Thursday, May 11, 2006

Early Surprises in a Seesaw Season

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, Washington’s first-half success was but a memory, as Frank Robinson’s diaspora of the diamond tumbled its way to an 81-81 record that was almost comedic in its exactness. (It could be argued that the team’s meteoric first-half play carried more weight than its collapse, following the simplistic assumption that the winning ways helped spread excitement and goodwill throughout the D.C. area, and made feasible the notion of a publicly-funded stadium. In this way, Major League Baseball earned some much-needed political capital in the nation’s capital despite a rather “blah” introduction.)

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 Seattle? It isn’t very difficult to imagine Esmerelda, the cab driver from Pulp Fiction, driving Adrian home from the ballpark after another Mariners loss. Through a heavy accent, Esmerelda would curiously ask, “How does it feel to keelll a baseball team?” Adrian, of course, would answer with a knowing sigh, “I don’t feel the least bit bad about it.” Despite his modest six-game hitting streak, which has lifted his average to the ugh-ly mark of.221, Beltré seems a longshot to escape enshrinement in the Darin Erstad Hall of Veterans Who Became Multimillionaires Because of Unsustainable Breakout Seasons, where fans will be able to admire his plaque alongside those belonging to Jon Garland and Javy Lopez. But I digress.

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 Cleveland’s first base platoon, Broussard provides adequate protection for Travis Hafner and Victor Martínez and is benefiting from seeing opposing pitchers work the lefty and switch-hitter (respectively) in front of him. Until this year, I tended to prematurely historicize Broussard as a weaker descendent of Jim Thome, Richie Sexson and Russell Branyan – all former Indians sluggers in the Three True Outcomes mold – even though Broussard never did walk much, or hit all that many homeruns for that matter. I’m not sure what to make of this, I just felt like sharing my prejudice.

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 Boston series was a keen example of how quickly a player’s batting line can turn around at this stage of the season, but catching fire early is more important than it may seem for Broussard. The Indians are eagerly grooming Ryan Garko as their first baseman of the future, with Michael Aubrey waiting in the wings.

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 AL first basemen who totaled at least 400 plate appearances last season. Broussard, whose number of at bats has increased every year since his 2002 debut, is a classic late-bloomer, a guy who hung around long enough to finally become useful. Allow me to boldly predict that you and I are witnessing the beginnings of what will be his career year. How glorious the bloom, dear friends, we shall have to wait and see.

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 Bronx in December 2003. To call him a disappointment would be an exaggeration, but his sporadic power and inability to stay on the field haven’t exactly inspired confidence in those who follow his career with more than passing interest. The mustache that once was shorn has now returned, and so the baseball-playing cousin of Rod Farva is back on track, batting .400 with three long-bombs and eight RBI in his last five games. Facing Pittsburgh and then playing in Cincinnati will do that for a hitter. Context aside, Big Nick has been consistently roping the ball this season.

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 Japan, at best). The Devil Rays, bless their heart, felt he was worthy of a roster spot, and were rewarded with the most torrid streak of power this side of Chris Shelton. From April 11 to April 22, Wigginton upped his ante in Tampa Bay by smoking seven homers in 11 games. At the conclusion of Wiggy’s mini-explosion, his rate stats stood at .302/.353/.730.

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 Tampa Bay may not survive Russell Branyan’s next hot streak. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but do any of us really think of Ty as a player who absolutely must be in the lineup? I could be way wrong about Wigginton. I was wrong before… It was September of 2002, the summer of love… T-Wig was an up-and-coming role player for New York, making the most of his opportunities. After hitting two pinch-hit homeruns and batting .358 for the month, Ty seemed like a scrappy type who could adequately replace Edgardo Alfonzo at third base, when the time was right. I admit without shame that I was briefly fooled into believing Wiggy was a player who could outlast Derek Jeter in the New York spotlight. By the time he was shipped to the Pirates for Kris Benson, that special feeling was long gone.

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 Pittsburgh to represent the Detroit Tigers at the midsummer classic? Stay tuned for more information.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

TEAM REPORTS: Diamondbacks

Arizona Diamondbacks

LOOKING BACK: At 14-13, Bob Melvin’s team is right in the thick of the NL West standings. Arizona has outscored its opponents by 15 runs, the 5th best differential in the league, despite batting just .248 (with 42 extra-base hits) in 15 away games. Drawing a home crowd has been somewhat problematic for the one-time World Champions; apparently, there’s nothing exciting about watching Luis Gonzalez run laps around Jay Bell and Matt Williams as the all-time franchise leader in bases on balls (at least while the Suns hang on their livelihood by the thread of Raja Bell’s jersey).

THUMBS UP: The strikeouts are troubling – his 27 Ks are the sixth-most among non-rookies in the NL – but Chad Tracy is providing a nice encore to his breakout 2005 season, when he finished among the top 10 in the league in batting average (.308) and slugging percentage (.553). His ability to play third base enabled GM Josh Byrnes to pull the trigger on the Troy Glaus deal (more on that later), and the versatile Tracy is now the only legitimate muscle in Arizona’s lineup. As a bonus, Eric Byrnes is proving that you don’t need to be a polished baseball player to hold down a major-league job. When I watch Byrnes play, it’s like watching a Hall of Famer from the dead-ball era. Is there any doubt a player with Byrnes’ skills would have been supremely valued a hundred years ago?

THUMBS DOWN: The biggest of the Diamondbacks’ off-season trades brought a much-heralded defensive second baseman and a lifelong pitching project to the desert. Neither has lit the world on fire so far in 2006. Orlando Hudson has driven in four runs through his first 99 at bats, and Miguel Batista sports a nifty 7.65 ERA and 2.2 WHIP since his first start. It hasn’t helped that Troy Glaus is tearing it up for the Blue Jays, batting .265/.365/.602, or that his 24 runs, 22 RBIs and 16 walks place him among the top three AL third basemen.

LOOKING AHEAD: Though the Glaus/Hudson/Batista deal may appear lopsided on May 3, this was a solid trade for both teams, and come September 3, it may be much easier for D’backs fans to stomach. Nothing about the Snakes screams “Division Champs,” but the same can be said about every one of their rivals in the NL Worst. The arrival of Stephen Drew will be a reason to follow this team through the rest of the first half, assuming Craig Counsell doesn't become the .340 hitter he's been in video games for years.

Tuesday, May 2, 2006


Atlanta Braves

: After the worst April since Bobby Cox re-joined the Braves as manager in 1990 (see graphic), there is nowhere to go but up for a franchise that finds itself in an unfamiliar place: second. The Braves suffered injuries to the left side of the infield and, to their credit, the fill-ins have performed serviceably. Okay, so the Braves only managed just over 3.8 runs per contest in Larry’s absence, but we didn’t really expect that much production from Wilson Betemit and Pete Orr (.229 average, 3.9 K/BB ratio through May 1), did we? If these past few weeks are a preview of what the future (as in 2008) holds for Atlanta, I will be the happiest Mets fan on the block.

THUMBS UP: The good news, such as it is, would have to be Edgar Renteria’s blistering start, which, while it hasn’t led to success in the win column, is definitely an encouraging sign. After the Mummy’s downright awful 2005 campaign in Boston (.721 OPS, 30 errors) had many people questioning his mental and physical strength. Those concerns have been erased, for now; through yesterday, Renteria had hit safely in every game this season, and his .373 average led the National League (min 50 AB). It remains to be seen whether Renteria can reverse his steady decline in offensive performance since 2003, but the Braves certainly weren’t going to be playing Andy Marte anytime soon, and, in Renteria, GM John Schuerholz appears to have netted a solid, if unspectacular, replacement for Rafael Furcal.

(Digression: As Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux enjoy brilliance in their grey years, it has been difficult not to notice that Atlanta has lost more talent in the last five seasons than the Pirates (or the Royals) have developed. While other teams scramble to pick up the wayward pieces of their organization – see Furcal , J.D. Drew, Javy Lopez, Julio Franco, Jaret Wright, Kyle Farnsworth – the Braves rely increasingly on homegrown talent such as Kyle Davies, Jeff Francouer and Brian McCann. This is no secret. What’s truly impressive has been Schuerholz’s acumen on the trading block. Oscar Villareal (!) is the team’s wins leader, Tim Hudson is pitcher 1A in the Braves’ rotation and Renteria’s early success speaks for itself. In previous years, Atlanta brought in Johnny Estrada, Mike Hampton, Drew, Bret Boone and Fred McGriff. The only questionable deal made under Schuerholz’s watch was sending a young Jason Schmidt to Pittsburgh for Denny “I look like the young John Lithgow but I pitch like the old John Lithgow” Neagle in the 1996 playoff run. At least Schuerholz didn’t make the mistake of signing Neagle to a long-term deal…)

THUMBS DOWN: Oscar Villareal (4-0) is the team’s win leader, as the starters have pitched poorly, or received little run support. Forecasting a decline for Jorge “I Miss Leo Mazzone” Sosa wasn’t too difficult, as the former Devil Ray rotation castoff (never a good suffix) was due to suffer a bit once his luck started evening out. Atlanta’s pitching woes go beyond Sosa (0-4, 8.89 ERA, 2.04 WHIP), though. John Thomson’s 1.32 ERA obscures the fact that he has faced the Dodgers, Nationals and Padres. Hudson’s one-hititer yesterday was only the fifth win by an Atlanta starter this year. The rotation simply has not performed, throwing fewer innings than all but four NL starting staffs (one of which is the Marlins). The bullpen has already blown five saves, and sports the lowest strikeout-to-walk ratio in the National League (1.2). Quite simply, these are not your older sister’s Atlanta Braves.

I hesitate to place all the blame on new pitching coach Roger McDowell. By all accounts, he is a fine teacher and will have his work cut out for him, with youngsters Joey Devine, Blaine Boyer, Macay McBride and Chuck James ready to make an impact with the big club. McDowell’s predecessor looms large in the equation, however, and Mazzone’s strength always seemed to be reclamation projects like Sosa and Thomson, with Wright, John Burkett, and Chris Hammond before them. I have little doubt that McDowell will bring along the young pitchers just fine, but the Braves as a team cannot win games unless the No. 3-5 starters consistently deliver 6-7 strong innings. This will bear watching throughout the season, and into next year, when Hampton will begin to rebuild himself and the young Braves are a little more seasoned.

LOOKING AHEAD: Starting tomorrow, the Braves will play 15 straight games against NL East opponents, including this weekend’s series against the Mets that will be Atlanta’s last chance to beat up on New York until late July. Desperation is not a condition usually associated with these Braves; they’ve been written off plenty in the past, and to declare Bobby Cox’s crew dead in the water would be premature. The thing is, they haven’t had to climb out of a hole this steep since 1990, which was also the last time the National League held a postseason without visiting Atlanta. As evidenced by their poor April, the Braves will need a lot of breaks to keep their title as Division Champions beyond mid-September. We’ll check back on June 2.

Monday, May 1, 2006


LA Angels of Anaheim

LOOKING BACK: The competition’s struggles have allowed Los Angeles’ AL team to remain near the top of the standings in the West, which is a fairly positive remark as Mike Scioscia’s ball club wraps up a rather ho-hum month. Although April was only the third time the Angels have recorded a losing month since their recent playoff run began in 2004, fans of the Halos may find comfort in the knowledge that April has consistently been the team’s weakest overall month since Scioscia took over as skipper before the 2000 season (see graphic).

THUMBS UP: Vlad Guerrero continued to do his thing (.306-6-20), and the starting trio of John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar and Ervin Santana has succeeded (8-3, 3.42 ERA), making the absence of reigning Cy Young-winner Bartolo Colón a bit easier to stomach. Going into the last day of the month, Angels relievers had posted a 2.61ERA, best in the American League. Carrying the load, as usual, are the spectacular Scot Shields (13.2 IP, 0.66 ERA), Brendan Donnelly (12 IP, 2.25 ERA) and Frankie Rodriguez (8-9 in saves, 15 Ks/10.2 IP).

The three-headed monster of Shonneliguez has combined to make late-inning domination the pitching staff’s greatest strength, followed closely by its collective weight – Esteban Yan (255), Colón (250) and Donnelly (240) are easy choices for “Angels Players Who Should Never Be Seated In The Same Row On The Team Airplane.” (It’s a good thing Colon is on the DL right now; I’m not sure if there is enough room on the bullpen bench for all three of these guys to sit down at the same time. No wonder Donnelly seems to pitch in every game…)

THUMBS DOWN: No team has drawn fewer walks than the Halos’ 47, a major reason the team’s on base percentage stands at .302, second-worst in MLB. The Angels have scored just 112 runs so far, a weaker total than every AL team except the Twins (97), Royals (83) and Athletics (110). Simply put, their offense has been offensive. The lack of production from catchers Jose Molina (.180/.212/.220) and Jeff Mathis (.108/.175/.216) may not be much of a surprise, but the performance of the Angels’ corner infielders not named “Chone” has been particularly awful. Between them, Casey Kotchman, Robb Quinlan, Maicer Izturis and Edgardo Alfonzo are 27-for-130 (.208) with a .254 slugging percentage and zero homeruns.

I am pessimistic about how long the Angels can hang around the top of the division if this level of offense remains the norm, and it is difficult to forecast a brighter scenario among this collection of “talent”. Perhaps Orlando Cabrera (.302-4-19) and Adam Kennedy (.324/.363/.459) will continue their early success, and Darin Erstad (.238/.279/.350) will turn back the clock to the year 2000. More likely, one or both of the Angels’ middle infielders will stop playing above his head, and Erstad will play out the season as a ghost of his former overrated self.

THE ROAD AHEAD: The Angels play only 8 games within their division in May, including two against Oakland to open the month. A nine-game road trip to Detroit, Toronto and Chicago, will be a big test for a team that has performed much better at home (.571) than on the road (.499) in the first six seasons of the Mike Scioscia Era. Interleague play rears its head into the May schedule, as the annual Angels-Dodgers Battle of Los Angeles series visits L.A., proper, in the middle of the month. The Angles have not had a losing May under Scioscia, a trend that will reverse itself if the awffense continues to be awful.