Five MLB teams aim to bounce back from disappointing starts in 2022
Friends would recommend watching “Schitt’s Creek,” and for a while I just couldn’t get there. Despite an excellent cast with Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, the first season was a bit clunky and obnoxious. It was like everyone was trying too hard.
But like a real pro (sitting on my couch, eating cookies), I stuck it out with “Schitt’s Creek,” and I’m glad I did. The characters developed enticingly and began to play each other perfectly. When the sitcom’s sixth and final season essentially swept the 2020 Emmys, I was happy for this group of misfits that brought it together to become a winning team.
This sort of thing happens all the time in baseball, which is why it’s never wise to totally rely on a team with a ton of talent until or unless the math does it for us.
So far in 2022, there are five teams widely considered contenders who, for one reason or another, have fallen flat. These five teams entered the weekend with records that would put them outside the playoff picture if the season was over.
But the season is not over. So can these five teams make like a certain TV show and put it together? Let’s talk.
The situation: The South Siders entered 2022 as clear favorites to repeat in American League Central. But their roster was attacked by injury early on, while the Twins played well enough to grab the top spot. Lance Lynn’s absence made Dallas Keuchel’s 6.86 ERA stand out all the more, the bullpen allowed plenty of traffic (1.38 WHIP) and the offense lacked a smash (.354 SLG, 24th in MLB).
Reason to be optimistic: We’ve seen some recently, with IL returning third baseman Yoán Moncada and reliever Joe Kelly and Luis Robert coming to life at home plate after a slow start that included a groin injury. Michael Kopech made a smooth transition to the rotation (0.93 ERA in six starts) and Lynn will soon be back from a knee issue. With the Sox healthier, relievers settling into their expected roles and bats hitting peak levels, there’s no reason they can’t stay with a Twins team. who has yet to prove his perseverance.
Reasons for scepticism: Eloy Jimenez’s torn right hamstrings keep him out for the foreseeable future, which affects the form of the roster. Liam Hendriks has had an unusually erratic season so far and while he’s not dominant himself it’s affecting pen form. The biggest problem for the Sox is that if the injury bug continues to bite throughout the year or if important plays are underperforming, their farming system may not have the depth to make a positive impact via recalls or mid-season exchanges.
The situation: The defending champions lost three of their first five games of the season and haven’t recovered more than .500 since. The struggles of veteran starter Charlie Morton (5.65 ERA, 76 ERA+) hampered the rotation, while outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall and shortstop Dansby Swanson were among the worst performing starters in the League national. While the Mets have climbed to first place in the NL East, the Braves are unfortunately ranked in the middle of the pack in points per game (4.15, tied for 14th in MLB) and points allowed per game (4. 48, 23rd in MLB).
Reasons to be optimistic: Ronald Acuña Jr. made an earlier than expected return from a horrific right knee injury and, despite a recent bout with a sprained groin, had an instant impact (.282/.391/.487 slash). The expected stats indicate that Ozuna, Duvall, Austin Riley, Ozzie Albies and Swanson all experienced bad luck. In fact, the difference between the Braves’ slugging percentage (.398) and expected SLG (.493) is the greatest of any team in the NL. Morton has a long track record that suggests he will contribute positively to a rotation in which Max Fried continues to become an ace and Kyle Wright has provided a boost. The bullpen looked good on paper and was effective in real life, with the 10th-best WHIP (1.17) and seventh-best batting average (.214) in MLB. The Braves proved last year that they could overcome a sluggish start.
Reasons for scepticism: It was one thing for the Braves to return to the top of the NL East in 2021, when it was baseball’s most disappointing division. But the Mets have upped the ante this year. If Morton is washed or the rotation needs other fixes AND the attack doesn’t start, that might be too much for even GM Alex Anthopoulos to pin down the numbers that will be a seller’s trade market.
The situation: The Phils of recent vintage are proof that you can’t just buy your way into the playoffs. They have the second-longest playoff drought in MLB and the longest in the NL. Bolstering the roster around reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper with Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber, Philadelphia looked poised to fight their way into the race this year. But Harper, while productive, is playing through a UCL tear in his right elbow that limited him to DH duties in a team that already had plenty of DH types to start with. And the pitching staff entered the weekend ranked 22nd in MLB in ERA (3.97).
Reasons to be optimistic: The offense was among the best in custom baseball (.747 OPS, second in MLB) but struggled with runners in scoring position (.714 OPS, 19th in MLB). A positive regression to the mean for what is a very good bat collection would help the Phillies improve on their lackluster record in one-point games. The pitching team is performing better than the raw ERA (and a particularly notable outburst against the Mets) would indicate. Several key members of that staff have better expected ERAs than raw ERAs – including rotational pivots Zack Wheeler (3.15 vs 4.26), Aaron Nola (2.51 vs 3.83) and Zach Eflin (2 .76 against 4.50) and the bullpen arm José Alvarado (3.24 against 7.45).
Reasons for scepticism: Harper’s injury, which won’t go away on its own anytime soon, doesn’t affect his swing but does significantly affect how the daily roster is built. The defense didn’t intend to be good and, well, it wasn’t (minus nine defensive points saved). It doesn’t help a team that doesn’t have much room for error.
The situation: After last year’s 90-win club finished just two games out of a playoff berth and big moves were made for defending AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray, Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez, the Mariners looked set to make a real run for the AL West title. Alas, it was the Angels who popped up to face the Astros, while the M’s have been in an extended funk for the past two and a half weeks.
Reasons to be optimistic: This team got off to a promising 11-6 start, so you don’t have to squint too hard to see them return to that level of play for extended stretches this summer. Highly touted rookie Julio Rodríguez appears to be finding himself at the plate (.311/.363/.432 slash since April 22), and advanced metrics insist that Winker (.371 expected weighted average on base vs. .276 actual wOBA) will overthrow it to increase a range in which Ty France and JP Crawford thrive. Youngsters George Kirby and Logan Gilbert have both shown their potential in the rotation. Last year’s team went 4-11 in mid-May, then went 68-46 the rest of the way. This team can absolutely run a similar race.
Reasons for scepticism: Start with Ray, who pitched better in his last start but whose underlying advanced metrics remain decidedly underwhelming. If he’s just not right (and if Gilbert’s early success is undermined by a rising walk rate), do the Mariners have the pitch to be a serious contender? It’s also shocking to see the highly touted Jarred Kelenic continue to struggle at home plate, and he’s now been opted for Triple-A. And with Mitch Haniger out for months with a sprained right ankle and Kyle Lewis not expected to return for a few weeks at the earliest, the Mariners are short on backup. Unfortunately, the team with the longest playoff drought in North American professional sports has a lot to prove and, to date, the M’s have failed to prove it.
The situation: A Boston ball club that came within two World Series wins last year now has a record that puts it among MLB’s dregs. Although the roster did not undergo a massive renovation from last year and the Sox caused a stir by signing Trevor Story, the lineup was lackluster, Chris Sale was absent from the rotation and the ninth inning was been a mess.
Reasons to be optimistic: The offense was carried by Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and JD Martinez, all of whom have OPS+ ratings at least 40% above the league average. Give the Red Sox even the league’s average offense collectively from the other six spots in the order and you’ve got a totally different team. There could be options in the system in the form of outfielder Jarren Duran and first baseman Triston Casas to improve roster depth, and perhaps Story can turn things around after a terrible start. Boston’s bullpen is a mess, but we’ve seen other clubs fix their bullpens on the fly. Sale and James Paxton will return from injury to finally give the rotation innings they desperately need.
Reasons for scepticism: Math, for starters. The Red Sox entered the weekend not just 12 games in the brutal AL East, but also 5 ½ games in what is and will continue to be a crowded Wild Card race. The Red Sox are chasing clubs with better depth and fewer questions – and Sale’s return from a ribcage injury delayed by a personal medical issue certainly isn’t helping their cause. Story’s rocky start and Bogaert’s unresolved contract issue weighs on this club significantly.