10 Biggest Takeaways from the 1st Quarter of 2015 MLB Action
The 2015 season is already at the quarter mark, and nothing has transpired the way we predicted.
But enough action has taken place that it's fair to read into some early goings-on and maybe even draw a conclusion or three about the remaining three quarters of the season.
...Like these 10 takeaways from the first portion of the campaign.
The Royals Offense Is for Real
If it feels like all of the still-young Kansas City Royals hitters are enjoying their breakout campaigns at the exact same time, that's because they are.
All of Mike Moustakas (.333) to Eric Hosmer (.313) to Lorenzo Cain (.311) to Sal Perez (.302) are hitting north of .300.
Add veteran Kendrys Morales (.305) in the middle of a comeback season after a lost 2014 and it's no wonder the Royals sport MLB's best team batting average at a robust .289 and have scored the second-most runs per game. In fact, they're one of only two teams netting at least 5.0 runs per game.
At a time when pitching is dominating the sport, the Royals hitters are rebelling, and Kansas City enters Saturday with the best record in baseball at 27-14.
The Bryce Harper Breakout Is Happening
Folks, it has gotten to the point where it's hard to tell if the television highlights and mobile-device notifications are actually new or merely showing replays of Bryce Harper's previous home run feats.
The Washington Nationals right fielder has been on the sort of tear that is beyond description, so his numbers over the past 14 games can do the talking: .522 average, 20 runs, 11 homers, 24 RBI and more than twice as many walks (12) as strikeouts (five).
All told, Harper is hitting .336/.475/.750 with 38 runs, 16 home runs and 39 RBI in 42 games. Uh, wow.
Not coincidentally, the 25-17 Nationals have ascended to the top of the NL East after starting 7-13, turning Harper into a bona fide MVP candidate. If he does win the award, Harper would be just the fourth player in MLB history to do so by his age-22 season.
The Mariners Would Be Lost Without Nelson Cruz
As ridiculous as Bryce Harper has been, Nelson Cruz has equaled him in his first season for the Seattle Mariners with an MLB-best 17 home runs and an AL-leading .354 average.
The M's, however, haven't been able to capitalize on Cruz's torrid start. In fact, it's scary to imagine where they would be without Cruz, whom they inked for $57 million this past offseason. Much worse than their already disappointing 19-22 record, that's for sure.
The Astros Are Legitimate Contenders (Yes, Really)
Ladies and gents, the Houston Astros are 27-16. That's the second-best record in the AL.
This, from the organization that has suffered through six straight losing seasons—tied with the New York Mets for the longest active streak—and averaged 98.3 losses since 2009.
What's more, four of the club's bigger bats, George Springer (.214), Luis Valbuena (.205), Evan Gattis (.192) and Chris Carter (.157), are hitting .214 or below, which means there's room for improvement.
Not that Houston's offense has been bad, though, as the club has smacked the most homers (62) and stolen the fifth-most bases (39). That's significant because no team has led the entire sport in those two categories since the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers.
As Anthony Castrovince wrote recently for Sports on Earth:
While the Astros' lineup is an unusual one, leading the American League in homers, steals [now second] and strikeouts, three of the five teams who finished the season leading their league in those three categories went on to the World Series (1938 Yankees, 1976 Reds and 1995 Indians). So that's pretty good company.
On the pitching side, the Astros' much-improved bullpen, now featuring closer Luke Gregerson and setup man Pat Neshek, owns a 2.19 ERA, which is second-best in baseball.
Besides, the rest of the AL West is lacking, as the Los Angeles Angels are considerably worse than last year and the Seattle Mariners—a team many liked as a contender, including yours truly—are still something of a mess.
The Phillies, Brewers, Rockies and Athletics Are Going to Be Sellers
The Milwaukee Brewers (16-27), Colorado Rockies (15-24) and Oakland Athletics (14-30) have three of the four worst records in the game.
Among that trio, there are a number of trade chips to be played, including Carlos Gomez, Jean Segura, Kyle Lohse, Francisco Rodriguez, Adam Lind, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Justin Morneau, Wilin Rosario, Scott Kazmir, Ben Zobrist and Stephen Vogt.
Speaking of Vogt, as Buster Olney of ESPN The Magazine speculates:
Vogt's market value may never be higher than it is right now in a year in which teams continue to be starved for offense. Oakland has a track record of aggressive trades ... and if the Athletics' front office determines the team is not likely to contend this year, it could dangle Vogt on the market and determine whether now is the best time to sell this really hot stock.
And of course, we can't forget the Philadelphia Phillies (18-26), who aren't quite as bad as those three clubs in terms of record but who need to continue their rebuilding effort just as soon as some desperate team meets their lofty demands for ace Cole Hamels.
The Marlins' Dan Jennings Experiment Is Failing
It's not exactly Dan Jennings' fault, of course, but the Miami Marlins have lost five games in a row since the former general manager surprisingly became their current manager—and eight consecutive overall—to fall to 16-27.
How bad have things become for a team that had playoff hopes at the start of the season? Only the Oakland Athletics have a worse winning percentage than the 16-27 (.372) Fish.
Even worse, the Marlins just placed right-handers Mat Latos and Henderson Alvarez on the disabled list, where they join ace Jose Fernandez, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery and might be back too late to help Miami dig itself out of such a massive hole when he returns midseason.
This is not what Giancarlo Stanton signed up for—even for $325 million—and it is not what owner Jeffrey Loria expected.
The AL East Is Going to Be a Dogfight All Season Long
No division is more difficult to predict going forward than the once-mighty AL East, which has become a melting pot of parity these days.
Consider: Just 5.5 games separate the first-place Tampa Bay Rays (yes, the Rays!) from the last-place Toronto Blue Jays. By comparison, no other division's first-to-worst gap is smaller than nine games.
If there's a clear-cut front-runner or worst team of this bunch, we sure don't see it. Chances are, things could stay that way the rest of the season.
The NL Central Remains the Cardinals' to Lose
The St. Louis Cardinals' consistency has become almost monotonous and boring.
While the Pittsburgh Pirates were a popular preseason pick to challenge and the excitement around the Chicago Cubs is palpable and deserved, the 27-15 Cardinals have won the NL Central the past two seasons and are off to the best start in the Senior Circuit so far. Ho hum.
Even though the loss of ace Adam Wainwright for the rest of the year eventually could catch up to them, it's hard to pick against the Cardinals' combination of steady veterans (Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Jhonny Peralta, John Lackey) and ever-improving youngsters (Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez).
Until proven otherwise, this is St. Louis' division to lose.
Injuries Could Derail the Dodgers
On paper, the Los Angeles Dodgers are the NL West's most talented team. The thing is, paper doesn't account for the ultimate equalizer—injuries.
Already, the Dodgers have lost both right-hander Brandon McCarthy (Tommy John surgery) and lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu (shoulder surgery) for the season, and Yasiel Puig's hamstring just won't cooperate enough to get him back on the field.
As Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times writes:
Puig still can’t even jog without pain in the left hamstring he first injured April 13.
"The other day, he swung the bat a little bit but has had trouble trying to run and still feels tightness when jogging," [manager Don] Mattingly said. "So we still haven't gotten past that. Obviously, we're still a ways away with that."
Meanwhile, the San Francisco Giants are just 1.5 games back and charging hard, having won seven straight—most in the majors entering play Saturday—including an impressive three-game sweep of the Dodgers, who failed to score a single run in the series.
Expect the Unexpected
The season is just a quarter of the way through, and already, plenty of teams have performed unexpectedly, if not all sorts of wacky.
Among the clubs that are better than most thought: the Houston Astros, Minnesota Twins, New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Tampa Bay Rays and even the Atlanta Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks, both of whom are just a game under .500.
On the flip side, teams that are off to disappointing beginnings include the Seattle Mariners, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Cleveland Indians and Marlins. Hmmm.
While a few of the above expectation-defying clubs ultimately will fade and one or more of the slow starters should pick it up, there's no telling which ones will do so. At least, not yet.
But, hey, that's what the final three quarters of the season are for.