9 Major Early Themes of the 2016 MLB Season

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 23, 2016

9 Major Early Themes of the 2016 MLB Season

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    The Cubs are as good as expected, and other big talking points.
    The Cubs are as good as expected, and other big talking points.Matt York/Associated Press

    The 2016 Major League Baseball season has only been around long enough to make a first impression. It'll be a while before we really know what it's all about.

    But for now, some things regarding the 2016 campaign stand out.

    There are dozens of early talking points worth discussing. But for brevity's sake, we've narrowed things down to nine big ones. From players and teams that are and aren't performing well to how the game is being played, these are the early themes that define the 2016 season.

    Step into the box when you're ready.

Not All Aces Are Automatic

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    Chris Archer isn't the only ace having a bad time.
    Chris Archer isn't the only ace having a bad time.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    In the season's first few weeks, some usual suspects are showing that baseball is still in the age of the ace. Jake Arrieta, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Felix Hernandez and Stephen Strasburg, for example, are still cutting through hitters like it's their job (which it is).

    Just as hard to ignore, however, is how many of the usual suspects are being used for target practice.

    The most striking example is Chris Archer, the ace right-hander of the Tampa Bay Rays. Following a star-making 2015 that featured a 3.23 ERA and 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings, he owns a 7.32 ERA through four starts. According to FanGraphs' RA-9 WAR, he's baseball's least valuable pitcher.

    He's not alone in the fraternity of struggling aces. Also sputtering along with zero or negative WAR are Adam Wainwright, David Price, Justin Verlander, Corey Kluber, Matt Harvey and Madison Bumgarner.

    As we'll get into later, hitters are doing something that's not making life any easier for any pitcher, these guys included. But otherwise, there's not one explanation for why these starters haven't pitched like aces. Generally speaking, they're just searching for footing that they're having trouble finding.

    But since the league's ERA is down to 3.89 from 3.96 last year, their struggles aren't bringing the rest of the pitching brood down too much. One thing playing into that is...

A Bumper Crop of Talented Young Starters

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    Vince Velasquez has arguably pitched the best game of the season.
    Vince Velasquez has arguably pitched the best game of the season.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Last season, a handful of emerging young stars gave baseball's offense a shot in the arm. Now, it looks like it's the pitching's turn.

    Noah Syndergaard sure is doing his part. The New York Mets ace has a 0.90 ERA through three starts, dominating with a mix of 100 mph fastballs, 95 mph sliders, 90 mph changeups and control of all three pitches that's almost too good to be true. He's baseball's most electric pitcher, and Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs probably isn't the only one wondering if he's baseball's best pitcher.

    Vincent Velasquez is also making a name for himself. The Philadelphia Phillies right-hander owns a 0.93 ERA through three starts. One of those was a 16-strikeout, no-walk gem that might be the season's best pitching performance.

    What qualities do Syndergaard and Velasquez share? They're both only 23 years old, for one. For two, they entered Friday in the top 25 of a WAR leaderboard that also included Aaron Sanchez, Taijuan Walker, Joe Ross, Robbie Ray, Jerad Eickhoff and Kendall Graveman. None of the bunch is older than 25.

    The only downside, such as it is, is that these guys aren't rookies. The task of living up to a 2015 rookie class that was among the best in recent memory falls to others.

    Fortunately, that effort is getting help from some unlikely sources...

Attack of the Unheralded Rookies!

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    Among others, Trevor Story has been a heck of a, well, you know.
    Among others, Trevor Story has been a heck of a, well, you know.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    After Carlos Correa and Kris Bryant made good on immense hype last season, it made sense to focus on the game's best prospects going into 2016. You know, guys like Corey Seager and Byron Buxton.

    Instead, it's the non-top prospects who have stolen the show early in 2016.

    The coolest story narrative belongs to Trevor Story. Ranked as only the No. 8 prospect in the Colorado Rockies system by Baseball America after 2015, the 23-year-old shortstop has exploded out of the gate with eight home runs in 16 games.

    The answer to Story in the American League is Tyler White, the first baseman for the Houston Astros. Ranked by Baseball America as Houston's No. 16 prospect, he's hitting .298 with a 1.001 OPS in 17 games.

    "The kid can hit," Astros legend Jeff Bagwell told Alyson Footer of MLB.com. "It ain't pretty. But he can hit. You know what? I wasn't pretty either."

    Other rookies who have hit the ground running include Aledmys Diaz, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Joey Rickard, Ryan Dull and Ross Stripling. They've all gone about it in various ways, but the thing they have in common is that not one of them began the year as an elite prospect. At a time when the blue-chippers seem to be safer bets than ever, it goes to show that predetermination still has no place in baseball.

    But now for something that very much has a place in baseball today...

Strikeouts Are Back and Strikeout-Ier Than Ever

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    Noah Syndergaard is getting lots of help in the strikeout department.
    Noah Syndergaard is getting lots of help in the strikeout department.Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

    The national freakout over baseball's ever-worsening strikeout habit took a break in 2015. After steadily being on the rise for more than a decade, the league's strikeout rate stayed at its 2014 level.

    But now, strikeouts are back. And how!

    After plateauing at 20.4 percent in 2014 and 2015, baseball's strikeout rate in the early going of 2016 is a whopping 21.5 percent. That's a big jump, and it looks even bigger relative to how hitters started out last April, when they struck out in only 20.1 percent of their plate appearances.

    After averaging 91.6 mph with their fastballs last April, pitchers are averaging 91.8 mph this April. They're also being more aggressive in the strike zone, as their 48.5 Zone% easily tops last April's 46.4 Zone%. Put those two things together, and the extra strikeouts make a lot of sense.

    All this could be nothing, but it also could prove to be prophetic. Since April is typically a low-velocity month, fastballs may only get harder as the season progresses. And since hitters have so far been less aggressive than they were in 2014 and 2015, pitchers may keep feeling safe pounding the zone.

    But don't take this to mean that offense is doomed for a downturn after last year's welcome uptick. There's one thing that hitters are doing that should keep the runs coming...

Hitters Just Can't Stop Whacking Dingers

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    It's not just Bryce Harper.
    It's not just Bryce Harper.Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

    You've probably noticed that Bryce Harper, last year's unanimous National League MVP, is still whacking dingers. What you may not have noticed is that the rest of the league is, too.

    There have been 499 home runs in 477 games in 2016, a rate of 1.05 per game. In addition, the league's mark for isolated power (slugging percentage minus average) stands at .152.

    This is the yin to the strikeout yang, as this April's power is way ahead of last April's power. There were only 0.91 home runs per game in the first month of 2015, and the league was also managing just a .141 ISO.

    At the time, it looked like baseball was headed for another low-power year. Instead, power made a roaring comeback in the second half of 2015. Relative to the first half, hitters cranked a lot more home runs (0.95 HR/G to 1.09 HR/G) and generally hit for power at a much higher rate (.143 ISO to .158 ISO).

    Not even heavy statistical analysis by Rob Arthur and Ben Lindbergh for FiveThirtyEight.com was able to pinpoint an exact cause for how that happened. But since more power is a good antidote to all the strikeouts, MLB isn't about to complain about hitters picking up where they left off.

    One thing that seems certain is Harper will continue to do his part. He looks even better now than he did last season, and he's not the only star we can say that about...

As Some Stars Struggle, Others Are Beating Expectations

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    There is no immovable object that can stop Jake Arrieta.
    There is no immovable object that can stop Jake Arrieta.Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Just as it's hard to ignore the aces off to slow starts, it's also hard to ignore that top hitters such as Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto are also struggling.

    But just because it's not all happiness and sunshine for the league's top stars doesn't mean it's all doom and gloom either. 

    Bryce Harper is one star who's meeting expectations and then some. The Washington Nationals slugger led baseball in seemingly every major offensive category in 2015, and now he legitimately looks even better with a 1.181 OPS and eight home runs in 16 games this year. He has every right to introduce himself as "Bryce Harper, baseball's most feared hitter."

    On the flip side, Jake Arrieta has a strong case as baseball's most feared pitcher. After winning the NL Cy Young on the strength of a 1.77 ERA last season, the Chicago Cubs ace has already twirled a no-hitter and put up a 0.87 ERA in four starts. Following his 0.75 ERA in the second half of 2015, Arrieta is on a stretch of dominant pitching that has no end in sight.

    It's not all about Harper and Arrieta. Reigning American League MVP Josh Donaldson is also refusing to regress, and stars such as Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado and Jose Altuve are taking their stardom to new heights. Old standbys such as Adrian Beltre and Robinson Cano, meanwhile, are turning back the clock.

    This goes to show that some parts of the game just don't change. But as for the game itself, well...

It's Easier to Change a Rule Than It Is to Change the Game

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    Two years after instituting the "Buster Posey rule" to eliminate collisions at home plate, MLB reacted to an ugly incident in last year's playoffs by instituting the "Chase Utley rule" to eliminate collisions at second base. When asked about it, the rule's namesake offered words of warning.

    "With the home plate rule, it took a little time for players and umpires to understand what really works," Utley told Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times in February. "I imagine the same will happen here."

    Several weeks into things, the 2016 season is proving Utley wise.

    The new rule led to game-ending losses for the Toronto Blue Jays (as seen above) and the Houston Astros in the season's first week, and it has remained a source of consternation for players and managers ever since. The rule polices both slides into second base and the so-called "neighborhood play," and it has seemingly opened up gray areas for both.

    As reported by Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, that's why MLB has already clarified things with a memo. But no matter how much clarifying the league does, there's a sizable difference between wanting to change the game and actually doing it.

    You can't do the latter with a flip of a switch. It's more of an evolutionary process, and it's one that will need more than just a few weeks to play out. And based on the early evidence, there may be a lot of kicking and screaming before players adapt to the Utley rule.

    But on a brighter note, a good place to look for fun is in the Windy City...

The Cubs Really Are That Good, Apparently

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    The Cubs are who we thought they were.
    The Cubs are who we thought they were.David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

    After winning 97 games in 2015 and going on an offseason shopping spree that made them even better on paper, the Chicago Cubs entered 2016 surrounded by an awful lot of hype. Maybe even too much.

    But the way things stand, it looks like just the right amount.

    The Cubs are living up to their billing as the best team in baseball with their 13-4 record. And though the Washington Nationals have the same record, that's misleading. Chicago's plus-67 run differential is more than twice as good as theirs (plus-33) and far better than anyone else's.

    The only time the Cubs looked like a team that's been "cursed" for 108 years is when they lost slugging left fielder Kyle Schwarber for the season after he played only two games. But rather than let that sink them, they've gone on to earn their record and run differential in every which way.

    Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward haven't even gotten going yet, and the Cubs still lead MLB in runs. Thanks to Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey and the rest of a deep pitching staff, the Cubs also lead MLB in ERA. According to Baseball Prospectus, they also own MLB's most efficient defense.

    The obvious caveat is that it's still early. But right now, the Cubs are basically a perfect baseball team. A pretty good way to live up to the hype, that.

    Now, if only the rest of the league made any sense...

Baseball Unpredictability Check: Yup, Still There

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    The Orioles are among several teams upsetting expectations.
    The Orioles are among several teams upsetting expectations.Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

    As the world waits for Bill James or somebody to invent a working crystal ball, the projections are the best thing for getting a clue about how a given season will play out. For the most part, they work.

    ...Until they don't.

    The Baltimore Orioles, for instance, were projected as the AL East's worst team by Baseball Prospectus. So, of course they began the season 7-0 and are now in first place at 10-5, making their general manager sound like a genius in retrospect.

    “The critics have not done a real good job predicting the performance of the Orioles the last few years,” Dan Duquette told Childs Walker of the Baltimore Sun before the season opened. “So I don’t spend a lot of time listening to the chatter out in the market.”

    Elsewhere in the American League, the Oakland A's are better than the Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers. They also have a better record than the Astros, who are wallowing in last in the AL West instead of leading the division like they were supposed to.

    In the National League, it's the Nationals who are dominating the NL East, not the Mets. In the NL Central, the St. Louis Cardinals are only half a game better than the Cincinnati Reds. In the NL West, the San Francisco Giants are looking up at the Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks.

    All this isn't worth reading too much into. Chances are, the league's power structure at the end of the year will have little resemblance to the league's power structure in April. But if nothing else, it's a reminder of the fundamental truth about baseball: There's no predicting it.

    Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.