For any team under .500 in April, this is the most common defence. Perhaps this is the simplest defence, too. It’s far easier to dismiss a team’s struggles with “It’s early” than face the realities of the problems at hand.
The problem is: “early” is arbitrary, and too often it’s a term that is moulded to fit the previously-existing intentions of an argument.
Beyond that, “early” is a difficult concept to apply to a team as a whole as it varies drastically from player to player. For players like Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Russell Martin, or Troy Tulowitzki, a season does not stay in the early stages for very long. These are established players with a relatively consistent history of performance in recent seasons.
For that group, “early” ends, well, early.
This changes, however, when the pitching staff is considered. R.A. Dickey, who has struggled throughout the first half of the season but surged down the stretch in recent years, deserves a greater amount of patience because he has shown this pattern. Dickey’s “early”, then, has a longer leash.
At no position does this hold true more than in the bullpen, where Brett Cecil and Drew Storen have headlined the struggles of the group. Cecil is sporting an ERA of 5.19 while Storen’s is sky-high at 9.39, but the two have had so little time to iron out their kinks with just 8.2 and 7.2 innings pitched respectively. Granted, Storen’s velocity is worrying, but for Cecil and his curveball — just like Dickey and his knuckleball — gaining midseason feel takes some time.
So, if “It’s early” cannot be applied equally to two teammates, can it be fairly applied to a roster of 25 players? I’d argue not, but since this isn’t going away (especially in 2016), how should this arbitrary marker be defined?
I’ve always wanted to see one-third of a season before allowing any opinions on the team to become partly or completely solidified. Chopping up the six-month season into three approximate blocks of two months apiece, that leaves June 1st as a logical time to look around and take the true temperature of the organization.
On June 1st of 2015, the Toronto Blue Jays were 23-29. By the final day of the season, they’d run away from the rest of the American League East with a 93-69 record.
On June 1st of 2014, the Jays sat atop the division at 34-24. They finished the season 83-79, third in the division and 13.0 games back of the Baltimore Orioles.
Well, that didn’t take long to discount.
In the past two seasons alone, Toronto has shown that “It’s early” is not an argument that is uniquely applicable to individual seasons. Instead, it is a truism, applying equally to teams that are 40-8 or 12-33 in any and all seasons of baseball. So with that, “It’s early” loses meaning altogether.
Instead, it becomes an empty phrase that we use to buffer between real reasoning. Like arguing whether or not Cam Newton is an “elite” quarterback instead of directly addressing his skills and impact on a game, or debating whether Marcus Stroman is an “ace” without any hard definition on what that word even means.
“It’s early” for Brett Cecil, but what that really means is that Cecil is struggling to set up his signature curveball, suffering from a lack of ground balls (35.7%), and dealing with an opponent’s BABIP that is well above his career average at .357.
“It’s not early anymore” for Russell Martin, but that really means the Jays’ catcher is dealing with a mammoth strikeout rate (46.0%) brought on by a contact percentage of 63.7% that is significantly lower than his career average of 80.9%.
For the team as a whole? It’s
… April 29th. And tomorrow will be April 30th.