May-Be This Time: What if the Season Started May 1?

Think back to the first weeks of the season. Those few weeks of time are disproportionately important, because they shape our understanding of the baseball season in a way that two random weeks normally wouldn’t. It’s taken quite a while, for example, for everyone to realize that Christian Yelich is excellent but probably not the second coming of Babe Ruth, or that Paul DeJong is a good shortstop who isn’t one of the best five players in baseball. Marco Gonzales was a no-strikeout pitching phenom, compiling a 3.1 FIP (2.8 ERA) and 1.3 WAR. He’s been below replacement level since, but you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t take the time to look. Yes, the first few weeks of the season exert a powerful hold on our minds.

What if they didn’t, though? What if, for some crazy reason, the first month-plus of baseball didn’t happen, and the season started on May 1? The narratives and the takes would be extremely different. We don’t see them now, because a month of March and April stats camouflage the full-season lines, but here’s a glimpse of what could have been.

Nolan Arenado, Superstar
Nolan Arenado is good at baseball, we all know that. He’s a franchise cornerstone who plays excellent defense, and he came into 2019 having posted three straight seasons with a wRC+ above 125. After his first (May-onwards) month, though, it’s time to say it: Nolan Arenado found a new level. He’s been worth 2.5 WAR already, tops in the big leagues. He’s batting .415/.466/.763, good for a 198 wRC+, while playing his usual brand of tremendous defense.

What’s truly remarkable about this binge is that he’s done it while swinging at 42.7% of the pitches he sees outside the strike zone. Has Arenado unlocked a new Coors market inefficiency? He’s making a ton more contact than he used to, which limits the strikeout damage — 12.2% strikeouts on the year, to pair with an 8.4% walk rate. Is this new level for Arenado real? Well, almost certainly not all of it, as he’s running a .419 BABIP, but with half of his games at Coors and a new batting approach, it’s time to take notice that Arenado is the next Christian Yelich, an established star who kicked it up a notch.

Three (and a half) Super Teams
Arenado’s play has led the Rockies to a sterling 18-10 record, which would be the best in the NL … if it weren’t for those pesky Dodgers. The Dodgers are a comical 22-7 to start this fictional year, and they’re absolute juggernauts. Their non-pitchers are slashing .285/.362/.501, with a 128 wRC+. Their pitching, even with a faltering bullpen, is the most valuable in baseball. How is that possible? Their starters have put up a 2.22 ERA as a unit over the last month, leading to a 2.9 ERA overall for the team. They’ve seemingly given up on walking people — their 4.6% staff walk rate tops the majors — but it hasn’t hurt their strikeout rate, a robust 24.1%. The Dodgers are on pace to win 120-plus games despite an imploding bullpen — what a time to be alive.

Don’t let the Dodgers’ hot start make you forget about the Twins, though. Yeah, the Dodgers offense has a 128 wRC+. That’s second in baseball, though, not first, because the Twins are putting up a .286/.352/.521 slash line that works out to a slightly-better 128 wRC+. They probably can’t keep this pace up, but their offense is better relative to league level than any team in history. It’s been a team effort — Jorge Polanco leads the charge with a 157 wRC+ and 1.4 WAR, but Byron Buxton is looking frisky (128 wRC+, tremendous defense), and the merry band of CJ Cron, Marwin Gonzalez, and Jonathan Schoop is firing on all cylinders.

To back their historic offense, the Twins pitching staff has put together a tremendous month. You probably aren’t surprised that Jose Berrios has been a valuable front-of-the-rotation piece — he’s a breakout star in the making. How about Jake Odorizzi, though? He’s panned out far better than expected, befuddling hitters with his splitter and two breaking balls on the way to a 0.78 ERA. Kyle Gibson and Martin Perez have been formidable third and fourth options (this analysis works surprisingly well for the real season as well).

The Twins have a 23-8 record, a 120-win pace that ties the Astros for best in the AL. The Astros are doing what you’d expect — led by Alex Bregman and Michael Brantley, their offense has been stellar, and their pitchers have done enough to win behind Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole’s excellent starts. The Yankees aren’t far behind with a 21-8 record. All in all, the race for the top of the AL is shaping up to be exciting, even if the next tier of teams is reasonably far behind.

Gio Storm
The Nationals have two of the best five starting pitchers this year (May-onwards) in Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer. Patrick Corbin clocks in a respectable 26th. They’re left wondering what could have been, though, because the best pitcher in baseball this year is Lucas Giolito. This isn’t one of those deals where he has a good FIP and a middling ERA, either — his 1.48 ERA is, to put it mildly, bonkers, as is his 2.16 FIP. After years in the prospect desert, is this finally Giolito’s time to shine? He’s striking out 30.4% of the batters he faces, walking a mere 5.5%.

He’s pounding the strike zone (fifth-highest zone rate in baseball) and letting his ridiculous stuff do the work for him, with a 13.7% swinging strike rate that rates among baseball’s leaders. Filling the zone and still getting swings and misses is the recipe for being great, but Giolito can only do that because his fastball has returned to its old explosive ways. He’s added nearly two ticks of velocity from his 2017-2018 baseline, and he’s complementing his rediscovered velocity with a changeup he throws a quarter of the time. These two pitches and a smattering of sliders and curveballs have let Giolito average nearly seven innings a start while presenting hitters with new looks, and the future looks bright.

Sale is Fire
After last fall’s gritty, championship-winning performance, Chris Sale looked primed for a big 2019. His spring training velocity raised eyebrows (look, I don’t know, there was still spring training in this world, I guess — it works for the narrative), but all that clutching at pearls was for nothing, because Sale is off to a tremendous start. His 2.82 ERA actually undersells his month.

The new Chris Sale, same as the old Chris Sale, is striking out 43.1% of the batters he faces, easily first in baseball. Walks? He’s had a few, but then again, hardly enough to mention, a measly 5.9%. He’s on pace to raise his strikeout rate and K-BB% for the third year running. His velocity is down a smidge from last year (he’s averaging 93.4 mph, down from last year’s 94.7), but he’s made up for it by leaning on his mind-fogging slider a little more, and the combined package looks like the dominant Sale we know and love.

False Starts
For a few players who looked like they might be ready to put up big numbers in 2019, the beginning of the season has been disappointing. Maikel Franco put together a solid season last year, and on a Phillies team that added a ton of firepower, he looked like a valuable depth piece who could give the Phillies a deep, threatening lineup. It might be time to reassess– Franco’s 23 wRC+ is the worst in baseball among qualified hitters, leading him to a -0.7 WAR that’s tied for last with Yonder Alonso. The eighth spot hasn’t agreed with Franco — he’s chasing a career-high rate of pitches out of the strike zone and not making much contact, as pitchers give him nothing to hit. Three of his seven walks are intentional, in fact — his unintentional walk rate of 3.1% would be a career low.

Two players who made offseason news are also working out poorly for their new teams. The aforementioned Yonder Alonso was below replacement level as a Manny Machado enticement, and he’s been below replacement level on the diamond as well, with a .083 ISO that looks like old, pre-breakout Alonso. His strikeout numbers look like recent Alonso, though, and that’s a rough combination. The White Sox might be a surprising 17-16 to start the season, but it’s no thanks to Alonso, and the team probably can’t afford to play him much longer.

Leonys Martin didn’t mean to make waves in the offseason — the Indians brought it on him when they turned him from a stopgap backup to a key starter on a contender by standing pat this winter and letting Michael Brantley leave. Martin is off to a .207/.263/.293 start with troubling peripherals (.087 ISO, 27.7% strikeout rate), and it’s starting to make more and more sense that the Tigers traded him to the Indians for a song last year, though it is hard to gauge what, if any, lingering effects there may be from the life-threatening bacterial infection that ended his 2018 season.

Elvis Has Left the Building
Elvis Andrus had a long and fruitful stint as half of the delightful Beltre/Andrus comedy duo. He also provided a steadying presence to the Rangers throughout the 2010s, from their back-to-back World Series teams in 2010-2011 to the injury-plagued teams later in the decade. It looks like he might finally be slowing down, though. Andrus has never exactly been a paragon of plate discipline, but this May was truly a new low — he’s walked exactly one time while striking out eleven.

Andrus hasn’t historically had the kind of power that would make a 1.1% walk rate work, either, but his .067 ISO so far this year is startling in the current setting of phenomenal cosmic power across the league. His slash line of .224/.234/.289 reads like a misprint — surely there’s another slash and a slugging percentage to follow it, and one of the first two numbers is simply a typo. That’s not the case, though — the combination of a .238 BABIP and no power have led to the fourth-lowest slugging percentage in baseball, and two of the players worse than him (Franco and Alonso) have already featured on this list.

Still, Everything is Normal
There’s one strong sign that this changed start of the year wouldn’t feel any better or worse. Nolan Arenado is the best player in baseball, sure, but Mike Trout is close behind in second place. He has a 180 wRC+ and has been worth 2.1 WAR. How has Trout done it? The same way he always does — in every way possible. He’s slashing .295/.444/.610. He’s walking 19.3% of the time. His .314 ISO looks like a BABIP, and his .319 BABIP may actually be a smidge low (.351 for his career). In short, baseball is normal, because Mike Trout is great.

Ask yourself a question, one I’m asking myself right now. If the season were reversed, if we’d had these narratives to start the year followed by the April performances that happened to reach exactly where we are right now, would this season feel different? For me, I think it would. The Arenado and Sale starts, in particular, would change my mind. I know Arenado is good, but he scuffled in April, so his recent form has snuck up on me. Sale was loudly bad to start the year, and quietly great in May — start the season with old dominant Chris Sale, and his April numbers would probably just read as an ace having a down month rather than a sign of impending doom.

Watching baseball is a study in following narratives. If you only paid attention to the stat-lines and projections without being interested in the story, the season would get tiring quickly. Let this be a lesson to you, though — narratives lie. Flip a season on its end, play it back to front with the same results, and you might feel very differently about the players and performances therein. Next time you want to jump to conclusions about a player based on an impression you formed a few months ago, remember this silly article and think hey, let’s look for a minute before we leap.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 years ago


Ryu since May 1:
7 G, 52.2IP, 0.51 ERA, 1.88 FIP, 2.2 fWAR and 3 BB