Bad luck and good luck (usually) battle to put a stamp on a season’s worth of box scores. For instance, pointing to the Washington Nationals’ outstanding record in one-run games was a popular explanation for the team’s early dominance last season. Sure enough, the Nats’ luck evened out as their fluky run of close victories sharply reversed course on July 7. Come playoff-time,
The idea that the law of averages will catch up with a streaking ball club looms large when attempting to evaluate a team’s record just 35 games in. However, while it is often said that a win is a win – each game counts just as much in the standings, no matter when it is played – translating that idea to the realm of individual performance does not always compute. Fact is, nobody wants to get off to a rough start, whether a team or a player, but this is particularly true of career role players, and of players who have not yet cashed in on free agency. Just as the Nationals’ streakiness was the somewhat inevitable consequence of playing a 162 game-season, every hitter will experience ups and downs, but the timing of a hot start, combined with other factors, goes a long way toward alleviating concerns that a player may never make it in the show.
I’m not suggesting we overlook the frustrations and pressure that exist for struggling veterans, too. There is nothing fun about watching former All-Stars Edgardo Alfonzo and Bernie Williams play their way to the bench, and far be it from me to question their desire as competitors. It’s consoling to know, however, that these guys can look back and remember when, rather than wondering what if. Players of their stature can fall back on a pile of money to cushion the blow of a disappointing start. Does anybody honestly think Adrian Beltré has felt that much pressure since he got paid by
I have identified some players whose early-season successes typify the excitement and confusion inherent in trying to understand five weeks’ worth of data, let alone prognosticating the unforeseen. My choice of subjects is arbitrary and incomplete – I might well have discussed Alexis Rios, Xavier Nady or Austin Kearns, to name a few. Nobody I know predicted this level of supremacy for these (mostly) unproven hitters; this is what they have in common. Each is on his way to having a fine season, and each needed to have this type of success for the sake of establishing himself as a player of true major-league caliber.
Perhaps because he appeared (and appears) the least likely of the group to betray all previous levels of performance, perhaps because his name is alliterative, I have written mostly about the Indians’ Ben Broussard. To the extent that it is possible, let’s try to get a more accurate read on his batting numbers compiled as of May 9, and see what jumps out.
Ben Broussard: First Base, Cleveland Indians; Age 29 - 465 Career games
Early returns: .395 batting average; 5 homeruns; 22 runs batted in
Projected 2006 totals: .395-25-111
Previous career highs (minimum 100 ABs): .275 avg. (’04); 19 HR (’05); 82 RBI (’04)
Big Ben has settled nicely into his role as the No. 6 hitter in Eric Wedge’s lineup after a 2005 season in which he oscillated from the three-hole to the seven-spot. The left-handed member of
Anyway, Broussard broke through in a big way during a three-game series against the Red Sox, when he was 7-for-9 with three taters and 10 ribbies, including 8 RBI on April 27. The
It may be naïve to suggest that Broussard, or any major leaguer, is motivated by such things, and I am wary of putting too much stock in Broussard’s quick start, partially because his history as a streaky performer is difficult to ignore. The role of luck is obvious when considering Broussard’s home/road splits: through Monday’s games, his numbers at Jacobs Field are staggering (.513 avg., .548 obp., .974 slg.), but on the road he has performed like a slightly better version of Marlon Byrd (.298/.340/.365). He isn’t usually asked to face lefties, against whom he is hitting a paltry .125 with six punchouts in 16 tries, compared to 32-for-70 (.457) with 22 RBI against right-handers.
There’s not much here to suggest that 2006 might be the Year of Ben Broussard any more than it might be the Year of Ron Belliard, or it might be the Year of Eduardo Pérez. My point, of course, it that if we assume he stays in the sixth spot of the order, a full season of Broussard at his peak realistically could net the Indians something like 25 homeruns and 111 RBI, and wouldn’t that be wonderful? Sure, there will be regression in Broussard’s batting average, which is currently 129 points better than his career line and may fall below .300 by month’s end. On the other hand, it’s not as though much of anything was expected out of him, beyond a slight improvement over his 2005 OPS of .770, which ranked 11th out of 15
Other April/May Surprises:
(Stats are through games Wednesday, May 11, 2006)
Casey Blake: Left Field, Cleveland Indians; Age 32 - 533 Career games
Early Returns: .368-4-24
Projected 2006 totals: .368-19-111
Previous career highs: .271 avg., 28 HR, 88 RBI (all in ’04)
Admittedly, it might be a bit of a stretch to think of Blake as an unproven player; given his age and résumé – he is a three-time draft pick, a three-time waiver claimee, a two-time Minnesota Twin with a .779 lifetime OPS – nobody could be blamed for holding fast to her conception of Blake as nothing more than a career fourth-outfielder who happens to play for a contender in the American League Central. In case you’re wondering: No, I don’t mind if it’s obvious that I’m making excuses for my antipathy toward mighty Casey and his unseemly .368 batting average, which is second-highest in the bigs and OBVIOUSLY can’t last.
There is a silver lining in my cloud of pessimism, which is that you can say what you will about homeruns being commonplace and having too much impact on slowing the modern game, but dingers are still the best measurable outcome of an at bat we can think of, and the records show that Casey Blake has hit more of them (72) since 2003 than any Cleveland hitter not named Pronk. His ability to do this, and stay healthy (he has missed just 37 in that span) make him about as bankable a player as can be found. There’s just not much available for withdrawal.
Joe Crede: Third Base, Chicago White Sox; Age 28 - 536 Career games
Early returns: .319-7-25
Projected 2006 totals: .319-34-123
Previous career highs: .285 avg. (’02); 22 HR (’05); 75 RBI (’03)
Okay, so maybe Crede wasn’t exactly fighting for a roster spot. It would have taken a lot for or Pablo OzunaAlex Cintron to supplant one of Chicago’s postseason heroes, but with the young Josh Fields doing quite nicely in his first tour of the International League, Crede’s huge strides at the plate so far have likely spared GM Kenny Williams the potentially difficult decision of cutting bait on a homegrown talent who has yet to pan out as expected. Super Joe has been great in the clutch, batting .379 (11-for-27) with 17 RBI in ABs with runners in scoring position, and really turning up the heat when there are two outs (.378-4-11).
It so happens that Crede has a shot at becoming the first Sox third baseman with three straight 20-HR seasons, which is nice, but there’s a reason such tidbits are referred to as “trivia.” If Jermaine Dye’s history of injuries continues to be a problem, the need for Crede to out-perform his career line of .259/.308/.447 will become much more pressing.
Nick Johnson: First Base, Washington Nationals; Age 27 - 486 Career games
Early Returns: .320-9-22
Projected 2006 totals: .320-43-105
Previous career highs: .289 avg. (’05); 15 HR (’02 & ’05); 74 RBI (’05)
Johnson finally seems to be shaping into the more rounded (not in the pre-2002 Jason Giambi sense) hitter the Expos were hoping for when they sent Javier Vazquez to the
Prior to this season, I pegged Johnson as a likely candidate to find another gear to his offense, in part because of the mustache, but mostly because he 2006 is Johnson’s Magical Age 27 Season. He always knew how to get on base (266 walks in 486 games), a skill which has led to 21 non-intentional walks, twelfth-most in the ML. So far, Johnson has delivered on that promise, failing to reach safely in only four games he’s started. Alfonso Soriano and Ryan Zimmerman can handle the bat, and Josés Vidro and Guillen are on board as high-end filler. Johnson is the heart of the order, and is a good bet to reach one, if not two of those triple crown projections listed above. Remaining entirely healthy may be a struggle, but if he is, Johnson will remain consistent enough at the dish to challenge Lee Stevens for 30th place in RBI on the all-time franchise leaderboard. And he’s got a better mustache.
Ty Wigginton: Second / Third Base, Tampa Bay Devil Rays; Age 28 - 436 Career game
Early Returns: .256-9-30
Projected 2006 totals: .256-44-145
Previous career highs: .302 avg. (’02); 17 HR (’04); 71 RBI (’03)
Wigginton is he most genuinely surprising power source to emerge this season. After the Pirates released him this past off-season, it seemed the one-time Mets third baseman of the present was on the fast track to irrelevance (or
In the three weeks since, a 13-for-62 (.201) slide has damaged those averages; even worse, Ty has managed just three extra-base hits since his power surge, and may find playing time tough to come by as Aubrey Huff and (eventually) Jorge Cantu return from injury. Depth at third base happens to be one of the Rays’ strengths in 2006, and Wigginton’s stay with
Wigginton is a perfect example of how baseball’s long season is a gift that keeps on giving. Sure, come September, his hot start will long be forgotten, but by then, dozens of others will have picked up the torch to light the baseball world on fire for two, three, maybe four weeks at a time. It’s unlikely that all the players mentioned in this space will pan out in 2006, but a few of them will enjoy breakout seasons, and maybe even earn a first All-Star selection. Wouldn’t it be great to see Chris Shelton, the ultimate hot-to-cold April story, return to