The 2023 MLB season is nearly two months old and things are beginning to look normal. No one is hitting .400 anymore (sorry, Luis Arraez), projected contenders who started slowly are heating up (Astros, Cardinals, Dodgers, etc.), and projected noncontenders who started well have cooled (Cubs, Pirates, etc.). The grind that is the 162-game season is fully underway.
Our bi-weekly series breaking down various trends across the league continues Wednesday with one leadoff hitter's first inning dominance, a contender's bullpen issues, and a former star's return to prominence. Last week we looked at clubs with poor defense, trouble limiting stolen bases, and a lack of power.
Acuña's first inning excellence
To date, Braves wunderkind Ronald Acuña Jr. has been the best player in baseball. He's hitting a stout .337/.427/.588 with 11 home runs and 20 stolen bases, and he entered play Tuesday leading the league in both the Baseball Reference (2.9) and FanGraphs (2.7) versions of WAR. Acuña has played at an All-Star level since arriving in the majors 2018. This year, he's found another gear.
"He's the best player I've ever seen," Braves righty Spencer Strider told MLB.com about Acuña. "I don't know what else there is to say. Words can't really do it justice. He's the best player in the game right now and I'm just glad he's on our team."
The first inning is when Acuña has really shined. He has led off all 48 games for Atlanta -- Acuña has not started a game anywhere other than leadoff since spending the first month of 2019 hitting cleanup -- and his first inning numbers are outrageous. He leads in just about every meaningful category leading off a game (min. 25 plate appearances leading off a game):
Steven Kwan (.349)
LaMonte Wade Jr. (.516)
Ke'Bryan Hayes (.750)
Ke'Bryan Hayes (195)
Mookie Betts (28)
Acuña has hit "only" two leadoff home runs this season, fourth most in baseball behind Betts, Mickey Moniak, and Christian Yelich (three each), though he's made up for it with eight doubles. Mookie is the only other player with as many as six leadoff doubles. The .563 on-base percentage is outrageously good. Acuña is getting on base to start the game almost 60% of the time! What more could you want from a leadoff hitter?
Set the minimum to 100 plate appearances leading off the game, and all-time best season by a leadoff hitter belongs not to Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, but Jose Altuve. The Astros second baseman hit .330/.438/.730 leading off the game last season, good for a 226 OPS+. Henderson's best season leading off the game was a .343/.488/.636 (202 OPS+) batting line in 1993.
The single-season record is 17 doubles leading off the game by Hall of Famer Craig Biggio in 2004. Acuña is nearly halfway there already. Alfonso Soriano holds the total bases record with 101 in 2003. Acuña is nearly 40% of the way there. Soriano hit 13 leadoff homers that year, so Acuña has a lot of ground to make up there, but I wouldn't put it past him. He's so talented and so locked in.
The cynical among us will say Acuña hitting so well leading off the game must mean his numbers are lagging the rest of the time, and of course his numbers aren't that good in all other situations, but he is hitting .286/.392/.521 after the first inning. He's been otherworldly in the first inning and merely excellent the rest of the game.
Acuña has a real shot at the fifth 40/40 season in history and an outside chance at the first 50/50 season in history. It's a long shot, no doubt about it, but it's not completely out of the question at this point. Either way, Acuña is having a monster MVP-caliber season, and he's been historically great in the first inning two months into 2023.
"What he's done has been incredible," Braves third baseman Austin Riley told MLB.com about Acuña. "You catch yourself on the edge of (your seat) watching every swing, because you think something magical is going to happen. Just incredible."
Tampa's surprisingly shaky bullpen
At 35-15, the Rays have the best record in baseball, and they are the first team to win 35 of their first 50 games since, well, the Yankees last year (also 35-15). Tampa's pace has cooled since their historic 13-0 start, but they are 22-15 since starting 13-0. That's a 96-win pace. The Rays have gone from out of this world to merely outstanding.
As good as they've been this season, there is one area the Rays have been lacking: the bullpen. Their relievers have been surprisingly shaky, especially in May. Here are their bullpen numbers entering Tuesday, before three relievers and two position players combined to allow 16 runs in five innings in a blowout loss to the Blue Jays:
- ERA: 2.95 (15th in MLB)
- FIP: 4.66 (26th in MLB)
- WHIP: 1.24 (10th in MLB)
- Win probability added: minus-1.54 (25th in MLB)
- WAR: minus-0.4 (29th in MLB)
Only the Athletics, who are a money laundering operation more than a competitive baseball team, have received worse bullpen production (minus-2.1 WAR!) than the first place Rays. Tampa has the fourth mosts blown saves (10), and the bullpen has taken nine of the team's 15 losses. The bullpen is a concern for the Rays. There's no doubt about it.
Part of the problem is the lack of bat-missing ability. Rays relievers have struck out 17.4% of batters faced this season, the lowest bullpen strikeout rate in baseball and comfortably below the 23.8% league average for relievers. There's something to be said for quick outs on the ground, sure, but in the late innings of close games, you want strikeouts, and the Rays don't get 'em.
Given their reputation, it's easy to think the Rays will just reach into the farm system and bring up a dynamite reliever or three, and be on their way. If it were that easy though, the Rays would have already done it. The pitching reserves are depleted enough that the front office picked up guys like Chase Anderson, Jake Diekman, Javy Guerra, and Zack Littell off the scrap heap earlier this month.
"I think they've done a good job given the circumstances," Rays manager Kevin Cash told the Tampa Bay Times recently. "Given how the starters have gone down, they've had to carry a bigger load, some of them that we didn't ideally want to happen."
Unreliable bullpens have sabotaged many great teams (see: 2011-14 Tigers), and Tampa is having too special a season to leave it unaddressed. Whether it's getting help at the trade deadline or an outside-the-box solution (Drew Rasmussen in relief when he returns?), the Rays need to address their bullpen. It's the one real flaw in this powerhouse team, and it is a significant one.
"We're fine. Have we pitched the way we should? No," righty reliever Jason Adam told the Tampa Bay Times. "But at the same time, we're still a top bullpen in the league. I think it instills confidence in a lot of us that we haven't pitched how we should and we're still among the top. So it's going to be fun when we start taking care of business."
Sale's recent resurgence
Coming into the season, there were many reasons to be skeptical of the Red Sox rotation, and those concerns have been founded two months into 2023. Boston's starters entered play Tuesday with a 5.44 ERA (26th in MLB) and 1.5 WAR (25th in MLB). Six pitchers have made at least three starts for the Red Sox and only Brayan Bello has even a league average ERA.
That said, as poorly as things have gone to date, there are reasons to be optimistic about Boston's rotation moving forward. James Paxton has looked very good in his two starts back from the injured list and Garrett Whitlock is expected back this coming weekend. Also, Chris Sale has pitched very well lately. In fact, he's pitched like the Chris Sale of old the last four times out:
|IP per start||ERA||WHIP||K%||BB%||Opp. AVG/OBP/SLG|
First 5 starts
Last 4 starts
"I haven't felt this good since 2019 before I blew out my elbow," Sale told the Boston Globe recently. "I had a start against Anaheim (13 strikeouts and eight scoreless innings on Aug. 8, 2019) that I felt like I was picking up steam. Then that was it. It hasn't been until lately I'm getting that feeling back."
Several injuries, some serious (Tommy John surgery) and some fluky (finger broken by a comebacker, fell off a bike and broke his wrist), limited Sale to only 48 1/3 innings from 2020-22. He has not been healthy and dominant in the same season since 2018, when he was the ace of Boston's World Series champion team. And at age 34, his first five starts this year were a red flag, for sure.
As he's gotten his legs under him and gotten back in sync mechanically though, Sale's fastball velocity has increased, and more velocity gives you greater margin of error. Sale's velocity has increased each month this year, and, in his last three starts, he's had his best velocity since that 2018 season. He really is beginning to resemble his old self.
"Mechanically I'm getting to better spots when I need to," Sale told the Boston Globe last week. "Before I was a little stiff and getting away from the things that made me successful. I feel like my routine between starts is better, too."
The best predictor of future injury is past injury and it's fair to wonder whether Sale can make it through a full 162-game season, if not physically then at least effectively. That's a question for another time. Right now, Sale is again pitching like an ace, something the Red Sox badly need to remain in contention. He's an arrow-up player after entering 2023 as an unknown.