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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

What we learned through a quarter of the MLB season

Manager Buck Showalter and the Mets sat through a frustrating rain delay on Saturday and then lost the game once it was continued on Sunday. It has been that kind of year.

By Benjamin Hoffman

There is no question that this season will go down in history as the one in which the pitch clock changed baseball. Whether it is also the season that saved baseball is too soon to tell, but the pitch clock’s effect is real: With around a quarter of the season complete, the average game is 27 minutes shorter than it was last season and the percentage of games lasting longer than 3 hours, 30 minutes has fallen off a cliff, to 0.4%, after having been higher than 10% in five of the previous six seasons.

But while everyone has been focusing on how quickly things are moving, there have been some other notable developments.

Here is what we’ve learned:

— The very expensive New York Mets are in a sizable hole. It is understandable for Mets fans to be frustrated. The team made headlines in the offseason with a Steven Cohen-powered spending spree that gave the franchise the highest payroll in major league history. Yet the Mets entered Monday’s action at 20-21, in a tie with the Miami Marlins for third place in the National League East. Injuries have been a factor, but you could argue that the team played above its head last year and didn’t improve despite all that spending — it just got more expensive.

The good news? Three wild cards in each league mean the Mets were only a half-game out of qualifying for postseason play. If Justin Verlander is full speed ahead and Max Scherzer has regained his stride after a suspension and an injury, the Mets could easily get one of those three spots — putting them in roughly the same position they were in last year when everything went right.

— The New York Yankees are in a similar situation. A 23-19 record through Sunday gave the Yankees bragging rights of sorts over the Mets, but because of the Tampa Bay Rays’ electric start to the season, the Yankees were eight games out of first place in the American League East and entered Monday’s games clinging to the third AL wild card by just a half-game over the Boston Red Sox. The silver lining is that the Yankees have done that even though two of their four best starting pitchers, Carlos Rodón and Luis Severino, have yet to pitch this season and Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge have been injured.

— There is more than one way to build a roster. Six very different teams entered Monday’s games with a winning percentage of .600 or higher. The Rays (.738), easily the best team in baseball, are ranked 28th in payroll. They succeed by blending analytics and scouting — and possibly magic. Next up are the Baltimore Orioles (.650), ranked 29th in payroll, who have been powered by inexpensive, homegrown players. The Los Angeles Dodgers (.634), a perennial powerhouse, have the third-best record and the fifth-highest payroll. The surprising Texas Rangers (.625) invested heavily in free agency to get where they are, while the Atlanta Braves (.625) have showed a knack for developing talent and then retaining that talent on team-friendly deals. The Toronto Blue Jays (.600), meanwhile, round out the group as a mix of all of the above, having developed several stars through international scouting and the draft, while also spending market rate money on a few free agents.

— Stolen bases are cool again. It is not quite the explosion some predicted, but steals are up this year after MLB increased the size of the bases and put restrictions on how often pitchers could attempt pickoffs. Through 42 games, Esteury Ruiz of the Oakland Athletics stole 18 bases, putting him on a pace for 69 over a full season. There has not been even a 50-steal season since 2017, and the last 70-steal season was in 2009. Ruiz, a bright spot on a bad Oakland roster, has company: Ronald Acuña Jr. of the Atlanta Braves, having recovered his elite sprint speed after an ACL tear in 2021, had 17 steals through Sunday.

— Catchers are adjusting. Players ran like wild on the first two days of the season, with catchers allowing an 86.1% success rate, raising fears that MLB had overcorrected. The rate of attempts has stayed high all season, but catchers have adjusted: They allowed a success rate of 79% in April and 76.3% in May. That would still be an improvement for base runners, and it continues a trend in which runners were successful more than 75% of the time in each of the previous two seasons.

— Free-agent deals require patience. There were 13 free-agent contracts this offseason that topped $75 million. The results have not been great. Because of injuries, Edwin Díaz ($102 million, Mets) and Rodón ($162 million, Yankees) have not pitched. Verlander ($86.7 million, Mets) has started only two games because of his own injury, and Jacob deGrom ($185 million, Rangers) has pitched well but is on the injured list. Trea Turner ($300 million, Philadelphia Phillies), Carlos Correa ($200 million, Minnesota Twins) and Andrew Benintendi ($75 million, Chicago White Sox) have been healthy; they have just been bad. Xander Bogaerts ($280 million, San Diego Padres) has his lowest on-base plus slugging percentage since 2017. Judge ($360 million, Yankees) had a stint on the injured list and is far behind last year’s blistering home run pace.

Could those players end up living up to their contracts? Yes. But some of them won’t, which is the reality of a salary structure in which many players’ best years are behind them by the time they reach free agency.

— It’s time to cringe on a few of the deals. After a wild offseason in which he agreed to huge contracts with the San Francisco Giants and the Mets, only to have both fall apart after the teams saw the results of his physical, Correa went back to Minnesota on a more modest, but still huge, contract. He is having by far the worst season of his career and recently said he agreed with Minnesota fans who have booed his poor play, telling reporters, “I’d boo myself too with the amount of money I’m making.”

Correa’s situation can’t compare to the mess in St. Louis, where the last-place Cardinals tried to replace catcher Yadier Molina with Willson Contreras, who had been an All-Star for the Chicago Cubs. The downgrade defensively was apparently hard for the team to handle, as manager Oliver Marmol set off a chain of confusing events. It was reported by The Athletic that Contreras, who signed a five-year, $87.5 million contract, was going to be moved to designated hitter and outfielder. The team then walked that back and said he would only DH, then reversed course over the weekend and said Contreras would be back at catcher Monday night. Each update came without any real elaboration as to what had gone wrong, and Contreras made it clear he was not happy. As his contract doesn’t expire until 2027, the situation could become really ugly.

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