We’re almost a quarter of the way through the major league season and it’s getting closer to that point where it’s hard to call teams a fluke anymore. Case in point, the Cleveland Indians. Seriously, did this team steal the script from Major League? Are they doing this to spite their ex-Showgirl owner who is insistent on moving the team to Miami? Did manager Manny Acta once double as a minor league manager and a tire salesman? I’m looking into these off-the-field possibilities as we speak.
However, the on-field similarities are stunning. This is a team composed of young players and guys we thought were past their prime. And yet, they’re winning. A lot. They are currently 23-11 and AL Central by 5.5 games. Not only that, the two teams everyone assumed would be fighting for the division, the Twins and White Sox, sit 11 and 10.5 games back respectively! This division is absolutely there for the taking.
So how have they done it? By scoring runs, and a lot of them.. They are currently fourth in the AL in slugging % (.418), first in on-base % (.341) and fifth in runs scored (170). This is no hoax either as the lineup is comprised of a lot of very good hitters. OF Michael Brantley and SS Asdrubal Cabrera have done a very good job of setting the table at the top of the lineup, DH Travis Hafner looks to have found the fountain of youth and Grady Sizemore is tearing the cover off the ball since his return from injury (though I’m a bit worried about his career low walk rate). Even 3B Jack Hannahan is having a career year. RF Shin-Soo Choo and C Carlos Santana have slumped out of the gate, but both have posted strong peripheral numbers and I expect them to rebound to their prior levels of performance. If that happens, this offense could be downright scary.
The pitching, on the other hand, might be due for a regression. The Tribe currently sit fourth in the AL in ERA (3.27). I just can’t see them sustaining that. So far their pitchers have combined for a .275 batting average on balls in play (league average .300), 0.67 HR/9 (average around 1) and a 74.2% strand rate (average around 70%). So what does all of this mean? Well, it means that they’ve probably been a bit lucky so far. That’s not to say that they aren’t good, because they are. I like a lot of their pitchers, namely young SP’s Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco. All I’m saying is that a lot of their hurlers are currently sporting ERA’s that are not supported by the peripheral numbers mentioned above.
So can they keep it up? Can they win the division? The answer might be different if the Twins and/or White Sox were nipping at their heels, but, under the circumstances, I think they have an excellent shot to come away with a division crown this season. Unless umps start to spot that Crisco that Eddie Harris keeps rubbing on the ball. Wait, I’m confusing real life with Major League again.
More MLB bullets:
• When it comes to my pre-season predictions, there’s often a good number of bad misses mixed in with the bullseyes. Lance Berkman was one of my bullseyes. But honestly, I don’t understand how no one else saw this coming? He maintained very good K and BB rates last season, which is a strong indication that he was still seeing the ball well. Yes, his power dropped off, but he still hit 13 home runs in just over a half season with Houston. Now put him into the St. Louis lineup behind Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday and in front of Colby Rasmus. How could he not hit? My only worry was whether or not he would be able to stay in the lineup all season while playing the outfield. If you own him, you might want to consider selling high eventually though.
• To illustrate the other side of the equation, the misses, we look to Toronto RF Jose Baustista. I quickly wrote off Bautista’s monster 2010 season as a fluke. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think he would fall all the way back to his prior levels of suckitude. However, I likened his season to Mark Reynolds’ ’09 (with less K’s). I figured he would drop back to about 25-30 homers with a poor average and continue to pile up the strikeouts. Could I have been more wrong? Bautista has cut the K’s and is walking at an unbelievable rate. He’s not going to hit 50+ home runs again and his average is probably going to drop back under .300 at some point, but he is 100% legit. If you took a chance on him in your fantasy draft, enjoy the ride.
• Another baseball pet peeve of mine: umpires automatically calling a strike on every 3-0 pitch. If that pitch wouldn’t have been a strike in a 1-0 or 0-1 count, it’s not a strike on 3-0. The pitcher doesn’t get a mulligan because he’s thrown three straight balls.
• With Jake Peavy returning for the White Sox, we are about to see something very rare in major league baseball: the six man rotation. I honestly can’t remember the last time a team actually employed one. I know the Red Sox tinkered with the idea a few years back, but I don’t think they ever actually used it.
Anyways, under the circumstances, I can’t say I would have done any different. The de facto odd man out was supposed to be Phil Humber, but he has been the Sox best starter so far this season. Ozzie Guillen would have had a hard time sending him, or any of the other starters, down to the bullpen. In all honesty, Peavy is probably the best option is one of them needs to be moved to the pen. I’ll be interested to see how this goes.
• Royals super-prospect 1B Eric Hosmer earned a promotion to the bigs last week. He was toying with Triple-A pitchers for the first month of the season, hitting .439/.525/.582 while walking as much as he struck out. Hosmer is only 21, but has an unbelievably advanced approach at the plate. His power probably won’t fully mature for another few years, but he’s already a very good hitter right now. He’ll hit for average, get on-base at a good clip and hit a ton of doubles. In five games so far he has acquitted himself relatively well (.250/.409/.500). He’s striking out a lot, but he’s also walking over 20% of the time.
However, in the grand scheme of things I have to question this promotion a bit. By calling up Hosmer this early, the Royals have assured him an extra year of arbitration, which will make him a good deal more expensive. What would have been the harm in leaving him at Triple-A for another month or so?
• It’s not really that hard to spot guys who are overmatched in the majors. Just take a look at the line for Pirates 3B Pedro Alvarez and it’s pretty clear he needs to head back to Triple-A for some seasoning. His .204/.271/.278 line is embarrassing and he’s striking out in exactly 1/3 of his at-bats. He’s hitting for absolutely no power and has been reduced to guessing at the plate.
It’s no coincidence that the Pirates allowed him only 284 at-bats at High-A, 254 at Double-A and 278 at Triple-A. He was absolutely rushed. A good rule of thumb is to have prospects spend about a full season (500 at-bats) at each level. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, but guys that are rushed like this normally struggle when they get to the majors.
• One breakout I certainly didn’t see coming was that of Marlins 1B Gaby Sanchez. He had a nice season last year as a rookie (.273/.341/.448), but was 26 at the time and I didn’t see a lot of projection left in him. Boy was I wrong. Sanchez has absolutely destroyed the ball so far (.336/.414/.533), hitting for more power and bringing his strikeout and walk rates closer together. If SS Hanley Ramirez can pick it up and LF Logan Morrison comes back from injury hitting like he did before, the Marlins are going to have an incredibly dangerous offense.
• Two guys I’m absolutely buying low on right now: White Sox DH Adam Dunn and Marlins SS Hanley Ramirez. Let’s look at Dunn first. He was absolutely raking before being forced out of the lineup in early April because of an appendectomy. He rushed back and hasn’t looked the same since. So what gives? Well his walk rate (16.7%) is a tick above his career average, but he’s striking out a career high 37% of the time. I expect the K’s to come down a tick, but the real worry is that his power has almost completely disappeared. Fear not folks, the guy didn’t forget how to hit bombs overnight. US Cellular Field is a great hitters park… once the temperatures get hotter. Expect a hot streak in June.
Ramirez is really a simple case. He’s been unlucky. A .250 batting average on balls in play will do that to you. He’s walking more than last year and striking out at the same rate, so he’s seeing the ball well. He’s also stealing bases at about the same clip. Some of his contact percentages are a little out of whack right now, so give him at least another month before making any rash decisions.
• Cubs SP Matt Garza needs a hug, or at least some run support. He’s been criminally unlucky so far. If you ignore his ERA (4.17) and W-L (2-4) record, he looks like the best pitcher in baseball right now. His FIP (1.62) and xFIP (2.14) are considerably lower, so expect that ERA to plummet in the near future. His 4.06 K/BB rate is absolutely filthy. If someone in your league is dumb enough to sell low on him, jump on the chance.
Add: SP Bud Norris, Astros
How is this guy available in so many leagues? So far he’s racked up 10.97 K/9, 3.71 K/BB and a 2.68 xFIP. The W-L record and ERA don’t look quite as good, but the peripherals say he’s putting it together. Let’s not forget, this guy was a very good prospect just two years ago. He’s probably not going to get a ton of wins playing in Houston, but the other numbers should be very good.
Drop: 1B/OF Aubrey Huff, Giants
Yes, he’s been unlucky so far (.232 BABIP), but his walk (7.7%) and strikeout (21.9%) rates are way out of whack (12.4% and 16% respectively last season). It’s not exactly like he’s a proven commodity either. Yes, he’s had some great seasons, but he’s also had some real stinkers. Don’t be afraid to cut bait and grab someone who’s swinging the bat well at either first or in the outfield.
Trade: OF Curtis Granderson, Yankees
Granderson, following suit with the rest of the Yankee lineup, has been hitting home runs at an astonishing pace thus far. His 26.1% HR/FB (home runs per fly ball percentage) is double his career average and is totally unsustainable. He’s attempted only four stolen bases on the year, so you’re not really getting any speed here anymore. By the end of the season, his line will look strikingly similar to last year’s line and that’s not a good thing. Jump ship while you can!
Trade for: SP Ricky Romero, Blue Jays
He’s hit a bit of a rough patch lately, but that looks to be a product of trying to pitch through injury. He had his last start pushed back two days because of pain in his side and probably should not have been pitching. If Romero can get healthy, it’s clear that he’s primed for a breakout. He’s striking out a career-high 9.14 per 9 innings and is walking just over 3 per 9 innings, a career low. His xFIP (3.16) is considerably lower than his ERA (4.04) and he’s got a pretty good offense backing him. Pounce on him while the ERA and W-L record look drive down the price.