Change-UpApril 25, 2007
Best in Class
By Patrick Sullivan

Every year we all place a little too much stock in early season results. Yet while it's too early to discern much of anything at this point, there is still more evidence than we had four weeks ago when we were all running around like we knew something predicting what would unfold this season.

With that in mind, I would like to take a look at the five teams that have looked to me like the best in the Bigs thus far. Some boast sterling records, all have impressive run differentials and in my opinion, at least four of the five will be playing October baseball. I will have a look at what has gone right thus far for each team, where the clubs might see some improvement, and offer up an overall forecast for where these teams stand.

1) New York Mets

Boy did I miss it with these guys badly. The Mets have been by far the most dominant team in baseball thanks to a lineup getting contributions from some surprising standouts and an unyielding 1-through-12 pitching staff.

Why they may be in for a slowdown:

Player            AVG   OBP   SLG
Shawn Green      .342  .415  .562
Moises Alou      .382  .442  .529
Jose Valentin    .283  .362  .500
                  K/9   WHIP   ERA
Pitching Staff   6.75   1.22  2.46

None of the above is remotely sustainable. Green, Alou and Valentin will all regress significantly while there is no way this pitching staff will continue to dominate on an historic level, much less be even one of the better staffs in the league. I will concede that the bullpen figures to be tremendous all season long, but I question how well John Maine, El Duque, Tom Glavine and Oliver Perez can continue to hold up.

Why they may not slow down at all:

Player            AVG   OBP   SLG
David Wright     .274  .376  .342
Carlos Delgado   .203  .273  .291

Wright and Delgado, career .304/.375/.518 and .281/.389/.554 hitters respectively, have the ability to offset the inevitable regression from those mentioned above.

All in all, I don't see this Mets team falling too far off but the pitching staff will begin to show its truer colors before long. I took the Phillies at the beginning of the season and though I am tempted to back off my prediction, I will hang in there given their four game win streak. The Mets win the Wild Card at worst, however.

2) Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers are 13-7, tied for the most wins in the Bigs and boast a 99-69 run differential. They have been excellent in the early going and better still for them, it has come mostly against division foes.

Why they may be in for a slowdown:

Player            AVG   OBP   SLG
Luis Gonzalez    .313  .397  .500
Player            K/9   WHIP   ERA
Mark Hendrickson  7.02  0.66   1.62
Brett Tomko       9.00  1.53   2.65
Brad Penny        3.08  1.33   1.37

While these players are all in for a fall from April grace, the real reason the Dodgers are going to come back to earth is that their offense has been getting it done with smoke and mirrors. Overall, the team has hit at a pedestrian .267/.333/.384 clip while with runners in scoring position, Los Angeles has hit .294/.378/.435. You say clutch, I say unsustainable.

Why they may not slow down at all:

                       AVG   OBP   SLG   
Rafael Furcal 2007    .170  .235  .213
Furcal Career         .285  .350  .412  
                       
                       AVG   OBP   SLG (Numbers yielded)
Derek Lowe 2007       .400  .486  .500
Lowe Career           .262  .319  .378

Lowe and Furcal will be much, much better before it is all said and done. Of the teams on this list I think the Dodgers are the likeliest to miss out on post-season play. But you never know - the games count in April too and perhaps Los Angeles has staked themselves out far enough to stave off their NL West opponents over the long haul.

3) Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox have gotten off to a great start thanks to a lights out starting staff and strong hitting. The Blue Jays tempered New England's enthusiasm a bit over the last couple of nights, offering Tim Wakefield and Julian Tavarez something of a reality check as they took two straight from Boston at the Fens and outscored them 17-6 in the process.

Why they may be in for a slowdown:

                  K/9  WHIP  ERA
Josh Beckett     9.12  1.05  2.55
Tim Wakefield    5.54  1.12  2.08
The Bullpen      6.39  1.22  2.55

Josh Beckett may well be good but he is not this good. Tim Wakefield may well be dependable but he is not winning the Cy Young Award. The Bullpen may be better than people thought it would be but it will not continue like this.

Why they may not slow down at all:

Player            AVG   OBP   SLG
Manny Ramirez    .197  .296  .296
Kevin Youkilis   .242  .342  .333
Julio Lugo       .265  .359  .324
Dustin Pedroia   .191  .309  .234
Coco Crisp       .214  .250  .304
Jacoby Ellsbury  .434  .483  .660 (in Portland of the Eastern League)

This offense will get going, and will easily offset any regression from the pitching staff. Boston is the real deal.

4) New York Yankees

The Yankees are 8-11 but only because they have been abysmal in close games. They have a +20 run differential and have been decimated by injuries. Like every other year, they will be heard from and until mathematically eliminated, should not be counted out.

Why they may be in for a slowdown:

                  AVG   OBP   SLG
Alex Rodriguez   .385  .444  1.013
                  K/9   WHIP   ERA
Andy Pettitte    4.62   1.30   1.78

Both A-Rod and Pettitte are super players but both are performing well above where they will settle into as the season wears on.

Why they may not slow down at all:

Player            AVG   OBP   SLG
Derek Jeter      .316  .389  .392
Bobby Abreu      .293  .398  .360
Robinson Cano    .307  .354  .387
Johnny Damon     .250  .364  .375

All of these players figure to get better. Further, Hideki Matsui returned to the lineup and homered last night, while Mike Mussina and Carl Pavano will return soon. Also, Philip Hughes makes his debut against Toronto tomorrow. Between under-performance, an encouraging run differential, health that figures to improve and Hughes, the Yanks have a lot to be optimistic about.

5) San Diego Padres

The Padres are 12-8 and are sporting a +15 run differential while weathering some terrible output from players they were counting on to chip in quite a bit. The Padres look like they are in it for the long haul to me.

Why they may be in for a slowdown:

                  AVG   OBP   SLG
Khalil Greene    .300  .333  .600
                 K/9   WHIP   ERA
The Bullpen     6.81   0.91   1.98

Nothing against Greene, as he may very well make a nice leap this year but there is no way he slugs .600 in 2007. And again, as much as I love the Pads bullpen, this is just ridiculous. Only one Padres reliever has an ERA over 3.00 and just two have an ERA over 1.69! It's not sustainable.

Why they may not slow down at all:

Player            AVG   OBP   SLG
Kevin Kouzmanoff .122  .204  .204
Mike Cameron     .203  .289  .253
Brian Giles      .318  .366  .412
                  K/9   WHIP   ERA
Clay Hensley     3.60   2.25   9.45

As you can see, the Padres are getting very little from some of their key players, though one could argue Brian Giles does not belong on this list. I think what Kouz and Cameron have to offer with the sticks will make up for regression on the run prevention side and the Padres will stay in the thick of things out west.


Comments

Nice article, this is also a good time in the season to try and sort between contenders and pretenders.

That said, there are plenty of individual points made here that don't sit well with me. The first point may not be as significant, but...the Mets have been the most dominant team in the NL. I'd hate to see what would happen to the likes of Maine and Perez (ouch, especially Perez) against Boston's and New York's lineups.

While the slugging percentage may be a little much, I don't see why Green can't sustain his performance. He USED to be that kind player, and perhaps he's finally gotten back to a comparable point. The same thing goes, to a lesser extent, for Gonzalez; his OBP especially should remain about where it is for the duration of the season.

Boston's bullpen shouldn't stay that good, and Wakefield's value has never been in raw dominance like he has shown so far (he certainly won't stay right there, although he could surprise and not stray too far), but how could you possibly be so sure about Beckett? Isn't that exactly what people have expected from him for a good decade now, and isn't that what Boston paid a bundle for? I'd like to think he'll not only sustain those numbers but continue to put them up for the next 5 years or so.

Jeter's and Abreu's slugging numbers are both too low, but beyond that the numbers for the pair, as well as for Cano, are not far from what actually should be expected from them. Damon will certainly improve, but other improvement from those guys shouldn't be counted on too much.

Lastly, I would actually agree with Giles being put in the spot he's in. While nobody can be sure what kind of power numbers he'll produce, his true value has always been in his OBP, and there is no way his will stay that low.

I don't think Lugo's numbers are that far below his career norms. Boston's offense could make better use of him at the bottom of their lineup. That would probably be the quickest way to fix their offensive problems.

Braves haven't lost a series yet, took TWO of TWO series from the 'most dominant team in baseball', as you say, and you don't even have them listed in your top 5.

What the heck are you looking at? Sure, the Braves have a few questions...but not more than any other team...and they share first place.

The Braves definitely may be one of the 5 best teams. It's just their run differential comes in beneath the others and their 93 ERA+ pitching staff thus far in 2007 scared me off a bit.

Still, they may belong ahead of the Yanks and Pads here. No vehement counter-argument here.

Thanks for the comment.

" I'd hate to see what would happen to the likes of Maine and Perez (ouch, especially Perez) against Boston's and New York's lineups."

As seen in ST, Perez totally dominated Boston's lineup with Ortiz & Ramirez striling out 2X each...

AL East is not as good as it is cracked up to be and both the Yankees & red Sox have holes in many elements of their game... As far as with Boston they have a shaky rotation, and just wait for the second go through with their import to see if he really has the stuff...

If Boston's rotation is shaky, whose is good?

Let's be realistic, Matsuzaka is starting to be caught up with (Yes he will be good, but not a savior), Schilling is becoming pedestrian, Wakefield, his era is 2 pointlower than his career and only expect it to get worse... and Beckett, well he'll be good for 15-18 starts before he's on the DL... And last but nit least, Taveres... enough said...

1. D Matsuzaka - 4.00

2. C Schilling - 3.81

3. T Wakefield - 2.08

4. J Beckett - 2.55

5. J Tavarez - 8.36


No team has a solid 1-5 this year

Padres' 2006 bullpen stats:

Cla Meredith: 50.2 IP, 1.07 ERA
Trevor Hoffman: 63.0 IP, 2.14 ERA
Scott Cassidy: 42.2 IP, 2.53 ERA
Brian Sweeney: 56.1 IP, 3.20 ERA
Alan Embree: 52.1 IP, 3.27 ERA
Scott Linebrink: 75.2 IP, 3.57 ERA

Don't be surprised if Towers has again amassed the best bullpen in baseball...

As a whole, Boston's starting pitchers are among the best in the American League, if not all of baseball. Opinions are opinions. But facts are facts.

Among its AL brethren, the Red Sox are 3rd in SP ERA (3.61) and BAA (.235), and #1 in K/BB (3:1). For context, the league averages are 4.45, .263, and 2:1. The numbers are even more impressive when you adjust for ballpark and competition, but I'll let them stand on their own merits now and am willing to do the same at the end of the year.

Of Jeter, Cano, Abreu and Damon, only Damon figures to get better.
Jeter is exactly on his career averages of BA and OBP. His SLG is due to rise in the 400's--he's only a homer or two off pace.
Abreu has been losing power for 2+ years now. I can see a slight bump in OBP, but not much in SLG. From watching him he looks like he's turned into a slap hitter.
Cano doesn't have a track record to go on like the other 3, but it's unrealistic to expect another .340 season from him. And since he doesn't hit for much power, his 06 SLG percentage looks like a career year to me.
Damon should improve alot, though.

Again, to be realistic:

Beckett career 3.81 era
Wakefield career 4.28 era
Schilling career 3.44 era
Tavarez career 4.39 era ( 4.79 as a starter, with his last year as a full time starter being 2002 with the Marlins and posted a 5.39 era)
Matsuzaka - unknown since it is unsure what he will actually equate to.

Vincent, you sure seem bent on putting the Red Sox down...I don't really get it.

If it's a debate you want, though...first, what is "ST"? I stand by what I said about Perez and the Mets' staff...the Red Sox have beem known to have REALLY bad offensive games semi-regularly, especially against lefties, but over the course of a season their offense is usually right up there with the best. No matter what, though, they're patient, the kind of patience few NL teams have...and Perez has been known to have some command...problems. That's not even starting with the other AL East teams, most especially the Yankees...what would Perez do with their lineup? 8 walks in 4 innings?

As for the rest of the Boston staff...good to see you pull out some very shallow analysis. Schilling is "pedestrian", even though his numbers are excellent following his first start (the first start of the year, in cold weather, where he obviously didn't have any of his pitches...he's been 100% different and right about normal since then)? As I said above, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Beckett has simply, finally, arrived at his potential. He probably won't stay this good, but why would a nice low 3.00 ERA be so difficult? Matsuzaka has been everything that was advertised...I don't know why you think he's supposed to be a "savior" (he isn't), but he's been excellent against everyone except the Yankees...and he's been solid with them too. You might not have been paying attention, but the majority of the damage the Yankees gave him in the Fenway start came off two weak bloopers by Giambi off of pitcher's pitches...that happens to even the best.

Wakefield does what he always does, some mediocre starts with some gems mixed in, but he'll eat innings and keep the team in a lot of games...I'll take that out of a fourth starter. As for Taveras, he's not going to be starting for much longer, so no matter what he does or doesn't do, there will be changes there. But out of a fifth starter, in April, who cares?

Come back with some valuable comments next time, not just some random musings, please.

P.S. The Red Sox "have holes in many elements of their game"? Do tell what they are, I don't see them!

Peter, look at things objectively...

Lets address each :

First well take Matsuzaka

APR 05
@KC 1 0 1.29 1 1 0 0 0 0 7.0 6 1 1 1 1 10
APR 11
SEA 0 1 2.57 1 1 0 0 0 0 7.0 8 3 3 0 1 4
APR 17
@TOR 0 1 2.70 1 1 0 0 0 0 6.0 3 2 2 0 3 10
APR 22
NYY 1 0 4.00 1 1 0 0 0 0 7.0 8 6 6 1 1 7
APR 27
@NYY 1 0 4.36 1 1 0 0 0 0 6.0 5 4 4 0 4 7

5 starts, 2 of which against KC & Seattle & 3 against AL East.
To say excellent is an overstatement, excellent in the 1st against KC, serviceable in the 2nd against Seattle, and good SO total against Toronto
The rationale is if a team pays 50+M for an unproven pitcher they are assuming him to be their ace (or close to). What I see here, cutting through the hype is a good pitcher, who may or may not do it. It will be interesting to see where all ends up once teams have a line on him.
The numbers speak for themselves.

Second well take Beckett

APR 04
@KC 1 0 1.80 1 1 0 0 0 0 5.0 2 1 1 0 4 5
APR 10
SEA 1 0 1.50 1 1 0 0 0 0 7.0 2 1 1 0 0 8
APR 16
LAA 1 0 1.50 1 1 0 0 0 0 6.0 6 1 1 1 1 5
APR 21
NYY 1 0 2.55 1 1 0 0 0 0 6.2 9 5 4 0 2 7
APR 26
@BAL 1 0 2.48 1 1 0 0 0 0 8.0 8 2 2 0 0 3

5 Starts. 2 of which against KC & Seattle, and yes he has been impressive this year. The concern I have with Beckett is that he has previously had hot starts in 04 & 05 with the Marlins and ended with a mid to high 3.00 era and not had more than 29 starts. With stints on the DL both years.

Thirdly well look at Schilling

APR 02
@KC 0 1 11.25 1 1 0 0 0 0 4.0 8 5 5 0 2 5
APR 08
@TEX 1 0 4.91 1 1 0 0 0 0 7.0 4 1 1 1 1 6
APR 14
LAA 1 0 2.84 1 1 0 0 0 0 8.0 4 0 0 0 1 4
APR 20
NYY 0 0 3.81 1 1 0 0 0 0 7.0 8 5 5 2 1 5
APR 25
@BAL 1 0 3.27 1 1 0 0 0 0 7.0 5 1 1 1 2 3

3 good starts, and 2 pedestrian starts. The concern is the drop in his SO ratio. When I said that he is looking pedestrian, this is said in comparison to Schillings past performances circa 01 02 03 -04. When watching his performances this year from an OBJECTIVE standpoint, there seems to be something missing.


As far as with Wakefield you are absolutely right, and he will have good & bad...

And Tavarez...

In regards to Perez, he has shown some real improvement

APR 06
@ATL 1 0 1.29 1 1 0 0 0 0 7.0 5 1 1 1 0 6
APR 11
PHI 0 1 3.72 1 1 0 0 0 0 2.2 1 3 3 0 7 2
APR 21
ATL 1 0 3.31 1 1 0 0 0 0 6.2 9 2 2 0 0 9
APR 27
@WSH 0 1 3.86 1 1 0 0 0 0 7.0 8 4 4 1 0 9

His start in Philly is awful on a 40 night. His other 3 starts, 2 of which against a good hitting Atlanta team and the last against Wash. Where he gave up a 3 run hr in the 1st and then settled down (If not for miss managing in the 6th by Randolph by allowing him to bat for himself with the bases loaded he would have a no decision or a W)

Peter, also note that other than in the Philly game where Perez gave up 7 walks, he hasn't walked a batter in the other 3.