Everything is going just as we thought

So, let’s see here, we are about 13 games into the season and … two of the three American League division winners are in last place (the other has a losing record), both World Series teams have losing records, and the Atlanta Braves, who had the worst home record in baseball last year, have not yet lost at home.

Sure. That checks out.

The Boston Red Sox best hitter is Mitch Moreland and Pablo Sandoval has three times as many home runs as anyone else on the team. The whole Red Sox team has fewer home runs than a guy named Eric Thames, who spent the last five years playing baseball in Korea.

Yep. About what we expected.

The Colorado Rockies are playing good baseball thanks mainly to their pitching, the St. Louis Cardinals can’t find a way to score runs and the New York Yankees have turned unbeatable in large part because Starlin Castro and Chase Headley have turned into Henry Aaron and Ted Williams. Also Austin Romine, in for the injured Gary Sanchez, is now Johnny Bench.

Why do we even bother trying to predict what will happen in baseball? Yes, of course, all of this stuff are just movements in the Small Sample Symphony. Thirteen games is not even one-tenth of a full baseball season, and things will stabilize. You have to believe the Cubs, with that ridiculous lineup of great young hitters, will not finish the year with a .360 slugging percentage. You have to believe that Cleveland, with that magnificent starting rotation, will not finish dead last in the American League in ERA.

But … I don’t believe these starts are meaningless or that they should just be written off. Small things builds up in baseball. Some people call it “momentum,” though I reject that word. I tend to agree with Earl Weaver’s classic line that momentum in baseball is tomorrow’s starting pitcher.

Still, a team plays surprisingly well for a little while, it can transform the team’s attitude. We’ve all seen it happen. Players might comes to the ballpark with a little bit more energy. Coaches might work a little bit harder on their scouting reports. Everyone feels a little bit looser., everyone plays with a bit more freedom. There’s a wonderful verve that comes with believing that you are going to win today — we all feel it in real life too. You start to see players take chances they would not take during a losing streak. You see players play with more confidence as if they know it will all work out in the end.

I think often about the 2003 Kansas City Royals — that team lost 100 games a year earlier and would lose 100 games for the next three years. They were no better in 2003 … but they were. In 2003, they got off to this crazy good start and everything just felt right. Batting practice was a happy time. Players and coaches were in good moods. Wins felt natural and losses just rolled away. Eventually that team was worn down by reality — they weren’t very good. But for four months they stayed in first place, and even as it fell apart they still finished over .500. That positive stuff lingers in entirely unexpected ways.

Even more, losing can linger, especially when there are high expectations. Good teams can usually cruise through losing spells because they know they are good. But sometimes — often, even — doubt begins to creep in. Things just aren’t working. Last year’s good pitches aren’t getting outs. Line drives that were doubles a year ago turn into breathtaking defensive plays and outs. Injuries devastate the team. Players start to doubt each other. This stuff happens.

That’s not to say that any of this good or bad will happen to the Cubs or Tribe, the Diamondbacks or Reds, or any other team this year … the season is too young to make any judgments. But I think back to something former big leaguer Tommy Helms said when he managing in the minor leagues. Mostly, Tommy liked to say “Turn the page” — that was his default answer whether his team won or lost, and he usually said it while shaving.

But once his team was in a little slump, and he was asked if he was worried.

“Can’t worry,” he said, “If you ain’t winning, you’re losing.”

It’s still true today.

Bunting against the shift

Wednesday’s conversation with Tom Tango and Bill James will be about sacrifice bunting, but let’s talk for a minute about a different kind of bunt — the bunt against extreme defensive shifts. As you see above, Kyle Schwarber executed it perfectly against Milwaukee Monday night.

Thing is: It didn’t have to be perfect. Bunts against the extreme shifts today do not have to be anything close to perfect to be successful. If you are a power lefty like Schwarber and you can push a bunt to the left side of the diamond, anywhere to the left side away from the catcher and pitcher, you will have a hit.

Power hitters almost never bunt against the shift. I think this is a terrible mistake. I not only think hitters should bunt more against the shift, I think that when there are no runners on base they should bunt EVERY SINGLE TIME. I’m not exaggerating here. I truly mean they should bunt 100 percent of the time with nobody on.

There are two offensive statistics that really matter. One is on-base percentage. The other is slugging percentage. Every other meaningful baseball statistic builds off these two things:

  1. How often you don’t make an out.
  2. How many bases you advance with your hits.

Of the two, not making outs is the most important thing a hitter can do. Even the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history — Ruth in ’21, Ted Williams in ’41, Barry Bonds in any of his crazy years — would have been even more productive if the player had simply walked every time up.

I don’t think hitters bunting against the shift would get on base every single time — sometimes they would foul off two bunts, sometimes they would not be able to get it away from the pitcher or catcher. Bunting isn’t easy. But I do think, with some practice, hitters could bunt .750 against the shift. And if they could do that, they are absolutely hurting the team by not doing it, especially with nobody on.

I’m also convinced that if sluggers started bunting against the shift every time with no runners on base, teams would stop shifting in those situations, opening up even more possibilities. Sure, managers like to say that getting the other team’s slugger to bunt is a small victory. But it isn’t so. In the end, if these sluggers bunted for a hit again and again, teams would have no choice but to stop shifting. You can’t just let a hitter on base almost every time he comes up.

Twitter poll of the day

One thing that amuses me about this poll is that, even though I very specifically wrote “Change DH rule” to keep it universal, people automatically assumed I meant add the DH to the NL or they assumed I meant take away the DH from the AL. They couldn’t get their mind around that, as baseball commissioner, they could do whatever they wanted.

It does amaze me how much the DH still stirs powerful emotions in people. You have the “Who wants to watch pitcher hit?” people. You have the “There’s so much more strategy with the DH” people. You have the “There should be one rule for both leagues,” people. And so on.

As for the last part, I realize this will not be a popular opinion … but I honestly wish the NL and AL would have MORE differences, not less. I don’t think baseball is better with homogenous leagues. I realize that It’s hard to make distinct leagues when each league has an odd numbers of teams, meaning there must be an interleague series going on all the time.

But I would love to see the AL and NL be more distinct. I would love for there to be a true National League style of baseball and a true American League style. I would love to see slightly different rules in each league. I don’t think any of that will ever happen, and I suspect that someday they’ll probably have a DH in both leagues too, ending the last real difference between the AL and NL. Personally, I like the DH thing the way it is now.

Statcast™ though of the day

Let’s talk a little bit about who has been hitting into bad luck so far this year. Statcast™has “barrels” which we have talked about before and will talk about again — those are balls that (based on exit velocity and launch angle) have at least a 50 percent hit probability and at least a slugging percentage of 1.500. Those are the balls that are crushed.

But there’s another Statcast™ stat I like — I want to see if I can get the gurus to call them “Teddies.” These are fly balls or line drives that have at least a 40 percent hitting probability. That is to say: Hitters hit .400 or better on those balls. Thus: We should name them after Ted Williams.

Detroit’s Nick Castellanos has been hitting into CRAZY bad luck this year. He already has hit 11 Teddies into outs, the most in baseball.

Here are the top five bad luck hitters:

  1. Castellanos, 11 Teddy Outs
  2. Pablo Sandoval, 8 Teddy Outs
  3. Miguel Cabrera, Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols: 7 Teddy Outs.
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