Biggest Takeaways from the First 7 Weeks of the MLB Season
Baseball's 162-game schedule allows for introspection and wide-ranging narratives, but the day-to-day news cycle looms for every team. With each injury, disabled list stint, minor league call-up or transaction, the state of the league can easily shift.
With few dominant or awful teams, the beauty of this season lies in the details. Every pitch of every at-bat matters. Therefore, it's instructive to review the season on a weekly basis.
When this column series began five 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.
Three weeks ago, Pujols' 500th homer, Troy Tulowitzki's special talent and Cliff Lee's path to Cooperstown took center stage. Two weeks ago, it was time for an appreciation of Oakland's AL West dominance, Francisco Rodriguez's revival and Jayson Werth's value.
Finally, last week highlighted Detroit's road to October, the red-hot Giants and Jose Bautista's talent.
Another week has come and gone, allowing baseball fans the chance to sit back, reflect and think about the first quarter of the 2014 campaign. Here are the biggest takeaways from the first seven weeks of the season.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted and are valid through the start of play on May 16. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts. Joe Girardi quote obtained firsthand.
Texas Can't Catch a Break
After adding both Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo to a team that won 91 games and competed in a wild card tiebreaker game last season, the Texas Rangers looked poised to rise back to the top of the AL West in 2014.
Unfortunately for one of baseball's most consistent teams, the 2014 season is spiraling out of control due to an inordinate number of major pitching injuries. The latest—season-ending ailments to Martin Perez (elbow) and Matt Harrison (back)—have undermined manager Ron Washington's pitching staff in outstanding fashion, per Jean-Jacques Taylor of ESPN Dallas.
"It's a big blow to us. That's two guys we were depending on," Washington said. "Harrison worked awfully hard to get back, and it was just a freak thing that happened to Perez. We'll just keep battling, keep seeing what resources we have and keep running them out there and we'll get better before it's over with."
Heading into play on May 16, the Rangers rotation had produced just 13 quality starts. Despite having one of the best starters in baseball headlining the staff in Yu Darvish, Texas simply can't keep enough quality arms healthy behind its ace.
While it's hard to imagine things getting worse—Texas owns the second-worst run differential (-33) in the AL—reinforcements aren't set to arrive yet. Perhaps things can change if Derek Holland returns from knee surgery next month, but a disappointing omen seems to be following the 2014 Rangers throughout the season.
Red Sox Loom in Trade Market
Quietly, the Boston Red Sox have become the envy of teams around baseball. No, not because a World Series banner is hanging in Fenway Park or because the defending champs entered play on May 16 just two games out of the loss column in the AL East.
Instead, the Red Sox are revered because of a farm system that will allow them to restock and reload the roster in the near future.
When Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal wrote about Boston's next wave of infielders—including Mookie Betts and Garin Cecchini—the column could have also served as a foreshadowing to the future trade market. Along with excellent infield prospects, the Red Sox boast a farm system with five stud pitching prospects—Henry Owens, Allen Webster, Matt Barnes, Trey Ball and Anthony Ranaudo—all ranked in MLB.com's Top 100 list.
Without payroll-clogging long-term deals, the Red Sox could soon be active on the trade market for an available star. Due to immense depth, minor league studs could be sacrificed or the team could move a current young starter and open up a spot for the heralded prospects.
Jose Fernandez's Injury Was Felt Around Baseball
The exciting, competitive on-field play of the 2014 season has been overshadowed by baseball's injury epidemic, specifically when it comes to elbow tears and Tommy John surgery for young pitchers.
From the moment Brandon Beach and Kris Medlen went down for the Atlanta Braves in the spring, a weekly doesn't go by without adding another name to the list of walking wounded.
After an uncharacteristic outing last Friday against the Padres—5 IP, 6 R, 5 ER—Jose Fernandez departed the game. Unfortunately for the Miami Marlins and the game of baseball, he won't be returning until sometime in 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Due to what's likely a combination of incessant injury news and Fernandez's overwhelming talent, the latest Tommy John victim struck a nerve around the game. New York Mets manager Terry Collins—despite the underlying notion of Fernandez's absence making life easier for NL East foes—articulated it best, per Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post:
“All of us in baseball, it’s very sad, because what we want is to watch the greatest players play,” Collins said. “And this is a very special kid, and feel really bad about it even if there’s nothing you can do about it."
Tampa Bay Is in Trouble
Over the last seven years, the Tampa Bay Rays have made a habit of surprising the baseball world. From the rise in 2008 to an improbable September run in 2011, it's become a fool's errand to count out Joe Maddon's roster.
History aside, the 2014 Rays look like a team in trouble. Entering play on May 16, Tampa owned an 18-24 record, sat six games behind the Baltimore Orioles in the loss column and could look up on only one team in the entire AL postseason picture. That team? The moribund Houston Astros.
According to John Schlegel of MLB.com, 86.5 percent of playoff teams (45 of 52) over the last six years owned at least .500 records through 40 games. Through 42 games, the Rays sat six games under and with expected contributors Alex Cobb, Ben Zobrist, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore all on the disabled list.
Unlike some big-market clubs, Tampa may not have all season to turn around a poor start. If the team isn't back in contention by July, trade offers for former AL Cy Young winner David Price could roll in and force the team into a difficult decision, per Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports.
It's too early to bury the Rays, but not too soon to point out the obvious: Through the first quarter of the season, Tampa has played and profiled like the worst team in a division it was expected to compete to win.
Johnny Cueto Is Baseball's Most Underrated Pitcher
When conversations arise about the best starting pitchers in baseball, it's not hard to guess the names mentioned most often.
From Clayton Kershaw to Max Scherzer to Cliff Lee to Felix Hernandez, a pecking order of well-known stardom has been established. Every so often, an international sensation like Yu Darvish or Masahiro Tanaka will arrive with fanfare, hype and the ability to crack the conversation.
However, despite an age of social media and the technology to watch any game at any time, one outstanding starter has flown under the radar for years: Cincinnati Reds righty Johnny Cueto.
After a complete-game shutout of the San Diego Padres on May 15, the 28-year-old owns the following stat line this season: 72.0 IP, 1.25 ERA, 3 CG, 76 SO, 18 BB.
On the surface, it's an incredible nine-start run that deserves praise and recognition when consideration for the 2014 All-Star Game arrives. Yet when digging deeper, it's part of a pattern of dominance that isn't recognized enough.
Since the start of the 2011 season, Cueto's 2.42 ERA ranks second among starters with at least 500 innings pitcher, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required). The only starter with a better mark over that span has been Kershaw, baseball's highest-paid pitcher.
Furthermore, Cueto's brilliance has come despite playing home games in the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark. When factoring that into his ledger, a 164 ERA+ emerges to accompany the stingy ERA mark. Once again, only Kershaw tops him in the important pitching metric.
Due to durability concerns—just one 30-plus start season since 2011—it's unfair to simply call Cueto the second-best pitcher in baseball. Yet when he's out there, he performs to that level and flies under the national radar.
Parity Is Evident
Entering play on May 16, more than half of baseball—18 of 30 teams—sat within three games of the .500 mark. With the exception of the dominant Detroit Tigers, no division leader boasted a cushion of more than five games.
That snapshot could be either used as an example of a small sample size affecting the standings or a larger, more long-lasting detail for the 2014 season: parity.
Outside of the talented Tigers, Dodgers and Athletics, no team looks truly capable of reeling off a 95-win season. The same can be said for losing teams, where 95-plus losses shouldn't come into play outside of Houston, Arizona or with the Cubs. For baseball's other 24 teams, a daily war of attrition and jockeying in the standings could be the theme of summer.
During an event at the MLB Fan Cave on May 15, Yankees manager Joe Girardi spoke about the tight AL East and what type of team could overcome the parity in New York's division.
"We may end up beating up on each other," Girardi said. "There’s a lot of parity and injuries across the board. Who knows what’s going to happen over the summer? It might be the team that handles injuries best that ends up on top by September."
With the second wild card in tow and so many teams vying for precious victories, baseball's day-to-day results have never mattered so much. Giving away a game in May or June could be the difference between making or missing the postseason.
Garrett Richards on the Cusp of Stardom
Prior to the start of the season, Los Angeles Angels starter Garrett Richards wasn't mentioned as one of baseball's most exciting young arms. Due to mediocre results (230 IP, 4.42 ERA, 1.85 SO/BB from 2011-2013) across parts of three big league seasons, the 25-year-old fell by the wayside when ascending young arms were bantered about.
Seven weeks later, Richards' improvement has transformed him from a hard-throwing talent to a budding superstar in the American League. After a dominant effort against the Philadelphia Phillies on May 14, Richards entered the weekend as one of the most valuable starters in baseball, per FanGraphs.
So, what changed? How did a pitcher with big stuff, yet little results, become a force? According to Richards, he stopped overthrowing, as explained by Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com.
"Not overthrowing the baseball," Richards said. "Discovering that you can go 90 percent, have a clean delivery, and the ball is still going to come out the same, if not better. That's something the special ones figure out early on, and some guys blossom a little bit later."
Right now, the Angels righty is using that to generate a combination destined for long-term success: strikeouts and grounders. Through eight starts, Richards owns a 9.3 SO/9 and 50.4 percent ground ball rate.
Last season, only four starters—A.J. Burnett, Felix Hernandez, Stephen Strasburg and Justin Masterson—owned a SO/9 mark of 9.0 and 50 percent GB rate, per FanGraphs. Among that quartet, Masterson's 3.45 ERA was the highest.
At 90 percent, Richards' stuff is dominant. Now, he has an idea of where it's going, how to harness movement and what combinations can set up hitters into expecting something different. Added together, an ace is in the midst of emerging in Los Angeles.
MLB Should Be Scorned for Dirty Tactics in Biogenesis Case
When it comes to the fight against performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball, anything goes in an effort to rid the game of cheaters. That logic was clearly in play when baseball's investigators ignored warnings about stolen evidence in last year's PED drama, per Gus Garcia-Roberts of Newsday.
As Garcia-Roberts reports, MLB bought the stolen evidence anyway and didn't make their knowledge known to law enforcement officials for nearly eight months. On the path to catching more than a dozen PED users and suspending Alex Rodriguez for all of 2014, baseball cheated and set an awful precedent.
Fans have every reason to want, hope and strive for a clean game. Yet even if Bud Selig's plight was meant to serve a greater good, it went too far. The idea of siding with Major League Baseball's executives in the fight against PED usage gets harder by the day.
In the Newsday report, Rodriguez questioned the impact of these investigations on his suspension:
"How can the gross, ongoing misconduct of the MLB investigations division not be relevant to my suspension when my suspension supposedly results directly from that division's work?" Rodriguez said.
Baseball's most scorned star was right then and his question looks even more prescient now.
What was your biggest takeaway from the first seven weeks of the MLB season?