The Early Season Narratives We Want To Be True
Inevitably, most articles you read in early-April will make note of how difficult it is to really glean something of importance from the season’s initial results. There’s just too much noise, and more information is needed before anything resembling a concrete conclusion can be reached. A popular notion that’s been proffered by an executive is that the first third of the season is just for seeing what you have, while the second third is planning what your team will do, and the final third is for actually doing it.
It’s correct that we should really wait until about Memorial Day just to see what each team has, before we make reach any real conclusions about players. But, it is infinitely more fun to speculate about what’s already happened, to attempt to sift through the noise and find a signal.
Thus, let’s go through some of the early-season narratives, ones that have no business being declared as any sort of definitive truth, and choose which ones we most want to see come true. This doesn’t mean they will hold up all season, or even until that Memorial Day check point. Rather, these are the narratives that have emerged a week in that would be a joy to see carry on into the future.
Yasiel Puig returns to form
Not long ago, it seemed like Yasiel Puig’s status with Dodgers was tenuous. He hit very poorly out of the gate last season, suffered through injuries, and even earned a demotion to Triple-A. A solid September performance was enough to earn Puig a place on the Dodgers’ playoff roster, but not enough to keep his name out of trade rumors in the offseason.
Yet not long ago, Puig was also a sensation. The Puig that burst onto the scene in 2013 was a borderline MVP-caliber player, a 22-year-old with good skills in the outfield and a 159 OPS+. His ceiling remained sky-high when he followed that up with a 5+ WAR season in 2014. 2014 was just not that long ago, yet it feels like it may as well have been ages ago. Indeed, when LA Times reporters Andy McCullough and Pedro Moura discussed Puig’s future last year on their podcast “Sportswriters Blues”, McCullough, who covers the Dodgers, indicated he believed Puig would produce less than 10 WAR for the rest of his career.
In 2017, though, Puig has flown out of the gates. He is slugging .667 in this young season and has smashed three majestic, high-arching homers, bombs he punctuated with appropriate bat-flips. He even expressed his distaste for the new intentional walk rule by bat-flipping before taking his free, zero-pitch base on balls. The dinger-smashing, bat-flipping version of Puig that rocked MLB four years ago has been on full display through one week.
There are surely some who don’t have patience for what they perceive to be Puig’s antics, but it is pretty undeniable that baseball is just a little more interesting, exciting, and fun when Puig is Puig. Plus, there might be some evidence that he can sustain a higher level of play this year. At FanGraphs, Travis Sawchik authored a piece about how Puig is buying into the fly ball-oriented approach that revived teammate Justin Turner’s career, and the results so far have been promising. It’s only a handful of games, but it’s been enough to make one hope that Puig really is back.
Dylan Bundy emerges as a young ace
The career of Dylan Bundy seemed to be a star-crossed one, at least for the first several years of it. He entered professional baseball amid plenty of hype after the Orioles selected him with the fourth overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft.
That hype only increased as Bundy dazzled in his first season as pro at age 19, striking out 119 batters in 102 innings while maintaining a 2.08 ERA across Single-A and Double-A in 2012. His performance was even enough to earn him a major league September cameo with the Orioles while he was still a teenager. Players that are good enough to simply make the majors before age-20 almost always go on to have great careers, and prior to 2013, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, and MLB.com rated him as a consensus top-four prospect in the game.
Then, four years transpired before Bundy threw another pitch in the big leagues. He missed all of 2013 and much of 2014 after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Hoping to bounce back in 2015, Bundy ended up only making eight starts due to shoulder issues. By the time 2016 rolled around, Bundy’s name was no longer bandied about among the best prospects in the game: rather, he was a 23-year-old with a history of elbow and shoulder issues whom the Orioles’ seemed unsure about using in either the bullpen or rotation.
Yet when Bundy finally made it back to the majors in 2016, he performed admirably. He split his time as a reliever and starter, but managed to fan 104 batters in 109 innings with a 109 ERA+ during his rookie campaign.
That was enough to generate at least a little buzz around Bundy as he entered his sophomore campaign this year, and that buzz may soon turn to a roar if he maintains the level of play he showed in his first two starts. Bundy made his first start against a potent Blue Jays lineup, and made his second start in the hostile confines of Fenway Park. The results were two strong outings, totaling 13.1 innings, 11 strikeouts compared to just two walks, and a 2.70 ERA.
Obviously we cannot read too much into two starts against good division rivals, but it’s easy to dream on Bundy’s still young, still talented arm. This year, he has introduced a slider into his repertoire, and so far, hitters have had a difficult time squaring it up. According to Brooks Baseball, hitters have whiffed on over half their swings against the slider, and Bundy’s generated six K’s with the pitch. Plus, Bundy is sitting at 93 mph on his fastball, not his best velocity, but the pitch has shown up with excellent “rise”. Bundy’s four-seamer has featured over a foot of vertical movement, meaning it sinks less than almost any other four-seamer in the game, which should give the pitch tons of life throughout the season.
If Bundy’s slightly altered repertoire gives him the ability to work through lineups three times around in the big leagues, Baltimore’s decision to keep him the rotation will prove to be a salient one. Much has (deservedly) been made of the Orioles’ inability to develop young starters, but with Kevin Gausman already having performed well at the MLB-level, and Bundy looking ready to make the leap, Baltimore might have a pair of legitimate front-end arms on their hands. If they are to contend in the AL East, they will need both to pitch like All-Stars. It’s been just two starts, but it’s tempting to think that Bundy has already gotten to that level this year.