SweetSpot: Mike Trout
Maybe I'm wrong here, but is it possible reigning National League MVP Andrew McCutchen is a little underrated?
Here's what I'm getting at it: Who is the best player in baseball? Most everyone says Mike Trout. Some will say Clayton Kershaw, if you want to consider a pitcher. Maybe a small percentage will suggest Giancarlo Stanton, based on his big season.
And while everyone acknowledges McCutchen is a terrific player, I don't seem to hear his name mentioned alongside Trout's. Why not?
In Wednesday's 6-3 victory over the Phillies, McCutchen went 2-for-4 with an inside-the-park home run as his deep drive to center bounded off the wall and away from Ben Revere (right fielder Grady Sizemore was nowhere to be seen backing up the play). The Pirates maintained their slim 1.5-game lead for the second wild card, and McCutchen has been a big reason for that. Since he missed 15 games in early August with a fractured rib, he's hit .313/.356/.550 with six home runs in 20 games -- all while playing through the injury. With Josh Harrison, the red-hot Starling Marte and McCutchen -- each went 2-for-4 on Wednesday -- the Pirates have as good a top three in the lineup right now as any team in the majors. That offense is good enough to carry this team into the postseason again.
Anyway, back to that compare/contrast exercise with Trout. Their season numbers:
McCutchen: .311/.403/.539, .401 wOBA, 162 wRC+
Trout: .286/.373/.551, .391 wOBA, 164 wRC+
Trout has the advantage in power, while McCutchen gets on base more. The sabermetric stats rate their overall value as hitters pretty similarly, with McCutchen having the edge in weighted on-base average and Trout the slightest of edges in the park-adjusted weighted runs created.
OK, what about defense? The metrics agree neither Trout nor McCutchen has been a top defensive center fielder this year. Trout rates at minus-7 Defensive Runs Saved and McCutchen at minus-8. Ultimate Zone Rating also puts both below average. Both have reputations that exceed the numbers, but this is the second straight season of mediocre defensive metrics for Trout.
Baserunning? Trout hasn't run as much this year, so that advantage has dissipated. He's 14-for-16 stealing bases while McCutchen is 17-for-19. McCutchen has taken the extra base in 42 percent of his opportunities compared to Trout's 59 percent, so overall, Trout holds a minor edge on the bases. Still, there's not a whole lot of difference between what the two guys have brought to the field this year.
Now, Trout does own a somewhat decisive edge in Wins Above Replacement, with 7.0 to 5.3 on Baseball-Reference.com (entering Wednesday) and 6.9 to 5.5 on FanGraphs. Some of that difference is simply due to plate appearances: Trout has played 12 more games and has 70 more at-bats. (Batting second as opposed to third also gives him a few more plate appearances.)
WAR is a cumulative statistic, so I'm not dismissing that advantage of Trout's; those are real opportunities to affect games and create value, and are more opportunities than McCutchen has had. But we're not really discussing value here as much production and ability. Give McCutchen those 70 additional plate appearances, and he edges closer to Trout in WAR.
I think part of the reason McCutchen might be underrated is he doesn't do one thing that draws awe-inspiring reactions: He doesn't hit mammoth home runs like Stanton or play center field like Juan Lagares or dart around the bases like Billy Hamilton. He did have a 31-homer season in 2012, but he had 21 in his MVP season, and he's at 23 this year.
Trout, meanwhile, put up numbers rarely seen from a 20-year-old, and then did it again last year as a 21-year-old. He was the best player in baseball those years. Once you've earned that label, you don't lose it unless you really go into the tank. That's certainly not the case with Trout this year.
However, while Trout leads the American League in both runs and RBIs, he hasn't been quite as good this year (though I'd argue he's still the best player in the AL): The on-base percentage is down from .432 to .373; the steals are down; the defense is arguably down a bit; and his average and walk rates are both down, as his strikeout rate has increased.
Trout is still awesome. But so is McCutchen. Consider this a reminder to give Cutch a little more love when you talk about the best of the best.
As late as July 24, Trout's OPS was over 1.000 -- .309/.396/.606. Since then, 37 games, he's hit .227/.298/.413 with seven home runs and 22 RBIs but also with 47 strikeouts. Some of this is just the natural ebb and flow of a baseball season, but some of this is the streakiness that can occur with a hitter who strikes out a lot, which is what Trout has morphed into this season. He's gone hitless the last two games, both losses to the Astros. We've all heard about Trout's difficulties hitting pitches in the upper half of the zone -- he's hitting .151/.329/.253 on such location in 2014 -- and during this stretch, it's not surprising he's seeing more pitches up in the zone, 29 percent of all pitches compared to 24 percent through July 23.
2. Alex Gordon continues to come up big.
Gordon is going in the opposite direction as Trout, hitting .299/.367/.639 with 10 home runs over his past 27 games, during which the Royals have gone 18-9. His two-run shot in the fourth inning staked the Royals to the lead in a 4-1 win over the Rangers and underrated Jason Vargas tossed 6.2 scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 3.14.
3. Derek Jeter is still batting second.
The Yankees beat the Red Sox behind seven solid innings from Hiroki Kuroda and Brian McCann's 4-for-4 performance, but let's address this Jeter issue. He went 1-for-3 with a walk, but his season line is .261/.309/.319. His on-base percentage is below the league average and his power is way below the league average. Why is he still hitting in the second spot, the position sabemetricians have deemed the most important in a lineup? OK, we know why he's hitting second. Joe Girardi doesn't have the guts to move Jeter down in the lineup and Jeter doesn't have the leadership to move himself down. Jeter has started 122 games, 119 of them batting second. Guess which team's No. 2 hitters have scored the fewest runs in the majors? Which team has the second-fewest home runs from the No. 2 spot? The Yankees are 21st in OPS from that spot, and that's only because the non-Jeter No. 2 hitters have gone 26-for-74 (.351), with two of the five home runs.
4. Justin Verlander isn't going to figure things out.
Every time he throws out a decent start, everyone expects that it's a sign he's going to turn things around. In his previous start he had allowed one run in seven innings. But on Wednesday, he gave up seven runs to the Indians. It's September. Among 95 qualified starting pitchers, he's 90th in ERA. Among 131 pitchers with at least 100 innings, he's 117th in ERA. It's time to stop expecting JUSTIN VERLANDER to turn up.
5. Miguel Gonzalez pitching himself into O's playoff rotation.
With his first career shutout, Gonzalez has now allowed two runs or fewer in eight of his past nine starts. Has he solidified a spot in the playoff rotation behind Chris Tillman? Maybe, but the home runs are still a concern. In those nine starts, he's allowed nine home runs, but just 15 runs. As long as they're solo shots, he's OK, but there's some playing with fire here. He's also struck out just 39 in 63 innings. Buck Showalter will have an interesting decision between Gonzalez, Bud Norris Kevin Gausman and Wei-Yin Chen to see who gets left out of the four-man playoff rotation.
One ballgame does not a four-game, home-and-home, crosstown series make -- not when the Angels are in what figures to be a two-month race yet to run against the other AL West candidate for best team in baseball, the Oakland A's. But on Monday, the Angels provided a few quick reminders for why folks might want to think about them as baseball’s main feature, and not just in La-La Land.
Start with Garrett Richards, best young righty in the league using almost any metric you might want to turn to. He was already among the top 10 AL pitchers in WAR before Monday’s complete-game shutout, allowing just seven baserunners and whiffing nine in his 17th quality start in 23 turns. His ERA is in the top 10, but turn to Baseball Info Solutions’ Component ERA and you’ll find that the only pitchers in the league doing a better job of keeping runs off the board than Richards’ 2.02 ERC are Felix Hernandez (1.54) and Chris Sale (1.82). Now boasting a 12-4 record on a team that might wind up with the best record in baseball, it’s easy to suggest he might be in the Cy Young mix no matter who comprises this year’s electorate from among the BBWAA’s members: young or old, sabermetrically savvy or new-data indifferent and old-school.
It would be safe to say that wasn’t what most people expected from Richards at the start of the season, but the Angels are simultaneously balancing the proposition that you can be baseball’s best ballclub and nevertheless conjure up answers on the fly, because nothing works out exactly the way you expect. Success isn’t just a matter of getting great years out of great players or enjoying a breakthrough as big as Richards’; it’s also about managing around the problems that arise in-season and coming up with your best combinations as you figure out what works. Richards is one big in-season development; shoring up the bullpen with closer Huston Street and former closer Jason Grilli is another.
But another thing that’s happened along the way is that the Angels’ lineup is finally taking shape along the lines manager Mike Scioscia and general manager Jerry Dipoto might have envisioned on Opening Day. That’s because they’ve finally gotten all of the big names back from the DL while also being able to discard what hasn’t worked.
As a result, Trout can afford to turn in workmanlike Clark Kent nights like this -- when he kept his Superman thing relatively muted, “just” doubling in a run and scoring another in the Angels’ four-run first -- because everyone else did plenty to remind folks that they’re not just Mike Trout and Troutettes. Instead, ex-famous people such as Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton provided reminders that they still have plenty left in the tank, doubling and homering, respectively, off Zack Greinke.
They still afford themselves their former World Series-winning conceit of hard-contact, ball-in-play types who don’t strike out -- guys such as Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar -- but they’re down in the order, behind the big thumpers. The bottom third of the order is where Scioscia gets to play around with combinations, such as professional hitter Efren Navarro and power prodigy C.J. Cron sharing regular at-bats between the first, left and DH slots, or Chris Iannetta and Hank Conger combining to contribute an OPS around .740 from the catchers’ slot. When the worst player in your regular lineup is David Freese, you’re probably going to score runs, and it’s why the Angels rank second in the league in runs scored per game.
The front half of the season also provided answers as well as absences. Giving Raul Ibanez a chance as their DH wasted their time and left runs unscored, but that’s no longer their problem down the stretch. Now, it’s a matter of keeping Hamilton and Pujols in the lineup and injury-free through scheduled rest and sporadic DH starts. If both are contributing behind Calhoun and Trout down the stretch, it can be the kind of lineup that keeps cranking out five runs a night.
That’s no small thing in this low-scoring age. Instead, it’s about as decisive an edge as you could ask for, even on the nights when Garrett Richards doesn’t pitch. And as the Angels look forward to scoreboard-watching night after night to see if this is the night they've caught the A's, the Angels will take both the benefits of the contender they designed and the assets that they've added along the way.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
One thing about Derek Jeter: He has a way of rising to the occasion. As New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi said last year, when Jeter came off the disabled list and hit a home run in his first game back, "He's a movie is what he is."
Indeed, Jeter's entire career seems scripted by Hollywood screenwriters. You know the story.
So here he was in his 14th All-Star Game, receiving multiple standing ovations from Minnesota Twins fans. But he still had a game to play, and that's what Jeter has always done best: focus on playing baseball.
He led off the game with a patented Jeter hit -- a line-drive double down the right-field line with that famous inside-out swing that hasn't changed in 20 years.
OK, so St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright admitted that "I was going to give him a couple of pipe shots. He deserved it. I didn't know he was going to hit a double or I would have changed my mind."
Wainwright would later backtrack during an in-game interview, suggesting his humor was misconstrued. "I hope everyone is realizing I'm not intentionally giving up hits out there," he said. "This game means too much."
The Cardinals ace is known for speaking from his heart, but as much as he didn't want to take away from Jeter's moment, it's a controversy that is unavoidable and should absolutely be discussed and debated. The fact is that something is on the line, home-field advantage in the World Series, something Wainwright knows all too well considering the Cardinals lost Game 6 at Fenway Park last year.
The heart of the game is competition, not giving Jeter a chance for a big moment. Whether he actually grooved that 91 mph fastball will certainly be addressed if the World Series ends up going six or seven games again.
While Wainwright clearly regretted his initial statement, he probably regretted those pitches to Trout and Cabrera even more. He had a full count on Trout, but instead of throwing his nasty curveball -- batters have hit .143 against it -- he threw a cutter that Trout drilled to right. He threw an 0-1 inside sinker to Cabrera that Miggy turned on, a lovely piece of hitting.
The National League later tied the game to take Wainwright off the hook, but the American League scored the winning runs in the fifth off another Cardinals pitcher, reliever Pat Neshek -- a guy whose season began as a minor league spring training invite. He has been terrific for the Cardinals on the season, but Derek Norris and Alexei Ramirez singled and then Trout hit a chopper over the third-base bag that Aramis Ramirez, not exactly known for his defense, failed to came up with, scoring Norris for an RBI double. Jose Altuve then hit a long sacrifice fly off Tyler Clippard.
Those two hits earned Trout MVP honors and perhaps presented a symbolic passing of the torch in some way from Jeter to a young player who grew up in New Jersey with a Jeter poster in his bedroom.
Now, Mr. Trout, all you need is a few big October moments.
A few other random thoughts:
- Cardinals manager Mike Matheny paid the price for playing favorites, as Wainwright and Neshek combined to allow six of the AL's seven hits. While Wainwright was certainly a worthy starter considering his 12-4 record and sub-2.00 ERA, you can certainly make the argument that Clayton Kershaw deserved to start. Kershaw pitched a 1-2-3 second inning. And while Neshek is a great story, he's also a player who has had 38 great innings, not really the kind of guy you think of as an All-Star.
- To be fair, the NL's pitching depth had been hurt by the fact that Johnny Cueto, Madison Bumgarner and Julio Teheran all started Sunday and were unavailable to pitch and Jordan Zimmermann was injured. The fact that Alfredo Simon, a mediocre reliever last year who has had three good months as a starter, was the third NL pitcher used showed the relative thinness of the staff and that Matheny had to rely on a slew of relievers.
- AL manager John Farrell, meanwhile, was able to roll out one good starter after another, not having to turn to his bullpen until two outs in the sixth inning. And remember, guys such as Garrett Richards and Corey Kluber didn't even make the AL squad. In all, the AL staff struck out 13 while allowing just one walk, with the five relievers used combining for six strikeouts in the 10 outs they recorded.
- I don't really like the way the managers skipper these games, basically just getting everyone in the game and not worrying about potential late-game matchups. The final three NL batters against lefty reliever Glen Perkins were Miguel Montero (who can't hit lefties), Pirates utility man Josh Harrison and Charlie Blackmon, who is often platooned by his own team against lefties. Well done, NL. The AL seemed to have the deeper roster coming into the game -- something Matheny perhaps recognized by playing his starters longer -- and it came into play the final couple of innings.
- It was a tough All-Star debut for Yasiel Puig. After going homerless in the Home Run Derby, he went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts, waving wildly at a Max Scherzer 3-2 slider for his third K.
1. The rash of Tommy John surgeries.
On the heels of Matt Harvey going down late in 2013 and missing this season, this year's Tommy John surgeries have included Jose Fernandez, Kris Medlen, Patrick Corbin, Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Brandon Beachy, Ivan Nova, Bronson Arroyo, David Hernandez, Bobby Parnell, Josh Johnson, Luke Hochevar and Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon. Plus there's the possibility that Yankees rookie Masahiro Tanaka will need the surgery if six weeks of rest doesn't help his elbow. That's a devastating loss of talent and has led to much discussion on how to better prevent all these injuries.
2. Best-in-baseball A's make huge trade.
Even with the season-ending injuries to Parker and Griffin and the offseason departure of Bartolo Colon, Oakland had soared to the best record in baseball with easily the best run differential. And Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray had been terrific at the front end of the rotation. But, worried about depth and fatigue, Billy Beane stunned everyone by trading prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney (and pitcher Dan Straily) to the Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Beane made the move to help hold off the hard-charging Angels; but at the break Oakland's lead was down to a slim 1.5 games.
Catchers blocking home plate, the outfield "transfer" rule, the neighborhood play, managers challenging plays they're not supposed to be allowed to challenge -- expanded instant replay has hardly been a smooth transition. Longer-than-expected delays and inconsistent application has left everyone a little confused at times. Last week, after a play at home plate was not overturned despite evidence that a tag was missed, Jose Bautista said, "This whole replay thing has become a joke in my eyes. I think they should just ban it. They should just get rid of it. I don’t really understand the purpose of it, but getting the right call on the field is not the purpose. That’s pretty obvious and evident."
4. New stars emerge.
Besides Tanaka, we've seen White Sox rookie Jose Abreu crush 29 home runs in the most impressive power display by a rookie since Mark McGwire in 1987. Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton has hit far better than anyone expected while stealing 38 bases and impressing with his defense in center field. George Springer of the Astros didn't make his debut until mid-April and didn't hit his first home run until May 8, but has still clocked 19 home runs, several of light-tower prodigiousness. Yordano Ventura of the Royals has gone 7-7 with a 3.22 ERA while displaying his upper-90s fastball. Yankees reliever Dellin Betances failed as a starter in the minors but has been one of the game's most dominant relievers with 84 strikeouts in 55.1 innings while holding opponents to a .124 batting average.
Those guys aren't just good; they’re exciting. Then we've had breakout non-rookies like Gray (who emerged late last season), Garrett Richards, Corey Kluber, Anthony Rizzo, Devin Mesoraco, Dallas Keuchel, Anthony Rendon, Marcell Ozuna and others. The young talent keeps on coming -- and that's before we get to minor league mashers Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Joey Gallo of the Rangers, two guys we can't wait to see reach the majors.
5. Pitchers continue to dominate.
Clayton Kershaw, who is two outs short of qualifying for the leaderboard.
Kershaw (11-2, 1.78 ERA), Adam Wainwright (12-4, 1.83) and Felix Hernandez (11-2, 2.12) highlight a season with many top pitching performers. Those three all have a shot at finishing with 20 wins and a sub-2.00 ERA, a feat accomplished just three times since 1980 -- Roger Clemens in 1990 and Dwight Gooden and John Tudor in 1985. Hernandez enters the break with 11 consecutive starts in which he's pitched at least seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer, the longest such stretch since Mike Scott had 12 for the Astros in 1986. Kershaw had a 15-strikeout no-hitter with no walks, perfect other than a fielding error behind him. Wainwright hasn't allowed a run in nine of his 19 starts. Brilliance.
6. The Red Sox and Rays both struggle.
The defending champions and the team many expected to win the World Series both hit the break nine games under .500 and 9.5 games out of first place in the AL East. The Rays actually had the worst record in baseball on June 10 at 24-42. They’ve at least played better since then, going 20-11, but it may be too late to fend off the inevitable David Price trade. As for the Red Sox, one of baseball's richest and supposedly smartest franchises is headed for a second losing season sandwiched around its World Series title.
7. The NL Central race.
With four teams separated by 3.5 games, I have no idea who is going to win. But I know it's going to be fun.
On June 8, the Giants were 42-21 and led the NL West by 9.5 games. Since then, they've gone 10-22 -- only the injury-depleted Rangers have been worse -- and the Dodgers lead by a game. Collapses in June get ignored, but blowing such a big lead in the span of a month is brutal. It sets the stage for what should turn into another classic Giants-Dodgers pennant race.
9. Remember when we were worried about Mike Trout's strikeouts?
On May 19, Trout's average dipped to .263 and he was striking out like Dave Kingman in a bad slump. In 46 games since then, he's hit .356/.440/.701 with 31 extra-base hits. He's on pace for 38 home runs, 126 RBIs and 17 steals while playing good defense in center. He leads the AL in OPS and total bases. He's the best player in the game, he's going to win the AL MVP Award and we should finally see him in the postseason -- and maybe for more than just the wild-card game.
10. The collapse of the Rangers and Phillies.
The Rangers were supposed to be in the midst of a dynasty. The Phillies had become one of the game's power players with their run of division titles. Instead, both teams have declined into oblivion, the Rangers due to an unnatural number of injuries (including season-ending neck surgery for offseason acquisition Prince Fielder) and the Phillies due to the predictable affliction of age. It may be a long time before either is competitive again.
The reason for doing this piece should be pretty obvious: Masahiro Tanaka is 11-2 with a 2.11 ERA, leading the American League in wins and ERA. He's not just the clear best rookie so far but a Cy Young and MVP contender.
Tanaka makes his 16th start on Saturday and his consistency has perhaps been his most impressive attribute. He's pitched at least six innings each start and allowed more than three runs just once, a four-run game against the Cubs in May. He's allowed more hits than innings three times and has reached double-digit strikeouts in five starts, second-most in the majors only to David Price. His splitter has been as good -- or better -- than advertised, as opponents are hitting .119 against it with one home run (his first pitch of the season, actually).
Of course, some don't like to call him a rookie considering his years of experience in Japan, but he's a rookie under MLB rules. We're just about at the halfway point and Tanaka has earned 4.1 Wins Above Replacement via Baseball-Reference. Double that and you get 8.2, and only one rookie pitcher since the lively ball era began in 1920 has been worth more.
More on that guy later. Let's take a look at some of the great rookie seasons ever since 1901.
The MVPs: Ichiro Suzuki, 2001 Mariners (7.7 WAR), and Fred Lynn, 1975 Red Sox (7.4 WAR)
Suzuki and Lynn rank fourth and fifth on the all-time rookie list for WAR among position players, if we consider Joe Jackson a rookie in 1911. Did both deserve their awards? Suzuki ranked fourth in the AL in WAR, behind Jason Giambi (9.1), teammate Bret Boone (8.8) and Alex Rodriguez (8.4). I always thought Boone deserved MVP honors that year, hitting .331 while driving in a league-leading 141 runs. Of course, one reason he drove in 141 was Ichiro getting on in front of him. There's no doubt Ichiro had the "wow" factor that year and was so unique -- this little guy playing small ball in the middle of the steroids era -- that everyone fell in love with him.
Lynn hit .331 with 21 home runs and 105 RBIs, leading the league in slugging percentage, runs and doubles and winning a Gold Glove for his defense in center. Baseball-Reference has Rod Carew (7.8 WAR) better, but you can't argue with Lynn getting MVP honors considering the numbers are close and the Red Sox won the AL East while the Twins finished under .500.
The should-have-been MVP: Mike Trout, 2012 Angels (10.8 WAR)
Not to rehash old wounds, but Trout's rookie season WAR is easily the best ever for a rookie position player -- and one of the best ever no matter the experience level. He hit .326/.399/.564 with 30 home runs, 129 runs and a league-leading 49 steals in a depressed offensive era. He played great defense, including four home run robberies. Baseball-Reference ranks his season 22nd all-time since 1901 among position players and the seventh-best of the expansion era (1961).
The only other rookie position player to lead his league in WAR was Paul Waner of the 1926 Pirates, by the modest total of 5.3.
A guy you've probably never heard of: Russ Ford, 1910 Yankees (11.0 WAR)
Actually, they were still called the Highlanders back then. Ford was a right-hander born in Manitoba, Canada -- the first player born in that province to reach the major leagues (and still just one of three, and the other two played a combined 14 games in the majors). Ford had pitched one game in 1909 and then went 26-6 with a 1.65 ERA in 1910, great numbers even for the dead-ball era. He ranked second to Walter Johnson in pitching WAR. His secret? He used an emery board hidden in his glove to scuff up the baseball. The pitch was actually legal back then and Ford was apparently an early practitioner of the pitch, or maybe even its inventor.
This SABR bio of Ford says he claimed to the press that he had 14 different varieties of the spitball (also still a legal pitch). "He had the emery paper attached to a piece of string, which was fastened to the inside of his undershirt," said umpire Billy Evans. "He had a hole in the center of his glove. At the end of each inning he would slip the emery paper under the tight-fitting undershirt, while at the start of each inning he would allow it to drop into the palm of his glove."
Ford wasn't quite a one-year wonder. He was effective in 1911 but then led the league in losses in 1912 as he started suffering from arm fatigue. He jumped to the Federal League in 1914 but then the emery ball was banned, and combined with his arm problems, Ford was out of the majors by 1916.
Best rookie teammates: Shoeless Joe Jackson (9.2 WAR) and Vean Gregg, 1911 Indians (9.1 WAR)
There is dispute on whether to call Jackson a rookie or not. He had 127 plate appearances with the Athletics and Indians over the three previous seasons, below the 140-PA standard we now use, although he probably exceeded the roster time limits. I would prefer to call him a rookie, and what a year he had: He hit .408/.468/.590, knocked in 83 runs and stole 41 bases. He was the second-best player in the league behind Ty Cobb, who hit .420.
His teammate has been forgotten, but Gregg went 23-7 with a league-leading 1.80 ERA. The 6-foot-2 left-hander was already 26 years old when he joined the Indians. Actually, the Indians had purchased his contract from Spokane in 1910, but Gregg refused to sign with Cleveland for $250 a month and was instead sold on option to Portland of the Pacific Coast League. He won 32 games and finally went to Cleveland.
That was a pretty interesting team. Besides Jackson and Gregg, you had an aging Cy Young in his final season (for seven starts) and Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie. Star pitcher Addie Joss, who had fallen ill the previous season, died in April. Anyway, Gregg was a revelation. Cobb and Eddie Collins called him the best left-hander in the league. He remains the only pitcher to win 20 or more games his first three seasons in the majors. Unfortunately, Gregg suffered from recurring arm pain throughout his career and 1913 was his last good season in the majors, although he eventually returned to the PCL and had some good years with Seattle.
1964: Dick Allen, Phillies (8.8 WAR) and Tony Oliva, Twins (6.8)
Allen's WAR total is third among rookie position players behind Trout and Jackson. He hit .318/.382/.557 with 29 home runs while leading the NL in runs and triples. Oliva won the AL batting title with a .323 mark and hit 32 home runs, also leading in hits, runs and doubles. Both had Hall of Fame talent, although they failed to get there. Oliva led the league five times in hits and won two more batting titles but had knee injuries that ruined the second half of his career.
The catchers: Carlton Fisk, 1972 Red Sox (7.2 WAR) and Mike Piazza, 1993 Dodgers (7.0)
In a dominant year for pitchers, Fisk hit .293/.370/.538, making him one of the best players in the league. Piazza hit .318/.370/.561 with 35 home runs. Fisk finished fourth in the MVP voting, Piazza ninth (although he ranked second to Barry Bonds in WAR).
The shortstops: Troy Tulowitzki, 2007 Rockies (6.8 WAR) and Nomar Garciaparra, 1997 Red Sox (6.6 WAR)
Kind of similar in one regard: If Garciaparra had remained healthy, he was on a Hall of Fame trek through the first part of his career. As a rookie, he hit .306 with 85 extra-base hits. Tulo: If he stays healthy, we could be talking about a Hall of Famer.
Ted Williams, 1939 Red Sox (6.7 WAR)
Williams hit .327 with 31 home runs and a league-leading 145 RBIs as a 20-year-old rookie. He was already cocky. When asked before the season opener who he hit like, Williams said, "I hit like Ted Williams." It was in April of his rookie season when he uttered his famous quote, "All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.'"
Fifty-two years later, another future Hall of Famer put up nearly identical numbers:
Williams: .327/.436/.609, 31 HR, 145 RBIs
Albert Pujols: .329/.403/.610, 37 HR, 130 RBIs
Greatest relief season ever: Mark Eichhorn, 1986 Blue Jays (7.4 WAR)
By greatest, I don't mean just among rookies. Eichhorn's season was a season for the ages: 14-6, 1.72 ERA, 10 saves and a mind-boggling 157 innings pitched. The sidearmer struck out 166 and allowed just 105 hits. Somehow, he finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Jose Canseco and Wally Joyner, whose combined WAR doesn't beat Eichhorn's 7.4.
Britt Burns, 1980 White Sox (7.0 WAR)
Among starting pitchers since 1980, Burns has the highest WAR -- Jose Fernandez's 6.3 from last year would be second-highest. (Dwight Gooden had a 5.5 WAR in 1984; thought he'd rank a little higher.) Burns went 15-13 with a 2.84 ERA, throwing 238 innings at age 21. He actually led AL pitchers in WAR that but didn't factor in the Cy Young voting due to his win-loss record (the White Sox were 70-90 that year). Burns also finished just fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting, which didn't make any sense. Joe Charboneau won it and Dave Stapleton, a part-time first baseman for Boston who hit seven home runs, was second.
Burns, who made his debut in 1978 just two months after getting drafted, made the All-Star team in 1981 and could have been a great one. He hurt his shoulder in 1982, costing him velocity, and suffered from a degenerative hip condition. After winning 18 games in 1985, he never pitched again in the majors.
A lot of pitchers in the pre-1920 era put up big numbers as a rookie. Hall of Famer Pete Alexander, for example, went 28-13 while pitching 367 innings for the Phillies. Even then, Alexander's WAR doesn't beat what Fidrych did in his rookie season with the Tigers.
The numbers are astounding -- 19-9, 2.34 ERA, 24 complete games in 29 starts -- but don't begin to tell the story of Fidrych's magical season. He didn't even begin the season in the rotation, pitching once in relief in April and then once in early May before finally making his first start on May 15. He threw a two-hitter. He started again 10 days later and lost that game but then came a remarkable run: From May 31 through July 20, Fidrych went 10-1 in 11 starts with 10 complete games. He averaged more than nine innings per start because he twice pitched 11 innings. He was a phenomenon, this quirky kid with the curly hair who talked to the baseball.
I just mentioned this video the other day, but here it is again: the final moments of Fidrych's Monday night game against the Yankees that June. As the announcer says, "He is some kind of unbelievable."
Heading into Wednesday's game, Troy Tulowitzki leads all qualified hitters in batting average (.354), on-base percentage (.447) and slugging percentage (.634). We can call that the triple-slash Triple Crown. And if you're doing that, you're the best hitter in the game. (Jerry Crasnick has a story here on the game's best pure hitters worth checking out.)
Except ... of course, Coors Field. But we can adjust for the advantage that Tulo and all Rockies hitters possess, by park-adjusting their stats. FanGraphs has a rate stat called wRC+, which adjusts for home-park environment. Tulo is first in the majors, just ahead of Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton and Andrew McCutchen.
And yet, I'm still bothered by these facts:
--Tulowitzki is 92nd in the majors in road batting average (.252).
--He's 39th in road OBP (.355).
--He's 44th in road slugging (.465), behind Luis Valbuena. Behind Lucas Duda. What if Duda played his home games in Coors Field?
What Tulowitzki has done is destroy pitchers at home: .457/.539/.803, with 11 of his 18 home runs and 22 of his 34 extra-base hits, in the same number of plate appearances. That said, Tulo does appear to be an improved hitter this season; he's always struck out more than he walked, except in his shortened 47-game 2012 season, but this year he has 42 walks and 43 strikeouts. Back in May, Richard Bergstrom of the RockiesZingers site pointed out that Tulowitzki has changed his stance a bit this year. His BABIP (average on balls in play) is .365, well above his career mark of .320, and according to Baseball-Reference.com, his line-drive rate the past two years has increased dramatically over his career norms (30 percent last year and 28 percent this year, compared to 21 percent over his career).
One thing I've wondered: Are good hitters able to take a bigger advantage of Coors Field than their less talented teammates? When adjusting for Coors, a generic park effect is established, based on the results of all Rockies hitters.
As a team, the Rockies are hitting .328/.377/.529 at home and .237/.290/.387 on the road. Using another advanced metric called weighted On-Base Average (wOBA), the Rockies have a .384 wOBA at home and .291 on the road, a difference of 93 points. Tulo's spread is 203 points, so he's been much better at home even compared to his teammates.
What about recent years? Between 2009 and 2013, the Rockies had a .356 wOBA at home and .295 on the road, a difference of 61 points. Over those seasons, Tulowitzki had a .412 wOBA at home and .368 on the road, a difference of 44 points. So before this year, he didn't improve at Coors as much as his teammates.
So far, however, in 2014 Coors has been a better run-scoring environment than its recent past. That could change as the season evolves. Different sites will come up with different park factors but most use a multi-season park factor. FanGraphs appears to use a five-year factor, so the fact that Coors has been even more extreme than normal in 2014 won't "penalize" Tulowitzki as much.
Back to the question at hand: Is Tulowitzki the best hitter in the game? I'm still skeptical, even if an altered stance (and good health) has led to better numbers. Even his home numbers are skewed by his hot start: He hit .608 in his first 15 home games but .355 since. I guess I'd like to see what kind of numbers Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout would put up in Colorado before declaring Tulo the best in the game. Or Giancarlo Stanton. How many more home runs would he hit if he got to play there?
What do you think? Who is the game's best hitter right now?
Sorry, Miggy. Your hitting feats are legendary. You'll be in the Hall of Fame some day, on the short list of best right-handed batsmen the game has ever seen. You know you're an all-timer when you're hitting .319 and on pace for 135 RBIs and nobody is even talking much about how great you've been. You've been so good for so long that sometimes we do take you for granted and shame on all of us for that.
Sorry, Giancarlo. Your feats of strength seem impossible. Your home run on Monday was impossible. You've become must-see TV because any swing can result in something we've never seen before. How many players can we say that about? Watching you hit -- I hate to say it because it sounds crazy -- but watching you hit in some ways must have been like when Babe Ruth started swatting home runs for the Yankees in the old Polo Grounds. What was that? When Yankee Stadium was built they called it the House That Ruth Built. Maybe someday that park in Miami will be called Stanton's Playground. You've matured as an all-around hitter and even your defense has improved.
Sorry, Cutch. You were the MVP last year. You have no weakness in your game and pack surprising power into your small frame. You're one of the class acts in the game, exciting at the plate and in the field, and you've lifted a sorry franchise into a team worth paying attention to.
But Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. I should say: Still the best player in baseball. He was the game's best all-around player the past two seasons. That isn't really up for debate; I mean, you can argue if you want, but you're going to lose. Ask any general manager who has been the best player in the game past two years and I would predict 29 will say "Trout." Maybe 30 if promised anonymity.
In Tuesday's 9-3 win over the Indians, Trout went 3-for-5 with two home runs and four RBIs. His first homer was a three-run shot off Josh Tomlin in the fifth inning that gave the Angels a 5-2 lead, off a 2-2 89-mph fastball that Trout lined over just over the fence in right field after fouling off three two-strike pitches. His second homer in the seventh off Mark Lowe came off an 0-1 fastball that Trout crushed several rows deep into the left-center bleachers.
Trout is now hitting .311/.397/.611 with 16 home runs, 54 RBIs and nine steals. He lead the American League in slugging percentage and OPS while tied for third in RBIs (impressive for a No. 2 hitter). What's remarkable about those numbers is that it was just a few weeks ago when the big story line was, "What's wrong with Mike Trout?"
After a big opening month, he suddenly slumped in early May. On May 19, he went 1-for-4 in a loss to the Astros and his average dropped to .263. As far as crisis, it wasn't quite Babe Ruth overdoing it on the hot dogs, but Trout had struck out 56 times in 44 games, the most whiffs in the American League. What was going on?
On May 20, Trout started and left in the fifth inning with what was reported at the time as tightness in his leg. He sat out the next day. On June 3, he left a game after one at-bat and the club reported he'd been dealing with a lingering back issue, or "mid-back discomfort." An MRI showed no major problems, just inflammation. He sat out the game on June 4 but has been back in the lineup since. And he has been raking. He's Mike Trout.
In fact, since falling to .263 on May 19, he's hitting .410/.475/.819 with eight home runs, eight doubles and a triple in 22 games. Remember when he was striking out twice as often as he was walking after being close to a 1-to-1 ratio last year? In those 22 games, he has 14 walks and 14 strikeouts.
Ken Griffey Jr.; his beautiful lefty swing with that big arc was tailor-made for low pitches. Fifteen of Trout's 16 home runs have come on pitches in the lower half of the strike zone. His one home run in the upper half of the zone was a middle-of-the-plate slider. Eight of his home runs have come on low fastballs. Basically, the worst pitch you can throw Trout is a low fastball.
The Indians threw two low fastballs and paid the price.
Power, speed, defense, walks. We know Trout does all of those things. Maybe pitchers will eventually learn to expose that top part of the strike zone more often (Trout is hitting .119 against pitches in the upper half of the zone or above), but pitchers are not trained to pitch up in the zone these days; it's down, down, down, so many just aren't comfortable throwing high fastballs.
Even then, I suspect Trout will eventually learn to adjust. He is, after all, still just 22 years old.
Best player in the game? Here's my top 10 right now, June 17, 2014:
1. Mike Trout
2. Troy Tulowitzki
3. Giancarlo Stanton
4. Andrew McCutchen
5. Jose Bautista
6. Yasiel Puig
7. Carlos Gomez
8. Miguel Cabrera
9. Jonathan Lucroy
10. Paul Goldschmidt, Josh Donaldson (tie)
I reserve the right to change this list on June 18.
Athletics: 5.19 runs per game
Blue Jays: 5.02 runs per game
Angels: 4.77 runs per game
And they've done that with Josh Hamilton out since April 9 after tearing a ligament in his left thumb. Hamilton returns for Tuesday night's game in Houston, as does Trout, who missed the past two games with a stiff back. In his first eight games, Hamilton had looked like a much different hitter than the player who disappointed in 2013. He hit .444 with two home runs, but the most important stats may have been six walks and seven strikeouts. Last year, Hamilton had 158 strikeouts and 47 walks, and pitchers were able to get him out throwing pitches out of the strike zone -- often way out of the zone, leaving Hamilton flailing at pitches he could barely reach even if he did make contact. In 2013, he chased 38 percent of the pitches that were out of the strike zone; in the small sample size of 2014, he'd cut that down to 27 percent.
Was it a new Hamilton or just eight games of an improved approach? If the slightly less aggressive Hamilton was for real, I think we're going to see a hitter put up much better numbers than he did in 2013. That adds another dimension to an already deep Angels lineup. Since Hamilton went down, Angels left fielders hit just .226/.271/.333. Replace that with Hamilton and maybe the Angels will have the best offense in the league moving forward.
Keep in mind that Trout has also turned it back on lately. After seeing his average dip as low as .263, he has an 11-game hitting streak going in which he's hit .415 with three home runs. He still doesn't have a single hit on a pitch in the upper third of the strike zone or above (0-for-23), so he hasn't solved all his problems, but he's still in the top 10 in the AL in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
The one guy yet to get going is third baseman David Freese, hitting .208 with two home runs in 36 games. He missed about three weeks with a broken right middle finger but returned last week.
The biggest question for the 30-26 Angels, however, may be this: Can they beat the good teams? They're coming off a weekend series in which they got swept by Oakland. They were outscored 26-11 in the three games and are now 11-20 against teams .500 or better and 19-6 against teams below .500. That may mean something or it may not, but a recent 9-3 stretch did come against the Phillies, Rays, Astros and Royals.
Despite some ongoing issues about the pitching staff -- Garrett Richards got knocked out in the first inning of his last start, and the fifth spot is now in the hands of 27-year-old rookie Matt Shoemaker -- the Angels knew heading into the season they'd have to win by scoring runs. Getting Hamilton back will help in that regard, and I'd say the Angels remain the favorite for the first wild-card spot.
- George Springer is red hot -- his nine home runs this month are the most by a rookie in May since Mark McGwire hit 15 in 1987 -- and Justin Havens breaks down his rapid improvement at the plate in just a few short weeks in the majors. I was a little skeptical about Springer due to the high strikeout rates in the minors but so far his talent is winning out. When he does makes contact he makes hard contact. One thing to keep in mind: He's already 24, turns 25 in September, so he's a fairly polished player for a rookie. Not saying he won't get better -- as Justin detailed, he's already made some positive adjustments at the plate -- but he may be close to his ceiling right now.
- Speaking of players who may need to make some adjustments, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs looks at Mike Trout's relative "struggles" offensively. Trout leads the AL in strikeouts, and the pitches he's whiffing on more often compared to last year are pitches up in the zone. He's 0-for-21 with 11 walks and 19 strikeouts on plate appearances ending on pitches up in the zone (or above). Last year he was 15-for-86 (.174) but with 42 walks and 38 strikeouts.
- Patrick Hruby with a profile of Scott Boras and his long client list of players on the Washington Nationals. With Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon three of the those players, the future of the Nationals' is linked directly with Boras.
- Joe Posnanski celebrates batting average as he wonders about the direction the game is taking. Here's a stat to consider: Last year, 105 players struck out 105 times. This year, 119 players are on pace to do so. Just 20 years ago in 1993, 42 players struck out 100 times. There is no end in sight.
- In fact, on a similar tangent, in this piece (pay) Bill James write about the best hitters who had a bad strikeout-to-walk ratio. His best season under his method was Andres Galarraga in 1993, who hit .370 with 22 home runs in 120 games despite 74 K's and just 24 walks. His best career hitter was Willie Stargell, who had 1,936 strikeouts and 936 walks (and 227 of those were intentional). Stargell did have three seasons with 80-plus walks but he had other years where he didn't walk much and he struck out a lot for his generation (he averaged 118 K's per season between 1965 and 1976). Anyway, Bill also writes, "We appear to be headed to the time at which every major league hitter without exception will have more strikeouts than walks. Until doing this study, I hadn’t realized had close we had come to that point." Last year, only Norichika Aoki, Edwin Encarnacion, Marco Scutaro and Albert Callaspo had more walks than K's (minimum 400 PAs.). Among qualified batters this year, we have Victor Martinez, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto, Jed Lowrie, Prince Fielder (although he eventually fall off the qualified list), Carlos Ruiz, Ben Zobrist and Kurt Suzuki, while Anthony Rizzo and Michael Brantley are even. We'll see if all those guys can keep it going.
- Remember Ben Revere's first career home run the other day? Here are 16 facts about that from FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan.
- The draft is next week and Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus asks (pay): How good are teams at predicting the future? He studied the 2003-2008 drafts, using signing bonus as a predictor and studying the correlation between signing bonus and career WAR. Lots of math in there, but he concludes: "It is true that teams are better at pricing college players than high-school grads. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, because they have at least three more years of data to draw from with the college kids. The high-school kids are more likely to be high-volatility types, and that makes for a poor correlation. Contrary to popular belief, hitters do not end up being safer (or at least more properly priced) bets than pitchers." I wonder if the college players are priced better simply because they may have less leverage than a high school player? Not sure if he factored that in or not.
- Remember when Nick Markakis was going to be a big star? He's never matched his numbers from his first two seasons -- his offense started sliding right when the rest of baseball's did -- and while he's hitting .301 this year he's not hitting for much power (three home runs). Nate Delong of Camden Depot chronicles Markakis' secret platoon issue.
- Several of the SweetSpot blogs have podcasts you should check out if you're a fan of that team. Here's one from It's About the Money (Yankees).
- Callum Hughson breaks down the keys to Mark Buehrle's early success. One reason: Dioner Navarro is calling the pitches instead of J.P. Arencibia, resulting in a different mix of pitches. By the way, the Jays are 10-1 when Buehrle starts and 22-21 when somebody not named Buehrle starts.
- The Braves finally called up Tommy La Stella to give him a shot at second base.
- The Nationals have had the worst offense in the NL in May. It's not a good team right now and the rotation hasn't been near as dominant as expected. I'll have more on the Nats on Saturday.
- Robin Ventura had an odd intentional walk Wednesday night. Or a bad one. The White Sox still won, but I'm with James Fegan:: You don't walk Jason Giambi (becoming the go-ahead run) to pitch to Yan Gomes.
- Seth Stohs argues that Josmil Pinto needs to play more for the Twins.
- How are those top prospects doing for the Cubs?
- For some reason, Paul Goldschmidt's walk rate is way down this year. Jeff Wiser takes a closer look.
And yet there's sort of a small, black cloud hanging over Trout because the numbers are down from last year, when he hit .323 and reached base 43 percent of the time. He's tied for the AL lead in strikeouts with 47, one behind major league leader Justin Upton. A year ago, Trout struck out 136 times while drawing 110 walks; he's on pace for 206 strikeouts and 88 walks. While his power output hasn't been affected, with so many fewer balls in play his batting average and on-base percentage have thus declined significantly.
Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information broke down some of Trout's issues so far, and this stands out to me:
Trout is swinging and missing far more often against pitches in the strike zone. About 50 percent of Trout's strikeouts last season came on a pitch in the strike zone. This season, however, 74.5 percent of his strikeouts have come on a pitch in the strike zone.
Digging deeper, Havens found that Trout has especially struggled with pitches up and in and against off-speed stuff with two strikes. (He's hitting .125 in those situations, after hitting .245 last year and .320 in 2012.)
Should we be concerned? Not that Trout is suddenly turning into Abraham Almonte, of course, but that he's turning into sort of a souped-up center-field version of Mark Reynolds or something. (That sounds much worse than what's going on, but you get the idea.)
There are reasons to be concerned. Strikeout rates are one of the statistics that stabilize most quickly. This 2011 study by Derek Carty at Baseball Prospectus found that strikeout rates stabilize after about 100 plate appearances. This study by Russell Carleton, also at BP, reports that it stabilizes after 60 plate appearances. Trout is well above either figure, with 170 plate appearances.
Of course, there are always exceptions to any generalization, but Trout has already had two four-strikeout games, including a second one on Sunday, after having none in 2012 or 2013. Something is going on here besides just a random fluctuation in the numbers, whether it's tied to Trout's spring training assertion that he was going to be more aggressive or pitchers finally finding a hole in his swing or a bad case of allergies clouding his vision.
It should be pointed out that Trout doesn't appear to be hitting into bad luck. His batting average on balls in play is .347, compared to .376 last season and .383 in 2012 -- a little less but that looks like a result of a few more fly balls (which go for hits less often) and a few less infield hits. It is possible that Trout has been selling out for power, even though it hasn't resulted in more home runs.
So, can Trout still be a .300 hitter while striking out 27.6 percent of the time, like he's done so far?
There have been 181 qualified regulars who have struck out in at least 25 percent of their plate appearances. Here's the list of the guys who hit at least .280:
Ryan Howard, 2006 Phillies: .313, 25.7 percent
Bobby Bonds, 1970 Giants: .302, 25.4 percent
B.J. Upton, 2007 Devil Rays: .300, 28.1 percent
Jim Edmonds, 2000 Cardinals: .295, 26 percent
Willie Stargell, 1971 Pirates: .295, 25.4 percent
Austin Jackson, 2010 Tigers: .293, 25.2 percent
Jim Thome, 1998 Indians: .293, 26.3 percent
Jim Thome, 2001 Indians: .291, 28.7 percent
Jose Hernandez, 2002 Brewers: .288, 32.3 percent
Dick Allen, 1969 Phillies: 28.5 percent
Chris Davis, 2013 Orioles: .286, 29.6 percent
Josh Hamilton, 2012 Rangers: .285, 25.5 percent
Chris Johnson, 2012 Astros: .281, 25 percent
Preston Wilson, 1999 Marlins: .280, 28.7 percent
That's 14 out of 181 (7.7 percent) but only three out of 181 who hit .300. So, yes, it's possible that Trout can still be a .300 hitter despite this prodigious strikeout rate. (Marlon Byrd is actually hitting .312 right now with a higher K rate than Trout, and Giancarlo Stanton is hitting .302 with a 25.7 percent K rate.)
It's difficult to say what kind of hitter Trout is turning into, whether this a blip on the radar or whether he's turning into a new version of Jim Thome, albeit one with more speed and better defense. Thome did hit .300 twice in his career in years when he didn't fan 25 percent of time. You don't think of Trout and Thome being similar players, and they're not, but maybe they are similar hitters. During his 1995-2004 peak, Thome averaged 39 home runs and 112 walks, however, so if Trout is going to sacrifice batting average, it needs to come with a few more home runs and a few more walks to match Thome.
If I had to predict, however, I'm going with a blip on the radar. I'll say Trout cuts down on the strikeouts as the season progresses and gets that average back around .300. He's too good and too talented to suddenly be striking out as often as Khris Davis or Welington Castillo.
- He literally knocked the cover off the ball against the Pirates a couple weeks ago.
- He was in the middle of the Carlos Gomez-Gerrit Cole spat and cold-cocked Pirates outfielder Travis Snider, leading to a five-game suspension.
- Before yesterday, he had played in six games -- and the Brewers won all six.
- On Wednesday, he appeared in his seventh game and pitched a scoreless inning of relief.
OK, maybe wackiest player of the month.
The real candidates for player of the month:
- Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki: .364/.477/.727, 24 runs, 7 HR, 22 RBI, 10 Defensive Runs Saved, 3.0 WAR. Have a month. OK, so he's hitting .563 at home and just .250 on the road. 3.0 WAR in a month? That's insane. Anyway, if Tulo remains healthy the Rockies are going to be a playoff contender.
- White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu: .270/.336/.617, 20 runs, 10 HR, 32 RBI, 71 total bases, 0.7 WAR. That WAR total seems a little low but the OBP isn't great and he has no value on the bases or in the field. Still, welcome to America, Jose.
- Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright: 5-1, 1.20 ERA, 2.0 WAR, 24 hits and 11 walks in 45 innings. He's allowed no runs in four of his six starts and is working on 25-inning scoreless streak.
- Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto: 2-2, 1.15 ERA, 2.5 WAR, 22 hits and 14 walks in 47 innings. Cueto's strikeout rate has jumped from 7.1 per nine innings when he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting in 2012 to 9.6 so far in 2014. He's pitched at least seven innings in all six starts and hasn't allowed more than two runs. (He lost one game 1-0 and pitched eight scoreless innings in another 1-0 loss for the Reds.)
- Angels outfielder Mike Trout: .321/.403/.596, 21 runs, 6 HR, 18 RBI, 4 SB, 2.3 WAR. The high strikeout rate is a bit of a concern -- up 8.4 percent over 2013 -- but his numbers are all there. He's once again been the best all-around player in the AL.
My choice? Seems like a no-brainer: Tulo had one of the great months in recent history.
But the other reason why it’s key? Imagine where the Angels’ lineup would be without those two, because league-leading offense or not, a lot of things aren’t working out perfectly well for the Angels’ offense in the early going.
First, there’s the problem with stocking their outfield. Starting left fielder Josh Hamilton and starting right fielder Kole Calhoun both went down with injuries after hot starts, and won’t be back from the DL until the back end of May. Their playing time is going to a combination of J.B. Shuck, Collin Cowgill and Brennan Boesch. Shuck had a decent 2013 season, hitting .293/.331/.366, but he’s at best a fourth outfield type. They’re all pretty much the real-world definition of replacement-level talent, not in terms of the numbers assigned to a replacement-level hitter in models like WAR, but in terms of describing what you wind up with when you lose two starters and your farm system doesn’t have ready alternatives.
That’s a matter of unhappy accidents, but some of the choices the Angels made as a matter of design have turned out even worse. Designated hitter Raul Ibanez is looking done, for starters. Sure, you can say that about anybody hitting .157/.224/.314 after three weeks, and if you’re a big Ibanez fan, you might reasonably point out that his BABIP (now at .170) will come around. The problem is that Ibanez is getting reliably beaten up at home plate, as he’s struggling with breaking pitches and off-speed stuff. If you look at his Hot Zone data here or his PitchF/X outcomes over at Brooks Baseball via Baseball Prospectus, you’ll find that he isn’t killing pitches up the zone, and is getting eaten up low and outside. Another problem for a power hitter like Ibanez is that he isn’t getting balls in the air. Instead, he’s generating a career-worst 1.40 ratio of grounders to fly balls when he isn’t striking out at a career-worst 26.3 percent clip. If he doesn’t start winning those battles at home plate, there won’t be a BABIP level to regress to. As many times as people have been saying Ibanez is done (at least since 2011, if not earlier), this time it might be true.
Over at third base, thanks to his cold start, David Freese, former World Series hero, is losing at-bats to Ian Stewart, former washout with the Rockies and Cubs. Freese has been brutal in the early going, with an OPS at .418 through Friday, while striking out in nearly 30 percent of his at-bats as he struggles to adjust to a new league. Meanwhile, Stewart’s shown some early power, ripping six extra-base hits in 41 at-bats -- while also striking out 16 times already, just going to show that the same whiffery that undermined his career in Colorado and Chicago when he was healthy enough to play hasn’t gone away.
But perhaps even more surprising when talking about these two? It’s worth keeping in mind that while Stewart (2008) broke through to the major leagues two years before Freese (2010), he’s two years younger than Freese. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Stewart keep cadging at-bats and spot starts against right-handed pitching all season, especially if Freese doesn’t get going.
Which brings me to a last point about the Angels to keep in mind: They’re old. Averaging 30.1 years of age, the lineup is fourth-oldest in the American League, trailing just the veteran-spackled lineups of the Red Sox, Yankees and Tigers. The only guys who might regularly play in the lineup this year who bring that number down are Trout and (when healthy) Calhoun. Hitters like Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Chris Iannetta and Freese, all in their age-30 seasons or older, aren't going to get any better, having long since moved beyond fulfilling those dreams some had for them when they came up.
So Angels fans, just keep hoping you get more of the same as far as the Albert of old turning back up, paired up with Mike Trout being Mike Trout. Because even after Hamilton and Calhoun come back, you’re going to need them.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
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.