MLB trends: What to believe after two weeks

Joey Votto went 4-for-4 in Cincinnati's 10-0 win over Philadelphia. (AP/Al Behrman)
April 17, 2013, 1:47 PM

It’s hard to know what to believe this early in the MLB season. Has Coco Crisp truly become a power hitter, or is that Ruthian slugging percentage an illusion? Are the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins this bad? What’s going on in Anaheim?

Here’s a guide to five emerging trends around MLB. Some are troubling, some are trivial and they are all subject to change. (For the record, Crisp’s power numbers are an illusion, the Astros and Marlins really are in trouble, and the Los Angeles Angels are better than this.)

Joey Votto, on-base machine

Baseball fans have grown accustomed to seeing Joey Votto atop the National League in on-base percentage. The Etobicoke, Ont. native led the league in OBP in 2010, 2011 and 2012. He’s doing it again this year, with an NL-best .530 OBP.

Votto is swinging at just 31% of the pitches he sees, the lowest rate of his career and the second-lowest rate among 187 qualified hitters. Why the increasingly selective approach? For starters, pitchers are challenging him with fewer first-pitch strikes than ever before, meaning lots of favourable counts and walks.

What to watch for: Votto’s on-base skills are reaching new heights.

Speedy workers in Toronto

R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle have struggled early in the 2013 season, but they rank first and second among all qualified starters in one category: pace of game. As noted by FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan, the Toronto Blue Jays starters need very little time between pitches relative to their counterparts around MLB.

While small sample size warnings apply often at this time of year, Buehrle has delivered 286 pitches and Dickey has made 304 pitches. That’s a fair amount of data — enough to suggest that this duo will help Blue Jays fans erase memories of Steve Trachsel.

What to watch for: The Blue Jays have a pair of quick workers in Buehrle and Dickey.

Offensive struggles in Tampa Bay

The Tampa Bay Rays rank last or next-to-last in the American League in an assortment of offensive categories ranging from hits to home runs to batting average to on-base percentage to slugging percentage. Not surprisingly, they’re last in the league in the most telling offensive category of all: runs scored.

The Rays can expect more from players such as Yunel Escobar, Matt Joyce and James Loney, so it’s not as though they will score three runs per game all year. Even so, don’t expect much offence from this team, especially while top outfield prospect Wil Myers remains in the minor leagues. Like previous editions of the Rays, the 2013 team will rely on run prevention to win.

What to watch for: The Rays aren’t this bad, but their offence will likely be a weak point again in 2013.

The NL West leaders

Unlike the Rays, the Colorado Rockies are built around offence. And unlike the Rays, the Rockies probably aren’t ready to contend in 2013.

For the Rockies to win, their offence has to make up for their below-average pitching and their hitter-friendly ballpark. So far, so good. They’re 10-4 thanks to a lineup that has scored more runs than any National League team, and hit more home runs than everyone but the Atlanta Braves.

Yet this is the team that allowed an MLB-worst 5.5 runs per game in 2012 then made only modest offseason additions to the roster. The pitching staff remains an issue.

The Rockies have allowed more runs than all but eight teams, and unless players like Jhoulys Chacin (1.96  ERA) can maintain this level of production, those numbers might get worse before they get better.

What to watch for: The Rockies aren’t the best team in the NL West and they won’t be until their pitching improves.

Impact bat Chris Johnson

Justin Upton isn’t the only member of the Braves who’s hitting well early on. Chris Johnson, acquired along with Upton in a trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks last off-season, has filled in admirably for injured first baseman Freddie Freeman, posting a .978 OPS for the 12-1 Braves.

Might he and Upton form a powerful middle-of-the-order duo with their new team? Don’t count on it, as Johnson has enjoyed some non-sustainable luck, with 16 base hits on 32 balls in play. Johnson has eight strikeouts and just one walk, another indication that he is the same hitter as before. This year he’s simply getting more breaks than usual.

What to watch for: Chris Johnson isn’t a substantially different player than he was in 2012.

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