Padres' Manny Machado and the 10 Players Defining MLB's 2022 Season so Far
If you had to sum up the entire 2022 Major League Baseball season in just 10 players, could you do it?
We're not talking about a ranking of the 10 best players. That's easy. I mean, it's subjective and would start a lot of arguments, but it's easy to just pick and rank 10 stars.
Rather, we're talking about the 10 players out of the more than 1,000 who have already taken the field this season who best embody the current state of MLB affairs.
These are the brightest stars of the unexpected contenders. The biggest disappointments of the surprising dumpster fires. And the players who serve as Exhibit A among the burgeoning trends from the first month of the season.
Basically, if you're just now diving headlong into the season and want to know what you've missed and what we've learned, consider this your crash course.
Tylor Megill and the Amazin' Mets
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the New York Mets are off to one of the hottest starts in baseball.
They had an Opening Day payroll nearly $70 million greater than their third-highest-in-the-majors mark from last season. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers are paying more than the Mets in 2022, and that's assuming the Dodgers are still on the hook for Trevor Bauer's salary. Take that $35.3 million off the books if he loses his appeal of the two-year suspension, and the Mets jump to No. 1 in payroll.
And yet, these are the Mets we're talking about. They went 77-85 last season in spite of that gargantuan payroll and despite playing in what was clearly the worst division in baseball. (That the Braves won the 2021 World Series doesn't change the fact that the 2021 NL East was a disaster during the regular season.) Even the most optimistic Mets fans are in a constant state of waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.
Thus far, though, everything has been coming up Metropolitans, and the brightest star of the bunch might be the Opening Day starting pitcher whose salary is barely a drop in the bucket.
Per Spotrac, Tylor Megill is making $707,500 this season, which is only $7,500 more than the league minimum. (By comparison, Max Scherzer is making roughly $13,500 per pitch thrown, assuming 32 starts and 100 pitches per start, and without accounting for the $15 million in deferred money he's getting from the Washington Nationals.) And yet, that inexpensive ace is one of the top early candidates for the NL Cy Young Award.
Megill entered Wednesday's start against the Braves with a 1.93 ERA and 0.86 WHIP, and after the first batter of the sixth inning, he had a line of 5.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB and 9 K's. At that moment, he was down to a 1.62 ERA and 0.81 WHIP. The Mets subsequently imploded, as Megill allowed the first three of eight consecutive Braves hitters to reach base. But it was a classic case of a very impressive performance that technically doesn't even count as a quality start.
Another such case: Megill tossed the first five innings of the Mets' recent no-hitter against the Phillies.
The best part of all is that Megill isn't even supposed to be here. If Jacob deGrom had been healthy, Megill almost certainly would have opened the season in the minors. Instead, with deGrom (shoulder) out and Scherzer (hamstring) unavailable on April 7, Megill capitalized on his unexpected opportunity as the Mets' Opening Day starter and has thrived ever since.
Joey Votto and the Sad State of Batting Average (and the Cincinnati Reds)
The inescapable narrative through the first month of the season has been that these dudes are not hitting the baseball like they used to.
Even though the leaguewide strikeout percentage (22.7) is slightly lower than it was in either 2021 (23.2) or 2020 (23.4), batting average is sitting at a ghastly .232.
From 2011 to 2019, MLB was consistently in the .248-.255 range. The dip to .245 during the pandemic-shortened season was whatever, but slipping even further to .244 last year before this current state of affairs has been a significant concern.
Especially if you're a Reds fan.
Joey Votto entered the 2022 campaign with a career batting average of .302, well on his way to a pretty exclusive club of what is currently just 17 players who finished their careers with at least 350 home runs and a .300 average. But the longtime king of on-base percentage who also clubbed 36 home runs last season can't buy a hit this year. He entered play Thursday with just eight singles and one double in 74 at-bats and the worst FanGraphs WAR mark (minus-1.1) in all of baseball.
Obviously, he's not alone in those struggles at the plate. Minnesota's Miguel Sano is batting .093. Last year's AL batting champ, Yuli Gurriel, is barely above the Mendoza Line. Heck, Arizona is hitting .191 as a team.
But between how long he was very good at hitting and how very, very bad the 3-21 Reds have been at least in part because of his inability to get hits, Votto has become the unwitting poster child of MLB's batting woes.
Taylor Ward and the Finally Relevant Los Angeles Angels
On paper, the Los Angeles Angels should be one of the best teams on an annual basis.
Per Cot's Baseball Contracts, they've had one of the nine highest payrolls in the majors for 19 consecutive seasons, and yet they haven't won a single postseason game since 2009.
They've had as many MVPs in the past decade (Mike Trout three times; Shohei Ohtani once) as the Colorado Rockies (Larry Walker in 1997), Kansas City Royals (George Brett in 1980), Miami Marlins (Giancarlo Stanton in 2017), San Diego Padres (Ken Caminiti in 1996), New York Mets (none), Tampa Bay Rays (none) and Arizona Diamondbacks (none) have combined for in franchise history. Yet, again, no postseason wins and only one trip to the playoffs in more than a decade.
As it turns out, all that was missing was Taylor Ward finally hitting his stride.
Over the previous four seasons, Ward was of little to no value to the Angels, batting .230 with a combined total of 15 home runs. When the Angels made the somewhat shocking decision in early April to designate Justin Upton for assignment—effectively lighting $28 million on fire—it wasn't because they thought Ward was ready to become a star. Rather, Angels GM Perry Minasian told reporters they felt Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh were ready for everyday work at the corner outfield spots.
One month later, it's Ward and Trout who look like the best one-two punch in all of baseball.
On Thursday morning, Ward was leading the AL in batting average (.375) and leading the majors in on-base percentage (.481), slugging percentage (.750) and OPS (1.231) with Trout not far behind him in all four categories. And the Angels are alone in first place in the AL West because of it.
To be sure, that is a rare sighting. The last time the Haloes led the AL West by more than one game at least one month into the season was July 2015—when Albert Pujols was on his way to 40 home runs and Huston Street was on his way to 40 saves.
Feels like a lifetime ago.
But even with Ohtani, Anthony Rendon and Jared Walsh all underperforming, this looks like the team to beat in the division. That will only improve if and when those three guys start raking like we all know they can.
Jose Ramirez and the Vanishing Art of Stealing Bases
Cleveland's Jose Ramirez is having a sensational season. As recently as Monday morning, he was top-10 in the majors in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS, and was leading all players in RBI by a pretty wide margin.
It's patently early in the year to be crowning anyone AL MVP, but if you're ranking candidates right now and Ramirez isn't at least in your top three, you're doing something wrong.
And yet, it wasn't until May 1 that he finally stole his first bag of the year.
Stolen bases are, of course, not a prerequisite for MVP eligibility. Jose Abreu and Freddie Freeman won MVP in 2020 with zero and two stolen bases, respectively. But Ramirez had averaged 27 stolen bases per 162 games played over the previous six seasons. It's weird that he has been relatively inactive on the basepaths, considering each of the other seven players who stole more than 25 bags in 2021 has continued to run this season with at least three swipes before Ramirez's first.
As a whole, though, the art of stealing bases remains on a downward trajectory.
From 1998 to 2012, the average number of stolen bases per season was 2,942. But things have gone downhill considerably over the past decade. There were only 2,213 stolen bases in 2021, and with the current season a little over 15 percent completed, we're on pace for a similar mark (2,216) in 2022.
And it's little wonder why. With the exception of the knuckleball that basically does not exist in today's game, the average velocity on every pitch type is up at least a full mile per hour from where it was in 2012. Couple that with fewer players reaching first base than in years past, as well as an instant replay system that might overturn a stolen base if you lose contact with the bag for a millisecond, and the risk just isn't worth the reward anymore.
What's funny, though, is that the success rate on stolen-base attempts is higher than it used to be. Base-stealers were successful better than 75 percent of the time in both 2020 and 2021 after more than two decades of hovering in the 68-74 range.
Madison Bumgarner and the Continued Increase in Slider Usage
Pitch-type data on FanGraphs only goes back to 2002, and it wasn't until 2011 that the tracking was accurate enough to identify at least 99 percent of pitches over the course of a season. But in the past seven seasons, there has been a considerable decrease in the number of times per game that a pitcher rears back and throws it as hard as he can.
In 2015, 57.7 percent of pitches thrown were fastballs. That number has since trickled all the way down to 48.9 percent this season, with slider percentage going through an equal but opposite change from 14.7 percent to 22.4 percent.
And among starting pitchers, no one is throwing more sliders these days than Arizona's Madison Bumgarner.
It's really a slider/cutter hybrid, but MadBum has always been relatively reliant on his slide piece, throwing it between 31.4 and 36.3 percent of the time in each of the past eight seasons. But that ratio has jumped from one-third to one-half with 50.7 percent of his 2022 pitches classified as sliders.
Even though opponents are swinging at pitches outside the zone at the second-lowest rate of his career and making contact on pitches outside the zone at the second-highest rate of his career, he's inducing a lot of weak contact with the slider and entered Wednesday with a minuscule 1.17 ERA.
He's hardly alone on the slider bandwagon. 2020 AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber has thrown sliders just 24.2 percent of the time in his career, but he's at 39.6 percent this year. Early 2022 AL Cy Young candidates Dylan Cease and Nestor Cortes are both sitting around 10 percentage points above their career marks in slider usage.
And why not? As far as runs above average are concerned, the value added from sliders has consistently been the highest in the league for more than a decade.
Maybe it's nothing, but this feels a bit like a tipping point less-drastic-than-but-similar-to when football teams realized passing was the most efficient way to move the ball or when basketball teams realized the three-pointer was the most efficient way to score. For all the controversies and conspiracy theories about the ball Major League Baseball uses, maybe the simplest explanation for the woeful batting averages and home run rates is just the spin pitchers are putting on it.
Eddie Rosario and the Sputtering Reigning World Series Champions
Let's be sure not to bury the lede here: Eddie Rosario has been out since April 26 and is expected to miss two to three months because of blurred vision and swelling in his right retina. And we're talking about a left-handed hitter, so that's his lead (more important) eye in the batter's box. Knowing what we know now, his .068 batting average with nary a home run nor RBI and three fielding errors in the outfield make a lot more sense.
But for the first nearly three weeks of the regular season, Rosario was the microcosm of everything going wrong for the reigning World Series champions.
Despite opening the season at home against the woeful Reds and woeful Nationals, Atlanta hasn't been above .500 since April 9. Rosario was the biggest disappointment of the bunch, but with the exception of Kyle Wright, Austin Riley and to a lesser extent Max Fried, most of the key returnees from that championship squad have failed to deliver.
As a result, the Braves are already six games out of first place in the NL East and have a fair amount of work to do just to get back into the wild-card picture.
While we admit and agree it is preposterous to look at wild-card standings in early May—especially with a star of Ronald Acuna Jr.'s caliber still getting back up to speed after last summer's torn ACL—it's a testament to how far and how quickly the mighty have fallen.
Per DraftKings, as of Thursday morning, the Braves were still -205 to make the playoffs. People aren't exactly throwing in the towel on this team just yet. But Atlanta's early woes are easily one of the biggest storylines of the young season.
Pablo Lopez, Logan Gilbert and the Surprisingly Competent Marlins and Mariners
On Sunday, Logan Gilbert had a streak of 27.2 scoreless innings snapped on a moonshot of a home run by Miami's Brian Anderson. But he still got the win, improving to 4-0 on the season while his ERA crept up to a still-best-in-the-majors 0.64.
In Gilbert's five starts, the Mariners are plus-15 in run differential and undefeated. They've also gotten several good outings from Robbie Ray, Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen, boasting what may well be the second-best pitching staff in franchise history.
But while this rotation probably pales in comparison to 2014's, the current lineup is drastically more potent than it was eight years ago, with J.P. Crawford and Ty France both looking like no-brainer All-Stars. Just wait until Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic start living up to their potential, too.
While that's been going on in the Pacific Northwest, there's a similar fun story brewing in the Atlantic Southeast.
Miami's Pablo Lopez had a bit of a dud in Monday's loss to Arizona, but he entered that game in even better shape than Gilbert with a 0.39 ERA through his first four starts. The 26-year-old righty was one of the few bright spots for the Marlins last year with a 3.07 ERA, and he was masterful early on against San Francisco, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Washington. (Hard to believe it was the lowly Diamondbacks who tripped him up.)
Like Gilbert in Seattle, Lopez is just one of several solid pitchers for Miami. Both Sandy Alcantara and Jesus Luzardo have started strong, Trevor Rogers was an All-Star and nearly NL Rookie of the Year in 2021, and with any luck they'll get Sixto Sanchez (shoulder) back around the All-Star break. It might not hold a candle to the Mets starting rotation, but the .500 Marlins have a postseason-caliber pitching staff.
Maybe Seattle and Miami fall apart, or maybe they simultaneously post a winning record for the first time since 2009 and just the third time since 1997. Either way, that both of these teams are even remotely relevant a month into the season is an intriguing change of pace.
Marcus Semien and Major League Baseball's Power Outage
In 2021, few players mashed the baseball like Marcus Semien.
Then with the Toronto Blue Jays, the middle infielder hit 45 home runs to go along with 39 doubles and a pair of triples, leading the majors with 86 extra-base hits. The Rangers subsequently gave Semien a seven-year, $175 million contract to do that in Texas, but he has made 107 plate appearances without a single dinger.
We all expect Semien to come around to some degree, but he is an extreme individual example of a staggering leaguewide power outage.
As of Thursday morning, we were at 371 out of 2,430 games played, which is 15.3 percent of the season. We were also at 670 home runs, which extrapolates to 4,388 home runs by the end of the year.
Compared to 5,944 last year and 6,776 in 2019, that is quite the downturn in long balls.
Granted, the first month of the season is typically the slowest as far as home runs are concerned, as balls travel farther in warmer weather. But there were already 1,144 home runs hit by the end of April 2019—a number we're on pace to reach somewhere around May 20.
Even in 2014—which was the only non-pandemic-shortened season with fewer than 4,500 home runs in the past quarter-century—there were 720 home runs hit in the 405 games played in March/April, which extrapolates to 4,320. (The final tally was even worse at 4,186.)
Again, there are plenty of theories and arguments out there about the culprit.
Is it the ball humidors now in place at all 30 ballparks? Is it some sort of modification of the ball itself? Is it the aforementioned rise in sliders? Is it a byproduct of the lockout and the truncated spring training? All of the above?
I have no idea, but whatever it is, it hasn't bothered Anthony Rizzo or Aaron Judge one bit. However, there's no question that fly balls have been leaving the yard at a much lower rate than they did over the past six seasons.
Manny Machado and the Unstoppable, Injury-Riddled Padres
As of Wednesday morning, the Padres were "leading" the majors by paying more than $70 million to injured players.
About half of that money is going to Fernando Tatis Jr., Blake Snell, Mike Clevinger and Drew Pomeranz, all of whom had yet to appear in a game in 2022. (Clevinger made his season debut Wednesday.) Another huge chunk is going to Wil Myers and Luke Voit, who had a combined 113 plate appearances with a sub-.200 batting average and no home runs prior to recent thumb (Myers) and biceps (Voit) injuries.
You would think a team with an entire Cleveland Guardians or Pittsburgh Pirates payroll's worth of injuries would be struggling, but the Padres are 16-9 and right in the thick of what is already shaping up to be an incredible battle for the NL West crown, largely because of the heroics of Manny Machado.
San Diego's lineup has actually been a two-man show, as Eric Hosmer has also been very, very good. But it's Machado who is leading the majors in wins above replacement, regardless of whether you prefer FanGraphs (2.3) or Baseball Reference (2.3).
He was just 6-for-26 at the dish in his first seven games before turning in a DFS jackpot type of performance (5-for-6, 4 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 2 SB) on April 14. And he hasn't slowed down much since then, batting .414 and slugging .686 over his last 18 games.
Juan Soto is still the odds-on favorite for NL MVP, even though he's batting .258 for a team that might lose 110 games. However, the NL MVP to this point in the season is a toss-up between Machado and St. Louis' Nolan Arenado. And given Machado's WAR, San Diego's better record and Arenado's almost fully healthy supporting cast, calling it a toss-up might be a disservice to how impressive Machado has been.
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