Jones, Liriano, Pelfrey, Rasmus, Wells: Are these guys for real?
There is reason to think that this is the beginning of a career year for Mike Pelfrey
Still only 33, Andruw Jones figures to remain a capable DH for the White Sox
Francisco Liriano's fastball has more jump and sink than it has had in years
Frauds, fakes and phonies abound in April baseball. Anyone can do anything in a month's worth of games, and as the leaderboards show, they often do. When terrifically bad Nationals pitcher Livan Hernandez is third in the majors in earned run average and his batterymate Pudge Rodriguez, a 38-year-old catcher, is hitting .400, you know it's early.
Not all shock performances are tricks, though. Young players get better and older ones bounce back. Sometimes good play is just that, and not an illusion. Take the following five players.
Andruw Jones, White Sox
When GM Ken Williams hauled Jones out of a dumpster this winter as part of a project to reconstruct a 2000 All-Star team, even admirers of the South Side operator scoffed. Naturally, Jones has hit like Willie Mays, with a 1.060 OPS and a stretch in which he clubbed six home runs in 12 games. At times he has personally comprised the White Sox offense. This would seem the perfect example of an April mirage, but I'm not so sure.
Jones isn't going to hit 60 homers, of course,, but it's worth remembering that this is a player with as much natural talent as anyone in his generation with the possible exception of Alex Rodriguez, and that he turned 33 last week. He has lately been in a Fat Elvis phase, oozing dozens of spare pounds from the edges of his uniform and doing things like hitting .158 with three home runs over 75 games for the 2008 Dodgers, but there was always a leaner player with a quicker bat in there, and the White Sox seem to have found him. He's never again going to be an MVP candidate, but he can be relevant.
Say Jones hits .250 with 20 home runs and some walks and doubles the rest of the year. That would give the Sox a perfectly acceptable designated hitter, and would doubtless secure him a contract in the majors for 2011. A month ago, these seemed dodgy bets. Now they seem almost likely.
Francisco Liriano, Twins
In 2006 Liriano was the best pitcher on a staff featuring Johan Santana at his absolute prime, and he had some of the better stuff you'll ever see from a left-hander -- a big fastball, a skittery slider and a puffball change that worked with his other pitches to give him the three effective speeds that all pitchers could use and nearly none have. Then his arm exploded and he wound up needing Tommy John surgery. By last year he was losing two-thirds of his decisions, walking hitters and giving up fly balls as if he were being paid to do so, his most notable attribute being his oddly trimmed beard, perhaps the worst in baseball. This year the ace of 2006 has returned, with Liriano kicking out an 0.93 ERA and averaging better than seven innings per start. What happened?
Call it what you will -- recovery from his 2007 arm surgery, a mind focused by the threat of relegation to the bullpen -- but Liriano's fastball has more jump and sink than it has had in years. The results are telling: He's 3-0 with a 0.93 ERA and he has his highest strikeout and ground ball rates and his lowest walk rate since 2006.
Liriano is an extremely aggressive and not especially subtle pitcher, and for now at least -- he's still just 26 -- he's going to be no better or worse than his stuff. Right now he's good because it's good, and there's no real reason to think it will desert him. As they've showed the last two years, the Twins don't need an ace. But now they probably have one.
Mike Pelfrey, Mets
Pelfrey is the major league ERA leader, has four wins in four starts and, unexpectedly, one save, an elegant record that has Mets fans thinking that their team has finally found the credible No. 2 starter it has lacked for years. That's a bit much. Pelfrey, 26, is what he always has been and likely always will be: a horse with a strong arm and a heavy fastball who's going to have good and bad stretches but in the end will strike out too few hitters to front a rotation. His prospects for the rest of this year, though, are good.
If you look past Pelfrey's ERA to his underlying numbers, you'll blanch. He's walking an alarming 4.5 batters per nine innings, allowing a silly .249 batting average on balls in play that would have led the majors last year, and hasn't given up a single home run despite allowing more fly balls than he ever has. Those latter two numbers are almost entirely attributable to luck, which is why if he pitches just as well as he has the rest of the year his ERA will rise by a lot -- no great deduction, given that he's currently at 0.69.
All that being true, there is reason to think that this is the beginning of a career year. Pelfrey has struck out 5.24 men per nine in his career, an almost alarmingly low total. The only right-handed starters who can get away with a K-rate that low are, like Pelfrey, sinkerballers: Joe Blanton, Scott Erickson, Jon Garland and Joe Mays come to mind as recent examples. Each of these pitchers had a year in his 20s when his sinker was especially heavy and the hits just didn't fall in all that often.
It might be useful to imagine two lines, one on an upslope and the other on a downslope, the first being the pitcher's knowledge and the second being his stuff; the career year comes at the point when they intersect. Sinkerballers, one might posit, don't repeat the career year because they don't have the secondary pitches to compensate as that second line keeps sloping down. But when everything is working they're marvels to watch, and Pelfrey could be for the rest of this season.
Colby Rasmus, Cardinals
Braves phenom Jason Heyward should give Rasmus a call some time. Last year, at 22, Rasmus played a terrific center field and hit passably for a team that won its division, and somehow came out of it all as a bit of a disappointment. The problem was, having torn up the minors and entered the majors lauded as complete and refined with the most advanced techniques and wrists capable of tearing up rail ties, his rather accomplished rookie campaign -- .251/.307/.407 with 16 HRs and 52 RBIs -- didn't seem quite so impressive.
This year Rasmus is doing a lot more to show what all the early plaudits were about. In addition to his six home runs and 12 RBIs, he's batting .322/.459/.746, leading the National League in OPS and playing defense that would be worth a starting job even if he couldn't hit a lick. He's due for a slump, not just because no one other than teammate Albert Pujols is allowed to hit like this, but because he's striking out in about a third of his plate appearances, more than guys like Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard do. Still, there would be nothing surprising about a player of his skills emerging as a fully formed All-Star in his sophomore year, and whatever else might be said of Tony La Russa, when presented with truly premier young talent in his managerial long career, he has tended to develop it. This isn't a young guy having a hot first few weeks; this is a star being born.
Vernon Wells, Blue Jays
Poor Wells is a victim of the great contract fallacy, whereby it's somehow a player's fault when executives with worms in their brains sign him to a silly deal. Wells obviously wasn't worth $126 million when he signed what has come to be thought of as one of the worst deals in baseball history, and he still isn't worth it. That said, he's a decent player, if a maddening one -- a solid performer when he hits .300, a lousy one when he doesn't, and a good bet to have the kind of minor injuries that keep him on the field hitting .240.
This year Wells, like Jones, is hitting as though he's Willie Mays, ranking second in on-base and slugging average and leading in total bases, runs and doubles all while batting .333 with seven home runs and 14 RBIs. He isn't going to keep this up, but there's really nothing in his track record to suggest that he won't be a valuable player so long as he's healthy. Say he cools down and hits for a .340 OBA and a .475 SLG the rest of the way. That isn't what you want from a player making $18 million, especially when he's a corner outfielder masquerading as a center fielder, but judged against what other players do rather than what his bosses decided once upon a moon to pay him, it's just fine.
Tim Marchman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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