If this is Memorial Day weekend, then the screams you hear are not just from fans at car races or kids released from school and back at the beaches. They’re also from scared baseball fans in a dozen cities who realize that their fond hopes and their perfectly reasonable expectations for a summer of fun, with many months of meaningful games straight ahead, are suddenly in nail-biting, stomach-flipping danger.
It happens every spring, but this year far more than most. Right now, more than 20 of the 30 teams in the big leagues appear semi-dead, playing like slow-motion ghouls, at least in the eyes of those who follow them most passionately and thus follow their flaws, their injuries and their defeats most closely.
The Red Sox, Rays, Reds, Pirates and Indians all made the playoffs last year, and the Rangers missed out only after losing a one-game tiebreaker. Now, all six of them are not just under .500 but entered Saturday’s games a stunning combined 26 games under .500. Rich, popular preseason picks like the Dodgers and Yankees are hovering around .500 and loaded with injuries or aged, gimpy stars.
The existence of so many walking dead teams could become a problem in October because the rules say 10 teams have to make the playoffs. Several clubs, now doing their zombie apocalypse imitation, are certain to be invited to that party, clammy skin and googly eyes or not.
In Washington, where the Nationals were among the preseason favorites to win a pennant, fans are gloomy that their team is .500, treading water, despite having so many injuries that its opening day starting lineup has missed 32 percent of the team’s games — almost triple the number for typical MLB teams with winning records. This melancholy isn’t odd. It’s the norm.
This year, the Nationals, and the Orioles (24-23) also, for that matter, are every team. What’s wrong with our (hitting, pitching, fielding)? When will the injuries stop? What’s wrong with our (old, new) manager? Baseball’s spring seems bleak. Until you look around. Then you see opportunity, although deferred.
Unless you live by the San Francisco Bay, where a World Series between the Giants and Athletics (both 30-18 entering Saturday) is openly discussed, you may be ready for NFL organized team activities right about now. Who led the Giants in homers and RBI? Ex-National Michael Morse. The Athletics’ top batting average belonged to catcher Derek Norris (.337), another former National.
Perhaps the happiest and luckiest town in baseball this week is Detroit, where the Tigers have been close to a title for years but never quite get that one big break. The Tigers look like geniuses for trading Prince Fielder to Texas, while eating $30 million of his salary. Prince never misses a game, right? Why dump him? Try “season-ending spinal-fusion surgery.” Suddenly, 30 years old and 275 pounds doesn’t look so durable. Meanwhile, Ian Kinsler, the man the Tigers got for Fielder, was tied for the American League lead in hitting at .326. What did the Tigers know and when did they know it?
The Brewers, Angels and Rockies are bringing smiles so far. But, otherwise, if you’re a baseball fan, you’re probably under the bed. Boston (20-27) has lost its one-year bearded magic thus far. The brilliant front office told the Nation that rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. could replace MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury in center field. No protest demonstrations were held. Now, Bradley entered Saturday hitting .204 with no homers and three steals while Ellsbury is a very rich Yankee. When a superior player leaves and the team says, “No problem,” it’s a problem.
The Rays (21-28), picked by some of the sagest to win the World Series, have lost three-fifths of their rotation to injury. If Tommy John shows up at an old timer’s game, they quarantine the ballpark. Every right thinker loves the Rays. But they’re doomed. Follow Manager Joe Maddon’s tweets; forget the rest.
More misery? The Rangers were under .500 even before they subtracted Prince. The Indians, Reds and Pirates, after an autumn glimpse of the playoffs in 2013, are back under .500 because they couldn’t pay to keep enough of their best players. The Yankees just lost CC Sabathia for two months. Derek Jeter, 39, has the lowest slugging percentage of any regular Yankee. So, how’s that second-highest payroll in MLB working out?
As baseball approaches the 50-game mark, one of the simplest numbers seldom lies. If you can’t outscore your collective opponents by more than a few runs, how good can you be? These clubs may all be at .500 or better, but how bright can their future be: Atlanta (plus-nine runs), Milwaukee (plus-seven) or the Dodgers and Nationals, who were both a paltry plus-three runs through Friday. Playoff dreamers like the Yankees, Orioles and Rangers all had negative differentials.
Only one point has been proved so far this season: Very little makes sense. Mark Buehrle, who has one of the slowest fastballs in MLB, is the first pitcher to eight wins and Nelson Cruz, almost the last free agent to find a team willing to take him and his past of performance-enhancing drugs, now is tied for the AL lead in homers playing in Camden Yards.
Not only are the good teams breaking bad a mystery, the best team so far this season is the most preposterous of all. Because of injury or free agency, the A’s lost their three top 2013 pitchers, who went 44-24. They added veteran southpaw Scott Kazmir and put career reliever Jesse Chavez, a 42nd round draft pick a decade ago, in the rotation. Hey, that ought to do it! Entering Saturday, they had outscored their foes by a ludicrous 245-150 margin which, if it continued, would be one of the most astronomical in history. With normal luck, such a run differential would produce a 34-14 record. Is this the year Moneyball actually cashes in all the chips?
Usually, baseball identifies Memorial Day as the first juncture when league standings are worth taking seriously and the large majority of those who would “make the playoffs today” actually will.
That’s probably not the case this year. Baseball is a game of streaks, but so far this season there have been few spectacular 18-4 runs or disastrous 2-13 collapses. That’s when teams are tested and season narratives are created.
Months from now when the start of summer is forgotten and Labor Day has passed, look at the standings again. Very likely, half of MLB’s ultimate playoffs invitees are currently on the outside, waiting for their injured to return, their luck to arrive and that first torrid summer tear to ignite them.
At least that’s what fans of those unlikely “outsiders” like the Red Sox, Dodgers, Yankees, Nationals, Rangers, Rays, Reds, Pirates and more, who thought that their fun was just about to start, are hoping.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.