The first four days of the 2018 MLB regular season are in the books. Only four teams remain undefeated (Chicago White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Nationals) while four are still looking for their first win (Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, San Diego Padres). The early batting average leader? Seattle Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger. He is 5 for 8 (.625).
April is simultaneously the best and worst time of the year for baseball analysis. It's the best because baseball is back! Spring training is fun in its own way, but there's nothing quite like meaningful baseball. It's also the worst because everything that has happened so far has happened in a small sample size. An extremely small sample size. Tough to know what is part of a trend and what is simple randomness. That's never stopped us before though, and there's no reason it should stop us now. Here are 10 early season observations.
The new mound visit rule is pretty great
We're all still getting used to counting mound visits, but overall, the new mound visit limitations have greatly improved the flow of the game, in my opinion. Catchers and infielders are making fewer random trips out to the mound, especially in the late innings. That downtime has been greatly reduced and the game is moving at a much better pace, which is the entire point.
Now, that said, the mound visit rule has yet to drop the average time of game. In fact, games this season have taken longer to play than the average game last year. Here are the early season time of game numbers:
- 2017 average time of game: 3:05 (3:10 through first four days of the season)
- 2018 average time of game: 3:12 (3:09 if you remove Chicago Cubs vs. Miami Marlins 17-inning game)
Improving pace of play and shortening the game are not necessarily the same thing. The goal should be reducing the amount of downtime within a game -- all that standing around when nothing is happening. If the average time of game stays the same but more action is happening on the field, that's a good thing.
So far, it feels as though the new mound visit rule has improved the flow and pace of games, even if it has yet to show up in the average time of game. There are fewer stoppages for mound conferences, and that is a good thing.
For better or worse, the Phillies will be interesting all season
The first three games of Gabe Kapler's managerial tenure with the Philadelphia Phillies have been eventful, if nothing else. He's used 21 pitchers in 28 innings, including utility man Pedro Florimon, who on Saturday became the first position player in history to pitch in March. Only the Marlins, who played a 17-inning game Friday and have played one more game than the Phillies overall, have used more pitchers this season. They've used 22 pitchers in 45 innings compared to Kapler's 21 in 28.
Perhaps the craziest moment of the young season came Saturday, when Kapler removed starter Vince Velasquez even though there was no one warming up in the bullpen. Reliever Hoby Milner had to quickly get hot and rush some warmup pitches. Play is supposed to resume at the end of the 2:05 timer during pitching changes, but crew chief Jerry Layne gave Milner more time to protect his arm. Here's the video:
Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker was irate, understandably, and ejected from the game. "Whoever's at fault for not doing their job on the Phillies' side should have to answer to Major League Baseball," said Layne to a pool reporter following the game. Kapler accepted the blame for what he repeatedly called a "miscommunication."
Three things about this. One, Kapler failed at one of a manager's most basic responsibilities. Warming up a reliever before removing a starter is Baseball 101. That's embarrassing. Two, this is such a ridiculously egregious error that I have to assume it'll never ever happen again. Kapler will make sure he's on top of his bullpen machinations going forward.
And three, Kapler will be under even more scrutiny going forward. All rookie managers are under the microscope. That's just the way it goes. Now that he had what we'll generously call an adventurous first series, all eyes will be on Kapler going forward. Oh, and by the way, he guaranteed a postseason appearance in 2018.
Kapler took full responsibility for communication snafu between dugout and bullpen. He said he needed to do a better job. He also said Phillies would make postseason in 2018.— Jim Salisbury (@JSalisburyNBCS) April 1, 2018
Between their talented young players and Kapler's inexperience, which has already manifested itself on the field, the Phillies are going to be quite an interesting team to follow in 2018.
The Yankees' bullpen isn't invincible
On paper, the New York Yankees have the best and deepest bullpen in baseball. The projection systems at FanGraphs rank New York's relief crew as the best in the game by more than +2 WAR. But, through four games this season, the bullpen has been quite vulnerable for the Yankees, allowing at least one run in all four games.
Here's what the bullpen has done so far:
3/29 (W 6-1)
3/30 (W 4-2)
3/31 (L 5-3)
4/1 (L 7-4)
On one hand, 18 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings is pretty great! On the other, everything else is pretty terrible. Every reliever in the eight-man bullpen has already been scored upon except Chad Green, who's been great, Chasen Shreve, who has yet to pitch, and Jonathan Holder, who allowed an inherited runner to score.
Dellin Betances has allowed two home runs -- he didn't allow his second homer until Sept. 4 last year -- and David Robertson served up a grand slam to Justin Smoak to turned a one-run lead into a three-run deficit Sunday. Tommy Kahnle also allowed a homer to Smoak. There's too much talent in the bullpen for these struggles to continue all year, but the preseason bullpen hype may have gotten out of control. Betances is still trying to get over last year's control issues and Robertson, Chapman, and Kahnle are all coming back from big 2017 season workloads and deep postseason runs. Plus relievers are inherently volatile.
The Astros are working their magic with Cole
Gerrit Cole made his Houston Astros debut Sunday and was marvelous, striking out 11 against two hits and three walks in seven innings against the Texas Rangers. And he did it by scaling back on his trademark high-octane fastball.
Here are Cole's pitch selection numbers:
Sunday was the 128th regular season start of Cole's career and only three times did he use his fastball at a lower rate. Sample size noise? Possibly! But the Astros are generally an anti-fastball team. They emphasize secondary pitches. Here are the teams with the lowest fastball rates in 2017:
- New York Yankees: 50.6 percent
- Houston Astros: 55.2 percent
- Tampa Bay Rays: 55.5 percent
- Kansas City Royals: 56.1 percent
- Los Angeles Angels: 57.1 percent
The Pirates, meanwhile, had the sixth highest fastball rate last season at 63.5 percent. Cole going from the Pirates to the Astros and suddenly throwing fewer fastballs than at pretty much any other point in his career probably isn't a coincidence. Neither is this:
The smart money is on the 'Stros having traded for Cole with the idea that getting him to throw fewer fastballs in favor of more secondary pitches would be a way to get him to take his game to the next level. That's pretty much exactly what happened in his first start of the year.
Freeman is getting nothing to hit
Three games into the 2018 season, Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman has already walked seven times in 16 plate appearances. The Phillies refused to challenge him over the weekend. Look at where they pitched him:
Even with men on base, Freeman didn't see many pitches in the zone. Nothing he could really do damage with. I'm guessing this will be the norm, not a three-game blip, as long as Nick Markakis bats cleanup behind Freeman. Markakis, who did hit a walk-off home run on Opening Day, has slugged .380 in nearly 3,500 plate appearances over the last five years. Even with the juiced ball last season, Markakis managed eight -- eight! -- home runs.
With Tyler Flowers, who smacked 12 homers in 370 plate appearances last year, currently out injured, the Braves do not have an obvious candidate to bat behind Freeman. Countless studies have shown that lineup protect is largely a myth. In this case though, with no one dangerous batting behind Freeman, opposing teams are going to pitch around the Braves star each and every night. They'll take their chances with Markakis or whoever else.
The Brewers have reshaped their lineup
Few teams upgraded their offense as much as the Brewers this offseason. In the span of about an hour one January evening, the club signed free agent Lorenzo Cain and traded for Christian Yelich. Those two have batted somewhere in the top three of the lineup in each of Milwaukee's first three games, and look what they've done:
- Cain: 8 for 14 (.571) with three doubles, three steals, one walk, no strikeouts
- Yelich: 7 for 14 (.500) with one double, one walk, two strikeouts
No, Cain and Yelich are not going to hit .500-something all season. What they will do is provide a contact element the Brewers lacked a year ago, when their offense posted an MLB high 25.6 percent strikeout rate.
Cain and Yelich are two experienced top of the order hitters with a knack for getting the bat on the ball. The Brewers didn't get much production at all from the leadoff spot last year (.240/.320/.367 for an 83 OPS+) and those two will change that. Watching Cain and Yelich do their thing at the top of the lineup has been a breath of fresh air for the Brew Crew faithful.
Lester still doesn't look right
Cubs southpaw Jon Lester has been one of the most successful pitchers of his generation thanks to a special combination of stuff and command. Since about the beginning of last July, however, Lester's command has not been as excellent as usual. He pitched to a 5.17 ERA with a .278/.339/.463 opponent's batting line in his final 15 regular season starts last year. Then, in his NLCS start, Lester walked five and struck out two in 4 2/3 innings.
Whatever it was, something was off with Lester late last year. He wasn't dotting the corners, and when he missed, he missed out over the plate rather than out of the zone. Those problems continued in his 2018 Opening Day start Thursday.
Lester is 34 years old now and he has an awful lot of innings on his arm. Over 2,300 between the regular season and postseason. He averaged 204 innings per season from 2008-17. A remarkable accomplishment, that is. But it is an accomplishment that tends to come with a price once a pitcher reaches his mid-30s.
I'm not saying Lester is done as an above-average starter. Just that, given where he is at this point of his career, age-related decline has to be a concern. CC Sabathia, a similar ace-caliber workhorse lefty, started to go south at the same age a few years ago. Father Time remains undefeated. Can Lester make the necessary adjustments to remain successful as his stuff and command begin to wane? My guess is yes, though these things usually don't happen overnight.
Bogaerts is hitting the ball hard again
A year ago Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts put up an average-ish .273/.343/.403 (95 OPS+) batting line with 10 home runs in 148 games. That was down considerably from his .294/.356/.446 (110 OPS+) line with 21 home runs in 2016.
Furthermore, look at his first and second half splits:
Not coincidentally, Bogaerts played through a hand injury in the second half, a hand injury that sapped his ability to hit the ball hard. Makes sense, right? You can't hit properly if you can't grip the bat properly. Consider his hard contact rate as the season progressed:
A great big dip in hard contact coinciding with the hand injury? Well I'll be.
So far this year Bogaerts is 8 for 17 (.471) with five doubles, one homer, and a 33.3 percent hard contact rate, which is right in line with his pre-hand injury hard contact rate. It's a small sample, obviously. It is encouraging though. Bogaerts appears to have regained strength in the hand and is doing more damage when he makes contact.
As frustrating as Bogaerts can be, he is very talented, and the hand injury contributed to last year's second half fade more than anything. Now that his hand is healthy, he's back to making an impact.
The Dodgers really miss Turner
The Los Angeles Dodgers were dealt a tough blow late in spring training, when Justin Turner was hit by a pitch and suffered a broken hand. He started the season on the disabled list and is still a few weeks away from returning. I suppose the good news is Turner is back in Arizona preparing to ramp up his rehab work.
Justin Turner is headed to Camelback Ranch to continue rehabbing his broken wrist. That means baseball activities will soon resume.— Ken Gurnick (@kengurnick) April 1, 2018
For the time being, the Dodgers have used Logan Forsythe and Kyle Farmer at third base, and through four games the team's third basemen are 0 for 13 with zero walks, one hit-by-pitch, and with three errors. Yikes.
The Dodgers knew they would miss Turner. He's one of the best players in the game and, realistically, there simply was no good way to replace him that late in spring. Los Angeles is going with what they have and the downgrade has been even more severe than they hoped. Eventually Forsythe and/or Farmer will get some hits. Right now, both the team's offense and defense have taken a big hit without Turner.
The fly ball revolution is alive and well
It's never too early to look at league-wide trends. Individual player numbers may not mean much after four days, but we already have nearly 4,000 plate appearances worth of data across MLB. Here are some league averages:
|Launch Angle||Ground Ball Rate||Strikeout Rate|
Launch angle and the so-called fly ball revolution is all the rage now. Hitters are trying to get the ball airborne because balls hit in the air are more likely to go for extra-base hits. More and more hitters are adopting an uppercut swing, even a slight uppercut, and that isn't necessarily conducive to contact. It is conducive to hitting for power though.
In the super early going this year, the recent trend has continued. Launch angles are going up, ground ball rates are going down, and strikeout rates are going up as well. This is not some new temporary fad. This is where baseball is heading. Hitters are trying to get the ball in the air more often with each passing season, and by and large, they're succeeding.