Nicholson-Smith: Five lessons from opening week

Brandon Morrow delivers a pitch at Rogers Centre.

After months without meaningful baseball, it’s tempting to over-react to the first week of April and draw conclusions with 96% of the MLB season remaining. Yet reading into small samples can be dangerously misleading.

Good players can fall flat for six games, and so can good teams. Weak teams can get hot or lucky, and so can below-average players.

Remember Chris Shelton? He had nine home runs two weeks into the 2006 season and seemed to be on the verge of a breakout season. He soon faltered, and he hasn’t been heard from since.

There’s always lots of statistical noise during the first week of the season and this year is no exception. Even so, we’ve still learned a lot since opening day. Here’s a closer look at five early-season lessons:

1. Brandon Morrow is throwing hard

Toronto Blue Jays starter Brandon Morrow reached 95 m.p.h at times in 2012, but he didn’t have an average fastball velocity that high in any one of his 21 starts. That changed last week, when Morrow averaged 95.4 m.p.h. in his first outing of the season against the Cleveland Indians (via FanGraphs).

During the spring, Morrow worked to rely less on strikeouts in an attempt to become a more effective pitcher. Apparently if you’re throwing 95 hitters will swing and miss anyway; Morrow struck out eight Indians in his 2013 debut.

Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals is the only starting pitcher whose average fastball topped Morrow’s last week.

2. Offence is starting slowly again

After watching Boston’s 13-run outburst on Sunday, Blue Jays fans might have the impression that offence is up. It’s not — at least in the early going.

MLB teams are scoring 4.3 runs per game, and hitting just .248/.314/.399 after one week (for context, that’s basically a Rajai Davis line — Davis hit .257 /.309/.378 in 2012).

Those pedestrian offensive numbers are typical for this time of year. Scoring tends to be depressed in April before increasing when the weather heats up across North America.

3. The Royals’ bullpen will be fun to watch

The Kansas City Royals have stacked their bullpen with young pitchers who throw hard. Led by relievers such as Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland, the Kansas City bullpen pitched effectively in 2012. So far their success has carried over to 2013.

As a group, Kansas City’s relievers have generated swinging strikes more frequently than any other bullpen while allowing less contact than any team. The Red Sox are the only team with harder throwers than the Royals, who have combined for an average fastball velocity of 94.2 m.p.h. (via FanGraphs).

4. Clayton Kershaw’s leverage has never been higher

Not only did the Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander put together two strong starts — no runs, one walk and 16 strikeouts in 16 innings — the market for starting pitching has taken shape in recent months.

Seattle Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez signed a record-setting seven-year contract worth $175 million in February, and Justin Verlander signed a seven-year, $180 million contract with the Detroit Tigers in March.

Could Kershaw be next? Still just 25, he has led the National League in earned run average in each of the last two seasons and is off to another strong start.

There’s been widespread speculation that Kershaw could become baseball’s first $200 million pitcher. He’s two seasons away from free agency and will earn $11 million in 2013 before going to arbitration for the final time during the 2013-14 off-season.

5. Don’t expect much from Miami’s lineup

When you’re asking Greg Dobbs and Placido Polanco to bat cleanup, your offence has issues. Predictably, the Miami Marlins rank 12th in the National League with just 14 runs scored in six games.

They’ll improve a bit when Giancarlo Stanton starts hitting, but the slugging outfielder can only do so much. It’s apparent after six games that Miami has one of the league’s worst offences.

With just 13 home runs in his last three full seasons, Polanco is a slap hitter masquerading as a cleanup bat. Credit him for his ability to make contact, though. He’s the lone qualified hitter in MLB who has yet to swing and miss.

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