Every team in Major League Baseball has now played over 40 games. That’s more than a quarter of the season, which means we can no longer say Albert Pujols is having a slow start or the Orioles are just getting lucky. Let’s take a look at the two most surprising team performances so far, one bad, one good. Along the way, we’ll have a little fun at the expense of ESPN’s absolutely expert preseason predictions.
I’ve tallied the expert predictions and made all sorts of charts. The most surprising thing to the team over at ESPN has got to be the performance of the Los Angeles Angels, and more specifically that of Albert Pujols, their $240 million man. Jayson Stark said as much in his own quarter-season roundup, and the charts don’t lie. Of the 49 ESPN experts, 24 picked the Angels to win their division and 45 said they’d make the playoffs. As if that wasn’t enough, 18 of those savvy professionals picked them to win the World Series. That’s more than any other team by 10, in second place with eight picks were the division rival Texas Rangers.
Obviously, things are not going as well as was expected for the Angels. I mean, it’s not really going well by any means of calculation. They’re in last place with an 18-25 record, eight games behind the AL West leading Rangers, and to top it all off they’ve lost three straight.
If there’s one thing that’ll rile up a fan base, it’s the underperformance of a big money off-season signing. Just ask a Giants fan what they think of Barry Zito. Zito was one of my favorite players during his time on the A’s, and I wanted the Mets to get him, bad. Luckily I’m not the team’s GM, so we dodged a major bullet. For any Giants fans reading, I’m sorry to have brought that up. If you want I can riff about Mo Vaughn a while to make you feel better. No? Alright, moving on.
The trouble with Pujols is not that he’s underperforming, but that he doesn’t seem to be performing at all. The three-time NL MVP is hitting .212 with 3 home runs and just 18 RBI. His Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is at -0.1 according to baseball-reference, meaning he’s only a little bit worse than your average Triple-A shmo. He’s on pace to hit 12 total homers this year, or one for every million dollars he’s being paid. Fear not Angels fans, it’s far from a lost season, and I do believe Pujols will turn it around once he’s adjusted to all the AL pitchers he’s almost never seen. That said, I’m not sure I’d put any money on seeing him in the playoffs this year.
The Unbelievable Orioles
When I say unbelievable, I mean it. I don’t think anyone expected this kind of performance out of the O’s. If we look back at those preseason predictions, not one of the ESPN wunderkinds predicted the Orioles would grab a wildcard spot, let alone win the highly competitive AL East.
But look at them now. Forty-three games into the season, the O’s are at a cool 27-16, two games ahead of the Rays and five and a half in front of the tied-for-last Red Sox and Yankees (whom 37 of the analysts predicted would win the division). Like I said, a quarter of a season is far too long to call this a hot streak, lucky, or anything else of the sort.
If the fans in Baltimore have one man to thank, it’s manager Buck Showalter, who’s led his team to a 15-6 record while on the road. The Braves are the only team in the bigs with more wins on the road (16), but they’ve also got four more road losses (10). Furthermore, Showalter has helped Adam Jones develop into the star we’ve been told he is for oh so long, as well as getting fantastic performances from his starting rotation. Perhaps most importantly however is what Showalter has gotten out of his bullpen. Those of you who read my column last week know how I feel about closers. Showalter may not feel quite as strongly as I do, but he uses his pen with more logic than just about any other manager. It’s working too, the bullpen has converted 19 of 24 save opportunities and includes five different pitchers (Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, Darren O’Day, Matt Lindstrom, Luis Ayala) with ERA’s of 1.75 or under in more than 13 appearances. Just don’t tell anyone who likes what I had to say about closers that the 5 blown saves have come from pitchers other than Johnson.
All that said, just as the Angels have plenty of time to turn things around, the Orioles have plenty of time to regress. Some statisticians see the team’s dominance as unsustainable. The team has relied fairly heavily on home runs to score, their league-leading 65 jacks has helped them score more runs (199) than just five other teams. Home runs, of course, are the fossil fuel of baseball energy, and you never know when the O’s will pass peak oil. If the team hopes to maintain its success they’re going to have to get a little more eco-friendly, meaning upping their team batting average (.249, or twelfth in the league) and OBP (.310, 21st).
If these preseason predictions tell us anything, it’s that preseason predictions are worthless. But hey, that’s what makes baseball great. Any team can get hot and come out of nowhere (or go into a total nose dive) at any time. Then again, it’s a long season and the baseball gods still have more than enough time to correct themselves if they see fit.