Early look at 2022 MLB season

Our emotions can get the best of us in baseball, especially in these early days of the MLB season when it is so difficult to determine how much of what we’re watching is real.

That’s why we invented the Freak-Out Factor (FOF), our patented and perfected model of putting a number to the level of concern a fan base should feel for a given development. It is a very intricate and precise 1-10 rating system that works as follows: 1 means keep calm and carry on, and 10 is a full-scale freak-out.

Here are six Freak Out topics from the first week-ish of play.

Shohei Ohtani has looked somewhat human!

The problem with being a unicorn is having your every move dissected. So, yes, it’s jarring to see our beloved mythological creature bearing a 7.56 ERA after two starts (and finally giving up a home run on a splitter) and go 5-for-his-first-29 before “finally” breaking out with a two-homer game Friday night.

Should we freak out about it? No, not yet. As a pitcher, Ohtani’s fastball command has improved and his strikeout and whiff rates are still top-tier, so – slow start after a shortened spring aside – he could actually improve on last year’s 139 ERA +. The hitting thing is a little more interesting, just because we did see signs of fatigue and league adjustment in last year’s second half (.229 average, .458 slugging percentage). But Ohtani put himself on the board in a big way Friday, so that should calm people down.

Ohtani is doing something that has never been done under the demands of the modern game. We should never take his 2021 for granted. Maybe he never repeats it. But as long as he’s healthy enough to try, we’ll be watching.

FOF: 2, for Ohtani’s 0-2 record on the hill

The White Sox keep getting hurt!

The South Siders entered the season as prohibitive favorites to repeat as the AL Central champs… if they stay healthy. OK, that’s vanilla analysis. Every team needs health to cooperate. But it is especially true for a Sox team that has graduated its best prospects to the big leagues, ranks 30th among the farm systems per MLB Pipeline and therefore probably can not be counted on to swing another impact acquisition before the Trade Deadline unless they deal a big-leaguer (as they did last summer when they sent Nick Madrigal to the Cubs in the Craig Kimbrel deal).

What you see is largely what you get, and that’s why it stings when you lose reliever Garrett Crochet to Tommy John surgery at the same time Kimbrel was dealt to the Dodgers and temporarily lose starters Lance Lynn (right knee tendon tear) and Lucas Giolito ( abdominal strain), outfielder AJ Pollock (strained right hamstring) and reliever Joe Kelly (right biceps) before even playing the home opener. Outfielder Eloy Jiménez (left ankle soreness) and second baseman Josh Harrison (lower back stiffness) have also been banged up in recent days. This is a very talented team, but the division has improved, and last year’s model of overcoming a litany of injuries could prove difficult to repeat. This is not a full-scale Freak Out now, but it is something to monitor.

FOF: 4, or the combined innings thrown by Giolito (four) and Lynn (zero).

Clayton Kershaw was pulled from a perfect game!

You can understand something and still hate it. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts’ decision to pull Kershaw on Wednesday was made long before Kershaw threw seven perfect innings (with 13 strikeouts!) Against the Twins. Kershaw is 34 years old and is coming off a serious injury and a shortened spring. He was never going to go nine innings. (If you were one of the people screaming about “analytics ruining baseball,” simmer down. It was about health, not analytics.)

But man… we’re coming up on a decade without a perfect game. Remember when there were three of them in 2012 (Phil Humber, Matt Cain and Felix Hernandez) and everybody worried that the achievement was losing its value? Now, if you want to see a perfect game, you have to stay up until 3 am to watch Roki Sasaki (and his gem was the first in Nippon Professional Baseball in 28 years). So, yes, we are allowed to freak out about Roberts somehow joining {checks notes} himself as the only manager to pull a pitcher after at least seven perfect innings [he did it with Rich Hill in 2016]. We can stomach and even defend Bob Melvin pulling Sean Manaea and Yu Darvish in consecutive no-hit bids and Brian Snitker pulling Ian Anderson mid-no-no in the World Series. But doing it in a perfect game just felt icky.

FOF: 9, for the number of consecutive full seasons without a perfect game.

The Braves have been meh!

You can find no better representation of the weight of World Series expectations than the rings received by the Braves last week. If you attached a baseball to a rubber band and called it a “ring,” it wouldn’t weigh much more than those bad boys. So if the Braves are feeling that weight, it’s understandable. And it has shown.

Amid raising the banner and donning the ring, the Braves went 3-4 in their opening homestand. Their offense has been erratic, their defense (minus-8 defensive runs saved, entering the weekend) has been putrid, their bullpen has been porous and Max Fried and Charlie Morton have a combined 5.91 ERA after two starts apiece. Yuck.

But breathe, Braves fans. You might remember that your club was under .500 as late as Aug. 4 last year. While we do not recommend repeating that strategy, we can not condone concern after nine games, either. The pitching staff is dealing with the dual demons of an extended postseason run and a shortened spring, so practice patience there. Ronald Acuña Jr. has started playing simulated games, so he should be boosting the lineup in a matter of weeks. And if it does not all work out, Alex Anthopoulos will simply swing a trade every single day in July until the roster looks right.

FOF: 1, or how many days you can wear the 2021 World Series ring before suffering a flexor tendon injury

Robbie Ray has gone astray!

Ray’s sensational 2021 season, in which he won the AL Cy Young with the Blue Jays, was a genuine surprise. And so it is only natural to wonder whether he’ll continue that caliber of performance or revert back to the dude who had a pedestrian 4.26 ERA in the first 842 1/3 innings of his career. The Mariners, in need of a rotation anchor on a burgeoning ballclub, invested five years and $ 115 million to find out, while the Blue Jays, interestingly, let Ray walk and gave roughly the same contract to Kevin Gausman.

Even when Ray pitched seven strong innings in his Mariners debut, there were some rumblings about his velocity decline. Then, in his second start against the White Sox, the velocity remained down, and Ray was roughed up for six runs on 10 hits. In both starts, the weather conditions were terrible, so keep that in mind. But Ray’s expected ERA (6.74), opponent hard-hit rate (52.5%), strikeout rate (16.1%) and walk rate (10.7%) are all well below average so far.

While it is too early to read a great deal into the above, we’re going to dial up the Freak-Out Factor here, just because of Ray’s genuine reliance on velo and the M’s genuine reliance on Ray to end the longest postseason drought in the game.

FOF: 6, for how many balls have been barreled against Ray in two starts (after only 46 in 32 starts last year).

Byron Buxton is hurt again!

Buxton slapped the ground in frustration Friday afternoon at Fenway when he suffered a knee injury, and that was the reaction of all of us who just want to see this guy stay healthy for a change. Buxton played a grand total of 215 games from 2018-21. But he’s shown flashes of MVP potential when healthy. Last year, he had a 1,005 OPS and was worth 4.5 WAR in only 61 games.

The Twins believed enough in Buxton to give him a seven-year, $ 100 million extension over the offseason, and his offseason work with a nutritionist to limit inflammation between games offered some hope that maybe, just maybe, the Bux (ton injury streak) stops here. Alas, here we are, just seven games into the Twins’ season, here we are.

As of this writing, the extent of Buxton’s injury is not clear. But when Buxton is on the ground writhing in pain, it is absolutely something to freak out about.

FOF: 9.6, or Buxton’s 2019-21 WAR total

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