First Quarter MLB Report: Contenders & Pretenders

For most MLB teams, the season is officially (well, as official as it can get without splitting hairs and breaking down a half of a game) a quarter of the way through. First, and wildly off topic, that is amazing that the season is already 40 games in. But second, and significantly more importantly, the league is at a point in the season where we can adequately judge how teams are performing and differentiate the contenders from the pretenders. While there is still a large portion of the season remaining, approximately 120 games to be exact, let’s take a look at the top team in each division, and if they are built to make runs deep into the season.

 

NL EAST

Atlanta Braves 25-15 Contenders

The Atlanta Braves have shocked me moreso than any team in the league this season. After suffering a massive blow in the offseason in which the Braves’ minor league system was decimated, Atlanta’s hands seemed tied, as the future of the club appeared far more bleak than a season prior. What I didn’t take into account, apparently, was that the Major League club was going to bust out of the gate at a torrid rate. The Braves hold claim to the two youngest players in the entire league, each of whom have seen wild success in their respective seasons. Ronald Acuna was called up midway through April, and found immediate success against Major League pitching. He’s hitting .260 in his young MLB career. Ozzie Albies, the 21-year-old second baseman and second youngest player in the league, has become one of the most consistent hitters in the league. He’s hit 13 homeruns in 177 at bats.

By the way, all the hype about these two young talents has shrouded the fact that the Braves host two of the top five hitters in the National League in batting average. Nick Markakis is having a career year, hitting .346, behind just Odubel Herrera in the National League. He’s also driven in 30 runs. Freddie Freeman remains one of the best hitters in the entire league, as he’s hitting .325 and has driven in 31 runs in the Braves’ first 40 games. Between Albies, Freeman and Markakis, the trio have driven in 92 of the team’s 219 runs, which is good for third in the National League.

The Braves hold a 1.5 game lead over the Phillies for first place in the National League East with the Washington Nationals a half game back of the Phillies. I still think the Nationals will eventually take the division title, but it isn’t far-fetched to to believe that the Braves are a true Wild Card contender.

 

NL CENTRAL

Milwaukee Brewers 25-15 Pretenders

The Milwaukee Brewers made a big splash in the offseason by trading for Christian Yellich and signing Lorenzo Cain. They’ve stayed around a quarter of the way through the season with an astounding bullpen. What makes the Brewers’ bullpen success even more fantastic is the fact they’ve been doing it without their dominant closer, Corey Knebel, who’s appeared in just six games this season. 24-year-old Josh Hader has rallied the troops by flawlessly picking up the flag and running with it into battle. In 15 appearances over 25 innings, Hadar has posted a 1.44 ERA, striking out 50 hitters. But it’s not just Hader that’s been outstanding this season out of the bullpen. In total, five Milwaukee relievers have posted a sub-3.00 ERA, three of which have posted sub-2.00 ERAs. The man who lives out of a suitcase, but always finds his way back Milwauke, Jeremy Jeffress, has thrown 22.1 innings in 22 appearances, allowing nine hits and striking out 20. Jeffress has allowed just one run, posting a 0.40 ERA through the first quarter of the season.

What concerns me, however, about the Brewers, and what makes them a pretender to this point in the season, is the starting rotation. Of the five starters who have made six starts or more in 2018, just one has an ERA in the threes. Despite Junior Guerra’s 3.08 ERA, the other four starters have not held their own this season. Jhoulys Chacin, Chase Anderson, Brent Suter and Zach Davies all have ERAs above four through 30 starts. Despite their poo ERAs, none of the starters have lost more than three games to this point. With all this, the Brewers simply aren’t set up for success in their current condition. Four starters posting high ERAs such as this rotation has leads to struggles as the season progresses. The Brewers have scored the 20th most runs thus far, a formula that is not sustainable over 162 games. Unless things turn around, I’d expect the Brewers to fall out of contention by August.

 

NL WEST

Arizona Diamondbacks 24-17 Contenders
I am all in on the Diamondbacks this season, just as I was last year. Even without J.D. Martinez, the Diamondbacks have been one of the league’s most consistent teams. Take this stat as far as you’d like to take it: the Diamondbacks are hitting, as a team, .223, good for exactly last in Major League Baseball. Consider this stat as well: Paul Goldschmidt is currently .211, 84 points lower than his career average.

Yet, the Diamondbacks continue to win baseball games. Why? Because their pitching staff has been fantastic. The Diamondbacks have posted the league’s second best ERA, 3.25, behind just the defending World Series champions, the Houston Astros. The Astros are allowing nearly a full run a game less than the rest of the league, as the team holds a 2.48 ERA. Patrick Corbin has finally become the ace that many envisioned he would be when the Diamondbacks traded Dan Haren for him in 2010. Corbin is 4-1 with a 2.57 ERA in his first nine starts of 2018. He’s also struckout 75 hitters in 57 innings pitched.In total, 12 pitchers who have made at least two appearances for the Diamondbacks currently hold down ERAs under 3.00 for the season. The bridge from starter to victory has been filled by Archie Bradley and Brad Boxberger, who have combined for 13 saves and 13 holds. The two have posted 2.05 and 2.12 ERAs respectively. Add 34-year-old rookie Yoshihisa Hirano to the back end of the bullpen, and the Diamondbacks only ever have to ask for five to six good innings from their starters each night.

The offense needs to be fixed; there’s simply no question about that. But the Los Angeles Dodgers are reeling, and the Colorado Rockies are facing similar issues, my money would be on the Diamondbacks to win the division. I originally chose the Dodgers to win the West, but injuries have decimated the club thus far. The West has become the Diamondbacks to lose, especially if the offense finds its groove.

 

AL EAST

New York Yankees 28-12 Contenders
The Yankees fired the opening salvo of the season when they won eight straight games and 17 of 18 to take control of the AL East early in the season. How have they done it? They have been the premiere offense in all of the league.

Despite playing one less game than Boston to this point, the Yankees have scored eight more runs than the Red Sox. The Yankees rank second in the league in homeruns behind just the Cleveland Indians. The Yankees rank 15th in the league in batting average, but rank as the league’s best in on base percentage, tied with the Atlanta Braves at .339. New York has worked pitchers perhaps better than any team in the league, and their 179 walks through 40 games proves that. That walk total is a league high. The team has used a rare combination of young talent and big named superstars to find success. Roanld Torreyes and Gleyber Torres have combined to play just 40 games but have also picked up 40 hits combined. Miguel Andujar, who has played all but five of his career games this season, is hitting .282 16 extra base hits. Six of the Yankees ten players with the most games played this season are 26-years-old or younger. Four Yankees have hit double digit homeruns through 40 games, as Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorious and Giancarlo Stanton have ten, and Aaron Judge leads the team with 11.

That combination of youth and talent will propel the Yankees into the postseason. The question will become, are the Yankees good enough to hold off the Red Sox through the entire season. I haven’t come to that conclusion one way or another yet, but I do know that the Yankees are certainly going to be a playoff team. With Luis Serevino leading the way for the rotation, the Yankees would benefit greatly by winning the AL East and avoiding the Wild Card Game. By forcing the Red Sox to the Wild Card Game, the Yankees would save Serevino for Game One of the ALDS and make Boston use Chris Sale just to get into the playoffs.

 

AL CENTRAL 

Cleveland Indians 20-20 Contenders
The Indians have struggled out of the shoot, winning just 20 of their first 40 games. But competing in, quite possibly, the worst division in baseball of the last 20 years has allowed the Indians to remain at the top of the heap in the AL Central. Cleveland has been essentially average statistically, ranking 15th in runs scored and 12th in ERA, which has led to a directly average record.

Former AL Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber, has diced up hitters early in the season, striking out 61 over 65.1 innings on his way to a 6-2 record. He’s given up just 55 baserunners to begin the season, posting a 2.34 ERA along the way. The only downside to Kluber this season has been the long ball, as the righty has surrendered 10 homeruns in his first nine starts. Outside of Kluber, the rest of the rotation has been equally as good. Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger and Trevor Bauer have each posted ERAs of 3.66 or better to start the season, propelling the top four in the rotation to 16 of the team’s 20 wins. The back end of the bullpen has been equally sharp, as Cody Allen and Andrew Miller continue to dominate late in games for the Indians. Allen has posted a 3.38 ERA as the team’s primary closer. Mr. Do-it-all, Andrew Miller, has thrown 11.1 innings, giving up just two earned runs while striking out 21.

The problem has been the remainder of the staff. Eight pitchers, all of whom have made at least four appearances this season, have posted a five ERA of worse to being the year. Tyler Olson, who last season gave up zero runs over 30 appearances, have already allowed nine runs in 12.1 innings pitched. Zach McAllister, who has found great success since moving to the Indians’ bullpen to begin 2015, has given up 13 earned runs in 15.2 innings pitched. He surrendered eight home runs all last season. This year, he’s already given up five.

The Indians’ offense has been bogged down with inconsistencies this season. Six every day players who have appeared in at least 25 games this season are hitting under .225. Two, Jason Kipnis and Brandon Guyer, are hitting well below .200. The team has struckout 353 times this season, while walking just 127 times. This has led to the team ranking 18th in on base percentage.

Despite the inconsistencies, two factors have the Indians primed as contenders for the 2018 playoffs. First, the division is abysmal. I don’t think I can preach that enough. The Royals, White Sox and Tigers are among the league’s worst teams, and the Twins are equally struggling in 2018. Second, the Indians simply have too much talent to not create separation as the season progresses. This is a team that won 102 games last season because of a potent offense and stellar bullpen. Should one of those get going, they’ll easily win 90 games.

 

AL WEST

Los Angeles Angels 25-16 Pretenders
The Angels, perhaps akin to the Braves, have been the surprise of the American League. The Angels sit in a virtual tie with the Houston Astros for first place in the AL West, but based on winning percentage, they currently are officially first in the division. What the Angels have done well is win the league games they are supposed to win. The Angels are 18-4 against teams with lesser records in the American League. They’ve already swept out the Orioles, Royals and Rangers, all of whom will likely be the worst team in their respective divisions. But, for now, that’s all the Angels can do. A team can only play the games they are scheduled to play.

With that being said, the Angels are pretenders in the AL West and American League playoffs. They rank 11th in league ERA, posting a team 3.81 ERA this season. The starting pitching has been good, of late, but unspectacular. Five of the six arms that have made at least four starts have sub-4.00 ERAs, but just one, Jaime Barria, has a sub-3.00 ERA. The Angels bullpen also has been very average. The back end of the bullpen has been seemed to be particularly poor, blowing the third most most saves, nine, in the league this season. Despite the nine blown saves, the back end of the ‘pen has actually been quite good. 24-year-old Keynan Middleton has emerged as the team’s closer, posting a 2.04 ERA over 17.2 innings pitched.

While Middleton has been good, and the starting rotation has been better than average, the Angels simply don’t have enough firepower to hang with the Astros in the American League West. With the division likely out of reach, it will come down to the second Wild Card spot behind the loser of the AL East. Are the Angels good enough to claim that spot? Yes. Will they? I’m not convinced yet.

 

Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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