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What Are The Indicators Of Things To Come?

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Oakland Athletics v Baltimore Orioles
He seems Phegley familiar...
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The first month of a season is a free ticket to “small sample theatre,” in which Tim Beckham’s OPS can be twice that of Mookie Betts. Today, as we see who’s hot and who’s not, we channel our inner Mark McGwire and proclaim, “I’m not here to talk about the past — I’m here to help predict the future.”

The Red Hot Seattle Mariners

With a hat tip to the Tampa Bay Rays, the hottest team out of the gate was the team that swept Oakland in Tokyo to open the season: the Seattle Mariners, winners in 13 of their first 16 games.

Last year, Seattle not only got off to a terrific start but they continued winning one-run games until their puny run differential had translated into a daunting won-loss record halfway through the season. Then they remembered that they’re the Mariners and folded like a cheap suit. It’s a long standing tradition up north.

Will this season be different? Probably not, honestly. The indicators suggest that Seattle is due for a fall, but this time it isn’t run differential as the Mariners’ impressive offense has already put them on the long side of a few blowouts.

First off, Seattle’s defense is really bad. Through their first 16 games the Mariners made 21 errors, which is not only 9 more than any American League team but it happens to be more than the Royals, Rays, Tigers, and A’s combined.

I mentioned Tim Beckham, he of the .340/.417/.660 batting line. Seattle’s starting shortstop has already been assessed with -5 DRS (defensive runs saved) with an UZR/150 of -27.5. Adding insult to insult, 5 of the Mariners’ 21 errors belong to Beckham. And that’s at the most important defensive position on the diamond. It doesn’t get much better from there.

The other negative indicator is one A’s fans can appreciate, and that is a questionable rotation. Hats off to Marco Gonzales for being on pace to go 40-0 this season, but in reality his 5.61/9IP K-rate is a better gauge of where his season is likely headed. Wade LeBlanc, Mike Leake, and the tattered remnants of King Felix don’t scream “break out the champagne” — only Yusei Kikuchi has the look of a possibly legitimate top-of-the-rotation arm.

That is not to say the Mariners are a bad team. They can hit, and hit some more, and in no way am I aiming to disparage the fine folks up north. I’m just calling out that if you’re panicking about Seattle running away from the pack, save that panic for a better cause.

The Red Hot Josh Phegley

Josh Phegley’s breakout could not have come at a better time. No sooner had the A’s put together a solidly uninspiring trio of catchers in Phegley, Nick Hundley, and Chris Herrmann but the most intriguing of the three, Herrmann, also the only LH batter, went down with knee surgery.

The A’s haven’t really missed a beat thanks to Phegley’s “stretch o’ major hotness”. Phegley’s .333/.351/.639 line includes HRs in back to back games, and goes well with the laser arm that has always been his calling card.

Is it real? One indicator might be his walk rate, which has never been high. Sadly, you cannot conclude that Phegley has turned his hitting around by becoming more selective or patient. His walk rate stands at all of 2.9%, his strong numbers fueled by a .333 BABIP.

Again, no disparaging intended, just reckoning. Ride the hot hand of Josh Phegley as long as you can, but be cautious about concluding that his mechanical adjustments have suddenly vaulted a career .227/.268/.383 hitter into an offensive force.

MVP Candidate Matt Chapman

Dude’s pretty darn good. But how good? Is Matt Chapman’s .302/.389/.556 batting (good for a 157 wRC+) anything like sustainable, or is he simply borrowing some of the Flintstone vitamins from Phegley’s locker?

I’m not saying Chapman is going to finish the season with a .300+ BA or a .389 OBP, but I’m here to tell you there has been nothing flukey about Chapman’s success so far this year. His patience, pitch recognition, and ability to balance a power swing with an all fields base hit approach, have been off the charts.

Some of these attributes are reflected in Chapman’s stunning 9.7% K-rate. Remember when his 30% K-rate in the minor leagues was a worrisome red flag? A single digit K-rate may not be sustainable but in his second full season in the big leagues Matt Chapman is NOT easy to strike out or get to chase your pitch.

Chapman’s BABIP is a very ordinary .288, although the ball comes off his bat so hard he is the type of hitter very capable of maintaining a BABIP over .300 — in fact just last season it was .338. So it’s entirely possible that there is still improvement to come as Chapman’s stats regress and normalize. It’s scary...if you’re the opposition.

Oh, and defensively the early metrics show a DRS (+4) and UZR/150 (15.3) on pace to be career highs. Like I said, dude’s pretty darn good.

Oh, Dat Starting Pitching

Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada opened the season with duds in Japan. Fiers rebounded with two scoreless starts at the Coliseum, while Estrada’s next two starts were strong as well. Then the A’s hit the road and each offered another big dud el grande.

What can we expect from Fiers and Estrada going forward?

I always start with average fastball velocity to see if a pitcher is losing a tick, or perhaps injured. With Fiers, his velocity has been really consistent over the past 5 seasons: 90.4, 90.3, 90.5, 90.1, 90.0. So far in 2019? 90.4 MPH.

So in terms of velocity, Fiers is throwing the exact same fastball he has been throwing for years. Certainly poor location has been an issue, but to my eyes his fastball just hasn’t had a lot of “zip” on it. Is that the “spin rate” that’s all the rage, or lost velocity upon approach to the plate (every pitcher’s fastball loses velocity as it travels, but some pitchers lose more than others)?

Whatever it is, while Fiers has sometimes gutted his way through with decent changeups or curves, the fastball just isn’t effective right now. But given that it hasn’t lost even a tick of velocity, one would presume better days are ahead.

With Estrada, the news is slightly different. Estrada’s fastball averaged 90.1 MPH in 2017, dropping to 89.0 MPH in 2018, a season marred by back injuries Estrada tried to pitch through. In 2019? So far it’s down another tick to 88.2 MPH.

It’s worth noting that fastball velocities often are a tick down in April and/or in colder weather, and so what we’ve seen so far from Estrada may not be outside the “normal range”. I only note it as data.

What is worrisome, though, is Estrada’s paltry 4.43/9IP K-rate. At his best, Estrada compensates by producing the most reliably low-BABIP contact: the pop up. But it’s just hard to sustain success allowing so many balls to be put in play, and in the air no less. It’s how you get not just a 4.87 ERA, but a gaudy 7.34 xFIP. Ouch. Without an uptick either in velocity or bat missing, it could be a rocky road ahead for Estrada.

So there are some possible future indicators to ponder. Agree? Disagree? Fair? Unfair? Care for a mint?