1. Houston Astros—Before the season started, I created a spreadsheet with standings predictions from eight sources (Clay Davenport, Sports Illustrated, Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Bleacher Report, Rant Sports, Sporting News, and Eastside Sports). The average projection for the Houston Astros came out to 75-87, a winning percentage of .465, which had them finishing tied for 4th place in the AL West with the Texas Rangers and 14 games behind the Seattle Mariners, who were projected to win the division. With 46 games in the books, the Astros are 29-17 (.630) and have the second-best run differential in the American League. They currently have a six game lead on the rest of the division, which is the biggest lead of any division-leading team.
2. Oakland Athletics—The A’s are the anti-Astros. The “experts” projected the A’s to win 84 games and be in a dogfight for a wild card spot. Instead, they are currently tied with the Milwaukee Brewers for the worst record in baseball (16-30, .348) and are 13 games behind the Astros. A big part of the problem for the A’s has been a 2-13 record in one-run games. Generally, one-run games gravitate towards the .500 mark, so the A’s should get better in this area, while the division-leading Astros (11-5 in one-run games) should get worse. If they were both right around .500 in one-run games, the Astros would be 26-20 and the A’s would be 21-25 and the difference between them would be 5 games instead of 13.
3. Nelson Cruz—Looking at pre-season projections from seven different sources (Cairo, CBS, Davenport, Fangraphs Fans, Marcels, Steamer, and ZiPS), Nelson Cruz was projected to hit .254/.314/.454 with 71 R, 27 HR, and 84 RBI. Through 43 games (more than one-fourth of the season), Cruz is hitting .343/.401/.699 with 29 R, 17 HR, and 34 RBI. He’s on pace for 109 R, 64 HR, and 128 RBI. Of course, it’s very unlikely that he can keep up this pace, but even if you take his current numbers and add in a reasonable rest-of-season projection (from ZiPS or Steamer), he is expected to come close to 40 homers and 100 RBI. He had 40 homers and 108 RBI last year, but no one expected him to match those numbers after moving from hitter-friendly Camden Yards to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.
4. Dee Gordon--Dee Gordon is hitting .376, best in all of baseball. His pre-season combined projection was for a .266 average. The big red flag with Gordon is a .433 Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP). The highest BABIP over a full season going back to 2000 was a .404 mark by Jose Hernandez in 2002. Gordon’s career BABIP (including this year’s sky-high number) is .341 and last year his BABIP was .346. If you adjust his current batting line from a .433 BABIP to last year’s .346 mark, he would be hitting .300/.335/.377, which is very close to what he did last season: .289/.326/.378.
5. Aaron Harang—Coming into this season, Aaron Harang had pitched for four different teams over the last three years and posted a 4.08 ERA and 1.39 WHIP in 527 1/3 innings. He was worth an average of 1.6 WAR per season. His combined pre-season projection for 2015 was for a 4.33 ERA and 1.38 WHIP. And yet, with more than one-fourth of the season in the books, Aaron Harang is currently sixth in baseball in pitcher WAR, with 1.8. He has a 1.93 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. His strikeout rate (17.8%) is below average but his walk rate is good (5.8%). The big outlier is on home runs—Harang has allowed just 2 homers in 65 1/3 innings so far, which is far below his career rate. Harang’s rest-of-season projections haven’t changed much (4.29 ERA, 1.37 WHIP) so don’t expect a sub-2.00 ERA to last much longer.
6. Stephen Strasburg—Strasburg has a shocking 6.50 ERA and 1.69 WHIP through his first nine starts. He’s been battered around with a .390 BABIP allowed and a terrible 57.8% Left On Base percentage. The average BABIP in the National League this year is .298 and the average LOB% is 72.5%, so you can see just how much worse than average Strasburg has been in those categories. Despite those ugly numbers, Strasburg has struck out 21.2% of the batters he’s faced (20.3% is league average) and walked 6.1% (7.7% is league average). In the two metrics a pitcher has the most control over, Strasburg has been better than league average. His ERA “should” be about three runs better than it has been.
7. Hanley Ramirez—Hanley Ramirez has been REALLY bad in left field. His hitting (.263/.313/.480) has been a bit above league average. He has a 115 wRC+, which means he has been 15% better than the average hitter after league and park effects have been taken into account. His fielding, though, has been atrocious—the worst in all of baseball. He’s fielded so poorly that he is currently worth -0.6 WAR. That’s negative, meaning below replacement level. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, there isn’t much they can do about it right now. Hanley can’t be moved to shortstop or third because the Sox already have solid players there, and DH is taken by Big Papi, David Ortiz. Maybe Hanley could become a first baseman?
8. Stephen Vogt—Here is a list of the top 10 hitters so far this season in wRC+ (which accounts for offensive production, no defense, and is scaled so that 100 is league average): Bryce Harper, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, Stephen Vogt, Anthony Rizzo, Matt Carpenter, Prince Fielder, and Mike Trout. Meet Stephen Vogt, the most-shocking name on that top ten list. Vogt is a catcher for the Oakland A’s who is hitting .306/.408/.605 with 10 homers and 33 RBI in 152 plate appearances. His .298 BABIP is almost exactly the same as his 2014 BABIP. Vogt was projected to hit .257/.306/.397 with 11 homers in 434 plate appearances.
9. Kansas City Royals—After their surprising run all the way to the World Series last year, the “experts” expected the Royals to slip back to the pack this year. They were projected to win 79 games (.488 winning percentage). Instead, they are currently tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for the best record in baseball (28-16, .636) and are second to the Cardinals in run differential, at +52. The Royals have scored the second-most runs in the American League and allowed the second-fewest.
10. Shortstops—Among players who have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, ten of the bottom 21 players in the wRC+ metric are shortstops. Included among these ten shortstops are Troy Tulowitzki (.274/.289/.418, 73 wRC+), Jimmy Rollins (.201/.277/.333, 74 wRC+), and Starlin Castro (.271/.301/.345, 75 wRC+), all of whom were above average players on offense last season. Of the 22 shortstops who have come to the plate enough times to qualify for the batting title, just seven have been above average on offense, with the surprising Brandon Crawford (.301/.382/.514, 151 wRC+) leading the way.
Bobby Mueller has been a Pittsburgh Pirates fan going back to the 1979 World Series Championship team ("We R Fam-A-Lee!"). He suffered through most of the 1980s with the Pirates, then got a reprieve for a few years in the early 1990s, only to be crushed by Francisco Cabrera in 1992. After a 20-year stretch of losing seasons, the Pirates are looking good once again.
Larry Doby Day
Season Preview Wrap-Up
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Franchise 4--AL Central
Franchise 4--AL East
Franchise 4--NL West
Franchise 4--NL Central
Franchise 4--NL East
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Hall of Fame