Authored by Andrew Perna - 2nd May, 2012 - 2:27 pm
As we enter the second month of the season, there are some unexpected division leaders across the Major Leagues. The Rays, Rangers, Cardinals and Dodgers were all pegged as contenders, but the Indians and Nationals have surprised in the American League Central and National League East, respectively.
About Those Nationals
Washington entered action on Wednesday with just a half-game lead over Atlanta for first place, but their rise has been steep and well-documented early this season. The truth is, just as they have hit the national stage, they have faltered.
They have dropped five straight games, including three since Bryce Harper made what many believe to be a premature debut on Saturday against the Dodgers. In those five games they allowed 3.2 runs. The problem? They scored just 1.4 runs over the same stretch.
The arrival of Harper was supposed to boost their offense, while plugging some holes created by injury, but that has not been the case. The sample size is very small, but the 19-year-old and former No. 1 overall pick has a .273 on-base percentage and two strikeouts in nine at-bats.
Mike Rizzo should not panic, and history shows that he will not, but even an average offense would have the Nationals with a significant early lead in the NL East. Once Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse return from the disabled list and Harper gets a month or so of Major League pitching under his belt, the offense should begin to produce enough to win low-scoring games with spectacular pitching.
The Austin Jackson Effect
The Tigers struggled in April despite owning one of the best one-two combinations (Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder) that baseball has seen in recent decades. Detroit has scored 4.5 runs per game, just 12th in the Majors and they have a team OPS (.707) that puts them 19th out of thirty teams.
Cabrera and Fielder have hit well, despite a power outage recently fixed by the first baseman, and the key entering the season was Austin Jackson and his ability to set the table for his slugging teammates.
The leadoff hitter went 4-for-5 on Monday against Kansas City, raising his average to .314 with an on-base percentage of .398 in 86 at-bats. He has career-highs across the board, including SLG (.523) and OPS (.921), despite 20 strikeouts. Jackson has recorded 47 outs this season -- 43% of those outs have come by way of the K.
His strikeout numbers appear high for someone hitting in the No. 1 hole, but he is striking out significantly less this season. The center fielder averaged one per 3.2 at-bats in 2011, but that rate is one per 4.3 at-bats through 22 games. He is also drawing more walks, despite seeing essentially the same number of pitches. His eye may be improving slightly, but his patience has not.
His walk-to-strikeout rate is .60, nearly double his career number. He saw 3.96 pitches per plate appearance last year and is seeing 4.03 this season.
Cabrera is among the AL leaders in RBI (21, tied for third) because Jackson has been on base. Jim Leyland has to like what he has seen from his leadoff man thus far, but Jackson is not out of the woods yet. His four-hit effort on Tuesday inflated his numbers and he will still strike out way too often. We will revisit his effect on the Detroit offense again at midseason.
Moneyball Numbers In Oakland
The Athletics have one of the most anemic offenses in baseball, which is not all too surprising, but what has not been talked about enough is how far their hitters have strayed from the Moneyball philosophy of patience and taking pitches.
Billy Beane lauded on-base percentage in the 2000s and the statistic was again brought to the forefront by Brad Pitt as he played the general manager in the Hollywood adaptation of unconventional baseball. Beane is a forward-thinker and there is probably some statistic he now favors other than OBP, but getting on base has been a problem for Oakland for longer than you might think.
The Athletics have the lowest on-base percentage (.281) in baseball right now, a number lower than the batting averages of two teams (Rangers, Cardinals). This is absolutely not a recent trend. Oakland averaged twelve plate appearances per walk in 2011, their lowest rate since 1985.
Oakland Getting On Base
Season, OBP, MLB Rank
2012: .281, 30th
2011: .311, 22nd
2010: .324, 16th
2009: .328, 21st
2008: .318, 29th
2007: .338, 10th
2006: .340, 10th
2005: .330, 14th
2004: .343, 9th
2003: .327, 21st
2002: .339, 7th
2001: .345, 5th
2000: .360, 6th
After getting on base 36% of the time in 2000, Oakland has seen their percentage decline rather steadily over the last 12 years with an overall decrease of eight percent. It is no coincidence then that the Athletics have gone from semi-regular playoff entrant to doormat over the stretch.
We are all well-aware that there has been a significant decline in offense across the board in baseball as pitchers dominate in the post-Mitchell Report era, but the industry decrease cannot be blamed entirely for the woes in Oakland.
In 2000, when the Athletics ranked sixth with an on-base percentage of .360, the Major League average was .345. This season, with Oakland sitting last (.281), the average is .316. While Major League baseball has seen a drop in OBP of less than three percent, the Athletics have seen a drop nearly three times as steep.
Power At Citi Field
Citi Field, which opened in 2009 without a World Series title unlike New York counterpart Yankee Stadium, had some alterations over the winter. The landmark in Queens had a ballpark home run rate of 1.057 during that inaugural season (a number above one favors the hitter, while below one favors the pitcher).
In 2010, that rate dropped to .719 and it jumped only a bit last season (.735) as Citi Field established itself as a park for pitchers. In response to those numbers, the Mets moved some of the outfield walls in and lowered others to promote offense and increase the low rate of balls that left the field of play.
So far, those numbers have not improved.
Citi Field has a ballpark home run rate of .553 through 13 games. You might be able to attribute the low number to the cooler spring weather, but the Mets have scored 3.0 runs per game at home and 5.5 on the road through the first month of the season.
There have been 17 home runs hit at the ballpark so far, including seven by the Mets with the same number coming in two of the 13 games. There have been four games in which not a single home run was hit at Citi Field.
As a team, the Mets have clubbed 18 home runs (22nd), while their batting average (.266, fifth) and slugging (.384, 18th) both rank higher. That would appear to indicate that the long ball is still hard to come by at Citi Field.
Brewing Coffee: Anthony Rizzo, Triple-A Iowa
The Cubs are not a team in need of help at a specific position, but rather any talent should be considered valuable. Rizzo, acquired from the Padres in January in the Andrew Cashner trade, can be just that type of player for Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.
The left-handed hitting first baseman, who will turn 23 in August, has dominated for Iowa of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He is hitting .374/.424/.637 with seven home runs and 24 RBI in 23 games. He has 20 strikeouts against just seven walks, but that rate should level out. In his last 10 games, he has drawn five walks for an OBP of .442.
Rizzo hit .141/.281/.242 in 128 at-bats with San Diego last season, but the situation was not ideal and will not be indicative of his future Major League success. He has trouble against left-handers (.207/.233/.310), but is nearly unstoppable against righties.