The rush to judgment: separating early-season fact from fiction
The 15-7 Blue Jays, in first place in the AL East, look like this year's Rays
David Wright has one home run and 25 strikeouts in 20 games
In the first six games in the new Yankee Stadium, 26 home runs were hit
We hold these truths to be self-evident. The
We're just over three weeks into the MLB season, and the baseball universe is clamoring to weigh in on huge, earth-shattering trends. Amid all this teeth-gnashing, nail-biting and name-cursing, perspective gets tossed out the window. A team's preseason expectations are trashed. A player's track record is discarded. Events that might otherwise be considered simple anomalies suddenly take on the weight of the world.
Putting too much credence into 20 games' worth of results is a great way to be proven spectacularly wrong later. In that short a time span, a team with cellar-dwelling talent can look like a world-beater, and vice versa. A .200 hitter can easily hit .350. A perennial MVP candidate might resemble Mario Mendoza. The problem is magnified at the start of the season, when fans and pundits have nothing else to go on but the handful of games just played.
One of the most popular themes heading into the 2009 season was "Who are this year's Rays?" The first team out of the gate to earn the comparison was the Marlins. The Fish surged to an 11-1 start, earning accolades from some of the biggest and brightest publications. Apparently the fact that the Marlins had won six of those games against the worst team in baseball -- the Cleveland Spid...errr, the Washington Nationals -- was just an inconvenient truth. After losing seven of eight games the Marlins still cling to first place, but with a losing record against non-Nats foes.
Stepping into the breach are the Toronto Blue Jays, holders of first place in the AL East and owners of the biggest positive run differential (40 more runs scored than allowed) in the junior circuit heading into Wednesday's games. Writing for NBC Sports, Bert Blyleven tagged the Jays as possessing a potent enough offense to overcome the team's litany of pitching injuries and make a run at the division crown.
You'll find few bigger advocates for Blyleven's candidacy than yours truly (this guy's certainly one of 'em), but circle me this, Bert: Have you seen these players' track records? Marco Scutaro has hit four homers with a .415 on-base percentage so far this season (he has never hit double-digit homers in a season and owns a career OBP of .328); Aaron Hill's hitting .371 (career average: .288); Adam Lind's hitting .314 (.277); Lyle Overbay's slugging 89 points better than his career average; journeymen Jose Bautista and Kevin Millar have gone nuts in 69 part-time at-bats. Only Alex Rios (.237/.298/.355) is hitting substantially below expectations. It's theoretically possible that a team of established veterans, mixed with a couple of promising kids, suddenly hits like the '95 Indians for a full season. Just don't bet on it. The Blue Jays have gotten fat on a soft schedule; in fact they've yet to play a single game against an AL East foe.
Another strange occurrence has been the serenading by Mets fans of David Wright to start the season. It would make sense for Citi Field denizens to shower applause and appreciation on their star third baseman, given that he's one of the best all-around players in the game. But the noise coming from Citi has actually been a cascade of boos.
There are all kinds of reasons why fans in Queens might jeer a player who may go down as the best Met of all time when he hangs 'em up. For one thing, people are probably just sick of losing. Also, fans and media alike tend to blame the misfortunes of a team, fairly or unfairly, on its best player. Wright shouldered a lion's share of blame when the Mets collapsed in September of the past two seasons; booing him for the club's sub-.500 start is just an extension of that misdirected bile. But New York is also wildly overreacting to Wright's slow start: After socking 63 homers in the past two seasons, Wright has just one so far this year and ranks second in the league in strikeouts (25). If he ends the season with the eight homers and 203 strikeouts he's on pace to amass, I'll kidnap Mr. Met, drive to Montpelier, and tie the knot.
Maybe the biggest cause for freakouts in the early going has been the new Yankee Stadium. In the first six games in the Bronx, the Bombers and their opponents combined to bash 26 homers. Melky Cabrera (!) went deep four times in 14 Yankee Stadium at-bats. The rush to judgment began. The walls might be closer to home plate than we thought. The infamous Anonymous Scout described Island of Dr. Moreau-level monstrosities, with baseballs growing legs on their way into the bleachers. Even AccuWeather had a theory, arguing that wind currents were markedly different than the Yankees and stadium engineers envisioned.
All of this safely ignored the fact that while rare, other stadiums had seen similar home run binges. During one stretch in the summer of 2007, one park yielded 26 bombs in just four games. That park? The old Yankee Stadium. As surely as you couldn't conclude from four games that the old park was a launching pad, you can't jump to that conclusion after just six games this time. Any stathead worth his salt will tell you that three years is the standard typically used to properly measure a ballpark's effects on home runs, and overall offensive production.
Above all, the rush to judgment might simply be caused by our collective impulse to attach meaning to all of life's events -- doubly so on the baseball field. When weird stuff started happening last April, similar panic ensued. At this time last year the Orioles and A's led their divisions, and the Diamondbacks were on pace to win 118 games. CC Sabathia was projected to go 6-24 with a 7.88 ERA. The Phillies were just a run-of-the-mill third-place team, offering few hints of the World Series-winning juggernaut they would later become.
Sometimes there's nothing wrong with a pitcher's mechanics, nothing noteworthy about a hitter's power outage, nothing revolutionary about a ballpark, and nothing special about a hot-starting team. As unsatisfying as it is to say it, sometimes stuff just happens.
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