Welcome back to The Rotation! For those new to the program, the idea here is to hit on five pertinent topics in the baseball world each week. Join us here each Monday during the regular season.
1. Things are looking up
Baseball's evolution has made elevation a point worth talking up (get it?) as we venture into the 2017 season.
It's easy to go the cynical route and assume something sinister -- baseballs manufactured by Penn Racquet Sports, perhaps? -- must be behind the gigantic jump in home run rate that began in the second half of 2015 and continued in earnest last season. But don't ignore the changing attitudes toward the uppercut -- a change probably best articulated by Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner in this piece by MLB.com's Mike Petriello:
"Today, with the way defenses shift," said Turner, "if you hit a ground ball, you're out … You don't beat the shift by hitting around it or through it. You beat the shift by hitting over it."
The availability, thanks to Statcast™, of exit velocity and launch angle -- and our improved understanding of the sweet spots in which "barreled" balls lead to higher batting averages and slugging percentages -- has become a source of batting-practice banter. Though there are already high-profile cases (Turner, Josh Donaldson, J.D. Martinez) of players literally elevating their games, it will be interesting to see if last year's record 12.8 percent home run/fly ball rate compels more players to focus on fly balls and therefore increase what has so-far been a stable league-wide fly ball and line drive rate the last few seasons. (Pretty clear Madison Bumgarner, with a two-homer opening act, digs the deep fly.)
We're also all curious to see what direction, if any, the strike zone takes. MLB tried to get the Players Association to sign off on redefining the bottom of the zone -- from the hollow below the knee to its previous place at the top of the kneecap -- at the start of Spring Training, to no avail. But there was actually already a (slight) organic tightening of that portion of the zone last season. Combine that with another Statcast-influenced focus on spin rate, and you might have a recipe for more pitchers attempting to live up in the zone. Weird timing, considering Jason Castro's three-year, $24.5 million contract with the Twins just showed us how much low-zone pitch-framing now matters in the open marketplace.
Anyway, for all this talk of things going north, let's hope one element of baseball -- the average time of game -- goes down in 2017. It ventured back past the three-hour mark in 2016, and, though there are many ways to address/improve this issue, nothing (until we actually get a pitch clock) would make the pace more palatable than pitchers and hitters ditching the dilly-dallying. Last year, per the data at FanGraphs, the average time between pitches jumped 0.6 seconds (from 22.1 to 22.7).
That's an upward trend nobody wants.
2. Ranger danger?
No reigning division champ seems to be facing more skepticism than the Texas Rangers. This isn't the most reliable science in the world, but just 33.3 percent of our writers here at MLB.com picked Texas to repeat in the American League West, with 47.9 expecting an Astros uprising.
There are several reasons to explain this, including the iffy nature of the back end of the Rangers rotation and the improvement of the Astros lineup. But a primary reason projections machines are down on the Rangers is their best-ever 36-11 record in one-run games last year. Certainly, this specific winning percentage is likely to prove unrepeatable, but the improvement the Rangers showed last year in what still projects to be a deep bullpen (5.04 ERA in the first half, 3.46 in the second), full seasons from Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez, a healthy season from Shin-Soo Choo and the addition of Mike Napoli are all reasons for optimism. It's also possible we're underrating the depth and/or skill sets that allowed Jeff Banister's club to win so many tight games in the first place.
As you might suspect, the "Texas is going to regress because of its one-run record last year" theory doesn't fly in the Rangers' locker room.
"That's stupid," Choo said. "One-run games are tough. Some games, hitters get hot, you get 15 runs, and that's easy. But a one-run game? Your defense is moving in and out, how you use your bullpen is important. That's a tough thing. I think [that record] shows a good team."
3. Hang-ups and bang-ups
On the flip side, a widely popular pick to repeat -- the Red Sox in the AL East -- threatens to land in the overrated realm if health doesn't cooperate. It's very early, of course, but if you compiled a Spring Training-specific power rankings (now there's a missed opportunity), Boston would have to rank somewhere near the bottom because of the injuries that have temporarily yanked David Price out of the rotation and setup acquisition Tyler Thornburg out of the bullpen.
Price got second opinions on his left elbow from Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Neal ElAttrache this spring and is now working his way back sans surgery. But he raised eyebrows in the industry with this remark: "They said if I was 22 or 23, they'd have told me to go have surgery."
Clearly, Price has something going on inside that arm (not a stunning concept considering he's logged north of 1,700 regular season and postseason innings). Whether it's enough to compromise him even when he returns (early May, at best) remains to be seen, but, even with Rick Porcello and Chris Sale forming a fearsome twosome up top, Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright are no sure things from a health perspective and the organizational depth is suspect.
Thornburg's shoulder situation does not seem serious enough to classify him as Carson Smith v. 2.0, but his early unavailability is another frustration for team president Dave Dombrowski, who, no matter how good things look on paper at the time of transaction, has struggled to piece together effective bullpens. Smith is still out until at least June, so, with Thornburg unavailable early, the Sox's setup situation in front of Craig Kimbrel is no clearer now than it was for much of 2016.
4. Get "caught" up
When Statcast™ was first unveiled in 2015, one hope we voiced was that it would give us a better and more definable window into understanding who, exactly, is good at defense and why. The 2017 unveiling of Catch Probability is the first major leap toward that goal, applying a 0-100% number on every fly ball to the outfield to compare it to the Major League average. There will be catches that look unique but actually aren't and catches that look routine that are actually rare, and now you'll have something more concrete than your standard "Well, shoot, even I could have caught that one!" criticism when a ball is misplayed.
It works the other way, too. Hit Probability uses exit velocity and launch angle to put a 0-100% likelihood of landing for a hit on each batted ball, so now we'll know when guys are totally robbed. You can have some fun tracking this one over at Baseball Savant's daily game feed.
The next frontier is a more accurate accounting of infield defense, and that could be something Statcast™ provides us with as soon as the 2018 season. But the outfield defensive data is already proving influential in the industry. The Pirates used it to explain to Andrew McCutchen, who was basically terrible going to his left and terrific going to his right, why it was time to cede center field to Starling Marte and move to right.
5. Vision quest
From the shameless plug department, last week on MLB.com, I ranked the top five rotations, lineups and bullpens. We've got one more ranking coming this week of the clubs that seem to have the best organizational flexibility (i.e. ability to adjust to the unforeseen in-season), but you'll note that the Cubs and Indians are the only clubs to appear on all three of my top fives.
This speaks, I suppose, to what feels like a greater suspicion than usual that we could see a World Series rematch. It hasn't happened since 1977-78 (Yankees-Dodgers), and yet it's hard to deny the Cubs' overall awesomeness and the fact that the Indians, with Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, look better/healthier than they did at the time of that fantastic Fall Classic. For what it's worth, prior to the Cubs' Sunday night opener, FanGraphs was giving only the Dodgers (28.4) a higher percentage chance of winning a pennant and advancing to the Series than the Cubs (28.2) and Indians (28.0).
Well, listen, it's probably not going to happen. As Ron Washington would say, "That's the way baseball go." But personally, I'd have no problem with a Cubs-Tribe rematch, and here are nine other things I'd like to see this season:
- A Bryce Harper bounceback. He's good for the game.
- An Andrew McCutchen bounceback. Same.
- Mike Trout in the postseason.
- 20-year-old Julio Urias vs. 43-year-old Ichiro Suzuki.
- A two-word, Jordan-esque tweet from David Ortiz after the All-Star break: "I'm back."
- David Ross wins "Dancing with the Stars," some random Minor Leaguer wins "The Bachelorette."
- A 60-homer, 250-strikeout season (kind of seems like we're headed that way anyway).
- Wily Mo Pena.
- A surprisingly sustained uprising from a team absolutely nobody is picking to do anything (Phillies, Brewers, Braves, Reds, Twins, White Sox or Padres would be the candidates here). When a champagne-soaked ballplayer says, "Nobody believed in us," I want it to be true.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.