To heck with small sample sizes. What better time for some quickie analysis of the 2018 season than a week into the schedule, despite having a handful of games already snowed out.
OK, so maybe kicking things off during the last week of March was rolling the dice a bit with Mother Nature. But thanks to the new collective-bargaining agreement, players have more days off now — the 162 games are stretched over 187 days, up from the previous 183 — and the difference has to be made up somehow.
Eventually, things have to thaw out, right?
As for the games that have been played, we picked up on a few early trends. Whether or not they will blossom into full-on tendencies, or more permanent competitive shifts, remains to be seen. We’ll just go on what we’ve seen so far and make some sweeping generalizations. Let’s pick five for a nice round number.
1. YES, THE GAMES ARE SHORTER
Commissioner Rob Manfred has been committed to shaving minutes off a nine-inning game by almost any means necessary, whether the union cooperates or not. And to his credit, the whole mound-visit reduction seems to be working quite well.
Manfred diplomatically backed off the pitch-clock project — a union bugaboo — for the 2018 season, but limiting each team to six mound visits per game has forced them to rethink abusing the age-old practice.
Not only do managers, coaches and catchers no longer feel compelled to rush to the mound to change signals or offer therapy sessions, but they’ve adjusted to the new guidelines by streamlining the way they operate.
As for the games we’ve watched, teams have used only two or three tops — the total is shown on the scoreboard, next to the errors — without suffering from any crippling lack of communication.
And Manfred must be thrilled. According to MLB, the length of a nine-inning game is averaging 2 hours, 59 minutes, 52 seconds — less than three hours! — through Thursday, a sizable drop from the 3:06:01 at this time last year before finishing at 3:05:11 by season’s end.
They haven’t finished below three hours for a full season since 2015 (2:56) and the time has been at least three hours in three of the past four years.
REVIEW, NOT SO BAD
Fresh off a March Madness that was driving us insane with excessive video reviews that stretched the final two minutes of games into a half-hour of real time, the last thing anybody was in the mood for was a similar experience with baseball. Good news. The early returns indicate MLB may be getting better with the process.
Through Thursday’s games, the average review took 1 minute, 24 seconds — the lowest on record since it was implemented in 2014 (1:46). These are official times — often it feels much longer while the manager decides whether to challenge in the first place — but there seems to be an increased urgency now, which is a positive development.
The proliferation of video review has created a number of unintended consequences in every sport, occasionally ruining the enjoyment of a game’s key moments. But with the technology available now, we don’t see leagues making themselves vulnerable to second-guessing again, at least on this front.
3. BEGINNER’S LUCK?
Our picks for Manager of the Year — two of the five rookies — are making us look smart so far. The Red Sox’s Alex Cora shook off an Opening Day loss to the Rays, and deafening criticism for not using Craig Kimbrel for more than three outs, to win the next six straight, a streak that included a stirring ninth-inning comeback in Thursday’s Fenway opener.
Cora has a very talented roster, but Boston not only is a fishbowl for the manager, it’s like one filled with boiling water, and he’s done more than keep his head up.
As for the Mets’ Mickey Callaway, he’s got a low bar to clear, having inherited a team that won 70 games a year ago. But with a few inspired lineup configurations and excellent bullpen usage, Callaway had the Mets atop the NL East at 6-1 after Saturday’s victory, including wins in the first two games against the rival Nationals.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Phillies’ Gabe Kapler, already under siege for his maniacal bullpen management as well as forgetting to warm up a reliever before summoning him into a game. For anyone familiar with the Philadelphia sports scene, it was hardly surprising that Kapler was booed during the introductions for Thursday’s home opener. Being 2-4 doesn’t help, either.
Another first-timer, the Yankees’ Aaron Boone, has his hands full in the Bronx, hindered by a number of early injuries and a 5-4 start.
4. MARKET WATCH
A funny thing happened this past week on the way to next winter’s free-agent bonanza. The Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon, a few games into his walk year, agreed to stay in Colorado for a guaranteed $108 million over the next six seasons. Was Blackmon playing it safe after the disturbing trends of this past offseason? To some degree, sure. But that’s a boatload of cash to remain with a franchise he likes, so it’s tough to take issue with his pre-emptive strike.
As for the other top prizes, such as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, they’re in money-making mode. Harper already has five homers, 10 RBIs and a 1.403 OPS through his first eight games, looking very much like the 2015 version who won the MVP. Machado showed up Thursday in the Bronx, reiterated his desire to remain a shortstop — perhaps deflating months of Yankees speculation — and swatted a pair of homers Friday.
The Blue Jays’ Josh Donaldson began the season with a shoulder issue that forced him to DH for most of the opening series against the Yankees, but it’s uncertain how much that will be a factor. He still has a pair of home runs and a .917 OPS, so maybe the shoulder has improved.
Rarely, if ever, has a player gone from spring training bust to Babe Ruth in a week’s time, but that’s what we’re seeing from Shohei Ohtani, one of the most ultrahyped MLB “rookies” in recent memory. Ohtani, the Japanese two-way star, had Cactus League talent evaluators shaking their heads in Arizona, where he struggled at the plate (four singles in 32 at-bats) as he got adjusted to his new chapter with the Angels. But it’s impossible to question his two-way ability now, not after he struck out six (average 98-mph fastball) in his six-inning debut and hit a home run in three consecutive games, including a 449-foot blast Friday night.
The Angels’ plan for Ohtani is to pitch every seventh day — giving him the additional rest he was used to in Japan — while being the DH two or three times in between. But if Ohtani continues to be the Angels’ most dangerous hitter — on a team that also employs Mike Trout, by the way — they may have to rethink that offensive strategy.