It's Memorial Day, which has a specific purpose in our national consciousness as a date worthy of reflection, and which has a more generalized purpose in the baseball world as the time when we begin to take stock of what we have seen in the young season. Memorial Day is essentially the season's first marker, a point roughly a third of the way into the schedule when we have established the minimal amount of perspective needed to evaluate what has occurred so far and the foresight to anticipate what might be yet to occur.
As an initial matter, I thought I'd take a look at league-wide offensive output, since that's a constant subject of scrutiny in this age of
PEDs high-octane offense. Admittedly, what follows is an uneven comparison, a comparison of offensive levels (expressed in runs per game and on-base-plus-slugging) as they exist today, Monday, with offensive levels after recently completed seasons. But it's the best I can do under the circumstances; I don't know a way to look at league-wide offense as of a particular date in past seasons. Anyway, it's pretty clear offense is down at least so far this season, at least as compared to last season.
The relationship between OPS and runs per game isn't perfect, as we can see. The NL's runs per game column has bounced up and down in recent seasons, and this season's R/G match, 2005, nevertheless had a league-wide OPS about 15 points higher. Part of the apparent disparity is explained by a somewhat greater percentage of unearned runs this season than in 2005; it appears, at least from unearned run distributions, 2005 was a very good defensive year league-wide. At any rate, the NL's slugging percentage trails that of every season since 1993 and, if the season ended today, the NL's teams would average fewer than a homer per ballgame (0.89, entering Monday) for the first time since, interestingly enough, Mike Lupica's apparently disavowed Summer of '98. This season's offensive characteristics (again, so far) are fairly in line with the juiced-ball season of 1987 and the expansion year of 1993, which ushered in the high-octane era.
Incidentally, the NL's average position player age so far is 29.4 years old. The NL record, set in 2003, is 29.5 years old. (Year-by-year can be found at Baseball Reference.) Maybe this is the kind of thing only I find interesting, but the NL never hit an average of 29 before 2000 -- never in its history, from 1876 onward. Well, almost never; the average age hit 29.1 in 1945, but I think that barely counts, seeing as it was a war year. If they had gone ahead and played with the scabs in 1995, I'm sure the average age would have been like 34.8 or something. Didn't Pedro Borbon Sr.'s grandpa try to break some team's camp as a utility infielder?
At any rate, the NL's average age hasn't dipped below an average of 29 since 2000. There have been some peaks and valleys along the way. In fact, just eyeballing the average age, it seems to fall in eras typified by speed like the 1960s. This makes some intuitive sense. Then again, the average age was at least close to current levels in the most recent speed decade, the 1980s. Anyway, I'm babbling here, but it seems like position players have been rather consistently "old" on average for about two decades now and are getting older. This could be explained by better conditioning/weight training/other measures, and it probably is to some extent. But I'd imagine another influence is free agency and the inevitable long-term contracts that come with it. Generally speaking, the long-term contracts have gotten longer over the years; Barry Bonds's original deal with the Giants (either six or seven years; I forget which) was by far the lengthiest I recalled at the time, and from there it became common for top free agents to get at least five years. To toss in an example from the American League, would David Segui's career have lasted until 2004 if the (Baltimore) Orioles hadn't committed to paying him that long?
But enough babbling. My impressions so far, division by division:
NL EAST: I think the Mets are legit, and that's a surprise to me. Did you know Oliver Perez is walking about three batters per nine innings with a three-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio? His success actually looks more sustainable than John Maine's. After a year of being shut out of the dance, I have a feeling the Braves might find merit to the wild card back-in. If it comes down to four teams, I'd certainly expect Atlanta to be one of them -- along with Philly and two from the NL West. Coming into Monday, Florida was right on its Pythagorean record. The Nats, we know -- the most marvelous 21-30 known to man. By the way, I make a big to-do about average innings per start, but sometimes that can be deceiving; twice, Matt Chico has had solid starts interrupted by rain delays, leading to four-inning outings.
AL EAST: How legit do the Red Sox need to be in this division? With tonight's loss and Tampa's win, the Yankees are now tied for last. However, there exists some basis for believing they'll be in the wild card hunt. Their Pythag, for one, reflects a team with a winning record. Still, their task is daunting. Just to play around with some numbers . . . The Yankees are 21-28 now, with 113 games left. Let's say they go 70-43 starting tomorrow. That would get them to 91-71, which is just about the minimum required to take the wild card. That 70-43 run, combined with a .500 finish to Boston's season, would force a one-game division playoff. That's unless Toronto or Baltimore has more than 91 wins in 'em . . .
. . . Nah. Buck sez Tampa doesn't finish last this season. Did you know James Shields is averaging better than seven innings per start? I think Toronto has a slightly better chance of being surpassed by the Rays than the O's do. I suppose not finishing in last would vindicate Baltimore's offseason-of-the-reliever, no?
NL CENTRAL: Four words -- race to the bottom. The key to the whole mess is whether Milwaukee's hit a nasty two-week rut or whether the Brewers are just a poor team off to a phony fast start. The truth is probably closer to the former, but if it's the latter then the division opens up to three or perhaps four other teams, depending if you want to humor the Pirates. Suddenly, the Cubs look like a team capable of a real kick and the Astros perhaps like a mudder waiting for the right conditions. And then there are the Cardinals. They're staring at a ridiculous Pythag record and the thought that their rotation currently rests on Braden Looper, a guy who had never started a big league game before April, avoiding any semblance of the dreaded wall. Then again, if their offense is this dysfunctional, then I'm a literary great. As for the Reds, I'm just happy my scrappy hero is okay.
AL CENTRAL: This is by far the most interesting division in baseball. A true four-way race is highly unlikely, but I could see any of four teams winning it, even after thirty percent of the season complete. The Twins recently dumped their crappy veterans for the young guys. It's probably a good trade; it certainly couldn't be a bad trade, considering how Ponson and Ortiz were pitching. But, as a Hardball Times article pointed out over the winter, they couldn't have tried it the other way if they wanted options in the case of failure. So I suppose it was a valiant effort -- from a certain point of view. It's now up to the young guys to pick up the pieces. By the way, I know I'm speaking from a perspective not all that devoted to the Twins, but I'll be somewhat sad when their new park opens. Say what you will, but the Metrodome is unique.
In a division like this, the Royals could make all kinds of gains and not improve an inch in the win/loss column. Given Greinke is in the bullpen and Gordon is hitting Julio Franco's age, I'm guessing the gains aren't really apparent anyway.
NL WEST: MASN is running one of those ridiculous smack-talk ads advising someone named "Peavey" to watch out for Ryan Zimmerman. This from the same advertising campaign that tries to convince us Nook Logan is an offensive force. Oh, and the same people who think it notable that Austin Kearns, a rightanded batter, hit better against lefties but also hit more homers against righty pitchers. Well, duh . . .
The Dodgers have an edge the other teams probably can't match; as evidenced last season, they are capable of making plenty of midseason moves without much effect to the budget. The D-Backs strike me as a year away, which might not be such a good thing considering ¡Livan! is up for free agency and Randy Johnson would be a year older. The Giants are perfectly constructed for an 83-79 record. Jamey Carroll is hitting .177/.307/.198 on the year, and I've never been happier a guy gobbled up a two-year deal when he had the chance.
AL WEST: I'd say it's 60/40 Anaheim runs away and hides, with 35 of the remaining 40 allocated to the A's giving the LAAs a goodly tussle. I'm happy that the Dos Joses have found a landing spot, but I can hardly conceive a way the Mariners hang around (but if there is a way, its name is "Felix"). On behalf of all losers old enough to do more important things than running a baseball team but too young to run a baseball team, I must admit I don't see a whole lot of merit to Jon Daniels's performance in Texas so far.
I'll close this post with an observation: During this past week, Jim Bowden "won" his 1,000th game as a general manager. The MASN people played it up a little bit, and the print/electronic sources noted it too. Here's a question for you, and it might shed light on the impact of this historic thousandth win. Have you ever before considered how many games a general manager's teams won during all of a general manager's years general managing? Yeah, me neither.
But, not to be a jerk about it, congrats Bodes.