10 Biggest Takeaways from the 1st Quarter of the 2013 MLB Season

Joe Giglio@@JoeGiglioSportsContributor IMay 17, 2013

10 Biggest Takeaways from the 1st Quarter of the 2013 MLB Season

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    At some point in every Major League Baseball season, small sample size ceases to apply, context can be applied and conclusions on players, teams and pennant races can be made.

    While we may not be there on all accounts, the clock is ticking on the 2013 season.

    Each team has played roughly 40 games (the first quarter of the MLB season). That allows for each fanbase to develop positive or negative feelings, clamor for midseason moves and look forward to the summer to fully arrive.

    After watching countless innings through the spring, here are my 10 biggest takeaways from the first quarter of the MLB season.

    All statistics and standings valid entering play on May 17, 2013.

Despite Challenges, Smart Front-Office Minds Win

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    Over the last 18 months, the Texas Rangers, New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals have lost the following stars to free-agent defection or long-term injury: Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, Neftali Feliz, Kyle Lohse, Chris Carpenter, Mark Teixeira.

    We could go on all day with a list like that.

    Heading into play on Friday, Texas (27-14), St. Louis (26-14) and New York (25-16) hold the three best records in the sport.

    Financial might, which all three franchises posses, is a given. But the smart, efficient and sometimes cold-blooded nature of Brian Cashman in New York, Jon Daniels in Texas and John Mozeliak in St. Louis is often overlooked when talking about success of these respective franchises.

    In my opinion, they are the three best at what they do. Despite the struggles or challenges, they just win.

    While the Angels, Dodgers and Phillies have money, the same can't be said there.

Parity Rules

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    Heading into the 2013 season, the folks in Las Vegas unveiled over/under win-loss lines for every team. In short, the projections called for parity. With only three teams projected for over 90 wins and three teams projected for over 90 losses, the pennant races looked to be historically close.

    Through the first quarter of the season, that vision looks prescient.

    A quick look at the standings show only seven teams more than five games under .500. On the opposite side, only eight teams are more than five games above .500.

    In other words, half of baseball lies within five games of even, not far enough to be out of a race, but no where near comfortable enough to be considered a favorite.

    As the season progresses, expect this trend to continue.

    2013 is the era of parity in baseball.

Houston Doesn't Have a Problem

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    When a baseball team losses 30 of 41 games, looks hilariously inept while doing it and fields a group of players more fit for Triple-A than competitive, meaningful baseball, snickering will ensue.

    Make no mistake: The 2013 Astros are inept and are on the path to losing at least 106 games for the third consecutive season.

    Yet there's a plan in place.

    Within the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement, it pays to stink.

    Due to baseball's draft slotting and international signing rules, the Astros are guaranteed to have the most money to spend on draft picks and international free agents this year. By losing the most games in baseball again this season, they'll enjoy that luxury again in 2014.

    Laugh now, but if the front office is competent, the picks and international finds will pay off before too long.

Young Arms Are Dominating the National League

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    The top five starting pitchers on the National League ERA board read more like an entry level roster at the bottom rung of a start-up company than the best pitchers in baseball:

    1. Clayton Kershaw, 25 years old, 1.40 ERA
    2. Shelby Miller, 22, 1.40
    3. Matt Harvey, 24, 1.44
    4. Patrick Corbin, 23, 1.52
    5. Jordan Zimmermann, 26, 1.69

    While Kershaw is a known commodity and 2011 Cy Young winner, the four names that follow him on that list are making a mark on the league.

    Miller is a former first-round pick who has made Cardinals fans forget the names Kyle Lohse and Chris Carpenter by pitching like a dominant, Cy Young candidate early on in 2013.

    Harvey, Sports Illustrated's Dark Knight cover man, has taken Gotham, or, if you prefer, New York by storm. He's lifted the Mets into must-watch mode once every five days.

    Corbin, while flying totally under the radar in Arizona, has a 3.02 K/BB in 30 career starts since his call-up last summer. While it's clearly a small sample size, only 15 active pitchers have posted better marks for their careers. Among those who have career marks worse than Corbin's .302: CC Sabathia, Chris Carpenter and Matt Cain.

    Zimmermann has dealt with pitching in the shadow of Stephen Strasburg in Washington. If he continues to hold an ERA under two, the accolades and attention will arrive sooner rather than later.

Strikeouts Are the Norm

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    There are many, many ways to decipher how the game of baseball has changed over the years. For me, none marks the differences in approach, talent and process like the rise in strikeouts.

    The major factor is the rise of power pitchers, deep and dynamic bullpens, and pitching programs designed to graduate young pitchers to the big leagues with the ability to dominate. Another underlying factor in the rising strikeout rates points to hitters being unafraid to go down swinging.

    Thus far, 172 batters have enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. Of those 172 regular players, 30 have struck out in at least 25 percent of their plate appearances, 61 in at least 20 percent and 115 in at least 15 percent.

    In other words, nearly 67 percent of hitters—from sluggers to Punch and Judy types—are striking out at a rate that will net around 100 strikeouts by the end of a 162-game season.

    Ten years ago, those numbers were far, far less. During the 2003 season, only 22 batters struck out in 20 percent of their plate appearances over a full season.

    A decade has tripled the number of strikeout-prone hitters.

Free Agency Continues to Be Inefficient

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    After missing the playoffs by a slim margin in 2012, mostly due to a horrible April, the Angels are sitting at 15-26. They are double-digit games behind Texas in the AL West and sporting an unthinkable .366 winning percentage.

    Here's a complete list of teams with a lower winning percentage thus far in 2013: Houston, Miami.

    While not all the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and C.J. Wilson, it's worth noting that they've been outshined by many, many less expensive and famous peers this season.

    Among outfielders, Hamilton's wOBA (weighted on-base average) is No. 63 of 69 qualified players. Some names ahead of him on that list: Drew Stubbs, Justin Ruggiano and Andy Dirks.

    Among first basemen, Pujols' 0.1 WAR ranked No. 22 behind Lyle Overbay and, gulp, Yuniesky Betancourt.

    Among starting pitchers, C.J. Wilson's 4.28 FIP ranks No. 70 of 108 qualified starters. When Kevin Correia and Bud Norris are besting you, there's a problem.

    By the way, Hamilton, Pujols and Wilson are combining to make $44 million this season.

The Steroid Witch Hunt Continues

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    The Mitchell Report was released on Dec. 13, 2007

    Nearly six years later, the witch hunt for steroid users continues among the leaders of baseball, media and fans.

    As the stories of Biogenesis, Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez floated through the winter, phrases like "Public Enemy No. 1" permeated throughout the game.

    Furthermore, Boston Globe scribe Dan Shaughnessy recently called out David Ortiz's hot start, accusing him of using PEDs to stave off aging and even elicited the slugger's Dominican heritage as reasons to be suspicious.

When in Doubt, Take the Talent

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    The blockbuster deal that sent Justin Upton to the Atlanta Braves in January wasn't shocking to fans who had monitored Arizona's desire to move on from their franchise player. It was surprising, however, when viewed in the scope of what they received in return.

    While Martin Prado is a very good player, he never profiled as the centerpiece of a deal for a potential MVP.

    Weighing "grit" versus "talent" can be a precarious argument. Clearly, Arizona was ready to go in a different direction, regardless of the overwhelming ability that Upton possesses.

    Through one quarter of the season, Arizona is winning enough in the NL West to keep Upton rants to a minimum from Diamondbacks fans, but it's clear that Atlanta got the better end of the deal, grit or not.

    Justin Upton's wRC+ sits at 178. Martin Prado's lies at 67.

    That's a big, big difference.

Closers Grow on Trees

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    Among the many reasons why spending big money on a closer not named Mariano Rivera is a colossal waste of money: Good ones pop up every single year.

    Finding a hard thrower and pairing him with a smart pitching coach and finding a correctable hitch in a delivery could be the secret to finding a lockdown end-of-the-game arm.

    While the Phillies spent $50 million for a closer they can rarely use, the Rays and Pirates have struck gold in back-to-back years with journeymen like Fernando Rodney and Jason Grilli.

    Having Mariano Rivera can change a franchise, but for everyone else, spending big on a closer is an inefficient way to build a bullpen.

WAR Is Good for Something

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    While every front office in baseball should be using sabermetrics to evaluate, scout and assess players within and outside their organization, the reluctance of every fan to accept baseball's revolution is understandable.

    Broadcasters, however, need to be up on the game, how decision-makers come to conclusions on roster building and offer a non-biased take on how baseball is viewed in the prism of advanced stats and thought.

    Kudos to David Cone of the YES Network for hopping on board with the movement, embracing what that thought process could have done for his career and offering enlightened takes on the game today through his perspective.

    While MASN doesn't overly use sabermetric numbers in their play-by-play breakdowns, their partnership with Bloomberg Sports is enjoyable.

    On the other hand, Rex Hudler's ignorance of stolen-base numbers is embarrassing in Kansas City.

    Similarly, Hawk Harrelson versus Brian Kenny was fun, but also a bit sad.

    If WAR continues to derive more thinking during MLB broadcasts, all fans will benefit.

    What has been your biggest takeaway from the first quarter of the MLB season?

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