Playing Fact or Fiction with MLB's Biggest 2016 First-Quarter Breakouts
Crazy as it sounds, we've nearly reached the first-quarter mark of baseball's regular season.
It's still early, of course—we've got just over two weeks to go before Memorial Day hits—and a lot can and will change between now and the unofficial halfway point of the campaign, the All-Star Game, much less the end of the regular season.
But we've seen enough over the season's first six weeks to have a good handle on things.
Is it possible that every game of the 2016 World Series will be played in the same city? Has a one-dimensional slugger truly become a complete player?
We'll hit on all of that and more in this week's edition of Fact or Fiction.
Fact: Chicago's First-Place Teams
It's a glorious time to be a baseball fan in Chicago, with both of the Windy City's teams entering Friday's action not only atop their respective divisions, but with the two best records in all of baseball.
Unless your rooting interest lies on the city's South Side or with another club in the National League Central, it's hard to find fault with FanGraphs' Dave Cameron when he says that the Cubs (25-8) look like the perfect team.
"It’s not just the 24-6 record," Cameron wrote Monday, "it’s that they’re playing like a 24-6 team. This isn’t one of those scenarios where a team gets on a hot streak by winning a bunch of close games and having the ball bounce their way for a while."
The Cubs are a team without a glaring weakness, one that's so deep it was able to essentially shrug off a season-ending injury to budding superstar Kyle Schwarber, a situation that would have sent most front offices into a frenzied panic.
They've played only five one-run games, going 3-2 in those contests, but gone 13-2 in games decided by five runs or more. Take your pick as to which is the more impressive feat: that nearly half their wins have been by at least five runs or that they've outscored opponents by 101 runs in those 15 games.
The White Sox (23-12) haven't been pummeling opponents into submission the way their crosstown rivals have, and nobody's talking about perfection when it comes to manager Robin Ventura's club. But that doesn't make their start to the season any less impressive or real.
"These players know Robin has their backs … and they fight for him," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn explained Tuesday to the Chicago Tribune's Colleen Kane. "And they want to win for him, as much as they want to win for the guy next to them and the guys on the coaching staff. It's a very tight, cohesive unit, and Robin at the top of it deserves a world of credit."
Like the Cubs, the White Sox have been the beneficiaries of some stellar pitching performances, with a rotation and bullpen that sits among the league leaders in nearly every statistical category imaginable.
That they've gotten off to such a good start despite boasting a lineup that has struggled to get going is perhaps even more impressive than what the Cubs have been able to accomplish with an offense that's been clicking since Opening Day.
While it's too early to call either team a World Series lock, this year marks the 110th anniversary of the only time the two clubs met in the Fall Classic back in 1906—the first that pitted two teams residing in the same city against each other.
Given the way both clubs have played so far, it's not completely out of line to wonder whether they'll be the last two teams standing in late October.
Fiction: Mark Trumbo
Mark Trumbo has been nothing short of spectacular for the Baltimore Orioles, with ESPN.com's Eddie Matz comparing his impact to that of current Seattle Mariners slugger Nelson Cruz, who parlayed his one season with the Orioles into a four-year, $57 million contract a few weeks before Christmas 2014.
It's a fitting comparison, as Trumbo has finally filled the void in Baltimore's lineup created by Cruz's departure more than a year ago. Not only is he hitting for average and power, but he's getting on base consistently, something that's always been an issue for the 30-year-old slugger.
But we've seen this from Trumbo before. Historically, he always gets off to a hot start—admittedly not as hot as the 323/.372/.630 triple-slash line he sits with after Thursday's games—but hot starts nonetheless.
The problem is he's never been able to keep it going, as you can see from the monthly splits he's posted over his seven-year career:
When June hits, Trumbo doesn't. And while he bounces back a bit, he's never able to rediscover his early-season form. While the power remains, the rest of his offensive game disappears.
He might be chasing fewer pitches than he ever has before, but that hasn't resulted in an improved walk rate or decreased strikeout rate. Both sit right around his career averages, with a slight dip in walks and increase in strikeouts from last season.
Given his start to the season, Trumbo's numbers may not drop down to his career norms. But they're going to drop—because all indications are that despite his hot start, Trumbo is largely the same player he's always been.
Fact: Brandon Belt
The most productive player in San Francisco this season has a first name that starts with the letter "B," but it's not Buster Posey, baseball's best catcher and a perennial MVP contender.
No, it's a double B, Brandon Belt, who has paced San Francisco's offense through the first quarter of the 2016 regular season. And while some would be quick to dismiss his early-season success as dumb luck, the fact is that Belt has been showing signs of his potential for years.
However, injuries continually kept him from reaching it. That includes last season, when a September concussion suffered against Cincinnati prematurely ended his season and cost him a chance to finish what was looking like a breakout campaign.
“I found the approach I liked and then I got concussed,” Belt explained to the San Francisco Chronicle's Henry Schulman. “Fortunately, I remembered it.”
He's hitting .313 with 14 extra-base hits (4 HR), 21 RBI and a .976 OPS over 36 games. He trails only Chicago's Anthony Rizzo in adjusted offense among qualified first basemen, has cut his strikeout rate and increased his walk rate to the point that he's walking more often (28) than he's striking out (21).
Unlike some of the players whose starts we've pegged as fiction, Belt's .347 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) isn't abnormally high, as he owns a career .340 mark. What Belt is doing isn't luck, it's a product of natural talent and finding his comfort zone at the plate.
Fiction: Daniel Murphy
Not even the most optimistic Washington Nationals fan would have predicted that Daniel Murphy would be the team's best player at the season's quarter-mark after he signed a three-year, $37.5 million deal with the club in early January.
Such a suggestion would have gotten you laughed out of most rooms, considering that the reigning National League MVP, Bryce Harper, still anchors the team's lineup.
Murphy has demolished whatever expectations existed for him, leading baseball with a .406 batting average and 1.110 OPS. He trails only Baltimore's Manny Machado in adjusted offense (203 to 194) and Arizona's Jean Segura in hits (53 to 52).
That he's hitting well doesn't come as much of a surprise. After all, he entered the season with a career .288/.331/.424 triple-slash line and was coming off a terrific postseason with the New York Mets, during which he hit .328 with nine extra-base hits (7 HR), 11 RBI and a 1.155 OPS over 14 games.
But his Rogers Hornsby-esque start to the season, impressive as it is, isn't going to last.
He has a completely unsustainable .439 BABIP, more than 140 points above the league average (.298) and 120 points over his career BABIP (.319). Eventually, the balls he's hitting into the outfield gaps will start landing in the outstretched gloves of opposing outfielders.
None of this is to say Murphy isn't a good player. He is, and it wouldn't at all be surprising if he finished the year battling for a batting title while posting career bests in home runs and RBI. But he's not going to become the first player since Ted Williams in 1941 to hit .400.
Fact: Jose Quintana
While every effort was made to avoid including the same team more than once in this week's Fact or Fiction, it's simply impossible to ignore what Jose Quintana has done for the Chicago White Sox.
The 27-year-old southpaw has emerged from Chris Sale's shadow to become one of baseball's best starting pitchers in 2016, sitting among the league leaders in nearly every possible category. He's gone 5-1 with a 1.38 ERA and 0.99 WHIP, walking only nine while striking out 42 over 45.2 innings of work.
But the truth is that Quintana has been an elite starter for years. He's one of nine pitchers that entered the regular season with three consecutive 200-inning campaigns on his resume, a run that saw him go 27-28 with a 3.40 ERA and 1.25 WHIP.
Per Brooks Baseball, he's seen a slight uptick in velocity while turning to his four-seam fastball and sinker more often than he has in the past. While that's led to fewer ground balls, it's also resulted in a higher strikeout rate, with his changeup now more effective at making batters swing-and-miss.
Quintana may not finish the season with better numbers than Sale, who remains one of the game's truly elite starting pitchers. But his breakout is for real, and we can finally stop putting the "criminally underrated" disclaimer ahead of his name when it comes up in discussion.
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