Knee-Jerk Reactions to the Good and Bad of MLB's 1st Week

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistApril 8, 2021

Knee-Jerk Reactions to the Good and Bad of MLB's 1st Week

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    With all the excitement that surrounds the start of a new baseball season, it's often difficult not to overreact to a small sample size.

    In the grand scheme of things, the first week of the MLB season amounts to less than five percent of the months long grind that is the 162-game schedule.

    A team's record during the opening week will be a distant memory by May, and a red-hot start or agonizing early slump can quickly be erased, but that doesn't stop the early returns from being overanalyzed.

    So why not lean into it?

    Ahead, you'll find knee-jerk reactions to the good and the bad from the first week of the 2021 season, highlighting some early trends and exploring whether they will continue as the season unfolds.

Odds and Ends

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    Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press

    Good: Fans in the Stands

    How great is it to see and hear fans in the stands again while watching a game?

    I live a few blocks from Wrigley Field, and I had forgotten how awesome it is to hear the roar of the crowd from my apartment. I'd imagine baseball fans all over the country are filled with similar feels.

          

    Bad: Fans in the Stands

    At the same time, it was a bit surreal seeing the Texas Rangers play to a capacity crowd in their home opener.

    Maybe surreal isn't the right word. Cringey? Cringey. Here's hoping Major League Baseball is not forced to take a step backward after going too big too soon in letting fans back into stadiums amid an ongoing pandemic.

          

    Good/Bad: The Deadened Ball is Working

    In February, MLB announced a plan to "slightly deaden" baseballs for the upcoming season in an effort to counter steadily rising home run totals around the league.

    How's that going?

    Entering play Wednesday, a total of 176 home runs had been hit through 73 games for an average of 2.41 home runs per game. Last season, there were 2,304 home runs hit in 898 games for an average of 2.57 home runs per contest.

    Extrapolated, that comes out to roughly 13 fewer home runs per team over the course of a full 162-game season.

    If you're a pitcher, you love it. If you're a fan of the long ball, not so much.

Bad: Strikeouts Are Becoming a Serious Issue for Christian Yelich

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    There is plenty of reason to believe Christian Yelich will rebound after a disappointing 2020 season.

    After all, he hit .327/.415/.631 while averaging 40 home runs, 104 RBI and 26 steals in his first two seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, emerging as a bona fide superstar while winning a pair of batting titles and NL MVP honors in 2018.

    His .205 batting average in 247 plate appearances was tough to swallow last year, but he still slugged 12 home runs and posted a 110 OPS+, and beneath the surface, he ranked among the MLB leaders in exit velocity and hard-hit rate.

    However, there was also one big red flag in the form of a 10.5 percent spike in his strikeout rate.

    It was easy enough to chalk that up to a slumping player compounding his issues by pressing, but those swing-and-miss problems have been even more prevalent in the early going this year.

    He's already struck out 10 times in 21 plate appearances, and it's going to be awfully difficult for him to return to his previous form if that continues.

Good: Cedric Mullins Looks Like a Long-Term Piece for the Baltimore Orioles

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    A 13th-round pick in 2015, Cedric Mullins put his name on the prospect radar when he hit .273/.321/.464 with 37 doubles, 10 triples, 14 home runs and 30 steals in his full-season debut at Single-A Delmarva in 2016.

    He made his MLB debut two years later and was viewed as the potential long-term answer in center field, but he hit just .225 with a .290 on-base percentage and 73 OPS+ in 418 plate appearances over the last three years in the majors.

    His plus defense in center field and good wheels, coupled with the fact that the Orioles are still rebuilding, have afforded him another opportunity at a starting job in 2021.

    A .147 career hitter against left-handed pitching entering the year, he abandoned switch-hitting this spring and has started the year 4-for-6 hitting left-handed against southpaws. Still just 26 years old, he could be the real deal.

Bad: Dylan Bundy Giving Up Home Runs Is Concerning

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    At surface level, Dylan Bundy is off to a nice start for the Los Angeles Angels.

    He's gone six innings in both of his appearances this year, recorded a pair of quality starts in the process, and he struck out 10 while allowing just four hits in a no-decision against the Houston Astros on Tuesday.

    However, two of those four hits were home runs, and he's allowed three long balls already on the year.

    That might not seem like a big deal, but it is for Bundy.

    The 28-year-old has had issues keeping the ball in the ballpark in the past, including allowing an MLB-high 41 home runs during the 2018 season.

    Last year, which was undoubtedly the best season of his career, saw him surrender just five home runs in 65.2 innings. He's already more than halfway to that total through 12 innings of work this year.

    If the Angels are going to seriously contend, they need Bundy to be a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, and in order for him to do that, he needs to avoid being burned by the long ball.

Good: Julian Merryweather Has the Potential to Be an Elite Closer

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    It was hard not to scoff when the Toronto Blue Jays traded 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson to Cleveland for a 26-year-old reliever named Julian Merryweather at the 2018 deadline.

    Had it pulled the trigger on trading Donaldson sooner, before an injury-plagued final season, Toronto might have netted a blockbuster return package.

    However, two-and-a-half years after that trade was made, Merryweather now looks like a key piece of the puzzle for a Toronto Blue Jays team with playoff aspirations.

    When free-agent addition Kirby Yates was lost for the season to Tommy John surgery, it immediately created a glaring hole at the back of the bullpen. The initial expectation was that some combination of Rafael Dolis and Jordan Romano would handle late-game duties.

    That duo was used to protect a 2-2 tie in the eighth and ninth inning on Opening Day, leaving Merryweather tasked with the team's first save opportunity when the Blue Jays scored a run in the top of the 10th inning.

    He responded by striking out the side on 11 pitches.

    On Sunday, Romano pitched the eighth inning and Merryweather was the guy in the ninth with the Blue Jays clinging to a 3-1 lead. It once again took him 11 pitches to nail down the save, striking out two along the way.

    With an average fastball velocity of 98.8 mph and a plus slider, he certainly has the stuff, and the early returns are extremely encouraging.

Good: Yermin Mercedes Can Flat-out Rake

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    Associated Press

    The Chicago White Sox were dealt a major blow when Eloy Jimenez reached over the outfield wall near the end of spring training and suffered a ruptured left pectoral tendon that will sideline him for five to six months.

    After top prospect Andrew Vaughn was shifted to left field, the DH spot looked like a question mark to begin the year, with Zack Collins primed to see the biggest bump in playing time.

    Enter Yermin Mercedes.

    A 28-year-old journeyman who had yet to reach the majors after nine minor league seasons scattered between three MLB organizations and a year of independent ball, Mercedes has always had an intriguing bat.

    He hit .317/.388/.581 with 23 home runs and 80 RBI in 95 games between Double-A and Triple-A in 2019, but he has never shown the glove to handle MLB catching duties.

    The Jimenez injury opened the door for him to crack the Opening Day roster, and he has seized the opportunity, going 13-for-23 with three doubles and one home run in his first five games. Regardless of whether he continues his torrid pace, it’s been a great story thus far.

Bad: The Atlanta Braves Offensive Luck Couldn't Get Much Worse

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    Freddie Freeman
    Freddie FreemanJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    The Atlanta Braves led the majors with an .832 OPS last season while averaging 5.8 runs per game, and they rode that juggernaut offense to a third straight NL East title.

    Unfortunately, that level of production has been entirely absent during an 0-4 start.

    The Braves have scored just eight runs while hitting .148 as a team, and while it's hard to make excuses for that glaring lack of productivity, a .171 BABIP would seem to indicate they've been the victim of some extremely bad luck.

    Ozzie Albies (0-for-16), Freddie Freeman (1-for-13), Marcell Ozuna (2-for-14), Dansby Swanson (2-for-14) and Cristian Pache (2-for-14) are hitting a combined .099 to begin the year.

    All five of those players have a BABIP under .150, and all five are capable of far more at the plate based on their recent track record.

Good: The Cincinnati Reds' Newfound Swagger Makes Them Dangerous

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    Nick Castellanos
    Nick CastellanosAaron Doster/Associated Press

    After clawing their way into the postseason picture with a 11-3 stretch of games to close out the year, the Cincinnati Reds failed to score a single run in 22 innings against the Atlanta Braves in the NL Wild Card Series.

    With no major offensive additions made during the offseason, it was fair to wonder whether the lineup would be their undoing in 2021.

    If the early results are any indication, it's not going to be an issue.

    The Reds have slugged 10 home runs and scored 46 runs total in five games en route to a 4-1 record and a plus-24 run differential that trails only the Houston Astros (plus-27).

    Nick Castellanos is 9-for-19 with three home runs, Tyler Naquin has also slugged three homers in one of the more surprising hot starts of the year, and the team has been playing with a new level of confidence.

    "We're some bat-flippin', showboatin', son of a guns," reliever Amir Garrett told reporters. "I want everybody to know that."

    Losing Trevor Bauer was a major blow, but the trio of Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Tyler Mahle is more than capable of making this an above-average rotation. If they can keep hitting, and keep this early swagger going, there's no reason they can't contend.

Bad: The Oakland Athletics Are the Worst Team in Baseball...Right Now

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    Chris Bassitt
    Chris BassittRoss D. Franklin/Associated Press

    It is just six games into a long season, but the 2021 Oakland Athletics are unrecognizable from the team that posted a 36-24 record and won the AL West title a year ago.

    Offense? Nonexistent.

    They've scored just 13 runs while hitting .169 with a .522 OPS as a team.

    Pitching? Brutal.

    They have an MLB-worst 8.00 ERA and 1.83 WHIP as a staff, and Chris Bassitt is the only starter who has pitched beyond the fifth inning.

    It's genuinely difficult to tally a minus-37 run differential in only six games, but they have somehow found a way to do it. There's more than enough talent on this roster for them to get back on track, so it's not quite time to panic, but in the season's first week, this has been the worst team in baseball by a wide margin.

Good: The Houston Astros Are the Team to Beat in the American League

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Despite losing All-Star center fielder and offensive table-setter George Springer in free agency, the Houston Astros have looked elite.

    The offense has slugged an MLB-best 12 home runs through six games while piling up 45 runs and logging an .893 OPS.

    Alex Bregman (.429 BA, 9 H), Yuli Gurriel (.409 BA, 9 H), Jose Altuve (.320 BA, 8 H) and Yordan Alvarez (.308 BA, 8 H) are all off to hot starts, and all four entered 2021 hoping to bounce back from disappointing 2020 campaigns.

    On the pitching side, Zack Greinke still looks like a bona fide ace in his age-37 season, Lance McCullers Jr. pitched well in his first start after signing a big extension, and the rotation will eventually be even stronger once Framber Valdez returns to action.

    It remains to be seen if Myles Straw can handle everyday center field duties, and it may take some time for the pieces to fall into place in the bullpen, but this team looks poised to contend for another AL pennant as the season unfolds.

             

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and accurate through Tuesday's games.