Early-season surprises

Now that we’re a third of the way through the season, I thought it might be fun to check back on some of the story lines I said I’d be watching in 2008. I find that I learn the most from things that don’t unfold as expected, so we’ll focus primarily on the early surprises.

Royals and White Sox

I was very bullish on Kansas City before the season—I liked the club’s core of young talent, and, in retrospect, I probably gave them too much of a free pass for sticking the likes of Ross Gload and Tony Pena in their everyday lineup. And yeah, for as much as I ridiculed the signing of Gil Meche, it pales in comparison to the signing of Jose Guillen.

As I said in March, “This might be the season that Kansas City passes the White Sox, who spent the winter giving long-term contracts to guys like Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink.” Oops.

In my defense, Dotel hadn’t made it healthy through a season since 2004, and, at age 34, he didn’t seem a good bet to rebound. Linebrink? His trends were all moving in the wrong direction:

S.S. Linebrink, Sinking?
Year Age ERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
Statistics are through games of May 26, 2008.
2005 28 1.83 6.72 0.49 2.81 8.55
2006 29 3.57 8.33 1.07 2.62 8.09
2007 30 3.71 8.70 1.54 3.20 6.40
2008 31 1.17 5.87 0.39 1.96 7.04

I have no explanation. Maybe Linebrink just thought it would be fun to dominate hitters again (we should all be so lucky to have the ability to flip that particular switch). I’m thrilled for the guy because he was one of my favorites here in San Diego, but I don’t know how anyone could have seen this coming.

And yet, apparently the White Sox did. For that, they deserve credit. Heck, maybe even a medal.

The other fascinating thing about the Sox is just how great their pitching has been (127 ERA+ through May 26). This was supposed to be a team that would bludgeon the opposition and hope its pitchers could limit the damage enough to win. In fact, they’ve gotten almost no production up the middle or from Paul Konerko. Newcomer Carlos Quentin is enjoying a breakout campaign, and Jermaine Dye and Joe Crede have been solid, but if you’d told anyone that the White Sox would be leading the AL Central despite hitting at a roughly league-average clip, they’d have had you committed.

The bullpen has been terrific, Javier Vazquez is showing that 2007 was no fluke, and John Danks and Gavin Floyd have decided that they’d like to be big-league pitchers. There’s still plenty of season left, but right now the trades that brought Danks and Floyd to Chicago are looking pretty darned good. Maybe, just maybe, Kenny Williams knew what he was doing there. You think?

Acknowledging the small samples, Danks, Dotel, Floyd and Linebrink appear to be providing some nice counterexamples to the notion that all can be revealed through numbers. What is it about these guys that allows them to defy what we think we know about the way pitchers develop? Someone should study this stuff.

National League power balance

With three of its teams winning 89 or more games in 2007, I liked the NL West coming into this season: “Expect the NL West again to be one of the most hotly contested divisions in baseball. And enjoy the pitching.”

Well, now the division “boasts” three teams with a winning percentage below .400. Of the eight NL teams with winning records, only two hail from the West. Of those two, the Dodgers barely have their head above water, and the front-running Diamondbacks have stumbled after getting off to a blistering start.

The NL East has been strong, but that was true last year, so no big surprise. What is fascinating is how quickly the NL Central has rebounded. In 2007, the Cubs crawled into the post-season with just 85 wins, which was two more than the Cardinals needed to take the division the preceding year.

Now in addition to the Cubs, the Cards—thanks to aid from unexpected sources (Ryan Ludwick? Todd Wellemeyer?)—appear to be back. Even the Astros and perennial doormat Pirates find themselves well within striking distance. Houston is getting decent production from the rapidly aging Miguel Tejada and $100 million man Carlos Lee, but for the most part, Lance Berkman has carried the team on his back. On a more freakish note, Michael Bourn has swiped 23 bases in 48 games despite a .277 OBP; Omar Moreno sends his regards.

Speaking of fast guys, back in the NL West, here’s what I wrote about the Dodgers’ center field situation coming into the season: “The Dodgers brought in Joe Torre to manage and Andruw Jones to make Juan Pierre even less useful than he was play center field.”

Er, um, I don’t know how to put this:

Andruw vs Juan
PA BA OBP SLG OPS+
Statistics are through games of May 26, 2008.
Jones 154 .165 .273 .271 41
Pierre 162 .292 .358 .326 79

Seriously, aren’t there laws against that sort of thing? Oh yeah, and Jones has a bum knee. I never thought I’d utter this phrase, but right now the Dodgers can be thankful for Pierre’s presence.

Foulke and Fukudome

An elite reliever from 1999 to 2004, Keith Foulke struggled in 2005, rebounded somewhat the following year, and then retired. After a year out of baseball, he has returned, and so far he’s pitching pretty well, albeit in a limited sample. Foulke even picked up a save on April 10 against Toronto, though it wasn’t his best outing. That probably came on April 8, when he retired David Eckstein, Matt Stairs and Alex Rios on seven pitches in the seventh to preserve an 8-6 lead for the A’s. Either way, Foulke has been effective when used.

Outfielder Kosuke Fukudome came to North America from Japan amidst all kinds of hype. He got off to a terrific start (.342/.437/.491 through May 4) before stalling a bit (.212/.333/.273 since). Overall, Fukudome is showing a good mix of on-base skills and gap power while capably patrolling right field for the Cubs. Before the season, we asked whether his transition would be more like that of Hideki Matsui or Kazuo Matsui. The early returns are looking favorable:

Fukudome vs Two Matsuis, First 49 MLB Games
PA BA OBP SLG
Statistics are through games of May 26, 2008.
Fukudome 214 .294 .399 .411
Hideki 219 .262 .311 .371
Kazuo 224 .262 .347 .431

Huh, I’d forgotten that Kazuo actually started stronger than Hideki. I guess the take-home lesson here is that it’s still too early to tell.

Liriano and Milledge

Meanwhile, back at the talented-but-underperforming ranch, we have Francisco Liriano and Lastings Milledge. To be fair, Liriano is coming back from some devastating injury problems. In a sense, it’s a miracle the guy is even pitching. He made three big-league starts—all awful—before being shipped back to the minors. He hasn’t fared terribly well down there, either, but at least he can work to recover his game out of the spotlight that accompanies being counted on to replace the planet’s best pitcher.

Milledge is a different animal altogether. I made the dreaded Gary Sheffield comparison back in March (actually a couple of years ago; I only told you about it in March), but Milledge hasn’t done anything productive for his new team. The good news, I suppose, is that his game isn’t really regressing: His batting average is down, and some of last year’s home runs are this year’s doubles, but for the most part he’s the same player he was in 2007.

Come to think of it, that’s kind of the problem. Milledge is 23 years old. That’s still plenty young, but at some point a kid has to put some of that potential to use. Eventually the age thing won’t play (he can discuss that with teammates Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena), and he’ll need to produce. There’s certainly no need to panic just yet, but now would be a good time for the proverbial light bulb to turn itself on.

* * *

Well, I suppose I’ve rambled enough for now. These are just some of the things I’ve noticed so far in 2008. I’ll keep watching with interest to see what additional surprises lie in store. Being that this is baseball, I have no doubt there will be plenty.

References & Resources
This article was brought to you courtesy of the twisted inner workings of my mind as well as copious amounts of caffeine, not necessarily in that order.

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