Your eyes do not deceive you. The standings do not deceive you. There is indeed greater parity in baseball this season — so far.
Entering Sunday’s play, 20 of the 30 clubs were within four games of .500 — the most ever on May 21, according to STATS LLC. And remember, this season started earlier than most.
The number of teams in the close-to-.500 group dropped to 18 on Sunday, but no matter. The performances of the Indians and Marlins — two teams that are well above .500 — reflect increased parity, too.
So, what the heck is going on?
I posed that question to nearly a dozen people in baseball over the weekend. Excluding the most obvious factor — revenue sharing, which enables low-revenue clubs to spend more aggressively on amateur talent and keep their best young players long-term — most of the answers noted two developments specific to 2011:
The continued shift toward pitching and defense.
The uninspired play by many of the game’s high-revenue clubs.
Clearly, such observations are anecdotal. But let’s start with the latter.
As one executive puts it, “The good teams started off crappy.”
In the AL, the co-division leaders in the East, the Yankees and Rays, are only five games above .500. The Rangers, leading the West, are only one game over. And while the Indians are on a 107-win pace in the Central, every other team is .500 or below.
The NL is similar. The Phillies, Marlins, Cardinals and Giants are the only teams more than three games above .500.
“The superpowers aren’t good,” one GM says. “The Yankees have poor starting pitching and look old. The Dodgers are struggling, the Cubs and White Sox the same. The Angels have a bad bullpen and are coming back to earth offensively. The Mets are rebuilding.
“Only the Phillies and Red Sox look good — and they aren’t perfect either, with the Red Sox’s back-of-rotation health and performance (questions) and the Phillies’ offensive struggles.
“When the biggest markets struggle, it opens things up for the smaller payrolls.”
Two other executives agreed, but both noted that greater separation is likely to occur in the coming months, when teams such as the Red Sox reach their predicted levels.
One thing about the high-revenue clubs, though — they sink so much money into superstars, they often are thin in certain areas. Thus, their vulnerability increases if one or more of their stars is injured or under-performs.
The other theory about parity — the more intriguing theory — is the effect of the pitching renaissance on the game’s competitive balance.
“Pitching staffs are better all over baseball and that tends to equalize offense,” one GM says. “There are no great offensive teams. It feels like we are entering a real good pitching era.”
Another GM notes that many of the more successful low-revenue clubs of late — the 2010 Padres, the pre-Target Field Twins, the Athletics of both the Hudson-Mulder-Zito era and today — were built on young, affordable pitching.
Such teams, in most cases, could not afford monster sluggers. And now that slugging is diminished, a team with a strong rotation can prove surprisingly competitive (see the 2011 Mariners) and maybe even win the World Series (the 2010 Giants).
Of course, none of the above theories explains the Indians, who lack a dominant rotation but boast a strong offense and powerful bullpen in a mediocre division.
There is never one explanation for anything in baseball. In a month or two, the increased parity might fade. But for now, the standings sure look different.
Who needs the NFL?
K-ROD: OPPOSING VIEWS
A quick glance at Francisco Rodriguez’s stats — 15 saves in 16 chances, a 0.76 ERA — and one might think, “Wow, maybe the Mets can trade this guy, crazy contract and all.”
Two scouts, though, volunteered to me that K-Rod’s stuff is diminished, and that his statistics are essentially a lie.
Such an assessment seems harsh — Rodriguez struck out Nick Swisher on a vicious breaking ball to preserve the Mets’ 2-1 victory over the Yankees on Friday night. But it’s certainly reasonable to say that K-Rod is not what he once was.
His fastball velocity has dropped from 94.4 mph in 2007 to 92.7 in ’09 to 90.4 this season, according to PitchFX data on Fangraphs.com. And his current 1.35 WHIP would be the highest of his career.
K-Rod’s most important statistic, of course, is the number of games he finishes. His $17.5 million option for 2012 will become guaranteed with 55 GF. He is on pace for 63.
It’s almost inconceivable that the Mets would allow the option to vest; the best solution is to trade Rodriguez to a team that would use him as a setup man.
The question at that point would be whether Rodriguez would be comfortable in such a role.
THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
The Indians obtained two of their best players — right fielder Shin Soo-Choo and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera — in lopsided trades with the Mariners.
Outfielder Ezequiel Carrera, the Tribe’s latest find from the M’s, does not figure to make nearly as strong an impact. But Friday night, Carrera drove in the go-ahead run in the Indians’ 5-4 victory over the Reds in most unusual fashion — with a two-out drag bunt on the first pitch he saw in the majors.
The Indians acquired Carrera and Double A shortstop Juan Diaz last June for first baseman Russell Branyan. Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik declined to re-sign Branyan, and the Diamondbacks recently released him.
Zduriencik’s predecessor, Bill Bavasi, made two trades with the Indians in 2006 that were much worse.
Within a four-week span, Bavasi traded Cabrera for Eduardo Perez and Choo for Ben Broussard.
BRIGHT SPOTS IN BALTIMORE
The Orioles, for all of their early struggles, are only three games under .500 and four games back in the AL East. Even better, manager Buck Showalter is raving about two of his cornerstones — catcher Matt Wieters and center fielder Adam Jones, both of whom are 25.
Showalter and his staff have talked up Wieters’ defense since the start of spring training. But Wieters, a switch-hitter, is making significant offensive progress, too.
Wieters, acting upon a suggestion from hitting coach Jim Presley, went to a more erect stance to gain greater leverage from his 6-foot-5 frame. And now he leads the majors with a 1.584 OPS with runners in scoring position.
The sample size consists of a measly 39 plate appearances. Sabermetricians contend that clutch hitting is not a skill. But Wieters’ overall .752 OPS also represents a step forward.
Jones always has been vocal, but he is rapidly emerging as a leader, Showalter says.
“Nobody in baseball has worked harder than Adam Jones from Day One of spring training until today,” Showalter says. “He’s playing his butt off. It makes me want to come back to the park each day.
“He’s playing center field at a level that you hope for as a manager. His arm should be one of the more feared arms in baseball.”
The Orioles’ third potential up-the-middle cornerstone, Single A shortstop Manny Machado, could reach Double A next season and perhaps be ready by 2013.
A RIGHTY WHO LOOKS LIKE A LEFTY
The Diamondbacks, trying to identify quality starting pitchers, plan to give right-hander Josh Collmenter an extended look.
Why wouldn’t they?
Collmenter, 25, threw 12 scoreless innings in his first two starts, beating the Dodgers and Braves.
He lacks pedigree; Collmenter, a 15th-round pick in 2007, did not crack Baseball America’s list of Arizona’s top 30 prospects, and the D-backs added him to their 40-man roster only after he pitched well in the Arizona Fall League.
Collmenter’s unique overhead arm angle, however, makes him look almost like he’s left-handed, GM Kevin Towers says.
“There’s a lot to be said for deception,” Towers says. “Guy don’t take good swings off him.”
Collmenter obviously will be tested as he goes through the league, but the D-Backs’ rotation is showing improvement regardless.
Left-hander Joe Saunders has pitched better in May, and lefty Zach Duke is expected to come off the disabled list Saturday in Houston.
Don’t look now, but Giants third baseman Miguel Tejada is starting to hit, going 10-for-28 in his last seven games to raise his batting average from .195 to .224. Shortstop Mike Fontenot, meanwhile, is in a 5-for-34 rut.
Tejada could move back to short once Pablo Sandoval returns, or at least share time with Fontenot at the position. The Giants knew Tejada would be limited defensively at short, but figured he would at least hit.
Would the Mets’ Jose Reyes be an upgrade? Of course. But the Giants are not about to quit on Tejada, a $6 million investment, only two months into the season.
AROUND THE HORN
• It’s early for All-Star talk, but how cool it would be if Dodgers infielder Jamey Carroll received his first All-Star selection at age 37, filling the “multi-position” role that MLB created last season?
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said during spring training that Carroll was the team’s 2010 MVP. Carroll’s .363 on-base percentage as a shortstop this season ties him for the major-league lead with the Indians’ Asdrubal Cabrera. Rafael Furcal returned Sunday, and Carroll moved to second in place of the injured Juan Uribe.
• Snicker if you must — and many statistical analysts must — but the Brewers are surprised and delighted by the early defensive work of shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt.
While Betancourt lacks range, he showed improvement last season with the Royals and now appears to be benefiting from the exaggerated positioning employed by Brewers manager Ron Roenicke. His arm strength and accuracy have never been issues.
• Why did the Orioles waive Justin Turner, who has given the Mets a jolt with an .884 OPS in his first 68 plate appearances while playing second and third base?
Turner, 26, could always hit, but to some, his lack of a defensive position makes him a liability. The Orioles also have a similar player with more power, Ryan Adams, 24, at Triple A.
Players such as Turner or Adams either hit enough to become regulars or stall at Triple A. They have little value as utility men because of their defensive shortcomings.
• Double A right-hander Juan Nicasio, the latest in a series of outstanding Rockies pitching prospects, is coming “like a freight train,” according to one club official.
Nicasio, 24, is sitting at 97 mph in every outing and touching 99 — and his changeup is an above-average pitch. He needs to improve his breaking ball, but projects as a future member of the Colorado rotation.
• Once the Mariners promote second baseman Dustin Ackley — a move that should happen soon — they likely will replace him at Triple A with his former teammate at North Carolina, Kyle Seager.
The M’s took Ackley in the first round of the 2009 draft and Seager in the third. Seager entered Sunday with an .848 OPS for Double A Jackson.