Say you started watching baseball on June 20 of last season. Maybe you'd spent three months hiking in the Himalayas or finally decided to read the 1,000-plus-page book "Infinite Jest." You didn't even bother to check the standings. You just started watching baseball. In particular, you decided to watch the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs lost 3-2 to the St. Louis Cardinals on June 20. They lost 4-3 to the Cardinals again on June 21. Trevor Rosenthal saved both games. The Cardinals won again on June 22. No big deal. The Cardinals are usually good. Some other losses followed. The Cubs then swept the Reds in Cincinnati, but went to New York and got swept by the Mets in a four-game series, including 10-2 and 14-3 blowouts. The Cubs won a home game against the Reds and then lost five games in a row, culminating with a 12-6 loss to the Pirates. Jon Lester started that game and the 14-3 loss, giving up a combined 13 runs in 4⅓ innings.
At this point, you must have thought the Cubs were the worst team in baseball. You just watched 20 games, and they went 5-15 while getting outscored 123-90. Of course, we know the Cubs weren't the worst team in baseball. They won the World Series.
So remember: Any snippet of a season can provide a misleading window. The logical side of our brain says a slow start for our favorite team is just a blip, that even good teams have bad stretches and that we're just hyperaware because it comes at the start of the season. The emotional side, however, is overreacting because it's baseball, and it's no fun if your team is 2-8.
We have a glut of teams with playoff aspirations off to bad starts. It seems unusual, even this early in the season. My guess is a couple of these squads figure things out and get back on course, and a couple of them are going to end up as season-long flops. Which ones?
Seattle Mariners (2-8)
Problem area: Everything.
When I die, I want the @Mariners to lower me into my grave, so they can let me down one last time.— Joshua Chinn (@JoshLChinn) April 13, 2017
On Sunday, the Mariners led the Angels 9-3 entering the bottom of the ninth, gave up seven runs and lost. On Wednesday, they led the Astros 5-0 and lost 10-5. This might shock you, but teams usually win when ahead by five-plus runs. Last season, those teams went 929-24, a .975 winning percentage. The Mariners blew two such leads in four games. They lost another game they led in the 13th inning. In fact, they've had leads in seven of their eight losses.
The bullpen has struggled, of course, but other than Edwin Diaz, it was a concern heading into the season. The starters are providing little length in their outings, and the big boys in the middle of the order haven't hit. Second baseman Robinson Cano, designated hitter Nelson Cruz, third baseman Kyle Seager, first baseman Danny Valencia and catcher Mike Zunino hit 141 home runs last season, one every 17.5 at-bats. They're hitting .201 so far with one home run in 174 at-bats. Those guys should start hitting. If they don't, nothing else will matter anyway. The defense was supposed to be better, but the Mariners have the second-highest batting average allowed on balls in play, so either the defense hasn't been better or there's been some bad luck (they did get dinged to death in that loss to the Angels). There have been injuries to pitcher Drew Smyly and shortstop Jean Segura. At least pitcher James Paxton has been great.
All this is a way of saying the Mariners haven't looked good. None of these teams has looked good. That's why they're here. As Jeff Sullivan outlined at FanGraphs, a bad start affects what to expect the rest of the season. While the Mariners' true talent level hasn't necessarily changed, 2-8 is in the books. If they were projected to win 85 games before the season, you have to drop the expected win total three or four wins. That could be the difference between making the playoffs and missing the playoffs.
Toronto Blue Jays (1-8)
Problem area: Offense.
@BlueJays This team is in shambles they're absolutely horrific to watch, their offence is more boring than watching paint dry— Ryman (@ryman19871987) April 14, 2017
I was asked during a radio appearance which playoff team from 2016 was least likely to make this postseason. I said the Blue Jays had all the ingredients for a fall. The rotation was great in 2016, best in the American League, but that also means regression is likely. The lineup is old. They're in a tough division. The bullpen wasn't a sure thing. They were healthy last year (five starters made 29-plus starts, and the lineup suffered few injuries).
The pitching has been so-so, but the offense has been awful, hitting .190 with just 24 runs through nine games, and eight of those came in one game. Right fielder Jose Bautista is hitting .152 with no home runs and one RBI. Russell Martin, with nearly 12,000 innings of catching on his knees, is 1-for-24. Second baseman Devon Travis was demoted from the leadoff spot with an .088 average. First baseman Justin Smoak is Justin Smoak.
The rotation does have the ability to get the Jays back on track. Marcus Stroman looked great in the World Baseball Classic and has carried that over into the regular season. J.A. Happ is 0-2 but has 17 strikeouts and no walks in 11⅔ innings. Aaron Sanchez had a solid first outing. As with the Mariners, however, that 1-8 start is in the books. Only two teams in the wild-card era started 1-8 and made the playoffs, the 1995 Reds and 2011 Rays. The Reds won 19 of their next 22. The Rays won 13 of 16 and were over .500 by the end of April. The winning must start now.
St. Louis Cardinals (3-6)
Problem area: Bullpen, veterans not hitting, outfield defense.
Cardinals front office rn trying to fix their 2-6 team that gives up 10 runs every night pic.twitter.com/40yzUqAcfp— Frederic (@StoolFrederic) April 12, 2017
The bullpen has a 7.68 ERA through nine games, but it has been pinned with just one of the six losses (unlike the Mariners, with four losses charged to the bullpen). Plus, let's give it another couple of weeks before full-scale panic sets in. Seung-Hwan Oh was one of the best relievers in baseball last season, and Brett Cecil, Kevin Siegrist and Jonathan Broxton have all been solid relievers at times in the past.
That doesn't mean there aren't some issues. It's time to admit Adam Wainwright is no longer going to be an ace. Third baseman Jhonny Peralta (3-for-20, no extra-base hits, no walks, eight K's) might be done. Second baseman Kolten Wong might never reach the potential he flashed as a rookie.
Most perplexing is manager Mike Matheny's infatuation with playing Matt Adams in left field. I mean ... it's not as though Adams' bat is so good he needs to be forced into the lineup, like a Kyle Schwarber. His career OPS-plus is 109. Entering Thursday, the Cardinals' outfield had minus-10 defensive runs saved, six worse than any other team, with Randal Grichuk at minus-5 (which might explain the idea to try Adams out there). Still, if Matheny and the front office didn't believe in Grichuk as a full-time player, they should have addressed that in the offseason rather than in April with, "Hey, what the hell, let's try Matt Adams out there."
Kansas City Royals (3-6)
Problem area: Hitting, pitching.
Is it too early for the Brandon Moss for Tim Tebow trade rumors?— Home Run Phil (@HomeRunPhil) April 10, 2017
One of the funniest things I read all spring was a scout, quoted in a major magazine, saying first baseman Eric Hosmer has Triple Crown potential. Anyway, Hosmer is off to a slow start, as is pretty much everyone else with the Royals, who are hitting .205 through their first nine games. They don't walk and were last in the American League in home runs last season, so if they don't hit for a high average, they're not going to score many runs.
The rotation includes Ian Kennedy, Jason Hammel, Jason Vargas and Nate Karns. Sometimes you just have to use the eye test. This is also the oldest pitching staff in the AL. It has 63 strikeouts and 45 walks in 80⅔ innings. The first numbers to stabilize are strikeout and walk rates. If that's the case with the Royals, it's going to be a long season.
Atlanta Braves (2-6)
Problem area: On-base percentage, timely hitting, non-Julio Teheran starters.
The Braves are listed here because the front office made a sales pitch that the team could be a sleeper playoff contender. None of the projection systems saw the Braves as a playoff team, and they haven't done anything so far to indicate otherwise.
The lineup is last in the league in walks, and that's the problem everyone forecast: getting on base often enough. The pitching staff has just 47 strikeouts in 70 innings, and that's a huge problem. Maybe their first homestand in the new park against the Padres and Nationals will get them going.
Pittsburgh Pirates (3-6)
#Pirates lose 4-3. Brutal loss.— David Todd (@DTonPirates) April 13, 2017
I like the Pirates. I want to root for them. I feel bad that they had seasons with 94 and 98 wins, and they still had to play in the wild-card game three consecutive years. They would have taken the National League West both years with those win totals.
I put McCutchen and Cole down because if the Pirates are going to win, they need those two to return to star status. McCutchen did hit his first home run on Thursday, but Cole had only six strikeouts in 11 innings through his first two starts. As general manager Neal Huntington said in the offseason, "It's no coincidence that we were good when Gerrit was good." The right-hander is throwing hard enough -- 96.5 mph average fastball velocity -- but isn't generating enough misses with the fastball or slider. We'll see if he starts emphasizing the changeup more, as he indicated in spring training, and whether that can induce some strikeouts.