Okay, we're finally here. It is the baseball season for sure now, and things are settling into a rhythm. Baseball is on every night, and there's always some team or some player worth watching in action. Even if your team has the day off, or allowed a seven-run first inning to the Pirates, there's still Bryce Harper homering into a bathroom, or two Japanese pitchers squaring off against each other for the first time ever, or Alex Rodriguez hitting his 689th career homer. Heck, you can just put the Dodgers on and listen to Vin Scully talk about someone else's groceries if you want.
Yes, players are still wearing those cowls to fend off the spring frost and are looking generally unhappy during night games, but it's really happening.
Actually, The Standings Matter
It's easy to dismiss the standings at this time of year. Who really cares which teams are in first place on April 18? Well, it actually kind of does matter. It's not ironclad, because there are about 150 games left, but the current standings are a pretty good predictor as to who will make the playoffs and who won't. Last season, for example, the following teams were in playoff position after 12 games:
AL: Baltimore, Detroit, Houston, Kansas City, Boston
NL: Mets, St. Louis, LA Dodgers, San Diego, Atlanta
The Tigers, Red Sox, and Orioles fell off the pace, although Baltimore did finish .500, which was better than what many thought they'd achieve. San Diego and Atlanta played so well the rest of the way that they are now both rebuilding from the ground up. But Kansas City and Houston both made the playoffs, and neither was a popular pick at the time, despite the fact the Royals were coming off a World Series appearance. The early season standings also nailed the Mets winning the East over the Nationals (ok, so it wasn't quite as simple as that, but still…) as well as the Cardinals and Dodgers winning their divisions. Overall that's a 50 percent hit rate. Not bad for projections that are not supposed to matter.
If that rate holds this season, we could end up with a post-season full of teams that missed last year's afterparty. By that logic the Orioles, White Sox, Tigers, Rockies, and Nationals are all currently in playoff position. By overall record, those teams finished 27, 22, 21, 16, and 13 last season. Some of these unsustainably hot starts were brought on by weak opponents, balls falling in, or lucky pitching. Those things will fall off, Nats probably notwithstanding. Regardless, if you're looking for surprise teams in 2016, that's probably the list you should be choosing from. Sure, it's still mid-April, but where else are you going to look?
Top Five Of The Moment
After three weeks, it would seem to be time for some turnover at the top. And we have it! Sort of! We can say goodbye, at least for now, to the Red Sox and Indians, two teams presently treading water in what appears to be a weaker American League. Both may be back. The Indians have had a tough schedule and are only three games behind Kansas City and Chicago in the AL Central, but no team that gets outscored on the year is going to find themselves in the Top Five Of The Moment. The Red Sox are a bit of a different story, as they have a winning record and a positive run differential, but right now the Orioles are quite simply a better team. So let's welcome Baltimore, mostly because I want to have at least one AL team, and let's give a slightly weary, peevish welcome to the Cardinals, who once again are using their patented Devil Magic formula to win baseball games that they have no right to win.
Quick Comment: What is it about the Orioles that makes everyone routinely count them out? Do they need to win a World Series to get noticed? [Looks at last year's winner.] Or two World Series?
Less Quick Comment: Mark Trumbo is tied with Bryce Harper for the fifth-best WAR in baseball, which is the sort of implausibility that does something to answer those questions above. And if you widen the scope a bit, the Orioles have two of the top six hitters in baseball in Trumbo and Manny Machado. The bizarre thing is they almost had Dexter Fowler and he's first! Guess they should've signed him before giving him the secret code.
Quick Comment: The Cardinals have beat up on Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati, which you might normally dock them for, because yuck. But, as it turns out, two of those teams are in their division. The Cardinals are the least moldy bread at the store, and the move in those circumstances is to buy it anyway because, hey, you've got to have bread.
Less Quick Comment: Of course the Cardinals are in first place, and of course they're being lead by Aledmys Diaz, Jeremy Hazelbaker, and Girdich Floompants. Okay, yes, I made Floompants up, but the crazy part is that I didn't make up either of the other two. Diaz spent the majority of last season putting up unspectacular numbers in Double-A and Hazelbaker washed out with the Red Sox like a decade, years ago. So, sure, of course that will work. So now it's time to Get Excited, Cardinal fans, for your next St. Louis Cardinal all stars: Kolbrin Vitek, who is now working as a Walmart greeter and badly overweight, and some nameless dude currently hitting .217 in his second year at Single-A!
Quick Comment: Calls to team offices begging them to add a giant foam Team President Mike Rizzo to the Presidents race have been unreturned at press time.
Less Quick Comment: Last season's vaunted five aces set-up never quite happened, but this season the Nationals have an impressive top three in Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and young Joe Ross. The rotation isn't as deep as the Five Aces was supposed to be, but given that the Nationals can hit and the Mets, to date, cannot, maybe three aces might be enough in the NL East.
Quick Comment: Remember the old Braves line about their rotation? It went "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain." The Dodgers could amend it for themselves and make it "Kershaw and actually that's enough-shaw."
Less Quick Comment: What the previous comment lacks in humor it also lacks in accuracy—always the sign of a good comment!—because Kenta Maeda and, bizarrely, unheralded rookie Ross Stripling, whose stripper name is also Ross Stripling, have both been super-effective. Maeda currently sports a sub-Kershaw walk rate of 0.75 walks per nine innings pitched, and Stripling was pulled five outs from no-hitting the Giants. If Clayton Kershaw goes down—he's a pitcher, so it could happen—the Dodgers are in real trouble. But short of that it just feels like they'll be able to piece this thing together until the deadline comes—or Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy come back—without too much trouble, right?
Quick Comment: Can anyone stop the Cubs? Other than history, ghosts, natural disasters, and Cub-specific plagues I mean?
Less Quick Comment: It's hard to rely on an indicator like run scoring this early in the season, but before losing to Colorado on Sunday, the Cubs were outscoring their opponents by a 3-to-1 margin. They have the best offense in the NL and the second best defense. Some of that is schedule-dependent, but this team is for real. I don't expect they'll drop out of this spot for the remainder of the season.
Bottom Three Of The Moment
As in the Top Five OTM, it's moving day here at the Bottom. The Phillies had previously been shuffled off for not being awful enough, and today the Rockies get the boot. At least for now, their offense is too darn good for the team to be bad enough. Yes, we are dropping the Rockies for being bad at being bad. This seems like it could become a trend.
Quick Comment: Seems like Giancarlo Stanton might have been wasting his time when he negotiated a World Series MVP bonus clause into his contract.
Less Quick Comment: Losing three straight to a team that hadn't yet won this season (cough, Braves, cough) is bad, but doing so while giving up six runs in each game, to a team that had scored that many in a game only once, is enough to get a team on this list.
Quick Comment: Not only have the Twins won since the last This Particular Week column went up, but they swept a series! There is sheet cake in the break room, y'all!
Less Quick Comment: The Twins can't really be this bad. They're getting nothing from Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Trevor Plouffe, and Kurt Suzuki, and they're likely to get something from at least the first two of those. Their rotation is fine. Their bullpen is bad, but it's a bullpen so it could be anything. Like a good bullpen. Or a goat. Anything is possible with bullpens. Mostly though, while this may not be a good team and very likely isn't a winning team, they can't be as bad as they looked early on.
Quick Comment: Like their brethren above, the Braves pulled a series sweep this weekend. So congratulations on being so bad on Friday that three straight wins weren't enough to keep you from the bottom spot!
Less Quick Comment: Do you really want to read a paragraph about this team? Let's just say I wrote one and it's sad and you read it and now you're sad. This is probably best for all of us.
The Match-Up of the Year of the Week
Another sign that baseball season is here: enough weirdness has already happened that I'm about to recommend you watch a Phillies game. You should watch the Phillies on Tuesday, against the Mets. Well, Mets fans might not want to watch but everyone else: definitely watch.
Why? Because the Phillies will start Vincent Velasquez. In his last start, Velasquez struck out 16 Padres without walking a single one in a complete game, three-hit shutout. Can he do it again? The Mets bats say, "Quite possibly, definite maybe!" Velasquez came to Philadelphia last off-season from Houston in the big trade for reliever Ken Giles. Watch to see if the smartest team in baseball really did trade a bonafide ace for a relief pitcher. Or just turn on the Dodgers game and listen to Vin Scully talk. That also always works.