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Whither the rest of the MLB season? Let’s check

Memorial Day weekend marks the first distant and fog-bound turn in MLB’s long, pokey, and relentless regular season and thereby the first valid occasion for offering tentative suggestions about where we’re at and where we might be headed. At this point, sensible teams know what they’ve got; or at least they should know. More important, they know what they ain’t got. Although the picture this season is murkier than usual.

Back when they were breaking spring camp the conventional wisdom was adamant that the pace-setters in the AL. would be the Red Sox, Tigers, and Rangers, with the Rays and Angels foremost in the second tier. While over in the NL, the ordained were the Nationals, Cardinals, and, above all, the Dodgers, with scattered votes for the Braves and Pirates.

So here we are two months later with nearly a third of the regular-season slate already in the books and half the alleged cream of the crop boasts losing records with two, the Dodgers and Red Sox, having been embarrassingly shoddy while only one, the Tigers, has essentially matched lofty expectations. It’s yet more proof, if any were needed, that the absolutely worst time to assess a team’s potential, let alone predict how it will do, is at the end of the pre-season.

If the scene is more muddled than usual this year, with more teams seemingly more erratic, there’s a governing reason. It is injuries.  Injuries are the wild card. The injury factor is out of control. No team has been entirely spared and several have already been fairly clobbered. In this, the baseball season of runaway medical emergency and gathering triage, it is likely it won’t be the fittest that ultimately survive, but the luckiest.

A month ago in this space we looked lengthily at the astounding injury rampage highlighted by a half dozen new enrollees in the illustrious annals of Tommy John surgery that so dominated the season’s first month. The second month verifies that all of that was no fluke.

Herewith the month of May’s honor roll of just some of the more notable of the battered and bruised who landed on the disabled list in the on-going,  so-called “epidemic” that the Commissioner – poor fellow –  says is causing him to “lose sleep at night.”

Prince Fielder, Jurickson Profar, and Matt Harrison of the Rangers, all probably lost for the season. Snake-bitten Texas had 17 players grace their DL in the season’s first seven weeks. From the Red Sox, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino (again), Will Middlebrooks, and Felix Doubront went down. From the Yankees it was Michael Pineda, C.C. Sabathia, Shawn Kelley, and Carlos Beltran. Just as the Orioles were getting Manny Machado back, they were losing Matt Wieters and also Tommy Hunter, their closer. The Rays lost Ben Zobrist. The Indians lost Jeff Kipnis. The Royals lost Luke Hochevar. The White Sox lost Jose Abreu, the electrifying rookie from Cuba who was merely leading the league in homers when felled. 

Two more superb young pitchers joined the Tommy John legion: Miami’s 21-year-old phenom, Jose Fernandez, was a crushing loss. While it’s not yet official, the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard, an equally brilliant prospect, appears next in line. Ulnar collateral transplant syndrome is the most baffling malaise ever to hit this game.

There have been others. The day after Boston’s Napoli went down with a hand injury incurred sliding, so did Colorado’s Nolan Arenado the very same way just as Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman had done just days earlier. I’m willing to bet more players have been injured flopping into bases the first two month of this season than were so felled the entire decade of the Fifties. But then they practiced sliding back then. Plus, sliding head first was a no-no.  

Also down: Cody Rasmus, J.J Putz, Corey Hart, Matt Latos, Mark Trumbo, Jason Grilli, Eric Young, Jr., Cio Gonzalez, A.J. Griffin, Geovany Soto.  There are more. I know you get the point, but it can’t be emphasized too firmly.

If the injury thing is the most alarming factor of the season thus far, three other relatively odd slices of modern baseball phenomena introduced by the relentlessly tinkering Bud Selig regime have been equally conspicuous.

For about a hundred years the most drastic change in the game’s MO came when they re-introduced the sacrifice fly rule, followed a few years later by that transcendental moment when they lowered the mound a couple of inches. Holy Cow! For roughly a century the game had been impervious to change.

Now, in a single season, Baseball simultaneously experiments with vague resolutions aimed at eliminating crushing encounters between catchers and base runners at home plate; the highly problematic high-tech second-guessing of the umpires; and something entirely off the wall, the radical shifting of fielders, a  rage rapidly turning into a mania. Of the three striking novelties, it’s the third, much to everyone’s surprise, that’s impacting heaviest.

The home plate collision issue remains confused. No one has satisfactorily defined what precisely constitutes an unacceptable block of the base runner along the baseline or at the plate by the catcher. There have been disputes but no major controversies; not yet! But there will be.  And it’ll get ugly.

Overall, the use of TV to, in effect, umpire the umpires has gone better than many expected, which is to say there’ve been fewer controversies and aggravating interruptions in the game. Interesting calls have been reversed; still more have been upheld. In balance, has it improved the game? Not really! Has it taken something away from the game? Yes! Is there any turning back? None!

The strategic realigning of defense by the shifting of fielders is easily the most fascinating new dynamic. It’s added a whole new dimension to the playing of the game and, also, to the observing of it. In certain situations involving certain teams and players in particular ballparks (all being variables) you can have as many as four or five defenders playing technically out of position on a given pitch or extended at-bat, all of the deployment dictated by the tendencies of the hitter as determined by computers. It can get alternately crazy or brilliant, but invariably it is interesting.

Of course, the strategy could easily be negated if modern-day hitters knew how to shorten-up on the bat or were willing to disdain pulling the ball and go with the pitch, or even – heaven help us – bunt. But few hitters think much when they go up to the plate lugging their lumber. It’s purely a Pavlovian experience. Few are the exceptions. But if they’d over-shifted Ichiro Suzuki in his prime, he’d have hit .800.

Mainly we have Joe Maddon, the very smart, creative, and computer-savvy  manager of the Rays, to thank (I think) for the shifting shtick. He’s the master of this gimmickry and its boldest practitioner. In terms of strategic value, influence on the flow of games, and challenge to conventional wisdom, it’s the most intriguing new development since another very crafty manager of our times, the A’s Tony LaRussa, led in the re-thinking of the role of relief pitchers. Even after a century and a half there are new ideas to be introduced. Whatta Game!

The roughly first third of the season finds interesting races developing in five of the six divisions. Only in one – the AL Central, where the Tigers look too strong for the rest of the pack – might the issue be already essentially decided. At the other extreme, there are teams that have already played their way out of it. If you’re a fan of the Astros, Cubs, Padres, maybe the D’backs, it’s not too early to start waiting until next year.

Actually, your Red Sox were running in that same dreary company on the strength of their epic 10-game losing streak.  As Memorial Day dawned they boasted baseball’s fourth-worst record, quite a comeuppance considering all the happy ragtime featured in and by “the Nation” as recently as spring training. The Braves, a rather lethargic first-place team, graciously snapped them out of their swoon on Memorial Day.

With plenty of time left your lads will be back in the race, doubtless soon. No one is running away with the AL East this year. With any luck it will be a five-team monster mash to the bitter end. That would be nice.