(Note: this post has been updated due to errors in the original data)
The first seven days of the 2011 season have brought with them some great moments and surprises. A number of teams are off to great starts. A number of others, not so much.
Since we are handcuffed by small sample sizes (SSS) at the beginning of the season, let's take a look at a few teams and whether their likely for real or not based on some additional metrics, specifically batting average on balls in play (BABIP).
BABIP has a tremendous impact on offensive production. So when a player or team produces a BABIP above or below league average (generally .300) it can result in an inflated (or deflated) performance, one that is not sustainable over the long haul. BABIP won't tell us the entire story (especially as it too is subject to the vagaries of SSS--just compare the Phillies' BABIP before and after Thursday's game), and there are other peripherals we could also use, but it can shed a little light on the subject. (And what else are we supposed to do with an N of 6?)
Here's a brief look at some teams and whether their early performance suggests they might be for real or not as the season progresses.
The O's surprised everyone by sweeping their first series against the defending AL East champion Rays and then going 1-1 against the Detroit Tigers. The Orioles have been doing it with pitching. Through their first three games, the Orioles staff had a BABIP against of only .191. Through Wednesday night, their BABIP against was still only .216. Given that they have only scored 20 runs on offense--bottom half of the league--off of a .262 BABIP, their 4-1 record has been driven by their pitchers' good fortune. That fortune is not likely to continue, so look for the Orioles' run differential (+8) to decrease over the next few weeks and their winning percentage to follow suite.
Oh lordy. All is not well in Red Sox nation. Everyone's (well, most everyone's) pre-season pick to win it all has started the season 0-5. Both sides of the run differential equation have been bad. The Red Sox have only scored 16 runs (3rd worst in the AL) and given up 37 runs (second worst in all of baseball). But both outcomes seem largely driven by abnormal BABIPs. On offense, the vaunted Sox lineup is only batting .223 on balls in play. The troubling sign for Boston is that opponents are only hitting .275 on BABIP, so they will likely give up more runs going forward. That being said, their offense has a long way to rebound and given the talent level of their hitters they should be in much better shape as the season progresses.
Break up the Royals! After the first six games this year the Royals have won four games, including three one-run games and two extra innings games. Many have discussed the possibility that managements long-term plan is already starting to pay off. I'm not buying it. The Royals have four wins, but a run differential of +1. They've scored the fourth most runs in the league so far, and done so with a .303 BABIP. Given that they are giving up almost 6 runs per game with the 7th worst BABIP against (.316), it's probable that they could be for real.
The Mets are off to a good start, posting a record of 3-2 and a run differential of +8. The team had great pitching last year, but the offense left a lot to be desired. So far this year, the pitching has been decent, but certainly not spectacular, with the offense putting up 6.2 R/G. The problem is that while their pitching is likely to get a better (.350 BABIP against, and that's without Johan Santana), their offense will likely regress a bit (.322 BABIP, 6th highest in the league). Combine that with their lack of overall home run power and it spells an inevitable decline in run scoring. Some of that will be offset by keeping a more runs off the board, but I am not sure if it will be enough to make them much more than a .500 club this year, especially if Pelfrey continues to struggle.
The beasts of the NL East have been just that so far. Despite losing their first game of the Mets series, the Phils have put up over 6 R/G over their first five, but have done so with a ridiculous BABIP (.400) and no Chase Utley. Their pitching hasn't been great (25 runs--league average so far), but a big part of that is due to a high BABIP against (.346). Hamels and Blanton got banged around pretty good by the Mets, but their numbers will improve as the season wears on. Overall, the Phillies should only improve on the pitching side of the ledger, and that means their run scoring regress shouldn't be as big of an issue.
The World Series champs haven't gotten off to a great start, posting a record of 2-4. They have a +8 run differential, so their record is more the result of some randomness and only playing six games. But their offense and defense look to be for real given the average BABIP's on both sides (.306 offense, .303 defense). Last year's team was not an offensive juggernaut, but that was to be expected as they scored about 4.30 R/G (NL average) and hit .293 on balls in play (bottom third of the NL). This year's team looks to be a tab better, but not by much. That means the pitching will once again have to carry most of the load. San Francisco had a league-best .286 BABIP against and the second fewest runs allowed per game. Right now I'd say they may not match those numbers, but should still be among the top five in runs allowed. If the offense slips too much, however, they may have an even tougher time winning the West this year.
The reigning AL champions have come out of the gate extremely hot, posting a 6-0 record. They've done it by putting up an AL best 42 runs and only allowing 20 (3rd best in the AL). While the long ball has aided their run-scoring binge, they've only hit .273 on balls in play, so still room for improvement. That being said, their pitching has been great, giving up only 3.33 runs per game with a .242 BABIP. Last year, the Rangers allowed a BABIP of about .280. Granted, that was with Cliff Lee for half a year, but Lee's BABIP last year was .296 with Texas. So Lee wasn't the driving force behind the staff's BABIP. The runs allowed this year will likely regress a bit, but their staff is more than capable of turning in another sub-.300 BABIP season. Combine that with the power in their lineup and it's fair to say the Rangers are for real.