When does reality become reality?
No, I’m not trying to pose a “Matrix”-style riddle here. That was the question that popped into my mind when Orioles general manager Dan Duquette told the Baltimore Sun, “I think it’s important to find out where our ballclub is going this year. I think the benchmark is Memorial Day. I think that’s the first benchmark, about 60 days, to see how your ballclub is doing and see where you might want to go.”
After five weeks, we’re starting to get a read on how this season is going to play out. Some teams have been as advertised (Astros, Red Sox, Yankees), others have fallen short (Dodgers, and even the Indians if you look close enough) and others have arrived sooner than most thought (Braves, Phillies). Much is yet to be determined, but the broad outlines of a season are starting to take shape.
For other teams, the nature of their reality is not so clear. Are they what they had hoped to be — a playoff contender? Or are they what forecasts, current standings or both thought they would be — also-rans? Three teams in particular seem to have fallen into this murky state of being — the Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants — and navigating the next two months will be crucial for the futures of those franchises.
For each, the situation is a little different, but only one of these teams seems to have a clear path forward.
One that does not: the Giants. They are baseball’s second-oldest team and the second-most expensive. They have managed to hover around .500 despite an offense that ranks 25th in OPS+. The key has been decent pitching from both the rotation and the bullpen despite the absence of Madison Bumgarner, who is working his way back from a fractured metacarpal. Johnny Cueto has been one of the best pitchers in baseball, but now he’s dealing with elbow inflammation. The Giants don’t have much in terms of moveable contracts, with Bumgarner being the obvious exception. For now, the Giants are stuck in a holding pattern to see if their offseason plan — to load up for one more run — can still come to fruition.
Another that does not: The Rangers are a head-scratcher. Their position-player group is the 10th-youngest in baseball and is both talented and underachieving. The pitching staff is baseball’s oldest, and not just because of Bartolo Colon. Three-fourths of Texas’ projected starting infield is on the disabled list. Their run differential is worse than the obviously rebuilding White Sox. It’s not clear what this team was built to be in the first place, much less what it actually is. I could see a reshuffling at some point, moving still-young hitters like Jurickson Profar, Rougned Odor and Joey Gallo in an effort to create a more well-balanced roster. The Rangers need controllable pitching, and bad.
That leaves us with those Orioles. Baltimore spent most of the winter doing nothing despite a starting rotation that in 2017 finished with a 5.70 ERA, the franchise’s worst since relocating from St. Louis in 1954. Eventually, the Orioles added Alex Cobb (9.68 ERA) and Andrew Cashner (4.76), and brought back Chris Tillman (7.03). The Orioles’ rotation ERA so far is 5.38. Improvement!
Unlike the Giants and Rangers, the Orioles’ path forward seems clear. They have one of baseball’s 10 best players in Manny Machado performing at peak level during his walk year. They have a farm system that ranks in the bottom 10 in baseball. And most of all, they have an 8-22 record and a run differential that justifies that sorry mark. They are in the AL East basement, 5½ games behind the Tampa Bay Rays. And it’s not like the Orioles entered the season with a strong forecast — I had them with about a 2 percent shot at the postseason on Opening Day. Those odds are now less than 1 percent.
Duquette’s comment about Memorial Day is an old saw among baseball executives, and it suggests a lack of clarity about what his team actually is. My suspicion is that it’s simply something execs like to say to mollify the media and to buy time with their fans. But is there any truth to it? Hasn’t such a thing been studied?
Of course it has. Is there anything in baseball that hasn’t been studied? Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus looked into this very topic. What he found is that somewhere around 39 games, run differentials across the league achieve a strong enough correlation with end-of-the-season numbers to be indicative. (As Carleton illustrates, that’s a little different than saying a team’s true talent level is determined by mid-May. You need something closer to a half-season for that.)
The standings will change plenty over the next couple of months, and studies like that are just one data point to consider. The thing with the Orioles is that none of their data points paint an optimistic picture. Everything points to doom — the record, the run differential, the preseason forecast. The Orioles have had injuries to their infield, and closer Zach Britton has yet to pitch. However, even an optimistic scenario would see Baltimore merely ascending to the level of their tepid spring projection. In other words, we are fast approaching the time when Baltimore must accept that it is what it is.
So for the sake of Baltimore fans, one would hope that despite his Memorial Day benchmark, Duquette has not turned off his phone. Opportunity can arise at any moment, such as when the star shortstop of a contending team goes down. Maybe there isn’t a trade match to be made with the Dodgers, but you’ve got to listen if L.A. calls.
This is not a good time to be indecisive or to overlook opportunity, whether it’s because of fan service or mythical benchmarks. Teams like the Rangers, Giants and Orioles are in a quandary because of baseball’s current state of extreme stratification. The rush to rebuild has already swept across the majors. The Marlins and Tigers were two of the more recent franchises to change direction, and while both teams improved the state of their minor league systems by dealing veterans for prospects, neither has clearly established its future foundation through its acquisitions, at least not in the way that the Phillies, Braves, Padres and White Sox have.
That thins the options for the next wave of rebuilders. That doesn’t mean there won’t be premium prospects on the market. The Dodgers especially leap to mind as a team that may be willing to dig into its prospect depth in order to shore up their chances for a 2018 run. The Angels may be there as well because of the rash of injuries that have hit their starting rotation, though the Halos’ prospect stash isn’t as deep as that of their crosstown rivals.
When teams begin to search the market for in-season acquisitions, the competition for any prospects being dangled will be fierce. No one can trump the Orioles when it comes to selling. Machado is so good that even a half-season (or more if you move soon) should yield a nice return and would set the tone for a Baltimore rebuild. But you’ve got to be proactive. It’s a tough environment in which to be passive.
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow presided over one of baseball’s great recent rebuilding projects and brought a title to Houston. Even he sees a problem with the current environment when it comes to going young. Even in optimum circumstances, the swing-and-miss rate is high.
“It could be [tough],” Luhnow told me last month at the team’s spring training facility. “There are no guarantees if you decide to really focus on internal development of your own prospects that it will work out. Every organization wants to develop their own prospects, regardless of where they are in the standings. But there are no guarantees.
“We’re a perfect example. We had two No. 1 draft picks that didn’t pan out for our organization. Yet we had two other ones that did. We batted about .500 in that arena, and the two guys that ended up making it had big impacts on us very quickly. But there is no guarantee that that sort of strategy is going to work, especially when there are a lot of teams pursuing the strategy at the same time. I think it puts you in a little bit more difficult position.”
That, as much as anything, is why if the right offer for Manny Machado comes along, Dombrowski must pounce. Today, tomorrow and even on Memorial Day, if it takes that long.
What the numbers say:
A new way to measure pitcher efficiency
Pitch counts used to be a hot topic in analytical circles. Writer Rany Jazayerli, then at Baseball Prospectus, was at the vanguard of this, creating a metric called “Pitcher Abuse Points.” The metric is outmoded. The battle is over. Now, if anything, the debate is more about pitch counts being too low than too high for a starter. Instances of a pitcher throwing 130 pitches or more have all but dried up; it has happened once since the end of the 2015 season. Heck, everyone was stunned earlier this season when San Diego’s Tyson Ross was allowed to throw 127 pitches in pursuit of a no-hitter.
There just isn’t that big a variance in how many pitches a starter is allowed to throw any longer. What that means is that in place of stamina, pitch efficiency has become the new benchmark of pitcher use. You kind of know how many pitches a player will be allowed to throw, provided he’s reasonably effective. What you don’t necessarily know is how many innings those pitches will get you. That’s why this season, I’ve started to look at this area of pitching a little differently. Now I track how many innings above expectation each starter has provided to his team.
The expectation is established by the league level for pitches per inning, which this season is 16.7. If you know how many pitches a player has thrown, then you can quickly determine how many innings he should have thrown based on the data and the league standard. The difference is innings above (or below) expectation. Here are this season’s leaders and laggards among starting pitchers.
Innings pitched over expectation
Top 10 IPoX
Corey Kluber 9.7
Sean Manaea 9.1
Carlos Carrasco 6.7
Aaron Nola 6.3
Luis Severino 6.1
Patrick Corbin 6.1
David Price 5.4
Miles Mikolas 5.3
Justin Verlander 5.2
Gerrit Cole 5.1
Bottom 10 IPoX
Lance Lynn minus-5.7
Yu Darvish minus-5.1
Kendall Graveman minus-4.8
Luis Perdomo minus-4.7
Tyler Skaggs minus-4.6
James Paxton minus-4.5
Steven Matz minus-4.4
Trevor Richards minus-4.3
Sonny Gray minus-4.0
Garrett Richards minus-3.8
Since you asked:
Embracing life in the fish tank
Lots and lots and lots of ink was spilled about the winter trade that sent former Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees. The move created a national stir on both ends of it. First, you had the Yankees acquiring a player coming off a 59-homer season. That in itself will create a few headlines.
But the Miami end of it also captured a lot of attention. It didn’t hurt to have former Yankee Derek Jeter involved as a new executive with the Marlins. Then you had the whole controversy over the Marlins pulling the plug in a market that has seen too many teardowns.
Lost in the shuffle of all that is that a pretty good player ended up with the Marlins. Starlin Castro hit .300 for the Yankees last season and made the AL All-Star team. Then he played every postseason inning at second base during a New York postseason run that came up one game shy of the World Series.
“Jeter has always been a winning player. I think he’s going to work hard to make this team a really good team. Just give the young guys a chance.”
Starlin Castro’s message to Marlins fans
Things have certainly changed for Castro, who ranks eighth among all players with 1,315 hits since he broke into the majors with a six-RBI game back in 2010. Now he’s one of the two or three best players on a Marlins team that is going nowhere. It’s an unfortunate outcome for Castro, who also has to deal with knowing he was traded from his original club, Chicago, the year before they finally won it all in 2016.
Some might call this a baseball form of purgatory. But that’s not how Castro came across when I spoke to him in Florida.
There has been a lot of negative press about the Marlins since this winter because of all the changes that have occurred. What is the vibe actually like around here?
Starlin Castro: It’s something that I’ve passed through before, in Chicago. But we have a lot of fun in here. Everybody is talking about negative stuff, but it is all in the past for this team right now. We are pulling together and will try to get better every day.
One of the key traits of Mr. Jeter, your new boss, has always been an emphasis on leadership. Has the new management talked to you about being a leader for this young team?
SC: Not really. But I’ve been learning that ever since I got to Chicago and Alfonso Soriano was there. He looked after the younger guys, and that’s what I try to do — be an example. Come in here every day, work hard every day and put it out on the field every day. Let them know how to be a professional.
There are a few rookies who will likely be on the roster this year. Are you going to tell them about your debut so they know the standard is a six-RBI game?
SC: (laughs) No, I’m not going to tell them that. But I’ll be available for those young guys for anything they want to know. We have a lot of good young guys. And they listen. If you tell them something, they listen.
The expectations for the team are modest, so how do you go about setting goals for yourself in a season like this?
SC: My goal is always just to be healthy. If I’m healthy, I can do some damage.
When you run into fans, what do you tell those who are hurt by the changes that were made with sending out so much talent?
SC: We just want to say to those fans: Jeter has always been a winning player. I think he’s going to work hard to make this team a really good team. Just give the young guys a chance.
Coming right up:
Welcome to the 300-save club
By the time you read this, Boston’s Craig Kimbrel may or may not have recorded his 300th career save. If he hasn’t, then it will almost certainly happen this week. But even if he’s already at 300 when your eyes see these words, Kimbrel will still be climbing the career saves list.
Kimbrel’s 300th save creates a three-way tie at No. 27 all-time with Jason Isringhausen and Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter. But by the end of the week, he might pass three others, though one of those on the next rung (Fernando Rodney) is still employed as a closer. By season’s end, if Kimbrel can match the 35 saves he has averaged the past three seasons, he will be at 326 saves, tying him with Roberto Hernandez for No. 16.
Kimbrel and currently scuffling Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen are both in their ninth big league seasons. Kimbrel, who turns 30 on May 28, is a few months younger. Together they have been baseball’s most dominant and consistent closers during their careers, yet Kimbrel has accumulated 65 more saves than Jansen.
You never know when a reliever will just vanish, or at least lose his effectiveness, so both have a long way to go to catch the likes of Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman on the saves list. Wherever they end up, it could solidify the all-time leaderboard in this most scorned of statistical categories — one that has changed constantly over the past 25 years.
That’s because we may be in a post-peak period for saves. It’s subtle, but last season, 48.5 percent of games featured a save. That was down from 52.6 percent in 2016 and was the first time this decade it has been under 50 percent. This season, the number in the early going is 48.4 percent. If this holds up or drops further, we could end with the fewest saves we’ve had in more than 20 years.
This is despite the fact that complete games by starters are more rare than ever. In fact, if you look at saves just in contests not featuring a complete game, you’re still looking at fewer than half of all games. And this season’s total (48.9 percent) — if it drops further — could end up at its lowest level since the early 1980s.
Right now, this is more of a blip than a trend. Still, given the way managers are using relievers and the way teams are valuing them, if you’re a fan of the classic post-Eckersley closer, you better enjoy peak Kimbrel while you can.