5 Takeaways from the 2019 Season: First Quarter Edition

Stats of 5/24

The MLB season is a quarter of the way through and as usual some things have gone the way we thought. Mike Trout has continued to put up elite numbers, and the Miami Marlins continue to flounder in last place. However, there have been a lot of surprises from guys many had never heard of. Here are some things we’ve learned through the first two months of baseball:

1. Last year was no fluke, Christian Yelich is a top 5 player in baseball.

Christian Yelich was a solid contributor for the lowly Marlins from 2014-2017, averaging 3.9 fWAR. When he was traded to the Brewers, many people predicted an increase in offensive production due to lineup protection and a better offensive ballpark, but very few saw last year coming. After posting a solid yet unspectacular .823 OPS during the first half of the 2018 season, he proceeded to put up Bonds-like numbers in the second half. His 1.219 OPS after the All-Star Break propelled the Brewers to a division title, and allowed Yelich to capture the batting title and the NL MVP award.

Many thought regression was inevitable; however, he has proven the doubters wrong. His 1.172 OBPS is not too far off from his elite numbers in the second half of last season. In addition to improvements in his walk rates and strikeout rates, he is making harder contact with the ball — after posting a hard-hit rate of 50% in 2018, he is up to 56% in 2019 — and he has managed to cut down his BABIP from .385 to a much more sustainable .305. He is carrying an offense that has seen many key 2018 contributors struggle, including Jesus Aguilar and Travis Shaw. The only reason he is not leading the league in every category is because Cody Bellinger is on another planet right now. If Yelich keeps this up, he will be a front runner for his second NL MVP award.

2. The Nationals are not good

Very little has gone right for the Nationals this season. While top of the rotation has been rock solid between Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin, and Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, and Howie Kendrick have been forces with the bat, the rest of the team has underperformed.

The back of the rotation has ranged from below average (Anibal Sanchez) to awful (Jeremy Hellickson). Brian Dozier has looked absolutely lost at the plate over the first two months of the season, while his double play partner Trea Turner has spent most of the season on the disabled list. Injuries have also forced the Nationals to rely on Gerardo Parra to play first base, which is never a good sign for an offense that is looking to get back on track.

Perhaps the most glaring issue for the Nationals is their bullpen. Their 7.09 ERA is nearly two runs higher than the second worst National League team (you guessed it, the Miami Marlins). While Sean Doolittle has performed admirably as the Nationals closer despite some recent struggles, the rest of their bullpen has been an unmitigated disaster. If the starter does not go 8 innings, the Nationals are in trouble. Already 9 games out of first place, the Nationals need to turn it around fast if they want to salvage this season.

3. The Astros may have the best offense EVER.

The infamous 1927 Yankees posted the best wRC+ in Major League Baseball history. Led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, they checked in with a team wRC+ of 126. The 2019 Astros are currently on pace to top them, with a 132 wRC+. They lead the league in slugging percentage, while also posting the second lowest strikeout rate. Their team batting average is a full 20 points higher than anyone else’s. They currently have five position players on pace for 6 fWAR or more, and that is with 2017 AL MVP Jose Altuve spending time on the disabled list.

George Springer has broken out in a big way this season, as only mike Trout has accumulated more fWAR in the AL to this point. Michael Brantley is building off of his solid 2018 season with the Indians, and is re-establishing himself as one of baseball’s best players. He is one of just four players in baseball with a strikeout rate below 10%, while also hitting for power. Robinson Chirinos has raised his walk rate, lowered his strikeout rate, and is on pace for career highs across the board offensively. This division race will probably be over by early August so the story for the 2019 Astros in the regular season looks like it will be how will their offense rank amongst all time great groups in baseball history. Side note, Marlins may also have the WORST offense of all time but that’s not as fun to talk about.

4. We all overreacted about the Cubs this winter

After the Milwaukee Brewers captured the NL Central crown in 2018, many people thought this would be the end of the Cubs dynasty. PECOTA projected the Cubs to finish last in the NL Central this year, sending Cubs fans into a frenzy. However, despite improvements by the rest of the teams in the division, the Cubs have continued to dominate in a very competitive NL Central. People forgot last year how good Kris Bryant was before his injury plagued 2018, and he has improved his plate discipline this year to go along with this power and underrated defensive versatility. Javier Baez, Wilson Contreras, and Anthony Rizzo are producing All-Star level seasons, as all three have wRC+ of at least 140. Jon Lester has looked sharper in 2019 despite his mediocre win-loss record. Rotation mates Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, and Cole Hamels have all been solid with FIPs in the 3 range. While there continue to be some bad contracts on this team (looking at you, Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood), this team simply has too much talent to not at the very least play meaningful games deep into September.

5.  The Cy Young Front Runners are…. ???

This is a race we have learned basically nothing about through the first quarter of the season. No pitcher is putting up as good a resume as DeGrom, Scherzer, or Nola did in 2018. Scherzer somehow leads the majors in fWAR for pitchers but he has not looked nearly as sharp in 2019.  There are a bunch of pitchers with good ERA’s and bad advanced numbers like Zach Davies and Jordan Lyles. There are also guys where the reverse is the case — Zack Wheeler, for example, has a 1.6 fWAR and a very solid xFIP but an ERA well over 4. The guys who seem to fit the build are not pitchers with much of a track record like Matthew Boyd, Tyler Glasnow, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Glasnow recently landed on the disabled list, and Ryu has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career, so they might have a hard time winning the Cy Young Award. There are a ton of big name starters recovering from shaky starts, including Sale, deGrom, Cole, and Bumgarner. Luis Castillo has had a fantastic start so far to the season, but it is remained to be seen whether or not he can keep up his dominance for the Reds. It will be interesting to see how these races develop over the next few months.

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