In 2001, the Rust outscored their opponents 233-167 in the first 40 games. This ridiculous run differential made it difficult to explain the team's mediocre performance over the long haul. (It seemed like a good sign at the time.) So far in 2002, the Rainmakers have been outscored 237-207. What does this mean? It appears as though the Rainmakers are either going to have to start playing better and winning more or start playing down to their Pythagoreum and winning less. Either way, it looks like mediocrity probably will not be in the cards.
Last year after 40 games, the Rust had 5 starters in the SL ERA Top Ten. The team finished with a league-best 4.45 era, 44 quality starts and 47 complete games. This year's staff sports a 4.93 era and is on pace for 36 complete games and 36 quality starts. Buehrle and Vazquez have been a solid 1-2 combination, and both sit at 4-2 after 40 games. Pettitte has been a big disappointment with a 6.17 era and a 2-5 record. Penny is the king of the no-decision, and stands at only 0-1 with a 5.59 era after 40. 5th starter Randy Wolf is 1-3, but is third among the starters with a 5.35 era. The team is on pace to give up 259 homers, which is only 11 more than last year's staff. We are on pace to walk 553 (which would have easily been best in the SL last year, if not for the Rust) and strike out 1178 (which would have been good enough for second place in last year's SL). In other words, there is room for some optimism here.
The bullpen has been erratic, with a 4.95 era, but looks good with 10 saves and an 11-5 record. Fikac has 4 saves in 7 games and a nifty 1.80 era. Dotel is 3-0 and Shuey is 2-0. Foulke is 3-2 and pitches in a lot of tough situations. Chad Fox is 2-1 with 4 saves, but a not-so-nifty 6.94 era. He can and should do better, but a paltry 2-1 strikeout to walk ratio is making things tough. (Fikac leads the team at 5-1).
Speaking of erratic, let's talk defense. Last year's Rust gave up 90 unearned runs in 162 games. The Rainmakers are on pace to give up 170 unearned runs for the season. What makes no sense is that last year's defense was inferior, on paper, to this year's team. Last year's team featured 3s at the corners, while this year's team has a 4 and a 5. This year's team has two 3s in the outfield, last year's team had 1. This year's team is 8 and 8 at 2b and ss, last year's team was often 7 and 8 or 8 and 9. Pizza is a 7, Kendall was an 8. Hopefully the defense will improve over the next 122.
Offensively the team has been a big disappointment. Bonds is at 17.6 rc/g, which is very good, and Alou is at 9.9. Outside of Uribe, a part time player at 8.8 rc/g, everyone else is bunched between 2.3 and 6.8 rc/g. The team is at .266, .341, .491. Biggio has a .312 OBP and Grace is at .325. Not exactly setting the table for Mr. Bonds, which is what Barry insists his teammates on the Rainmakers call him.
Last year's SL home run and RBI kings had 52 and 142, respectively. Bonds is on pace for 64 and 141. This speaks, in my mind, to the failures at the top of my lineup. Hopefully things will straighten themselves out and the offense will pick up. In the meantime, other large numbers that Bonds is posting include batting average (.363), OBP (.500), and SLG (.822), together with 38 runs and 37 walks in 39 games.
I am sure the post-season scribes will want to talk about the Piazza at catcher experiment. I can say, from a purely subjective point of view, that it has been a major factor (but not even outcome determinative) in one or two games this year and that is it. If Piazza was doing better than ..236, .286, .486, I would feel fine about it. Time will tell, I guess.
Will the Rainmakers self-destruct? Will the team start playing up to its offensive potential? Nobody knows for sure, but we can see the storm clouds brewing in the north.