SweetSpot: Colorado Rockies
OK, let's stir up some arguing and yelling again. Yesterday, I ranked the top five pitching duos. Today, let's do the majors' best hitting duos.
Ranking the pitchers was difficult because there were so many excellent pairs to choose. Ranking the hitters is difficult because of a lack of obvious candidates. But here goes. Angry comments can be posted below!
1. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, Tigers
They seem like the pretty clear choice for No. 1 to me. You have the best hitter in baseball in Cabrera and a power-hitting, on-base machine in Fielder. One bats right-handed, the other hits lefty. They never miss a game and the fact that they can't run is but a minor inconvenience. Right, Cabrera ranks first in wOBA and Fielder 21st. Last year they ranked first and sixth.
2. Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo, Reds
They've been the best pair so, ranking third and fourth in wOBA (Baltimore's Chris Davis is second). They've also combined to create the most runs of any pair -- Votto is second in the majors and Choo third in runs created, behind only Cabrera. As good as they've been, I can't put them No. 1 for a couple of reasons. First, Choo is unlikely to sustain this level of play (after hitting .337 in April, he's hitting .250 in May, albeit with power and walks). But it's hard to rate this duo as the best when Choo is also completely helpless against left-handers -- .146/.317/.188. He hit .199 against them last year, so you can pretty easily argue that he should be platooned.
3. Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, Giants
The Giants are no longer fueled by their starting rotation but by this pair. Their raw stats may not blow you away, but some of their effectiveness is masked by playing half their games in AT&T Park. Last year, for example, Posey hit 17 of his 24 home runs on the road (although this year he's hitting .367 at home and .227 on the road). Sandoval has been inconsistent throughout his career -- his year-by-year OPS totals since 2009 are .943, .732, .909, .789 and .832 so far in 2013 -- but after breaking a bone in each hand the past two seasons, looks poised for a big season. And we mean big. He's the ultimate bad-ball, bad-body hitter, and while I wished he walked more, he and Posey have developed into a lethal combo. Put them in a different park and their numbers would be even better.
4. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
Both started a little slow but have still combined for 21 home runs. Each has the ability to hit 40 home runs (Encarnacion hit 42 last year, Bautista passed the 40 mark in 2010 and 2011). Both are hitting under .260 right now, but they draw walks so they will post solid-to-excellent on-base percentages. If Bautista ends up hitting closer to the .302 mark he posted in 2011 and Encarnacion hits .280 as he did last year instead of his current .256, they could end up challenging Cabrera and Fielder for the top spot.
5. Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, Angels
Oh, yeah, Trout is now hitting .293/.373/.558, including .343/.434/.757 in May, and provides added offensive value with his speed. The question: What does Pujols bring to the table? He has scuffled so far with a .247/.318/.420 line, including a league-leading 10 double plays. The foot is clearly bothering him and maybe it doesn't get better. Maybe Pujols doesn't get better even if the foot does. But I'm not quite ready to write him off just yet.
Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez -- but I'm going to include them in the poll instead of Trout and Pujols. For the first time in his career, CarGo is actually hitting on the road, a robust .325/.407/.625. His walk rate is up as well, so we could be seeing an improved Gonzalez this year. If CarGo does keep hitting on the road, then I'll move them into the top five.
• Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez/Jean Segura, Brewers. Gomez and Segura are off to great starts, but let's wait a bit to see if they're this good.
• Carlos Santana and Mark Reynolds, Indians. Two reasons the Indians have scored a lot of runs.
• David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox. Ortiz has 29 RBIs in 27 games since returning from the DL and Pedroia has a .420 OBP.
• Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp, Dodgers. If Kemp gets going.
• Chris Davis and Manny Machado/Adam Jones, Orioles. Machado falls into the Gomez/Segura camp: Let's see him do it for bit longer period of time.
A quick warning about Jurickson Profar's call to the majors to replace the disabled Ian Kinsler: Do not expect Mike Trout; do not expect Bryce Harper; do not expect Manny Machado.
Yes, the performance of those three wunderkinds has, unfortunately, raised the expectations for all prospects, especially one deemed the best in the game entering this season.
In time, maybe Profar joins them as generational talents (I can see the corny nickname already: "The Four Tops"), but it would be unfair to believe Profar will hit like they have, at least right off the bat. Remember, he's only 20, and, while he held his own in Triple-A, hitting .278/.370/.438 with four home runs, HE'S ONLY 20 YEARS OLD. Most 20 year olds are still learning how to hit curveballs in the South Atlantic League.
That said, I'm excited to see the kid play for a couple weeks. While Profar didn't start Sunday and Ron Washington said he'll split time with Leury Garcia, I'm not sure the Rangers recalled Profar to play three games a week. Profar has a good approach at the plate, particularly for a kid so young, drawing 21 walks in 37 games at Round Rock, so that's a good sign that he'll come up to the majors and not get in trouble by being overly aggressive. And, as Washington likes to say, "He's not afraid of the game."
Kinsler had been one of the best players in the league so far, hitting .302 with seven home runs, 20 RBIs and 24 runs, so the Rangers will miss his production from the leadoff spot. But they have a comfortable lead in the AL West and there was no reason to push him through the injury.
Profar is likely headed back to Triple-A once Kinsler's DL stint ends. Of course, who knows, maybe Profar hits so well he leaves the Rangers no choice but to find a regular spot for him. I don't think that will happen, but I wouldn't be that eager to bet against him, either.
REST OF THE WEEKEND
1. Matt Joyce, Tampa Bay Rays. Down 4-0 after one inning to the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday, Joyce hit a two-run homer in the third to get the Rays closer and then hit a two-run, go-ahead double in the ninth. On Sunday, Joyce's homer provided the insurance run in a 3-1 win as the Rays swept the O's.
2. Dexter Fowler, Colorado Rockies. The Rockies had many heroes in winning three of four against the San Francisco Giants at home, but Fowler jumpstarted the offense all weekend with 10 hits and seven runs scored. Not a bad four days: He raised his average from .252 to .286.
3. Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians. Masterson tossed his second consecutive scoreless start, striking out a season-high 11 in seven innings against the Seattle Mariners on Sunday in a 6-0 victory. Masterson improved to 7-2 while lowering his ERA to 2.83. This is a different Masterson than we've seen the past couple seasons, with a much higher strikeout rate (25 percent versus 18 percent last season) but still keeping the home runs to a minimum (just three). While he's struggled in the past against left-handers, he's held them to a .226 average this season with a 36/19 K/BB ratio compared to 72/56 in 2012. And it's not all batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which is a fairly normal .285 so far. If he keeps getting lefties out, he's going to keep winning games.
Honorable mention star of the weekend
Have to mention Joey Votto for getting on base all six times in Saturday's win for the Cincinnati Reds -- he went 4-for-4 with two walks, a double and a home run. Only two players had a "6-for-6" day last season -- Aaron Hill of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Neil Walker of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Both went 5-for-5 with a walk and, like Votto, doubled and homered.
One more honorable mention star of the weekend
The Diamondbacks beat the Miami Marlins on Saturday as Brandon McCarthy pitched the three-hit shutout (no save!), but he had a lot of help from Gerardo Parra, who led off the game with this on the first pitch and then did this in the bottom of the first. Parra has one of the better arms in the majors, but his bat is a big reason the D-backs are in first place, as he's hitting .320/.385/.494 with 28 runs (11th in the NL). That batting line, combined with his outstanding defense, has Parra leading the NL in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), tied with Matt Harvey and Clayton Kershaw, at 3.1. Justin who?
Clutch performance of the weekend
Atlanta Braves rookie Evan Gattis keeps finding a way to get himself into the highlights. On Saturday, he pinch hit in the eighth inning against hard-throwing Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers with the Braves down 1-0 and a runner on and did this on a 2-2 fastball. The best part of the highlight is Freddie Freeman's "I don't believe that" reaction in the dugout.
The Dodgers bullpen, meanwhile, continues to implode. They followed Saturday's loss with another one on Sunday, giving up four runs in the eighth in a 5-2 loss. It has 13 losses, three more than any other team, and its 4.61 ERA is better only than the New York Mets and Houston Astros.
Unclutch performance of the weekend
Aroldis Chapman, step on down. Chapman entered with a 2-1 lead on Sunday and walked Delmon Young with one out. That was bad enough, but Cliff Lee pinch ran for Delmon (yes, a guy who plays the outfield regularly got run for by a pitcher) and got picked off for the second out of the inning. Game over, right? Nope. Erik Kratz homered on a 3-2, 98 mph heater. And then Freddy Galvis -- Freddy Galvis! -- hit the dramatic walk-off home run off a 95 mph fastball.
OK, it's pretty difficult to top that one. There were some wild games this weekend -- Tampa beat Baltimore 12-10 on Friday, the Indians gave up two home runs in the ninth to Seattle on Saturday only to win in the bottom of the inning -- but Friday's Washington Nationals-San Diego Padres game was a tough one for San Diego. Adam LaRoche homered twice off rookie Burch Smith, but the Padres tied it with two runs in the bottom of the ninth off Rafael Soriano -- with the help of another Ryan Zimmerman throwing error. (A situation that's becoming a serious problem for the Nationals, as that's nine errors for Zimmerman with his fielding percentage a Mark Reynolds-like .897.) Anyway, Chad Tracy hit a pinch-hit homer off Huston Street in the 10th to give the Nats a 6-5 win. That's already six home runs allowed for Street, whose trade value is shrinking with each home run.
Hitter on the rise: Jason Kipnis, Indians
He had a three-run, walk-off home run in the 10th inning on Friday and two hits on Saturday and Sunday, giving him nine in his past four games, all Cleveland victories. The Indians are 17-4 since April 28 and Kipnis has hit .305 with seven home runs and 21 RBIs in the 20 games he's played. He won't start the All-Star Game with Robinson Cano in the American League, and the AL is loaded at second base with Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia and Jose Altuve, but it wouldn't surprise me to see Kipnis at the All-Star Game.
Pitcher on the rise: Jeff Locke, Pirates
I'm not necessarily buying, but the lefty is now 4-1 with a 2.73 ERA after tossing seven scoreless innings on Sunday against the Astros in a 1-0 win. His K/BB ratio is a pedestrian 32/22, but opponents are hitting just .219 off him, thanks to a .230 BABIP. With that number likely to rise, Locke will need to record a few more whiffs to maintain success close to this level. Still, that's three scoreless outings this season and one did come against the Cardinals. Even though he's not this good, if he can give the Pirates 175 solid innings as a No. 4 starter, they'll take it.
Team on the rise: Pirates
The Pirates took two of three from the Astros to improve to 11-6 in May and 26-18 overall. They're second in the majors in ERA, and it's not necessarily a huge fluke as they're third in strikeouts. One thing to keep an eye on: Only the hapless Astros have needed more innings from their bullpen, so while the Pittsburgh crew has been outstanding, the workload is a possible concern down the road.
Team on the fall: Dodgers
The two bright spots this week were Zack Greinke's return and Matt Kemp's great catch on Saturday, but three losses in Atlanta reiterated that this isn't just a team ravaged by injuries: It's a bad team with a bad bullpen that finds ways to lose. Manager Don Mattingly said not to blame the bullpen. "You add on a run here or there, it takes a lot of pressure off a guy that you can't give up one hit that changes the whole game. I think we have to take this all as a group."
OK, then, we'll call it a team effort of a team on the fall.
But, perhaps most fundamentally, any logical impetus to shift Tulo over to third base would trip over a true blue-chip stumbling block: top Rockies prospect Nolan Arenado. After years of anticipation for Colorado fans looking forward to his arrival, Arenado is showing that the future of third base in Denver might already be his.
“Everything’s going good so far. I’m enjoying my time. It’s nice being up. It’s a blessing from God, and I’m very fortunate to be here,” Arenado said earlier this week in Wrigley Field.
Arenado’s arrival was big and splashy. At a time when pitchers have made most of the early headlines, Arenado ripped three home runs in his first seven games. Inevitably, though, the league started adjusting, and he’s hit .170/.200/.508 in the two weeks since.
“They’re throwing different pitches in different counts,” Arenado said. “It’s an adjustment, but I believe when I’m feeling alright, I’ll be alright,” he said with a smile.
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsColorado rookie third baseman Nolan Arenado is taking advantage both of big-league scouting reports and advice from neighbor Troy Tulowitzki.
Rockies infield coach Stu Cole reflected, “I’ve had both of those guys. I had Tulo earlier in his career just after he got drafted. I had Nolan in the Arizona Fall League couple of years ago. I’ll tell you what: This guy made some exciting plays. You just knew once this guy was ready to go to the big leagues and be consistent with what he’s able to do, he was going to make some plays. To have those two guys on the left side, it’s nothing but a plus. You’ve good gloves over there, good arms, and both those guys are going to save a lot of hits for us.”
Cole is one of several familiar faces helping make sure that Arenado settles in. “Stu helps me out big time,” Arenado said. “He always tells me where to go and where to play. It also helps being on major league fields -- they’re really nice, so you’re really fortunate on hops. Starting double plays, Josh Rutledge, I trust him, I’ve been playing with him for a while. I’ve been playing a while with a lot of these guys. As far as positioning, we’re always going hitter by hitter and making adjustments.”
One of the concerns about Arenado as he came up was that he was trying to do too much in the field, something that will have to change as he settles in alongside Tulo on the left side. As Cole noted, “Both of those guys are in that mode of trying to get every ball that’s hit their way. I think Nolan just has that instinct of breaking to the ball whenever it’s hit in his direction.”
“A lot of balls that are going to be hit short, where Tulo might have had to come up and make a one-handed grab, now Nolan’s going to be there to get to some of those balls. In the past, we might have had a few third basemen who wouldn’t have been able to get to some of those balls. I think that’s going to take some pressure off Tulo,” Cole said.
Arenado takes it as a challenge to be part of an effective team with Tulo. “We always communicate about where we need to play,” Arenado said. “I know if he’s playing left, I can still move over a little to the right, because we know we can still cover the hole. We’re definitely good and have a lot of range, so we’re able to split it out in different ways. It’s been fun.”
““Communication between those two guys, that’s something that’s going to get better down the road: Nolan’s going to know where Tulo’s playing, and Tulo’s going to know that there are balls Nolan’s going to get to when he’s coming in," Cole predicted. "Those things will only get better, because two guys will be able to complement each other.”
To have those two guys on the left side, it's nothing but a plus. You've good gloves over there, good arms, and both those guys are going to save a lot of hits for us.” -- Rockies infield coach Stu Cole,
on Nolan Arenado and Troy Tulowitzki
One of the other advantages is that at the big league level, Arenado plays with the advantage of better data and scouting info, as well as the benefit of playing alongside one of the best players in baseball at short.
Of the Rockies’ deployment of advanced metrics on defense, Cole said, “That’s something we’ve been using pretty much all season. We use the scouting reports to position these guys, and that’s something Nolan’s still getting used to, but he’s adjusted to it well. He’s not only asking questions, he’s also paying attention, looking into the dugout to see if there’s a place he needs to be moved to and making sure he’s in the right spot. He’s a great student of the game.”
Which is where Arenado has plenty of additional homework to look forward to as he adjusts to pitchers who are already developing a big league book on him.
“There’s a lot more stuff going on up here,” Arenado said. “It’s a lot better in terms of scouting reports. In the minors, it’s still word of mouth: This is what this guy has. But here, we get to see a lot of film of all the different pitchers. We had no video projection screen in the minors and no video of anybody, but here you get everything.”
And here again, he’s getting the benefit of his new teammates. “Tulo and CarGo [left fielder Carlos Gonzalez] add a lot of insight about hitting,” Arenado said. “They’ve seen a lot of these pitchers, but it’s the first time I’m facing them -- they give me a lot of insight from their experience.”
With that sort of assistance on top of his talent, Arenado’s a big part of the Rockies’ future. And now that the future is now, that should leave them well covered for years to come -- at third base and at shortstop.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
ST. LOUIS -- Troy Tulowitzki belongs on the baseball field. Whether a product of self-determination or God-given talent or a little of both, he was made to play shortstop. Where other shortstops simply take their position on the field, Tulowitzki becomes one with his.
As the Rockies go on to the field, Tulowitzki kicks the dirt with his cleats, backward and forward, making a path on the infield. It's ready. Then he spits in his glove, wipes it with his throwing hand and punches the inside. Now his glove is ready, too. He is standing where he has wanted to be since he was a kid: at shortstop, a man with his glove and the infield dirt.
"I think I just enjoy being out there," he said.
Tulowitzki, now in his eighth season in the majors, is off to a great start, batting .319 with eight home runs and 32 RBIs, and hitting .389 with two outs and runners in scoring position. "Usually in my career I struggled early in the season, so it's been nice to get off to a good start and not have an uphill battle," he said.
It wasn't Tulowitzki's bat that generated an interesting tweet this season, however, but his defense. Chipper Jones recently provided his thoughts on the best shortstop in the game:
Y'all are watching the best all around shortstop in the big leagues! Andrelton Simmons.— Chipper Jones (@RealCJ10) May 7, 2013
Then later, after what we can assume were many responses from fans saying Tulowitzki is the best shortstop:
Lots of Tulo fans tonite. No offense people. Tulo is a great player. If I was a GM I'd move him to third. Simba and Castro r true shortstops— Chipper Jones (@RealCJ10) May 7, 2013
Tulowitzki was aware of what Jones tweeted.
"I don’t know why he tweeted that. Maybe he's a little bit bored or something, just watching the games," Tulowitzki said jokingly. "But Chipper is a great guy, someone who I have a lot of respect for."
Most consider Tulowitzki the best all-around shortstop in the game, and he won Gold Glove Awards in 2010 and 2011. But although offense is easy to measure, fielding is more difficult. Between fielding percentage, range factor, defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating, there are many ways to evaluate a player's defense.
Jones' tweet is a great example of the difficulty in using the eye test to evaluate a fielder. Everyone sees things differently. Even the statistics disagree. Simmons leads in defensive runs saved (plus-11; Tulowitzki is second among shortstops at plus-7) and in UZR, where Tulowitzki ranks 10th.
"We are never going to be able to replace or not utilize true eye scouting," said Justin Hollander, director of baseball operations for the Angels. "I think what the defensive metrics will do is allow us to either verify the eye test or make us question the eye test and have some sort of comparison between the two. I don't think it's a replacement. It's just what we have now we can do better on the data that we have, and I think we will."
Suppose a ball comes off a bat toward Tulowitzki at 104 mph and he gets to it. Then suppose the next inning the ball comes off the bat toward Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma at 94 and he gets to it, as well. It might look as if both fielded their positions well, but there's a difference in the range and reaction time needed to make each play.
"It's not good enough to say the ball was hit in this spot and the fielder didn't get to it so therefore he either does or does not have the range of someone else," Hollander says. "Well, where did he start? Where was he lined up? How quick was his reaction? What was the velocity off the bat?"
What will it take to have the perfect fielding statistic?
"We all are sort of sitting here anxiously awaiting FIELDf/x to roll out," Hollander said. "I think what we are really missing, and one thing that we would love to see, is more precision with the whole game tied together.
"So, where the fielder was exactly the moment the pitch was released, what the exit speed of the ball was off the bat, what angle the ball came off the bat, how fast the fielder reacted once the ball came off the bat or even before the ball came off the bat. And then, what line or what route [the fielder] took to the ball. And you know then you can measure arm strength, you can measure release time from getting the ball from your glove or if you barehanded it out of your hand, so I think those are things that would tie the whole game together."
At a recent game in St. Louis, Matt Carpenter hit a line drive over Tulowitzki's head. Tulowitzki almost caught it. He jumped and just missed it. Should he have caught the ball? Right now, we don’t know.
That scenario represents one of the most important missing elements from fielding statistics.
"There's an episode of 'Seinfeld' where Jerry says, 'Oh, little Jerry Seinfeld just ran from my place to Newman's place in 30 seconds.' And they smile and somebody says 'Is that good?' And everybody says, 'I don’t know.'
"So we need to develop a baseline for what is a good [fielder] and what is great; what is average and what is below average. If we start getting all of that information, which we will have with FIELDf/x over the course of seasons, not months or half seasons, we can start to develop baselines for what is normal and what is extraordinary."
Range factor is, simply, assists + putouts per nine innings. It's plays made. Tulowitzki led the NL in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011 and ranks second this season. How many shortstops would have caught Carpenter's line drive? Maybe none. Tulo came close.
"I've got Fielding Bible awards, stuff that I don't understand," Tulowitzki said. "These zone ratings and things like that, there's so many different numbers you can look at. I think the one thing you can't tell is the anticipation, where the [shortstops] are setting up, just the smartness of it. It's not even on defense. You can really help by going and telling a pitcher to calm down. I've been there before. That's the stuff that is not going to come up on the stats sheet at all."
Rockies starting pitcher Jeff Francis said Tulowitzki is always thinking on the field, always trying to find that edge.
"He's one of the best shortstops in baseball, so knowing that he's behind you certainly gives you a lot of confidence to let the hitters hit it, knowing that he's going to make most of the plays behind you," Francis said. "Not only that, when he makes trips to the mound at certain times, you can tell he knows what's going on in the game, when he's just giving you a rest ... things like that."
For Tulowitzki, the model shortstop is Derek Jeter.
"Obviously I idolize him," Tulowitzki said. "He's someone that's a leader, a clutch player, just very smart. There's a reason why he plays short at the age he is; it's just because he's very headsy."
Tulowitzki, at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, is built like Jeter. Watch Tulowitzki take ground balls before the game and you'll notice he has similar movements and a fluid motion like Jeter does when he’s fielding. Jeter and Tulowitzki seem to have the same sense of timing. (Of course, the defensive metrics have long suggested Jeter's range is subpar.) Is there something he can see as the ball comes off the bat?
"I think anticipation is the best word to describe it. Anticipating where the ball would be, knowing what the hitters in this league like to do. I can position myself better than some guys. I'm a bigger guy than a lot of those guys. ... The athletic ability does help, but then the downside of it is being so big, I think it's taken its toll on me with some injuries, but it's the only position I know. I feel like I'm the most valuable there."
Although 38-year-old Jeter has cemented himself as one of the best shortstops of all time, Tulowitzki is 10 years younger and has had some injuries in the past few years. This is why Jones' tweet about Tulowitzki moving to third raises an interesting point.
Tulowitzki said that if there is ever a point in his career when it would benefit the team more for him to play third base, "I'll be all for it."
"But now I'm more valuable at shortstop than I am anywhere else," he said. "We have a great young third baseman (in Nolan Arenado). I'm still one of the better [shortstops], so I don't think there's a reason to make the switch. The other thing is, my injuries haven't happened on defense. They've been more running the basepaths. Things like that. So I feel like I should stay there."
As a shortstop, Tulowitzki said, you are in control of so much on the field, and he enjoys that. He says great shortstops are leaders on defense, and, during the games, he's constantly talking on the field, putting guys in certain spots.
"He's a very unique player," manager Walt Weiss said. "I think there was a trend there several years ago where there were some offensive shortstops. People thought that was going to be the new wave; I disagree. I think the position is far too demanding to expect guys to contribute that type of offense. Tulo is a very unique player. He's one of the best defensive shortstops in the entire game, and he hits in the middle of the lineup."
Anna McDonald is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
Here are some other things to keep an eye on:
1. Best of the rest: With Justin Verlander and Yu Darvish having opened the Detroit Tigers-Texas Rangers series Thursday night by allowing a combined 12 runs (eight by Verlander), the pitching should improve as the Tigers will throw Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister out there, and they're thriving with a composite 2.54 ERA and two home runs allowed in more than 100 innings. The Rangers can't match that, but keep an eye on the Sunday night ESPN matchup when lefty Derek Holland faces Fister. The big two of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are hitless in eight at-bats against Holland, while Fister has been torched by David Murphy for four home runs in 18 at-bats.
2. Who's back? The Tigers might think the division is simply theirs to lose, but Terry Francona's Cleveland Indians continue to score many runs and get good enough pitching to have won 14 of 18 games. The Seattle Mariners come to the Lake and will first get to see if right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez is really back. I'm skeptical. OK, so that's not accurate: I don't believe it. Jimenez and his new, consistent mechanics have looked good the past three outings, having permitted three earned runs in 18 2/3 innings. The strikeout rate looks nice, too. I still want to see more. Felix Hernandez is scheduled to start Sunday after leaving his Yankee Stadium outing this week prematurely with back spasms. If the M's lose him, well, forget it.
3. Hello, Coors! Likewise, the San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies opened their four-game set Thursday night with aces on the hill and many runs scored, and the bloated ERA of the defending champions isn't likely to look any better after a thin-air weekend in Denver. With Ryan Vogelsong struggling and perhaps soon to be replaced, many eyes will be on inconsistent Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito, scheduled to start Saturday and Sunday. Each hurler has been all or nothing this season; in 16 combined starts split evenly, 10 of them have featured two or fewer runs. The other outings have been considerably worse. The Rockies sure do hit at home, so watch out.
4. Hey, hey, hey! The first-place Atlanta Braves could get right fielder Jason Heyward back from the DL as soon as Friday for their series opener with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and they expect him to hit considerably better than his current .121 batting average. Of course, their outfielder problems don't end there. The Braves have been using either catcher Evan Gattis in left field or a Jordan Schafer/Reed Johnson platoon, but Heyward is an obvious upgrade. As for the Brothers Upton, B.J. is hitting .145. That's not a misprint. MVP candidate Justin is hitting .156 over his past nine home games. The Braves could fall out of first place with a bad weekend.
5. Tony Be Good: Cincinnati Reds lefty Tony Cingrani is scheduled to start in Philadelphia on Friday night, and no matter what the hotshot rookie does he could be headed back to the minor leagues. The team's ace right-hander Johnny Cueto is to come off the disabled list Monday, and manager Dusty Baker has already given the vote of confidence to right-hander Mike Leake, who held the powerful Miami Marlins offense scoreless this week. Sorry, Tony, your 2-0 record with a 2.89 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 28 innings is impressive, but hope you kept that apartment in Louisville. There's just no room in the rotation, so enjoy Friday night.
Have a great weekend!
- Andrew McCutchen did this in the 12th inning to give the Pirates a big win over the Brewers. The Pirates are 22-17 -- the same record as the Braves, a team that has received much more attention than Pittsburgh. How have they done it? The offense is middle of the pack (although better than that when you adjust for park effects) but they're tied for fourth in runs allowed per game -- 3.77 per game, the same as the vaunted Nationals. They've prevented runs despite leading the NL in walks (and giving four starts to Jonathan Sanchez!) and the Mark Melancon/Jason Grilli duo at the end has locked down leads as the Pirates haven't lost a game they've led in the seventh or later. (For more on Melancon's turnaround from 2012, read Jason Collette's report here.) Another key has been the play of catchers Russell Martin and Michael McKenry, who have combined to give the third-best OPS from the catcher position in the majors, behind Cleveland and Atlanta. We know the Pirates have done this the past two seasons, but one of these years ...
- Jim Johnson and the Orioles finally blew a ninth-inning lead; he had converted 35 save opportunities in a row in the regular season. The bigger news was the Orioles placed Wei-Yen Chen on the DL with an oblique strain and suddenly the rotation includes Freddy Garcia and Jair Jurrjens, who will start Saturday. It's not a good time to have rotation issues as their next five series are against the Rays, Yankees, Blue Jays, Nationals and Tigers.
- I wrote about the Mariners last night and how it's time for them to make some decisions on Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero. I'd like to throw in that they should make a decision on manager Eric Wedge (but won't). The Mariners had two on and nobody out in the eighth against Yankees reliever David Robertson, down by a run. Robertson had walked Dustin Ackley on four straight pitches, and then Brendan Ryan reached on a bunt (after Robertson had thrown two balls) when catcher Austin Romine tried to get Ackley at second. That brought up leadoff hitter Saunders, who has been the team's best hitter along with Kyle Seager. So you have a pitcher struggling to throw strikes and maybe your best hitter up. It's not the worst bunt call there but I'd let Saunders hit away. The on-deck was pinch-hitter Justin Smoak, meaning I'd like to give Saunders the chance to deliver a big hit. Anyway, Saunders messed things up by squaring around on the first pitch and taking a strike, putting himself in a hole. It looked like the bunt sign was then removed and he took strike two and then swung over a curveball. But maybe he has a better at-bat if he's swinging on the first pitch. There was some bad luck: Smoak hit a hard liner but right to shortstop Jayson Nix, who doubled Ackley off second. Ahh, the little things.
- Mark DeRosa batted cleanup for the Blue Jays. They won.
- Mitch Moreland is quietly putting up some nice numbers for the Rangers. He hit two home runs in an extra-inning win over the A's, giving him nine for the season and a .296/.347/.578 batting line. He followed Adrian Beltre's home run in the 10th with his own off Chris Resop, which proved key when Joe Nathan gave up a run in the bottom of the frame. (Nathan escaped a bases-loaded jam by striking out Daric Barton and getting Eric Sogard to ground out.) For the talk in the offseason that the Rangers should maybe dump Moreland and move Ian Kinsler to first base to clear space for Jurickson Profar, it appears the Rangers made the right decision. Like they usually do.
- Neat stat from ESPN Stats & Info: Clayton Kershaw is the fifth pitcher in the past 40 years to have an ERA under 2.75 through his first 1,000 career innings, joining Dwight Gooden, Frank Tanana, Vida Blue and Ron Guidry. The bad news: Gooden, Tanana and Blue all peaked before age 25.
- Josh Hamilton is still strong.
- Have a day, Carlos Gonzalez.
Quick reactions from Monday's games ...
- If you've seen the scary video of Bryce Harper crashing face-first into the wall at Dodger Stadium, you know the end result could have been much worse than a bloodied face. Aside from Harper needing to learn what "warning track" means, the reaction from some of the Nationals is frustrating. "That's all you can ask for as a pitcher, a guy going 110 percent," said winning pitcher Jordan Zimmermann. No, no, no. Absolutely wrong. There's rarely a good time to go crashing into a wall, especially when the score is 6-0. There is no way making that catch -- and getting ONE OUT -- is worth the risk of the injury. Sometimes you have to play this game at 99 or 95 percent. Manager Davey Johnson said, "I don't want to change him." Fine. I get it. The hustle, the energy, that's part of what drives Harper to excel. But you have to be smart. I'm pretty sure Davey's behind-the-scenes talks with Harper will be a little different than his public posturing.
The one guy who got it right was Ryan Zimmerman: "I would rather him not go all-out into the wall. Some people look at it as a bad thing. If you play that hard every day, there is something to be said about that. He's going to play a long time and you have to learn to take care of your body. As he grows, he'll learn what to do and what not to do." Zimmerman is speaking from experience, as a player who has battled injuries in his career. I love Harper's all-out play; I don't love him running into walls.
- Josh Beckett left after three innings after tweaking his groin, but gave up four runs before then anyway and fell to 0-5 with a 5.19 ERA. The Dodgers can use injuries as an excuse for their 15-22 record, but Beckett has been awful, Matt Kemp has been bad, Andre Ethier is slugging under .400, their third basemen are hitting a combined .185 with a .526 OPS and closer Brandon League has a 6.28 ERA.
- Great day for Aaron Hicks, whom the Twins have resisted sending down to the minors despite his slow start. He homered twice off Hector Santiago of the White Sox in a 10-3 victory and then robbed Adam Dunn of a home run. Love the big smile from Hicks as he gets up from the ground. Let's hope this gets his season going in the right direction.
- The Mets signed Rick Ankiel. He had been released by the Astros because he's struck out in over half his plate appearances. He started in center field. In a related note, the Mets lost 6-3 to the Cardinals.
- Travis Wood pitched seven scoreless, two-hit innings against the Rockies and has quietly put up a 2.03 ERA for the Cubs. Wood is a fly ball pitcher -- he had 12 fly ball outs on Monday, seven on the ground -- and when the ball stays in the park, he can be very effective. He's had a lot of effective outings of late. In his past 17 starts dating back to last August, he has a 2.65 ERA, .189 average and .263 OBP allowed and just eight home runs. He's a guy the advanced metrics don't love because his strikeout rate isn't high, but he could be developing into a nice 1-2 combo with Jeff Samardzija.
- The Rockies, meanwhile, are starting to struggle with the bats on the road. I've touched on this earlier this season, that Colorado's problems in the past has been more about the hitters doing bad on the road than the pitchers doing bad at home. The Rockies started out fine on the road, but the bats have gone dry, getting three hits in two games against St. Louis over the weekend and now getting three-hit by the Cubs.
- Joe Blanton is a guy the advanced metrics overrate, because he walks so few batters his strikeout/walk ratio is terrific. Last night, for example, he had seven strikeouts and no walks. But he gave up 12 hits and seven runs in 4.2 innings in an 11-4 loss to the Royals. Maybe there was some bad luck: "I felt like I threw the ball good tonight and my stuff was good," Blanton said. "When they made contact they found holes, broken-bat balls fell in for singles and balls bounced their way down the lines. It was one of those weird games. There were a couple of innings where I was one pitch away from it." Still. He's now 0-7 with a 6.46 ERA, and it's not that big of a surprise he's been this bad. He wasn't good last season in the National League, and there was no reason to expect him to come over to the AL, face deeper lineups, and suddenly get his ERA closer to 4.00. He's not good.
I'm not a Colorado Rockies fan so I can't profess to know how they feel about Todd Helton returning from the disabled list and into the starting lineup a couple days ago. He's the greatest player in Rockies history, a guy who will have an interesting Hall of Fame case in a few years, a respected veteran who has played in nearly two-thirds of the games the franchise has ever contested.
He's also a first baseman who has been a below-average park-adjusted hitter in three of the past five seasons, a hitter whose injuries have sapped his power. He can't run and, while he's still regarded as a good fielder, he's not Keith Hernandez-in-his-prime good, and not many teams win pennants with a slick-fielding, bad-hitting first baseman anyway.
More importantly, the Rockies don't necessarily need him. His stint on the DL with a left forearm strain allowed the Rockies to give more playing time in the outfield to Eric Young Jr., who has played well, and slide right fielder Michael Cuddyer to first base on occasion (or play Jordan Pacheco at first). Playing Young in the outfield instead of the slow-footed Cuddyer improves the defense, and playing Cuddyer over Helton likely improves the offense, even if Cuddyer cools down from his hot start.
It's the first big test of rookie manager Walt Weiss' season and it's not an easy decision, one perhaps clouded by the fact that Weiss and Helton were briefly teammates during Helton's call-up to the majors in 1997. It's never easy knowing what to do with a player of Helton's stature; they don't all go out on top like Chipper Jones did a year ago. It's also unclear whether Helton's offseason arrest for driving under the influence (he pleaded guilty Tuesday to driving while impaired) affected his standing in an organization that has made public overtures through the years about acquiring "good guys."
AP Photo/Jack DempseyFitting Todd Helton into a Rockies lineup that's gotten along OK without him presents a dilemma.
"He has been driving us crazy," Weiss told MLB.com when Helton, who turns 40 in August, was activated. "At some point about halfway through his DL stint here in the dugout, I tried to get [head trainer Keith Dugger] to hit him with a tranquilizing dart. But it's good to have him back out there. It'll be nice watching him take [at-bats] again, doing his thing."
The Rockies don't need Helton's value -- if it even exists -- as the "face of the franchise." For one thing, he's not that guy anymore. Troy Tulowitzki, when healthy, is one of the 10 best players in baseball and right now he's healthy and mashing. Gonzalez is playing his best baseball since 2010 and Dexter Fowler may finally be developing into the star player many once projected he would be. Second-year catcher Wilin Rosario looks like he'll improve on the 28 home runs he hit as a rookie. Plus, rookie third baseman Nolan Arenado has made a huge impact in just eight games in the majors.
In other words, this isn't a case of the 2009 Seattle Mariners bringing back Ken Griffey Jr. in an attempt to draw a few extra fans to see a bad team (and then making the mistake of re-signing him for 2010). But Helton should have to earn his spot in the lineup. If he hits like he did in 2012 -- .238/.343/.400 -- it's hard to justify a regular spot. Maybe Weiss develops a Helton/Young platoon, with Helton sitting against left-handers and Cuddyer moving back and forth between right field and first base. Helton certainly deserves the leash to prove there's something left in the bat; knowing how long of a leash is what can turn competent managers into great ones.
I'm not quite sure what to make of the Rockies. They're probably better than I projected, and definitely interesting and exciting, especially with Tulo playing so well. Unlike pretty much every Rockies team ever, they're actually hitting well on the road (so far), as their .800 OPS led the National League entering Tuesday's action.
Arenado just adds another dimension. He was a highly rated prospect before 2012 after a big season in Class A, and nearly made the big league club out of spring training. Some of his shine was lost after a mediocre season at Double-A Tulsa (.285, 12 home runs), but a hot start at Triple-A and Chris Nelson's struggles led to Nelson getting traded to the Yankees and the quick call-up for Arenado.
He's a high-contact guy with power potential, and a contact hitter who can spray the ball around can do a lot of damage in Coors Field. He's just 22 but he doesn't have to be a star just yet; he just has to be a solid contributor.
That's also all the Rockies want from Helton at this point. Who knows, maybe his body will hold up and he can put together one last .300 season. That would be a nice way to head off into his retirement years -- with maybe a surprising playoff appearance to boot.
Speaking of: Now, about the pitching ...
- The good news for the Giants: A 6-4 win over the Diamondbacks to snap a five-game losing streak and a win for the first time when Matt Cain started. The bad news: Cain scuffled yet again. Cain was sailing along until the fourth inning, when he served up home runs to Jason Kubel, Eric Chavez and Martin Prado. Cain left with a no-decision, and while he remains winless in six starts, it's not just poor run support that explains his 0-2 record. He's allowed nine home runs in his past four starts, including three in two of those. He'd allowed three in a game just twice in the previous three seasons. He also walked four against Arizona. Should the Giants be worried? Kubel and Prado hit fastballs that were both down and in, while Chavez hit a changeup off the plate out to left. Blame Cain for the first two, but give Chavez credit for his. Hitters have been doing a lot of damage off Cain's fastball, hitting .264/.354/.528, compared to a .255/.332/.429 line last year. I think he'll be fine but everyone seems to agree that his stuff just hasn't been as sharp. Keep an eye on his fastball next time out; as with nearly every starting pitcher, everything else plays off the fastball.[+] Enlarge
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesThe Giants on Monday recorded their first win of the season in a game that Matt Cain started.
- The Matt Harvey-Jose Fernandez matchup kind of fizzled as Fernandez lasted just four innings and 81 pitches while Harvey was pulled in the sixth after laboring through 121 pitches. The game ended up going 15 innings, thanks primarily to the Mets going 1-for-18 with runners in scoring position. The game featured 512 pitches, 16 pitchers and last more than 5 hours. Not exactly one for the time capsule. Shaun Marcum, who had started and threw 70 pitches on Saturday, ended up taking the loss for the Mets, giving up two runs in the bottom of the 15th after the Mets had scored in the top of the inning. At 10-14, reality is starting to hit the Mets: They're not very good. As for Fernandez, after a dominating first two starts, he's been hit around a bit, primarily to hitters jumping on his fastball early in the count. They're hitting .367 off the pitch in his past three starts. He's going to be a very good pitcher but he's learning that it's a big leap from Class A to the majors.
- Giancarlo Stanton landed on the DL after the game with a strained right hamstring suffered in the 10th inning. A shame, especially considering he had homered three times in six at-bats entering the game and looked ready to begin a patented Stanton terror. He missed time last year with a knee problem and then a strained intercostal muscle and you have to start wondering if durability is going to be an issue with him.
- Indians 9, Royals 0. Takeaways: 1. Ubaldo Jimenez won a game! Don't count on this becoming a regular habit. 2. Jason Kipnis hit his first home run. Kipnis (.185/.260/.277) and Lonnie Chisenhall (0-for-4, .221/.254/.368) have to start producing if the Indians want to do anything. 3. Eric Hosmer, another doughnut; .250, three doubles, no homers now and the frustrations build. 4. The Wade Davis (4.2 IP, 12 H, 8 R) starter experiment is probably nearing its end. His stuff just doesn't play up as a starter. Move him back to the pen where he was so good last year with Tampa and give Bruce Chen or Luke Hochevar another shot at the rotation. Wait, did I just say to start Bruce Chen or Luke Hochevar?
- Props to the Brewers: After starting 2-8, they'll end up finishing April with a winning record after beating the Pirates 10-4 to go to 13-11. Starter Yovani Gallardo hit his second home run -- one of five the Brewers hit -- and gave up just three hits in seven innings. Jean Segura is really looking good for the Brewers, with three more hits to raise his average to .364.
- The Dodgers activated Hanley Ramirez from the DL but he didn't start, which seems a little strange. He pinch-hit and struck out in a 12-2 loss to Colorado. The Dodgers' 6-7-8 hitters: Skip Schumaker, Luis Cruz and Justin Sellers. Come on. In his second major league game, Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado went 3-for-6 with his first home run. Welcome to the bigs, kid.
- Kevin Gregg picked put up his fourth save for the Cubs. KEVIN GREGG.
- A's fans chanting to Josh Hamilton: "Thank you, Josh. Thank you, Josh." (In reference to his dropped fly ball in Game 162 last year that helped the A's win the AL West.) Job well done, A's fans.
Considering the importance of winning the division and avoiding the ridiculous wild-card play-in game, the last thing the Braves wanted to do was dig a hole and try to catch the Nats from behind. Atlanta's 16-9 start -- which includes a 3-2 win over Washington on Monday when No. 5 starter Julio Teheran faced off against Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg -- is even more impressive when you consider everything that has gone wrong for the Braves so far:
- Six-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann hasn't played a game.
- First baseman Freddie Freeman missed 14 games.
- Jason Heyward is hitting .121 and is currently on the DL after an appendectomy.
- B.J. Upton is .146.
- Dan Uggla is hitting .177.
- Teheran scuffled through 5.1 innings on Monday but allowed just two runs -- lowering his ERA to 5.08.
AP Photo/Evan VucciJustin Upton is batting .304 with 12 home runs for the first-place Braves.
Most importantly, the Braves are now 4-0 against the Nationals, which means the Braves earn an A as I hand out my grades for April in the National League. Justin Upton earns an A+ for his monster month -- only four players have hit more home runs in April (Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols share the April record with 14) and only Bob Horner (14 in July 1980), Andruw Jones (13 in June 2005) and Ozzie Virgil (13 in May 1987) have hit more in a calendar month in Atlanta Braves history.
The Nationals, meanwhile, earn a C- for a lackluster 13-13 start -- they're 5-1 against the Marlins and 8-12 against the other major league opponents on their schedule. The Nationals also reported that Strasburg experienced forearm tightness during Monday's game and will be examined on Tuesday. Strasburg walked four while allowing just two runs in six innings against the Braves, but he hasn't been the Strasburg of 2012, or at least the Strasburg of the first three months of 2012. His strikeout rate is down, left-handed hitters have a .391 OBP against him and his ERA is 3.13, ranking just 26th in the NL. Strasburg earns a C, but teammate Bryce Harper earns an A+.
Some other NL grades for April:
Pirates bullpen: A. A key to Pittsburgh's lead in the NL Central has been a pen that has gone 6-2 with a 2.59 while pitching the second-most innings in the majors and allowing a .202 average, second behind Kansas City's .201 mark. Closer Jason Grilli has gone 10-for-10 in saves and has allowed one run in 11 innings.
Matt Harvey, Mets: A. I'd give him an A+, but he actually allowed a run against the Marlins on Monday. Harvey is 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA and has held opponents to a .153 average. He did throw 121 pitches in just 5.1 innings against the Marlins, but more than anything that serves to show that Harvey has room to get even better. Which is a scary idea if you're a National League hitter.
Marlins: D-. Last in the majors in batting average, home runs, slugging percentage, OPS and ownership.
Mat Latos and Homer Bailey, Reds: A. It seems like there's a perception that the Reds are an explosive offensive team, but that wasn't the case last year (ninth in the NL in runs scored despite playing in a hitter's park) and while the Reds are second in the NL in runs scored in 2013, they also rank ninth in slugging percentage. The Reds rotation, however, was terrific last year and has been terrific again, second to the Cardinals with a 2.97 ERA. Latos and Bailey remain two of the more underrated starters in the NL. Latos threw six shutout innings against the Cardinals on Monday, picking up his second win and lowering his ERA to 1.83. Bailey is 1-2 thanks to poor run support but has a 2.81 ERA. The two have combined for 69 strikeouts and just 17 walks, and when Johnny Cueto returns from the DL, he might give the Reds the best starting pitching trio in the league.
Cardinals bullpen: F. St. Louis starters are 14-6 with a 2.20 ERA. St. Louis relievers are 0-5 with a 5.89 ERA and .301 average allowed.
Pablo Sandoval's waistline: F.
Pablo Sandoval's bat: B.
The decision by the Brewers to sign Yuniesky Betancourt: D-. I mean, really ... Yuni was going to help the Brewers?
Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart. Don't you love baseball?
Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies: A. He's back, he's hitting, he's fielding and the Rockies are in first place. The Rockies have to hope that the strained shoulder Tulo suffered on Sunday isn’t serious (he sat Monday’s game, but there are no plans for a trip to the DL).
Matt Kemp, Dodgers: D-. Heading into Monday's games, FanGraphs rated Kemp 33rd among 36 full-time NL outfielders in WAR -- ahead of only Juan Pierre, Jon Jay and Ben Revere.
Starlin Castro, Cubs: C. I have to remind myself he's still just 23, but Castro is in his fourth season and just hasn't that much with the bat. He's hitting .271 with two home runs, but his approach -- just three walks -- is still limiting his upside. A hitter with an OBP under .300 just isn't that valuable.
Weather in Colorado: F. Please, baseball, don't play games when the weather is below freezing.
There have been sporting events played in cold weather through the years in Denver, but most of those involved John Elway hitting wide receivers for touchdown passes, not Justin Upton hitting baseballs through the chill of a late-April deep freeze.
The Braves and Rockies entered Tuesday's doubleheader tied with baseball's best record and left with numb fingers and toes, hot-chocolate stains on their jerseys and a new appreciation for domed stadiums. The Braves also left with two victories and the red-hot Upton left with two more home runs, one in each game, his 10th and 11th, putting him in shouting distance of the April record of 14 shared by Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez.
The amazing thing is that he could even swing a bat while wearing approximately seven layers of clothing. Game-time temperature for the afternoon portion of the freezebill was 23 degrees, the coldest temperature for a game since STATS began recording such info in 1991. Upton, wearing garb suitable for climbing Pikes Peak, hit a 3-2 changeup from Jeff Francis on a low line to center in the top of the first; it was a pretty good pitch, low and away, but Upton showed off his tremendous power and bat speed with a quick rip through the ball.
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesJustin Upton gets high-fives after his Game 2 home run against Colorado -- which came after a solo shot by brother B.J., foreground.
Players admitted it wasn't easy staying warm while on the field. (You have to question why the games were even played, but baseball's schedule -- it's the only trip Atlanta makes to Colorado -- means making up postponed games are difficult to squeeze in.)
"It's more in your hands," Justin Upton said between games. "You use your hands a lot in the game and that's the worst part -- your hands get a little cold. But if you can keep your hands warm and keep them feeling the bat and the ball, you'll be fine."
The back-to-back home runs with his brother -- how cool does "Uptons homer" sound? -- was another highlight of Upton's monster April, as the siblings joined Lloyd and Paul Waner of the 1938 Pirates as the only brothers to hit consecutive home runs (the Uptons homered in the same inning earlier in the month, but it wasn't back-to-back).
Justin Upton is now hitting .307/.391/.813 with those 11 home runs and 16 RBIs (10 of the homers have been solo shots) and considering that Jason Heyward just landed on the disabled list following an appendectomy and was hitting .121, his brother is hitting .160, Andrelton Simmons is hitting .212 and Dan Uggla is hitting .167, you can certainly make a case for Upton as April's MVP in the National League.
The obvious question: Is Upton doing something different than last season, when he hit 17 home runs for the Diamondbacks? There's nothing in the results that shows a change in an approach. His swing rate is the same (44 percent) and he's actually swinging and missing a little more often this year (31 percent to 25 percent). His chase percentage -- swings on pitches outside the strike zone -- is 24 percent both seasons. His hit distribution is similar, as his line-drive rate about the same (20 percent in 2012, 22 percent in 2013).
There are, however, a couple differences: Upton is hitting more fly balls (11 percent higher rate than last year) and more of those fly balls are landing on the other side of the fence. This suggests he's probably been a little lucky (his home run/fly ball rate is 13 percent higher than anyone from last year) or that he was injured last year.
blog post from Capitol Avenue Club pointed out, by September, Upton looked more like the Upton of 2011, when he hit 31 home runs.
In that post, Andrew Sisson writes that Upton apparently stopped using a padded brace on his thumb Aug. 25 -- and hit eight of his 17 home runs over his final 36 games.
Why the Diamondbacks were so eager to trade Upton remains a little cloudy, but the insinuation that they believed he dogged it a little certainly persists. It seems like an unfair rap to me, even if intended by D-backs management; Upton was injured and when he got healthy he started hitting home runs again.
He's completely healthy in 2013 and now he's hitting a lot of home runs. He's back to the MVP-caliber talent he was in 2011 and the Braves -- and not the Diamondbacks -- are reaping the rewards. You don't win awards for being the MVP of April, but in Upton's case, I think he'll end up being in that discussion in September as well.
The Rockies are 5-4 on the road, and as I wrote recently, the Rockies' problem historically hasn't been winning at Coors Field, but winning on the road. From 2003 to 2012, the Rockies have the largest home/road win differential in the majors (plus 121 wins); the issue is that Rockies score 31 percent fewer runs on the road.
Anyway, I heard an interview today with Rockies hitting coach Dante Bichette on MLB Radio and he brought out the theory -- as others have -- that Rockies hitters struggle on the road because they see fewer breaking balls at Coors Field. Bichette mentioned that because of this he has his players hitting against a lot of breaking stuff in the cages.
We can check this out, of course. Using data from ESPN Stats & Info going back to 2009, let's check out some numbers.
Rockies at home since 2009
49,424 total pitches
Fastballs: 26,570 (53.8 percent)
Curveballs: 4,382 (8.9 percent)
Sliders: 8,517 (17.2 percent)
Changeups: 4,747 (9.6 percent)
Sinker: 2,650 (5.4 percent)
Rockies on the road since 2009
49,650 total pitches
Fastballs: 26,699 (53.8 percent)
Curveballs: 4,684 (9.4 percent)
Sliders: 8,517 (16.0 percent)
Changeups: 5064 (10.2 percent)
Sinker: 2,691 (5.4 percent)
Well ... the data shows the Rockies see pretty much the same breakdown of pitches at home as on the road, so the theory that the Rockies are hurt by not seeing enough breaking pitches at home doesn't necessarily hold true. Now, it could be that the Rockies don't see good breaking stuff at home, since curveballs and sliders don't move as much in the thin air, and then struggle against good offspeed stuff on the road. It would kind of be like seeing Triple-A curveballs for a week and then having to hit off major league curveballs.
We can break down the offensive numbers on how the Rockies fare against "hard" stuff and "soft" stuff to see if they suffer more against one type of pitching. Again, numbers since 2009.
Versus hard stuff
Home: .311/.392/.507, .334 BABIP, .383 wOBA
Road: .254/.335/.407, .295 BABIP, .324 wOBA
Versus soft stuff
Home: .262/.302/.445, .324 BABIP, .319 wOBA
Road: .212/.249/.330, .274 BABIP, .253 wOBA
The Rockies' wOBA against hard stuff drops 59 points on the road, but against soft stuff it drops 66 points. So the Rockies do suffer a little more against soft stuff on the road -- about 6 percent more of a decline than their drop against hard stuff.
Bichette and the Rockies know their hitters have trouble adjusting to offspeed stuff, but the problem is replicating the game situations you see on the road, and hitting in the batting cages isn't the same thing as facing Matt Cain's curveball. Mere repetition isn't the solution; I doubt Bichette is the first Rockies hitting coach to suggest more curveballs in the cages. He's also wrong in believing the Rockies see more fastballs at home; maybe that was true back when he played with the Rockies, but that's not the case now.
Ultimately, this may be a dilemma without a solution.
Other than, of course, to simply get hitters with enough talent to do better on the road.
The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. -- Mark Twain
If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first. -- Mark Twain
* * * *
I went on ESPN Radio on Friday to discuss the slow start of the Los Angeles Angels, pointing out the obvious: The rotation was a concern heading into the season, was a bigger concern now with Jered Weaver on the disabled list, and that nobody should be surprised that Joe Blanton is pitching somewhere between awful and atrocious. I also said the offense will be fine. What I neglected to mention was that the Angels were heading into a big weekend home series against the Tigers, staring at a 4-10 record and facing the team many consider the best in the American League. Three more losses would put the Angels at 4-13 and put them in the same big hole as last season when they were unable to overcome a 6-14 start.
Well, three games does not rescue a season, but maybe it will help rescue the Angels' April. They took advantage of the good fortune of not facing Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer and roughed up the Tigers 8-1 on Friday, 10-0 on Saturday and then won 4-3 on Sunday on Mark Trumbo's dramatic walk-off piece against Phil Coke in the 13th inning, following a bizarre intentional walk to Albert Pujols in the previous inning.
We learned something about the Angels this weekend; namely that their demise has been too quickly fabricated. But we also may have learned something about the Tigers, who are a mediocre 9-9 and exposing the same flaws as last year when everyone predicted them to run away with the AL Central and they didn't.
So, some random thoughts on the Angels and Tigers
1. As always, don't overreact to two weeks' worth of stats. Remember when Peter Bourjos couldn't hit three days ago and it was a huge mistake for the Angels to count on him as their regular center fielder (and Vernon Wells has been doing so well for the Yankees!)? Well, Bourjos had three hits on Friday, three on Saturday and another on Sunday and is hitting .302/.333/.491. Look, he's not a .300 hitter and the one walk is an issue, but he's probably not going to be awful.
AP Photo/Danny MoloshokAfter a slow start to the season Mike Trout has now raised his average to .307 and hit his first career grand slam on Saturday.
3. Josh Hamilton continues to struggle, enough that Jim Leyland had the left-handed Coke intentionally walk Pujols with two outs and the bases empty in the 12th. Hamilton struck out on three pitches but Trumbo led off the 13th and hit a 3-1 changeup deep into the left-field stands. So many things to discuss with that move: putting the winning run on base (crazy!), the complete lack of respect for Hamilton (how far has he fallen?), leaving Coke in for a third inning to face a string of righties (well, he didn't get through the first one). Interesting stuff there.
4. As for the Tigers, they're 9-9 and that's with a lot of things going well so far: Miguel Cabrera is hitting .355, Torii Hunter is hitting .392, Prince Fielder is hitting .333 and slugging .638. Austin Jackson and Jhonny Peralta have been fine. Four starters have an ERA under 3.00. They lead the majors in strikeouts. The bullpen hasn't been great -- 20th in the majors in ERA -- but the Tigers have lost just one game they've led heading into the eighth or ninth. They've lost two extra-inning games, but those came in the 12th and 13th innings, hardly the fault of the bullpen, and have won a 14-inning game. The pen hasn't been great but isn't the reason the Tigers are .500.
5. Alex Avila: The new Rick Wilkins? Avila and the bottom of the Tigers' lineup have struggled -- the same problem as last year when Detroit's offense had two of the best hitters in baseball (and a superb Jackson) and was still inconsistent scoring runs.
6. Rick Porcello [n.]: A mushroom whose legend grows in the absence of light and rational inquiry.
We don't want to overreact to any of this. The Angels are still throwing Blanton out there every fifth game, and if they lose three in a row to the Rangers this week, we'll be right back asking, "What's wrong?" The Tigers have six games at home against the Royals -- that's the division-leading Royals -- and the Braves, which will potentially tell us more about the Tigers than this weekend's fiasco in Anaheim did. In the long run, I still believe the Tigers will end up benefiting from a weak AL Central, but after 18 games I don't think we can assume they're going to have an easy road to a third straight division title.
Oh, as for the frog quote above, that was just there to make you laugh. Or maybe to suggest that maybe neither the Angels nor Tigers are the biggest frogs in the American League this year many thought back in March.
REST OF THE WEEKEND
1. Ryan Braun, Brewers. Braun hit a first-inning, three-run homer off Jeff Samardzija in Friday’s 5-4 win over the Cubs and a go-ahead, three-run shot off Scott Feldman in the sixth of Sunday’s 4-2 win. Suddenly, the Brewers have won seven in a row and are 9-8 after that 2-8 start.
2. Pirates pitching staff. After losing the series opener on Thursday, the Pirates cooled off the red-hot Braves with three straight wins, holding the Braves to three runs in the three games. Wandy Rodriguez threw seven innings of one-hit ball on Friday and the bullpen tossed six scoreless innings in relief of terrible Jonathan Sanchez on Sunday.
3. Matt Harvey, Mets. Harvey makes a repeat performance with his gem to beat Stephen Strasburg on Friday. Here’s everything you need to know about the hottest pitcher in baseball (4-0, 0.93 ERA, .108 average allowed).
Clutch performance of the weekend
Jeremy Hellickson, Rays. The Rays entered the weekend scuffling at 5-10, but swept the A’s at home. Hellickson outdueled Jarrod Parker 1-0 on Saturday, allowing three hits in seven innings, with Matt Joyce's home run standing up.
Red Sox 4, Royals 3 (Saturday). From the stirring pregame ceremony paying tribute to the victims and heroes of the Boston Marathon bombing, to David Ortiz’s rousing speech ("This is our f------ city!") that even the FCC forgave, to Neil Diamond singing "Sweet Caroline", to the Red Sox rallying for three runs in the bottom of the eighth to win 4-3, it was a game many in Boston won’t forget.
Hitter on the rise: Joey Votto, Reds.
I mean, Votto was already pretty good. But there were those worried about his power production, with just one home run in more than 50 games going back to last year. But he homered on Saturday and Sunday (going 7-for-11 in the two games) and is now hitting .328/.522/.516.
Pitcher on the rise: Garrett Richards, Angels
The Angels have always liked Richards’ power arsenal and he’s getting a chance to start with Weaver on the DL. His first start was a so-so effort against the Astros, but on Saturday he shut down the Tigers on two hits over seven innings. More impressively (and importantly), he struck out eight and walked nobody. Command has been the big question for him, and if the 24-year-old throws enough strikes he’ll hold on to his rotation spot when Weaver returns.
Team on the rise: Rockies
The Rockies blew a 4-2 lead to the Diamondbacks to end their eight-game winning streak, but at 13-5 are tied with the Braves for the best record in baseball. Yes, they’re 6-0 against the Padres and 3-0 against the Mets, so they’ve taken advantage of a soft schedule, but that’s what you have to do. Their next 19 games are against the Braves, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Rays, Yankees and Cardinals, so let’s see where they stand on May 12.
Team on the fall: Mariners
The Mariners scored eight runs in six games, got shut out Friday and Saturday by the Rangers and haven’t won two in a row since starting the season 2-0. The Mariners are right back where they’ve been in recent years: 29th in the majors in batting average (.218), 28th in OBP (.285) and 26th in runs scored. A bad, boring, slow baseball team; you wonder how much longer manager Eric Wedge and GM Jack Zduriencik will have their jobs.
You already know the Braves have been the hottest team in the National League. You also know they have the guy with the most home runs in baseball in Justin Upton. But who has the second-best record in the NL, and who, even more surprisingly, has the second-most homers in MLB? The Colorado Rockies and Dexter Fowler? Yes, for reals. But how are they doing it? Here are a couple of reasons:
Is there another "best" outfield in baseball? Adding a double dose of Uptons to Jason Heyward makes the Braves' outfield everybody’s easy-to-love unit. But the Rockies’ trio is off to a hot start. Carlos Gonzalez, Michael Cuddyer and Fowler all are slugging better than .600. You might expect that kind of performance in multiweek stretches from Gonzalez and Cuddyer. But as the song goes, "One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not the same." What has gotten into Fowler?
You might wonder, because Fowler has belted seven home runs already. He is more than halfway to last year’s single-season career high of 13. And before you might sensibly say, “It’s a Coors Field thing,” four of them have come on the road, two of them in Petco. Of course, two of them were hit off John Axford, and he probably isn’t going to get to hit against the Brewers’ former closer again, at least not with a game on the line. Yes, it’s small-sample craziness in the third week of April, but it’s also something to keep an eye on. If Fowler enjoys a big breakout as a power hitter in his age-27 season, he won’t be the first or last.
So, perhaps we can say CarGo is being CarGo, Cuddyer is doing that “professional hitter” thing and Fowler is someone to follow, whether you want to believe or not. But it’s a great place to start from on offense. Add in that speedster Eric Young Jr. is getting regular playing time as the Rockies' spare and getting on base effectively, and they even have a nice change-of-pace alternative from their big-bopping trio.
Remember Tulo? In Troy Tulowitzki's first six seasons as a regular, the Rockies have enjoyed just three in which he didn’t land on the disabled list. They went to the postseason in two of them. That isn’t quite the 2-for-3 the Giants have gotten with World Series-winning seasons when Buster Posey is available, but it’s a reminder that when Tulo is around, he’s a candidate for MVP and best player in baseball. He ripped his fifth homer of the young season Friday night. Maybe you still expect him to get hurt, but here’s hoping he doesn’t -- you want to see the great ones play, and there’s no doubt Tulo has the talent to be counted among them.
Add in catcher Wilin Rosario ripping four homers, and the Rockies are getting tremendous power up the middle. Add the expected offense a team is supposed to get from the corners, and you're going to score runs by the truckload. The Rockies are doing just that, running neck and neck with the equally surprising Mets for the NL scoring lead.
The rotation is back. The interesting question for the Rox is whether Jhoulys Chacin is ready to be the staff ace Ubaldo Jimenez had been. In his young career, Chacin has put up two of the four best single-season ERAs in a full year; Jimenez has the other two. (Thanks to the strike of 1994, we’ll never know what Marvin Freeman would have done that season.)
Not to knock Jon Garland's comeback, but if Chacin silences last year’s complaints about his conditioning and injury-abbreviated season, that gives the Rockies a pitcher they can spot against any top starter in the ace-laden NL West. Jorge De La Rosa might give them a second; after missing most of the previous two years while recovering from elbow reconstruction, he has tossed a pair of quality starts in his first three turns. And who says Garland can’t pull out a season like the come-out-of-nowhere All-Star campaign Jason Marquis cranked out in 2009? OK, OK, it’s obviously early, that’s crazy talk.
Skippering isn’t particle physics. Which I say not to diminish the job Walt Weiss has done so far, but to credit it. The concern over his lack of experience at any level higher than high school appears to have been overstated. He’s keeping his bench involved and using his whole roster. He’s platooning Todd Helton, he’s showing admirable restraint with his healed-up hurlers over workloads and there is no reason to complain about his bullpen management. Of course, when you’re winning, everyone looks smart, and we’ll see how Weiss handles his first major in-season setback or extended rough stretch. But so far, so good.
Not everything has been perfect, of course. Second baseman Josh Rutledge's bat will have to come around. Chris Nelson still looks like nothing more than a placeholder at third base -- but with Nolan Arenado slugging better than .800 in Triple-A, the organization’s ultimate answer at the hot corner might be about to present itself.
And perhaps most of all, Chacin’s early exit Friday night with “oblique stiffness” is troubling. We’ll have to see whether it’s cause for concern. Just as the Rockies depend on having a healthy Tulo to win, the Rockies cannot afford anything less than Chacin on the mound every fifth start. But if they get these things, I wouldn’t bet against Colorado come October.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.