Making Sense of MLB’s Wild First Six Weeks

Baseball’s first six weeks have been shocking. Positively shocking. In random order: the defending champion Cubs are a .500 team. Aaron Judge and the Yankees lead the majors in run differential. Ryan Zimmermann sits atop the NL in batting average, home runs, and  RBI’s. Wait, check that: Zimmermann is actually tied in home runs with Milwaukee’s Eric Thames, who, by the way, is two years removed from winning the MVP award…in the Korean Baseball League.

Meanwhile, the two teams that met in the 2014 World Series, Kansas City and San Francisco, have the worst records in their respective leagues. The Orioles and Red Sox now despise one another. Colorado is good for the first time in ten years. And yet through it all, black dildo’s, Matt Harvey’s Adriana Lima-induced drinking benders, and all the other shenanigans plaguing the New York Mets’ season have been the talk of baseball.

I could go on all day about even more surprises from the start of the 2017 season. But my job today is to sort through the three most intriguing developments and make sense of the madness. Maybe I’ll come around to some of the other storylines, depending on how they evolve, in due time.

 

One, why are the Cubs struggling? And will they turn it around? 

It would be easy to attribute Chicago’s sluggish start–their 17-17, as of May 12–as a product of a “championship hangover.” But in fact, a regression was in the cards this year. The main reason why is because their pitching staff benefitted from an absurdly low .255 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) last year when the league average was .298. In short, BABIP is sort of like recovering fumbles: It mostly comes down to luck. For that reason, it was expected that the Cubs would not receive as much good fortune in this largely random element of play.

Through 34 games, this regression has clearly taken place. Chicago’s opponent BABIP has risen to .298, which partly explains why their starting pitchers have struggled. Jake Arrieta’s ERA has ballooned from 3.10 to 5.35. Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks have each seen their ERA’s rise over a full run as well. The real surprise, though, is that their defense has fallen off dramatically. After leading MLB in Ultimate Zone Rating by a mile last season, they’re now 14th in this same category in 2017. Some of this may be due to the loss of outfielder Dexter Fowler to St. Louis, as he currently ranks 9th among outfielders in fielding according to Fangraphs. His replacement, Kyle Schwarber, is known far more for his bat than his glove. But the rest of the Cubs’ fielding decline remains a mystery. Anthony Rizzo, for instance, has gone from being ranked 3rd among first baseman in fielding to 20th. Perhaps it’s just a small sample size.

Nonetheless, if the Cubs’ fielding can’t regain its form, they’re in trouble. All of Chicago’s starting pitchers rely heavily on the defense behind them. Take Hendricks: he throws in the mid-80’s, so he’s hardly someone you can expect to succeed without a stellar defense to make plays. Plus, some guys are even showing tangible evidence of decline. Arrieta, for instance, has lost two miles per hour on his fastball.

Chicago is too talented offensively to continue middling along. However, their shaky starting staff coupled with their weakened defense make them far less formidable than last season’s championship team. I’m likely to revise my preseason prediction that they will win the NL.

 

Two, the Yankees’ start is legit

They were recently overtaken by the Orioles for the AL East lead, but no need to worry if you’re a Yankee fan. In many respects, the Bronx Bombers have been the best team in the AL. For starters, they lead the majors in run differential and have allowed the third fewest runs in all of baseball. We knew they were going to have a great bullpen, but who knew their starting pitching would be this effective? Luis Severino and Michael Pineda have emerged as two of the AL’s more dominant pitchers, as each rank in the top fifteen in K/9. And though aided by plenty of run support, Masahiro Tanaka is currently 5-1.

Speaking of run support, the real surprise, though, is that the Yankees have been one of baseball’s best hitting teams. Rookie Aaron Judge, of course, has been the key cog so far: his thirteen home runs and .738 slugging percentage lead the AL, and it’s pretty safe to say he’s already got the Rookie of the Year award locked up. Moreover, Starlin Castro leads the AL in batting average, while a few veterans, namely Matt Holliday and Chase Headley, have energized the Yankees lineup and provided needed depth. Keep in mind this has all occurred without last year’s standout Gary Sanchez, who just recently returned from injury.

It’s unlikely that their offense will continue to hit at its current pace (Castro, Holliday, and Headley, in particular, have all benefitted from great batted ball luck). Yet with so many elements clicking at once, the Yankees are a great bet to remain one of the AL’s top teams. Their elite bullpen, which ranks third in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), also projects to make them a tough out come October, assuming they make it. But the best news of all is that their success has come a year or two ahead of schedule. It was just last July when the Yankees were selling off seemingly their entire roster in hopes of better positioning themselves for the much-anticipated 2018 offseason. Now that they’re not just competitive, but a decent bet to win the AL, they’ll have even more to offer the Harper and Machado’s of the world.

 

And lastly, Jeb called Ryan Zimmerman’s breakout

Check out this article written by Check Down’s very own Jeb Clarke last year. He noted that despite having baseball’s 9th highest exit velocity at the time of the article’s publication, Zimmerman’s OPS was somehow 200 points lower than expected. Hence why he labeled him the unluckiest hitter in baseball and noted that his numbers would improve significantly.

Good call, Jeb, because now it’s 2017 and everything has changed. Zimmerman continues to have one of baseball’s highest average exit velocity’s (94.2 mph, tied for 12th in MLB), but his numbers are dramatically different. He leads (or is tied for the lead) in the following categories: home runs, RBI’s, batting average, slugging percentage, and weighted runs created. So, yeah, he would win the triple crown and then some if the season ended today.

The problem, however, is that just as Zimmerman was unlucky last year, his success thus far in 2017 is not entirely sustainable. For instance, Zimmerman suffered the major’s sixth lowest BABIP figure in 2016. Now he has the fifth highest (do you see how random certain stats like BABIP can be?). Simply put, even as Zimmerman continues to mash 94 mile per hour rockets, they’re probably going to find their way into a few more gloves. Or, maybe they won’t, and Zimmerman will go from batting .218 in one season to winning the triple crown the next. Baseball’s a funny game.

 

Posted by Mando

Co-Founder of Check Down Sports. Die-hard Boston sports fan: Patriots, Celtics, Bruins- in that order. I haven't been that interested in the Red Sox since they traded Manny. If you're a fan of Leslie Nielson movies and/or think Entourage is overrated, we'll get along.

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