Biggest Takeaways from the First 8 Weeks of the MLB Season
In baseball, a day doesn't go by without a new story, narrative, ascending club or major injury to dominate the news cycle. It's easy to get lost in day-to-day headlines on the long, winding path of the 162-game season.
When taking a step back, however, the most interesting performances and images can emerge from a season that's barreling toward the summer months.
The full story of the 2014 season still hasn't been written, but characters are emerging, and subplots have taken shape.
When this column series began six 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.
One month ago, Pujols' 500th homer, Troy Tulowitzki's special talent and Cliff Lee's path to Cooperstown took center stage. Three weeks ago, it was time for an appreciation of Oakland's AL West dominance, Francisco Rodriguez's revival and Jayson Werth's value.
With eight weeks of baseball to chew on, baseball fans have had a sizable sample of success, failure and intrigue to dissect thus far.
Here are the biggest takeaways from the first eight 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 24. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.
Yankees, Red Sox Have Become Ordinary
From 2003-2004, there was no bigger attraction in baseball than the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.
From nationally televised games to epic AL East wars of attrition to back-to-back seven-game battles in the ALCS, baseball's best rivalry took center stage.
With outstanding revenue streams, smart front-office minds and ownership groups willing to spend big on a yearly basis, there was little reason to believe that baseball fans wouldn't latch onto high-profile wars between these teams for a long, long time.
While New York and Boston still generate headlines, carry sizable payrolls and garner air time on major networks, the rest of baseball no longer takes a backseat to the AL East rivals.
Due to revenue sharing, forward-thinking executives and ascending players eschewing the temptation to enter the free-agent market, the Yankees and Red Sox have gone from superpowers to ordinary teams.
During good seasons—2009 for New York, 2013 for Boston—excellence will emanate from Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.
In other years, however, there's little (outside of payroll) that separates the Yankees and Red Sox from, say, San Francisco or Atlanta or Oakland.
One decade ago, penciling in the Yankees and Red Sox for 95-plus wins and two of the AL's four postseasons spots was a preseason calling card. Now, it wouldn't be surprising to see both teams left out of the 2014 postseason behind franchises like Baltimore, Kansas City and Toronto.
Long-Term Contracts Are Franchise Killers
It's not easy being a major league general manager. When star-level impact performers become available, fans clamor for big moves and aggressive personalities from the executives that are tasked with team building.
Despite the risk involved with signing prime-aged players to lucrative, long-term deals—often agreeing to pay players for what they've done, not what they will do—teams dole out massive contracts on a yearly basis, often coming to regret the decision within a few seasons.
Outside rare, ascending players—such as a young Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter—locked into long deals, the yearly ritual of handing out nine-figure contracts has become a franchise-killing process for teams around the game.
From Prince Fielder (neck surgery) to CC Sabathia (degenerative knee condition) to Joey Votto (quadriceps) to Cliff Lee (elbow), some of baseball's highest-paid players are on the shelf as the 2014 season enters June.
While disabled-list stints are inevitable for professional athletes, those four players have effectively held their respective franchises hostage in the hope of contending in 2014 and recouping some value on deals in excess of $100 million.
Fielder's injury is probably the straw that will break Texas' back in a top-heavy AL West and Sabathia's knee issues have overshadowed his awful production since the start of 2013.
Lee's uncertain return could put a halt to a fire sale in Philadelphia, and Votto's leg issues have caused Reds manager Bryan Price to accept less than 100 percent from a player the franchise agreed to pay $200-plus million to retain, per Jon Fay of The Cincinnati Enquirer.
"To me, it made more sense to get Joey as close to 100 percent—that may not be possible this year—but as close to it as we can and give him a better foundation on which to play," Price said.
NL MVP Race Could Be Special
The 2014 National League MVP race has the potential to be the most captivating and star-studded vote in baseball history. No, folks; that's not hyperbole. It's based on the star-level play of Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki, Los Angeles' Yasiel Puig and Miami's Giancarlo Stanton.
Not only should the NL's three best players hit back-to-back-to-back in July's All-Star Game in Minnesota, but they will likely finish one, two and three in this year's MVP balloting. If their special seasons continue, the vote could represent something very unique.
Using FanGraphs' WAR, Tulowitzki (14.0), Stanton (10.4) and Puig (9.2) are on pace to deliver value that is rarely ever seen—especially by three different players in the same league during the same season.
While Baseball-Reference calculates WAR slightly differently, it's worth noting that only one year, 1927, featured more than three position players with WAR figures of 9.2 or higher (subscription required).
Considering that MVP balloting wasn't conducted until the 1930s, the BBWAA could soon be presented with a ballot that is nothing short of historic.
While it's very likely that one or more of these players will soon slow down, succumb to injury or experience a drop in production, their overwhelming talent is evident.
The Tulowitzki, Puig and Stanton trio could become the first three to accomplish dueling nine-WAR seasons in the same year since Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. did it in 1996.
Bob Melvin Was Missing Piece for Billy Beane's Athletics
Over the last 15 years, the Oakland Athletics have been defined by, among other things, Moneyball, the genius of Billy Beane, an old, decrepit stadium, on-base percentage, beards and overwhelming regular season success.
While many of those descriptions have been too narrow—specifically using OBP to describe how Beane unearths talent—there's one descriptor that has rarely, if ever, been used in conjunction with Oakland's dominance: the manager.
From Art Howe to Ken Macha to Bob Geren, managers have come and gone in the Bay Area.
Roster turnover and winning usually commenced with Beane at the helm, but managers haven't seemed integral to how the Athletics consistently won despite a low payroll.
Now, with the A's profiling as baseball's best team (30-18, plus-95 run differential), current manager Bob Melvin is bucking that trend in the dugout and providing Beane with the missing piece to his puzzle: a smart, forward-thinking manager willing to use the versatile 25-man roster he's been given
Recently, Beane was asked to describe why his roster, despite back-to-back AL West titles, constantly fluctuates. His answer, per Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today, illustrates the value of Melvin on the bench.
"We do it because we kind of have to,'' said Beane. "We're rarely going to find the perfect all-around player all in one guy, so we try to piece them together. Instead of looking for the perfect player, we try to put together the best 25-man roster that fits.''
Fitting together the parts is where Melvin shines, keeping a platoon-heavy lineup fresh, engaged and productive. For the first time in Beane's reign in Oakland, a manager truly seems to understand the roster he's been given, how to use it to perfection and what it takes to navigate the waters with other contenders.
More than a decade after the Moneyball season, Beane and the Athletics may have found the missing ingredient to capturing a World Series title.
Edwin Encarnacion Has Entered Rare Company
The 2014 Toronto Blue Jays are quietly becoming a must-watch team. One year after failing miserably, sinking to last place in the AL East and becoming a non-competitive club in baseball's most competitive division, Toronto has reversed course by pacing the AL East race as Memorial Day approaches.
A major reason for the success in Toronto: rare power from first baseman Edwin Encarnacion.
Heading into play on May 24, the Blue Jays slugger has made headlines by crushing 11 home runs this month. He recently became the first player since Mark McGwire in 1996 to have back-to-back two-homer games against the Boston Red Sox.
While a one-month power surge is headline-grabbing, Encarnacion's special strength has been on display for years and has put him in rare company in the history of first basemen.
According to Baseball-Reference, Encarnacion's ISO (isolated slugging percentage) of .274 since the start of the 2012 season ranks 11th all-time among first basemen during their respective age-29-31 seasons.
Some power hitters below Encarnacion on that list: Harmon Killebrew, Rafael Palmeiro, Fred McGriff and Eddie Murray.
To put those names into perspective, the Blue Jays' underrated star has shown more raw power over the last three years than four players with 2,139 combined home runs did at the same juncture of their careers.
In the aftermath of game-changing power at Fenway Park, Encarnacion talked about the great feeling and timing he has at the plate, per John Lott of the National Post.
“For me, it’s a great feeling, the way I’m hitting, the way I’ve been swinging right now, because when I know I can I’ve got my timing right I can help this team to win a lot of games,” Encarnacion said.
Corey Kluber Is Baseball's Secret Ace
Here's a fun game to play with baseball fans this weekend: Reel off a list of the 15-20 best starting pitchers in the sport right now.
Even if injured stars like Matt Harvey and Jose Fernandez were excluded from the conversation, it's easy to imagine a full slate of impact arms mentioned before Corey Kluber's name enters the mix.
That would be natural. It would also be inaccurate.
The Cleveland Indians have a secret ace in Kluber thus far in 2014.
While causal baseball fans may be oblivious to the excellent (10 GS, 65.2 IP, 3.43 ERA, 2.32 FIP, 10.1 SO/9, 4.93 SO/BB) production from the 28-year-old righty, word will soon spread, especially if Kluber makes an appearance in the 2014 All-Star Game.
Based on this season and the last calendar year, that kind of recognition is well-deserved. According to FanGraphs WAR, Kluber's 2.2 mark this season trails only Seattle's Felix Hernandez for the top spot among all starters.
Over the last calendar year, Kluber's 4.5 WAR is remarkable in the context of the pitchers ranked both above and below him.
Only 12 pitchers—including Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer—have been more valuable than the unheralded Indians starter since last May.
Some pitchers below Kluber on that list: James Shields, Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner and Zack Greinke.
Part of the reason for Kluber's under-the-radar year is a quiet demeanor around the media. Although he won't give many quotes to lead a column with, his manager, Terry Francona, recently extolled the virtues of his best starter, per Zack Meisel of Northeast Ohio Media Group.
"He's not the loudest guy in the clubhouse, but there's a fire there, man," Francona said. "He competes. One of the nice things about the way he pitches, he gives me a reason to brag about him, which I love."
What was your biggest takeaway from the first eight weeks of the MLB season?