Wednesday, May 2, 2018

One Month Already?

The new season has blazed across my horizon so vividly that a month has flashed by before I even fastened my seat belt. We can start to dig into the "on pace to" marvels and sift through the early returns to see what is a passing trend and what is a new truth. For people who love to play with baseball numbers, this is a hungry time.

In that vein, over the weekend mlb.com posted a column by Anthony Castrovince consisting of ten amazing/remarkable/noteworthy/mind-boggling numbers from the first four weeks of the season. Some of them coincide with things I've been tracking, some made me think and look further, and some I could dismiss as temporary aberrations that might already be obsolete.

For an example of the last, there is Johnny Cueto's ERA. It was 0.35 until his final April start, when it ballooned up to 0.84 thanks to two runs. Now he has gone on the DL with an elbow inflammation, and we are saved from holding our breath.

One I've already noted was Shohei Ohtani picking up a win and hitting a home run in consecutive games, a feat not accomplished since Babe Ruth in 1921. But Castrovince came up with another nifty perspective on Ohtani's April: he is one of four pitchers who struck out 25+ batters and hit four home runs in one month, joining Ferguson Jenkins, Don Drysdale, and Wes Ferrell. That's special!

Here's one that gives me an excuse to throw a snap quiz at you. Castrovince pointed out that Ozzie Albies of the Braves already has 22 extra-base hits: 12 doubles, 1 triple, and 9 home runs. That projects to 132 over six months, which would zoom past the old record. My snap quiz is not who holds the record with 119? Most of you could guess the answer: Babe Ruth. In that same 1921 season, Ruth amassed 44 doubles, 16 triples, and 59 home runs. I doubt that anybody thinks Albies will take a run at the record, but 100 is a figure rarely attained.

Here's my quiz. If you took every player's best season for doubles, his best for triples, and his best for home runs, who would have the highest total in MLB history? I'll answer next time if nobody gets it.

I'm looking at the much-publicized fact of baseball history that April was the first time there were more strikeouts and hits. I can believe that, since I'm watching James Paxton of the Mariners, who just notched his 16th strikeout of the game--in the 7th inning. He has allowed five hits. So yes, I think we'd better get used to this. Baseball contact has passed the fail-safe point; the planes aren't coming back. In April, more than one-third of all plate appearances resulted in strikeouts.

Speaking of strikeouts, let's talk about three relief pitchers. If you could neutralize just these three unhittables, you'd make hits more plentiful than strikeouts again. The numbers here are through May 1, and they're all scary. There's a guy in Seattle not many people have fussed over, Edwin Diaz. He has 12 saves in 15 games. In 15 1/3 innings, his K:H ratio is 29:2. That's 29 strikeouts in the space of 46 outs. Oh, but he gave up a run already this season.

I'll admit that I hadn't heard of Josh Hader until last week (I would have guessed he was the actor in "Napoleon Dynamite"--since I could look it up, I just did. . .Jon Heder). Now I know all about him, after he fanned 8 Reds in 2 2/3 innings after Castrovince wrote about how he had struck out 58.5% of the batters he had faced this season. All four of his saves have lasted more than an inning, and he could mark the return (in the wake of Andrew Miller's success) of the long closer, the guy who puts out the fire in the 7th inning and keeps going. Through 18 innings, Heder's K:H ratio is a giddy 39:4. That's 19.5 strikeouts per nine innings, sports fans. His ERA is 1.00 compared to Diaz's 0.59.

The third dominator is an old hand at it, Craig Kimbrel. Despite some rough outings in his first year adjusting to the American League, he has resumed his humiliation of opposing batters. He has already done twice what Hader threatens to do--strike out more than half the batters he faces over an entire season. He has a 3:1 strikeout-to-hit ratio for his career. He has had strikeout seasons of 127, 126, and 116, even though he has exceeded 69 innings in a season only once.

Castrovince also talked about the 14 times in April when a pitcher logged at least six no-hit innings, and mentioned (as I had noted earlier) that there have already been 15 1-0 games, compared to 29 all of last season. Despite plenty of slugging, more starting pitchers are mowing everybody down (for awhile, or for as long as they are allowed to), and more relievers are doing the same. The difference is that the relievers have a license to go all-out for just a few hitters and strike everyone out. That's where the biggest disparity between strikeouts and hits might occur. Every team is going to have one of these guys in the next season or two.

Of course, while I was writing that last paragraph, Edwin Diaz entered a 2-2 game in the 9th inning and promptly gave up a leadoff home run. James Paxson, with his 16 whiffs, left behind a 2-0 lead when he was excused after seven innings. His reliever quickly gave up the lead, blew the win Paxton had worked so hard for, and may have wrecked Paxton's chances for reaching that soon-to-be-hallowed 100-win career mark.

This just proves that my jinxing power is stronger than any actual baseball trends. I derailed Diaz so severely that even though he retired the next three batters after the home run, he didn't strike any of them out. Diaz's ERA jumped from 0.59 to 1.10, and his K:H dropped to 29:3. Heder got the night of and Kimbrel had already struck out the side at Fenway for another save before I started writing. So sorry, Edwin. Maybe they'll get two runs and make you a winner.

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