SweetSpot: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Only 4 pitchers in history have homered in each of their 1st five MLB seasons: Claude Hendrix Pat Malone Dontrelle Willis TRAVIS WOOD #Reds— High Heat Stats (@HighHeatStats) April 22, 2014
Wood hit .222 with three home runs last year, and while we won't quite declare him the new Mike Hampton yet, there are similarities in that both are/were smallish lefties who could hit (Hampton hit seven home runs for the Rockies in 2001 and hit .344 the next season with three home runs).
More importantly, Wood is off to a great start on the mound (2.52 ERA), so far proving his 2013 breakout wasn't a fluke. In 25 innings, he has 28 K's and four walks and two home runs allowed. That's a big boost in his strikeout rate from 2013 -- 17.5 percent to 25.7 percent -- and if this is a real improvement then it's time to start thinking of him as an elite starter.
Unfortunately for the Cubs, while Wood and Jeff Samardzija have allowed just 14 runs in their eight starts, those two are a combined 1-4 as the Cubs are next-to-last in the NL in runs.
Other quick thoughts from Monday's action:
- New Pirates first baseman Ike Davis hit a grand slam and then the Pirates scored runs in the eighth and ninth to beat the Reds 6-5. The Reds have an MLB-worst 5.77 bullpen ERA with an atrocious 1.72 WHIP. J.J. Hoover and Manny Parra have really struggled, so even Aroldis Chapman's return isn't an automatic fix. As for Davis, he's been plagued by inconsistency in his career, but we're not that far removed from the second half of 2012 when he hit .255/.346/.542 with 20 home runs. Who knows if it will work out, but it was a good risk by the Pirates to get him. Sure, you worry about all the strikeouts and low average you're going to get from Davis and Pedro Alvarez but they may also combine for 65 home runs.
- Some sweet fielding plays on Monday. Loved this double play by Ruben Tejeda and Daniel Murphy for the Mets and this slick bare-handed play by Albert Pujols. Tejeda made another diving stop and out as the Mets blanked the Cardinals 2-0 behind Jenrry Mejia's 6.2 scoreless innings and Kyle Farnsworth's first save.
- Nice 4-3 win for the Rangers over the A's on a night Yu Darvish didn't have a dominant outing, with eight hits and four walks in six innings. Fun fact: Prince Fielder has already been intentionally walked nine times, the most ever for an AL player in April. He's hitting just .205 but opposing managers still want to get a righty-righty matchup when possible.
- Fielder's old teammate in Detroit, some guy named Miguel Cabrera, continues to struggle with a .206/.275/.333 line and one home run. It's gone relatively unnoticed because he's Miguel Cabrera and we expect him to heat up soon enough -- and the Tigers are still 9-7 after losing to John Danks on Monday -- but this is a guy who never has a bad month (last September, when he was injured, being the exception). He only has one opposite-field hit all season. Last year, 55 of his 193 hits went to right.
- Keep an eye on Corey Dickerson, who gets a chance to play for the Rockies with Michael Cuddyer on the DL. He can hit and went 3-for-4 with one of the five home runs the Rockies hit against the Giants.
- Things are turning ugly in Seattle. The Mariners returned home to face the Astros with Felix Hernandez pitching and put up a stinkbomb of a game for their seventh straight loss. An error by Kyle Seager in the sixth inning led to four unearned runs as Hernandez gave up three run-scoring hits with two outs. Dustin Ackley was moved up to the No. 2 spot in the lineup and promptly went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. Justin Smoak is hitting .170 after his big opening series against the Angels. Seager and Brad Miller are hitting under .200. Leadoff hitter Abraham Almonte has 28 strikeouts in 19 games. Looks like the same old Mariners.
Baseball is a different animal than other sports, so those of us in the media who keep playing the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird card regarding Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are overlooking an inconvenient truth: The pitcher is the guy with the baseball in his hand, so he controls the vast majority of what takes place on a given night.
The first big league meeting ever between Trout and Harper featured two starting pitchers who aren’t going to adorn a season-ticket brochure anytime soon. The Los Angeles Angels’ Garrett Richards, a former Oklahoma Sooner with a 98-mph fastball and occasionally wandering control, stifled the Washington Nationals on one hit through six innings Monday night. His Washington counterpart, Tanner Roark, countered with 6 2/3 shutout innings before leaving to some well-deserved applause in the seventh.
The attendance at Nationals Park was 24,371, or 58.7 percent of capacity, which goes to show that even the novelty of two wunderkinds in the same venue can fill only so many seats on a clear April night in the nation’s capital.
Harper went 0-for-3 with a walk in four plate appearances. Trout contributed two singles in five at-bats, and a pair of double-play takeout slides that were hard enough to leave a mark. But at the end of the night, they both stepped aside as their elders put their stamp on the proceedings. Albert Pujols started an eighth-inning rally with an infield squibber and a stolen base, and old war horse Raul Ibanez came off the bench and lined a three-run double into the gap to propel the Angels to a 4-2 win in the opener of a three-game series.
On a night that revolved around baseball’s long-term future, the winning rally could have been sponsored by Lipitor. But the game was still a ringing endorsement for interleague play, and the notion that MLB does right by customers by giving them snippets of something they really want between the inevitable filler in the schedule.
Heaven knows, that quirky 15-15 configuration has left us with some early matchups that are less than riveting. That rain-induced day-night doubleheader between Cleveland and San Diego at Progressive Field in early April comes to mind. And the recent Seattle-Miami matchup certainly didn’t look like much on paper, although Giancarlo Stanton gave it an injection of oomph with a game-winning grand slam.
Washington and Los Angeles, in contrast, provided some “must see” April interleague viewing because it’s the first time Harper and Trout have taken the field together since they were teammates with the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League in 2011. The double-bill was sufficiently hype-worthy that Nationals broadcast team Bob Carpenter and F.P. Santangelo devoted almost their entire pregame setup to the occasion. They changed course only at the end, when Carpenter offered up the “footnote” that Pujols has 498 career homers and could be making history any day now.
Seeing Trout and Harper on the same field together lent context to their respective paths and the attributes that link and distinguish them. Harper has been the designated golden boy since age 16, while Trout somehow lasted until the 25th pick in the 2009. Trout, who turns 23 in August, is 14 months older than Harper. But they arrived from the minors together on April 28, 2012, instantly looking as if they belonged.
Their disparate styles have helped fuel the “rivalry” narrative, even though they’re friends who enjoy texting one another. Harper burns with an intensity that scouts love and fans either embrace or find off-putting. Trout leaps fences and comes away with the ball in his glove and a disarming smile on his face. Harper has more raw power and a better arm, while Trout runs faster, controls the strike zone better and plays superior defense in the outfield. They’re also in different financial neighborhoods now that Trout has agreed to a six-year, $144.5 million extension and Harper has to muddle along with that measly $6.25 million signing bonus as the first pick in 2010.
All uber-prospects, no matter how highly acclaimed, have to proceed at their own pace. Ken Griffey Jr. hit .264 in his first season with Seattle, while Barry Bonds batted .223 and .261 in his first two years with Pittsburgh. Harper won a Rookie of the Year award at age 19, but he hasn’t had much margin for error breaking in alongside Trout, whose idea of “struggling” is finishing second to Miguel Cabrera twice in the American League MVP balloting.
In some ways, Harper’s occasional travails and missteps make him the more compelling human story. He has gone from the cocky, eyeblack-smeared junior college Bryce to the wall-banging, bull-in-a-china-shop rookie to the Bryce who’s ready to take on a more expansive leadership role in Washington. One day he’s in a 3-for-21 funk with 10 strikeouts and proclaiming himself “pretty lost right now.” A week later, you look up and he has raised his average from .192 to .412.
Over the weekend, Harper became the poster boy for new manager Matt Williams’ quest to put a stamp on the team when he jogged out a ground ball, peeled off toward the dugout and received an instant benching. Oddly enough, the Nationals’ TV feed still features a promotional spot for Harper with the caption “Nothing But Hustle.”
A National League scout who was in town for the weekend series with St. Louis, and the infamous jog, thinks Harper could stand to relax a little. After a slow start last season, the Nationals were hoping to bust out with authority this year. But they lead the majors in errors, Ryan Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos are on the disabled list, and they’re muddling along at 11-9.
“It’s almost like he’s trying to do too much right now,” the scout said. “He started the year and his timing was horrible. Then he got real hot. Now I think he’s trying to throw that whole team on his shoulders because they didn’t win last year and Zimmerman is out. He doesn’t have to do that.”
If one player secretly burns to outdo the other in the Trout-Harper “rivalry,” the conventional wisdom is that it’s Harper -- no matter how much they both downplay any semblance of competition with their public comments.
“I’m sure he’s like a caged lion,” the scout said of Harper before Monday’s game. “I’d probably throw him a changeup the first pitch, and bounce a breaking ball the second pitch and see if I can feed off all the energy he has going.”
Richards strayed from that script, pumping five straight fastballs on his way to striking Harper out swinging. It was that kind of night.
The good news is that the Angels and Nationals will meet again Tuesday, with Tyler Skaggs on the mound for Los Angeles and Taylor Jordan pitching for Washington in the second of three installments of April appointment baseball. If you’re a Mickey Mantle fan, you’re probably partial to Trout. If you prefer something more edgy -- say, in the Pete Rose mold -- you probably like Harper.
And if you love baseball, you just relish the thought of them sharing the same field, as the quintessential endorsement for interleague play.
While Trout's star ascended in 2013 with another MVP runner-up finish, Harper got off to a hot start in April before injuries took their toll and he finished with similar numbers to his rookie season. It's easy to forget that Harper may have been the best player in baseball last April, when he hit .344/.430/.720 with nine home runs, six doubles, 18 RBIs and nearly as many walks (14) as strikeouts (16). A year ago, the Trout-versus-Harper debate was still legitimately raging.
On May 13, however, Harper crashed chin-first into the wall at Dodger Stadium. He missed one game and listed what was sore the day after the collision: "Both legs, [left] shoulder, ribs, hand, wrist, chin of course."
Whether that collision was the direct cause or not, Harper wasn't the same player the rest of the season and would undergo knee surgery in the offseason. Check out his hit chart last year through May 13 and how it looks since:
Of those 10 early home runs, he had pulled seven of them to right field, and six of the 10 came on inside pitches. Since the collision, he's hit 11 home runs -- and only pulled two to right field (the one home run he's hit in 2014 doesn't show up on the hit chart above, but it was yanked over the right-field foul pole).
Again, it's hard to say how much the knee bothered him last year, and his opposite-field home runs showcased his raw power, but home run hitters still make a living pulling the majority of their home runs. During that hot start, Harper hit .344/.417/.938 on inside pitches; since then he's .265/.452/.426 on inside pitches.
Through May 13 last year, 25.7 percent of pitches Harper saw were classified as inside -- the inner third of the plate or in and off the plate. Since then, that number is 23.6 percent, although it's only 19.3 percent in 2014. Pitchers are certainly challenging Harper less often inside, but when he does get inside pitches he's not doing much damage.
Some of this frustration may have reached a boiling point Saturday -- for Harper and manager Matt Williams, when Harper was removed from the game after not running out a tapper back to the pitcher's mound. When factoring in that Williams batted Harper as low as seventh earlier in the season (he's been moved back up to second in the past five games), it's clear that the Nationals' skipper is trying to teach his young star some lessons. To me, it seems the biggest lesson is one Williams can't help: Harper is still learning to adjust to major league pitching.
Trout has had no issues adjusting to whatever adjustments pitchers have tried to make to him, although he did go 0-for-4 on Saturday with four strikeouts. But he enters Monday's game hitting .307 and leading the American League with a .613 slugging percentage, and already atop the AL leaderboard for WAR.
As I've touched upon here before, back in spring training Trout said he wanted to be more aggressive this year on first pitches or when ahead in the count. His overall swing rate is up 3 percent over 2013, but his chase percentage -- the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that he's swung at -- is up from 21 percent to 27 percent. Perhaps as a result, his strikeouts are up and his walks are down so far from 2013; he's on pace for 198 strikeouts and 63 walks after going 136 and 110 a year ago. That hasn't hurt his productivity yet, and I suspect those walk and strikeout numbers will eventually fall back closer to a 1-1 ratio, in part because Trout has killed fastballs so far (.378, four of his five home runs). If he gets fed more off-speed pitches, expect the walk rate to go back up.
While we'll all be watching the Trout-Harper showdown, this is a big road trip for the Angels -- six games against the Nationals and then six against the Yankees. Despite the strong start from Trout (and Albert Pujols, who has six home runs to give him 498 for his career), the Angels are 8-10, hoping to avoid a third straight awful April.
2. The Oakland A's continue to impress and have the majors' biggest run differential at +32. Jesse Chavez, who replaced Jarrod Parker in the rotation when Parker went down in spring training, had his fourth straight solid start in Sunday's 4-1 win over the Astros and has allowed six runs in 26 innings with a 28/5 strikeout/walk ratio. Chavez pitches up in the strike zone with his 90-93 mph fastball but his cutter has developed into a nice weapon. What's interesting about it is that he locates on the outside part of the plate to left-handers and to right-handers. He's actually thrown it more than his four-seamer and while two of the three home runs he's allowed came off the cutter, batters are hitting .209 off it. He mixes in a curveball and changeup, making him four-pitch starter with good command. You have to like what he's done.
3. After a slow start, Josh Donaldson is also heating up. Over his past 12 games he's hitting .345 with four home runs, seven doubles and 12 RBIs and looking like the guy who finished fourth in the AL MVP voting last season. The A's have yet to play a team currently over .500, so this week's three-game series against the Rangers will be a good test.
4. Should the Braves be a little worried about Craig Kimbrel? He actually got pulled from Saturday's relief appearance -- his first outing in a week after resting a sore shoulder -- after giving up three hits, a walk and two runs. Jordan Walden had to come on to get the final out for the save. Kimbrel then wasn't used in Sunday's 14-inning loss to the Mets.
5. Dee Gordon continues to do good things for the Dodgers, hitting .367/.409/.483 with 10 steals in 11 attempts. Going back to last August, when he was recalled from Triple-A, Gordon is hitting .363 in 99 plate appearances. Still a sample size, but it's not like he has no track record of hitting. He's a career .301 hitter in the minors and hit .304 in 56 games as a rookie in 2011. Yes, he has no power, but if he can hit close to .300 and draw a few walks, he's going to steal a lot of bases and score runs in front of the big boys.
6. Giancarlo Stanton beat the Mariners with a walk-off grand slam on Friday, giving him six home runs and an MLB-leading 26 RBIs. The Stanton Fear Factor came into play in a big way on Sunday. The Mariners led 2-1 in the eighth. One out, runner on second, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon elects to intentionally walk Stanton, putting the go-ahead on base. I get it: Stanton has delivered some big hits. But he also has four times as many strikeouts as home runs. What is more likely to happen there? You cannot put the go-ahead on base there. If he beats you, he beats you, but giving the opponent a free runner often leads to bad things. A walk, fielder's choice and sacrifice fly gave the Marlins the win as Stanton came around to score. Great player, bad managing.
7. Robinson Cano is not driving the ball at all. He's hitting .268/.321/.352 with three doubles and one home run, his one home run coming in Texas when he did manage to sort of one-arm the ball just over the fence in right. Cano had hit 40-plus doubles the past five seasons, so the lack of extra-base hits is as concerning as the lack of home runs. Again, just 18 games, and he had an April like this in 2012 when he hit .267 with one home run and four RBIs, but he's part of the reason the Mariners have looked awful since that 3-0 start.
8. The Tigers won 2-1 on Sunday, in part because Ian Kinsler created a run all by himself with the help of some sloppy Angels defense. The Angels were credited (discredited?) with three errors on the play. By the way, Kinsler has played well so far, hitting .317/.353/.476. Miguel Cabrera, however, has yet to get untracked, hitting .220 with one home run.
9. Big win for the Nationals on Sunday, ralling from a 2-0 deficit against the Cardinals with two runs in the seventh and the winning run in the ninth. Danny Espinosa played a key role in both rallies, driving in a run in the seventh and single to start the winning rally. I criticized the Nationals on Thursday after a sloppy 8-0 loss to the Cardinals, but they managed a little redemption with wins on Friday and Sunday, sandwiched around Bryce Harper getting benched on Saturday for not running out a groundball.
10. Finally, Brewers backup catcher Martin Maldonado had a busy weekend. On Sunday, he was heavily involved in the brawl, sucker-punching Travis Snider. On Friday, he pulled a Roy Hobbs and literally knocked the cover off the ball. Poor Pedro Alvarez; he's led the majors in errors the past two seasons and had to try and throw that thing to first base. It was ruled an infield hit.
A less dramatic play came in the 11th when Trout reached on an infield single and stole second base -- his first steal of the season. After Albert Pujols was intentionally walked -- yes, the A’s put the winning run on base -- Raul Ibanez and Howie Kendrick grounded out and the A’s won 10-9.
Back in spring training, Trout said he wanted to get back to stealing more bases, after he dropped from 49 in 2012 to 33 in 2013. "I thought my stolen bases were down last year," he said. "I have to take advantage of taking that extra base."
Tuesday’s stolen base was his first attempt of the year. While the lack of stolen bases is certainly frustrating to his fantasy owners, Trout’s baserunning has also been a significant part of his value. Over the past two seasons, Baseball-Reference rates his baserunning -- including stolen bases, caught stealing and advancing on hits or fly balls and so on -- as worth 12.9 runs above the average player. Jacoby Ellsbury, at 10.4, was the only other player above 10 runs.
Another way to examine this is by looking at potential stolen base opportunities. In 2012, he had 246 opportunities when he was on first base or second with the base ahead of him open. He attempted 54 steals (22 percent of the time). In 2013, he had 40 attempts out of 326 opportunities (12 percent). This year, he’s one of out 21.
Is Trout’s speed already declining at age 22? I wouldn’t go that far just yet. In 2012, he did take the extra base (more than one base on a single, more than two on double) 65 percent of the time and that was down to 59 percent in 2013. So far in 2014, that number is at 100 percent.
Trout has hit second and Pujols third in all 14 Angels games and I wonder if Trout has seen the stop sign from Mike Scioscia in order to not force Pujols to take pitches and get down in the count. A similar thing happened last year. Trout spent most of April hitting second in front of Pujols and had just one stolen base through his first 16 games. (A quick Google search didn’t find any revealing quotes from Trout on his lack of steals thus far.)
It could just be that Trout doesn’t like to run as much in April. Of course, when you’re hitting doubles (3), triples (1) and home runs (5) there’s not as much need to steal a bag anyway.
After pounding his 496th home run, you could feel a little bit of joy for Albert Pujols. Big money or no, the Los Angeles Angels slugger had taken quite a tumble from his days as the game’s best ballplayer. He’s apparently healed up completely from last year’s plantar fasciitis that “resolved” into a partial plantar fascia tear, ending his season two months early and sticking him with the worst numbers of his career: His highest ground-ball rate, his lowest power numbers (both in terms of slugging and Isolated Power). And it’s hard not to envision how a weaker Pujols wasn’t someone who was easier to get to make hit your pitch, contributing to a career-low walk rate and batting average on balls in play.
But that was last year, and his recent run of clouting four home runs in his past six games is a nice reminder of what Pujols can be when he can stand on two feet. And, more importantly, when he can dig in again and really use the lower-body strength that produced one of the best power hitters at any position, let alone first base.
Take a quick look at his heat maps between his injured 2013 and his 2014 season through Monday night’s game, and you’ll see a big difference between the guy who struggled to deliver last season and the guy whose ability to consistently mash stuff inside the zone will put him in Cooperstown, a skill that looks like it’s back in the early going:
That’s great to see, because if you look at what Albert Pujols was, you’re seeing the guy the Angels thought they’d signed when they gave him $240 million. Pujols resembled that player in his first season with the Angels, ripping 80 extra base hits. But perhaps the real key to his dominance was Pujols’ complete dominance of pitches inside the strike zone. As Brooks Baseball’s data over at Baseball Prospectus reflects, from 2007-2012, pitchers might have tried to stay low and outside, but he consistently wouldn’t go fishing, offering on just 184 of 1,422 pitches (overwhelmingly the most pitches thrown to any zone against him). More often, that forced pitchers to come into the zone against him, where he’d just as reliably pound them. That 2013/2014 heat map contrast is a nice reminder of the Pujols of old.
That wasn’t the only bit of Phat Albert popping out of the wayback machine lately: He turned a 3-6-3 double play against the A’s on Monday, and whether you grew up thinking a young Eddie Murray or a clean Keith Hernandez was the acme of first-base play, you couldn’t help but love seeing that kind of footwork and anticipation around the bag from the former Gold Glover.
It might be too easy to say last year’s plantar fasciitis belongs to last year, but if Pujols has fended off for a few more years the move to DH that's expected to come at some point during his time as an Angels, so much the better. More importantly, when the Angels gave Pujols his 10-year deal, this is what they expected. Not forever, and not in the field, but they signed Pujols to be the kind of franchise-level bat who can carry them.
Remember, when the Angels signed him, how big Mike Trout was going to be was still a matter of speculation. If Pujols is not just some old indulgence Arte Moreno doesn’t have to apologize to his accountant for, but cranks out several seasons more like his American League initiation in 2012, that’s part of a lineup you can win with. With tough series against the A’s, Tigers, Nationals and Yankees to look forward to, the Halos can’t count on Trout being hot the entire time, lest they dig an early hole that endangers their relevance for months to come.
Most of all, the Angels need Pujols to age gracefully, to put Father Time on hold for another year, maybe four. They need his second act as an Angel of Anaheim to add luster to his Hall of Fame career, not tarnish it. In short, they need Albert Pujols. All it took was a hot streak like this to remind folks that they still have him.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
That got me to thinking: Who is the best utility infielder of all time? Should the award actually be named after Punto, or is there a more deserving player? How to even go about searching for an answer? Will I actually spend time doing this?
Of course I will! I am here to serve you, and this was a question that demanded an answer.
I reached out to Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information for help. I asked for the following parameters: most career plate appearances since 1900 while never batting 500 times in a season. I figured this would give us a starting point. Unfortunately, this eliminated Punto from consideration, since he twice batted more than 500 times, in 2006 and 2007 with the Twins. True, he played all over the place, but if you bat 500 times, you're more or less a regular. I want a guy who never moved past a backup role, even for a season.
That initial list mostly turned up catchers, which I should have realized would happen; the top seven guys were Rick Dempsey, Sandy Alomar Jr., Jerry Grote, Alan Ashby, Cliff Johnson, Andy Seminick and Don Slaught. The first non-catcher was Tom Paciorek, who played 18 seasons in the majors and never batted 500 times. The one season he was a regular (and made the All-Star team) was 1981, the strike season, so he didn't bat 500 times. Anyway, Paciorek was an outfielder/first baseman/DH, not what we're looking for.
So we did a second search that added 200 career games at shortstop as a qualifier. This gave us a better list:
Rance Mulliniks (4,089 plate appearances)
Bill Spiers (3,845)
Maicer Izturis (3,332)
Tom Foley (2,988)
Manny Lee (2,960)
Willie Bloomquist (2,929)
Juan Castro (2,849)
Abraham Nunez (2,804)
Larry Milbourne (2,671)
Brendan Ryan (2,645)
Denny Hocking (2,632)
Jeff Reboulet (2,607)
John McDonald (2,565)
Rocky Bridges (2,537)
Rafael Belliard (2,524)
Bob Lillis (2,492)
We can eliminate some of these guys. Mulliniks did come up as a shortstop but spent most of his career platooning at third base for the Blue Jays in the '80s. From 1983 to 1988 he hit .293/.374/.458 with a 124 OPS+. A good player, but not what we're after. Lee, Ryan, Belliard and Lillis also spent seasons as the primary starting shortstops for their teams, although they never batted 500 times. Spiers had some seasons as the Brewers' starting shortstop but couldn't stay healthy.
Here's the rest of the list again with each player's career WAR:
Maicer Izturis (11.0)
Tom Foley (5.8)
Willie Bloomquist (2.3)
Juan Castro (-5.2)
Abraham Nunez (0.9)
Larry Milbourne (-0.3)
Denny Hocking (-0.5)
Jeff Reboulet (10.2)
John McDonald (6.9)
Rocky Bridges (3.0)
It's possible there is somebody out there who had a shorter career and was a better player than these guys, but I don't think so. I did a quick scroll of all players who played at least 200 games at shortstop with between 10 and 25 career WAR and it gave us Mike Gallego and Jamey Carroll, but they both had seasons of 500 plate appearances (Carroll had three).
So it looks like it's a two-man debate for best utility guy ever: Maicer Izturis, now with the Blue Jays, versus former Twins/Orioles legend Jeff Reboulet.
Izturis is a classic tweener. He doesn't have the range to play shortstop on an every-day basis but doesn't have the power you want from a third baseman. He hits some doubles, draws some walks and probably could have been an every-day second baseman at some point, but the Angels had Adam Kennedy and then Howie Kendrick in front of him. The most games he ever started at one position in a season was 78 at third base for the Angels in 2006. He definitely fits our utility definition.
Reboulet came up through the Twins system and played with them from 1992 to 1996, was with the Orioles from 1997 to 1999 and finished up with the Royals, Dodgers and Pirates. He gets bonus points for jumping on the small-market merry-go-round by playing with bad Royals and Pirates clubs. They were probably looking for veteran leadership.
Anyway, while Izturis nearly missed our list by batting 494 times in 2011, Reboulet never came close, peaking at 299 PAs in his final season in 2003. The most games he ever started in a season was 62 at second base for those mighty 2003 Pirates, but he played nearly as many innings at shortstop in his career as second base. He even started 24 games at first base plus five in the outfield and played one inning at catcher.
Here's another bonus: Reboulet owned Randy Johnson, so to speak. He faced him more than any other pitcher in his career -- 66 times (he faced Chuck Finley 45 times, the only other pitcher he faced more than 26 times). He hit .273/.375/.436 against Johnson, with two of his 20 career home runs. In Game 4 of the 1997 division series, Orioles manager Davey Johnson benched Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar and inserted Reboulet into the lineup. He homered, and the Orioles won 3-1.
Izturis was the better hitter (91 OPS+ versus 72), Reboulet the better fielder (53 runs saved on defense versus -11). Pick your poison. I'm going with the Randy Johnson killer and slick glove. Congratulations, Jeff Reboulet, you're the best utility infielder of all time.
(And if you want to argue that I unfairly disqualified Punto, I guess I won't argue too vociferously. His career WAR of 14.5 is higher than Reboulet's.)
According to John Fisher of ESPN Stats & Info, Goldschmidt's six previous home runs off Lincecum had come on inside pitches; this one came on an outside fastball and Goldschmidt drilled it down the line for a first-inning, three-run shot. It was the first opposite-field home run Lincecum had ever allowed to a right-handed batter at AT&T.
Is Goldschmidt's dominance just a statistical quirk, one of those things that will happen when you play a game long enough? Or is Lincecum tipping his pitches in some way that Goldsdchmidt has picked up on? Not that Goldschmidt would give anything away, but he seems to be leaning to statistical quirk, telling MLB.com, "Obviously I've had success right now, but that can change in a hurry. There's plenty of guys that maybe you start off hot and then all of a sudden you don't get a hit. That's how baseball is -- or vice versa, maybe there's a guy you don't hit very well and then for some reason you get a few hits off him. We're talking a small sample size here."
You have to love a player who quotes small sample size.
Anyway, the home run jump-started the D-backs to a much-needed 7-3 win, with Josh Collmenter pitching the final four innings in relief of Bronson Arroyo.
Thoughts on other games ...
- Should the Tigers be worried about new closer Joe Nathan? He got the "win" in a 7-6 victory over the Dodgers, but that was only after he allowed three runs in the bottom of the ninth to blow a 6-3 lead. Nathan has allowed six hits, four walks and five runs in 3.2 innings and has blown two saves chances (although the Tigers ended up winning both games). His fastball velocity has averaged just 90.6 mph -- granted, we're only talking about 35 pitches here -- down from 92.2 mph last season, which itself was down from 93.9 in 2012. Nathan had said on the radio earlier in the day that he'd been pitching through a dead arm; after the game, he said he felt better, just that his command was a little off. Maybe so, but when you're 39, any slump becomes more worrisome.
- I think Masahiro Tanaka still has No. 1-starter upside. He gave up a two-out, three-run homer to Jonathan Schoop in the second inning, but was otherwise very effective, striking out 10 in seven innings. He induced 22 swings-and-misses, the second-most on the season (Felix Hernandez had 24 on Opening Day). Both his splitter and slider look like wipeout pitches, although Schoop blasted a hanging slider for a 407-foot home run. He sits in the low 90s with his fastball (he's maxed out at 94.7 mph) and pounds the outside corner to left-handed batters with that pitch (inside corner to righties). Obviously, he can't afford to give up a home run every start but he's going to be considered the Yankees ace by the end of the season.
- With David Robertson on the DL, the back of the bullpen is scrambling, however, and the Orioles scored twice off Shawn Kelley in the ninth for the 5-4 win (a bottom-of-the-ninth rally against Tommy Hunter fell short). Hunter is hardly a lockdown closer himself, so when you factor in Nathan and Jim Johnson in Oakland, a lot of good teams are having issues in the ninth.
- Also watched a lot of Garrett Richards' strong outing for the Angels in a 2-0 win over the Mariners. He's always had the great arm and he basically fired high fastballs all night -- he averaged 96.1 mph on his heater -- and the Mariners couldn't touch him, with just one hit in seven innings. I don't even recall any hard outs. I'm not going to suggest he's turned the corner -- on this night he was hitting his spots better than usual -- but the Angels desperately need him to turn into a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. Albert Pujols also homered for the second straight game, a two-run shot off a hanging changeup from Mariners rookie Roenis Elias.
- After Jordan Zimmermann's first start, I wrote that all he has to do to potentially win a Cy Young Award is cut down on the blow-up outings he has a few times a year. Well, he had one of those on Wednesday, as the Marlins knocked him out in the second inning after he had allowed seven hits and five runs. The Nationals fought back, however, as Bryce Harper hit his first home run, a three-run shot, and then Jayson Werth won it with a grand slam off Carlos Marmol in the eighth, smashing an 0-1 fastball to left-center. Craig Stammen had the clutch long relief outing, tossing 3.1 scoreless innings. Tough one for the Marlins to take.
- Finally, Andrelton Simmons with one of those plays only he can make. And Billy Hamilton tagging up on what was essentially a pop-up.
Not to sound too dramatic here, but are the Los Angeles Angels in trouble? Josh Hamilton is out six to eight weeks after tearing a ligament in his thumb sliding headfirst into first base on Tuesday.
It comes at a particularly shaky time for the Angels considering: (A) Hamilton was off to a good start, hitting .400/.545/.741 and not chasing as many pitches out of the strike zone (27 percent versus 38 percent last season); (B) they're 3-5, with the three wins against the Astros; (C) they've had bad starts the past two Aprils that dug big holes (9-17 last year, 8-15 in 2012); (D) Albert Pujols hasn't yet looked good enough to ease concerns that he's still slipping; (E) Raul Ibanez might finally be getting old.
OK, let's calm down for a second. We're only eight games into the season, so there's no need to panic. Even if Hamilton misses eight weeks -- about 45 to 50 games -- it's not an end-of-the season moment. Factoring in his start, ZiPS projected Hamilton being worth 3.3 WAR. The team called up J.B. Shuck, who will presumably platoon in left field with Collin Cowgill for the time being. Shuck was worth 0.5 WAR last year while playing 129 games but is projected as basically a replacement-level player (as is Cowgill). So replacing Hamilton with a replacement-level platoon for about a third of the season is worth about a win. Sure, one win of value could hit, but it's far from a devastating injury, assuming Hamilton comes back with no lingering effects.
The bigger issues with the Angels might be everything else, or at least everything else not named Mike Trout. Pujols is hitting .219/.286/.438, but again it's just eight games, and five of his seven hits have been for extra bases. Ibanez, 41, signed to serve as the DH, is hitting .192 with 10 strikeouts, but he's also a notoriously streaky hitter. Other guys are off to slow starts. Again: It's early. The pitching has also been shaky, although Tyler Skaggs did pitch well in his first start.
These next few weeks could be crucial, especially considering the upcoming schedule. After Wednesday's game against Seattle, the Angels do get the Mets for three games, but their next 21 games after that are all against teams that finished above .500 last season (A's, at Tigers, at Nationals, at Yankees, Indians, Rangers, Yankees). That takes the club through May 7. I'm thinking we'll have a pretty good idea where the Angels stand on that date and whether Trout has received much help from his lineup mates.
P.S.: Kendrys Morales?
Yasiel Puig has missed the past two Dodgers games after suffering a thumb injury while sliding headfirst into first base. On Tuesday night, Josh Hamilton slid headfirst into first base in the seventh inning and was removed in a crucial situation in the ninth inning because he injured his thumb.
The Angels trailed 5-3 but Fernando Rodney had walked the first two batters, bringing up Hamilton’s spot in the lineup. Mind you, this is a hot Hamilton, hitting .444 in the early going. Instead, Ian Stewart pinch hit and struck out, as did Howie Kendrick, and when Raul Ibanez flew out the Angels had lost for the fourth straight time this season to the Mariners.
Studies have shown runners do not get to first base faster by sliding headfirst, so runners, please stop.
Other thoughts on Tuesday’s games:
- Hard-throwing 22-year-old Yordano Ventura had an impressive 2014 debut for the Royals with six strikeouts and no walks in six scoreless innings against the Rays. Impressively, four of his strikeouts came on his changeup, one on his curveball and one on his fastball. Fourteen of the 19 changeups he threw were strikes -- and if he’s commanding that pitch, he’s going to develop into a very good starter. His average fastball velocity was 97 mph and peaked at 100.8. Alas, the Royals loaded the bases three times and failed to score and the Rays beat Greg Holland with a run in the ninth. My concern about the Royals’ offense heading into the season was a lack of power, and they’re homerless through seven games. Mike Moustakas -- remember his hot spring? -- finally got his first hit. He’s only 25, so you don’t want to say there’s no chance of a breakout season for him, but I don’t see it, and a hot spring didn’t change my opinion.
- The White Sox pounded the Rockies 15-3 as Jose Abreu hit his first two home runs -- two of the six HRs the White Sox hit Tuesday. Avisail Garcia added his first two homers, as well. Could the White Sox be a sleeper team? I’m skeptical that they can jump from 63 wins into playoff contention, but if Abreu is a star and lineup anchor, and Adam Eaton provides speed and on-base ability from the leadoff spot, and Garcia hits in his first full season, the White Sox will score a lot more runs than the 598 they scored last year. The Sox have one-of-a-kind starter Chris Sale and a solid No. 2, Jose Quintana, so perhaps the Sox can surprise if the Indians and Royals fall back a bit from 2013.
- The Reds are 1-4 against the Cardinals after blowing an early 4-0 lead in a 7-5 loss; Homer Bailey gave up four runs in the second and the bullpen lost it in the sixth. The four losses have been by a total of six runs. The Cardinals went 11-8 against the Reds last year while outscoring them 102-77. The Reds are 2-6, Billy Hamilton is struggling from the leadoff spot (.091/.130/.136, no stolen bases), and the bullpen clearly misses Aroldis Chapman. The Reds have to be careful about digging an early hole. After Wednesday afternoon’s game against the Cards (Mike Leake versus Shelby Miller), Cincy's next five series are against the Rays, Pirates, Cubs, Pirates and Braves. Four of those are tough series that could leave the Reds well under .500 by the end of April.
- Brandon Belt continues to rake, going 2-for-4 with his fifth home run as the Giants beat the Diamondbacks 7-3 (I wonder if that Arizona dugout bench is getting a little warm for Kirk Gibson). The interesting thing about Belt’s season numbers is that he has 10 strikeouts and no walks. It’s obviously a small sample size (only eight games), but I checked to see if he’s been chasing pitches out of the strike zone. He’s swung at 36 percent of pitches out of the zone, compared to 28 percent last year. His swing rate at pitches in the zone has increased from 46 to 52 percent. Too early to draw any conclusions, but it appears he may be taking a more aggressive approach. Of course, if he keeps hitting like this, he’ll start seeing a lot more pitches out of the zone.
- Speaking of being more aggressive, Mike Trout said in spring training he’d be more aggressive this year on first pitches or when the count was in his favor. So far, he’s swung at four first pitches in 35 plate appearances (11.4 percent) resulting in two misses and two foul balls. Last season, he swung at the first pitch 12.4 percent of the time and at 2-0 pitches 30 percent of the time; this season, he has faced just two 2-0 counts and swung once.
- Bartolo Colon pitched seven scoreless innings in the Mets’ 4-0 win over the Braves. He threw 101 pitches -- 88 fastballs. Of course, those 88 fastballs come in at different speeds and move, cut, dive, fade and run. What a unique, fun pitcher to watch. The Braves are 4-3 even though they’ve scored just 15 runs in seven games. Jason Heyward (.107), B.J. Upton (.138, 13 K’s, no walks), Justin Upton (.231, no extra-base hits) and Evan Gattis (.188, no walks) all continue to struggle. Freddie Freeman -- six walks and just two strikeouts -- isn’t going to see much to hit until the guys in front of him start getting on base.
In the end, he missed just one start, which was still enough of a setback to put Rangers fans in a minor state of panic considering the opening week rotation was already without Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.
Darvish returned Sunday after not having pitched in three weeks and looked a lot like the guy many predicted will win the Cy Young Award, undoubtedly calming at least a few nerves in the Rangers fan base and front office. He pitched seven innings of no-run baseball in a 3-0 win over the Rays, an efficient 89-pitch effort that included just one walk. He threw 65 of his 89 pitches for strikes and held the Rays to an 0-for-10 mark with runners in scoring position.
He wasn't necessarily overpowering, averaging 91.7 mph on his fastball while maxing out at 95.1 mph, but maybe this is the new, strike-throwing Darvish, one looking to be a little more economical in his pitch counts to avoid walks and pitch consistently deeper into games.
"It seems like they are very aggressive, so I tried not to overthrow and be very careful with my command," Darvish said. "That was the key to my success. I was aggressive throwing strikes. I felt like I was pitching in spring training or any other game. I didn't feel anything unusual."
While Darvish recorded just six strikeouts, he showed what makes him so tough to hit -- the six K's came on two fastballs, two curveballs, a slider and a changeup to Wil Myers. It's that changeup that could be a new weapon for him: He threw 90 changeups all of last year, recording just four strikeouts. Just what batters want to hear, knowing it's hard enough already with two strikes gearing up for a curveball or slider.
The Rangers' rotation remains a little unsettled -- Colby Lewis may be close to returning and they may use six starters this week. The good news is the Rangers are 3-3 despite the makeshift rotation and having hit just one home run. They play the Red Sox and Astros this week but will need the rotation to come together sooner rather than later as they play the Mariners seven times and the A's six before the end of the month.
Darvish joked that he'd pitch great every time if he had three weeks between starts. The Rangers are hoping he'll pitch great every fifth day.
2. The most impressive result of the weekend was the Brewers going into Boston and sweeping the Red Sox by scores of 6-2, 7-6 (in 11 innings) and 4-0 on Sunday. The Red Sox were swept just once all last season -- in a three-game series in Texas -- and shut out just three times at Fenway Park in the regular season.
Yovani Gallardo struck out only three in 6 2/3 innings but issued no walks and got 11 ground balls outs compared to four in the air. He hasn't allowed a run in his first two starts. Gallardo struggled last year and while his velocity isn't up from last year at least he's throwing strikes early on.
3. I watched a lot of Mariners this week and there were a lot of positives to draw upon as they went 4-2 on the road: Two dominant starts from Felix Hernandez, one from James Paxton, good hitting from Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley. Robinson Cano hit a quiet .391/.500/.478 as he's still looking for his first home run. He has drawn three intentional walks already as the Angels and A's elected to go after Smoak.
All three walks came in conventional IBB situations: Two outs, runners on second or second and third. Smoak went 1-for-3 with a bases-clearing double. Still, for now, it appears opponents will avoid Cano whenever possible. The biggest positive with Cano may have been his hustle double on Sunday when he singled to center and took advantage of Coco Crisp jogging after the ball. That's a Cano that New York writers like to say doesn't exist. It's one play, but perhaps a sign that Cano will embrace being a leader on the Mariners.
4. Mark Trumbo homered for the fourth straight game Sunday in the Diamondbacks' 5-3 win over the Rockies, just their second victory in nine games as they currently sit with the majors' worst record. Even though Trumbo has five home runs and 13 RBIs and Paul Goldschmidt is mashing, the Arizona offense has mostly struggled, averaging fewer than four runs per game.
The Rockies intentionally walked Trumbo with a runner on third base and one out on Sunday to pitch to Miguel Montero, who promptly grounded into a double play against Brett Anderson. Montero's OPS fell from .820 and .829 in 2011 and 2012 to .662 in 2013. He and Gerardo Parra are the only regular lefties in the D-backs' lineup, and they need the old Montero not the 2013 version.
5. I watched the last few innings of Chris Tillman's gem to beat the Tigers, and he looked really good, allowing one run again as he did in his Opening Day start. He couldn't quite finish it off, getting one out in the ninth before being pulled for Tommy Hunter, but he challenged the Tigers -- 74 of his 113 pitches were fastballs -- and did a good job of moving the fastball around against left-handed batters (he pitches mostly to the outside corner with the fastball against righties).
Without sounding overdramatic here, it was a big win for the Orioles as 2-4 just sounds a lot better than 1-5. The Orioles have one of the toughest April schedules in the majors as just six of their first 27 games are against teams that finished under .500 last year and those six are against Toronto, no pushover, so they need to make sure they don't get buried before May.
6. This wasn't from Sunday, but I hope you didn't miss Giancarlo Stanton's mammoth home run on Friday off Eric Stults. The ESPN Home Run Tracker estimated the moon shot at 484 feet, 31 feet longer than the second-longest home run so far. The longest home run last year was Evan Gattis' 486-foot blast for the Braves on Sept. 8 off Cole Hamels.
The Marlins lost on Sunday, but they're off to a 5-2 start. Stanton is hitting .345/.406/.655, and for all those fears that he wouldn't get pitched to, he hasn't drawn an intentional walk
Jeter has his most hits off Tim Wakefield (36) and among pitchers he faced at least 40 times, has the highest average against Bruce Chen (.429). (He also hit an impressive .413 against Johan Santana. Molitor got 33 hits off both Jack Morris and Roger Clemens (and hit above .300 against both) and killed Erik Hanson (.482) and Walt Terrell (.477).
8. The Yankees have one home run in six games, hit by Brett Gardner on Sunday's win over the Blue Jays. Could power actually be an issue for the Yankees? Mark Teixeira landed on the DL over the weekend, which means they're really going to have to rely on 38-year-old Alfonso Soriano and 37-year-old Carlos Beltran for some pop. Leading the team in extra-base hits? Yangervis Solarte. Of course.
9. B.J. Upton: Hey, at least he didn't strike out in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Nationals. But he did go 0-for-4 and is off to a .120/.120/.140 start with 11 strikeouts in 25 plate appearances. So far, Fredi Gonzalez has hit him second in all six games. It's way too early to panic, but tell that to Braves fans.
10. Speaking of worrying, should the Angels be worried about Jered Weaver? In two starts, batters are slugging .600 against him and the Astros pounded four home runs off him on Sunday. The four home runs came on four different pitches: Jason Castro off a 3-1 changeup, Matt Dominguez off a 3-2 slider, Jesus Guzman on an 0-1 fastball and Alex Presley on an 0-1 curveball. His fastball velocity, such as it is, has averaged 86.0 mph, about the same as last year's 86.5.
As with all these first-week results, don't overreact, but if Weaver isn't a strong rotation anchor, the Angels are in trouble. They're 2-4, hoping to avoid the terrible April starts of the past two seasons.
Overreact after one series? Of course we're going to overreact! We're baseball fans. It's no fun if we just spout things like "small sample size" and "check back in two months." So, what have we learned after one series? Here are a few trends and things to watch, starting with Evan Longoria.
The Rays third baseman went 2-for-4 in Tampa's 7-2 win over Toronto, slugging a three-run homer for his first home run of 2014. So here's the deal with Longoria: If anyone is going to crack the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout stranglehold on the AL MVP Award, Longoria is the most likely candidate. Consider his merits:
2. He's good. Not including 2012, when he played just 74 games, he's finished fifth, sixth, third and fourth in WAR among AL position players and has three top-10 MVP finishes.
3. The Rays are a good bet to make the postseason. MVP voters love that.
4. Longoria is an RBI guy, averaging 110 RBIs per 162 games over his career. MVP voters love themselves some RBIs.
5. He should knock in more than the 88 runs he did last year, when he hit .265 with just four home runs with runners in scoring position (22 of his 32 home runs came with the bases empty).
In truth, as good as Longoria has been, we've kind of been waiting for that monster season, haven't we? Maybe that's unfair to say about one of the best all-around players in the league (did you see the play he made the other night?), but Longoria hit .294 in 2010 and just .269 last season, when his strikeout rate increased to 23.4 percent, easily his highest rate since his rookie season. If he cuts down on the strikeouts, I can see that average climbing over .300 for the first time in his career and the RBIs climbing well over 100.
Other thoughts from many hours of baseball viewing over the past few days:
- If they stay healthy, the Giants are going to have the best offense in the National League. On Thursday, they scored five runs in the eighth inning to beat the Diamondbacks 8-5. Angel Pagan is a solid leadoff hitter, and Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence provide a juicy meat of the order. I've mentioned Belt as a guy I like to have a big breakout season, and he hit his third home run. Pence seems to get better the higher he wears his pants legs. Posey won't slump like he did in the second half last year. Sandoval hits and eats and hits some more.
- The Angels’ and Phillies’ bullpens look like disasters. The Mariners pounded every reliever the Angels tried in their series and the Angels are suddenly staring at another bad April start: 9-17 last year, 8-15 in 2012. Jonathan Papelbon looked like a shell of his former shelf in getting roughed up the other day.
- How long do the A’s stick with closer Jim Johnson? OK, he led the AL in saves the past two seasons. He also led the AL last season in blown saves and was second in relief losses. He has two losses already, he’s not a strikeout pitcher and the A’s have other good relievers. It’s never too early to panic about your closer!
- How many closers do you have complete confidence in right now anyway? With low-scoring games and tight pennant races, late-inning relief work is going to decide a division title or two. We had six blown saves on Wednesday. The D-Backs coughed up that game on Thursday. The Rockies blew an eighth-inning lead to the Marlins. And so on. Rough few days for the bullpens (in contrast to starters, who generally dominated).
- A young pitcher who hasn’t yet made his mark to watch: Seattle’s James Paxton showcased electrifying stuff in his first start, striking out nine in seven and throwing 97 mph in his final inning.
- With Clayton Kershaw missing a few starts, the new Cy Young favorite in the National League: Jose Fernandez. He’s must-watch TV, Pedro-in-his-prime eye candy. His run support will be an issue, but the stuff, poise and confidence are that of a wise veteran, not a 21-year-old kid.
- In case you had doubts, Michael Wacha is most assuredly the real deal. His changeup is Pedro-in-his-prime nasty. The Reds went 0-for-10 with four strikeouts against it.
- Veteran Alex Gonzalez is not going to last as the Tigers' shortstop. He simply doesn’t have the range to play there. Stephen Drew, come on down?
- Manager on the hot seat: Kirk Gibson. The Diamondbacks are off to 1-5 start, and nine of their next 15 games are against the Dodgers (six) and Giants (three). If the D-backs can avoid digging a big hole over that stretch, the schedule does get a little easier starting April 21, when they play 19 consecutive games against teams that finished under .500 in 2013.
- Tyro Zack Wheeler is not Matt Harvey. Hold down your expectations, Mets fans.
- We’re going to see a lot more shifts this year. I haven’t checked the numbers, but anecdotal evidence suggests infield shifts are way up. Expect batting averages to continue to plummet as a result.
- Free-agent-to-be Max Scherzer is going to make a lot of money this offseason.
- I hope B.J. Upton gets fixed, but I have my doubts. Six strikeouts in his first 12 plate appearances.
- Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is going to have a high BABIP again. Great stroke to all fields, great balance between attacking fastballs early in the count and waiting for his pitch later in the count. He'll be an MVP candidate again.
- Clearly, Emilio Bonifacio (11 hits in three games!) is the best player in the NL. OK, seriously: The Royals couldn’t find a spot for this guy on their roster? Ned Yost, everyone!
- Rookie Xander Bogaerts is ready NOW. He’s hitting .556 with three walks and one strikeout in three games. Maybe the power takes a year or two to fully develop, but his mature, disciplined approach at the plate is going make a star right away.
- Dave Cameron of FanGraphs suggested this and it’s not outrageous: With Jose Reyes injured, Brad Miller might be the best shortstop in the AL. Or maybe Bogaerts. Could have been Bonifacio, if only the Royals had kept him!
- Best team in baseball: The Mariners ... too early?
You could chalk it up to Trout, like another former AL West center fielder named Griffey, having a flair for Opening Day theatrics.
You could chalk it up to Trout being, you know, good at baseball.
Or you could chalk it up to Trout saying in spring training he was going to be more aggressive at the plate this season and then being more aggressive and hitting a laser beam off the King in the first inning for a two-run homer to left-center and an immediate exclamation point for his first game after signing a contract extension worth many piles of coins.
It’s the last of those statements that is the most interesting to examine. See, last season Trout swung at just 37 percent of the pitches he saw -- the lowest rate of 140 qualified regulars. Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Trout led the American League with 110 walks. He swung at the first pitch just 12 percent of the time, which ranked 131st of those 140 regulars. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it can help Trout get into a lot of good hitter’s counts. He hit .347/.508/.571 after a 1-0 count.
But, and here’s the fine line between discipline and aggression, what if Trout swings at the right pitches earlier in the count? As he told MLB.com a couple weeks ago, "I think the biggest thing, for me, is being aggressive early. A lot of counts last year, I'd be taking, seeing pitches. But I'm going to be aggressive this year. Instead of just flipping one over for strike one, or 2-0 strike one, I'm going to be up there hacking. I'm going to be up there swinging."
Against Hernandez in the first, Trout took a fastball for ball one (patience!) and then foul tipped another fastball (aggressiveness!). The 1-1 pitch was a slider that maybe didn’t slide quite enough, and Trout crushed it. Now, the 1-1 pitch is often the make-or-break pitch in an at-bat, because what happens on a 1-2 count or 2-1 count is dramatically different -- the average major leaguer hit .255 after a 2-1 count but just .179 after a 1-2 count. Trout hit .321 after the count reached 2-1 and .245 after it reached 1-2.
So the smart hitter knows when to attack that 1-1 pitch. While the average major leaguer hit .331 when putting the 1-1 pitch into play, Trout hit .423 with seven home runs in 71 at-bats. It helps to be smart and talented.
Anyway, one at-bat and a spring training quote don’t mean Trout is necessarily going to start hacking like Vladimir Guerrero, even if you do sort of admire his bravado for declaring his strategic intentions to opposing pitchers. I talked to his teammate, David Freese, in spring training about Trout’s quote, and he said he wouldn’t expect Trout to really change all that much. "That’s not the kind of hitter he is," Freese said. "He’s going to wait for his pitch. He’s still going to get his walks."
Against Hernandez in the third, Trout again took ball one, took a 93 mph fastball on the inside corner for a strike and then flew out to right field. In the fifth, he took a high fastball for strike one, took a ball, swung through a good sinker and fouled off three pitches before finally striking out on a 3-2 sinking fastball. Facing Charlie Furbush in the seventh, he took strike one and then singled off Furbush’s leg. So, overall, the new, aggressive Mike Trout resembled the old, not-so-aggressive Trout. I think Freese is probably right: It's not so easy to change your natural style. Just as Joey Votto isn't going to expand his strike zone just because it's an RBI situation, Trout is going to work deep into the count.
Bottom line: This is something we'll keep an eye on. Trout is so smart and disciplined that the scary idea is if he does develop an even more perfect balance between patience and aggressiveness. He struck out 136 times last season. What if he maintains his walk rate but puts an extra 40 balls in play? He could hit .350 with 35 home runs.
Which, umm, would make the best player in baseball the even-better best player in baseball.
Must-watch game of the day
If I could watch only one game on Opening Day -- which would pretty much qualify as cruel and unusual punishment if actually forced to such limits -- I'd go with St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN). First, we get a heated division rivalry with two playoff teams from last season. We get a great pitching matchup with Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto. We get Billy Hamilton trying to get on base and then trying to run on Yadier Molina if he does get on. We get the new Reds lineup with Joey Votto and Jay Bruce hitting third and fourth. (Oh, how we miss you, Dusty.) Plus, there are potential cameos from Eric Davis, Chris Sabo, Pete Rose or Schottzie.
Best pitching matchup of the day
Considering the depth of starting pitching in the majors, you'd think we'd have more can't-miss pitching matchups of Cy Young contender facing Cy Young contender, but that isn't really the case on this day. But James Shields versus Justin Verlander is a great one (Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers, 1:08 p.m. ET).
Here's an interesting fact: The Tigers had all that great pitching last year, right? Well, the Royals allowed the fewest runs in the American League. Shields is making his sixth career Opening Day start while Verlander makes his seventh in a row. Verlander allowed zero runs his past two openers (although he pitched just five innings last year on a cold day in Minnesota). Royals fans must deal with no Jeff Francoeur in the opening lineup for the first time in four years. Hold those tears.
Pitcher you have to watch if you've never watched him
The Marlins rarely appear on national TV, so you may not have seen Jose Fernandez pitch as a rookie unless you're actually a Marlins fan or your team faced him. If you missed him, you made a mistake, so don't miss this one. No dinner break. No excuse that this may be your third game of the day. He starts against Jorge De La Rosa as the Colorado Rockies play the Miami Marlins (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN).
This is kind of a cool random factoid from ESPN Stats & Information: This is the first Opening Day matchup in the past 100 years of pitchers born in Cuba and Mexico. Fernandez will become the fourth-youngest Opening Day starter in the past 35 seasons behind Dwight Gooden (1985 and 1986 Mets), Fernando Valenzuela (1981 Dodgers) and Felix Hernandez (2007 Mariners).
The "Wait, he's starting on Opening Day?" award
This is always a fun one. One year the Pittsburgh Pirates started Ron Villone, who had posted a 5.89 ERA the year before -- primarily as a reliever. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays started Dewon Brazelton in 2005; he'd finish the season 1-8 with a 7.61 ERA. The Twins started Vance Worley a year ago. This year's most interesting surprise starter is Tanner Scheppers of the Rangers (Philadelphia Phillies at Texas Rangers, 2:05 p.m. ET) -- interesting because he has never started a major league game.
Since 1914, only three pitchers made their major league debuts starting on Opening Day: Lefty Grove of the A's in 1925, Jim Bagby Jr. of the Red Sox in 1938 and Al Gerheauser of the 1943 Phillies. Scheppers doesn't match their feat because he's pitched in relief, but he does match Valenzuela, whose first major league start came in that 1981 Opening Day start. Of course, to match Fernando, all Scheppers has to do is throw five shutouts and six complete games in his first seven starts.
Just thought I'd mention this
The Los Angeles Dodgers will pay reliever Brandon League more this season ($8.5 million) than the Pirates will pay National League MVP Andrew McCutchen ($7.458 million), who will rank 34th among outfielders in salary in 2014. Anyway, watch McCutchen's Pirates host the Chicago Cubs (1 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN).
Another reason to love McCutchen, besides the fact that he's a talented artist, can imitate others' batting stances and helps old ladies cross the street: His WAR has increased each season of his career, 2.3 to 3.8 to 5.7 to 7.0 to 7.9.
Watch Robinson Cano in a new time zone
Cano makes his Mariners debut in a late game, Mariners at Angels (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN). As a bonus, you get Felix Hernandez and Jered Weaver, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, Abraham Almonte and Justin Smoak. The Mariners begin the season with a seven-game road trip and play 22 of their first 25 games against division opponents while trying to patch together a rotation missing Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker for a few weeks, so few teams will be under more pressure early on than Seattle. Enjoy the marine layer, Robby!
Player most likely to be booed on Opening Day
I was going to say Dan Uggla or Ryan Braun, but unfortunately the Atlanta Braves play at the Milwaukee Brewers (2:10 p.m. ET) instead of vice versa.
Player likely to get the biggest ovation
I'll go with Paul Konerko of the Chicago White Sox, in what will be his final Opening Day -- although he's not guaranteed to start (Twins at White Sox, 4:10 p.m. ET). OK, Konerko or Ike Davis, I'm not sure.
It's the third installment of the epic Mike Trout-Miguel Cabrera trilogy, made even more intriguing by the mammoth contracts the two players just signed. While you can come up with a dozen legitimate MVP candidates in the National League, AL honors will almost surely go to Trout or Cabrera, barring a miracle Mariners run to the AL West title or something like that. Even though Cabrera has dominated the voting the past two seasons -- he received 45 first-place votes to just 11 for Trout -- I'm leaning toward Trout winning in 2014 for the following reasons:
(1) I think he's going to take a small step forward. It's hard to imagine him playing better, but Trout's suggestion that's he going to be more aggressive swinging early in the count could actually be a good thing. Among 140 qualified regulars last season, Trout ranked 140th in swing rate (37 percent). He ranked 131st in swing rate on first pitches. Trout is too disciplined to start hacking at pitches out of the zone, so zeroing in on certain pitches early in the count could lead to more production without sacrificing his walk rate all that much.
(2) Cabrera will be hard-pressed to match the past two seasons. That's not a knock, just an awareness of how good he's been (including a sick .397/.529/.782 line with runners in scoring position last year). Last September's injury issues -- he hit .278 with one home run -- show that Cabrera is human even when his body fails him. He says he's fine after offseason surgery, but it still raises a small question heading into the season.
(3) Only one player -- Barry Bonds from 2001 to 2004 -- has won three consecutive MVP awards. Voters don't like to give it to the same player every year. In fact, Cabrera was just the second AL player in 40 years to win back-to-back MVP honors (Frank Thomas was the last in 1993-94). If the numbers are close, that works in Trout's favor this time around.
(4) More awareness that Trout is the better all-around player. Cabrera has been worth 7.2 and 7.5 WAR (Baseball-Reference) the past two seasons, Trout 10.8 and 8.9. Polls of general managers have indicated they think Trout is the better player. Again, that's not a knock on Cabrera, the best hitter in the game.
(5) The Angels should be better. The biggest roadblock to Trout winning the past two seasons was the Angels missing the playoffs. In recent years, voters have almost exclusively given the MVP Award to a guy on a playoff team. The Tigers are still the better bet for the postseason, so that could ultimately swing the award back to Cabrera for a third straight year.
2. Who is this year's Josh Donaldson or Matt Carpenter?
Historically, these guys had pretty amazing and unique seasons. Donaldson was 27, in his first full season as a starter, and he surprised everyone by finishing fourth in the AL MVP vote. Carpenter, also 27 and playing every day for the first time, finished fourth in the NL MVP vote. And then there was Chris Davis -- also 27 -- who mashed 53 home runs and knocked in 138 runs. He had a little more of a résumé than Donaldson or Carpenter, having hit 33 home runs the year before, but nobody had him as a preseason MVP candidate.
Odds are slim that we'll see even one of those types of performances, let alone three, but since 27 seemed to be the magical age, here are some guys playing their age-27 seasons in 2014: Pedro Alvarez, Jay Bruce, Chris Carter, Colby Rasmus, Evan Gattis, Justin Smoak, Jason Kipnis, Pablo Sandoval, Desmond Jennings, Josh Reddick, Ike Davis, Michael Saunders, Yonder Alonso. Hmm ... Alvarez certainly could go all Chris Davis on us (he hit 36 home runs in 2013), but I don't see a Donaldson or Carpenter in there; then again, we didn't see a Donaldson or Carpenter coming last year. (Guys such as Bruce, Kipnis and Sandoval are already pretty accomplished players.)
If we go down to age-26 players, I see a few more interesting candidates: Brandon Belt (I've written about him), Kyle Seager, Khris Davis, Kole Calhoun, Dustin Ackley. So there you go: Kole Calhoun, MVP candidate!
3. Are the Yankees too old?
Right now, their regular lineup looks like this:
C -- Brian McCann (30 years old)
1B -- Mark Teixeira (34)
2B -- Brian Roberts (36)
3B -- Kelly Johnson (32)
SS -- Derek Jeter (40)
LF -- Brett Gardner (30)
CF -- Jacoby Ellsbury (30)
RF -- Carlos Beltran (37)
DH -- Alfonso Soriano (38)
The top subs are Ichiro Suzuki (40) and Brendan Ryan (32). If those guys ending up staying reasonably healthy, the Yankees won't have one regular younger than 30. I wonder if that's ever happened before. The rotation features 33-year-old CC Sabathia and 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda.
And yet ... the Yankees may be better than we expect. I have them at 84 wins, which is right where the projection systems have them (FanGraphs at 83 wins, Baseball Prospectus also at 83), and I'm beginning to wonder if that's too conservative. Masahiro Tanaka looked terrific this spring and maybe he does match the 2.59 ERA projected by the Oliver system as opposed to the 3.68 of ZiPS or 3.87 of Steamer. Michael Pineda could provide a huge boost to the rotation. The offense is going to score a lot more runs than last year. Yes, age and injuries will be the deciding factor, but the Yankees have defied Father Time in the past.
4. Will Yasiel Puig implode or explode?
I'm going with explode -- in a good way. That doesn't mean he isn't going to give Don Mattingly headaches or miss the cutoff guy every now and then or get a little exuberant on the base paths on occasion or incite columnists to write about the good ol' days when Mickey Mantle always showed up to the ballpark on time. But the positives will outweigh the negatives, he'll provide tons of energy to the Dodgers, he'll be one of the most exciting players in the game and he's going to have a big, big season.
5. Are the Braves going to implode or explode?
For a team that won 96 games, the Braves enter the season with a surprising range of outcomes. Minus Brian McCann, Tim Hudson and Kris Medlen, this won't be the same team as last year. But maybe that's a good thing if Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton don't hit .179 and .184 again. The Braves allowed fewer runs in 2013 than any of the Glavine-Maddux-Smoltz teams, so they were going to be hard-pressed to match that run prevention anyway. Implode or explode? I'm going somewhere in the middle, with 86 wins -- which may be just enough to capture a wild card.
6. Who are the most important players of 2014?
The first 10 names that pop into my head, without analysis or explanation (other than to say these are players with a great deal of potential volatility in their performance or a high degree injury risk):
1. Derek Jeter, Yankees
2. Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
3. Tim Lincecum, Giants
4. Billy Hamilton, Reds
5. Francisco Liriano, Pirates
6. Scott Kazmir, A's
7. Albert Pujols, Angels
8. Michael Wacha, Cardinals
9. B.J. Upton, Braves
10. Ubaldo Jimenez, Orioles
7. Which team is baseball's worst?
I'm going with the Astros, although it wouldn't surprise me to see the Phillies plummet to the bottom. Or the Twins. If you want a dark horse team, how about the Blue Jays? The rotation could be a disaster and if even Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes and/or Edwin Encarnacion suffer lengthy injuries, the offense could collapse, as well.
8. Is offense going to decrease across the league again?
Considering there's going to be even more drug testing this year, I'll say it drops a tiny bit. Here are the runs per game totals in recent seasons:
The increased use of defensive shifts will continue to make it harder to hit singles, and the pitching just seems to get better and better. Yes, we had several guys go down with season-ending injuries in spring training -- most notably Medlen, Jarrod Parker and Patrick Corbin -- but we've added Tanaka, we'll get full seasons from the likes of Wacha and Gerrit Cole and Sonny Gray and Chris Archer and Tony Cingrani, and other young guns such as Taijuan Walker, Eddie Butler, Jonathan Gray, Archie Bradley and Jameson Taillon could make major impacts. Plus, Joe Blanton won't be in the Angels' rotation.
9. Who is this year's Pirates?
By "this year's Pirates," we mean a team that finishes under .500 the year before and unexpectedly soars into the playoffs. We actually had three such teams make the playoffs last year: the Pirates, Red Sox and Indians. In 2012, we had the Orioles, A's, Reds and Nationals. In 2011, we had the Brewers and Diamondbacks. In 2010, we had the Reds.
The Royals don't count because they won 86 games last year, so improving a few wins and reaching the playoffs wouldn't be a surprise.
Technically, the Giants fit since they were below .500, but they would hardly be a surprise team just two years after winning the World Series.
Who does that leave? I see three choices in each league:
Blue Jays, Mariners, Angels -- The Blue Jays need their rotation to produce in a tough division, the Mariners maybe can take advantage of injuries to the A's and Rangers. The Angels were below .500, but they've been perennial playoff contenders, so they hardly fit the "surprise" definition.
Padres, Rockies, Brewers -- I'd be most inclined to go with the Rockies here, as they have two stars in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez and just need better production from the back of the rotation (although the early injury to Jhoulys Chacin doesn't help). I've been on the Brewers' bandwagon the past two years and refuse to jump on this year (which means they're probably headed to the World Series).
10. Who are five rookies who will impact the pennant races?
1. Masahiro Tanaka, P, Yankees. Don't be surprised if he's a Cy Young contender.
2. Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox. We saw his already-polished game in the postseason last October.
3. Billy Hamilton, CF, Reds. The speed is Cool Papa Bell turn-of-the-light-switch-and-be-in-bed-before-the-room-goes-dark kind of speed. The defense should be above average, but will he hit?
4. Gregory Polanco, RF, and Jameson Taillon, P, Pirates. They won't be up to start the season but will eventually be part of Pittsburgh's playoff drive.
5. Nick Castellanos, 3B, Tigers. With Cabrera moving over to first, he takes over at third base with potential to produce with the bat.
11. Which division race will be the most exciting?
I'm going with the AL West, which should be a three-team race between the A's, Rangers and Angels, with the Mariners possibly making it a four-team race. Or maybe the AL East, which could be a titanic struggle between the Red Sox, Rays, Yankees and Orioles. Or the NL West, which could be a five-team race if the Dodgers fall back to the pack. Or the NL Central, if the Cardinals aren't as dominant as I believe they will be. Or the AL Central, which the Tigers won by only a game last year. Or the NL East ... which, well, I can't see this as anything but a two-team race. (Sorry, Mets, Marlins and Phillies fans.)
12. Who are some other award contenders?
Here are my picks:
1. Mike Trout
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Evan Longoria
4. Adrian Beltre
5. Dustin Pedroia
AL Cy Young
1. David Price
2. Yu Darvish
3. Max Scherzer
4. Justin Verlander
5. Felix Hernandez
1. Masahiro Tanaka
2. Xander Bogaerts
3. Nick Castellanos
AL home run champ
1. Chris Davis
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Edwin Encarnacion
AL batting champ
1. Mike Trout
2. Miguel Cabrera
3. Joe Mauer
1. Yadier Molina
2. Joey Votto
3. Andrew McCutchen
4. Hanley Ramirez
5. Ryan Braun
NL Cy Young
1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Jordan Zimmermann
3. Jose Fernandez
4. Zack Greinke
5. Adam Wainwright
1. Billy Hamilton
2. Chris Owings
3. Travis d'Arnaud
NL home run champ
1. Giancarlo Stanton
2. Pedro Alvarez
3. Paul Goldschmidt
NL batting champ
1. Joey Votto
2. Andrew McCutchen
3. Yadier Molina
13. Do the Red Sox win it all?
No, but they do make the playoffs. My final standings:
Tampa Bay: 93-69
New York: 84-78
Kansas City: 82-80
Los Angeles: 83-79
New York: 73-89
St. Louis: 95-67
Los Angeles: 94-68
San Francisco: 82-80
San Diego: 80-82
14. Who wins it all?
I'm going Rays over Dodgers in seven games. And then the David Price trade rumors will begin again two days later.