15 early-season MLB storylines worth keeping an eye on

Giancarlo Stanton

The 2018 MLB season is still in its infancy stages. But now that we are into the swing of things, we can really take notice of some of the goings on.

Through the early portion of the year, plenty of noteworthy occurrences have happened. Teams like the Arizona Diamondbacks and Houston Astros are firing on all cylinders, despite some of the more notable players not doing especially well. Meanwhile, the Washington Nationals are dealing with the opposite phenomenon.

The Nationals are just one contender struggling to get things going. The New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Chicago Cubs are similarly struggling. Who can we point to as the source of the struggles?

Additionally, we saw home runs hit at an historic rate in 2017. It’s early, but also worth looking at what 2018 has given us.

The season is still young. But these are the early season storylines most worth keeping an eye on in 2018.

Note: Unless otherwise noted, the stats and records cited are accurate through play on Monday, April 9.

Dodgers’ offensive struggles

In and of itself, a 3-6 start from a World Series favorite is notable. But truth be told, if Los Angeles went 3-6 over a nine-game stretch in the middle of June, we wouldn’t think much of it. The far more noticeable issue with the Dodgers is that they’re just not scoring runs.

Three of Los Angeles’ six losses have been shutouts, while the reigning NL champs scraped only one run across in another loss. Heck, even one of the wins was a 2-1 game in 10 innings. Some of the more noteworthy culprits are Chris Taylor (.205/.220/.282), Yasiel Puig (.205/.256/.256), and Corey Seager (.206/.308/.206). Cody Bellinger struggled early as well, although he has picked it up.

We’d definitely be paying attention to a team with the Dodgers’ talent struggling as it has. Now, it’s early enough in the year that even an 0-9 start could be overcome. But to the same point, it would be hard to overlook these struggles even if Los Angeles was 6-3. Hitters are generally ahead of pitchers in the early part of the season. When multiple All-Star caliber players are struggling to do anything significant at the plate, it’s definitely something to follow.

The red hot Mets

Even with five of the six divisions having nearly universal favorites, perhaps nobody was as favored to win their division as the Washington Nationals. Thus far, the New York Mets are defying the script in the National League East.

The Mets have rolled to an 8-1 start. It’s a start that includes a three-game sweep over the Nats in Washington. Now, we can dismiss that as a small sample size and note the common baseball phrase of “it’s not who you play, it’s when you play them.” There’s certainly some truth to that.

But over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Washington owned New York. The Nats were 25-13 over the Mets in that period, outscored them by an average of nearly two runs a game, and went 8-3-1 (with three sweeps) in the 12 series between the two teams. New York will host Washington from April 16-18. That series will have a lot more intrigue around it than we thought it would entering the year.

Red Sox take early control of AL East

We’re not exactly surprised that the Red Sox are starting well. After all, this was generally considered a playoff team at the beginning of the season. What is surprising is that Boston sits at 8-1 and, while it’s early, has a strong grasp on the AL East race.

Of course, the grasp on the division has something to do with an uneven start from the Yankees (more on them later). But the Red Sox have really jumped out strong. What’s particularly relevant about the strong start is that prized offseason acquisition J.D. Martinez has not played especially well. Even if we can count on some regression from the likes of Mookie Betts, Hanley Ramirez, Rafael Devers, and the injured Xander Bogaerts, the uptick in production from guys like Martinez and Andrew Benintendi will go a long way towards offsetting that.

Boston figures to be one of baseball’s best teams in 2018. The Red Sox are definitely a team that can get out to a hot start and hold on through the season. It will be important for their AL East rivals to stay within striking distance.

Are the balls still juiced?

The baseballs being juiced dominated the conversation in 2017 from the regular season right on through to the World Series. We can attribute that conversation to the home run numbers being up. In the Steroid Era, it was the players that were juiced. No matter what Mark McGwire will have you believe, those PEDs inflated the numbers. The strict drug testing we have now hasn’t eliminated PED use, but it has curtailed it. So, if the offensive numbers are exceeding what we saw in the Steroid Era, saying that the balls are juiced is a pretty reasonable conclusion.

That’s fine. But if we’re going to draw that conclusion, we have to mention that the numbers from 2018 thus far are telling us that the balls may not be juiced — at least not to the same extent. In 2017, we saw 6,105 home runs in 2,430 games. That works out to a little more than 2.5 a game. In 2018, we’ve seen 295 home runs in 147 games. That’s only slightly more than 2 per game. Of course, we haven’t reached the summer yet and the ball does fly better when the weather gets warmer. So, this could all just be a false sense of security for pitchers. But right now, we’re seeing a healthy drop.

Now, this is all relative. In 2014 — before the home run boom started — we saw 1.7 long balls a game. So, MLB clearly wants the home run to be a frequent occurrence. But maybe things are scaling back from 2017’s record numbers.

Bryce Harper’s torrid start in contract year

The Future of Bryce Harper

We’re not sure what Harper is seeing when he’s in the batter’s box. We’re guessing that in his eyes, the baseball is the size of a beach ball with the compression of a golf ball. Whatever he’s seeing, it’s working.

Harper has raked in the early part of the season. He’s hit .345/.553/.966 with a league leading six home runs. Pitchers are avoiding Harper in a way we haven’t seen in a long time. Yet, he’s clearly doing significant damage when a hittable pitch does come his way.

Harper is going to get paid in the offseason. That’s a given. Even with a mediocre season, his age and past accomplishments are almost certainly good enough to get him upwards of $400 million. But if he continues at this rate, there’s really no telling where his salary will end up.

The surprising Pirates

To say that expectations were muted for the Pirates coming into the season would be like saying that Pittsburgh’s sports teams seem to like black and gold. When a 75-87 team trades away some of its best players for very little (at least in terms of ready MLB talent), the natural course of action is to pencil in 95-100 losses for that team and move on to the next.

But Pittsburgh hasn’t exactly met those expectations through the early part of the year. Led by a number of thriving hitters including Corey Dickerson, Gregory Polanco, Josh Bell, Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, and Colin Moran (acquired in the Gerrit Cole deal), the Pirates jumped are off to an 8-2 start after Tuesday’s win over the Chicago Cubs.

Now, it’s worth noting that the early season schedule has been fairly favorable to the Pirates. But with few exceptions, the rest of April doesn’t feature a lot of likely contenders on the schedule. If Pittsburgh can continue to feast off the weaker teams, this will be an interesting team to watch as we get into the heart of the season. We never thought we’d say that in 2018.

Just how good are the Diamondbacks?

The Arizona Diamondbacks were a playoff team a season ago. As such, they figured to be good in 2018. But Arizona is off to an 8-2 start, which is better than simply good. Without looking any deeper, we’d assume that a red hot Paul Goldschmidt has a lot to do with a start like this. We’d be incorrect in that assumption.

In fact, Goldschmidt has struggled to a .118/.333/.206. In a three-game series against the Dodgers, Goldschmidt went 1-for-9, although he did record four walks. But despite the struggles of its perennial MVP candidate, Arizona swept Los Angeles.

Now, we have no doubt that Goldschmidt will turn things around. But one question lingers. If the Diamondbacks can be this good when he’s slumping, how good can they be when Goldschmidt gets his bat going?

Can Shohei Ohtani continue to thrive?

Evidently, spring training means more to some than it does to others. During Cactus League play, Ohtani did not look like he belonged in the majors. He struggled both at the plate and on the mound. But when the game’s started to count, his productivity skyrocketed.

Ohtani has excelled in the batter’s box. He’s also looked downright dominant on the mound. Ohtani is doing things not done in baseball since before Babe Ruth joined the Yankees.

He’s lived up to the hype so far and has helped lead the Los Angeles Angels to a strong start. The success of Ohtani will have a lot to say about what kind of a year the Angels have and what the American League playoff race (specifically the wild card race) will look like. If he keeps playing well, the Halos and their fans figure to be busy in October.

Astros clearly avoiding World Series hangover

Nobody questioned the talent of the Houston Astros coming into 2018. The questions were more about the drive of a team (especially in the early season) coming off of a World Series championship. The last five World Series champs have averaged 5.6 wins and 4.5 losses over the first 11 games of the season. So, does Houston stack up?

Actually, quite well. The Astros are 9-2. Not only are they 9-2, but they’re 9-2 despite stars like Alex Bregman and George Springer playing well below their capabilities. Much like the Diamondbacks with Goldschmidt, we have to wonder just how good this team will be when those players start to get going.

A lot of baseball remains on the schedule. There are still plenty of things that can keep the Astros from returning to the promised land of 2017. But the early season problems that have plagued many recent past champions have not made their way to Houston.

Nationals try to overcome inconsistent start

While teams like the Diamondbacks and Astros have started strong despite underwhelming performances from key players, the National have the opposite problem.

The start in Washington hasn’t been catastrophic. No, at 5-5, the Nats have been the definition of mediocre. This is despite an absolutely blistering start from several of Washington’s top players. Adam Eaton is hitting .345/.424/.655 with two home runs and two steals. Anthony Rendon has hit .310/.370/.452. We’ve already detailed Harper’s strong start. Max Scherzer has a 0.90 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, and 27 strikeouts in 20 innings.

That’s all well and good. But if .500 is all that could be mustered with so many key players starting that well, what will happen when these guys cool off? The rest of the Nationals will definitely be worth watching through the rest of the early portion of the season. They’ll need to pick it up in a big way.

Orioles as possible sellers

The Baltimore Orioles were always going to be a team to watch through the early part of 2018. While few had Baltimore contending, the pending free agents (Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Brad Brach, and Zach Britton) made the Orioles an interesting potential seller on the trade market.

The beginning of the season has done little to change those feelings. Baltimore is off to a 4-7 start. Worse is that the O’s have been outscored by 23 runs. Only the Cincinnati Reds and Miami Marlins have a worse run differential.

We’re not expecting the selling to start immediately. But if the Orioles haven’t turned things around by this time next month, the rumors are going to get red hot.

Uneven start for Cubs

MLB is reviewing Anthony Rizzo home plate collision.

After a loss on Tuesday afternoon’s home opener to the Pirates, the Cubs are 5-5. Now, other than Pittsburgh, nobody in the National League Central is off to an especially hot start. So, Chicago doesn’t have much to worry about in that regard. Still, the overall performance just hasn’t been there.

Worse is that the Cubs weren’t plagued with an overly tough schedule. They started the year with five games against the Marlins and Reds. After those five games, Chicago sat at 2-3. Now, the Cubs are 5-5 and Anthony Rizzo is on the disabled list.

The situation for Chicago may not be dire. But this one of baseball’s most talented teams. It just hasn’t looked that way yet.

Blue Jays making their presence felt

The Toronto Blue Jays are certainly off to a desirable start. Canada’s team sits at 7-4. Better yet, this start doesn’t feel unsustainable. Far from it, it fact.

Josh Donaldson has hit three home runs. But he sports a .238 average and .347 OBP, both well below what he’s capable of. Justin Smoak, meanwhile, has something of the opposite problem. He is slashing at a sterling .357/.429/.619. But Smoak has only hit two home runs, which came in the same game.

Eventually, Donaldson will become less dependent on power, while Smoak’s power will only get better. So, if you’re a Blue Jays fan, there’s an awful lot to be upbeat about.

Brewers outfield injuries

One of the real strong points for the Milwaukee Brewers entering the season was the outfield. Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Domingo Santana, and Ryan Braun were four potential All-Stars vying for three spots. Any three of those guys would have given the Brewers one of MLB’s best outfields.

Not even two weeks into the season, Yelich is on the DL. Cain isn’t on the DL, but he sustained an injury in Monday’s game.

Now, things aren’t bad for Milwaukee. Aside from the Pirates, the Brewers are the only National League Central team with a winning record. But this team was a potential playoff contender based largely on the strength of its outfield. Not even two weeks into the year, that outfield is getting tested.

Giancarlo Stanton’s strikeout troubles

The beginning of Stanton’s career in New York has been inconsistent. That may be the understatement of the century.

Things got started right on Opening Day against the Toronto Blue Jays with a two-home run performance. But in his home opener, Stanton went 0-for-5 with five strikeouts, getting booed in the process. He did hit a home run in next game, but on Sunday, Stanton went 0-for-7 with another five strikeouts. Stanton had never struck out five times in a single game before this year. In 2018, he’s already done it twice. He’s the first player since 1920 to have two five strikeout, no-hit games in a single season. We’re not even halfway into April.

Some of this can be attributed to the era we’re in. Strikeouts are up across the league, especially among the big power hitters. But Stanton is a product of this era (maybe even its poster boy) and he’s striking out like he’s never done before.

Baseball can be random. Additionally, the Yankees have certainly seen the positives that Stanton brings. But his K rates will certainly need to drop. Even if New York can overcome the strikeouts in the regular season, that will show up in the playoffs. For a team with genuine championship aspirations, that’s a problem.