Posted: Wednesday April 23, 2003 11:24 AM
Updated: Friday April 25, 2003 2:34 PM
SI.com's Jacob Luft tackles a few issue from around the majors.
Who will be the best international rookie this season?
Hideki Matsui is hitting .275 with 20 RBIs through 20 games this season. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
This has to be the Yankees' Hideki Matsui, right? The Big Apple has fallen in love with Japan's "Godzilla" import, who belted a grand slam in his Yankee Stadium debut and has been an integral piece of the best offense in baseball.
Well, maybe not.
It may be wise to take a look at the season the Cubs' Hee Seop Choi is putting together before jumping to any conclusions. The Korean first baseman has shown an amazing batting eye for a 24-year-old, with more walks (15) than strikeouts (14).
His on-base percentage, usually a key indicator of a young player's future success, is a Bonds-ian .483. Don't think it is a fluke either, because he led the Pacific Coast League in walks last season and has routinely put up OBPs near .400 in his four-year minor league career.
And despite being nearly five years younger than Matsui, Choi has outhomered the reigning Japanese home run champion 4-2.
The remarkable similarities between the two is what really makes this an interesting debate.
They both have compact, left-handed swings and can hit with power to all fields. Their batting averages are basically the same (.279 for Choi, .275 for Matsui), although it is only fair to mention that Choi's numbers benefit from not having to face left-handed pitching as part of a platoon with Eric Karros.Since they are in different leagues, they may have something else in common after this year: matching Rookie of the Year awards.
Is this the year Mike Mussina finally wins 20 games?
So far, so good. Four starts, four wins. A sub-2.00 ERA with 33 Ks and 7 walks in 29 innings. On a staff of No. 1 starters, the Moose has pitched like the ace so far.
Since Mussina broke into the majors in 1991, 32 pitchers who have won 20 games, including Rick Helling and Jose Lima for crying out loud!
This could -- or should -- be the year.
Have aliens taken over Woody Williams' body and taught him how to dominate big league hitters?
Alien conspiracies aren't as popular as they used to be, what with the decline of The X Files and all. But how else to explain what Williams has done since being traded to St. Louis in August 2001? He was a 58-62 career pitcher with the Blue Jays and Padres before going 19-5 with a 1.86 ERA in 31 starts with the Cardinals. He has yet to allow a run in 19 2/3 inning this season in winning all three of his starts.
Williams recently attributed his turnaround to the late Darryl Kile, who helped him improve his breaking pitches. Statistically, the biggest difference is in home runs allowed.
Here are Williams' homers allowed per nine innings before joining the Cardinals: 1.74 (2001), 1.23 (2000), 1.43 (1999), 1.55 (1998) and 1.43 (1997). Here they are after joining the Cardinals: 0.00 (2003), 0.87 (2002) and 0.84 (2001).
That is a huge difference in home runs allowed, and it is hard to overstate how much of a difference this makes in winning games. Also, his strikeouts-to-walks ratio has increased dramatically, from a career average of less than 2.00 to 3.04 last year and 4.33 so far this year. So he is giving up fewer home runs and striking out more batters while walking fewer. That is a formula for success if there ever was one.
Is J.T. Snow this year's Tim Salmon?
At this time last year, Salmon was mired in the deepest slump of his career. He had posted a woeful .383 slugging percentage in 2001 and was hitting a frigid .179 through April. Just when we were all wondering whether he should retire before embarrassing himself further, Salmon resuscitated himself, batting .308 with 20 home runs the rest of the season.
Now it is the Giants' Snow coming off the longest slump of his career, having posted back-to-back seasons of .246 with a grand total of 14 home runs. He credits his hot start -- .385 average with 21 RBIs -- to a more compact swing he worked on in spring training.
So cheer up, Mariners fans. There may be hope for Jeff Cirillo after all.
When are the Royals going to play somebody?
The Royals deserve a ton of credit for starting 15-3, but 10 of those victories have come against the Tigers and Indians. The White Sox are the only winning team they have beaten, and it is doubtful Chicago would be a robust 12-8 if it wasn't for its 5-1 record against those same hapless Tigers. The Royals play the slow-starting Twins this week, whom they beat Tuesday in the opener, then get the White Sox again before playing host to Tampa Bay. Finally, on May 2, they travel to Boston to face an AL power.