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MLB Panic Meter: Are the Red Sox and Cubs Really This Bad?

We’re a week into the season and a handful of the expected contenders have already dug themselves into holes. Let’s assess which slow starts are for real and which are just small-sample-size noise.

A photo collage of Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, and New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

It’s April 5, most MLB teams have been in action for a little more than a week, and the Seattle Mariners have the best record in the American League. This is illustrative of two undeniable truths: First, it’s too early to draw sweeping conclusions. Anyone who watched the Mets start 11-1 last year, only to finish the year on a 66-84 run, knows this. But the second is that if the Mariners are atop the AL standings, that means the teams we expected to contend have ground to make up. The five teams I picked to make the playoffs in the AL—the Red Sox, Yankees, Indians, Astros, and Angels—are a combined 11-24, and none of them is above .500.

So let’s take stock of those putative contenders who had tough first weeks: Who just isn’t getting the breaks? Who’s actually taking on water?

Boston Red Sox

Why You Should Panic: They’re 2-6, and even a team with this much talent can’t just snap its fingers and erase a four-game hole. All five starting pitchers got torched the first time through the rotation, and Chris Sale came out for his second start throwing 89 miles per hour.

Why You Shouldn’t: The teams at the top of the AL East standings are going to come back to the pack; Boston beat Tampa Bay by 18 games last year, Baltimore by 61. The Yankees are only a game and a half up on the Red Sox, with problems of their own. Sale’s diminished velocity could be the result of (1) an abbreviated spring training and (2) an attempt to conserve energy down the stretch; that’s what Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie said after Sale’s second start, and Alex Speier of The Boston Globe found that theory plausible. Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t, but at least there’s an explanation for Sale’s struggles other than his being hurt and/or washed.

How Much Should You Panic? A little. The only thing worth losing sleep over right now is Sale’s velocity. While we won’t know enough to draw conclusions for another couple of starts, a serious injury to Sale would be a body blow for Boston, and that looming specter is too serious to dismiss.

New York Yankees

Why You Should Panic: Everyone’s hurt. We knew Luis Severino, Didi Gregorius, Dellin Betances, and Aaron Hicks were all going to start the season on the IL, but in just six games Troy Tulowitzki, Giancarlo Stanton, and Miguel Andújar have all suffered injuries as well—possibly a season-ending injury in Andújar’s case. Also Aroldis Chapman looks … maybe “cooked” is too strong a word, but he’s preheating the oven, and that oven has been heated up to only 98.9 so far this year.

Why You Shouldn’t: The Yankees aren’t taking much of a beating; they’re 3-4 with a plus-four run differential. Clint Frazier, a former top-five pick who’s struggled to break the lineup, is filling in for Stanton, and if we’re reserving judgment on Sale’s velocity, we can afford Chapman the same courtesy. And crucially, Boston is also having a rough first week.

How Much Should You Panic? A moderate amount. The Yankees can absorb these injuries because they have immense depth; their lineup is still scary and deep with Frazier in the lineup for Stanton, and Gleyber Torres’s ability to fill in at short gives them options when anyone on the infield goes down. With that said, this is probably the limit of what they can withstand, injury-wise. The Yankees have just one position player on their 40-man roster right now who isn’t either in the majors or on the IL. They’re fine for now, but if any other major contributors go down, they could end up in a serious hole.

Cleveland Indians

Why You Should Panic: Francisco Lindor has a new injury, a sprained ankle that could keep him out for the bulk of April. The Indians are 3-3 and have scored just 17 runs in six games. The only two players on the team with an OPS higher than .670 are Carlos Santana and Hanley Ramírez. If Santana and Ramírez are leading a team in hitting, that means either their team is not going to score many runs or we’ve fallen through a wormhole and it’s 2013 again. Unfortunately for Cleveland, there are no new episodes of How I Met Your Mother set to air this week.

Why You Shouldn’t: Cleveland is still only a game and a half back and the rest of the division, with the possible exception of the Twins, is ludicrously bad. Even Minnesota is getting lucky; Willians Astudillo’s batting line of .667/.636/1.000, for instance, is not sustainable. (If I end up being wrong about this, it will be the greatest joy of my life.)

How Much Should You Panic? Not that much. Cleveland is what it is: Two MVP-caliber position players, one of the best starting rotations in baseball, and some other guys. One of their tentpole infielders is hurt, so of course they’re going to struggle. This Indians club is built to win between 88 and 93 games and sneak over the finish line into the playoffs. If I were Cleveland, I’d worry more about Minnesota being better than anticipated, because if there’s another good team in the AL Central, the Indians’ plan of sleepwalking to the division title could be in jeopardy.

Houston Astros

Why You Should Panic: They’re 2-5 and already 4 1/2 games out of first place.

Why You Shouldn’t: They’re not dealing with any unexpected major injuries, and three of those losses came on the road to a good Tampa Bay team. If they’d lost three of four in the Trop in July, nobody would notice. Most importantly, the team that’s all the way out in front in the AL West is the 7-1 Seattle Mariners. Intending no undue disrespect to Seattle, raise your hand if you actually believe the Mariners are going to stay in first place for more than a couple of weeks at most.

How Much Should You Panic? Not at all.

Los Angeles Angels

Why You Should Panic: Last year, the Angels had a really good team that finished under .500 after everyone got hurt. Now it’s happening again; in addition to holdover injuries like Shohei Ohtani, JC Ramírez, and Keynan Middleton, Justin Upton is out until June with turf toe, and Andrew Heaney is out indefinitely with inflammation in his left elbow. Also if you take away Mike Trout, the Angels are hitting .170/.222/.238, and that isn’t going to cut it.

Why You Shouldn’t: The Astros’ struggles mean that even after everything went wrong this week the Angels are just a game behind the team that will almost certainly be leading this division by season’s end. Plus, they’ve still got Trout.

How Much Should You Panic? There are two correct answers here: lots and not at all, because the Angels needed a lot of things to go right if they were going to make a run, and after starting 1-6 and losing Upton for up to 12 weeks, they might already have dug themselves too big a hole to escape.

Washington Nationals

Why You Should Panic: The Nats are 3-3, though after allowing nearly six runs a game, it doesn’t feel like it. They’ve lost both of Max Scherzer’s starts, and the bullpen, in typical Washington fashion, looks like a mess. Trevor Rosenthal, who signed for $7 million this offseason to set up Sean Doolittle, hasn’t so much as retired a batter in three appearances. The only other pitcher to fail to record an out in his first three appearances of the season was Rich Hill in 2014, but while Hill gave up one run over those three outings, Rosenthal has allowed seven. In other words, literally every batter Rosenthal has faced this year has come around to score.

Trea Turner, who went 5-for-14 to start the season with two home runs and four stolen bases, broke his finger trying to bunt on Tuesday and is out indefinitely. Also they ran into their ex at the grocery store and he looks great and seems really happy.

Why You Shouldn’t: Considering the Mets and Phillies have started the season red hot, going 3-3 over the past six games isn’t bad. Anthony Rendon is hitting .435/.500/.826, and Juan Soto picked up right where he left off last year. Young center fielder Víctor Robles has made a few mental mistakes to open the season, but he looks like the absolute goods. And Scherzer’s 0-2 record isn’t an accurate representation of how well he’s pitched: He took an Opening Day loss to Jacob deGrom, which happens, and in his loss to Philadelphia, he ran into his own personal bogeyman, Odúbel Herrera, who’s hitting .349/.429/.628 in 49 career plate appearances against the three-time Cy Young winner. Scherzer has allowed only four runs, three of them earned, in 12 2/3 innings.

How Much Should You Panic? The record might not show it, but there’s a lot to like about what Washington’s done so far this year. But while other teams might have vague concerns about slumps or pitchers working into shape, the first week has exposed two very real issues for Washington: Turner’s injury and Rosenthal’s inability to find the strike zone. The latter in particular is a concern; no matter what the Nats have tried the past few years, they’ve struggled to find reliable bullpen help, and if Rosenthal can’t be trusted in high-leverage situations, Washington will be in trouble.

Chicago Cubs

Why You Should Panic: Starting 1-5 isn’t great, and the starting rotation looks bad. Jon Lester has pitched well twice, but Yu Darvish walked seven in 2 2/3 innings in his first start, Cole Hamels gave up five runs in five innings to the Rangers, and Kyle Hendricks allowed seven runs to the Braves on Monday night. Only two of those runs were earned, but that’s not necessarily a good thing, because the Cubs made six—SIX!—errors en route to an 8-0 loss. Then in their next game, two days later, the Cubs bullpen couldn’t find the strike zone and coughed up a two-run lead in the eighth inning. This is a very competitive division, and the Cubs can ill afford to give the Brewers, already four and a half games up, a head start.

Why You Shouldn’t: It’s one time through the rotation. And the offense has been just fine—the Cubs are hitting .307/.398/.484 and lead the NL in batting average and OBP. Maybe all five of their starting pitchers aren’t as good as they were a couple of years ago, but they (except Lester, who’s held his own) can’t all be this bad going forward.

How Much Should You Panic? A medium amount. The offense looks good, but the pitching staff is a question mark, although you could also say that about the Phillies, who are 4-1 and seemed indomitable over the season’s first week. The worry for the Cubs should be stopping the bleeding: Prevent this five-game slide from spiraling out of control into something that knocks them out of the race.