Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Several unforeseen developments
By Jerry Crasnick
Since we have to do something to kill time before Stephen Strasburg's next start, this week's edition of Starting 9 is devoted to "upside-down team leaderboards.''
Albert Pujols, predictably, is leading the St. Louis Cardinals in almost every major offensive category. Martin Prado, Troy Glaus and Jason Heyward, not so predictably, are carrying the Braves' offense while Chipper Jones and Brian McCann continue to muddle along in Atlanta.
And if you said in spring training that Rod Barajas would have a team-high 11 homers for the Mets and Angel Pagan would rank first on the club with a .294 batting average in early June, collect your free box of Cracker Jack at the door.
Here are nine other topsy-turvy scenarios that are almost as surprising as
2.99 perfect games in a span of three weeks:
Corey Hart leads Milwaukee with 15 homers, and Casey McGehee is first on the team with 45 RBIs
Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun typically have a hammerlock on these two categories in Milwaukee. Not this season.
McGehee, a 10th-round pick by the Cubs in 2003, was blocked by Aramis Ramirez at third base in Chicago and waived by the Cubs in 2008. He hit .279 and peaked at 12 home runs in six minor league seasons, so it was hard to get carried away when he hit .301 with 16 bombs and finished fifth in the National League rookie of the year balloting last season. Even Brewers general manager Doug Melvin concedes that lots of people in baseball regarded him as a "one-year wonder.''
Not anymore. McGehee crushes high fastballs, and he plays with intensity every day on a Brewers team that doesn't always seem fully engaged. He dials it up a notch with runners on base and is hitting .397 with men in scoring position. McGehee's two-run walkoff single off Carlos Marmol beat the Cubs 3-2 on Tuesday.
"He doesn't waste any at-bats,'' Melvin said. "He's got good plate coverage and pretty good discipline, and he's not a guy where the pitcher can say, 'There's a real hole here and we can pitch him a certain way to consistently get him out.'"
Hart's holes were readily apparent in 2009, when he hit 12 homers in 115 games and missed a month with an appendectomy. He began this season in a platoon arrangement with Jim Edmonds in right field. But he did some remedial work in the cage with hitting coach Dale Sveum, resumed pulling the ball with authority, and hit 10 homers and slugged .659 in May.
"Some people have said that Jayson Werth didn't come around until a little bit later in his career,'' Melvin said, "so there might be some comparisons there.''
Hart needs to develop more plate discipline if he plans to emulate Werth. If he can play more like the Corey Hart of 2007 and 2008, the Brewers will take it.
Jose Bautista leads Toronto in homers (18), RBIs (45) and on-base percentage (.372)
Bautista once was the Pirates' fourth best prospect, so it's not as if he's emerged from witness protection to become an offensive threat. He showed signs of a breakout with 10 homers this past September and October, and was easily Toronto's most impressive hitter in spring training.
But no one was prepared for this. Of Bautista's past 28 hits, 21 have been for extra bases.
Bautista owes a debt of gratitude to Toronto manager Cito Gaston for showing enough faith to put him in the lineup every day, and to hitting coach Dwayne Murphy for helping him with timing and taking a more direct path to the ball. Bautista crushes hard stuff, and pitchers are flirting with danger if they throw him get-it-over fastballs on 3-0 or 3-1 counts.
"He's one of those streaky 'cripple' hitters -- kind of like a Luke Scott -- where they get in a groove and you can't shut them down,'' an NL scout said.
Although Bautista is hitting only .246, he has shown greater selectivity and leads the Jays with 39 walks. He does, nevertheless, swing and miss routinely against secondary pitches.
"Teams are going to really breaking-ball him to death,'' a scout said. "You're going to see if he's capable of making adjustments and being a good hitter.''
Silva has flourished with the same aggressive, no-frills approach that served him well in Minnesota and earned him a four-year, $48 million contract from Seattle. He has thrown first-pitch strikes 70.1 percent of the time -- second to only Cliff Lee among big league starters -- and has a 47-12 strikeout-walk ratio. If this persists, Silva has a good chance to represent the "comfortable 0-for-4'' pitching fraternity at the All-Star Game in July in Anaheim, Calif.
The Cubs deserve some credit for his resurgence. GM Jim Hendry acquired Silva from Seattle for Milton Bradley a week before Christmas, and when Silva arrived at the Cubs Convention a month later, pitching coach Larry Rothschild already had broken down video and was ready to make adjustments in a throwing session at Northwestern University. The Cubs spend more time focusing on mechanics and Silva's approach than his weight, which had become a major distraction in Seattle.
Silva's resurgence would be a better story if the Cubs weren't 26-32 and stagnating in the NL Central. If the Cubs have any intentions of making a run, they need more offense from Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee, and a bigger contribution from Zambrano in his return from a five-week bullpen hiatus. Lilly just needs more run support; he has a 1-5 record and hasn't won since April 24, but his past four losses have come by scores of 4-2, 4-2, 2-1 and 3-2.
Tyler Clippard leads the Nationals in wins (8), holds (13) and strikeouts (46)
In 2007, Baseball America ranked Clippard as the seventh best prospect in the Yankees' system and praised him for his ability to get hitters out without "wow'' stuff. Not long after, former Washington GM Jim Bowden acquired Clippard from New York in a deal for reliever Jonathan Albaladejo.
Clippard, 25, has added 2-3 mph to his fastball in recent years. But his money pitch is a changeup that dives out of the zone and makes him an equal opportunity challenge for hitters: Righties are hitting .164 against him, and lefties aren't much better at .190. According to FanGraphs, opponents are swinging at pitches outside the zone a whopping 35 percent of the time against Clippard.
Of course, wins often are a function of luck and timing, and Clippard has benefited from enough Nationals rallies that pitching coach Steve McCatty has jokingly begun applying the Phil Regan "vulture'' label to him.
The Nats also have gotten a lift from starter Luis Atilano, who is 5-2 with a 4.24 ERA since his arrival from Triple-A Syracuse. Atilano, a Puerto Rico native, was the 35th overall pick in the 2003 draft by Atlanta -- one spot ahead of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and two in front of Adam Jones. The always-resourceful Bowden acquired Atilano by trade from the Braves only three weeks after he underwent Tommy John surgery.
"In spring training you could tell he had some movement on the ball,'' an NL coach said. "He has the ability to pitch out of jams, and you can tell he's not scared out there. That's so big for a young player.''
Scott Rolen leads the Reds with 14 homers and 40 RBIs
Rookie pitcher Mike Leake leads the Reds' staff with a 5-0 record and a 2.22 ERA, and Rolen has time traveled back to the mid-2000s, when he was Albert Pujols' wing man, a major power source and a perennial All-Star in the middle of the St. Louis lineup.
For those who immediately think "Great American Ball Park effect,'' that's not the case. Rolen has seven homers, 18 RBIs and a .558 slugging percentage at home, and seven homers, 22 RBIs and a .644 slugging percentage on the road. He hit a 420-foot shot off Chris Carpenter in the season opener, dinged Ricky Nolasco twice on the Reds' first road trip and never looked back.
At age 35, Rolen is in a good place for a variety of reasons. He's sufficiently recovered from shoulder and back injuries to let the bat head fly with confidence. After a brief and unhappy stint in Toronto, he's more comfortable playing close to his home and family in his native Indiana. He's restructured his contract through the 2012 season, and he seems energized by the vibrant, youthful atmosphere in the Cincinnati clubhouse.
With 297 home runs, Rolen is about to become the 13th third baseman in history to reach 300. He's missed some time with minor back and hamstring issues, and manager Dusty Baker plans to give him regular rest so he'll be fresh for the second half. Going back to last season, the Reds have a 56-32 record when Rolen is in the starting lineup. If he can hang in there for 145 games, Baker probably will be ecstatic.
Elvis Andrus leads Texas with a .397 on-base percentage
Andrus, a Venezuela native, was 16 years old when he broke into professional ball with the Atlanta organization. He accumulated almost as many walks (23) as strikeouts (32) in rookie ball, so he's always had an appreciation for making the pitcher work.
Andrus is still just 21, so as he continues to get stronger and learn the league, he's destined to become an even tougher out. He's averaging 4.12 pitches per plate appearance this year, compared to 3.79 last season. He's hitting .452 (19-for-42) with runners in scoring position but also is tied for the American League lead in sacrifice bunts. Andrus has a relatively low-maintenance approach for such a young player, and he's selfless enough to do whatever it takes.
"He'll pull pitches he should pull,'' a scout said, "but he's always thinking about going the other way with a runner on second or third, and he's always looking for a pitch he can do that with. He has a tremendous baseball IQ in every phase of the game.''
If there were any questions whether Andrus might suffer from the departure of veteran mentor Omar Vizquel or hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo from Arlington, they've been resolved. Clint Hurdle has quietly done a nice job as Jaramillo's replacement, and the Rangers rank sixth in the league in runs scored.
According to FanGraphs, David Eckstein sees the highest rate of fastballs of any major league hitter (73.5 percent). Gardner is right behind him at 71.8 percent.
Translation: Pitchers aren't afraid to just pound Gardner with hard stuff, because they know he can inflict only so much damage even if he catches one on the barrel of the bat.
Gardner's biggest strength is knowing where he fits in the overall scheme in New York. GM Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi both had faith he could develop into more than a fourth outfielder, and it appears they were right. Gardner has 20 of the Yankees' 38 stolen bases, leads the AL with 4.52 pitches per plate appearances and ranks second to Teixeira among the Yankees with 25 walks. Curtis Granderson got off to a rough start in New York and Randy Winn has come and gone, but Gardner keeps contributing no matter where he hits in the lineup.
"He's a kid who has a great sense of himself and what he has to do,'' an AL scout said. "You see some kids with that type of speed -- the Corey Pattersons of the world who think they can hit 30 home runs -- and that's a joke. Gardner's mission every at-bat is to get on base and score runs. He knows what he's there for.
"He's got the ability to drive the ball. He can reach the fences if he really wants to on occasion. He'll do it on mistakes and hangers, which he should. This guy is strong enough to fight off good pitches, and he's a pesky son of a gun. You really have to make quality pitches to beat him and keep him off the bases. Teams try to get him to put the ball in the air, and he does a good job of not doing that.''
Aubrey Huff leads the Giants with a .385 OBP -- 49 percentage points higher than Pablo Sandoval
Now that Huff has finally stopped breathing hard from that April 14 inside-the-park homer at AT&T Park, it's time to acknowledge his contribution through the first two months. He played an adequate first base before moving to the outfield to make room for Buster Posey. He ranks second on the team to Juan Uribe in homers and RBIs, and he has more walks (28) than strikeouts (25).
Other than Andres Torres and Uribe, the rest of the San Francisco lineup is muddling along. The Giants rank 13th in the league in homers and stolen bases, and 15th in walks. When you're slow, impatient and power-impaired, it's a challenge to put crooked numbers on the scoreboard.
The Giants could use a surge from Sandoval, a big Bay Area favorite with his bubbly personality and free-swinging approach. But even the best bad-ball hackers need to exercise some degree of selectivity. The Panda is swinging at 43.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, making him the second least discerning hitter in the majors behind Vladimir Guerrero.
"He swings at everything -- the bat boy, the concession stand guy, everything,'' a scout said. "It catches up to you eventually unless you're Guerrero. And Vlad is built differently. He's a tall guy with long arms. Sandoval isn't.''
Ty Wigginton leads Baltimore with 13 homers; Nick Markakis has three homers and a .403 slugging percentage
Everybody likes to talk about Seattle's feeble offense, yet the Mariners rank 13th in the AL with 208 runs scored. The Orioles are a couple of furlongs behind with 193.
Wigginton helped carry the Orioles in April, but reality has set in lately. After a big power binge, he has one homer in 77 at-bats since mid-May.
Baltimore's lack of offense and terrible bullpen helped hasten manager Dave Trembley's departure. Matt Wieters continues to have growing pains, and Adam Jones chases too many pitches early in the count. The Orioles badly miss Brian Roberts and Felix Pie, who logged a combined 24 at-bats before going on the disabled list. Then there's Markakis, who just might be worn down emotionally from the constant losing in Baltimore.
"I don't know what's going on there, but he's gone backwards,'' an NL scout said. "I don't know whether he's stale, but his swing is terrible. He's getting beaten inside on pitches where he would never get beaten in the past.''
Markakis is characteristically hard on himself, and he has a quiet, shy demeanor that's ill-suited to the spotlight. He also has a touch of J.D. Drew in him as a hitter; more often than not, he'll eyeball a pitch just off the plate rather than expand his zone and take a big rip at it. Since Markakis doesn't have much help in the middle of the order, opponents are bound to work him carefully and take their chances elsewhere.
One veteran scout likened Markakis to Carl Yastrzemski, who averaged 16 homers a season in Boston before busting out for 44 at age 27. Markakis is never going to be a 40-homer guy, but he has enough pop to hit 25-30 consistently -- especially at Camden Yards.
"He's a very unselfish hitter,'' an NL scout said, "but I think he sacrifices power for contact and gives himself up way too much. He really should be the centerpiece on that offense, and not just a guy who's content to move runners and hit the ball in the gaps. That team needs someone to step to the forefront and say, 'The hell with it -- I'm driving in runs.'"
• Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki has one homer in 236 at-bats but ranks first on the team with a .424 slugging percentage. Reliever Brandon League leads the Mariners with five victories.
• Marlon Byrd is hitting a team-high .319 for the Cubs. Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez are a combined .204 with 11 homers and 46 RBIs.
• Zack Greinke is 1-8 with a 4.05 ERA for Kansas City. Brian Bannister is 6-3, 4.50.
• Hunter Pence leads Houston with nine homers, and Jeff Keppinger is first on the team with a .308 batting average.
• Clay Buchholz leads Boston in wins (8) and ERA (2.39). Phil Hughes leads the Yankees in wins (8) and strikeouts (68).
• Rookie Jaime Garcia leads the Cardinals' staff with a 1.47 ERA.
• Dallas Braden has a perfect game, but Gio Gonzalez leads Oakland in wins (6), ERA (3.58) and strikeouts (61).
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.