First-quarter MLB takeaways: Tanking fades, Vlad Guerrero rises, 2020 was a mirage

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They’re back to playing 162 games across Major League Baseball and thank goodness for that.

Larger sample sizes are back and so, too, is our ability to assess the state of the game at arbitrary points in time.

That brings us to 2021’s one-quarter mark, as 25 teams have played at least 40 games, some as many as 42, and the trend lines are quickly emerging.

What’s in: Earnest competition, post-hype superstars, post-pandemic season bounceback narratives.

What’s out: Offense (still!), masks (almost), half-baked attempts at competing (for the most part).

Sure, plenty can change between now and Oct. 3. Yet it’s surely not too soon for USA TODAY Sports to explore both the signal and the noise this season has already provided:

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., in his third season, entered Monday second in the majors in OPS at 1.049
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., in his third season, entered Monday second in the majors in OPS at 1.049

It’s cool to compete

We’re not about to declare an end to the tanking era, not when it so easily enables franchises to pocket cash and perhaps even running into a championship core after bamboozling fans to “trust the process.”

Yet we are a few years removed from baseball’s competitive nadir, marked by salary-dumping trades and unemployed veterans sidelined in favor of minimum-wage labor. Oh, those concepts are very much alive and well – plenty of good seats still available for Tigers-Orioles – but we are also seeing some payoff from teams pulling out of self-destruct mode and trying to win.

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Check out the standings: Just two teams – the Tigers and the strangely disappointing Twins – are more than 10 games out of first place. Contrast that with this date in 2019 – the last full season – at which point five teams were already in at least a 10-game hole and the Houston Astros had already built an 8½-game lead.

Entering Monday’s play, no first-place team had greater than a 2½ game lead, and four of six divisions saw no greater than 2½ games separate third from first. The East races are going to be a couple of slobber-knockers, what with the entire NL East within three games of the top and Boston, Toronto, New York and Tampa Bay bunched within two games of each other in the AL.

That makes it all the comparative to keep an eye on …

Strength of schedule

Back in the day, MLB’s schedulemakers excelled at spreading the 19 games teams play against their division opponents over the course of the year. Ideally, you’d host a division rival once in April, again sometime in July and a final time in September.

Yet the schedule algorithm now tends to front- and backload opponents – “Jeez, the Diamondbacks are already here again?” – which can create early-season mirages.

For instance, the Red Sox and Yankees each have played 10 games against the Orioles – yet none against each other.

The San Francisco Giants have built the best record in the NL partly on the strength of 25 games against the Rockies, Pirates, Mariners, Marlins and Rangers – yet have not played the Dodgers.

The AL West-leading Oakland A’s are 14-4 against the Twins, Tigers, D-backs and Orioles – but 13-15 against clubs with winning records.

In short: Before you get too giddy over your squad’s hot start, check the schedule. They soon may have to pay the piper.

Vlad Jr.: Not washed

“Let the kids play” is a handy term the league co-opted to encourage frivolity and emotion between the white lines (though perhaps Amir Garrett is exempt).

Let the kids play is also a decent credo for the league’s hype machine and the manner in which fans welcome young players into the league.

We’ve certainly been spoiled by waves of teen- and early-20s stars achieving seemingly instant stardom, from the first wave of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper to a current contingent led by Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr.

Yet it’s also just fine for development to unfold over the course of years, not months. With that in mind, do you have any idea what Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been up to?

You surely did in April 2019, when he debuted after the standard screw-him-out-of-service-time pause. His first batting-practice session was carried live in two countries. His at-bats were cause for network cut-ins.

And then … he was merely OK for a while.

In the meantime, Fernando Tatis Jr. (who’s still yet to play 100 games in a season) was anointed the next greatest thing. The arrival of Wander Franco (who only now has played 11 games above Class A ball) is charted like an asteroid careening toward Earth.

And just what was the prospect world and MLB’s advanced-media arm fixated on this weekend as Vladito laid waste to the Philadelphia Phillies, homering in all three games to push his OPS to 1.049, second only to Trout?

Why, the debut of Mariners prospect Jarred Kelenic, of course.

Not sure if it’s shortened attention span, keeper-league geeks wanting to be first to go all-in on a guy or the expectation that all prospects must dominate upon arrival, but this is all a little askew. Sure, young players arrive in the majors with more games played and better development tools at their disposal, making instant stardom a possibility.

That doesn’t mean everyone will immediately dominate. Development is rarely linear, which makes baseball both maddening and fun. Fixate on who’s Next if you must.

Vladito is Now, and it’s been a sight to watch unfold.

2020: Flush it

Speaking of which, Guerrero folds rather nicely into a category of players for which 2020 was a wash. There were many reasons – the start and stop of spring training, a four-month layoff, a 60-game season that messed with approaches both mental and physical – to not take too many performances as gospel, particularly those on the negative side of the ledger.

Now that 2021 is in full gear, it’s clear there were many aberrations.

Guerrero, for one, put on the Quarantine Fifteen that struck so many of us at our waistlines, and worked doggedly to put that to rest in the offseason. Good on him.

Buster Posey and Ryan Zimmerman were among the veterans who sat out the whole year. Seems like a good move: In part-time duty, Posey, 34, has an absurd 1.151 OPS and with eight home runs has surpassed his 2018 and 2019 season totals. Zimmerman, 36, is sporting a 126 adjusted OPS, best since his lone All-Star season of 2017.

Remember J.D. Martinez’s fretting over a lack of video in the dugout and clubhouse? Might have been something to that! Martinez slashed .213/.291/.389 in 2020 and has turned that around to .342/.420/.605 in 2021, a season in which in-game video of at-bats are once again available.

Vibes don’t hurt, either. The Red Sox season went immediately south in 2020; a season in which a bad month for individual and team meant just one more month ‘til school was out. Why bother digging out of the hole when freedom was nigh?

So many players and teams faced that similar scenario last year. Now, the 162-game marathon is back – and so, too, is our ability to judge players on their merits.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB first quarter: What we learned through the 41 games of the season