Tagged: Phil Hughes

The Rundown: Minnesota Aims for the Middle

Spending Twins.JPEG-062f9The pitching staff for the 2013 Minnesota Twins was positively abysmal a year ago. As a collective, the Twinkies ranked dead last in strikeout rate while simultaneously allowing their opponent’s to rack up more hits than any other staff in the league.

Things were so ugly a year ago that 10 different pitchers made at least 8 starts for Minnesota and just 2 of those 10 finished the season with a sub-4.00 ERA. Twins GM Terry Ryan knows that’s not a recipe for success, which is why he spent most of last week spending upwards of $70 million to shore up his rotation, adding veteran righties Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. The real question is, does that $73 million get the Twins any closer to an AL Central title?

I’m guessing the answer is no. Nolasco will do a solid job providing some strikeouts to a staff in desperate need of them and he does a nice job of keeping the ball in the park, but otherwise it’s difficult to find the positives when the Twins are paying him to be their ace. That being said, Nolasco is a huge improvement over everyone Ron Gardenhire sent to the mound a year ago. He’s the only pitcher on the team with legitimate strikeout stuff and he should eat up plenty of innings on a staff that badly needs a pitcher to do so.

The same goes for new #2 starter Phil Hughes, who should be rejoicing over the fact that he’s leaving the homer-happy Bronx for the spacious confines of Target Field. Hughes has allowed 1 homer per every 5.3 innings pitched in Yankee Stadium since his Major League debut, compared to 1 homer every 10.4 innings in every other park. Target Field, a notoriously deep park, should suit the fly ball happy Hughes nicely.

But a new ball park still doesn’t make Hughes a good pitcher. He still has the same plain, old vanilla fastball and his secondary stuff is mostly underdeveloped. Hughes, even at his best, is still just a league average pitcher.

His ERA+ since becoming a starter full-time is 9 points below the league average and if not for the Yankee offense propping him up for the past half-decade, Hughes would probably be a reliever by now. The righty is just 11-46 if his team scores fewer than 6 runs, which is something Minnesota was quite adept at a year ago. Unless Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano suddenly turn up next season, expect the losses to continue to pile up for Hughes and the Twins.

Washington pickpockets Fister from Detroit

A puzzling offseason in Detroit continued Monday when the Tigers shipped starter Doug Fister to the Nationals in exchange for Steve Lombardozzi and a couple of young arms. That move was followed by the the prohibitive signing of Joe Nathan, who will fill the closer roll in Detroit. It was the second surprise trade in a matter of weeks from general manager Dave Dombrowski, who appears hellbent on remaking these Tigers into a more flexible outfit.

But outside of flexibility, it’s difficult to see how these deals make the Tigers, a bona fide World Series contender, any better in 2014. Most of Lombardozzi’s value is tied up in his ability to play 2nd base, where Ian Kinsler figures to spend a majority of the time. His bat doesn’t really play in the outfield or at 3rd base, and even if you believe that Lombardozzi and Dirks could make a solid platoon in left field, it in no way justifies trading away one of the 10 to 20 best pitchers in baseball.

Don’t believe me? Take a look:

ERA ERA+ K/BB WAR FIP
3.30 124 3.75 13.3 3.21
MLB Rank: 20th 14th 19th 9th 14th

No matter which way you slice it, that’s a hell of a lot to give up for the quintessential replacement player (Lombardozzi), a 2nd year reliever in Ian Krol, and Double-A pitching prospect Robbie Ray. Maybe Dombrowski is hoping that Ray, the owner of a 3.36 ERA in 142 minor league innings a year ago, turns into another solid rotation piece, but even that line of thinking is odd. Detroit, as currently constructed, is built to win right now so why trade away a good pitcher in the hopes of getting one further down the road?

As for Washington’s perspective on the deal, one has to wonder how quickly GM Mike Rizzo said yes. Three seconds? Five seconds? Seriously, if he put any more thought into it I’d be disappointed. With one quick maneuver, Rizzo was able to improve his 2014 roster significantly without damaging Washington’s extended outlook. The Nats now have the deepest rotation in baseball to go along with a group of young and improving position players. With this much talent on hand, anything short of a deep October run will be viewed as a disappointment.

The price of pitch framing

Yesterday the Tampa Bay Rays announced that they finalized a 2 year/$4.5 million dollar deal with 38-year-old catcher Jose Molina and it may very well be the most interesting $4.5 million handed out this offseason. You may be asking yourself  why would any team want to pay an over the hill backstop with bad knees and nothing left in his bat? Well the answers simple. It all comes down to inches, as in the ones Molina routinely adds to a pitcher’s strike zone each time he’s behind the dish.

According to baseballanalytics.org, since 2008, 13.4% of all pitches thrown to Molina that landed outside the strike zone have been called as strikes, which stands as the best mark in baseball over the time frame. That ability to stay quiet behind the plate shows up in the run column as well. According to Baseball Prospectus, Molina saved about 25 runs a year ago solely through his ability to gain an extra inch or two around the corner of the plate.

With Ryan Hanigan joining Molina behind the plate after yesterday’s trade, the Rays now have two of the top 10 framers in baseball behind the dish. Make no mistake, this is a downright brutal offensive pairing. There’s a very good chance they won’t combine for an OPS above .600, but the Rays don’t really seem to care. It’s a clear statement from the organization that they value the ability to get an extra inch or two around the plate over all others when they scour the free agent market for catchers.

Quick hits: Rockies addition

– GM Dan O’Dowd has a little bit of explaining to do following the slightly confusing Dexter Fowler trade. The soon to be 28-year-old is due $7.35 million next season, he’s still arbitration eligible, and he’s been as consistent as they come in Colorado. Fowler’s usually good for 120-140 games, an OPS of .780 or so as well as some solid centerfield defense. In exchange for 2 or 3 wins worth of value the Rockies will receive back-of-the-rotation fodder Jordan Lyles and defensive specialist Brandon Barnes.

-Lyles made at least 15 starts in each of the past 3 seasons for the Astros and he failed to post an ERA lower than 5 each year and the thought of him making 15-20 starts a year in Coors is downright scary. Barnes, for his part, is an excellent defensive outfielder but he’s downright abysmal everywhere else. He struck out in a quarter of his 450 or so plate appearances, while managing a meager 21 walks. It makes you wonder why O’Dowd didn’t hold out for a better package of players in exchange for Fowler.

– One quick though on the Astros: the new regime, led by Jeff Luhnow, has been absolutely nailing these smaller trades. Fowler is just the latest in a long line of minor victories for the Houston front office.

– The Rockies followed that move up by moving close to a deal with Justin Morneau. It looks like they’re going to pay him somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million for the next 2 seasons, which could very well look like a steal when this wacky offseason concludes. Morneau should provide a solid glove and some good pop against right-handers when he’s in the lineup. Manager Walt Weiss may want to keep him out of the lineup against lefties however. Morneau has hit just .205 with 5 homers in the past 3 years.

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Brian Cashman’s Contingency Plan Needs a Contingency Plan

iThis wasn’t how things were supposed to be for the New York Yankees. The All-Star cavalry was supposed to return to buoy what is an otherwise uninspiring roster of 30-something misfits. Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira were supposed to return to spell the likes of Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay in a spirited 2nd half sprint to the playoffs. But that’s not exactly how things have worked out in the Bronx. Teixeira’s now done for the year thanks to surgery, Granderson played in 8 whole games before hitting the DL again, and the entire left side of the infield has fewer at-bats than All-Star appearances.

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Phil Hughes and Putting It All Together

iOriginally published on Highheatstats.com

When the Yankees drafted Phil Hughes with the 24th overall pick back in 2004, the hope was that the young right-hander from California could become a dominant front line pitcher. Hughes did nothing but encourage those pie in the sky thoughts during his first 3 years in the minor leagues and by the start of the 2007 season he was considered to be one of the elite prospects in all of baseball by the likes of Keith Law, Baseball America, and others. His fastball was considered to be the best in the minor leagues, his curve rated as a plus secondary offering and his control was 2nd to none.

By the middle of the 2010 season those scouting reports were looking rather spot on. Hughes had blossomed into an 18 game winner with a solidly above average strikeout/walk ratio and a new pitch, a cutter, to boot. But there were also some rather ominous warning signs laced into that 18-win campaign. Hughes posted a 4.90 ERA over the 2nd half of the season, had a gaudy home run rate and a chunk of that sparkly 18-8 record was owed to the fact that the Yankees’ offense put up 6.75 runs per game during his starts. But even with those minor nitpicks, that front line starter talent was starting to show through. Hughes just hadn’t put the entire package together quite yet.

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Can the Yankees Turn it Around?

The New York Yankees, losers of 6 of their last 7 games, currently have some major issues right now. The team has fallen in to a last place tie with the Boston Red Sox at 21-21, 5.5 games behind the Baltimore Orioles. The Yankees have had a rough season on the injury front as well, losing many expected key contributors for the remainder of the season. During their recent losing streak the Yankees have been outscored 34-15 and have been unwatchable when hitting with runners in scoring position, batting 6-73, for a .083 batting average. At some point the law of averages says New York will have to start hitting with runners on so what are the team’s real issues? And is any of this fixable for a ballclub that many, myself included, thought would be a World Series contender at best and a playoff team at worst? Let’s break down some of the issues in the Bronx:

Injury

The most impactful injury to date for the Yankees hasn’t been the loss of Mariano Rivera, it’s been the loss of Brett Gardner for the past month. Gardner hasn’t played since April 17th and was off to a fantastic start. He was hitting .321/.424/.393 with 2 steals while playing his trademark excellent defense. Gardner’s defense rated by most defensive metrics to be the best in baseball during the 2011 season, and without the speedster, the Yankees have been forced to choose between Raul Ibanez terrible glove and Dewayne Wise’s all-around useless game. The sooner Gardner gets back in the lineup and starts stealing bases and taking away hits the better for New York.

The Yankees are one of the many teams that have been cruelly bitten by the injury bug. The pitching staff has seen more quality arms go on the disabled list than any other franchise in the league. Michael Pineda and Joba Chamberlain, who the Yankees were counting on to throw around 240-260 combined innings in 2012, probably won’t throw a pitch this season. The greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, was horrifyingly lost for the year after slipping on the warning track in Kansas City. Rivera had thrown at least 60 innings for 9 consecutive seasons, a streak that will come to an end this year. David Robertson will be out for at least another week after straining his oblique against the Mariners on May 11th. All of those injuries will cost the Yankees 300+ combined innings, which is tough for any team, even the wealthiest, to overcome.

The good news is that the Yankees bullpen has still been strong despite missing 3 of its 4 best arms. David Phelps has thrown 29.1 innings of quality baseball, allowing only 9 earned runs. Cory Wade has given the Yankees 20 quality innings as well, and has a 190 ERA+ with a WHIP below 1. The highly paid Rafael Soriano has been worth some of his contract this season, throwing for a 172 ERA+ in 14.1 innings and earning 2 saves.

The Yankees probably won’t have the top rated bullpen in baseball like they did in 2011, but the team still has plenty of talented fireman, and will probably rank as one of the best in the American League again. The bigger problem will be overcoming the loss of Michael Pineda, which will thrust Andy Pettitte into a larger role, and forces Phil Hughes to step up.

Pitching

The Yankees pitching has been downright abysmal this season, after ranking 10th in baseball in 2011. The Yankees currently rank 23rd in baseball in run prevention, and have given up the 2nd most long balls. The entire rotation of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, and Phil Hughes has been homer-happy, allowing 38 of the 54 total. The Yankees tiny ballpark has something to do with those homeruns, but as Hiroki Kuroda said a few days ago “The homeruns I’ve been giving up are homeruns everywhere.” That, more than anything else, has been the Yankees biggest problem this season. Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, and Hiroki Kuroda all have allowed more than 10 hits per 9 innings, which means their all being hit like piñatas at a birthday party. Each pitcher has had issues locating the ball over the plate up in the zone, which are correctable going forward and could lead to some big improvement.

In better news, the Yankees rank 3rd in baseball in strikeouts, behind only the hard-throwing pitching staffs of the Nationals and Tigers. New York also has the 5th best strikeout-to-walk rate in the Majors, tied with the Cincinnati Reds. If Yankees pitchers can cut down on the homeruns allowed, their ability to strike hitters out should begin to result in quality starts, which lead to victories.

Defense

Currently every major team defensive metric available rates the Yankees defense as terrible. The outfield has been absolutely porous when Raul Ibanez plays. This issue will be alleviated by the return of Brett Gardner, the best defensive player in baseball, but only he can do so much for the team as a whole.

Derek Jeter’s bat may be looking spry, but his range in the field is certainly showing signs of age. Jeter has never been very good going to field balls hit up the middle, but this season he is reaching fewer of those than ever. Alex Rodriguez rates among the worst 3rd basemen in the American League on defense, leading to a very leaky left side of the infield, and a lot of seeing-eye singles. Eric Chavez has been valuable off the bench, but is injury-prone and should only be counted on in a limited role. Eduardo Nunez, another alternative on the left side of the infield, is even worse defensively, requiring a demotion to work on his defense. This is the risk you take when your long-term left side of the infield is over 35 years old, and there is no real solution this season.

The Yankees have tried to remedy some of the problem by playing the 5th most shifts in baseball. The Yankees have historically only shifted on big left-handed sluggers like David Ortiz, but Joe Girardi is showing some fortitude and shifting more frequently. As of May 11 the Yankees had shifted 55 times, just 15 short of last season’s total. Its difficult to say whether this is working, because the Yankees rank 26th in baseball in defensive efficiency (which measures the percentage of balls put into play that are turned into outs), tied with the Detroit Tigers, who play two poor-fielding 1st basemen in their infield.

 

Before the season I thought the Yankees had one of the deepest roster’s in baseball, which would serve them well over the long, arduous season. The Yankees’ depth has been severely tested this season, and outside of Raul Ibanez’s hitting and the bullpen, they have come up short. The offense has been elite so far and ranks 3rd in the majors in all 3 triple slash categories. Once they start hitting with runners on base, the runs will start flowing again. The Yankees have one of the elite offenses in baseball, which will keep them around .500, the bigger, more pressing issue is if the pitching that New York currently has is good enough to capture a playoff spot in the ferocious AL East. I’m not quite sure the Yankees have the caliber of pitching to make the postseason, and I fully expect Brian Cashman, annually one of the most active GMs in baseball, to make some sort of play to add a few wins to the overall total.

Previewing the Weekend In Kansas City

I will be attending the next two Yankees-Royals games at Kauffman Stadium, and could not be more excited to be doing so. While the pitching match-ups are nothing spectacular, Kuroda-Paulino and Hughes-Hochevar, the games should be exciting anyway. Here’s a quick look at what to expect:

Derek Jeter is a man on fire.

Jeter, at age 37, leads the American League in batting average at .404, hits, on-base percentage, and total bases. He also has 5 homers after hitting a bomb to deep left-center last night, 1 short of last year’s total. He hasn’t hit the ball with this much authority since 2009, when he finished 3rd in the MVP vote for hitting .334 with 18 homers and 30 steals. If Jeter sustains this level of production, he will be a threat to finally win a (much-deserved) MVP award.

He has also destroyed Royals pitching during the first 2 games of the series, going 6-10 with a homer 2 RBI and 4 runs scored. Jeter also loves hitting in Kauffman, batting .321/.374/.443 in 62 career games, so look for the Captain to carry his hot streak through the weekend.

Can Eric Hosmer get things turned around quickly?

Hosmer has been mired in a major sophomore slump this year, producing a meek .198/.270/.396 line. The early power numbers have been solid however, as Hosmer has mashed 5 homers while knocking in 15. Hosmer hit a very solid .293 a year ago, and the sooner he brings his average up the better for Kansas City. Hosmer is counted on to be the big bat right after on-base machine Billy Butler, and so far he has been a bit underwhelming. He’s had 3 hits so far in the series, including his first triple of the year, so maybe as the weather warms up, so will Hosmer.

How many homers will be hit on Sunday?

Batters have absolutely been lighting Phil Hughes up in the early going this season. He’s allowing 1 homerun every 3 innings, and he has only made it to the 5th inning in one of his 5 starts. With Andy Pettitte due to return to the majors over the next couple of weeks, this may be one of Hughes’ last chances to stay in the rotation. An ERA above 7 and a WHIP above 1.6 just won’t cut it in the big leagues. The only saving grace for Phil is that Kansas City hasn’t hit too many long balls, ranking 11th in the American League with only 21 homers hit. Luke Hochevar hasn’t been great this season either. His ERA is over 7.00 as well, but he has yet to allow a homer. His issue has been command. Hochevar is either leaving too many hittable pitches over the plate, or walking batters. And with the Yankees once again leading baseball in homeruns hit, with 40 already, so expect that trend to continue as well.  Even so, if you’re sitting in the outfield be ready, because Hughes and Hochevar will probably allow at least 1 gopher ball on Sunday.

Can David Robertson successfully take over the closer role?

In a bit of good news for fans everywhere yesterday, The Great Mariano announced that he will be back to pitch again in 2013. But for the rest of 2012, the Yankees will be without Rivera, and are turning to David Robertson to close out ballgames. Robertson threw 1 inning last night, striking out the side, to seal the Yankees 6-2 win. It wasn’t a save situation due to CC Sabathia’s excellent 8 inning start, but it was reassuring to see that Robertson didn’t change his approach in any way. The right-hander has excellent stuff, and gets more extension on his release than any other pitcher in baseball, which allows him to pile up strikeouts. His numbers this year are Mariano-like, maybe better so far. In 12 innings he’s yet to allow a run, piled up 21 strikeouts, while only allowing 7 hits and 3 walks. So far, so good if you’re a Yankee fan.


The AL East is a Mess

With the calendar turning over to May baseball will truly begin to heat up. We’ve had some surprises and some disappointments, and the next month of baseball will do a lot to clear up a rather cloudy picture, particularly in the AL East. Baseball’s best division has lived up to its name once again this season, producing 5 teams playing quality baseball. The AL East already looks like it could produce 3 playoff teams this year, so let’s take a look at which team has the best odds, and which has an inside track to winning the division title.

Currently every team in the AL East is sitting at or above .500, with Tampa Bay holding a slight lead at 15-8. Baltimore has been surprisingly scrappy, dominating the Blue Jays 5-1 but struggling against the Yankees dropping all 4. The Yankees were swept to start the year in Tampa, but pummeled the Red Sox in Fenway. Boston has rebounded after another slow start, going 7-1 in their last 8 games, and Toronto has feasted on a weak schedule of AL Central teams. All of these clubs have struggled with pitching except for Baltimore, which has the 8th best staff in baseball. Everyone outside of Baltimore has been an offensive powerhouse, taking 4 of the top 8 spots in runs scored, with Boston leading the pack.

If Tampa’s offense remains this potent, they immediately become the new favorites in the AL East. The Rays have a legitimately excellent pitching staff and that fact will boar its way out as the season progresses. It’s their offense that was an issue a year ago, and so far that has been the team’s real strength. Evan Longoria hit .329/.433/.561 with 4 homes and 19 RBIs and is potential MVP candidate if Josh Hamilton cools down. Carlos Pena has been one of the best free agent signings in baseball so far hitting for a .900 OPS while playing excellent defense at 1st. Matt Joyce and Luke Scott each have 5 homers, giving the Rays a nice mix of power to go with the speed of Desmond Jennings, who has stolen 6 bases.

The starting pitching is in place for a 95-win campaign if the Rays can sort out the early bullpen issues. New closer Fernando Rodney has been excellent, but the rest of the pen has been leaky. Burke Badenhop and Joel Perralta both have more than 10 appearances and still have ERAs over 7.00. The Rays may need to use former starter Wade Davis in more high leverage situations if the rest of the pen doesn’t improve. Davis has been excellent, posting a sub-2.50 ERA in 11.2 innings so far in his first season in the bullpen. Tampa also just concluded the best series victory of any team this season, defeating the Rangers in 3 games in Arlington, no easy task. The Rays are already out to an early lead, and look to be a strong contender for a playoff spot, so I’d put their odds at:

40% division title/80% playoff spot

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.

Baltimore’s pitching staff has been their key to success so far, led by the impressive Jason Hammel. Hammel is 3-1 with a 1.97 ERA in 32 innings, striking out a solid 8.4 per 9. He throws a good fastball, plus slider, and a solid curve, so his success will probably continue to some degree. The other Japanese import, Wei-Yin Chen has also been pitching his socks off, posting a 2.22 ERA in 24 innings. Matt Wieters and Adam Jones have also been important to Baltimore’s success, with each hitting 6 big flies so far.

The bullpen has also done a stand-up job and has been the best in baseball, with a 2.03 ERA. Jim Johnson already has 7 saves while not allowing a run. Luis Ayala also hasn’t given up a single run in the 11 innings he has pitched, and Darren O’Day has only given up 1. However, the Orioles have struggled against the traditional powerhouses and more than likely the favorites will start to pummel Baltimore pitching, pushing the O’s back down to the cellar. Their odds:

0% division title/5% playoff spot

The New York Yankees pitching staff has been absolutely brutal so far, ranking 20th in baseball.  The only reason that ranking isn’t any worse is because the Yankees bullpen has been excellent so far, ranking 3rd in baseball in ERA. CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda have both shown signs of improvement after early struggles, so their problems are probably going to be short-lived. Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia, not so much. Garcia has already been demoted to the bullpen after being shelled for 19 earned runs in 13 innings with an astronomically bad WHIP of 2.195. David Phelps, who has saved the Yankees in long relief, gets a call-up to the rotation, where his lower 90s fastball and ability to command the strike zone should play nicely.

Phil Hughes’ stay in the rotation is also probably near its conclusion, because when you give up 5 homers in 16 innings it makes it tough to win ballgames. 40-year-old Andy Pettitte should be on his way with the next couple of weeks, and if he has anything left in the tank, it will be an improvement.

The offense has gone about business as usual, ranking 3rd in baseball in runs scored, averaging 5.45 a game. The Yankees are 1st in baseball in homers, led by Curtis Granderson’s 8, and currently have 3 hitters with an OPS above .950, led by Derek Jeter’s 1.012. The offense is always present in New York, its just a matter of how much pitching the Yankees have, and this year it should be enough to get to the playoffs. Their odds:

30% division title/75% playoff spot

 

The Toronto Blue Jays have been an interesting team this year. They are batting .239 as a team, yet the Jays rank 8th in baseball in runs scored. They don’t walk an outstanding number of times, nor do they steal a ton of bases, ranking near the middle of the league in both categories. They have also done all of this while Jose Bautista is slumping, hitting an abysmal .181/.320/.313, with only 3 homers. Edwin Encarnacion has been the team’s best hitter mashing for a 1.054 OPS with 8 home runs and 21 RBI, both top 3 in the American League.

The starting pitching has also been improved; with 4 starters currently ranking as better than league average, led by Kyle Drabek. Drabek has struck out 26 batters in 30 innings, an excellent rate for a starter, while posting a 2.44 ERA. He has some command issues, which could get him in trouble against the patient lineups throughout the division, so it will be interesting to see if he can keep his runs allowed down going forward. Toronto has a weak bullpen that is already dealing with injury problems, so the margin of error here is thin, but if Bautista starts producing, Toronto’s pitching won’t have to be so precise. Their odds:

15% division title/35% playoff spot

After all the early fires and panicking in Boston, the Red Sox are quietly on a nice 7-1 run. The offense has been mashing, and already leads baseball in runs scored. David Ortiz is hitting a bananas .405/.457/.726, turning the clock back to 2005. Cody Ross has stepped up big time with injuries to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsberry, hitting a solid .257 with good power, slugging 5 early homers. If Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez get going, the Red Sox lineup will turn into a pitcher’s worst nightmare. The only problem is that the pitching staff gives nearly all of Boston’s runs back.

So far the Red Sox have had the worst staff in baseball. The bullpen has been the main problem, also ranking last in baseball in ERA. Not that the starters have been any better, as only Daniel Bard ranks much above league average. Beckett and Lester have been positively mediocre, posting mid-4.00 ERAs, and Clay Buchholz has been an unmitigated disaster, posing a WHIP near 2.00 and an ERA above 8.00 in 29 innings. This kind of performance doomed the Red Sox a year ago, and it threatens to do so again. The current odds:

15% division title/30% playoff spot

Baseball’s Burning Questions

With the 1st 10% of the Major League regular season in the books, let’s take a look at some of the burning questions from around the league.

Can Matt Kemp hit .400? Or how about 60 homers?

Matt Kemp launched another homerun last night, his 10th of the year, and he is currently hitting a robust .449 at the plate. Kemp is on pace to smash over 85 homeruns and post a batting average that would stand as an all-time record. Regression will inevitably set in at some point however, so his performance will inevitably decline, but does he have a shot at history. Kemp had a sizzling start a year ago, hitting .368 the 1stmonth of the season, with 6 homers before average declined, but he continued hitting homers at the same rate. While I don’t think Kemp can legitimately hit .400, I do believe that this start will enable him to bat above the .375 mark, a very difficult feat. I think Kemp has a better chance at hitting 60 dingers, because he would only need to hit a homer about 1 in every 11 at-bats the rest of the year, which would be a decline in his current 1 per 7 rate. Last year he hit 1 homer per every 15 at-bats, so he would have to continue to slug better than he did a year ago, but it is possible and I think Kemp will do it.

Do the Yankees have a pitching problem?

What was once thought to be the deepest rotation in baseball, with 7 major league caliber starters, is now treading on thin ice due to poor performance and injury. The Rangers bombed Phil Hughes yesterday, being chased after allowing 4 runs on 5 hits in 2.2 innings. His season ERA now stands at an ugly 7.88 and his biggest problem is the home run ball. Hughes has given up an unsightly 5 homers in the 16 innings he’s pitched, while allowing 13.5 hits per 9 innings. Batters are just teeing off on Phil right now. The news got worse yesterday for the Yankees and Michael Pineda, as they learned the young righty has a partially torn labrum, which requires surgery and will end his season before it began. Freddy Garcia has also been unsightly in the rotation, and now the Yankees are viewing the return of Andy Pettitte as a need, rather than a luxury. Pettitte is 40-years-old and didn’t pitch a season ago, so he should be counted on for nothing more than back of the rotation help. If Garcia can put together one good start his next time out, Hughes will probably be sent to the bullpen. CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova make up a solid top of the rotation, but the Yankees will need someone else to step up in the 3rd spot if they want to improve what has been their biggest problem so far in 2012. That pitcher will probably have to be Hiroki Kuroda, who has been mediocre for the Bronx Bombers so far. If he steps up the Yankees pitching woes will be a thing of the past. But if he continues to struggle and posts a mid-4.00 ERA or worse, New York could be watching baseball in October, because the AL East is a meat grinder this year.

Are the Nationals for real?

Most definitely yes, the Nats are for real. Washington has the best pitching staff in baseball so far. They rank 1st in runs allowed, hits allowed, homeruns allowed (only 4!!!), average fastball velocity and they rank 2nd in baseball in strikeouts. Before the season manager Davey Johnson said he would take his staff over any in baseball, including the vaunted Philadelphia rotation, and so far he’s been proven right. The top-3 of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez all possess ERAs under 2.00. Strasburg, in particular, has been untouchable, posting an absurd 336 ERA+ while striking out 10.3 batters per 9. The offense could use a little boost, ranking 22nd in baseball so far, but many of their best hitters are struggling or on the DL. Michael Morse has yet to play, and he was the team’s best hitter a year ago. Morse will probably return to action around the end of May. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington’s star 3rd baseman, has also struggled hitting only .224/.324/.345. Expect the offense to improve when the weather really heats up and expect the Nationals to keep on winning.

Should Yoenis Cespedes be your new favorite player?

Yes. The guy is a treat to watch. Cespedes swings with all his might, hits with massive power, steals bases, has a rocket launcher for an arm, and plays the game with passion. And if that isn’t enough for you how about this?

Or what he did to the White Sox yesterday?

Or this pitch that is still in orbit?

Oh, and he will probably be a 30-30 player for years to come. He already has 5 homers and 4 steals on the young season and his plate discipline is improving. And the scary part is how good Cespedes will be in a year or two, once he adjusts to living in America and gets a better grasp of the strike zone.  He’s a fantastic player who is breathtaking to watch.

Where has Albert Pujols gone?

The Machine has not been the same since leaving St. Louis for the sunny shores of California. He’s having the worst April of his entire career and is also currently stuck in the worst slump of his career, a 0-19 bender that has many pundits baffled. He is now hitting .222/.282/.319 and still hasn’t hit his 1st homerun. Last night against the Tampa Bay Rays, Pujols looked downright uncomfortable at the plate, striking out twice, and pulling into the shift once. Two or three years ago, a manager wouldn’t have dared to use a shift on Pujols, because he would punish it by immediately taking the 1st good pitch to the opposite field for a base hit. The Rays shifted on Pujols for every at-bat, showing either a lot of conviction out of Joe Maddon or knowledge that Pujols is trying to pull everything. If Albert relaxes a little more at the plate and starts to use the whole field again, he will once again take his place as one of the 3-5 most feared hitters alive. Pujols should recover in time to hit around .280-.300 with 25 homers, a far cry from the production expected out of him when he signed in LA for $240 million. The bigger concern should be going forward, because if Pujols’ production is already declining, the Angels are in big trouble.