Unlikely aces, rejuvenated sluggers among early season surprises
Philip Humber threw a stunning perfect game, but Tim Lincecum has struggled
Matt Kemp is leading the majors in home runs, RBIs and batting average
Red Sox' David Ortiz and the Yankees' Derek Jeter are off to strong starts
Just three weeks into the season, a journeyman castoff has pitched a perfect game and a two-time Cy Young winner has an 8.20 ERA. Those might be two of the biggest surprises from the first three weeks of the season but they are far from the only ones. Here are five good, five bad and one very curious unexpected development so far.
1. Anonymous ace-like performances
The White Sox's Philip Humber -- the fifth starter in the team's original rotation, whose first turn was skipped thanks to an early-season off-day -- threw a perfect game against the Mariners on April 21. That makes him the headliner of a surprising group of no-name standout starters.
Scan the ERA leaders among pitchers with at least 16 innings and one, not unexpectedly, finds Stephen Strasburg's name (1.08 ERA) and, not too surprisingly, the Braves' Brandon Beachy (0.47), on whom Bill James placed great expectations for the season. But the rest of their top-five companions are shockers: the Nationals' Ross Detwiler (0.56), the Cardinals' Kyle Lohse (0.99) and the Tigers' Drew Smyly (1.13), especially Detwiler and Smyly who were only named their clubs' fifth starters days before the season began.
Detwiler only earned his spot when Washington lost Chien-Ming Wang to a hamstring injury, but the young lefty has won two of his three starts while allowing fewer than one baserunner per inning. As a whole, the Nationals' rotation has a paltry 1.72 ERA -- 0.85 better than any other staff's -- with a .182 average against while allowing just two home runs in 104 2/3 innings. In addition to Detwiler and Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann is tied for sixth in ERA (1.29) and Gio Gonzalez is 13th (1.52).
2. Matt Kemp and the Dodgers
That Kemp is a great baseball player is hardly surprising -- last year's NL MVP runner-up who had 39 homers and 40 stolen bases to go along with a .324 average -- but the extent to which he is currently wreaking havoc is.
His stat line for this season is a jumbled mess of bold and italics, the back-of-the-baseball-card shorthand for a stat that is leading one's league (bold) or leading the majors (bold and italics). Kemp leads the majors in homers (nine), runs (18), RBIs (22), average (.460), on-base percentage (.514), slugging percentage (.952), OPS (1.466) and total bases (60) while leading the NL in hits (29) and games played (17). His OPS+ -- on-base plus slugging, adjusted for league and ballpark -- is a major-league-leading 303, which means he is 203 percent better (!) than the average player.
Kemp's play overshadows the fine work Andre Ethier is doing (4 HRs, .957 OPS) to protect him in the batting order, and that the rotation is doing (2.92 ERA, fifth in the majors) to support him. Los Angeles has the NL's best record at 13-4; its first 16 games came against clubs who currently have losing records. The schedule will get tougher from here.
3. David Ortiz and Derek Jeter
As the only Red Sox and Yankees position players who were involved in both the 2003 and 2004 ALCS showdowns, Jeter and Ortiz have become the old stalwarts of the rivalry and both have endured long stretches at some point in the last two seasons when everyone wondered if they were done.
This year? They rank first and second in the AL in batting average with Ortiz at .444 and Jeter at .416. Ortiz is first in OPS at 1.200 and Jeter is fourth at 1.088. They are the majors' only two players with multiple four-hit games.
In fact, Ortiz is proving it's not all bad news for the 6-10 Red Sox this season. (Just mostly.) He is tied for the major league lead (with teammate Ryan Sweeney) with eight doubles. He's only a .266 career hitter against lefties, but he's mashing at a .450 clip (9-for-20) against them so far this year. He earned a slow-starter label after batting .191 combined in the Aprils of 2008, '09 and '10 and hit .267 last season but right now only Matt Kemp and Josh Hamilton (and maybe Jeter) are having an equal or better month.
Jeter, the major league hits leader with 32, finished 2011 on a remarkable tear. Beginning with his 5-for-5 on the day he reached 3,000 hits last July 9, he ended the year hitting .338. He's even hitting with renewed power this April. After smacking only six home runs last season, he's got four in his first 17 games this year. He's also hitting a major league-best .630 (17-for-27) against lefthanded pitchers.
4. AL -- American League and aging lefty -- power hitters
Carlos Peņa appeared to be slipping into the twilight of his career, while the production of Adam Dunn and Justin Morneau seemed to fall off a cliff, yet these three seemingly declining veterans have all been reborn in the first three weeks of the year.
Peņa, who rejoined the Rays in the offseason, is batting a career-best .300 after hitting a combined .224 in the past four season. He also has four home runs and a 1.007 OPS which, if continued, would be only his second season above .900. (Apparently, only former NBA forward Matt Geiger can stop Peņa these days.)
Dunn was the game's most consistent player from 2004 to 2010 -- freakishly so, even, that he hit exactly 40 home runs in four straight seasons and then 38 home runs in back-to-back years. His average always ranged from .234 to .267. And then last year, inexplicably, he stopped hitting. He had only 11 home runs in his first season with the White Sox, along with a .159 average and .292 OBP in 122 games. In 2012 he may lead the majors with 27 strikeouts, but he already has four homers and he is also making better contact, batting .246 with a .361 OBP.
Morneau's last two seasons were derailed by post-concussion symptoms, as he played only a total of 150 games for Minnesota while hitting four homers with a .618 OPS in his 69 games in 2011. This year he's hitting only .224 but he has already hit four homers with a .811 OPS. Most importantly, he's played 16 complete games out of the Twins' 18, including two at first base (and the others at DH), suggesting he's in much better health.
5. The reinvention of Jason Heyward
The Braves' spring refrain could be reduced to this: great pitching but not enough offense, unless Heyward rebounds. Scouts' reviews weren't encouraging, as one insisted Heyward's swing was too long.
Heyward, the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up who struggled mightily in 2011, appears to have figured out the problem. This April he has a .306/.377/.500 batting line with six extra-base hits (two homers) and six stolen bases.
Thanks to the on-base skills of Michael Bourn (.402 OBP at leadoff), the run production of Freddie Freeman (three HRs, 15 RBIs) and the all-around play of Heyward, the Braves' offense -- 10th in the NL in runs last year -- is leading the league with 97 runs in 18 games (5.4 per game) so far this year.
1. Tim Lincecum
Lincecum's Monday start -- five innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts but also five walks against the Mets -- will only quell a little of the concern surrounding the two-time Cy Young winner's rough April, in which he is now 1-2 with an 8.20 ERA in four starts, allowing 17 earned runs, 26 hits and nine walks in 18 2/3 innings.
Lincecum has had bad months before, most notably going 0-5 in five Aug. 2010 starts with a 7.82 ERA. He shed those struggles, in part, by making his slider a major part of his arsenal and helped pitched the Giants to a World Series title.
This year, however, he said he didn't throw a slider in spring training and only two in his first two starts, but he reincorporated it for starts three and four without a ton of additional success. Also troubling is that his fastball velocity is down on average two miles per hour for the season, though in Monday's win it sat closer to his 2011 average of 92 mph.
2. Pirates offense
In 16 games this year the Pirates have yet to play a game in which either team scored more than five runs. On the bright side, their pitching has been outstanding (48 runs allowed, second-fewest in the majors; 2.72 ERA, third in the majors). But the offense -- sans Andrew McCutchen -- has lagged considerably. While their franchise centerfielder is hitting .339, the rest of the club is hitting a collective .193. Pittsburgh is scoring 2.2 runs per game.
The Pirates weren't much better last year, scoring only 3.8 runs per game, which ranked 14th in the NL, but that rate is nearly double what they've accomplished so far this season. Four everyday players -- catcher Rod Barajas, shortstop Clint Barmes, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and rightfielder Jose Tabata -- are hitting below .200 while those four players and second baseman Neil Walker all have an OPS of .509 or worse.
3. Red Sox pitching
In failing to add a proven fourth or fifth starter to the rotation during the offseason, the Red Sox set themselves up for problems with pitching depth. Who knew that those fourth and fifth starters, Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard, statistically would be their two best starters in the young season.
The proven three of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have a combined 6.21 ERA and have given up 47 of Boston's 102 runs allowed, which are tied for the most in the majors. On top of that, the Opening Day eighth- and ninth-inning relievers, Mark Melancon and Alfredo Aceves, have a 28.50 ERA in their 11 appearances, and Melancon has been demoted to Triple A.
The pitching struggles are the biggest factor in Boston's surprisingly poor start, which has left the Red Sox in last place in the AL East entering play on Wednesday.
4. Reeling Royals
So much for forward progress. Last year Kansas City introduced its first wave of prospects; this year was supposed to start showing results with the playoffs a realistic consideration for either next year or the one after.
Instead, the Royals are in the midst of a 12-game losing streak and have a major-league-worst 3-14 record, which includes an 0-10 mark at home. No one facet of the team is to blame, as they rank second-to-last in the AL in runs scored and third-to-last in runs allowed.
5. Albert Pujols
Less than two weeks ago I wrote, regarding Pujols' slow start through seven games, that, "For Pujols, especially, such a small sample is basically irrelevant." At the time that was true, but now that his slow start has stretched to 17 games -- with Pujols still batting .232 with a .284 OBP and zero home runs -- one has to wonder what is going on.
His batted ball and plate discipline data at FanGraphs.com suggest he is hitting a career-high 25 percent of his batted balls for line drives, which ought to lead to more hits, though his 15 percent infield pop-up rate is two and a half times his career average. Also, he is swinging at 42.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, nearly double his 21.7 percent career rate.
Sacrifice bunts and intentional walks
Devotees of small ball are disappointed but the sabermetrically inclined are cheering: Sacrifice bunts and intentional walks are at an all-time low.
Through Tuesday there have been an average of 0.28 sacrifice bunts per team per game, the lowest since the statistic has been recorded in 1894. The previous low is 0.31 per game in 2008; in 2011 there were 0.34 sac bunts per game.
Intentional walks are also down to unprecedented lows with only 0.20 such free passes issued per team per game this season, the fewest since they began being tabulated in 1955. The previous low is 0.22 in 1998; in 2011 there were 0.25 intentional walks per game.
One wonders, in regard to the sac bunt, whether managers are gaining a new appreciation for the value of an out, whether hitters have merely been less successful in executing a sacrifice (data for success rate is unavailable) or whether it's something else altogether.
It does not appear to be a just an early-season trend with NL managers showing less willingness to push their starting pitchers deep in the game at this point in the year and instead calling on pinch-hitters (who are less likely to bunt) in earlier innings. Through the first 259 major-league games this year, there have been 147 sacrifices; through an equivalent date last year at which time 267 games had been played, there were 194 sacrifices.
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