The first month of the season is wrapping up, and it's doubtful that too many people picked the Boston Red Sox and the Colorado Rockies to have the best records in their respective leagues. This is, of course, the beauty and the curse of early season baseball: a whole lot of optimism and dejection are generated over performances in the first couple weeks of the season that would only get lightly remarked on were they to happen in late June into July. That's well understood at this point. The trick is to figure out which teams can sustain the level of play they've put together so far -- or at least something resembling it -- and which teams are performing far, far over their heads. From that perspective, the Red Sox and Rockies couldn't be much more different.
Statistically speaking, both teams are doing well by the standard metrics: Boston was scoring the fourth-most runs per game in the American League while allowing the second-fewest going into Sunday's action; the Rockies, while allowing the seventh-most runs per game, were scoring the second-most in the National League. They are also doing well by some of the boilerplate "luck" stats: the Red Sox, for instance, went into Sunday leading Major League Baseball in percentage of opposing runners left on base (85.1 percent; MLB average in 2012 was 72.5 percent), while the Rockies have somehow allowed only 0.37 HR/9 in Coors so far this season. That number is usually three or four times that (1.45 in 2012, 1.23 in 2011, 0.96 in 2010) and should be expected to creep up to at least around the league average, between 1.1 and 1.2, if not further due to the Coors Field factor.
The low number of home runs allowed so far -- the raw numbers going into Sunday were 3 HR in 73 innings of pitching -- help explain the Colorado staff's 2.59 home ERA so far. That would be the best home ERA a Rockies team has ever put up were they to sustain it over the course of the season. Meanwhile, as for the Red Sox, while a high strand rate is a sign of a very good rotation and bullpen, even the best staffs in baseball generally don't strand more than 75 percent of their runners over the course of a full season, so there will likely be some regression there as well.
When talking about "regression" for teams winning over 70 percent of their ballgames, it's important to note that of course they're going to regress. Barring any major change in the economics of the professional game, it's very unlikely that we'll ever see another 115-win team in a 162 game season. These teams will stop winning at their current torrid pace, but the question is: When they do stabilize, where will they be? Still in first place? In third? In last? While it's impossible to say for sure where they'll fall to, it is possible to make educated guesses based on what you know about their respective players.
A lot of what you think of Boston's season so far, for instance, rides on what you think of two pitchers: Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. The surrounding cast -- from stalwarts Pedroia and Ortiz to young up-and-comers like Middlebrooks to new free-agent veterans like Dempster, Napoli, and Victorino -- is important too, but not as much as the two guys whose 2012 woes most hurt the Red Sox.
Both men, a year removed from the worst full seasons of their respective careers, have thrown 56 combined innings of 1.29 ERA baseball, striking out 52 and walking 15. That's a far cry from the nearly 400 combined innings of 4.69 ERA ball they threw last year, and while those sterling ERAs are going to creep upwards as the season goes on into more reasonable territory, by looking at their numbers and watching them pitch it's reasonable to see their fast starts as evidence that the process they're going through now is working for them in a way that it wasn't last year -- that 2012 was an outlier performance for them instead of a new "normal." Again, they're not going to look like Cy Young shoe-ins all season long (nor is Ryan Dempster, for that matter), but if they're back to being the guys they were in 2010-2011, Boston is a very strong contender to win a wide-open, flawed AL East, especially if the Blue Jays' woes continue. The big question the Red Sox face is on the other side of the ball. Right now their production is coming from Jarrod Saltalamacchia and an ungodly hot Daniel Nava, while the rest of their hitters are cold or pedestrian; however, David Ortiz returned with a bang on Saturday and looks ready to pick up where he left off.
The Rockies, on the other hand, simply don't have the history to be confident of future success the way the Red Sox do. It's more likely today that, say, Dexter Fowler's going to hit 30 home runs this year than it was this time two weeks ago, but that doesn't mean it's actually in the realm of probability yet. Fowler's not a new player getting a change of scenery; he's had over 500 plate appearances each of the past four seasons for Colorado, and his single season HR high in that time is the 13 home runs he hit last season. He's almost guaranteed to break that number at this point, which is a nifty little upward trend -- but we're still about 500-700 plate appearances of Fowler going yard at this pace away from declaring that this is his new normal. Of course, it doesn't have to be for him to be an elite centerfielder in the league. If he can be a 30-35 doubles, 10-15 triples, 25-30 home runs guy who can efficiently steal bases and play decent centerfield defense you start putting his name up next to guys like Kemp, Trout, and McCutchen -- but again, considering his offensive profile so far in his career, it's doubtful that right now Dexter Fowler's much more than an above-average centerfielder having the hottest 70 plate appearances of his career to date.
More sustainable, Rockies fans hope, is the performance of Jhoulys Chacin, the staff ace. He's got a 1.49 ERA in 24 2⁄3 innings so far, and of the four runs he's allowed only one of them has come at home. He's flashed brilliance before in 2010 and parts of 2011, but spent most of 2012 ineffective and, unlike Lester and Buchholz, injured. All we can tell about Chacin so far is that the mental and physical ability to perform is still there -- he can still be one of the better pitchers in baseball. It's now a question of consistency and, just as importantly, durability.
Behind him in the rotation, though, Jorge de la Rosa and Jon Garland are also off to fantastic starts, and both with extremely impressive peripheral numbers: 27 combined strikeouts against one walk between the two of them. Considering de la Rosa, like Chacin, spent much of last year injured and ineffective and Garland flirted with leaving professional baseball entirely before attending Mariners and then Rockies camp this offseason as a NRI, it's fair to say that they don't have the performance history or pedigree that the resurgent pitchers in the Boston rotation do.
I'd love nothing more than for Garland to be for real: It's a great story, and if he's even a league-average pitcher this season he should have NL Comeback Player of the Year locked down. But if I had to bet right now, I'd still bet against him. Just like I'd bet against Carlos Gonzalez continuing to hit like he does at home on the road, Michael Cuddyer continuing to walk as much as he strikes out, and the non-Edgmer Escalonas of the Rockies' pen managing to keep the ball in the yard: the resume's not there for it, and at this point in getting to know the 2013 MLB season, a player's resume is still the best tool we have.