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Biggest Takeaways from the First 3 Weeks of the MLB Season

Joe GiglioContributor IApril 19, 2014

Biggest Takeaways from the First 3 Weeks of the MLB Season

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    Jeff Chiu

    Slowly but surely, the 2014 Major League Baseball season is forming an identity. With three weeks in the books, hot starts are becoming eye-opening, slow starts worrisome, and daily glances at the standings more and more instructive.

    Obviously, the small sample size caveat still applies to any declaration or usage of performance or statistics this early in a season. But we're moving closer to making educated judgments based on tangible results on the field in 2014.

    Last week, Chase Utley, Jose Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka were the stories. As those three potential All-Stars continue to dominate the early-season headlines, leaguewide narratives are forming and becoming must-watch aspects of the season.

    It's nearly been a full month since the Dodgers and Diamondbacks squared off at Sydney Cricket Ground in Australia, blazing forth the start of what is shaping up to be a special season. Thus far, the games and stories have not disappointed. 

    Here are the biggest takeaways from the first three weeks of the 2014 MLB season.

     

    Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.

Atlanta Is a Model Organization

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    Ervin Santana
    Ervin SantanaAssociated Press

    Heading into play on April 18, the Atlanta Braves led the National League East, and sported the second-best winning percentage (.667) in the league and the best run differential (+16). After a nightmare spring training in which two starters—Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy—were lost to Tommy John surgery, the Braves are thriving. 

    Instead of focusing on how, it's instructive to look into why Atlanta is finding success in the face of adversity. As Joel Sherman of the New York Post explored, it's time to put the Braves in the class of baseball's model winners.

    It's easy to forget Atlanta when reeling off franchises like St. Louis, Oakland, Tampa and New York (AL version) in the conversation of consistent winners, but scouts and executives around the game aren't foolish enough to dismiss the Braves.

    Per Sherman's column: "It’s a group of decision-makers that has been together for a long time," said an NL personnel head. "They know their strengths, know what players fit for them and don’t panic when they hit the inevitable bump in the road. Wash, rinse, repeat."

    If 2014 produces a sixth straight 86-plus-win season, the Braves should be included with the most successful organizations in the sport.

Albert Pujols Looks Healthy

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Baseball fans are fickle and possess an ability to block out the recent past in favor of the not-too-distant-future. It's why top prospects receive more attention than Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols' quest for 500 career home runs.

    With early-season health returning to one of the greatest hitters in the game, Pujols entered the weekend just four homers short of No. 500. As Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com pointed out, the legendary slugger is poised to become just the 26th player to ever reach the mark.

    Despite obvious decline since leaving the Cardinals after the 2011 season, Pujols is still an all-time great and deserving of recognition. He also looks healthy to start the year after a foot injury curtailed any chance for a resurgence last summer. If Pujols feels well, No. 500 won't be the last time he rewrites the record books over the next few years. 

    That sentiment was shared by Angels manager Mike Scioscia, per Gonzalez's column: "I look for him, when it's all set and done, to be one of those handful of players that people are just in awe of. Albert's certainly aware of what he's accomplished, but he's not fixated on it. Albert wants to win baseball games, and I think that's why he's had such a great career and will continue to be very productive."

Yasiel Puig Is Baseball's Most Fascinating Man

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    Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

    If you haven't read Jesse Katz's Los Angeles Magazine feature on Yasiel Puig's journey from Cuba to the Los Angeles Dodgers—by way of Mexico, kidnapping and smugglers—take the time to peruse the great writing before the next time you make an offhand remark about maturity or baseball etiquette surrounding the 23-year-old lightning rod.

    On the field, Puig is must-watch television, an electric talent and confounding personality for fans and media members to dissect on a daily basis. Off the field, however, his story separates him from the pack and makes him the most interesting man in the sport.

    It's easy to emote about dropped fly balls, baserunning blunders or the violation of team rules, but keep in mind the off-the-field journey Puig had to take in order to arrive and thrive at Chavez Ravine.

    Throughout a brilliantly crafted story, it's this passage by Katz that stood out: 

    There is a saying in Cuba, Puig told me: 'Dormir es cuando te toca a morir.' The phrase loses something in translation, but not much: Sleep is when it’s your turn to die. 'For that reason,' he continued in Spanish, 'I sleep with one eye open.'

    One eye open off the field, two eyes on him on the field. Enjoy the rise of Puig, baseball fans. The combination of talent, background and plight has combined to produce a rare story and special player.

Starting Pitching Will Carry the Yankees

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    Masahiro Tanaka
    Masahiro TanakaAssociated Press

    In a vacuum, the biggest expenditure of the New York Yankees' $503 million offseason spending spree was the $155 million investment in Japanese starter Masahiro Tanaka. However, that move came after allotting a combined $283 million to add offensive stars like Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran.

    The offseason began with an edict to improve last year's poor offensive output. While the additions to manager Joe Girardi's lineup have been welcomed, it's pitching that has carried the Yankees early in the season and has the potential to do the same over the full season.

    Led by Masahiro Tanaka's brilliance, Michael Pineda's comeback, and a strong start on Thursday night by CC Sabathia, the Yankees entered play on April 18 ranked fifth in the AL with a 3.64 ERA by starting pitchers. When sorting by strikeout-to-walk ratio, the Yankees were No. 1 with a sterling 4.84 mark, per ESPN.

    As Brendan Kuty of NJ.com pointed out, the four runs allowed by the Yankees over their past four games are the fewest over a four-game stretch for the franchise since 2003.

Shifts Are All the Rage

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack

    If you have access to MLB.tv, a cable package that allows for out-of-market viewing or simply catching nightly highlights of each game, it's likely that you've noticed a leaguewide trend that is rapidly becoming commonplace around baseball: infield shifts.

    What was once a defensive tactic by a few forward-thinking teams has exploded into a common strategy across baseball, per Tyler Kepner of The New York Times. After teams shifted about 2,400 total times in 2010 and 2011, the numbers are on pace to top 13,000 total shifts this season. 

    The numbers back up what your eyes are seeing on a nightly basis. The reason: It works. 

    If teams find an advantage—even a small one—expect word to spread across the sport. In this case, front offices are adopting the type of defensive metrics that have been popularized in recent years by teams like the Rays and Pirates. In a sport where offense is down and pitching is dominating, saving runs can be as valuable as scoring them. 

    Expect more and more shifting as the season progresses, baseball fans.

Arizona Is in Trouble

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    Kirk Gibson (left) and Bronson Arroyo (right)
    Kirk Gibson (left) and Bronson Arroyo (right)Associated Press

    Aside from a team like the Houston Astros, three weeks is usually too small of a sample size to call a team woeful or special. The 2014 Arizona Diamondbacks are testing that theory through their first 18 games. A quick look at the standings heading into play on April 18 shows only two teams with run differentials—positive or negative—of more than 20: Houston and Arizona.

    In fact, the Diamondbacks sport baseball's worst mark through 18 games, outscored by their opponents by a whopping 48 runs. With a 1-11 home record, the Diamondbacks are profiling as one of the worst teams in all of baseball.

    Of course, there's plenty of time for any team to turn around a poor start. While Arizona certainly should play better than this over the next five months, don't expect a massive turnaround. After losing top-of-the-rotation starter Patrick Corbin to a torn elbow, the team is in trouble.

    For what it's worth, team president Derrick Hall isn't ready to make a knee-jerk reaction by casting aside manager Kirk Gibson, per Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports.

    "I don't want to begin commenting on individuals and their status. That's not healthy," Hall said. "We are all in this together right now to, hopefully, figure this out and get back on track."

Service Time Matters

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    George Springer
    George SpringerAssociated Press

    George Springer's call-up by the Houston Astros should be one of the biggest stories of the early season, but the circumstances around the timing of the transaction are far more interesting. To the surprise of few, Houston chose to delay Springer's arrival to Minute Maid Park until a year of free agency was delayed.

    For teams around baseball, posturing like this is commonplace on a yearly basis. In June, the cutoff for an extra year of arbitration will cease, opening the door for top prospects like New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard and Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco to join Springer in the respective Rookie of the Year chases.

    The policy and money-saving tactics anger and annoy fans, but teams are playing by the rules. No front office would surrender a year of control for two-plus weeks of games. Similarly, few teams—even contenders in need of precious victories—would be willing to lose millions of dollars in arbitration years for two extra months of rookie performance. 

    Until the structure of baseball's system is amended, blame the sport—not individual front-office members—for talented players languishing in Triple-A.

Hyun-Jin Ryu Is Underrated

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    Jeff Chiu

    Since debuting with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, left-handed starter Hyun-Jin Ryu has been one of the best pitchers in baseball. Unfortunately, the 27-year-old doesn't get the credit he deserves. On a roster full of star power, Ryu's performance has been worthy of more attention.

    After tossing seven scoreless innings on Thursday against the San Francisco Giants, Ryu now sports a 2.23 ERA through five starts this season. Combined with last year's statistics (192.0 IP, 3.00 ERA), Ryu now owns a 2.86 ERA through 220 innings since Opening Day 2013. That's good for the seventh-best mark over that frame, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).

    While the names ahead of Ryu on that list—Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma, Adam Wainwright, Andrew Cashner, Madison Bumgarner—are impressive, the pitchers ranked below him make the facts even more astounding. Ryu has pitched to a better ERA than Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale and Cliff Lee. Along the way, Ryu has easily justified the Dodgers' six-year, $36 million investment in him.

    In a rotation that includes Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren and Josh Beckett, expect Ryu to continue to fly under the radar as he records outs against NL lineups.

Results Matter to Players

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    Andrew Nelles

    Baseball fans become more educated on a daily basis. From the ability to watch multiple games across all platforms to a 24-hour network dedicated to baseball coverage to stat-savvy writers delivering interesting and well-rounded takes on the game, a deeper understanding of the sport has permeated into mainstream coverage.

    Progress is welcomed, but don't expect the players on the field to care about what writers or talk show hosts are bantering about. For them, only one thing matters: results.

    Recently, two star pitchers—White Sox starter Chris Sale and Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbonspoke their respective minds on this topic.

    Sale, in a column by Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, expressed little interest in advanced statistics, even if the majority conclude that he's one of the top pitchers in the world.

    "All I know I've got to do is give up less runs than we score," Sale said. "I don't care about anything else. Not the numbers. Not the ISPFMLBLSSRs and whatever else Brian Kenny has come up with to define what makes a good player or not."

    Papelbon, speaking to the media after converting a save against the Atlanta Braves, gave a lecture on why radar gun readings and velocity are of no importance to him, per Corey Seidman of CSN Philly.

    "You think that matters? I don’t understand that," Papelbon said. "I mean, if a ball has life at the plate and you are throwing 88 miles an hour as opposed to 98 miles an hour, it doesn’t make one damn bit of difference. Whether you throw 93 or 94 or 84. I just, I don’t get it man."

Replay Is Making the Game Better

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    It's easy to critique baseball's instant replay system, request perfection and point to calls that were ultimately incorrect in spite of an extra view or two from umpires. But don't let that overshadow what the expansion of instant replay has been for the game: an improvement.

    Baseball is better now than it ever has been, partly due to the sport joining the 21st century and adopting replay on a large scale. Is it perfect? No. In fact, it's far from it through the first three weeks of this season.

    However, focusing on a few poor decisions and glossing over a majority of corrections is foolish. Baseball—along with every other professional league—is never going to be perfect. Mistakes are going to be made, even if computers or robot umpires eventually replace humans. The objective shouldn't be for perfection but to get as many calls correct as possible.

    Thus far, that's happened. Case in point: a bang-bang play on a stolen-base attempt in the Braves-Phillies game on Thursday afternoon (video above). Without a challenge and replay available, it's an impossible call to knowingly get correct for any umpire.

    In the past, a possible game-changing call would be left to a guess. Now, that's no longer the case. That represents a good thing for the game.

     

    What was your biggest takeaway from the first three weeks of the MLB season?

    Comment, follow me on Twitter or "like" my Facebook page to talk about all things baseball.

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