One of the most enjoyable parts of the first weeks of the baseball season are the variances that can result out of small sample sizes. Sure, there will be a couple weeks during every season when, say, the Miami Marlins will win five games while the rest of the National League East will win at most four, or the Seattle Mariners will have the best record in the American League West, but very rarely will those have the visceral impact of putting those respective teams at the top of their divisions. It's also a reminder of how little, in the grand scheme of things, the first week of the season means -- despite the fact that some columnists in New York and Boston are already starting to act like the sky is falling.
Let's look at some of the small sample size wonders floating around, what they've done over their first six or seven games in the 2014 season, and whether or not it's likely that they'll keep it up - which, for our purposes, we'll just as "have a better season than expected." None of these guys will be sustaining ERAs under 1.50 or batting averages over .400, but could these be early signs of a role player turning into an impact player?
Chris Tillman, SP, Baltimore Orioles
The two best offenses in the American League last year were the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers, scoring 5.27 and 4.91 runs per game respectively -- and so far this year, Chris Tillman has pitched 13.1 innings against those two clubs and walked out with a 1.35 ERA and 9 strikeouts to 2 walks (with both runs allowed coming on bases-empty homers, one to Grady Sizemore and the other to Torii Hunter). What does this mean? At the very least it means that through his first two starts, Tillman has been able to stabilize his fastball velocity and command (a problem for him in the past) and work his 12-6 curveball beautifully. Beyond that, it doesn't mean especially much -- though holding the Tigers to one run over 8.1 IP is far more impressive than holding the Red Sox to one run over 5 IP.
Tillman was an All-Star last year, though that selection was in and of itself a bit dubious -- he had an ERA of nearly 4.0 when he was chosen to shore up the back end of the American League team's pitching staff in case the game went long. He had a better second half, but only a half-run or so better, and he ended the season with 206.1 IP of 3.71 ERA baseball; not bad by any means, but no reason to think that he turned a huge corner that will allow him to sustain a sub-3.0 ERA performance all year. Still, hope springs eternal -- especially for a team like Baltimore that's seen so many starting pitching prospects bust over the past decade -- and if the improved command is for real, the Orioles suddenly look a lot better in the Wild Card hunt than they did before the season started. As it stands, there's a moderate chance Tillman makes good on his potential this season, though unless Kevin Gausman breaks out, Tillman will likely still be the ace of the Orioles' staff at the year's end regardless of whether he betters his 2013 line or not.
Charlie Blackmon, CF, Colorado Rockies
To find the last time that Charlie Blackmon appeared on any of the Colorado Rockies prospect lists, we have to jump in our time machine and putter back to 2009, when Baseball America ranked him the 10th best prospect in the Rockies system. Back then, the book on the outfielder from Georgia Tech was that he had five-tool potential, but extreme inexperience as a hitter -- Blackmon played all of his high school and most of his junior college ball as a pitcher before moving to the outfield in 2007. It's reasonable to expect a longer development curve for a guy like that, and it's reasonable to wait on his bat to develop when he has the physical ability to play all three outfield positions, plus-plus speed, and the cannon arm you'd expect to see from a guy who started out on the mound.
Blackmon is the center fielder in Colorado now that Dexter Fowler is enjoying life with the Houston Astros -- a risky move on the Rockies' part, and premised entirely on Blackmon's limited action in 2013, when he hit .309/.336/.467 in 258 PA, being for real. If Blackmon crashes and burns, the Rockies' backup plans involve guys like Drew Stubbs and Brandon Barnes. So far that hasn't happened: He leads the majors with a .542 batting average through the first week of the season, due in no small part to a 6 for 6 night against the Arizona Diamondbacks during Colorado's home opener on April 4th (he had three hits the next day, giving him a high water mark of .600 on the season). While he's obviously unlikely to continue at anything near that pace, if he can continue to hit .300 with doubles power and Jordan Lyles continues to pitch well, the Rockies will call it a win.
Mark Trumbo, LF, Arizona Diamondbacks
The bad news about Mark Trumbo is that all he really contributes to a major league baseball team is the long ball. He's not a professional grade fielder, he's a poor base runner, his speed isn't great and the only value in his bat lies in its power. He came into the season with a career OBP under .300, which is almost unheard of for a modern day power hitter.
The good news about Mark Trumbo is he hit four home runs last week, and one in Australia during the final week of March, giving him five on the year. If Trumbo's finally figured out how to sustain his power -- and if opposing pitchers don't find a way to stop him -- he could have a very big season and make Tyler Skaggs less of a loss to a pitching staff that's gotten shelled from through the team's first nine games. At this juncture that's still unlikely; almost 2000 MLB plate appearances say Mark Trumbo is a .475 slugger who's good for about 30 home runs a year, and we'll probably want another month or two of this production before talking about him being this year's Chris Davis.
Melky Cabrera, LF, Toronto Blue Jays
It might seem a bit odd to now turn right around say it's likely that Melky Cabrera's early production is an indication he'll perform above expectations in 2014, but in all fairness, Trumbo's baseline expected production in 2014 is higher than Cabrera's to begin with. The narrative surrounding Melky over the past 12 months has been that now that he's clean, he's back to being the old light-hitting Melky Cabrera, instead of being a guy who was never fully healthy all of last year and who saw that affect his hitting. Will Melky be a .935 OPS player the rest of the way? No, but it's certainly possible he won't be far off. In a way, these are both appeals to regression: it's far more reasonable to believe that Melky Cabrera will return to being Kansas City/San Francisco Melky Cabrera than it is to believe that Mark Trumbo will stop being Mark Trumbo.
Every Veteran Starting Pitcher with a 0.00 ERA Going Into Monday's Games
Nah, we pretty much know who Mark Buehrle, Aaron Harang, and the rest of this crew are. Worth noting that Yovani Gallardo has kept himself untarnished through two starts to everyone else's one, though. He should at least bounce back from his relatively poor showing last year, but he and the other seven or eight starters in the same boat as him should expect to start giving up runs soon.
Except for Bruce Chen, of course, who remains invincible.