Hot and cold hitters thus far

I could start with Miguel Cabrera. I could. But it would be like saying: “Albert Pujols is good at playing baseball.” So, Cabrera is hitting. Tell me something I don’t know. The stars of the American League so far are…

For starters, who is Sam Fuld? Well, he was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 10, but managed to become an All-American at Stanford University before spending the majority of his professional career in the Cubs’ minor league system. With a line of .346/.388/.513 (.404 wOBA), 10 stolen bases and phenomenal defense to go with it, he’s been baseball’s best story thus far. Slipping his name into a Chuck Norris joke is a totally reasonable thing to do. The Rays nabbed Feld as a piece in the Matt Garza trade, and the Cubs look destined to be foolish in giving him up. They clearly didn’t know what they had, hardly giving him a shot the past few seasons. And behind him, the Rays sit just 2.5 back of the Yankees.

Speaking of the Yankees, their offense has been utterly explosive, scoring 6.06 runs per game entering Monday. One of the heaviest hitters has been Curtis Granderson, who is inexplicably teeing off on left-handed pitchers so far this year—he’s hitting .389 with three home runs against them—despite a total inability to do so throughout his entire career. Overall, he has a .449 wOBA and seven home runs. New catcher Russell Martin has also been fantastic, giving the Yankees plenty of cause to leave super-prospect Jesus Montero in Triple-A. Martin looked as though he forgot how to play baseball with the Dodgers last season, but he has a .478 wOBA and six bleacher balls already in ’11.

Mark Teixeira (.437 wOBA) and especially Alex Rodriguez (.516 wOBA) have been fantastic, too, but isn’t that what they’re supposed to do? All right, despite the Cameron Diaz popcorn fiasco—and the myriad other reasons to find ARod fantastically unlikable—it’s worth mentioning he’s walking nearly twice as often as whiffing (21.5 percent versus 12.5 percent).

To fill the AL Central quota, I’ll mention that Carlos Quentin has been quite good so far, hitting 11 doubles and six home runs in just 22 games coming into Monday. The .433 wOBA is, well, impressive, and it’s not fueled by an inflated average on balls in play (BABiP), as it currently sits around league average at .290. He’ll need to keep hitting to help his Sox keep up with the… Royals and Indians?!

A lot of folks figured Adrian Beltre had another huge walk-year in Boston, and that he’d descend back to “good player, nothing special” in 2011. Not so. After a slow start, he’s playing wicked-good defense—despite leaving Beantown—and hitting well with a .376 wOBA and seven blasts. He might have room for improvement even, because his .231 BABiP seems likely to jump up a bit. And in case you’re tempted to make assumptions: he’s done most of his damage on the road, i.e. not in Arlington. Seriously, look it up.

Jose Bautista is off to an unbelievable, Bonds-ian start. After the games on Sunday night, Bautista was hitting .359 with seven jacks, a .506 on-base percentage and was .slugging .750 – that’s good for a .533 wOBA. He’s already produced roughly two Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for the Jays. He then proceeded to draw two more walks – his rate was 22.9 percent going into Monday’s contest – and another long ball. Which only means that he’s getting his damage in with limited opportunities, as pitchers are clearly trying (and failing often) to stay away from him.

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As you can see, Bautista has improved some over the past two seasons.

So our big winner here is Toronto and Alex Anthopoulos, who signed Bautista this offseason when he could have played it safe and waited to see just how much of a fluke Bautista’s 2010 season was. At five years and $65 million, and if he can continue to hit even in the same ballpark as he is currently, Bautista should destroy that sum in actual value on the field. He also shed his “star” center fielder, Vernon Wells, which brings us to those American League players who have been coldest in this still-young 2011 season.

So, Brett Gardner had somewhat of a revelatory season in 2010 for the Bombers. He’s getting pummeled this season, but I won’t get into it. After getting into a couple of other AL hitters, I’ll get into another, far more obscure Yankee… one probably worth mentioning.

The Red Sox swiped Carl Crawford from the Rays—and the Angels, who were apparently just certain he was their man—but the joke is on everyone but Tampa Bay so far! Enter Sam Fuld and his legend. Crawford has a .212 wOBA and just four thefts while being caught twice. So far, UZR hasn’t liked him, which is quite unusual given that it always has and given that his calling card is splendid glove work. Perhaps he’s lost a step or two, or perhaps it’s just too early and his .194 BABiP is very unlikely to stick around. In any case, this will do little to keep Boston’s fans at bay for the time being as he looks nothing like a $145 million player at the moment; the shiny new toy doesn’t seem to have come with batteries.

Vernon Wells is back to being the unremarkable player he’s been in three of the past four seasons. He’s not hitting at all (.169/.213/.258, .213 wOBA), so he’s lucky to even been roughly a negative half-a-win player thus far, thanks largely to a positional adjustment and 2.1 UZR. The trade was a stinker from the start. If Wells is dreadful, someone’s going to be filing for unemployment in short order.

The Royals felt they need to move Zack Greinke this winter, so they did. In return, they netted a former top prospect and current shortstop, Alcides Escobar, among others. But they really needed one or two of these guys to pan out to not lose this deal in a big way, and Escobar, thus far, doesn’t appear to be up to the challenge. He didn’t hit a lick last season, but the hope was he might in ’11. With a .228 wOBA, .034 ISO and 3.3 walk percentage, the Royals have to be concerned—they might even be missing Yuniesky Betancourt, which is, frankly, alarming. His bat wouldn’t play even if he were doing one heck of an impression of The Wizard, which he’s not (-0.6 UZR).

The Mariners might have had some takers for Chone Figgins this past winter. Coulda, shoulda, woulda—that boat has sailed. Figgins’ 13.9 walk percentage from 2009 seems like a distant memory. So does the .358 wOBA and brilliant defense, also from 2009. He’s hitting .160/.207/.247 (.205 wOBA) and is the proud owner of a toxic contract. It’s wonderful for him, for feeding his family and such, but it’s deadly for general managers around baseball. They’ll stay clear of it—but it wouldn’t hurt to call his old team to see if they’re interested; they’ve been generous in this regard recently.

The Yankee captain is at it again. Derek Jeter is hitting .398 with three home runs so far this season. Wait a second, those are his March and April numbers from 2006. Sorry about that. Jeter came into Monday hitting .257 with a .270 wOBA and zero home runs and an isolated pow…er, of .027. His Jeter percentage—which is another way of saying ground-ball percentage—is at 73.5 percent, well above his career high of 65.7 percent from a year ago. He went 0-4 with three groundouts on Monday. It’s early, but this could get ugly. Thankfully for the Yankees, Cashman put The Captain in his place this winter and stood his ground. He likely overpaid the player, but not nearly to the extent Jeter desired going into negotiations.

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Jeter’s ground-ball rate: Literally through the roof?

Moving on to the National League’s best hitters so far…

The signing of Lance Berkman has paid huge dividends already for the Cardinals. He may continue to do so, if his body can just hold up playing the outfield every day. Speaking of non-Pujols Cardinals, Colby Rasmus is doing awfully well for a player that Tony La Russa seemed not to want at times last season. Pablo Sandoval is also off to a great start, but then again he started off hot in his disappoint 2010, too. I wanted to slip him on the list, but I just couldn’t. And I wrote about him over at Bay City Ball already – this season his quick start has been a bit different—so that’ll just have to suffice.

For an encore, at least so far, Joey Votto is smashing the ball all over the yard once again, lifting the Reds to just half a game back of the Cardinals. Entering Monday, he was hitting .395/.515/.658 for a clean .500 wOBA. With his solid defense, which has steadily improved throughout his young career, he’s been the Senior Circuit’s best player with a 1.9 WAR. His 19 walks are tied for best in baseball and are impressive next to just 10 strikeouts. Still pre-arbitration eligible, he remains one of very best deals in baseball, if not the very best of them all.

The Dodgers fell apart down the stretch in 2010 and Matt Kemp’s season was one to forget all together. Enter Davey Lopes and a fresh slate, and Kemp is off to a superb start. We should expect a drop-off given a .485 BABiP, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been great and won’t remain a fantastic player. He hit a couple of walk-off homers in the span of a couple days last week and has a .492 wOBA. Thanks to the previously mentioned Lopes, Kemp already has swiped eight bags and he’s getting on base furiously with a 13 percent walk rate. At 1.5 WAR, he’s already at nearly eight times his 2010 output. Read that sentence over again, because it’s sort of mind blowing.

The combined play of Troy Tulowitzki’s 2010 stretch run and his early 2011 have some wondering if he has supplanted Pujols as the best player in baseball. I’m skeptical, but the fact that he’s in the conversation is saying a heck of a lot. We know about the defense, I think, but the .472 wOBA to start Monday is silly good. He also has seven jacks and is getting pitched around some to the tune of a 15.1 walk rate. I cautioned earlier about assumptions, but he too is doing major damage away from the Rockies: five home runs and a .400 average with 13 RBI. Shortstops aren’t supposed to hit like this, not in the post-steroid era. Tulo’s early play is making it awfully hard to argue with Colorado’s move to lock him up for the remainder of the decade. Can you imagine the pain if the Rockies had chosen not to, only to watch him head home in a few years to San Francisco?

Speaking of locking players up for the next decade, the Brewers did more of the same with their slugger, Ryan Braun. Unlike Tulowitzki, Braun is far from a defensive wizard. He plays a less-skilled position, left field, and despite his athleticism he fails to do so gracefully. But the stick plays, and it plays nicely. He stepped into the league as a four-win player and remains on that level today, worth around $20 million dollars per year. He’s hitting .377/.479/.688 for a round .500 wOBA and has seven home runs with a fantastic 17 percent walk rate. He’s never been a huge walker in his career, so the rate thus far is surprising. If he can keep it above league average, it’d be a nice skill addition to a player that’s already an offensive force.

The final smoldering-hot offensive piece in the National League is… the Phillies’ starting pitching. As advertised. I know they aren’t an offensive piece, but a run saved is as good as a run scored. Don’t believe me? It’s science, so you should. They are giving up 3.32 runs per game so far this season. That’s crazy good. Doing his part, and more than his fair share, Roy Halladay is still the best. A pitching staff carrying a 3.07 strikeout to walk ratio and 2.78 FIP is, well, every bit as good as an offense that’s scoring a trunk full of runs (see also, New York Yankees).

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ESPN’s Power Rankings
has the Phillies on top in week four, thanks to that fantastic rotation.

These Senior Circuit hitters have had a frosty start this April:

Raul Ibanez is off to a terrible start. Stunned? Ya, me neither. Luckily for Phillies fans, this is the last they’ll see of him. I bet Giants fans (Rowand) and Angels fans (Wells) could say the same, to name a couple.

First basemen are supposed to hit. I guess someone forgot to tell James Loney. Coming into Monday, his .171 wOBA was understandably the worst of any hitter in baseball. He has to go up from here, but they must be panicking in Los Angeles, as they were eager to get rid of Loney to begin with. And they have other problems too. Loney is 26 years old, soon to be 27, and presumably in the prime of his career. Unfortunately, his prime appears less like prime rib and more like flank. Over 647 games and 2,531 plate appearances, he’s been worth only 5.4 WAR. It’s probably time for the Dodgers to find a legitimate solution at the position, and soon.

At the end of the 2009, Hanley Ramirez was pretty high atop the hierarchy of major league ballplayers. With less-than-stellar defense and a line of .182/.299/.242 and a wOBA of .244, he looks far from one of the game’s elite this April. He has yet to hit a ball over the fence and he’s not getting many extra-base hits period, with a .061 ISO. His .218 BABiP isn’t helping and you have to expect that will improve markedly. What’s more, his 14.3 walk rate so far this season is impressive. Other than the last mention, though, he’s been far from it. His 2010 season was great when compared to nearly all players, but Hanley isn’t like most players. He’ll be a disappointment if he stays a four-win player, which speaks volumes about his immense talent. I don’t expect he’s long for a hot streak.

The Giants’ big of-season moves were to sign Miguel Tejada and re-sign Aubrey Huff. So far, no good. Tejada has looked every bit the statue at shortstop he was rumored to be. His hitting, or lack there of—let’s call it hacking—is a real problem, too. He was a short-term solution for the Giants, but I don’t think they were envisioning a shelf-life of June or July of 2011. He’s hitting .205/.241/.315 for a .232 wOBA. That’s pretty unplayable for an adequate-fielding shortstop. For a butcher like Tejada is, that’s disgusting.

Huff is doing his part to disappoint, too. It’s hard to blame him for his defensive contributions so far, as he has no business playing right field. But play in right field he did, providing some of the more… shall we say, interesting defensive plays in early 2011. Said another way, he was a circus out there. With Brandon Belt heading down to Triple-A for more seasoning, Huff went back to first base where he’s comfortable. But he shouldn’t get too comfortable, because he’s hitting to a .278 wOBA with just a 6.8 walk rate, half his mark from 2010. Career years are… career years. They come and go, never to be seen again. He’s a career slow-starter, and the Giants will need him to prove this true again or risk looking foolish for flipping him two years and $22 million after he helped win them a long-awaited World Series championship.

Tulowitzki’s Robin isn’t playing his part. Carlos Gonzalez hasn’t done much at all so far this season, after he had a blistering 2010 with some suspicious home and road splits. Perhaps a bit unlucky, his BABiP is way down this year so far to .279 from the .384 he posted a year ago. His .274 wOBA is sure to climb with a larger sample size, as Gonzalez is a very talented player. But it might be tough to again post a near-.400 average on balls in play again, though. So Rockies fans ought to be patient, but perhaps not expect the moon.

Our biggest loser is the Padres’ offense. So far, it’s making the 2010 Mariners’ offense look like the ’27 Yankees. They are averaging a paltry 2.96 runs per game following their five-run outburst and win on Monday night—it only took them four extra innings to get the five runs. Their best hitters have been Cameron Maybin and Nick Hundley. Hundley’s history basically says he won’t remain one, while Maybin’s recent history says he won’t either—but his minor league track record suggests he might. His .370 is a nice story when coupled with his solid center field defense; he’s a heck of a pickup for newly christened GM Jed Hoyer this offseason. The Padres have hit just 12 home runs and have a team ISO of 0.99, which isn’t very good unless you happen to be the Twins, who are having a real tough go of it so far. But if I had to put my money on which of these teams would get the sticks going, it wouldn’t be the team by the beach.

Here’s a headline:

[Halladay] dominates the Padres

Now, just insert any pitcher’s name within the brackets, and you should have the theme of the Padres’ season. In other news, Adrian Gonzalez is a good hitter.

Anyway, it’s still quite early in the season but that’s who is hot and who is not. Among the big team surprises and within each division, there haven’t been many in the NL. Some might be surprised just how well the Phillies’ roster has worked out in producing wins, but it’s hardly a shocker. In the AL, the big surprise has to be the Indians atop the Central. That and the rough starts of the Rays, and to a greater extent, the Boston Red Sox. That said, each of them has already resurrected itself and sits just two and a half and three games back, respectively, from the mighty Yankees.

Baseball is back and there’s plenty more of it to come.

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Comments

  1. Brad Johnson said...

    Jose Bautista has been worth roughly $10 mil through 23 games by fangraphs WAR conversions. Playing the always fun pace game, he’s in line to slightly outperform his contract…in year one.

    Obviously just some silliness, but I like silly. It’s not unreasonable to suggest he might earn half his money this season.

  2. Brad Johnson said...

    Also, your comparison of Loney to flank steak is unfair to the steak. I think a more apt comparison would be to those bone marrow and gristle packs that can only be used in soup/stew.

  3. Danmay said...

    Just one comment to add: You mention that Quentin is hitting really well, and I’m not going to argue otherwise, but a .290 BABIP is quite high considering that he owns a career .253 BABIP.

  4. Rory said...

    Brad: Loney had four knocks last night—is he worthy of flank now? Probably not.

    Danmay: thanks for note on Quentin. I didn’t realize that. Definitely not a line-drive hitter, is he.

  5. Rory said...

    Great start, couldn’t get them all in—it was 3,000 words as it was. Underrated player and better than I thought at the time StL locked him up.

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