The 2018 regular MLB season is not even two weeks old, yet there are already storylines emerging on both a player and team basis that promise to make this both an exciting and entertaining season.
The biggest story thus far is the emergence of the Los Angeles Angels’ Japanese import Shohei Ohtani. The 23-year-old received widespread attention during spring training as he struggled both as a pitcher and a hitter. Of course it must be noted that he was, and still is, in the midst of a major cultural change after spending all of his life in Japan.
He’s had a remarkable first week or so both on the mound and at the plate and while it is still way too early to form any concrete opinions as to how long, or if, he will remain both a pitcher and a hitter and to what degree he will succeed, the early signs are encouraging. And also showing is the general lack of value in placing too much emphasis on spring training results.
Several teams have gotten off to surprising starts, both good and bad.
It’s way too premature to suggest the 2018 Fall Classic will be a rematch of what truly was a World Series event back in 1986 but both the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox have gotten off to sterling starts.
After dropping their opening game in Tampa Bay when their bullpen failed to hold a 4-0 eighth inning lead, the Red Sox have not lost since, winning eight in a row to start the season 8-1 for the first time in franchise history. Their most recent win this past Sunday was almost a reversal of how they lost their opener, overcoming an eight-inning 7-2 deficit against – ironically enough – Tampa Bay.
After sweeping their three game road series at NL East Division favorite Washington, the Mets are 7-1, which ties their best eight game start in their 57 season franchise history (1985 and 2006). In 1985 the Mets won 98 games and in 2006 they won 97 but failed to reach the World Series both times.
As has been true for much of the Amazins’ history, their success has relied mostly on their pitching. After losing the 2015 World Series and then winning 87 games the following season their projected starting pitching suffered an unusually high number of injuries last season.
Of the five projected starters (Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Zach Wheeler and Steven Matz) only deGrom was able to make more than 18 starts (31). The other four combined for just 55 starts, meaning the Mets had to call upon non-projected starters for nearly half of their starts (76).
Considered their ace and a leading Cy Young candidate, Syndergaard made just seven starts before being sidelined by injury for the rest of the season. Harvey was battling injuries all season but when he did pitch he was terribly ineffective.
As a result the Mets won just 70 games last season. If the starters remain relatively healthy and suffer roughly an average number of missed starts the Mets are more likely to approach or exceed their 87 wins of 2016 rather than come close to repeating the 92 losses of last season.
What’s been especially impressive in the early going has been the performance of the bullpen, perhaps learning some pointers from new manager Mickey Callaway who had been Cleveland’s pitching coach prior to getting the Mets gig.
Three other teams have lost just twice over the first week and a half of the season but only one of them can be considered much of a surprise based on last season.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, picked by most observers to vie with Cincinnati to avoid the cellar in the NL Central this season, are off to a 7-2 start despite trading away stars pitcher Gerrit Cole and outfielder Andrew McCutchen in the offseason. After making the Playoffs for three straight seasons and winning 98 games in 2015 the Buccos dropped to 78 wins in 2016 and 75 last season, signaling the start of a rebuilding process that was amped up with the just noted trades.
It is hard to envisioning Pittsburgh’s strong start to continue much longer but, as the late Joe Garagiola remarked many, many times (authoring a book with this title in 1960) “baseball is a funny game.” But, in terms more appropriate for this publication, “I wouldn’t bet on it continuing.”
But two teams’ early season success is likely to continue.
The defending World Series Champion Houston Astros have started 8-2 and the Arizona Diamondbacks have started 7-2. Arizona improved from just 69 wins in 2016 to 93 last season.
Offsetting the strong starts just noted are the poor starts crafted by several other teams.
Perhaps the most surprising of the slow starts is that of last season’s World Series runner ups. The Los Angeles Dodgers have started 3-6. Ace Clayton Kershaw has made three starts and has gotten just four runs of support in losing the first two of those starts and not getting the win in the third, a 2-1 win last Sunday over the Giants in 10 innings.
The starts by Cincinnati (2-6), Kansas City (2-5), San Diego (2-8) and Tampa Bay (1-8) are not surprising although Tampa started the season with that come from behind six-run eighth inning rally against Boston but has lost eight in a row since.
It usually takes about a month and a half – roughly a quarter of a season – to get a decent gauge of a team’s overall strengths, weaknesses and potential and thus we do not want to be hasty in concluding the above discussed hot or cold starts will continue for the duration of the season. Many, if not most, of them will. But several teams will also reverse direction as the first major milepost of the season, Memorial Day, arrives at the end of May.
Here are thoughts on three weekend series.
Colorado Rockies at Washington Nationals: This four game series begins Thursday and the Nationals start the week after being swept at home in a three game series by the Mets to start this week 4-5. Colorado started the week 5-5. The Nats have a solid edge in starting pitching with, arguably, 2 of the 3 top pitchers in the National League in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. The Rockies’ starters are average at best, even considering the challenges of pitching at home in Coors Field.
Jon Gray may be the best of the rotation and would be worth considering if priced at plus 175 or more against Scherzer or Strasburgh or plus 145 or more against other starters. The Nats can be considered to be played laying the run and a half against other than Gray or if priced at more than minus 210 in a start against Gray. UNDER Totals of 7.5 or higher can be considered in starts by Scherzer or Strasburg. In starts by other than that duo look OVER Totals of 8 or lower.
Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox: The Red Sox have started 8-1 but does enter this series after hosting their AL East rivals the Yankees for three games. Baltimore has started 4-6 and suffers from the lack of quality starting pitcher with only Dylan Bundy considered average or better. Much like Washington, the Red Sox have a pair of top starters in their lefty duo of Chris Sale and David Price. The rest of the rotation is probably on a par with Bundy and considered better than the other Orioles starters. Both teams have plenty of offense which portends a high scoring series in games not started by Sale of Price. Look to play those games not involving Sale or Price OVER Totals of 9 or less.
Baltimore’s best situation would be if Bundy starts against other than Sale or Price in which case at plus 130 or more Bundy and the Birds are playable. Otherwise, in matchups not involving Sale, Price or Bundy look to back Boston at minus 150 or less.
In starts by Sale or Price against other than Bundy consider Boston laying the run and a half when Sale or Price, pardon the pun, are priced at minus 200 or higher.
Philadelphia Phillies at Tampa Bay Rays: The lone interleague series of the weekend pits an up and coming Phillies team against a Rays team projected to be in for a long season. The Phillies are a team with plenty of youth. Their best starting pitch is Aaron Nola and he can be backed if laying no more than minus 140 against any Tampa starter.
Otherwise look to back either team if made an underdog of plus 125 or more. Also, if either team is in danger of being swept on Sunday, play that team if made the underdog or if, in the case of the Phillies, are favored by no more than minus 115 or, if the Rays, favored by no more than minus 125.