Jaffe: Way-too-early MLB predictions

April 9, 2012, 1:46 a.m.

It’s the second week of April, which means March Madness and the Masters have given way to the start of baseball season. And that means it’s time for Jumping to Ridiculous Conclusions, Volume 2! Since I’m far too lazy to physically jump to these conclusions, here’s my second annual way-too-early MLB column.

Last year, I analyzed the first week of the season to predict what would happen at the end of the year, and to everyone’s surprise, the first week didn’t adequately predict the entire season.

But I’ve learned my lesson. As a mathematical and computational science major, I can tell you that last year’s sample size was far too big. So I’ve taken it upon myself to write this column after the first full weekend of the season, when just 48 of the 2,430 games have been played. Here’s what we’ve learned so far in Major League Baseball.

As expected, the World Series looks like it could very well come down to a battle of eastern teams. Both the Mets and Orioles completed three-game home sweeps on Sunday thanks to starters that flirted with no-hitters. Next stop, Fall Classic!

Likelihood of this happening: about the chance of me getting a double eagle in the final round of the Masters. And I’ve never played golf.

In fact, winning your opening series isn’t much of a sign of postseason success. Three of the last four World Series champs lost their opening series 2-1. So maybe we should be looking for a Phillies-Angels World Series after both lost two in a row to sub-.500 central teams.

Likelihood of this happening: decent. Despite their poor starts, both are expected to contend for their respective pennants. The Phillies are aging but still as talented as anyone in the National League, while the Angels pulled the ultimate offseason trifecta of adding the best hitter available (Albert Pujols), adding the best pitcher available (C.J. Wilson) and subtracting the worst hitter available (Jeff Mathis).

If you want to look for a star pitcher in the American League, you could look at obvious guys like Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver, who each threw eight shutout innings in their first start. But if you want a real Cy Young threat, how about Verlander’s teammate Duane Below? He leads the majors with two wins already and has allowed just one baserunner all year.

Likelihood of this happening: none. Sorry, Duane, but a middle reliever with zero career wins before this season isn’t going to take home the trophy, even if you don’t allow a run all year.

As far as hitting, the early season hasn’t lacked power. Four players — Miguel Cabrera, Yoenis Cespedes, Corey Hart and Jay Bruce — have already hit three home runs apiece. Hart and Bruce are two of the better power hitters in the National League, and Cabrera may very well be the best hitter in the game, but Cespedes has been capturing the nation’s attention (which is hard to do when you play for the A’s) with his mammoth home runs. Could this quartet be at the top of the home run lists at season’s end?

Likelihood of this happening: unlikely, but definitely possible. With the departures of Pujols and Prince Fielder to the American League, the National League lost two of its three best home-run hitters, so Hart and Bruce could be two of the best sluggers left. Cabrera has hit 30 home runs in seven of the past eight years, so I wouldn’t put it past him. At some point, AL pitchers will stop throwing Cespedes belt-high fastballs and make him work for his homers, and you’d have to think that Pujols and Fielder (not to mention Jose Bautista and the whole Yankees and Rangers rosters) will factor into the home run races.

For all the good so far, there’s of course been an equal amount of bad, and for some of the big boys, opening weekend was less than stellar. Three of the past five champs — the Giants, Yankees and Red Sox — got swept in their opening series. This is particularly surprising for the Yankees, who, prior to their weekend sweep at the hands of the Rays, had not been swept to start a season since 1998. And that year New York won 114 games and the World Series. So don’t cry for the Yankees yet (not that you ever would).

Likelihood of this happening: very unlikely. For as much talent as the Yankees have (what else is new), there is a whole lot of other talent in that division. Winning over 70 percent of the next 159 games will be almost impossible when over a third of them will be against Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto, although the World Series is certainly in play for the Bombers.

With so much to be determined over the next seven months, I might as well throw my own guesses into the mix. I’ll say the Rays, Tigers and Rangers will win their divisions in the American League, with the Yankees and Angels as the wild cards, and the Phillies, Reds and Diamondbacks will win their divisions in the National League, with the Cardinals and Giants as the wild cards. I’ll go Rays-Reds in the World Series, with Tampa Bay bringing home its first title.

Likelihood of this happening: not a chance.

Likelihood of Jacob Jaffe writing about baseball each of the next nine weeks: 100 percent. Predict the topic of next week’s column at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Jaffe.

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