrewd trades, high draft picks and the arrival of general manager Dan Duquette—changed the fortunes in Charm City.

    After a three-game sweep in Tampa Bay earlier this week, the Orioles entered play on May 9 alone in first place atop the AL East and poised for their third consecutive 85-plus win season under Showalter. Despite losing Manny Machado and Chris Davis to early-season disabled-list stints, the team owned an 11-8 road record and 18-14 overall mark.

    While it's impossible to put a finger on how Showalter changes the culture in every dugout he enters, Pat Jordan's Sports on Earth profile of the former Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers skipper sheds some light on how accountable he keeps his players.

    When talking about why he demands his players give full effort at all times, diehard Orioles fans come into the equation.

    "It's 12:30 at night back in Baltimore," Showalter said. "Somebody's sitting in front of the TV, dying with everything you're doing. And you better take that seriously."

    If you watch even just a few innings of Orioles baseball, you'll see how seriously they take the game.

    Just like their manager.

Max Scherzer Is the Modern-Day Randy Johnson

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    When Detroit Tigers starter Max Scherzer turned down a $144 million contract extension prior to the start of the season, he was betting on himself to dominate American League competition, stay healthy and enter the free-agent market after the 2014 season as a rare and special talent.

    At this rate, Scherzer will do that—and more. Through seven starts in 2014, Scherzer owns a 1.72 ERA and 60 strikeouts. When adding those numbers to his career totals entering the season, an almost eerie comparison unfolds:

    • Scherzer at age 29: 1066.0 IP, 9.5 SO/9
    • Randy Johnson at age 29: 1073.1 IP, 9.4 SO/9

    To be fair, we are a long, long way from comparing the career accolades of Scherzer to the 300-win, 4,000-strikeout reign of one of the most intimidating pitchers in baseball history. Yet, at the same career juncture, Scherzer is matching him on an inning-by-inning basis.

    While strikeouts are easier to attain now and the run-scoring environment isn't close to what Johnson faced during his prime, it's hard not to marvel at how nearly identical those numbers really are. If Scherzer completes a dominant season, expect his agent to float the idea of Randy Johnson 2.0 in free-agent negotiations.

Hope Has Arrived in Seattle

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    After a slow start to the 2014 season, the Seattle Mariners have burst on the radar in May by winning seven of nine games and inching toward the top of the competitive AL West. With Felix Hernandez leading the rotation, Hisashi Iwakuma's recent return from a spring training finger injury gave the Mariners a one-two punch atop the rotation.

    With that comes hope for a franchise that spent $240 million on Robinson Cano in the hopes that an offensive boost could complement the Hernandez-Iwakuma combo and make the Mariners a competitive team.

    After Iwakuma's latest gem—8 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 7 SO—against the Kansas City Royals, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon conveyed a sense of ease about the state of his team, per Adam Jude of The Seattle Times

    "When you have a legit No. 1 … and a legit No. 2, it gives you a sense of who you are," McClendon said. "It certainly slides everyone else (in the rotation) back down to where they need to be. It’s like an electric warming blanket — you feel good when it’s on. And I feel good when they’re out there."

    With an improved offense (141 runs scored through 36 games) and a dominant rotation, the Mariners could stay in the AL West race for long enough to give hope to a fanbase that hasn't seen postseason baseball since the 2001 season.

     

    What was your biggest takeaway from the first six weeks of the MLB season?

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