Welcome back! I apologize for the negligence in posting regularly - I just finished up my first year of graduate school, so posting here was lower on the priority list. It's disappointing though, because we had a pretty exciting first month of the baseball season. Bryce Harper and Mike Trout have been called up, probably for good. Jered Weaver has thrown a no-hitter, and Phil Humber a perfect game. The Rays and Rangers have emerged (unsurprisingly, especially in the Rangers' case) as teams that appear elite. Matt Kemp may now be the best player in baseball - a subject that deserves attention in more detail further down the road.
Today, I just want to go into some of the stuff we now know. It's easy to make overly rash judgments based on a month of games, but in truth, the first month usually IS a good indicator of things to come. Sure, people read too much into flukes and slumps, but there are some things that it's ok to read into. So, a month in to the 2012 season, here is some stuff I think I know.
Note: SOMETHING on this list will turn out laughably wrong, and will be saved on the internet forever. I have no idea what that is. If I did, I wouldn't write it. Just keep that in mind.
1. If Stephen Strasburg is healthy, he is really, really good.
Strasburg has now thrown 124.0 innings as a major leaguer. He has a 2.18 ERA, 150 strikeouts, and 25 walks. He has now gone 64.1 innings since allowing his last home run. It's too early in the season for WAR to be truly meaningful, but his is 2.5 according to Baseball-Reference, best in all of baseball. If you've gotten the chance to watch him pitch, it's easy to see why - his fastball, overhand curve and changeup give him three pitches that are better than just about any other pitcher's best. He's a pitching freak, and for baseball's sake, I hope he stays healthy. If you believe in the whole "Inverted-W" mechanics being a major flaw, then you have reason to be worried. All the more reason to enjoy him now.
2. Mark Prior just signed a minor league contract with the Red Sox.
This, of course, is why we need to enjoy Strasburg now. Mark Prior, sadly, is now THE cautionary tale of phenom pitchers who broke down. The thing is, nobody can say for certain why Prior broke down - was it his mechanics, was it his overuse, was it just because some pitchers break? He will apparently pitch out of the bullpen in his attempt to work his way back up to the Sox.
3. Yu Darvish looks really quite good.
One of the reasons the Rangers have emerged over the past three years as one of the best organizations in baseball is their pitching. With that in mind, this was the best possible place for Darvish to land. Through his first five starts, Darvish is 4-0 with a 2.18 ERA, with 33 strikeouts and 17 walks in 33.0 innings pitched. That walk total a little high for you? In his last two starts, against the Blue Jays and Yankees, he has pitched 15.1 innings, striking out 19 while walking 4, allowing just 1 run. Those two teams are third and fourth in the American League in walks, by the way, so it's not like he's pitching to a bunch of free swingers. He's settling in. Don't panic if there are adjustments to be made down the line, but Darvish looks, early on, like an ace.
4. The best place to find starting pitching may be your own bullpen. The Texas Rangers can be thanked for this.
It makes sense, doesn't it? Almost every successful major league pitcher comes up through the minors as a starter. There's an occasional college closer, sure, but usually players are put into relief because of a need. If this were 2007, Neftali Feliz, Daniel Bard, Chris Sale and Lance Lynn would likely all be in the bullpen (the first three, without question). Lynn and Sale have been fantastic in the rotation, while Feliz and Bard have had more mixed reviews. The upside here clearly outmatches the downside, though. Suppose Feliz continues to walk a few too many people. The Rangers can send him back to the pen - they'll have a valuable reliever, and can take comfort in knowing they are getting the maximum value out of him. Compare that to the Red Sox usage of Jonathan Papelbon, who likely would have turned into an excellent starter (and made himself twice as much money as a free agent), and relieved several of the depth issues the Sox had in their rotation between 2008 and 2011. So, while the infuriating closer usage patterns that developed in the late 1980's have not yet passed on, teams have finally re-identified the relative value of starting pitchers vs. relief pitchers.
This, which I will post in greater depth at a later date, is what Moneyball was supposed to be about. The point wasn't that college players and OBP were good - it was that they were undervalued. After the A's won in the early 00's, the market adjusted. Teams drafted smarter (a trend clearly visible if you look at the performance of first rounders in recent years compared to 15 years prior), and valued guys who didn't make outs. The Rangers are the team that exploited the next inefficiency, which was reliever usage. With C.J. Wilson, Alexi Ogando and now Neftali Feliz, they have found what had been an inefficiency, to free up the money to sign players like Darvish and Adrian Beltre. Keep an eye on relief phenom Robbie Ross, who could be in the Rangers 2013 rotation.
5. Free Alexi Ogando
An addendum to the previous paragraphs. After an solid year in the rotation last year, the Rangers have moved Ogando back to the bullpen. Not necessarily because they think he can't start, but because they think they have five better starters. They may be right about that. The Rangers sixth starter would be a top three starter on most teams, and the #1 on a couple. To his credit, instead of sulking in the pen, he has been marvelous. 12.2 innings pitched, 5 hits, 1 run allowed, no walks, 12 strikeouts. It would be possible to see him moved in a deal for a slugging first baseman if one were to become available, but there's no obvious counterpart out there.
6. Matt Wieters is breaking out
After enormous expectations on him as a rookie in 2009, his three year line of .265/.328/.415 with solid defense at catcher (8.3 WAR over the three years, according to B-Ref) was considered a disappointment. The expectations had become something of a curse, making it hard to enjoy the fact that Wieters had become one of the ten best catchers in the game. While 22 games isn't enough to say he's made the leap, it's impossible not to be impressed with a .303/.391/.618 line
7. No Pujols, No Carpenter, No Problem
I was among the many who thought the Cardinals would struggle this year, especially after hearing that Carpenter was having disc problems. Instead, they have baseball's best run differential, and the best record in the National League. Can they keep it up? Well, Lance Lynn and David Freese might be emerging stars, but I'm fairly confident that Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook and Jon Jay are playing way over thier heads. I'm also not confident in Carlos Beltran's ability to stay healthy. On the other hand, Lance Berkman has appeared in only 7 games, and Adam Wainwright has struggled after coming back from Tommy John surgery. If Wainwright puts it together (and his strikeout and walk numbers indicate that he will), and one of the Berkman/Beltran duo can stay healthy at a time (debatable), the Cardinals should, at worst, be competing with the Reds and potentially the Brewers.
8. Alex Rodriguez is no longer an elite player
Say it over and over. Repeat it every time you hear an announcer talk about how feared he is. Think about it especially hard when, for the next few spring trainings, we hear stories about how the guy is in "the best shape of his life." I hate to keep beating up on the guy (HA - don't believe that for a second, I enjoy it with every fiber of my being... ahem), but his OPS has crawled steadily downward for six years now. The fact that every home run he hits gets replayed on SportsCenter makes it seem like he has more than the 4 he does right now. Among 95 AL qualifiers, he is 48th in slugging, one point behind Alcides Escobar. I'm very skeptical at this point that he'll break Bonds' record of 762. Even if he stays healthy, a big if, I don't see him cracking 700 until mid 2014 at the earliest. Fortunately for the rest of baseball, he IS quite likely to get to 660, costing the Yankees a whole ton of money over the next six years.