MLB First Quarter Review (Part 1: American League)
As we take the turn past the quarter pole (and beyond) of the MLB season, we wanted to reflect on some of the major stories thus far. Jonathan Merkel and Bob Osgood share their thoughts from both real life and fantasy perspectives, division by division. Today, we will look at the American League, with the National League coming in a few days.
Jonathan Merkel: Oakland in the Cellar
The 2018 Oakland A’s earned a spot in the AL Wildcard Game after winning 97 games. It was a special team powered by offense: Davis, Chapman, Olson, and a resurgent Jed Lowrie led the charge, while Stephen Piscotty and late call-up Ramon Laureano both caught fire late to power the team down the stretch. Their starting pitching, in spite of a rash of injuries, was good enough to give their offense a chance. Their bullpen was superb when asked to close the door.
This year’s squad is floundering in last place of the Astro-dominant AL West. Jurickson Profar has been a disappointment and hasn’t come close to replacing Lowrie’s production. Olson is just now returning from injury, while Laureano and Piscotty have come down to earth offensively. As for their pitching? Don’t ask.
Olson’s return should provide a lift on offense, but the A’s need pitching help to return to the playoffs in 2019. I’m sure they’re more than ready to get AJ Puk and Jesus Luzardo in the mix, but it may not be enough. This team needs help. I’ll be curious to see if at the deadline the A’s decide to improve the current squad, or prep for a 2020 run.
Bob Osgood: Who are the real Mariners?
The story of the first quarter in the AL West was the Jekyll-and-Hyde Seattle Mariners. A tale of two halves of the first quarter? A tale of two eighths? They came out of the gate firing at 13-2. Within those first 15 games, the Mariners hit a home run in every one of them, an MLB record to start a season. They also tied an MLB record with an astounding 53 home runs over their first 24 games. A team that was rebuilding couldn’t rebuild because they had too many good players. They took advantage of two emotional games against Oakland in Japan, featuring Ichiro’s retirement, as well as Yusei Kikuchi’s first ever MLB start which also occurred in his home country. This was followed by three wins over a Red Sox team whose pitching staff was not ready to start the season, after scaling back workloads in spring training. Since this start, Seattle has plummeted to a 9-22 stretch, and have fallen under .500 overall.
While the hitting stats look good overall, it’s hard to imagine they will have the pitching to right this ship. Kikuchi and Marco Gonzalez have shown promise at times, with ERAs under 4, but Mike Leake, Felix Hernandez, and Erik Swanson have all allowed 10.5 H/9 or more, as well as 1.8 HR/9 or more (3.2 for Swanson!). It does seem that Seattle has faced a difficult schedule so far, playing the second most games in the AL against teams over .500, going 5-21 in those. The unbalanced schedule will give them time to battle the Angels, Rangers, and A’s, all under .500. It would seem that the Mariners are somewhere in between these two extremes, but much of this will depend on ownership decisions on how much they will sell at the deadline.
Merkel: Frankie Montas is Excellent
The brightest spot in the Oakland rotation is also the most surprising. Frankie Montas has become a legitimate fantasy asset. Right now he sits at 54 innings with a 2.67 ERA. He is striking out nearly a hitter per inning, while only walking less than two per nine. This performance is a far cry from everything Montas has done at the MLB level. Until 2019, Montas had thrown 112 innings and had only a measly 4.90 ERA to show for it. This isn’t surprising considering his previously pedestrian strikeout and walk rates. FIP and xFIP were not optimistic for improvement either so one can be forgiven for not expecting Montas to flourish like he is, if at all. But make no mistake: this is a player taking a huge step forward. All of his pitches have improved and he’s generating over two ground balls for every fly. That’s a career-best pace and, when combined with the Ks, a good way for a pitcher to breakout.
Osgood: Well, I’m Not Joey Gallo, I’m Joey Callo
While I tried to grab Joey Gallo wherever I could this year, I did so knowing that protecting my batting average elsewhere needed to be a priority. Gallo has hit 40+ home runs the past two seasons, with the feeling that 50 homers might be looming. Well so far this year, Gallo has increased his walk rate to 18.7%, forcing pitchers to throw more pitches in the zone and Gallo has taken advantage. A .275 average and .409 OBP, along with 13 homers, and even chipping in three steals have made Gallo invaluable in fantasy baseball this year. A .379 BABIP is likely a factor with the average, but if Gallo can keep the walk rate up, his OBP dynasty value will be through the roof, with the hope that he can stay around the .250 range in Batting Average leagues.
Merkel: The Yankees are Finding a Way
If you told me before the season that the Yankees would be atop the AL East on May 18th, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But if you told me they’d be atop the AL East when Gio Urshela, Clint Frazier, and Mike Tauchman would combine for more AB than Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks and Miguel Andujar, that would have been unexpected. And here we are. Few teams have been punished by the injury bug like New York, but Gleyber Torres, Luke Voit and DJ LeMahieu have led the Yanks’ offense all year while the team’s pitching has carried the team to the league’s fifth-best ERA… even without Luis Severino!
The Bronx Bombers are finding a way. Credit to Aaron Boone for the job he is doing. With Hicks now back in action, and Stanton set to return in the coming weeks, the road should get easier. And Judge and Severino shouldn’t be too far behind, either. Considering where this team is at already, it’s scary to think about what they might accomplish if they ever get to full strength.
Osgood: Rays fans need to step it up
There is a team in Major League Baseball who won 90 games last year, is on pace for over 100 wins this year, until recently was first place of a very competitive AL East but is 29th in attendance out of 30 teams averaging 14,540 fans per game. The Tampa Rays have two front line starters when Tyler Glasnow is healthy, along with Blake Snell, an excellent bullpen, Austin Meadows, Tommy Pham, Yandy Diaz, a bunch of people named “Lowe”, and an innovative young manager who is working with a roster that has the lowest payroll in the entire league. It’s frustrating to tune in and watch the most exciting young team in the league playing in front of barely 10,000 fans many nights.
It sounds as if it would be very difficult for the team to move until 2027, without an ugly court battle ensuing, but there are many cities that would appreciate this team on the eastern side of this country to keep the Rays in the AL East. Montreal, Nashville, Brooklyn would all qualify. Oklahoma City might be pushing it, but Houston is in the AL West, if we’re getting creative. Get it together down there Tampa!
Merkel: Danny the Disappointment
With few exceptions, the fantasy catching landscape is an apocalyptic wasteland. Enter Danny Jansen. The rook had me hooked coming into 2019 due to the amazing offensive prowess he displayed in the minors. He also made a solid impression during last season’s debut. “Here is a catcher,” I thought, “who will save me from this cold, cold world.” So I drafted him in three leagues. Fast forward to now and I no longer roster Danny Jansen anywhere. His 2019 has been dreadful. In 112 PA he has a .174 AVG, 7 R, 1 HR, 6 RBI and a .506 OPS. The homer? His first came on May 17th! He and his 1.75 GB/FB ratio have literally been worse than nothing. Perhaps he’ll turn things around. There’s certainly still time, and he has done enough in the minors for my hopes to linger. But this isn’t the Danny Jansen I was expecting. Not even close.
Osgood: Mitchy ISO
Oh, other than Yonny Chirinos and Marcus Walden being Top 30 pitchers, and Jalen Beeks well on his way? I’ve been very impressed with Mitch Moreland time and time again coming up with big hits with runners on late in games. Moreland is only hitting .227 but depending on which categories your league uses, the slash line of .227/.322/.563/.885 is more tolerable. But of his 29 hits this year, he’s made them all count by slugging 12 home runs, 7 doubles, with only ten singles, adding up to a preposterous .336 ISO. Moreland doesn’t play often against lefties, but with World Series MVP Steve Pearce hitting only .111, the Red Sox will need to make a decision on who gets those at-bats against lefties. For the time being, ride out Mitchy Four Bags.
Merkel: The Improving ChiSox
The Twins look ready to steal the Central Division from the complacent Indians, but one of the biggest stories from the AL Central has to be the improving Chicago White Sox. Yoan Moncada is becoming the player we hoped for, Tim Anderson looks like a wise investment, Jose Abreu remains a steady presence in their lineup, and Lucas Giolito looks like a completely different pitcher. They even called up Eloy Jimenez. Good things are happening on the South Side. While the pitching staff overall is in need of an overhaul, they have a lot of talent in the pipeline and a ton of financial flexibility to spare. They won’t compete in 2019, but they’ll be a team to watch in the next two seasons as Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease, Luis Robert, and Nick Madrigal earn call ups. It also won’t be surprising to see them spend that Manny Machado money on another big-fish free agent this offseason. ChiSox fans are ready for their team to return to the postseason. You should be too.
Osgood: Indians Treading Water
At 23-19, the Cleveland Indians may seem like a disappointment thus far, but I would argue they’ve overcome quite a bit of adversity to be only 4.5 games behind the Twins at the quarter pole. After a weak effort in offseason free agency, the Indians had little room for error in their lineup. Francisco Lindor’s calf injury, which was followed by an ankle injury during rehab, caused him to miss the first 19 games. Jose Ramirez is still hitting .191 after 43 games played. The only player with more than 100 at-bats hitting over .240 is Carlos Santana. Add to that a significant upper back strain to preseason darling Mike Clevinger, and a fractured arm for long-time ace Corey Kluber, and the staff is now being patched together as well. A great bullpen, a long time Terry Francona staple, is keeping the Indians afloat. Brad Hand has converted all 11 of his save opportunities with a 1.53 ERA, Dan Otero’s ERA is 2.70 in 15 games, Adam Cimber 3.18 in 20 games, but most importantly Cleveland is employing Bond Villain Nick Wittgren who has allowed two runs in 16 innings.
The Indians need to get everyone healthy at once, trade for a bat or two at the deadline, and I still believe they’ll win the AL Central. They have a Top 3 manager in the game in Francona, a team that is two years removed from game seven of the World Series, and can line up a staff of Bauer, Kluber, Carrasco, Clevinger, and Bieber for the stretch run.
Merkel: I Like Byron Buxton?
Byron Buxton has been on my ‘Do Not Draft’ list for years. The price didn’t align with expected results last year, and this year I didn’t see the point of even taking a flier on him. As a BB/K hardliner, there wasn’t a lot for me to be excited about with Buxton. So I scoffed at his spring fireworks and didn’t draft him anywhere. Now? I’m surprised to say that I kind of like the guy. His BB/K has gone from dreadful (0.11) to playable (0.29). Beyond that, he is hitting the ball hard and in the air. Right now he is one of 12 qualified hitters with an ISO over .200, and a GB% less than 30%. It’s hard to not be excited about some of the company he’s keeping on that list, and it’s hard to not see this boding well for his immediate future. If you didn’t give up on the uber-prospect, you deserve to reap the rewards for your patience. I was wrong on this one.
Osgood: Anderson bat flipping into stardom
How long do we question Tim Anderson’s performance and keep waiting for regression before we just accept him as a reliable source of everything on our fantasy teams? I certainly regret having zero shares of Anderson this year, as he sits behind only Bellinger, Yelich, Springer, and Mondesi on the ESPN player rater. He’s never walked enough, he’s always struck out a bit too much (down to 19.9% this year), he barrels 6.6% of the balls he puts in play (197th in MLB), his exit velocity is 88.9 (T-171 in MLB), his BABIP is .368 and probably unsustainable. Okay, I get it. But a .325 avg, 8 HR, 24 RBI, 13 SB, 26 runs, 134 wRC+, the most overrated bat flip of the season, the most underrated bat flip of the season, and depending on which projection systems you’re using, another 15-20 steals and another 12-15 HRs on the way. I need to go find myself some Tim Anderson somewhere and make up for this.
( Follow Bob on Twitter @BobOsgood15 )