Welcome back to The Rotation! Here are five topics in the world of Major League Baseball worth bantering about this week.
1. They might not be Giants
The National League West's two powers will square off against each other this week.
But hey, enough about the Rockies-D-backs series that starts Friday. Let's talk Dodgers and Giants.
The long-standing rivals begin a four-game series at AT&T Park on Monday night and, just 12 percent of the way through the season schedule, there's plenty of reason to wonder if their three-season run of finishing 1-2 in the West is over.
That's not a comment on the Dodgers' uninspiring start. That club was built with the depth to handle issues like Rich Hill's continued blister woes or Kenta Maeda's elevated stuff, flyball rate and ERA. Aside from Brandon McCarthy's Sunday start, the pitching staff had a terrible weekend in Arizona. The offense's numbers against left-handed pitching remain less-than-stellar. Joc Pederson left Sunday's game with a groin issue. The Dodgers have issues -- perhaps more issues than expected from a club that was the darling of the projection models -- but nothing that should make you feel their competitive effort is greatly compromised.
The Giants, on the other hand? Whoo boy.
"Right now, there's nothing clicking, let's be honest," Bruce Bochy told reporters Sunday.
The Giants are 6-13, matching their worst 19-game start in franchise history. Their durable, dependable ace, Madison Bumgarner, just cost himself at least six to eight weeks by seriously injuring his throwing shoulder in a dirt bike accident. The rotation besides Bumgarner has mostly been a mess, leading to the highest starters' ERA (5.02) in the bigs and the second-highest WHIP (1.35) in the NL.
The lineup, meanwhile, has lost Denard Span to a sprained SC joint in his shoulder, which is near the clavicle, which is what left fielder Jarrett Parker broke last week. You'll probably see Drew Stubbs join the effort this week, and Mike Morse might not be far behind … and, no, these are not season saviors. The lack of depth here combines with the dearth of quality pitching to put a San Francisco club that's 36-55 since the All-Star break last year in a Giant hole early on.
Giants-Dodgers used to be a power struggle. This week, it's simply a struggle to prove the word "power" still applies.
2. Seoul survivors?
There has been no better story in MLB this opening month than Eric Thames. Like Trevor Story a year ago, he's served the role of annual April wonder, a subject of many a breathless dispatch about his Major League-leading eight homers so far in his return to the big leagues after three seasons in South Korea.
Thames (he's not a descendent of the southern England river, so go ahead and pronounce the "h") has been an overwhelming positive not just for the rebuilding Brewers, who just may have achieved the steal of the offseason with Thames' three-year, $16 million contract, but for a variety of "Four-A" players -- guys who just can't seem to get traction at the Major League level.
Back in early 2016, I wrote about how the leap from the Korean Baseball Organization to MLB by Korean-born players had been legitimized a bit by the early successes (since derailed by injury and DUI) of Jung Ho Kang. But Thames has shown this can work another way, too. Players in the position Thames found himself back in 2013, when he was bouncing around the Minors after failed stints in Toronto and Seattle, can now see his path as an example of the way the KBO can be utilized to revive a stalled career.
Evaluators often equate the offensive-heavy KBO to the Double-A level, and it doesn't typically contain the high heat so prevalent in MLB today. But Thames found value in the variety of breaking pitches he had to face, and it instilled a discipline that was not a previous part of his plate performance. When last we saw him in 2012, Thames chased 36.8 percent of pitches outside the zone. Today it's just 20.9 percent, and Thames has punished mistakes.
All we can do in life is make the most of whatever situation presents itself, no matter how much it might differ from our wildest dreams. That's what Thames did in Korea -- a place where fans gawked at his power and called him "God." It will be interesting to see if this "God" has some followers on the KBO path.
3. (Don't) pace yourself
Commissioner Rob Manfred has taken a lot of heat from purists or people who simply think far more attention is being placed on pace of play than necessary.
"I think we're going way too far with this whole pace of play thing," Indians catcher Yan Gomes said. "You read some stuff and it's getting kind of ridiculous."
But the Commish is dead-on about dead time. Maybe we don't need to place limits on reliever usage (more on that in a sec) or introduce headsets or otherwise alter the game's strategy. But something does need to be done about this -- the average number of seconds between pitches, per FanGraphs' pace calculation:
This increase contributed to the 3-hour, 5-minute average in the season's first two weeks -- a rise from last year's average of three hours even. If you thought (like I did) that a crop of young players brought up in the high Minors with a pitch clock would bring an improved pace the bigs, think again. Last year, the average pace with a rookie pitcher on the mound was only 0.2 seconds below the league average. This year it's actually 0.1 seconds higher.
If you think the 2017 average is an early aberration, just know that last year's April average equaled what turned out to be the season average. So this might be something that stabilizes quickly.
MLB needs the 20-second pitch clock. They've had it in Double-A and Triple-A since 2015 and nobody has perished from over-acceleration. Players might be tired of this conversation, but it's their increasingly agonizing between-pitch routines that force the issue.
4. Joey's bat's flat
No team has a bigger division deficit than the Toronto Blue Jays, who enter this week 7 1/2 games back in the AL East with a 5-13 record. Any faith in a Blue Jay bounceback has to be tied at least somewhat to faith in a Jose Bautista bounceback, and so far we have but one precious swing -- and unfortunately very little else -- that serves as reason to believe in that possibility.
Let's back up a bit and first say that things looked good for Bautista this spring. He returned to Toronto after a frustrating free agency that resulted only in a one-year guarantee, and he appeared motivated to prove his injury riddled 2016 was a fluke. He looked good in the World Baseball Classic, looked good in the Grapefruit League, was driving the ball the other way and was healthy.
But this season's been a drag. Bautista is 9-for-68 (.132) with 26 strikeouts. His average exit velocity is just 86.6 mph, which is below the league average (87.6) and well below his 2016 mark (93.6). He's chasing a little more and connecting a lot less, and, as is the case anytime a guy around his age (36) struggles, there are talks about his bat speed not being what it once was.
Bautista did connect over the weekend on an 84-mph Jesse Chavez slider for a go-ahead three-run home run in the 13th inning of a win over the Angels. So all is not lost. But Bautista came into 2017 with a lot riding on his performance. And now the Blue Jays, who added Troy Tulowitzki's injured hamstring to their list of early season issues, have even more riding on him finding his old form.
5. Long live the long man
My colleague Jon Paul Morosi wrote about the pronounced value of "bridge" relievers in today's game. We saw it, of course, last October with multi-inning efforts taken on by Andrew Miller of the Indians and the less-heralded but equally-important Mike Montgomery of the Cubs, and we're seeing it even in this early stage of the 2017 season, most prominently with the Astros' aggressive use of Chris Devenski, who recorded at least six outs in four of his first five appearances.
It is true that the number of times in which a reliever faces just one batter is large enough (it happened 1,182 times last year) that many people, including Mets GM (and, of note here, chairman of the MLB rules committee) Sandy Alderson, have proposed that relievers be forced to face a minimum of two or three batters.
But multi-inning efforts for relievers are also on the rise. Last season, there were 1,749 instances (or 0.72 per game) in which a starter lasted no more than five innings -- the most all-time and a jump from 1,536 the previous season. It's happening at a similar rate (0.71) this season. The innings have to come from somewhere, and that's why relievers have been tasked with more multi-inning efforts.
2014: 0.58 per game
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.