2021 MLB Season: April / May

Every spring, I’ll put down some thoughts about the fresh MLB season. Of course, 2020 was an anomaly, considering that the season was only 60 games and didn’t get started until late July. This year, I thought I’d wait a few weeks and — rather than make predictions about the upcoming season — I’d just write about what we’ve seen so far in the young season.

The Shohei Ohtani show

No player has generated as much buzz this spring as the Angels’ two-way star, Shohei Ohtani. Early on, Angels’ management talked about letting Ohtani play with few restrictions this season. The idea was to showcase Ohtani’s otherworldly ability as a top-of-the-rotation starter and a middle-of-the-order bat. These skills were on full display in an electrifying performance on April 4th against the White Sox. Ohtani took the bump for the Halos, firing fastballs in excess of 100mph over his 4+ innings. But his best pitch is an unhittable splitter, a devastating pitch that cascades out of the strike zone, making the best hitters in the world look like Little-Leaguers again.

But what made that April 4th game so memorable was that Ohtani not only flashed ace-like skills on the mound; but he also put on a show in the batter’s box. Batting for himself, hitting second in the Angels’ order, Ohtani blasted a majestic home run with an exit velocity of well over 100mph. I don’t know how long this will last, but we ought to take it in and acknowledge Ohtani’s greatness. You may not see this again, folks, a player who can hit 100mph both on the mound and in the box. Ohtani is hands down the front runner for American League MVP in the early going this season.

No-nos Galore

The early going has been marked by some other notable pitching performances, with four no-hitters in the first five+ weeks of the season. Joe Musgrove threw the first no-hitter in Padres history on April 9th. A few days later, White Sox lefty Carlos Rodon put up a no-hitter against Cleveland, a fantastic performance, especially for a player who had been released and re-signed by the Sox in the offseason. A few days ago, O’s starter John Means absolutely dominated the Mariners in a game that has been hailed as one of the top 20 pitching performances ever. And last night, Cincinnati’s Wade Miley no-hit the Indians for the second time this season.

What’s with all the no-hitters this year? Is this just a fluke or is there something else going on? Individual pitching performances are always the most important factor in a baseball game. A dominant starting pitcher can put a team on his back and carry them to victory almost by himself. I once heard the Hall of Famer John Smoltz say, “If I make my pitch, you’re not going to be able to hit it.” That’s not so much cockiness as it is truth-telling. Give me a pitcher who can make his pitches and my team’s probably going to roll.

But I think these no-hitters are also indicative of the hitting philosophy of many big-league teams these days. No doubt you’ve heard all about launch angles and exit velocity. Those are simply metrics for gauging the dramatic shift toward swinging for the fences that we’ve seen across the majors in the last few years. Contact rates are as low as ever, but players can still garner big time contracts if they run into 20-30 balls each season. The increase in pitching velocity (buoyed by a never-ending stream of late inning relievers throwing 95mph or higher) coupled with an all-or-nothing approach from the batters has contributed to what Bill James has dubbed “three true outcomes” baseball. When a hitter steps into the batters box in 2021, his plate appearance will most likely end one of three ways: with a strikeout, a walk, or a home run. Any other outcome is increasingly rare.

All of this points to some of the major problems the game faces as it moves forward. The current MLB product is often times unwatchable to anyone other than the most ardent fan. Games drag on longer than ever before and the ball is rarely put in play. I believe MLB understands these problems and they’re dong what they can to rectify them, but there aren’t many easy answers that I can see. Until something changes, we might see even more no-hitters as players refuse to cut down their swings, even with two strikes.

Early Season Surprises

Each team has played 30+ games so far, so it’s fair to start noticing some trends and early-season surprises.

I’m a little surprised by the standings in the AL East. As of this writing, the Red Sox are in first place with a 20-13 record. They seem pretty legit, too: their run differential is the third best in the American League so far. It’s also a bit surprising to see the Yankees mired in fourth place with a 16-16 record. Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge appear to be healthy, which is great for the Yankees. But many of the other regulars have underperformed (Gleyber Torres, Aaron Hicks, Gary Sanchez, Clint Frazier) and the Yankee pitching looks pedestrian outside of Gerrit Cole. If they don’t turn it around soon, this could be a long summer in the Bronx.

Over in the AL Central, Kansas City has been one of the early surprise teams. Until their recent 2-8 stretch, the Royals were in first place in their division. But with a -17 run differential, I think we’re seeing them come back to where everyone expects them to finish. I’m also surprised by Minnesota’s slow start. I really like their everyday lineup and their pitching. But injuries have hit them hard with John Donaldson, Miguel Sano, Andrelton Simmons and now Alex Kiriloff all missing time. Based on run differential, the only truly dominant team in this division has been Chicago. But injuries to Jimenez and Robert have left glaring holes in their lineup, too. This could be a competitive division throughout the 2021 season.

After a slow start, the Houston Astros are making their way toward the top of the pack in the AL West. I expect Oakland to contend all season, but the Astros are still a force in the American League, even after losing George Springer to the Blue Jays in free agency. I think Houston’s success this year will largely depend upon young pitchers Jose Urquidy and Christian Javier. So far, they have been stabilizing forces in the Astros rotation. Along with Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers, the Astros boast four quality arms in their starting rotation. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them have the best record in the American League from this point forward.

In the National League, everyone still expects the Dodgers and the Padres to fight it out for Senior Circuit supremacy. But what about the upstart Giants? As of this writing, San Fran sits in first place with a 19-13 record. Leading the charge is Buster Posey, the former NL MVP who is playing like it’s 2011, not 2021. But the story for the Giants has been their pitching. Alex Wood, Anthony DeSclafani, Kevin Gausman, Johnny Cueto and Tyler Rogers might not sound like the most fearsome pitching staff, but they have been extremely effective in the early going. The Dodgers, of course, are built for the long haul; they sit just two and a half games behind the Giants, despite former MVP Cody Bellinger having played in only four games so far this season. At full health, I expect the Dodgers to win this division easily, but it always helps when there is a little extra on the line in their games against the Giants.

In the NL Central, I expected it to be a two-horse race and that’s been the case thus far. I really like Milwaukee’s pitching depth: Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff are a devastating 1-2 atop the rotation and Hader and Williams are lights out in the late innings. But this lineup has plenty of holes, particularly after the demotion of Keston Hiura. The most balanced team in the division appears to be the Cardinals, whose +20 run differential is good for fourth-best in the league. With Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader returning from the IL, the outfield defense is the best in baseball. And both O’Neill and Bader have delivered key base hits in the Cardinals recent surge to the top of the NL Central standings. The loss of Jordan Hicks will hurt the bullpen, but the Cardinals’ pitching staff is more talented than many people recognize. Miles Mikolas is on rehab assignment; his return to the rotation should push John Gant back to a late-inning role, helping cover the loss of Hicks. I love the Cardinals as a sleeper pick in the National League this season.

I have no idea what’s happening in the NL East. The Braves are supposed to be good, but they haven’t been so far. Philadelphia sits in first place, but I don’t think many people believe in them. Miami is middle of the pack and they’re the only team in the division to score more runs than they’ve allowed (+25). I still think Washington has a puncher’s chance in this division, thanks to their starting rotation. But at this point, this division is up for grabs. I’d expect the Braves to get it together at some point but right now they don’t look like they’re ready to challenge Los Angeles or San Diego for the NL pennant.

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