WASHINGTON, D.C. — The quarter mark of the season is generally the time when teams believe they can draw accurate conclusions about who they are, when players are no longer merely off to hot starts or slow starts but may have actually revealed a greater truth about how their year will go.
Now that most of the clubs have played at least 40 games, here are five statements we can make with a fairly high degree of confidence that they’ll hold up:
Shohei Ohtani is the real deal
Any backup will tell you how hard it is to keep his swing sharp while not playing every day. That’s one of the more underrated aspects of Ohtani’s remarkable first month and a half in the majors.
Ohtani has been in the starting lineup as a hitter four games in a row only once, typically resting the day before and the day after he pitches. But despite the regular three-day intervals away from the batters’ box, the Japanese rookie continues to swing a hot bat, hitting .348 with five homers, 16 RBI and a 1.044 OPS. He ranks 10th on the Angels in plate appearances with 74 but is tied for fourth in home runs and fifth in RBI.
Add to that his pitching prowess – a 3-1 record with a 3.58 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings – and the magnitude of Ohtani’s amazing abilities starts to come into focus. Imagine what he’ll do once he has fully adjusted to American ball.
Yes, injuries have been a big factor in their 16-24 record, their worst in 60 years through 40 games. And they will continue to hamper the Dodgers. Even though star third baseman Justin Turner is about to rejoin the lineup, shortstop Corey Seager is out for the season, there’s still no timetable for Clayton Kershaw’s return from a shoulder ailment, and fellow starter Hyun-Jin Ryu is out until after the All-Star break.
But the issues with the defending National League champs go beyond injuries. Second-year first baseman Cody Bellinger has already had two incidents defying manager Dave Roberts, the bullpen (4.51 ERA) has been a trouble spot and the team’s baserunning has been lacking.
Getting swept at home in four games by the Reds – which had not happened since the days of the Big Red Machine in the mid-70s – sent out huge warning flags. Will the Dodgers heed them?
Javier Baez is dazzling
Nobody swings the bat with more ferocity than the Cubs’ infielder, or applies quicker tags, or seemingly has more fun playing the game.
When Baez isn’t celebrating a teammate’s good play before it’s completed, as he did in last year’s World Baseball Classic, he’s playfully teasing pal Francisco Lindor for failing to steal a hit from him, or making a dazzling defensive play from any of the three infield positions at which he excels. In his native Puerto Rico, Baez is known as “El Mago’’ – the magician – for his sleight of hand.
And now that he’s no longer a whiff machine, having reduced his strikeout rate from a career mark of 28.3% to a more acceptable 20%, Baez is even more compelling to watch. He leads the NL with 36 RBI to go with his 10 homers and .906 OPS, putting him on track for his first All-Star Game appearance.
AL Central worse than we thought
Everybody figured the Indians would rule the division, but with a .500 record? Yes, a 20-20 mark is plenty good enough to sit atop baseball’s weakest division.
The Indians, AL Central champs each of the last two years, have seen their once-vaunted bullpen become vulnerable, with a 5.45 ERA that ranks next-to-last in the league. Other than Andrew Miller, who served a stint on the disabled list, the setup men have struggled to get leads to closer Cody Allen. Cleveland has just seven saves, tied for the fewest in the AL.
The Indians’ mediocrity has allowed teams like the Twins and Tigers to hang around the race despite their own issues. Minnesota desperately misses Miguel Sano’s power bat in the middle of the lineup, and its bullpen has had its own difficulties. Detroit has actually performed above expectations, but that’s not saying much considering the Tigers’ 18-22 record.
The Royals and White Sox? They’ve gone 23-55, worse than any two-team combination in the majors.
Manny's the man
Despite toiling for the woebegone Orioles, who at 13-28 are tied with the Royals for the big leagues’ second-worst record, Manny Machado has put his stunning array of skills on full display this season, his last one before free agency.
Machado leads the majors in RBI (38), shares the lead in home runs (13) and ranks second in OPS (1.100) while playing a sometimes-spectacular shortstop in his first year back full-time at the position, after winning two Gold Gloves at third base in his first six seasons there.
“It has been even better than I expected,’’ Machado told USA TODAY Sports about the switch. “This has always been the position I wanted to play. I don’t know why I didn’t do this six years ago. This is where my heart is. Every day I go out there I’m happy, I’m playing the game I’ve played my whole life, the position I’ve always wanted to play. It’s been a great thing. I can’t go back.’’
Machado is highly likely to get traded before the deadline, and the Braves are starting to look like a good match, especially if they maintain their strong early-season performance.
May 14: The Milwaukee Brewers' Tyler Saladino safely dives home in front of Arizona Diamondbacks catcher John Ryan Murphy for an inside-the-park home run in the ninth inning at Chase Field. The Brewers won the game, 7-2. Jennifer Stewart, USA TODAY Sports