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The Nationals, Yankees, Dodgers And Cubs Can’t Possibly Be This Mediocre … Right?

The 2018 MLB season may not even be a month old, but it’s never too early to start overanalyzing how teams have looked so far. That’s especially true this season, when many of the clubs slated to be favorites going into the year have stumbled a bit coming out of the gate. Most of these teams will probably be fine in the end — seriously, it is still very early to know anything about how the season will play out — but just the same, it’s worth checking on which aspects of their struggles should disappear in due time and which might be cause for real anxiety.

Washington Nationals (10-12)

What’s gone wrong: For a team supposedly built around pitching, Washington currently ranks fifth-to-last in the National League in adjusted ERA — though it hasn’t been the fault of the Max Scherzer-led starting rotation. No, the blame rests with a bullpen that collectively boasts a 5.78 ERA and has performed even worse in clutch situations. (Witness the Nats’ epic meltdown against the Mets last Wednesday.) Some bad early-season defense isn’t helping either, and despite Bryce Harper’s raw feats of power, the offense isn’t hitting enough to make up for the 4.6 runs Washington is allowing per game.

Cause for concern? Maybe. The Nats’ bullpen and defense were nothing special last season, either — they ranked 19th and 17th, respectively, in wins above replacement.1 Closer Sean Doolittle has been fine so far, however, and setup men Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler are not as bad as they’ve looked in the early going. This lineup should get on track, too, when Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton return from injury — or when Michael Taylor and Ryan Zimmerman break out of their April slumps. (We’ve seen Zimmerman hit poorly before, but he rebounded last season and has been hitting the ball hard in 2018, despite his bad results so far.)

New York Yankees (11-9)

What’s gone wrong: For all their immense hype going into the season, the Yankees have been pretty “meh” starting out, scoring only 13 more runs than they’ve allowed (113 vs. 100). Prized new left fielder Giancarlo Stanton is striking out constantly, particularly in front of the home fans at Yankee Stadium, while the team’s pitching has been average at best. They’re wasting a great start to the season by shortstop Didi Gregorius; he’s looked like an MVP over the past three weeks, but the Yankees barely have a .500 record to show for it.

Cause for concern? Probably not. Although Stanton is pressing at the plate like some batters have been known to do in the pressure-packed New York media market, swinging at more pitches overall and whiffing on fastballs over the plate especially, he’s simply too good a hitter to not adjust eventually. (The ball he smoked at home on Friday might be a sign of things to come.) Likewise, scuffling starters Masahiro Tanaka and Sonny Gray should be better than the 7.22 ERA they’ve combined for so far, and a bullpen that ranked second in MLB in WAR last year is due for an improvement. Regression to the mean can work both ways, of course — Gregorius probably hasn’t fully made the leap to MVP level, for instance — but the Yankees should also benefit from better luck going forward: According to BaseRuns, which smooths out differences in the timing of offensive and defensive events, New York has been baseball’s fifth-best team so far, despite its record.

Los Angeles Dodgers (10-10)

What’s gone wrong: For one thing, Los Angeles’s offense is down this year, dropping from second in the NL last year to sixth in 2018, according to adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage. The Dodgers miss the production of third baseman Justin Turner, who fractured his wrist in spring training and has missed the entire season, and many of their other top hitters (Chris Taylor, Corey Seager, Yasiel Puig, the now-injured Logan Forsythe, etc.) are off to subpar starts. But an even bigger problem has been L.A.’s bullpen, which ranks 22nd in WAR a year after finishing fifth. Closer Kenley Jansen, usually the best reliever on the planet, sports a 6.23 ERA, and he’s already blown twice as many saves this year as he did all of last season.2

Cause for concern? Sort of. The Dodgers’ hitting issues should sort themselves out eventually — they’re still projected by FanGraphs to score the fourth-most runs per game in the NL over the entire season, and they ought to be even better than that once Turner comes back in May. The bullpen question may be longer-lasting, however, given Jansen’s struggles. Although he brushed off early concerns about his performance (and he recorded a pair of scoreless innings over the weekend), there were questions about Jansen’s velocity in the spring, which have only amplified a month into the season. According to BrooksBaseball.com, Jansen’s sinker is averaging only 93.6 mph this April, compared with 95.7 mph last April and 94.9 two Aprils ago. We know that unexplained changes in velocity may indicate the kind of injury or mechanical problem that leads to cold streaks or prolonged absences, and we also know how important Jansen was to the Dodgers’ bullpen last year (he accounted for 48 percent of their relief WAR by himself). If Jansen suffers a down season, it would seriously affect L.A.’s chances of returning to the World Series.

Chicago Cubs (10-9)

What’s gone wrong: The Cubs are scoring plenty and they’ve already enjoyed a few memorable moments in 2018 so far, including this ridiculous eighth-inning comeback against the Braves the Saturday before last. But their starting pitching and defense — i.e., the twin cornerstones of Chicago’s 2016 World Series run — have been surprisingly mediocre thus far. Although veteran lefty Jon Lester has basically been his usual solid self, none of the other rotation members have lived up to their previous track records, from club mainstay Kyle Hendricks to newcomers Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood and second-year Cub Jose Quintana. And if Cub pitchers used to generate easily fieldable balls in play, that’s no longer the case: The team is below average in defensive efficiency and ordinary in various other fielding metrics. (When even Jason Heyward is showing up as a negative in the field, your defense has problems.)

Cause for concern? Defensively, not really. Heyward may have lost a step in the field — which is worth keeping an eye on — but Chicago started slow on defense last season, too. They eventually managed to finish near the top of the advanced-metric leaderboards when all was said and done. But there might be real cause for concern in the subpar performance of the Cubs’ rotation, even after taking defense out of the equation. Chicago’s starters rank seventh-worst in fielding-independent pitching so far this season, continuing a three-year slide from fourth-best in 2016 to 10th-best last year, and now 24th-best in 2018. The optimist’s case is that this group is too talented to keep pitching so poorly — and walking so many batters, specifically — but the Cubs will have a hard time fending off the Cardinals and Brewers in the NL Central (much less reclaiming their superteam status) if they don’t start getting a lot more out of their rotation soon.

Footnotes

  1. Averaging together the versions of WAR found at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

  2. Granted, Jansen only blew one save last season. But it was in 42 chances! This year, he’s blown two in five tries.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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