Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | April 30, 2010

What Have We Learned In A Month?

We’re almost a full month into the 2010 baseball season as the calendar prepares to turn to May, and now is as good of a time as any to discussed what we’ve learned so far. In short: Nothing. Roughly twenty or twenty-five games is generally not enough to make any concrete conclusions about anything, but there are a few trends that can be highlighted and some light shed on pre-season prognostications.

1. It was foolhardy to pencil Jake Peavy in as a sure thing.

During many pre-season round-ups, one of the common reasons given for a potential division title for the Chicago White Sox was the impending success of their rotation, and in particular Jake Peavy. It seemed to be a hasty conclusion to reach: There were many red flags to indicate that Peavy’s time in Chicago might not be equivalent to his time in San Diego. Even without taking into account his injury, Peavy was moving from the National League to the American League — Always a challenge — And moving from the league’s best pitcher’s park (by far) to the league’s ninth-best hitter’s park (and fourth-best park for hitting home runs). While never covering Peavy on this blog, I have made these arguments elsewhere. Add to those the injury, and it seemed that Peavy was due for a step back in his performance. What has happened in the first month of 2010 has been even worse than anyone could’ve predicted. In some sense, I feel about what Peavy has done so far in the same way that I felt about Armando Galarraga‘s 2009 season in Detroit. In both cases it seemed that there were clear warning signs that each would not be as good as many seemed to believe, but ended up pitching far worse than could be imagined.

In Peavy’s case, the breakdown seems to be in many phases of his game, but is primarily centered around his control. He brought a career BB/9 of 2.9 into the 2010 season, and in his five starts (28 2/3 innings) this season has posted an astronomical 6.3 number (20 walks). Incredibly, his percentage of strikes thrown (62%) is below his career norm but not significantly so and is only one percent below the league average. His percentage of first pitch strikes (62%) is above both his career mark and league averages. In spite of this, he hasn’t been able to make the pitches he has needed to and has give alot of free passes. Another indicator that he’s struggling to hit his spots comes in his drastically reduced ground ball rate which currently sits at six-and-a-half percent worse than his previous worst season, a lack of infield flies induced, and an increase of home runs per fly ball (although that home run rate may have something to do with being moved out of Petco Park). Opposing hitters are making dramatically more contact, especially on pitches in the strike zone, and the amount of swinging strikes that he’s induced has been nearly halved. This sounds like the profile of a man who is not putting the ball where he wants it and is being made to pay by the opposition. Especially when you take into consideration that he hasn’t lost much in the way in velocity on any of his pitches (though he has seen a spike in the usage of his changeup. However, he has succeeded in the past throwing it this often, and even more often than this) and that he is still managing to strike out seven batters per nine innings. While that would represent a career low if it holds, it is still a respectable number on its own.

In sum, without having seen him pitch and just looking at the profile of what he’s done, it seems that his problem primarily comes from poor command. There is also a possibility that he has lost movement on his pitches, as a quick and dirty look at some of his starts from this year as opposed to when he was last healthy show that this may be the case. However, given his track record, the fact that he has maintained his velocity, and the fact that he’s still generally throwing strikes at a similar rate to the past, there’s still more than enough room for hope that Peavy can turn it around. Still, even if he returns to form, it may be time right now to check the expectations at the door if it hasn’t been done already.

2. The Baltimore Orioles are in bad shape.

Not too long ago in this very blog I proclaimed the Orioles a team that was severely hampered by their division and that could compete for a division title were they in either of the other divisions in the American League. A few weeks later, and their season seems all but sunk. The 2001 Oakland Athletics got off to an 8-14 start before winning 102 games. That team had the most wins in history over the final 140 games of a season after posting a losing record in the first twenty-two. The most wins for a team that won four or fewer of their first twenty-two games? You’d have to go back to the championship 1914 Boston Braves team, which began their season 4-17 before going on a 90-42 run to grab the pennant with 94 wins and sweep the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. With all due respect to the Orioles, the 1914 Braves — Who at points in their season were 2-9, 3-16, 4-18, and 12-28 — They are not. Their schedule doesn’t get any easier in the immediate future with a run of games against the Yankees and Red Sox. However, there is still more than enough time for many of their young players to take a step forward and for this team to salvage a respectable season. Any hopes of making small tremors in the AL East however, seem to be dead on arrival. Once their bats wake up, they may be able to begin the march toward .500.

3. The Tampa Bay Rays are really good.

In the same space where I wrote that the Orioles could challenge for a division title in another division, I wrote that Tampa may miss the playoffs in spite of being one of the five best teams in Major League Baseball. The second part of the previous sentence looks to be considerably more correct than the first at this point. The Rays are 17-5, and their pythagorean record matches that number exactly. They’re 12-4 within their division, and amazingly ten of their seventeen victories have come by five runs or more. This isn’t to say that they can’t win close games, because they have a 3-2 record in one-run games so far. This is a team that boasts a few guys who can hit for high average, virtually an entire roster of guys who can work counts, a number of guys who can hit for power, a pitching staff where only two players (who’ve combined to throw just 11 2/3 innings) have an ERA over 3.68, and a starting rotation where four of the five members have a strikeout-to-walk ratio that exceeds two and a half. It is highly unlikely that this team will continue to play at a .772 clip all season long, but it appears fairly likely that they’ve been sold short, and may lead the chase this Summer instead of bringing up the rear of it.

4. Colby Rasmus may be on the verge of stardom.

Rasmus was a first round pick of the Cardinals in 2005 and a very highly rated pro prospect coming up through the minors. He hit a wall in a full season of AAA ball in 2008, but the Cardinals promoted him to be their starting Center Fielder for the 2009 season anyway and he responded by combining excellent defense with the same below board offensive performance that he carried in AAA. He had decent power for a Center Fielder posting an ISO of .156 and hitting 16 home runs, but his overall contribution on offense left a little to be desired. In 2010 the rest of his game arrived. Entering the games of play on April 30th, Rasmus leads the National League in OBP (.487), is batting .344 and slugging an astronomical (even for only a month of play) .754, which is second in the National League. He has nearly half as many walks this April (17) as he had in the entirety of 2009 (36). While it’s both reasonable and likely for those numbers to go down, it could be the case that his true talent level isn’t too far away from what he’s doing right now. A 300/420/575 season would not be out of the realm of possibility for the 23 year-old Rasmus, who appears headed to be another of the many young stars entering the Majors right now.

5. The AL West should be all it was cracked up to be.

During most of the off-season, I repeated again and again that the AL West was the division to watch in 2010, that any of the four teams could win it, and that it would be the most intriguing and compelling story. In the early going, it appears that this will be the case. At the close of play on April 29th, the Angels and A’s were tied for first in the West, followed by Seattle and then last place Texas — One and a half games out of first. One month into the season, and no team has pulled away or fallen far back. Injuries to Cliff Lee (Seattle) and Ian Kinsler (Texas) have hurt those teams, and the Angels lost Brian Fuentes for a brief spell. With all teams coming back to near-full health (though Nelson Cruz of Texas was recently put on the disabled list), expect this to be a long, hard dog fight throughout the Summer.

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