Believe it or not, we're already a quarter of the way through the MLB regular season, and it seems teams are starting to settle in where they'll be for the long haul (maybe). That's particularly true in the American League, where the four superpowers are meeting this weekend in a pair of high-profile series.
Here's how we see those matchups and what else we're looking forward to:
Some have suggested that this year's Astros, who play the Red Sox at Fenway this weekend, could have one of the best offenses of all time. Fact or fiction?
Eddie Matz: Fact-ish. As Dave [Schoenfield] wrote recently, the list of teams that have ever slugged .500 or better in a season includes ... the Astros. That's it. Of course, the 2019 season is barely a quarter of the way finished. Players like Jake Marisnick and Robinson Chirinos -- two guys for whom we have plenty of data -- aren't likely to keep their OPS above .900. As for the rest of the lineup, if they can stay healthy (which hasn't been the case the past couple of years), they're totally capable of keeping this up.
Sam Miller: Allowing that it's hard, for a variety of reasons, to compare across eras -- even with stats specifically designed to do so -- yes, this is definitely fact. The 2017 Astros, with most of the same lineup, were also one of the best offenses of all time, arguably (I argued it) as good as any team offense since Babe Ruth left the Yankees. Like that team, these Astros are the rare team that gets good offense from every position (their two weakest positions so far, in fact, are first base and DH) and from every spot in the lineup: Through Wednesday, their 7-8-9 hitters had a higher OPS than 21 teams' 3-6 hitters. Every team, good or bad, has a lot of fiction in their stats at this stage of the season, and, no, I don't think Chirinos is baseball's second-best player over 30, and, no, I don't think George Springer is a 60-homer threat. But the Astros' lineup is staggering, so good that I'm trading all my Babe Ruth cards for Jake Marisnicks.
David Schoenfield: I'm also going fact-ish. They might be able to sustain this because the pitching in the American League West is pretty bad. The other four teams rank 18th, 22nd, 28th and 30th in the majors in rotation ERA. But, if they really want to be an all-time great offense, I think runs scored matter as much -- and maybe more -- than weighted runs created, and the Astros haven't scored as many runs as projected by the raw stats since they've hit just .252 with runners in scoring position (compared to .282 overall). So, hit better with guys on, and maybe they get there.
The Pirates and Padres, two teams with playoff aspirations, meet in San Diego. Which gets you more excited: the sheer power of Josh Bell launching 450-foot homers into the Allegheny or the sheer nastiness of Chris Paddack, the Padres' rookie stud?
Matz: The only part of "launching 450-foot homers into the Allegheny" that gets me going is the Allegheny part. Because that stadium in Pittsburgh is the only one I've been to that rivals my native Camden Yards -- and it's entirely because of that river (and Clemente Bridge). Unlike 450-foot homers, it's entirely unique. Bell's breakout is a great story, but give me Paddack -- with his sound bites and fist pumps and general swagger -- any day of the week and thrice on Sunday.
Miller: Nothing against superloud dingers -- and, hey, I just realized "Bell dingers" is sort of a pun -- but these are 2019 baseballs. It's hard to know what to believe about baseball physics anymore, so a ball traveling 450 feet sometimes feels like just a very convincing Photoshop job. In a crazy-offense era, it's the unhittable pitchers whose performances most stick with us.
Schoenfield: It's great to see Bell breaking out in a big way, including a few gargantuan blasts, but I'm thinking of renaming my dogs "Chris" and "Paddack," so I'll go with the Padres' starter.
The Nationals, who play the Cubs on Sunday Night Baseball (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), are looking like baseball's most disappointing team two years running. What is the Nats' biggest problem, and will they be able to salvage this season?
Matz: With all due respect to Washington's mess of a bullpen, playing without Trea Turner for the past six weeks has been the real killer. The speedy shortstop sparks the offense in a way that no other National does, not even Anthony Rendon. And Washington has missed Turner even more in the field, where 21-year-old rookie Carter Kieboom tried to fill in and failed miserably. Wilmer Difo, who played a solid short in 2017 when Turner was on the shelf, hasn't been a whole lot better. Turner returned to the lineup Friday night. That should go a long way toward helping skipper Davey Martinez right the ship. If only Turner could pitch in relief.
Miller: A little of this, a little of that, but a little bit more of the defense. The Nationals have allowed the highest percentage of balls in play to land for hits. Bad pitching can contribute to that, of course, but the evidence suggests that isn't the case here. Statcast metrics put the Nationals pitchers among the better staffs in baseball as far as allowing hard contact and likely hits; Baseball Prospectus' advanced pitching metric, deserved run average, claims the Nats' pitching staff has been the game's fourth best. Víctor Robles, Juan Soto and Carter Kieboom are the most exciting part of this franchise, but they've all contributed to the porous defense this year.
Schoenfield: Can I say "everything"? Or just about everything. Aside from that, I liked almost all the moves the Nationals made this offseason -- well, Mike Rizzo should have done more with the bullpen rather than counting on Trevor Rosenthal coming back from injury -- but other than Patrick Corbin, those moves haven't worked. I thought Brian Dozier would have a bounce-back season. Nope. They needed catching help, but Yan Gomes hasn't hit (backup Kurt Suzuki has been a little better). Anibal Sanchez was good in 2018 with the Braves, not good with the Nationals. Throw in the injuries and the depth guys playing terribly, and it's a mess.
Writer's choice: What are you most looking forward to this weekend?
Matz: Seeing if Cody Bellinger can keep up his Ted Williams impression. The last time somebody was hitting .400 or better this late in the season was 2016, when Daniel Murphy was right at .400 following his May 15 game. Bellinger is at .401 following his May 15 game. And get this: He's on pace to steal 30-plus bases. Williams never had more than four steals in a season.
Miller: I already used Bellinger's .400 chase for this answer earlier in the season, and Eddie already beat me to it today, but I don't care: .400 chase! Nobody has taken a .400 chase past May 24 in at least a decade, and the slim margins here -- the difference between an out and a hit at this point in the season still swings his average about seven points -- make me jittery.
Schoenfield: Hyun-Jin Ryu is slated to go Sunday against the Reds. He's the hottest pitcher in baseball, with one run allowed in 25 innings over his past three starts. He has walked three guys all season. Nolan Ryan walked three or more batters in the same inning 118 times in his career.
PICK 'EM TIME
The Astros and Red Sox, two of the hottest teams in the American League, square off in Boston, and the Rays play the Yankees in a battle of the top two teams in the AL East. Who wins each series?
Matz: Chris Sale is straight fire right now, but he doesn't pitch until the finale on Sunday. By then, Houston's burnin' bats will have helped the Astros to a pair of W's and a series clinch. As for the other matchup, the Rays have had major problems winning at Yankee Stadium, where they've lost 12 of their past 13 series. New York takes two of three.
Miller: Every chance to pick the Astros, I pick the Astros. The Rays, meanwhile, have pitched as well as the Astros have hit, with a team ERA more than a half-run better than any other team. Blake Snell and Charlie Morton are lined up for this series, so they should be favored.
Schoenfield: The Astros are hotter than the Arctic Circle -- don't laugh, it was 84 degrees in Northern Russia last week, just 128 miles from the Arctic Circle -- and the Red Sox just had a couple of extra-inning games, so their bullpen may be a little tired. I'll go Houston, and I'll take the Rays, only because we don't want to see the Yankees in first place this early in the season after all those injuries. Wouldn't seem fair.
The Marlins have scored two or fewer runs in nine of their past 10 games and have 34 fewer runs than the second-lowest-scoring team in the league.
Total runs for Miami in its three games vs. the Mets: over or under 5.5?
(Editor's note: The Marlins went over on Friday night alone, scoring a stunning eight runs against Jacob deGrom and the Mets)
Matz: My brother from another mother, Steven Matz, has been historically stingy against the Fish. Ditto for Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, the other two Mets starters this weekend. But this feels like a reverse lock -- all it takes is one slightly anomalous game to kill the under. I'll take the over.
Miller: This simply can't be the mathematically correct answer but ... under. If the Marlins do score six runs in the series, they might all have to come against Matz on Saturday, because the no-hitter alerts for deGrom and Syndergaard should start pregame.
Schoenfield: The Marlins are absolutely fascinating in a Stephen King kind of way. I'm going under.
TWO TRUE OUTCOMES
Each week, we ask our panelists to choose one hitter they think will hit the most home runs and one pitcher they think will record the most strikeouts in the coming weekend. Panelists can pick a player only once for the season. We'll keep a running tally -- and invite you to play along at home.
Home run hitters
Matz: George Springer
Miller: Cody Bellinger
Schoenfield: Marcell Ozuna in Arlington against the Rangers sounds like a winner.
Matz: Stephen Strasburg
Miller: Lucas Giolito against the Blue Jays
Schoenfield: I'll go Jacob deGrom against the Marlins.