Biggest Takeaways from the First 4 Weeks of the MLB Season

Joe GiglioContributor IApril 26, 2014

Biggest Takeaways from the First 4 Weeks of the MLB Season

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    Pablo Martinez Monsivais

    Four weeks ago, the 2014 Major League Baseball season arrived. The glitz and glamour of Opening Day came with reactions from offseason moves and spring training narratives.

    While it's foolish to amend most preseason expectations and declarations with only about 15 percent of the schedule finished, perspective is starting to arrive for the season playing out in front of our eyes. Four weeks of competition isn't enough to win a pennant, but it could be enough to make analysts and fans reconsider what seemed academic just one month ago.

    Last week, Yasiel Puig's plight, struggles in Arizona and brilliance in Atlanta were the stories. Now we have a new slate of evolving trends to consider and dissect. The season is taking form and potentially laying the groundwork for a special summer in the sport.

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

     

    Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted, and are valid through the start of play on April 25. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.

These Aren't Your 2013 Boston Red Sox

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    The World Series honeymoon is over in Boston. Sure, lifelong Red Sox fans can continue to bask in the glory of a worst-to-first finish and championship in 2013. But the recent past doesn't change the reality around the current 25-man roster at Fenway Park.

    Heading into play on April 25, the Red Sox were in last place in the AL East, three games under .500 and sporting the second-worst run differential (-17) in the league, behind only the lowly and embarrassing Houston Astros. A recent series loss to the New York Yankees dropped Boston's mark at Fenway Park to 5-8. 

    The natural question now surfacing: What happened to the champs?

    First, regression should have been expected. In 2012, the Red Sox lost 93 games. Last season, they won 97. Predicting a 10-win decrease and fourth-place finish in the AL East wouldn't have been ridiculous, but the team has profiled as far worse through 23 games.

    The two biggest reasons for a difficult April are missing offensive pieces and inconsistent starting pitching. 

    Without free-agent defections like Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew, Boston's ability to reach base has been compromised. On the path to leading the sport in runs scored last summer, the Red Sox boasted a team on-base percentage of .349. Through 23 games in 2014, that number has dipped to .323.

    If the entire veteran Red Sox rotation was pitching at an elite level, perhaps less offense wouldn't be as big of a detriment. Outside of Jon Lester (159 ERA+) and Jake Peavy (128 ERA+), that simply hasn't been the case. John Lackey (101 ERA+) has been average, but both Clay Buchholz (56 ERA+) and Felix Doubront (71 ERA+) have been awful.

    There's close to 140 games left to escape the cellar in a very, very difficult division. While the Red Sox are likely to play better soon, a return trip to October is far from a lock. 

Tommy John Surgery Is an Epidemic

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    Brian Blanco/Getty Images

    If we include spring training injuries as part of the first four weeks of the 2014 season, Tommy John surgery is claiming nearly four arms per week. When doctors recently recommended the surgery for injured New York Yankees pitcher Ivan Nova, baseball hit the point of an epidemic. 

    As Robert Murray of Bloomberg Sports chronicled, Nova is the 15th Tommy John case this year. That puts this season on the path to surpassing the 19 in 2013 and possibly the record-setting 2012 season that included 36 surgeries.

    Unfortunately, no remedy seems to be on the horizon. Despite how much time, effort and energy teams put in to keeping young arms fresh and healthy, pitchers are breaking—especially when it comes to elbow tears.

    Without a reasonable explanation, understanding the recent spread of injuries has been left up to conjecture among some of the smartest and most successful people in the industry. That was made clear when ESPN's Jayson Stark dug deep to dissect the epidemic, speaking to a litany of decision-makers recently impacted, including Atlanta Braves general manager Frank Wren.

    "We've taken a step back and looked at everything," Wren said. "We've talked to our doctors. We've talked to [Dr.] Jim Andrews. We've talked to our medical staff. And from everything we can tell, nothing would indicate that what's happened to us is anything other than fate."

Albert Pujols Has Turned Back the Clock

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    Pablo Martinez Monsivais

    Albert Pujols' 500th career home run spurred endless baseball discussion, ranging from his chances at 700 homers to the next players to reach the 500-HR club to why there was a lack of excitement around this particular chase.

    Lost in the shuffle of a milestone home run: Pujols' resurgence as a middle-of-the-order force.

    After two uncharacteristically poor seasons in Los Angeles, the former St. Louis Cardinals star is back to hitting at a blistering pace. Heading into a series with the Yankees this weekend, Pujols ranked in the top 15 in baseball in each of the following categories: wRC+, wOBA, HR, RBI, SLG and ISO. 

    At age 34—coming off an injury-plagued 2013—it was easy to simply label Pujols as a former all-time great hitter in serious decline. After all, his OPS figures had dropped every season—1.114 to 1.101 to 1.011 to .906 to .859 to .767for six consecutive years from 2008-13.

    With a .976 mark through 97 plate appearances in 2014, it's unfair to say Pujols is back to his prime, as few hitters ever reach those heights. But it's not crazy to acknowledge what the Angels first baseman is doing in April. 

    He's back, folks.

Baseball Open to In-Season Rule Tweaks

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Baseball deserved credit for accepting that it was time to tweak the rule book during the offseason. The expansion of instant replay and the attempt to protect catchers from unnecessary home plate collisions was progressive for a sport that is typically slow to embrace change.

    In a way, the rule tweak that took place on April 25 was even more impressive. With umpires, players and managers confused by the transfer rule—resulting in calls that defied common sense—baseball adjusted the rule, allowing umpires a less strict interpretation of the rule that's commonly seen during potential double plays or after catches in the outfield.

    Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported the amendment would begin immediately. Per the announcement:

    "A catch, forceout or tag will be considered legal if a fielder has control of the ball in his glove, but drops the ball after opening his glove to transfer the ball to his throwing hard, sources said. No longer will the fielder be required to successfully get the ball into his throwing hand."

    Although recent rule adjustments are still murkyreplay isn't perfect and catcher interference is unclearMajor League Baseball decision-makers fixed an obvious problem in quick fashion. For a sport without a reputation for quick, decisive thinking, it's a positive step.

Money Well Spent in the Bronx

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    When the New York Yankees spent $503 million during the offseason, improving an 85-win team and returning to the postseason was likely an expectation in the Bronx. While long-term goals and team-wide success is still to be determined, early results suggest that the team spent wisely.

    Masahiro Tanaka, Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann headlined the free-agent class imported by Yankees brass during the offseason. With combined contract allotments—including a $20 million posting fee for the right to sign Tanaka—the Yankees spent $458 million on those four players.

    Through four weeks, all have been worth every penny of their respective salaries.

    According to FanGraphs, Tanaka's early-season performance (3-0, 2.15 ERA, 2.63 FIP, 35/2 strikeout-to-walk) has already been worth $4.9 million. Considering how dominant the 25-year-old has been, that figure might be putting it lightly.

    Beltran's switch-hitting ability has brought back an aspect of old, successful Yankee lineups. From a production standpoint, a .906 OPS is enough to start talking about AL All-Star consideration for the future Hall of Fame outfielder.

    Outside of Tanaka's worldwide appeal and dominant pitching, Ellsbury has been the most important addition on the roster. The former Red Sox star owns a .337/.391/.482 slash line, good enough for top-of-the-order dominance or the No. 3 hole in New York's lineup, a place the center fielder occupied for a chunk of the early season due to Mark Teixeira's disabled list stint.

    Although McCann's numbers (92 OPS+) are below the standards of his freshly minted teammates, the veteran catcher has been a calming influence on the pitching staff, hit three home runs and owns three go-ahead hits on the young season.

Philadelphia Has the Pieces to Contend

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    The Philadelphia Phillies entered the season with dark clouds hovering over Citizens Bank Park. After back-to-back non-winning seasons, a nightmare spring training filled with injuries, manger-player clashes and perceived strength or improvement from NL East division foes, expectations were very, very low.

    Through four weeks of play, the Phillies have looked better than expected. In fact, if the top players on the roster—Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and Jonathan Papelbon—can perform well, there might just be enough for one more run at a postseason berth for this aging group.

    If this sounds like the same script from recent seasons, you're not crazy. Yet, this time is different. The 2014 Phillies differ from disappointing squads in 2012 and 2013 because of roster depth. Those teams were still relying on players like Howard and Utley to be megastars. If they didn't carry the team—through decline or injury—the rest of the roster was inept.

    Now, there's enough help behind the core of a former NL dynasty. Players like Marlon Byrd, Domonic Brown, A.J. Burnett and Jake Diekman have either arrived through free agency or the farm system to supplement the old guard.

    Philadelphia headed into a weekend showdown with the lowly Diamondbacks off four victories in five games, including three of four over the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chavez Ravine. If solid play continues, a surprise playoff contender could emerge. 

Archaic Rules Hurt the Game

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    Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    Major League Baseball—more than any other professional sport—is built on tradition. In a way, the past is more important than the present or the future. From Babe Ruth to Jackie Robinson to Henry Aaron, the trailblazers of the past are still central to the lure of the game.

    While that's understandable, some of the past is hurting the game right now. Specifically the infatuation—from current players to rule-makers—of archaic rules, both written and unwritten.

    Recently, two embarrassing events could have been avoided if the game rectified old-school thinking: The Pirates-Brewers on-field fight, and Michael Pineda's pine-tar incident at Fenway Park.

    Let's start with the fight in Pittsburgh, stemming from Carlos Gomez supposedly admiring what he thought was a home run off Pirates starter Gerrit Cole. When the Pirates starter took exception—undoubtedly upset that an opposing player would "show him up" or flaunt a big hit—words were exchanged. Eventually, those words turned into a physical altercation. 

    According to Justin McGuire of Sporting News, Cole's vitriol stemmed from the outcome of the play.

    "If you're going to hit it out of the ballpark, then you can stop and look at it," Cole said. "But it (sic) you're going to hit just a fly ball to center field, then don't stand and look at it." 

    Either way, the entire thing was foolish. At some point—especially as the game grows in Latin America—current and future MLB players must embrace emotion as part of the game. The fact that it was frowned upon 40 or 50 years ago is now irrelevant. 

    On that same note, Bleacher Report MLB Lead Writer Zachary D. Rymer was spot-on when suggesting that pine-tar usage should be legal for pitchers. That idea doesn't excuse Pineda's behavior in Boston, but the whole thing could have been avoided if baseball would look to amend the rule, especially for use on cold, windy nights.

    Baseball's history is special, but it can't be allowed to hurt the future of the sport.

Troy Tulowitzki Is a Special Player

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has always been a supremely talented player. From his 25-game cameo in 2006 to a major role in helping the Rockies make a surprise run to the World Series in 2007, one of baseball's true franchise shortstops always looked and played like a star.

    Of course, health issues have limited the heights of his stardom. Despite five seasons of 24-plus home runs, three NL All-Star appearances and a $118 million contract extension from the only franchise he's ever known, Tulowitzki's accolades always came with an asterisk: health. 

    Heading into 2014, the 29-year-old missed 151 games between 2012 and 2013, dampening any national respect and adoration he deserved. 

    Through the first four weeks of the 2014 campaign, the Rockies' best player is healthy and mashing the baseball to the tune of a 1.196 OPS and staggering 210 OPS+. The hot start has propelled him past Nomar Garciaparra for the top OPS (.883) among shortstops in baseball history with at least 3,000 career plate appearances, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).

    At first glance, that statistic isn't overwhelmingly surprising. Tulowitzki is a great hitter, in the midst of a lifelong career at Coors Field and years from inevitable decline that will hurt his overall numbers for comparisons with stats like OPS or wRC+.

    Yet, owning the best OPS in the history of shortstops is amazing. Tulowitzki—despite never winning an MVP or profiling as the best player in the sport—has managed to top Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken, Barry Larkin, Honus Wagner and every great hitting shortstop ever. Even if Alex Rodriguez's .942 career OPS counted as a shortstop, No. 2 on that list would still be very, very impressive.

    A special season is unfolding for a special player. Enjoy it, baseball fans.

Cliff Lee Is Making a Push for Cooperstown

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Philadelphia Phillies starter Cliff Lee is one of the best pitchers in the world, dominant on a yearly basis and a virtual lock to provide 200-plus innings of command, control and excellence. Yet, he's rarely talked about as a future Hall of Famer.

    It's about time that last part is changed.

    Of course, Lee's exclusion from future Cooperstown-bound discussions is somewhat understandable. At age 35, the lefty owns only 142 career victories. Although wins are devalued and rethought on a yearly basis, only 11 starters in the Hall of Fame finished with fewer than 200 career victories, per Baseball-Reference.

    One of those—Babe Ruth—made a famous switch away from the mound. Yet, despite a slow start to his career and low victory total in his mid-30s, Lee is forging a path to an eventual induction into Cooperstown.

    After a dominant (8 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 10 SO, 0 BB) performance over the Los Angeles Dodgers in his last outing, take a look at where Lee ranks among starters with at least 1,000 IP since the 2008 season:

    • ERA: 2nd
    • CG: 2nd
    • SHO: 1st
    • FIP: 1st
    • ERA+: 2nd
    • SO/BB: 1st
    • WAR: 1st

    Regardless of which statistics you favor or use to craft an argument, Lee has been one of the most dominant starter for a six-plus-year period. If he can continue to pitch at this level for two or three more years, a 10-year run of dominance above his peers will be part of a legacy that should garner votes on a future Hall of Fame ballot.

Josh Donaldson Wasn't a Fluke

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Last season, Oakland Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson made an unprecedented leap from relative unknown to AL MVP candidate. After owning just 10 career homers and an OPS+ of 85 through his age-26 season, Donaldson tore apart AL West pitching to the tune of an .883 OPS in 2013.

    While fluky years from average players can happen, Donaldson is quickly debunking any notion that he's not an impact player. Through 105 plate appearances this month, the Athletics star has a .910 OPS and six homers.

    As noted by Roger Schlueter of MLB.com, the 28-year-old is four extra-base hits from tying Mark McGwire for the most combined doubles, triples and homers in any March/April for any Athletics player since 1914. 

    That feat—accomplished by McGwire during the 1997 season—was during a time when the hulking first baseman was recognized as a league-wide star. It will take multiple AL All-Star roster appearances and MVP-caliber seasons for Donaldson to reach that type of respect, but simply accepting his talent as much more than a fluke is a good start.

     

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

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