Hot Starts and On-Pace-Fors

I consider myself a full-fledged member of the “early season stats are essentially meaningless” club, but it’s still fun to look at some of the numbers players are carrying around right now, if only because they will probably all be forgotten in about a month. For instance, this time last year I wrote about the fact that Dontrelle Willis had started the season 6-for-6 with a home run at the plate, in addition to being 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA on the mound. Sadly, his season didn’t end nearly as well as it began. After his hot start, Willis finished the year by going 9-for-69 (.130) as a hitter and 8-11 with a 4.30 ERA as a pitcher. Willis, incidentally, is off to another good start this season. He’s just 2-for-9 at the plate, but is 3-0 with a 1.13 ERA after three starts.

However, this season’s hottest start unquestionably belongs to Baltimore second baseman Brian Roberts. A 27-year-old career .264/.328/.360 hitter in 1,687 major-league plate appearances heading into this season, Roberts is currently Roy Hobbsing the ball to the tune of .421/.507/.860 through 14 games. He is leading the American League in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, stolen bases (6), and runs scored (16), and also ranks second in homers (6). I would say without hesitation that he would be the AL MVP if the season ended today, that is if that statement didn’t sound so silly coming out of my mouth.

Roberts had a solid season for the Orioles in 2004, hitting .273/.344/.376 with 29 stolen bases, 107 runs scored, and a league-leading 50 doubles. He only had four homers in 641 at-bats though, which is what makes his power surge this season so surprising. In fact, Roberts has already surpassed his career-high of five homers set in 2003. And that took 460 at-bats. How out of character is Roberts’ performance so far this season? Well, if he were to get the same amount of playing time as last year, he would have to hit .258 with a .333 slugging percentage to avoid setting new career-highs in batting average and slugging percentage. In other words, even if Roberts spends the rest of the year hitting like Neifi Perez, this will be his best season.

All of which segues nicely into the fact that Perez himself is hitting .379 with a .517 slugging percentage in 29 at-bats so far this season. That’s a small enough sample size that Perez’s numbers could be back to his typical horrible levels within the week, but it’s still an interesting start to the season from a guy who also hit .371/.400/.548 in 23 games with the Cubs last year. That makes Perez a career .373 hitter with a .538 slugging percentage in 34 games with the Cubs, compared to a .240 batting average and .313 slugging percentage everywhere else during the past three seasons.

After leading all of baseball with 150 RBIs last season, Roberts’ double-play partner in Baltimore, Miguel Tejada, is leading the way in the AL with 19 RBIs so far this year. Just like in 2004, part of the credit for Tejada’s huge RBI total this season goes to Tejada, while part goes to his teammates. See, in addition to having more RBIs than anyone last season, Tejada also had more at-bats with runners in scoring position (208) than anyone. He took advantage of his MLB-best number of RBI opportunities by hitting .334/.377/.592 in those situations, of course, but you can’t drive runners in unless they are on base in front of you.

Tejada is once again getting a ton of RBI chances this season, with 21 at-bats with runners in scoring position already in just 14 games. An at-bat against Kevin Brown and the Yankees Sunday was a perfect example of why Tejada’s RBI totals have been so huge since joining the Orioles. With two outs in the bottom of the second inning, Roberts walked, David Newhan singled, and Melvin Mora walked. That brought Tejada up to the plate with the bases loaded for the fourth time in the young season. Tejada took full advantage of the opportunity by driving in all three runners and himself with a grand slam over the fence in center field.

If Roberts keeps leading the league in on-base percentage for a while and Mora starts getting on base like he has in the past two years, Tejada could have a shot at breaking Vern Stephens‘ all-time record for RBIs by a shortstop, which is 159 set in 1949. Assuming Tejada plays in every game this season like he has for the past four years, he will need 140 RBIs in his remaining 148 games to tie Stephens. That might seem like a crazy pace to keep up, and it is, but Tejada has 147 RBIs over his past 148 games dating back to last season.

Some other notable early season paces …

  • After walking just 46 times in 154 games last season, Derek Jeter has already drawn a league-leading dozen free passes in 14 games this year. That puts him on a pace for about 150 walks. Jeter has walked more than 75 times in a season just once in his career, way back in 1999.
  • David Dellucci is tied with Jeter in walks with 12, and has done so in just 10 games and 38 total plate appearances. Prorated to 600 plate appearances, Dellucci would be on a Bondsesque pace of 190 walks. He set a career-high with 47 last season.
  • The National League’s version of Roberts is Joe Randa, who has four homers and 12 RBIs in 13 games despite the fact that he hit eight homers and drove in 56 runs in 128 games last season. Randa, who hit a career-high 16 home runs in 1999 and 2003, is on pace for 50 long balls at the moment.
  • With an MLB-leading seven homers in 14 games so far this year, Paul Konerko now has 48 homers in his last 162 games, dating back to the last season. Prior to that, he had hit 45 homers in his last 294 games, including just 18 in 137 games in 2003.
  • Jeromy Burnitz, who went without a single triple in 280 games between 2002 and 2003 before hitting four in 150 games with the Rockies last season, already has two three-baggers in just 13 games this season.
  • Sammy Sosa went 263 games without a triple or a stolen base in his final two seasons with the Cubs, yet had one of each by his seventh game with the Orioles.
  • After pitching in just 47 games in an injury shortened 2004 season, Brian Fuentes has appeared in an MLB-leading nine of Colorado’s first 13 games this year. Brian Bruney of the Diamondbacks has also pitched in nine games so far this season, but the Diamondbacks have played 14 times.
  • Johan Santana went 20-6 with a 2.61 ERA and 265 strikeouts to take home the AL Cy Young award last season, but he was 0-0 with a 6.46 ERA and 10 strikeouts after three starts in 2004. After three starts this year, Santana is 3-0 with a 4.00 ERA and 27 strikeouts.
  • Brandon Webb went 7-16 with a 3.59 ERA in 35 starts for the 111-loss Diamondbacks last season. He is 3-0 with a 3.26 ERA in three starts this year.
  • John Smotz has already lost as many games this year (3) as he did in 2003 and 2004 combined.
  • Reed Johnson has been hit by an astounding five pitches in just 33 total plate appearances this season, but has yet to draw a single walk.
  • Before being sent back down to Triple-A to make room for Alex Sanchez (seriously), Tampa Bay outfielder Joey Gathright managed to show off his amazing speed with three stolen bases and a triple in just six games. Perhaps even more interesting is that he also saw a league-leading 4.87 pitches per plate appearances in his 23 trips to the plate. Sanchez, on the other hand, has seen a league-worst 2.76 pitches per plate appearance.
  • The New York Yankees and their $200 million payroll are currently at the very bottom of the AL standings, tied with the two teams that have the lowest payrolls in all of baseball, Kansas City ($36 million) and Tampa Bay ($38 million).
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