Off to a hot start

Yesterday, Dave talked about several teams that had poor starts to the season. But I like to think of myself as a pretty optimistic person, so today I’d like to look at some teams that have started the season well.

The two American League teams are the Orioles and the Royals and the two National League teams are the Cardinals and the Brewers. These teams had different preseason expectations and the paths they took to get to this point are also quite different. So, small samples be damned, let’s see how these teams are doing it. All information below covers games through Sunday.

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles’ 4-1 start has them on top of the AL East. After dropping their opener against the Rays they won four straight, the last three against a Mariners teams that many thought would compete for a division title this year. Despite their record, the O’s have outscored their opponents by only five runs.

The good news for the Orioles is their offense appears to be getting the job done, scoring nearly five and a half runs per game. Last year, they had a lot of trouble scoring, so if they could keep this up it would be quite a turnaround. They also have put up these offensive numbers with a low batting average with runners in scoring position (.231) and only a moderate batting average on balls in play (.288).

The biggest turnaround has been on the defensive side, where they have already put up a +7 in defensive plus/minus and a RZR of .892, which leads the AL. Baltimore was middle of the pack last year defensively, so expect a little regression to the mean here. The O’s pitching has been solid, led by their bullpen. George Sherrill, Jamie Walker and Dennis Sarfate have pitched extremely well.

This is nothing new for Walker and Sherrill, who have pitched very well under the radar for the last few years. Sarfate came to the Orioles from the Astros in the Miguel Tejada trade. He throws extremely hard and has shown flashes of brilliance. Last year for the Astros he struck out 14 and walked only one in 8.1 innings. While he isn’t likely to be that good going forward, he certainly could have a bright future. He’s a name to remember.

Can the Orioles keep this up? It is going to be difficult in their division. All five of their games have been at home. With a ton of games ahead against the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays, it still seems unlikely they will finish above .500. Still, it is nice to see an organization that has been so down have some time in the limelight and it does feel like maybe the Orioles are starting to turn things around.

Kansas City Royals

The Royals also have fallen on hard times, but the rebuilding process has finally turned this into a pretty interesting team that and looks like it might have a bright future in the next few years. The Royals sit on top of the AL Central at 4-2 and, unlike the Orioles, have played all their games on the road. Like the Orioles, however, they have outscored their opposition by only five runs over the season.

While their pitching took a giant leap forward last year, they are pitching above their heads right now. Still, the pieces of a quality staff might be in place. Zack Greinke seems to have his head screwed on right now and discovered a few extra miles per hour on his fastball. If he can keep that up over the season, he could be the ace this staff has been looking for.

Brian Bannister also looked great in his opening game, holding down what should be a very good Tigers offense. Bannister quietly had an outstanding season in 2007, but a low strikeout rate left many people thinking he would not be nearly as successful this year. In his start against the Tigers, he struck out only three over seven innings, but didn’t walk anyone. That really will be the key to his season. We have seen several pitchers now who are able to get away with a mediocre strikeout rate if they can limit the walks.

They Royals also have improved in the field. While they have a -2 plus/minus, their RZR of .831 is above league average. This is a far cry from last year, when the Royals struggled to catch the ball. This improvement defensively may be real; the Royals are trotting out many young players who should be improving defensively as well as offensively. Speaking of offense, the Royals haven’t hit their stride yet, having scored fewer than four runs a game. This is a team that should finish in the top half of the league offensively. This is a good sign for the Royals’ chances of finishing above .500 this year. While they still are probably a couple of years away, we are seeing some of their potential.

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals always seem to be the forgotten team, and this year is no exception. Last year they finished near the bottom offensively and with their pitching, but somehow made a late charge at the division before bowing out in the final weeks. Now, the Cardinals find themselves 5-1, tied for the best record in the NL. If not for a rained-out home opener, they could easily have started 6-0.

Like the Royals, pitching has powered the Redbirds, giving up only 13 runs so far. This has been a team effort, with all their starters throwing the ball well and some good work from their bullpen. This should come as no surprise for a Tony LaRussa/Dave Duncan team. Despite not having the talent other teams have, with Duncan honing their mechanics and LaRussa making sure they have the match-ups they are looking for, they have shut down the Rockies and the Nationals.

If they can continue to pitch well with Albert Pujols in the lineup and performing like everything is fine with his elbow, this team can contend in the NL Central. They have played all their games at home so far, but they totally overpowered the Rockies and did what they were supposed to do against the Nationals. Sweeping teams like that at home really is the mark of a good club and the Cardinals look like they are back. They even have overcome a light hitting .200 with runners in scoring position. Don’t sleep on the Cardinals.

Milwaukee Brewers

The team the Cardinals are tied with for the best record in the NL is the Brewers. There’s a pretty simple explanation for how the Brewers have got here: offense. They have put up 40 runs so far this year, nearly seven a game. This is without the aid of a single home run from Prince Fielder.

Yes, Jason Kendall is hitting like he’s 10 years younger, but this team is going to score a lot of runs this year, feasting especially on left-handed pitching. While they, too have beaten up on a weaker team, sweeping the Giants at home, they also took two of three at Wrigley from the Cubs.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

On the mound, Ben Sheets has looked great this year, having not surrendered a run yet. Sheets always has had the stuff to do this, but injuries have taken their toll the last few years. Now, in his walk year, he is off to a great start. A full year from Sheets would not only greatly help the Brewers’ chances, but it would greatly increase his next contract. If he is still pitching like this midseason, it will be interesting if the contract talk becomes an issue and if the Brewers offer him a contract. The suddenly loose purse strings for the Brewers might be able to afford him, but will they want to take that risk?

The Brewers started the season with their young stud Yovani Gallardo in Triple-A recovering from knee surgery. When he is ready to come off the DL, we’ll see who in the rotation he supplants. The Brewers have already made the right decision in waiving Claudio Vargas, so maybe performance, and not contract, will win out here as well.

The last thing of note is the improvement of the Brewers’ defense which was miserable last year. While they are playing over their heads right now at a +4 in plus/minus and a RZR of .839, if they can just be near the middle of the pack that would make a huge difference. Many saw the 2007 Brewers pitching as a main problem when really the defense was mostly to blame. A better defense means less work for the pitchers and fewer bullpen decisions from their manager. That’s something every Brewers fan would enjoy.

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