The off-season in baseball always seems like one of the longest and yet, in the blink of an eye, the regular season is already moving into its second month of play.
What storylines have played out just like we thought they would? How has the pitch clock affected the game, if at all? What teams and players should fans be paying attention to going into May?
Before the season got underway, it was generally a foregone conclusion that the NL Central would be a two-team race between the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals. Now, the Cardinals have been disappointing in their own right, but who would’ve thought that it’d be the black and gold of the Pittsburgh Pirates that stand atop the division as we wind down to the start of May?
Despite losing Ji-Man Choi (Achilles) and star shortstop Oneil Cruz (fractured ankle) so early on, the Pirates seem to be bolstered by a mix of buoyancy from their other young stars and the steadiness (and production) of their veterans. Now in his second stint in Pittsburgh, Andrew McCutchen has his highest batting average (.272) since 2017, when he last wore a Pirates uniform, and five homers to boot.
Let’s not forget about Jack Suwinski and Connor Joe either. Suwinski’s OPS+ of 173 and SLG of .603 both lead the team, but not by much. Right behind him is Joe (.304/.392/.580) with an OPS+ of 165 and together they anchor the back half of the Pirates lineup that leaves little to no breaks for opposing pitchers. In fact, the Pirates offense ranks fourth in the National League in batting average, second in doubles, and is tied for the league lead in triples.
Add that to an unsurprisingly productive Bryan Reynolds (.301/.330/.548), the usual numbers from Carlos Santana (.261 average, .340 OBP, and 13 RBI), and a pitching staff that has the National League’s fourth-best team ERA (3.56) and fourth-most strikeouts (232), and the Pirates have something cooking.
Many pre-Opening Day predictions from writers and fans alike named Juan Soto as the favorite to win the National League’s MVP award (myself included). What has transpired over the past four weeks has not helped his case and may have those very same writers and fans looking elsewhere for the award’s eventual winner.
Through the San Diego Padres‘ first 27 games of the year, Soto is hitting an abysmal .183/.345/.344 with only nine RBI. Even more recently, Soto has hit .154 with a slugging percentage of .154 over his past seven games. It goes without saying that if the Padres expect to compete with the juggernaut Los Angeles Dodgers (who are struggling in their own right), Soto is going to be a key piece of the puzzle.
So what could be the issue?
Looking at the numbers, it could just be bad luck. Soto’s HardHit% is 56.3 percent and in the 94th percentile, according to Statcast, and he has a BACON (batting average on contact) of .266 with a BAbip of .217.
Even if you didn’t buy into the bad luck, Soto’s plate discipline has also taken a turn for the worse.
While Soto’s chase percentage has decreased to 16 percent from last season’s 17.2 percent, he is only making contact on chased pitches 46.3 percent of the time, a dramatic decrease from last season’s 64.2 percent. To add the cherry on top, Soto is striking out on 25 percent of his at-bats. By comparison, from 2020-22, Soto’s strikeout rate was only 14.3 percent.
The once-prized prospect of the Seattle Mariners might be the latest example of why it can be necessary to wait before you judge a young player’s career arc. Once a prospect in the New York Mets organization that was dealt in the Edwin Diaz trade during the 2018 season had been nothing short of a disappointment once he was called up to the majors in May 2021.
After his first two major league seasons resulted in a .168 batting average through 500 combined at-bats, Kelenic has shown a tremendous jump in offensive ability and production for a team that ended the sport’s longest active postseason drought in 2022.
Through 83 at-bats in 2023, Kelenic is hitting .325 while sporting the American League’s highest slugging percentage (.671) and an OPS+ of 192.
Take a look at Kelenic’s advanced stats from Statcast. They show a player that is prime for a breakout, All-Star season (yes, we know it’s only one month but Kelenic shows no signs of slowing down).
Kelenic’s xwOBA (.438), xBA (.315), HardHit% (57.9%), and xSLG (.686) are all within the top 10 percent of all major league hitters.
Even over Kelenic’s last seven games, he is slashing .360/.370/.800 with three home runs (and nine strikeouts, but we digress). Look for the Mariners to contend for another postseason appearance this October they will be winning games because of Kelenic instead of winning in spite of him.
Pitch Clock = The Same Offense
The new rules for 2023 including the pitch clock were of constant discussion before the season and rightfully so. But, through the first month of the season, does anything really feel different from the days of yesteryear?
Take this quote from ESPN’s Jeff Passan:
…when you look closely, baseball in April 2023 looks an awful lot like it did in that bygone era of … April 2018. It’s just done a half-hour sooner.”
You may or may not agree that the new season feels different but the comparative numbers from April 2018 and April 2023 would show that the game is essentially the same.
Stolen bases and stolen base attempts have seen an increase, though. 1.38 stolen bases per game is the highest rate of steals since 1999 while 1.73 attempts per game is the highest rate since 2012, per The Athletic’s Jayson Stark.
All in all, Commissioner Rob Manfred’s objective was to make the game of baseball more exciting and action-packed but, through the first four weeks, the game is more or less the same game we’ve been watching in terms of offensive output. So far, there has been no difference. As Passan so eloquently put it, “it’s just done a half-hour sooner.”
Here’s to hoping the next five months aren’t the same game under the veil of increased excitement.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays are the definition of what a hot start looks like to begin a season. Currently sitting 22-5 and firmly in the lead for the AL East, the Rays began their season with 13 consecutive wins which tied the 1982 Atlanta Braves and 1987 Milwaukee Brewers for the most consecutive wins in the modern era.
This year’s Rays have shown more power than they’re accustomed to doing in recent years. Through their first 27 games this year, they average over 1.9 home runs per game. Just two seasons ago when they won 100 games, the Rays swatted 1.37 home runs per game and that number dipped to just 0.86 home runs per game while winning 86 games and making the Wild Card.
Offense is the key to today’s game and the Rays have no shortage of it. Their triple-slash line as a team (.279/.348/.514) leads the majors while their 174 runs scored clears the Texas Rangers as the next-closest team by 13 runs and the third-place Boston Red Sox by 26 runs, giving them a whopping 6.44 runs scored per game.
Without drastically changing their lineup, the Rays lead the American League in both HardHit% (44.2%) and Brls/PA% (7.7%). The small-market Rays are hitting the ball like their larger-market counterparts, putting an emphasis on hard, consistent contact and the results show it is paying off tremendously.
Featured image by Kurt Wasemiller (@kurt_player02 on Instagram / @KUwasemiller on Twitter)