Burning Questions: Which Early-Season Start Do You Believe in Most?

Are the Brewers for real?

The numberFire baseball crew will be - and has been - posting a weekly feature called Burning Questions. The idea is simple: we pose a general question then provide many answers and explanations on the particular subject.

This gives you, the reader, a chance to hear opinions from many different experts, who, believe it or not, don't always agree on everything. What we do have in common is a knowledge of and love for the game, and we want you to be a part of the conversation. Feel free to pose an answer to this or a future Burning Question on Twitter, or tell us why you agree or disagree with one or more of our answers. These features are designed to start the conversation, not to offer a comprehensive solution, and often there is not a clear correct answer.

This week, the crew looks at some of the MLB situations either off to a hot or slow start, answering the question of whether or not this early-season play is an indicator of what's to come.

The Milwaukee Brewers

Jim Sannes' Thoughts:

The St. Louis Cardinals. The Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cincinnati Reds. Experts constantly called upon these three teams when talking about the NL Central prior to the season (myself included). But there's a different team in that division currently at the top of the numberFire Power Rankings. That's the Milwaukee Brewers. And I think their start is for real.

Assuming that Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez all stay healthy (not exactly the safest assumption in the world), this offense will continue to crush the ball. Add in continued contributions from Jean Segura, and you've got yourself a playoff contender, kiddos.

But the offense isn't the reason I see the Brewers sticking around; it's their starting pitching. Yovani Gallardo's ERA (0.96) is just about the same as yours and mine right now through his first three starts. His sharp decline in strikeouts from 2012 to now is a bit concerning, but his control has gotten better at the same time. Matt Garza's groundball rate (61.5 percent) is a disgusting amount higher than his career mark (41.4 percent). I'm not sure if that's just because it's a small sample size or if Garza is actually inducing more garden killers, but it's encouraging regardless.

The final piece to the puzzle for the Brew Crew over the last few years has been the closer role. John Axford is out, Francisco Rodriguez is back. And, oh, baby, does K-Rod look luscious so far. The Brewers are legit contenders in an extremely difficult division, and I can't wait to see what they do as the season goes on.

The Detroit Tigers Bullpen

Chris Kay's Thoughts:

The Detroit Tigers have seen their bullpen be a huge weakness so far this season and unless the magic man, Dave Dombrowski, makes some moves it’ll continue to be this way. They are currently sporting a 4.94 ERA ranking them as seventh worst in the MLB. The sample size is small, but the way these guys have been pitching is too bad to ignore.

Joe Nathan’s recent struggles (9.64 ERA in 4.2 innings) have most people worried. He recently let it be known that he is having dead arm issues, but doesn’t seem to be too worried about it. His 90.7 average fastball velocity is 1.5 MPH lower than last season. If he can’t get that velocity up then there is reason to worry, but not having normal velocity this early in the season isn’t an unusual thing.

Besides Nathan, Al Alburquerque and Joba Chamberlain have been used the most in high leverage situation. Together, they have thrown 6.2 innings giving up 12 hits and 5 earned runs. As much as these two have potential, they haven’t had success in the MLB since 2011 and aren’t immune to injuries. Al Al posted a 4.59 ERA in 49 innings last season, which is just slightly better than Chamberlain’s 4.93 ERA in 42 innings.

The lefties in this Tigers bullpen have turned in some of the better appearances so far this season. Ian Krol has made his Tigers debut and pitched 4.1 innings so far. He has a 10.38 K/9 rate and he hasn’t walked a guy yet, quickly making people forget about Phil Coke and his terrible 1.2 innings on the season.

It’s only a matter of time before Coke gets sent down, but he isn’t the only reliever the Tigers will be moving around soon. With the West Coast road trip over, Drew Smyly will be moving from reliever back to starter. His start to the season has been great, but it’ll be interesting to see how the Tigers fare in the later innings without him. He has been lights out giving up just two hits in six innings while striking out six.

At this point, there is no reason to believe that the Tigers bullpen will get much better than they are right now. If it does get better, it’ll take a 39 year-old closer seeing his velocity increase and two setup men to not only stay healthy, but post what would be some of their best numbers of their career.

Albert Pujols

Dan Weigel's Thoughts

After signing a 10-year contract with the Angels prior to the 2012 season, Albert Pujols has failed to live up to the lofty expectations that came with his massive contract. Though a 3.7-win season would not be considered a disappointment for most players, Pujols’s 2012 campaign was seen as a failure as arguably the best player in baseball became merely an above average player.

Hopes were high for his second season in Anaheim, but Pujols battled injuries and ineffectiveness on his way to a 0.7 win season. He still hit 17 home runs, but for a first baseman with limited baserunning and defensive value, this was not enough to come anywhere close to justifying his massive paycheck or quieting the growing number of doubters.

Pujols came into 2014 spring training healthy and ready to prove that the past two seasons were aberrations, but so far he has not been able to do so. His .240/.309/.500 line is easily the worst of his career, and he has not shown many signs of turning that around. Is this is new Pujols or does he have any hope of returning to dominance?

There are many indications that Pujols will not return to dominance. First, Pujols has posted the worst GB/FB ratio of his career, along with one of the lowest line drive rates of his career. The former is of less concern than the latter, as a power hitter like Pujols needs to hit the ball in the air to take advantage of his power, especially when almost all of the ground balls are hit directly into a shift on the left side of the infield.

Perhaps more concerning is Pujols’s performance against fastballs. The slugger used to crush fastballs while in St. Louis, posting elite wFB/C marks as high as 3.63 (for this stat, zero is average and 3.63 means that he hit FBs really well). Likewise, Pujols hit sliders really well in his heyday, and though both marks have trailed off slightly in recent years, they have fallen off of a metaphorical cliff this year. Even in his poor 2013 campaign he was able to hit these pitches at an above average rate, but this year he has been below average against fastballs and abysmal against sliders.

On the positive side, Pujols is striking out less, but until he proves that he can beat the shift on the ground (either by not hitting ground balls or hitting them to the right side) and figure out how to hit fastballs and sliders like he used to, we can expect another season of average production at best from a guy who used to be one of, if not the most feared sluggers in the game.