The Strikezone, the Schedule and other Observations (04/12/01)
The New Strikezone
Through the first 10 games of the season, the change to the higher strike is definitely having an effect. Run scoring is down as predicted. As are walks and home runs. A number of young pitchers have emerged as forces to be reckoned with. And a number of veterans are showing signs that they could struggle. Even more telling, we may be seeing a change in the way offense will be conducted this year.
The latest numbers though the 10th of April show that walks, homers and run scoring are all down about 10%. Strikeouts have increased almost 20%, but the players who generally strike out a lot, aren't striking out that much more frequently with a few exceptions. Yes, Pat Burrell is one pace to strike out more than 300 times, but then again, Mark Grudzialanek is on pace to hit 90 home runs. First week projections will get those kind of results sometimes. Anyway, each of these developments was predicted.
A more interesting study is the pitchers who are thriving in this environment. Greg Maddux seems to have become even more dominant, despite not throwing hard. Rick Reed has not collapsed either, pitching 2 terrific complete games. Hideo Nomo doesn't have the fastball he once had, but managed to fool Oriole hitters enough using the full range of the strikezone to throw the earliest no-hitter in major league history. Kevin Tapani, Denny Neagle and Pat Hentgen are also surprising to find near the top of the leader board. I think part of their success, at least from watching Nomo's no-no, is that the umps are still not comfortable NOT calling the outside strikes. So for now, there are going to be a lot of dominating pitching performances from all types of pitchers.
On the more predictable side, Chris Carpenter, Ramon Ortiz, Matt Clement and Wade Miller have all stepped forward as dominating starters. Kerry Wood had an outstanding outing to open the season. Matt Morris followed up a dreadful effort at Coors with an impressive rematch with the Rockies in St. Louis. Each of these young hard-throwing pitchers should continue to develop into top tier starters. Add Javier Vasquez, who was too good last year to be considered a sleeper this year, to the list. Esteban Loaiza, Russ Ortiz, Rick Ankiel and Wilson Roberts have also looked very strong to start the season.
Neither is it too surprising that Tom Glavine and David Wells haven't been very effective. Glavine has a history of great April's, so his struggles should be taken very seriously. Chuck Finley also looks like he's gonna struggle with the change as the spots he used to hit for strikes simply aren't called that way any more.
One of the big surprises is the struggles of Randy Johnson, who got smacked around by the Cardinals in his second start. The complaint was that he wasn't getting the outside strike with his slider. Look. Johnson is a great pitcher who can throw his pitches by the best of them. He doesn't need the outside strike to be called in order to succeed. When he's on, he can spot his slider just about anywhere he wants. It's not as though he was so stubborn that he was going to force the ump to call that a strike by continually going out there. A more logical explanation is that he simply couldn't spot it, in large part because he was still tired from his first start in which he threw 133 pitches. Had this occurred in the middle of the season, it might be a different story; Johnson has a history of coping with high pitch counts and by then his body would be conditioned for that kind of workload. But it was the first start of the season. Throwing more than 120 pitches this early in the season is simply insane. Maybe manager Bob Brenly hasn't been listening to anything that's been going on regarding pitch counts for the past several years.
As for the offense, the teams that had been handicapped by the small strikezone in recent years, that is teams that didn't draw a lot of walks, seem to be faring much better with the larger strikezone than others. Toronto and Montreal have each come out of the gate blazing and have done so at the expense of two good teams; the Blue Jays vs the Yanks in a 3-game set and the Expos sweeping the Mets. Minnesota also fits this mold, but have not really proven much by dominating the Tigers and the Royals. Still, it should be interesting to see how these teams fare in the long run vs traditionally patient teams like the A's, Yankees and Mets.
The Unbalanced Schedule
Who would you rather play in 6 of your first 9 games, the Royals or the White Sox. Or the Indians. This was the question the schedule makers apparently were dealing with when they had the Yanks open with the Royals, a team they have thoroughly dominated (28-7) the past 3 years. So I'm not sure what the Yanks' fast start tells us, other than they still have the Royals' number.
Is it surprising that the Twins are off to a hot start? Not really when you consider that 5 of their first 8 games have come against the Tigers. The other 3 have come against the Royals.
Conversely, Atlanta's early season struggles could be due to facing an evenly matched opponent, the Mets, in 5 of their first 9. Of course, that doesn't explain away their spanking at the hands of the Marlins.
The way the schedule is laid out, we may not really know who the favorites for the playoffs really are until late May or early June.
The AL Predictions
Obviously, the Nomar out, the Red Sox' chances of winning the division diminishes. Former teammate Mo Vaughn implored him to sit out the season to make sure his wrist is properly healed after the surgery. Depending on how well the Sox pitching staff holds up, that might not be a bad idea. If only Nomo and Martinez are pitching effectively by the time he's healthy enough to come back, it might already be too late for the Sox to make a run at the playoffs. Besides, most of the key players are signed through next year. It'd much better to have a fully healthy Nomar than one still recovering from injury. However, if Bret Saberhagen's comeback is successful, and/or Paxton Crawford continues to pitch well, then he might as well give it a shot this year. Unless you're the Yankees, no one knows when your next shot at the brass ring will be.
In the Central, I have to downgrade the Royals chances of not finishing in the cellar. Their pitching looks terrible. I still am not impressed with the Twins offense, but that team seems to have more going for it than the Royals and the Tigers, especially with Meluskey out. The Twins will finish in third. Who knows, if the Indians and White Sox pitching staffs continue the way they have so far, the Twins might finish first. (Just kidding.)
Despite getting beat by the Mariners in 4 of their first 5 meetings, I still like the A's to win the West. However, the Mariners have looked pretty good so far. I was wrong to discount them so early. I don't think they can win the division, but they could make it an interesting race. If they can find anyone to pitch behind Ortiz and Schoenweiss, I still think the Angels have enough to pull off a 2nd place finish.