Given that spring training games did not begin until March 17, if we project out the normal number of spring training contests, then the majority of teams would have finished their spring schedule around April 24. So last week in Major League Baseball was probably effectively the end of the prep season. Unfortunately for the Cincinnati Redstheir 2-13 start counts, but no one in the American League East was more than four games out of first — and that team, the Orioleshappened to be in the same division as the team with the best record, the Toronto Blue Jays.
It has been a cold, windy spring in the majority of markets, which could explain the decrease in homers; so could the ball being used, the wind patterns, the leaguewide increase in attention to contact and half the at-bats of a normal spring training. The difference between April 2021 and 2022 is slight; on April 24, the 2021 season was superior offensively in batting average (.232-231), OBP (.308-.307), slugging (.390-.366), OPS (.699-.673) and XBH per at -bat (1 per 11.96 AB vs 1 per 12.92). The slugging difference is the only significant one, but it stands out even more as we would expect that slugging would tilt in 2022’s favor because the universal DH must be factored in.
“This is a very bad time to be a hitter,” says one American League pitching coach. “Three years ago the game was trending to the Houston model of four-seam fastballs up with curveballs. Now there are a lot more two-seamers running down and to the glove side, with cutters and personalized cutters that make for very different, unique actions.”
Offense isn’t the only thing defying expectations. We thought the shortened spring would lead to a rash of injuries. In April 2021, 177 players went on the injured list, but if one reduces that number to the comparable number of calendar days, the number would be 100. There have been 83 players placed on the injured list starting with Opening Day; 62 were COVID-19 related, and the only pitcher judged to need Tommy John surgery due to action this month is John Means of the Orioles (obviously, several players were put on longer injury lists before the season started in 40-man roster cuts).
Perhaps there will be pitcher injury issues that arise in July, August or September, but April has often been the month with the most injuries. Credit goes to MLB for allowing for two extra roster spots up through April, and allowing for clubs to carry as many as 15 and in some cases 16 pitchers, which allowed a Tampa Bay pitching staff with nine injured pitchers to use seven pitchers to no- hit Boston into the 10th inning, then win it on a walk-off homer by kevin kiermaierwho had never hit a walk-off in any level — from Little League on up.
Thus at first light on April 24, the division alleged to be the best in the game (four teams were within a game of the postseason last year) had played 15 games a piece. That’s 60 starts, and Toronto’s Kevin Gausman on April 21 was the only pitcher to throw eight or seven innings in those 60. The yankees had two six-inning starts, the rays four, the Jays that one, Boston none. In 60 starts, a half dozen completed six innings. Every one of the managers of those teams admitted to being cautious because those pitchers would be needed for the final two months.
History tells us that if a pitcher is healthy on May 1, there’s a good chance he’s going to be healthy on July 31. Some teams can hope that young pitchers who have started the season as openers or multi-inning relievers can step into rotations sometime before July 1 and fill a rotation spot that would otherwise require a trade. The Red Sox are a good example. Both Chris Sale and james paxton are optimistic about being in the rotation by June, but there are no guarantees.
In their stead Boston has Garrett Whitlockwho started with four shutout innings on April 3 and has allowed one earned run in 16 2/3 innings, and Tanner Houck, who has shown flashes of brilliance and has developed a splitter that Baseball Savant lists as having the second-best downward movement of any splitter in the majors. Supplementing them will require two or three additional 2-3 inning relievers, but Kutter Crawford is close to the command he needs for his power, which he shows in flashes. General manager Chaim Bloom hopes to get help mid-season from Connor Seabold and Josh Winckowski, who were acquired in deals. They have two interesting homegrown pitchers in Double-A Portland: Bryan Bello, who has been 98-100 and by last weekend had struck out 18 in 10 innings in two starts, and lefthander Brandon Walter, whose first two starts produced were dominant.
Of surprising interest is 24-year-old Frank German, whom the Yankees gave Boston for taking Adam Ottavino’s contract before last season. For all but five appearances in 2021 with Portland, Germans had an earned run average over 5.00 and threw in the mid-90s. He showed up in Fort Myers this spring throwing 98-100, and says when he was moved to the bullpen for five appearances last September, he was far more excited and velocity picked up. He hadn’t allowed a run in five outings in Portland this April, consistently hitting 99 with an occasional 102 and big swing-and-miss numbers. With questions remaining in the middle of the pen, he is very much on the Alex Cora watchlist.
Trades for starting pitchers may be difficult to make. Oakland’s Frankie Montas will be much sought after. He’s only 29, his stuff about him — especially his splitter — constantly improves, he makes $5.05 million and is n’t a free agent for two years. That brings us to the subject of one worrisome team, the Oakland Athletics. Sure, in the years past, the A’s would trade away players when they required big contracts, but David Forst also traded for Jon Lester, Matt Holliday and Jeff Samardzija, trying to win.
But this season is different. Owner John Fisher is not taking back any major league contracts. They’ve traded four prime players — Sean Manaea, Matt Chapman, matt olson and Chris Bassett — and shed around $22 million in 2022 salary. The 2021 payroll was $83.8 million; this year it’s projected to be around $44 million. Catcher Sean Murphy is really good. Expect Ramón Laureano, Montas and Lou Trivino, who make $10.7 million combined, to be gone soon enough. General managers think the Reds’ Tyler Mahle and Luis Castillo may be available. If one needs starters, the waiting is the hardest part, from the minors or majors.
It’s been an incredible season for young power pitchers, starting with Cincinnati’s Hunter Greene, who went over 100 a record 39 times in his first start. Then we have John Duran in Minnesota, who throws his slinker 96.8 mph and his fastball close to 100. All he did was alter his fingers on his split and now it does things he said “I don’t really understand.”
Luis Severino’s comeback and the development of his cutter as well as Nestor Cortes’s development make the Yankees staff deep, and very good. Toronto is also deep, and has the cash and prospects to trade. Seattle is fascinating, acquiring robbie ray to join Chris Flex, Logan Gilbert, Mark Gonzales and Matt Brashwith George Kirby in Triple A.
Brash is one of the game’s most interesting rookies, with a sinker-slider combination that gives him two pitches that in the batter’s eye appear alike, then run in different directions. Jerry Dipoto got him from the Parents for Taylor Williams. He also got fireballing reliever Andres Munoz from the Pads along with Ty France for austin nola. Munoz has been up to 101.3 with a filthy power slider.
With the talented position players Dipoto acquired in trades, the draft and internationally, he has let some players develop in the big leagues. A year from now, he may not be able to do so. Julio Rodriguez have the makings of a star. So far his numbers have n’t been that impressive, and neither have those of Bobby Witt Jr.or to a lesser extent Spencer Torkelson. But it’s clear much more is coming. Count Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout among those who underperformed in their first taste of major league action. Not everyone can be Fernando Tatis Jr. or John Soto or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and look instantly comfortable.
That final group reminds us of the impact the international market has made on the game, To celebrate, the best new song hitting the Apple Music market is “Major League Blues” by Costa Rican blues guitarist/singer Jose Ramirez. No, not that Jose Ramirez. The only player from Costa Rica who made the majors was Ray Stoviak, born in the city of Nicoya (before attending Villanova University in the States) who played in 10 games for the 1938 Phillies and did not get a hit. Obviously, he had the major league blues.
(Photo by Julio Rodriguez: David Berding/Getty Images)