Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Early Season Observations: East Coast Bias

The beauty about baseball, from a statistical perspective, is just how quickly the stats pile up. With games nearly every day, and with multiple at-bats per game, just a few games give those of us stat-heads enough to look at and begin to analyze. Are the sample sizes still small? Yes, extremely--but that doesn't stop the mainstream media from beginning to say certain players (and teams) are off to good or bad starts after just a few games. As the weeks progress and things settle in, the numbers become more and more meaningful, for sure, but for now the speculation runs rampant about who is setting themselves up for a breakout year, and who's fans are going to be sorely disappointed by midseason. Or, for those of you who look at things in a different light, which players are going to end up wildly overrated on the fantasy market, and which teams are going to tank early before miraculously finishing the season strong and winding up in the playoffs. 

Are the "Phab Phour" living up to the hype?
Over the first week-or-so of the season, teams from the Eastern side of the Rockies seem to be asserting themselves a little more than the teams out on the West are, especially when it comes to some promising young teams that might be playing up to future potential. The Baltimore Orioles are 4-0, one of only two remaining undefeated squads--the Cincinnati Reds (4-0) and the Texas Rangers (5-0). Some of the other teams have been impressive, as well--the Phillies (3-1) won their first three behind the arms of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Roy Oswalt; the Royals (4-1) took three out of four at the Angels before beating the White Sox in 12 innings last night. A few numbers are already starting to really emerge from the pile as significant indicators of success, and we'll take a look at some of the more interesting ones after the jump.

Kansas City Royals: There's a theme quickly emerging this MLB season, and that's the rise of the young teams. Tampa Bay and Boston both got off to 0-4 starts, the Cardinals are only 2-3, and the Giants are just 1-4, but those Royals are 4-1. How? Well, winning three of four at Anaheim helps, but it hasn't been the pitching that's been keeping Kansas City in the winner's column. Their four starters (with an off day in the schedule, Luke Hochevar's pitched twice already) have a combined ERA of 5.59 and a WHIP of 1.48, neither of which are very promising. The only quality start thus far was by Jeff Francis, who went 7 innings against the Angels, giving up only 1 run, for a game score of  66. The offense, led by young sluggers Alex Gordon (.375/.400/.667) and Billy Butler (.316/.435/.684), has put up 28 runs in those five games. Gordon and Butler are joined by vets Jeff Francoeur (.318/.348/.500) and Melky Cabrera in what has been a very well-balanced lineup thus far: six players have three-or-more RBIs already; this is all with leadoff hitter Mike Aviles and first baseman Kila Ka'aihue both hitting under .190 in the early going.

Britton shined in his first start (6IP, 3H, 1R)
Baltimore Orioles: Sure, Nick Markakis (.429/.438/.500) is off to a hot start, and Brian Roberts has eight RBIs in 17 at-bats, but the story thus far for the Orioles, through their first four games, is their starting pitching. Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, and Jake Arrieta have combined to go 3-0 with a 0.69 ERA and a 0.81 WHIP--very impressive numbers. In 26 combined innings, they've given up only 12 hits while striking out 20 (six each by Guthrie and Britton), and only allowing two runs. Their average Game Score is 69.25, well above the 50 that defines a "quality start," and none of them have thrown more than 101 pitches in any fewer than six full innings of work. The best start by the numbers comes from Chris Tillman, who threw 6 innings of no-hit, no-run ball against Tampa Bay back on April 2nd, though he didn't get a decision. Obviously, those kinds of numbers are eventually going to return closer to the league average, but the question for Orioles fan is how much. Britton is a top pitching talent, and a bunch of quality starts like these are what the Baltimore lineup needs to win games, keeping the score low.

Philadelphia Phillies: Well, the talk around the nation coming into this season was centered on a select few cities, and none bigger than the four starters the Phils threw in their first four games. The first three went quite well, with Roy Halladay taking a no-decision in a Phils victory over Houston before Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt each earned their first wins of the season against the Astros. Cole Hamels, however, didn't fare so well against the Mets, failing to make it out of the third inning while giving up seven runs. Because of that start, the Phillies' starters ERA ballooned up to 4.99, though their WHIP is still at a nice 1.108--and with the 3.38 WHIP that Hamels threw last night factored in there, you get an idea just how low it was before the disaster against the Mets. The most impressive thing about that rotation thus far is the strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is an impressive 8.67, and the strikeouts per nine innings, which is currently at 10.8. The next-highest strikeout-to-walk ratio is the Dodgers at 7.25, followed by the Reds at 5.25, but then there is a big dropoff--no other team has more than three strikeouts per walk. If the Phillies starters can keep getting batters out by strikeout at this pace, they're going to get that ERA under 4.00 very quickly.

Texas Rangers: There's only one team in the majors that's made it to 5-0 so far, and that's the boys down in Arlington, Texas. It always helps to start the season at home, but getting the much-hyped Boston Red Sox in town wasn't much of an Opening Day gift. However, Texas swept the BoSox, getting monster series from Nelson Cruz (.375/.414/.1.125) and Ian Kinsler (.294/.455/.882), who have combined for seven solo home runs. The Rangers have also been sharing the wealth, with eight batters garnering three-or-more RBIs, and five of them (Cruz, Mike Napoli, Elvis Andrus, Josh Hamilton, and Adrian Beltre) have four runs batted in. Not only are the Rangers hitting but, unlike the Royals, they're pitching pretty damn well, too. All five starters have gone, and combined for a 2.64 ERA over 30.2 innings, putting up a 3.00 K/BB ratio and a WHIP of 1.14, all of which are very solid numbers. The average gamescore of only 57.6 is just decent, but it's mostly hurt by the fact that only one of the starts went past the sixth inning, plus a fairly good number of walks (nine). Either way, the fact that those numbers have come against the Boston and Seattle offenses are pretty good signs for Texas, that last year gave the Rangers some serious momentum in 2011.

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