By: Steve Miller – Sports Editor
NOTE: All statistics are as of Sunday, April 17 at 6 p.m.
“The sky is blue, the grass is green,” a pitching coach used to calmingly remind me when I showed frustration on the mound. Now, that saying is no longer a remedy, but a celebration of the best time of year—baseball season.
The promise of new beginnings in April is enticing, but don’t throw history or inevitability out the window in favor of two-week-old slash lines and minute sample sizes. Just look at the Cincinnati Reds, who began the season 5-1 before the wheels came off while they were swept by the Chicago Cubs. The book on the Reds is simple: the starting pitching is young and talented, the offense will score a few runs and hang in for most of the game, but the bullpen will inevitably turn 2016 into a painful downward spiral.
One bright spot for Cincinnati has been third baseman Eugenio Suarez, who hit .319 with four home runs through the team’s first 12 games. He has great pop and can drive the ball to all fields, a desirable characteristic for a power hitter.
Seen by many as the best team on paper is the Chicago Cubs, who are thus far the class of the elite National League Central. Chicago was dealt a huge blow in their second series of the year when left fielder Kyle Schwarber tore his ACL and MCL in one horrific outfield collision. However, the Cubs were already carrying an extra starting-caliber outfielder on their roster: Jorge Soler. Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward round out a still-superior outfield for Chicago, so Schwarber’s absence, while emotionally devastating, doesn’t hurt the team enormously.
Pitching, though, is what has been carrying the Cubs thus far. The team’s 2.46 earned run average (ERA) through 12 games was good for second in the National League, and Cubs pitchers led MLB in walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) at 0.94 over the same span.
Pitching has also been dominant on the South Side of the Windy City where the White Sox are off to a hot start. Through 12 games, the Sox led the American League (AL) with a 2.49 team ERA, and opponents hit just .204 off their hurlers. The lanky lefty Chris Sale leads Chicago’s rotation with fellow left-handers Carlos Rodon and Jose Quintana. Together, the South Side southpaws combined to go 5-2 with 53 strikeouts in a combined seven starts.
The White Sox offense will need to pick up a bit in case of a pitching slump because the team hit a dismal .228 through their first 12 games and scored 39 runs, good for 11th in the 15-team AL.
Washington, D.C. is the only city in America with pitching superior to Chicago’s. The Nationals led the league with a 2.06 team ERA through their first 11 games —granted they played (and beat) the struggling Atlanta Braves six times in their first eight games. Washington pitchers held opponents to a .207 batting average in their first two weeks. After an all-around abysmal 2015 campaign, the Nats will rely on their pitching for a bounceback year.
Offensively for Washington, reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper looks as good as ever. He hit his first career grand slam for his 100th career home run Thursday in D.C., and has a mammoth OPS (on- base plus slugging) percentage of 1.356. But even more impressive has been Daniel Murphy, the newly-acquired second baseman, who hit .432 with a 1.307 OPS through the first eight games. But remember, don’t let small sample sizes fool you. Harper’s OPS should pull away from Murphy’s–and the league’s before October.
One of the more fascinating storylines in the opening weeks was that of Trevor Story, a 23-year-old shortstop for the Colorado Rockies who made his Major League Debut on April 4. Story hit two home runs off Arizona Diamondbacks ace Zack Greinke on Opening Day and added two more over his next two games.
He became the first player in MLB history to homer in each of his first three games, and also the first player to record a home run as each of his first four hits.
He set another MLB record by hitting seven home runs in his team’s first six games of the season. The previous record was six, shared by three players. While Story’s power numbers are quite attractive and hint towards dominance, the truth is far from it.
Story collected just eight non-home run hits in his first 12 games and struck out a whopping 22 times—10 times more than the next most frequent Colorado whiffer. He hit a respectable .294 in that span, but that figure is underwhelming for a “hot streak.”
Elsewhere around the league, the Baltimore Orioles were the last unbeaten club, sporting a 7-0 record before they dropped two straight last week. The Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves both started the season 0-9 with games characterized by late-inning collapses and incompetent offenses. And the reigning NL Champion New York Mets have struggled to score runs early on, something they also experienced in 2015.
Don’t get too worked up over a couple weeks since the vast majority of the season lies ahead of us. It’s the best time of year, so relax, breathe easy and take life 90 feet at a time—it’s baseball season!