Baseball Reflections

What We Know So Far…

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Memorial Day is one of the traditional benchmarks for a major league baseball season. Division races begin to take the shape they are likely to resemble for the rest of the season and player stats are more likely to resemble those that are projected forward according to their current pace. Batters have accumulated enough plate appearances and pitchers have accumulated enough innings to reveal what we can expect the rest of the season. Many prospects who did not make the Opening Day roster have been called up and sub-par performing veterans who did make the Opening Day roster have been designated for assignment. Therefore, we just might be able to determine a few things we know for sure so far.

The AL East is the best division in baseball

After an historic start to the season, the Rays have the best record in baseball. But for all their success so far, they only have a three-game lead in the American League East because the Orioles have the second-best record in baseball. The Blue Jays won 92 games last season and have one of the best young cores in baseball. Even though they are somewhat underachieving this season, they’re still two games over .500. But that’s only good enough for last place in the AL East, 9 ½ games behind the Rays. They would be tied for first place in the American League Central and only a game and a half behind the lead in the National League Central. So goes the beast that is the American League East. Up until this season, the schedule was unbalanced so all the teams in the AL East used to beat up on one another, suppressing their records. But now with the balanced schedule, they play every other team just as often as they play teams in their own division, so their records are going to rise accordingly. It won’t happen because of the post-season structure, but all five teams in the AL East are good enough to be playoff teams.

The Orioles are for real

They said it was a fluke last season. They said their success couldn’t be sustained. They said regression was sure to come this season. They said they’re not quite ready to contend yet. But the Orioles have not only proven to be a legitimate contender this season with the second-best record in baseball, they’re doing it in style. They already have 18 come-from-behind wins this season. They are equally proficient on the road (17-9) as they are at home (15-8). They stole 10 bases in the first two games of the season. Adley Rutschman is an on-base machine and is already the leader and face of the franchise in his second year in the majors. In the 162 games before Rutschman was called up from the minors last season, the Orioles went 52-110. In the 152 games after he was called up, they went 93-59. Jorge Mateo is doing his best impression of Brooks Robinson defensively on the left side of the infield. Cedric Mullins hit for the 7th cycle in Oriole history on May 12 and has regularly left his feet to fly parallel to the ground in center field to make a catch. They traded away their closer Jorge Lopez last season and replaced him with an unheralded pitcher from the minors named Felix Bautista who has since saved 27 games with a 1.01 WHIP and 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings. This season Yennier Cano, the unheralded pitcher they got from the Twins in the Lopez trade, has become the setup man for Bautista and didn’t give up a run until he faced his 77th batter of the season. Fans have returned in droves to Camden Yards and most of them are actually Oriole fans instead of Red Sox or Yankee fans. Section 86 in left center field has been renamed the “Bird Bath” because every time an Oriole gets an extra-base hit the fans, mostly clad in raincoats and goggles, get a shower from a rubber hose wielded by a guy named Mr. Splash. Fans probably wouldn’t tolerate getting soaked at a game if they weren’t having a good time watching a legitimate contender.

Games are faster

On average, it takes 25 minutes less to play a Major League Baseball game this season than last. We know games are faster. But are they better? We know no one can honestly say they miss 25 minutes of dead time during a baseball game. What is not a consensus, however, is whether the average two hour and thirty-eight minute baseball game this season is a better product than the average three hour and three minute game of last season. Some might be surprised to learn that this season’s average game is not that much different statistically from last season. Stolen bases have certainly increased this season with the enlarged bases and the limit of two pick-off attempts, but not by a game-changing amount. Last season there were 0.5 stolen bases per game while so far this year there’s been 0.7 per game. In other words, last season there was a stolen base every two games while this year there’s been 1.4 every two games. If anyone anticipated more of a small-ball approach to the game this year with more stolen bases and the absence of the shift, they would be surprised to learn that home runs have increased this season over last. So far this season there’s been 1.15 home runs per game compared to 1.07 per game last season. Runs per game have also increased (4.56 this season compared to 4.28 last season). The absence of the shift has also increased batting averages as expected, but again not by a game-changing amount. The league-wide batting average so far this season is .247 compared to .243 last year. Interestingly, the league-wide on-base percentage has seen a larger increase this season than the increase in batting average. Last season, everyone was getting on base at a .312 clip while this season the league-wide OBP is .320. Perhaps the overall control and command of pitchers have suffered because of the pitch clock resulting in more walks per nine innings this year (3.36) than last (3.1). Even though there has been a significant decrease in the time it takes to play an average major league game, there has not been a significant change in the product itself on the field. Please use your extra 25 minutes a day wisely.

The Oakland A’s are the worst team in baseball

But that’s by design. Since 2021, the A’s have traded away Matt Olson, Sean Murphy, Matt Chapman, Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea and Cole Irvin in an effort to rebuild and restock their minor league system. They’ve filled their current roster with journeyman veterans like Jesus Aguilar, Tony Kemp, Aledmys Diaz, Trevor May and Jace Peterson to serve as place holders until the young players from their system can graduate to the majors. This blueprint has been followed countless times in the past by other teams, most recently by the Astros, Cubs and Orioles. All three of those teams consistently lost over 100 games a year until their patient rebuilding finally paid off. But not even those teams at their very worst were as bad as the A’s this season. The A’s are 10-41 (a .196 winning percentage) which puts them on pace for a 32-130 record, eight less wins than the 1962 expansion Mets. The problem is, even after all those fire sales, the A’s still find themselves with only the 22nd best farm system ranked by mlb.com. To their credit, they recognized their desperate need for organizational pitching when picking the prospects for the return on their trades. They currently have an epically bad 6.95 team ERA, almost 2 full runs more than the next worse team (the Royals at 5.15) and they’ve walked 248 batters, 51 more than the second worse team (again the Royals). Kyle Muller and Ken Waldichuk are already in their rotation and other pitchers they acquired such as Gunnar Hoglund, Freddy Tarnok, Ryan Cusick and J.T. Ginn have entered their minor league system. But rebuilding through starting pitchers can be a risky business. Young pitchers often take more time to fully develop than hitters and Tommy John surgery always looms on the horizon for many. The blueprint followed by the Astros, Cubs and Orioles was to rebuild through acquiring prospect position players then once they got to the majors supplementing that core by acquiring veterans to fill their starting rotation. Time will tell but the horizon looks very cloudy for the A’s, especially since that horizon includes their impending move to Las Vegas. If there were a Mr. Splash in Oakland, there would be gasoline coming out of that hose, not water.

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