One disturbing trend I’ve been noticing more and more this season is the inability of scorekeepers to give anybody an error. The official Major League Rulebook, listed on-line on MLB.com, is pretty cut and dry when it comes to determining errors, saying they should be prescribed when a player:
whose misplay (fumble, muff or wild throw) prolongs the time at bat of a batter, prolongs the presence on the bases of a runner or permits a runner to advance one or more bases, unless, in the judgment of the official scorer, such fielder deliberately permits a foul fly to fall safe with a runner on third base before two are out in order that the runner on third shall not score after the catch.
Its been an ugly season so far in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, as the Twins are already out of contention, fighting with the lowly Cubs, losers of 12 straight, for the unceremonious title of worst team in baseball. There are plenty of reasons for the Twins terrible 15-32 record so far. Chief among them is the fact that the pitching staff has given up 264 runs this seasons. That’s 60 more runs than a league average staff and a whopping average of 5.62 runs allowed a game. But as I was perusing the interwebs, I stumbled upon this post by Nick Nelson, on good ‘ole ESPN.com, and was given another reason for Minnesota’s struggles: Joe Mauer.
Now that April is in the books, and with All-Star voting already underway, it’s a good time to look at the American League’s best, by position, so far.
Catcher- Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles
The toughest position to choose from in either league, because of the excellent quality of play to date from Joe Mauer, who leads AL catchers in batting average and steals, AJ Pierzynski, who is hitting .309 with 4 homers, and Mike Napoli, who has crushed 7 homers already. I decided to go with Wieters, who plays behind the plate every game, unlike Mauer and Napoli, and who excels defensively, unlike Pierzynski. Wieters is hitting .279 with 6 homers and 15 RBI, helping Baltimore get off to a surprising start.
Konerko has been mashing the ball on the South Side, crushing for a .383/.444/.679 slash that puts him in the early MVP discussion. The slugging 1st baseman has also hit 5 homers, which put him over 400 for his career, and has driven in 15. He is the White Sox leader in the clubhouse, and has helped propel the team to a 2nd place start after the 1st month. This is one of the deepest positions in baseball, so we will see how long Paulie can hold on to the top spot.
2nd base- Ian Kinsler, Texas Rangers
Kinsler has been the spark at the top of the Rangers finely tuned machine of an offense, leading baseball in runs scored with 24. He’s also hitting a robust .298 while blasting 5 homers out of the leadoff spot.
Shortstop- Derek Jeter, New York Yankees
This one isn’t even close, as Jeter is the only AL shortstop hitting above .300. He is currently off to one of the best starts to a season in his career, hitting .389 with 4 homers and 13 RBI out of the leadoff spot. He has also scored 16 runs and leads all of baseball in hits. He is also driving the ball to the outfield again, something he struggled with early last season.
3rd Base- Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
Longoria injured his knee last night, attempting to steal 2nd, which has really put a damper on what was shaping up to be his finest professional season. Longoria has hit .349/.433/.561, spraying the ball to all fields and showing good power, with 4 homers to go with 19 ribbies. Hopefully he won’t have to miss more that a week or two, because he has some competition at 3rd with Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre.
UPDATE: Longoria has a partially torn hamstring and will miss anywhere from 4-8 weeks. This is a massive blow to Tampa Bay and will undoubtedly hurt their offense. The Rays have plenty of depth, but losing your best player is tough for any team to overcome and will probably cost the Rays a couple wins.
Outfield- Josh Hamilton, Texas Rangers
Hamilton, along with Matt Kemp, has been playing in his own stratosphere early in 2012. He is hitting .395/.438/.744 and has compiled a major league leading 64 total bases in a scant 22 games. He also leads the American League in homeruns and RBI and may have a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown, if he can stay healthy.
Outfield- Josh Willingham, Minnesota Twins
Josh Willingham has arguably been the most valuable free agent pickup to date. He’s driving the ball to all fields, posting an outstanding .347/.447/.681 with 5 taters. He may not stay in Minnesota for long, because if the Twins don’t get their pitching sorted out, Willingham would bring back a big return from an outfield or slap hitting team around the deadline.
Outfield- Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles
Adam Jones has been the other driving force behind the Orioles offense so far, hitting .333 and driving in 12. He has shown an All-Star level mix of power and speed, slugging 6 homers and stealing 4 bases, while scoring 18 runs. Other candidates for this last spot include: Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson, Nolan Reimold, and Nick Swisher, who is having a career-best start to his season.
Designated Hitter- David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox
Ortiz is having quite the season so far in Boston leading baseball in batting average, at .405 and OPS at 1.184. He has buoyed the Red Sox with his steady demeanor and production, leading the team in RBI and homers.
Right-handed pitcher- Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox
What a comeback so far for Jake Peavy, who is currently 3-1 with a 1.67 ERA for the Sox. He’s already thrown 37 innings and has struck out a robust 33 while only walking 5 so far, for an excellent 6.6 K/BB. His WHIP of .690 leads baseball, as does his ERA+, which accounts for park factors and sits at an absurd 252. He will have some regression to the mean, but this is an excellent start for the righty.
The young 22-year-old was a blip on the radar before the season started, and a month later he leads all qualifying pitchers in ERA, at 1.23. He has only pitched 22 innings so far, but has struck out 22 while only allowing 1.182 base runners to reach per 9. He isn’t afraid to throw any pitch in any count and looks to be the real deal.
Relief pitcher- Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Johnson probably won’t occupy this spot for long, but right now he has a league leading 7 saves without allowing a run in any of his 8.2 innings pitched. Fernando Rodney has also been excellent, and apart from blowing an Opening Day save, Mariano Rivera has not allowed a run.
- The Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers currently have the best record in all of baseball at 9-2. Don Mattingly is pushing all the right buttons, Dee Gordon has provided excitement, the clubhouse is loose, and every bounce is going right. (Did you see that triple play on Sunday???!??) Matt Kemp is mashing the ball, hitting .465/.500/.977 with 6 homers and 16 RBI. These are video game numbers and this is the kind of production the Dodgers envisioned when they extended his contract until 2019.Kemp also leads the NL in runs scored, runs created, total bases, and hits. Andre Ethier is also hitting well, with 4 homers and 17 RBI. The schedule has been home heavy, playing the short-handed Padres, and underwhelming Pirates, so LA’s hot start could be a mirage. The schedule gets tougher, as the Dodgers hit the road for 2 more after dropping the opener in Milwaukee, but they follow that series with another easy one against Houston. If Matt Kemp keeps hitting, and the pitching staff stays in the top half of the National League, the Dodgers are a legitimate contender.
- Justin Verlander. The Cy Young/MVP winner threw his 1st complete game of the year on Monday in a 3-2 win over the Royals. Verlander used an astounding 131 pitches to dispatch the Royals and his last 3 all clocked in at 100 mph. He dominated the Royals last night with a steady diet of fastballs offset by a fantastic changeup, which he was locating beautifully, throwing it for a strike 74% of the time. As you can see from the chart, JV got better as the game progressed, gaining velocity thus becoming more difficult to hit. Verlander has picked right back up from his torrid pace a season ago. He already leads the league in innings pitched, strikeouts, has allowed 0 homers, and has the lowest WHIP in baseball. All of the teams he was facing have offenses that will probably rank in the top half of baseball as well, so its not like he was piling up big numbers against banjo hitters either. Verlander has earned the right to be called the best pitcher in baseball, over other worthy contenders like Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, and Clayton Kershaw.
- Highlights from Around the League. Josh Reddick, the new right fielder in Oakland, has a rocket launcher for an arm. He’s already gunned down two different runners at 3rd and has 4 assists total. Impressive. Congrats are due to Jaime Moyer, who at 49 became the oldest pitcher ever to get a major league win, going 7 innings and only allowing 2 unearned runs in Colorado’s 5-3 win. Derek Jeter’s early season surge continued, as he picked up another 2 RBI last night out of the leadoff spot. He’s now hitting .367/.385/.633 with 3 homers, 9 RBI, and 18 hits total. He also has 2 leadoff home runs on the season. Josh Willingham is also off to an excellent start this season, hitting in all 11 games with 5 total home runs. He has been carrying Minnesota’s offense during the early season. Gio Gonzalez seems to be enjoying life in Washington, picking up his 1st win in a 1-0 victory over Houston. Gonzalez has struck out 21 batters in 17.2 innings over his first 3 starts, and has a 2.04 ERA.
- LA’s other team. The LA Angels easily have one of the most talented rosters in baseball. The rotation is stacked, with 2 aces and 2 other plus arms, the lineup is full of powerful bats, and they have young talent oozing through the minors. So what is wrong with the Angels so far? They are 4-7 and no one on the team looks to be comfortable. Albert Pujols is homerless so far, a streak that is 48 at-bats long and counting. The combination of Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter is keeping the powerful Mark Trumbo planted on the bench, because he is a liability at 3rd base. The #1 prospect in baseball Mike Trout is sitting in Triple-A because of the outfield problems. If the Angels really want to win, they need to plant Wells on the bench or trade Hunter, in order to free up playing time for the younger players. Or they should try and build a time machine to go back in time and undo the Vernon Wells-Mike Napoli swap. They butchered that trade about as badly as an franchise has in the past decade, losing a powerful catcher and taking on a bad contract in one foul swoop.
- Baseball’s Closer Problem. Tom Verducci wrote an in-depth article yesterday on SI.com detailing the issue. Closers are breaking down at higher rates than ever before, despite the advances in modern medicine, and teams are spending a combined $487 million last year on injured relievers. “Fifty percent of all starting pitchers will go on the DL every year, as well as 34 percent of all relievers, according to research by Stan Conte, director of medical services for the Los Angeles Dodgers. That bears repeating: half of all starting pitchers will break down this year. ‘When I did the research,’ Conte said, ‘I was so surprised I figured I must have done the math wrong.'” This is an astounding issue, especially with season-ending injuries already to Joakim Soria, Ryan Madsen, and Brian Wilson. And many teams that aren’t having injury issues with their closers are, instead, having performance issues. Jose Valverde has already blown 2 saves, Boston can’t find a closer, Heath Bell has blown a couple, and the list goes on. Teams need to think outside the box a little more with relief pitching, because the uber-defined roles and the one-inning or one-batter appearances are leading to injury, as well as poor performance.
- Struggles from Around the League. Albert Pujols’ base running has been abysmal so far. He’s the runner in the clip posted above, being gunned down at 3rd. This is already the 3rd time in the young season he has been thrown out being too aggressive on the base paths. Pujols doesn’t quite have the speed he possessed earlier in his career and the league knows it. Tim Lincecum had another iffy start against the Phillies on Monday giving up 4 runs in the 1st. He settled down nicely after that inning, throwing nearly all breaking balls and using his slider 30 times, allowing only 1 run. He had previously said he was scrapping the pitch, but it appears to be vital to his success, so he brought it back after the 1st and proceeded to look like the Timmy of old. If he continues to use the pitch, it will be interesting to see going forward if it has any negative effects on his arm, or if it was just a case of Lincecum being a little too cautious.