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Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Determining what's real and what isn't

By David Schoenfield

This was going to be an ode to the Milwaukee Brewers and their recent strong play: How Ryan Braun is playing like an MVP, and how Prince Fielder is driving in runs, and Yovani Gallardo is red hot and Carlos Gomez is running down everything in center field.

But, of course, the Brewers lost 7-3 to the Reds, so instead let’s play a little game of “Real or Not Real.”

The Brewers will win the NL Central: REAL. If I had to make a call right now, I’d lean to the Brewers. Their rotation is the best in the division, and Gallardo (7-2, 3.89) and Zack Greinke (3-1, 5.79) are just starting to pitch well. Put it this way: I expect those two to drastically outperform Kyle McClellan (6-2, 3.86) and Kyle Lohse (7-2, 2.13) the rest of the season, and I also expect some of the Cardinals’ hitters to fall off their early pace.

The Brewers have some flaws: REAL. They can’t afford to suffer any significant injuries, because the bench is terrible and the bullpen is thin. They’re only 8-18 on the road (including 0-4 at Cincinnati, including a season-opening sweep). Keep a close eye in June on that road: Beside two more in Cincy, they have four at Florida, four at the Cubs, three at Boston and three at the Yankees. Those two trips to Boston and New York could be huge ... especially since the Cardinals don’t play either team.

Wait, so the MLB schedule is as messed up as I just made it sound: REAL.. This is the deep, dark, dirty secret of the 2011 season. The luck of the schedule could end up playing a huge factor in who makes the playoffs.

Albert Pujols’ slump: REAL. Here’s the thing: Albert Pujols doesn’t go into slumps. In the first 10 years of his career, check out his OPS totals by month:

1.000 or greater: 39 times
.900 to .999: 16 times
.800 to .899: 3 times
.700 to .799: 2 times

The two months under .800 came in July of 2001, his rookie season, when he hit .241/.333/.460 for a .793 OPS; and June of 2006, when he had a .715 OPS but played just 10 games.

So that means the first two months of 2011 were the worst of his career. He had a .758 OPS in April and .684 in May entering Monday night (when he hit just his second home run of the month). He’s grounded into an astounding 16 double plays, putting him on pace to break Jim Rice’s single-season record of 36 in 1984. Rice had led the AL in 1983 with 39 home runs, but never again hit 30 and never again slugged .500. He was 31 in 1984 ... the same age as Pujols right now. Is he hurt? Just in a two-month slump of hitting too many groundballs? Pressing because of his free agency status? Or is this a legitimate career crisis? I’m sure he’ll do better the rest of the season, but I think the days of Albert Pujols posting 1.000 OPS totals may be a thing of the past.

Jay Bruce’s power: REAL. After his strong second half in 2010, many projected a breakout season for Cincinnati’s right fielder. He has 12 home runs in May, giving him 16 on the season. Most impressively, he’s split that total evenly between home and road, after always having a huge disparity in his career (19 of his 25 home runs last year came at home).

The Diamondbacks as NL West contenders: REAL. They’ve won 13 of 14, their season run differential is now plus-22, the starting pitching -- led by Ian Kennedy -- has been solid, J.J. Putz has been lights-out as closer, and Ryan Roberts, Stephen Drew and Miguel Montero all rank in the top 20 in the NL in on-base percentage ... but the main reason they’re contenders? It’s the NL West!

Jose Bautista is a clown: NOT REAL. A guy with an 0-8 record ripping an opponent for not running out a pop fly just doesn’t have the same gravitas as Carlton Fisk telling Deion Sanders to act like a professional.

The Mariners as AL West contenders: NOT REAL. I optimistically said on the “Baseball Today” podcast last week that they could win 78 games. OK, maybe that does make them contenders in the West. But check out their schedule until the All-Star break: Orioles, Rays, White Sox, Tigers, Angels, Phillies, Nationals, Marlins, Braves, Padres, A’s, Angels. If they’re still two games out at the All-Star break, then I’ll start believing.

Michael Pineda: REAL. Hey, I’ve gone two or three days without making a Pineda reference.

I’m going to buy one of the special Memorial Day two-panel caps with the white front: NOT REAL. White caps? No thanks.

Bartolo Colon: REAL. He may not stay healthy for 30 starts, but there’s nothing fluky about his open to the year. After blanking the A’s with a four-hit shutout on Monday, he’s 3-3 with a 3.26 ERA. He has a 62/15 strikeout/walk ratio and is throwing in the low 90s. He basically rears back and throws moving fastballs down in the zone. Nothing fancy about it, but absolutely legit.

Matt Joyce is the second-best hitter in the AL: NOT REAL. He’s currently leading the AL in batting average while ranking second in slugging percentage and third in on-base percentage. He’s a good hitter and he’s been a season-saver for the Rays as they wait for Evan Longoria to get untracked, but Joyce’s current BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is over .400 and the only player in the past decade that has maintained that for an entire season (Jose Hernandez hit .404 in 2002).

Jair Jurrjens, NL All-Star starter: REAL. How’s Edgar Renteria working out in Detroit? Critics point to Jurrjens’ 5.2 K/9 rate and .262 BABIP to suggest the ERA will rise. Well, of course it will rise from 1.51, but I still think he can keep it under 3.00. He’s cut his walks in half from his career average and he keeps the ball in the park with that nasty sinker. Here’s another way to look at: The current NL runs per game average is about 4.1, about what it was in 1990-91. Over those two seasons, 17 NL starters had an ERA under 3.00 -- and seven of them did it with a strikeout rate less than 5.5 per nine innings. With scoring and home runs down, you don’t necessarily have to be a high-strikeout pitcher to succeed anymore, making Jurrjens kind of a 2011 version of Doug Drabek or Dennis Martinez. Don’t be surprised if Jurrjens gets the start for the National League for the All-Star Game.

The Twins will get an All-Star representative: REAL. I predict it will not be Drew Butera. (Actually, center fielder Denard Span, hitting .300 with solid defense, isn’t a terrible option.)

Ozzie Guillen is still baseball’s most entertaining manager: REAL. Makes you wish Twitter had been around when Billy Martin was managing.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Michael Bourn
Always a good idea to look up near the ivy if you're an opponent at Wrigley. Good move, Michael Bourn.