By Andrew Kahn
As baseball enters the second month of its six-month regular season, I’m reminded of the late Yogi Berra’s quote: “It’s getting late early.” It’s too soon to hand out batting titles or Cy Youngs, but 25 games or so are enough to make some educated assessments. Are the Blue Jays finished? What to make of Eric Thames’ historic start? Will the best pitchers stay on the field? I treat those issues like stocks and advise whether to buy or sell.
Toronto Blue Jays: Sell
The Blue Jays made it to the American League Championship Series the past two years despite slow starts. This season, though, the Jays have hit a new low, posting just a .320 winning percentage (8-17) in April. Entering Thursday’s off day, Toronto is 9-19. Since the wild card was introduced in 1996, just eight teams that posted a winning percentage below .400 in April went on to make the playoffs. Only one team, the 2001 Athletics, had a record as bad as the Blue Jays do this year.
All of those numbers mean this: The Blue Jays are not going to make the playoffs. What’s gone wrong? Jose Bautista is batting just .196 with two homers. Josh Donaldson (calf), Troy Tulowitzki (hamstring), Aaron Sanchez (finger), and J.A. Happ (elbow) are on the disabled list, and Marcus Stroman was lifted from Wednesday’s game because of armpit discomfort. Offseason castoffs Edwin Encarnacion (now with the Indians), Michael Saunders (Phillies), and R.A. Dickey (Braves) aren’t exactly tearing it up with their new teams, but they’d still be upgrades over their Toronto replacements.
*The playoffs expanded in 1995, but that was a strike-shortened season.
Eric Thames: Buy
Perhaps you’ve heard the Cliff’s Notes version of Thames’ story: after two very average seasons in the majors in 2011 and 2012, he went to Korea and turned himself into Babe Ruth, hitting 124 homers in three seasons. Wanting to prove himself at baseball’s highest level, he returned to the States and leads the National League in home runs (11).
Can the Brewers’ first baseman keep it up? Nearly every fan base can remember a flash-in-the-pan slugger. Many of those, however, were rookies whose inevitable flaws were eventually exposed. Thames is 30 years old and has already made significant adjustments to his approach at the plate. His swing, he’s said, is flatter, and he doesn’t offer at pitches outside the strike zone nearly as often as he did during his first MLB stint. He swung at 36 percent of pitches outside the strike zone in 2011 and 2012, according to FanGraphs, and just 18 percent of such pitches so far this season. As a result, he’s batting .326 and driving the pitches he does swing at.
Arm Injuries: Buy
It felt weird attributing a “buy” or “sell” tag to this one. My point is that arm injuries continue to occur at an alarming rate with no end in sight. Cole Hamels is the latest pitching star to head to the disabled list (with a right oblique strain). He’s expected to miss eight weeks. Noah Syndergaard is also on the DL (with what is described by the Mets as a “partial tear of the right lat muscle,” which could mean Thor is fine in 10 days or will need career-ending surgery). Arizona’s Shelby Miller will undergo Tommy John surgery. Sonny Gray finally made his season debut for Oakland on Tuesday.
Pitchers keep throwing harder—at a younger age—and, perhaps as a result, blow out their arms regularly. I can’t be certain of all the causes so I certainly don’t have a solution. Baseball needs one. Football is a brutal game, but the sport does its best to protect its stars—the quarterbacks. Plenty of basketball players have suffered torn ACLs, but it’s not an epidemic. And while baseball’s best hitters have remained relatively injury-free, the pitchers are ticking time bombs.
Veteran Revivals: Wait
I’m specifically thinking of Ryan Zimmerman, Washington’s 32-year-old first baseman who just might be the National League MVP if the season ended today (11 homers, .420 batting average), and a trio of veteran pitchers: 29-year-old Mike Leake and 34-year-olds Ervin Santana and Jason Vargas.
Zimmerman, sandwiched between Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy in the Nationals’ batting order, should continue to see plenty to hit. Leake is still in his prime. Vargas’ career was derailed by injuries; he’s stranding a lot of runners but has shown great command. Santana’s resurgence can be traced back to last season. Some regression with this group is obvious—Zimmerman isn’t going to hit 70 bombs and the pitchers won’t finish with sub-1.50 ERAs. But a significant bounce-back year is not out of the question.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local. He writes about baseball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn