- Rangers on a Roll. The Texas Rangers are absolutely on fire right now, beginning the season with the best mark in baseball at 13-3. They lead all of baseball in both runs scored and runs allowed, making the Rangers a truly great team in the early going. Its been bombs away so far for Josh Hamilton, who after yesterday’s 3-3 game with a homer, is now hitting a massive .418/.438/.776 slash with 7 dingers and 17 RBI. Michael Young has been hitting behind Hamilton for most of the season, and he’s punishing opposing pitchers as well, to the tune of a .403/.431/.532 line. In addition to the fantastic offense the pitching staff has been sublime, with every starter posting an ERA under 4.00 so far. As a whole, the Rangers’ staff has the best ERA in the AL, the lowest walk rate, the fewest homers allowed, and ranks 5th in k’s. Colby Lewis has been downright phenomenal in his 4 starts, posting a 2.03 ERA with 24 strikeouts to only 1 walk. The worst starter on the staff so far has been Japanese import Yu Darvish, who has had some control issues, walking 6.6 per 9, but even he has a shiny 2-0 record and a 3.57 ERA. Texas has already won 2 straight American League pennants and this may be their best team yet. They begin a 3-game series with the Yankees in Arlington this evening and it will be another good test against one of the American League’s elite.
- Beast Mode. Matt Kemp said he was going to let Beast Mode out of the cage more often this season, and he wasn’t lying. He has hit a bananas .450/.500/.967 in his first 16 games with 9 homers and 22 RBIs. Every single one of those numbers is the best in baseball, and Kemp is the biggest reason why the Dodgers are off to an excellent 12-4 start, which is tied for the best record in the National League. Kemp said before the season that he thought he could be the 1st ever 50-50 player, and while he has only swiped 1 base, the power numbers are off the charts. His isolated power, which measures a batter’s ability to hit for extra-bases is an unheard of .517!! Kemp’s was .262 a year ago, a number that led the entire National League. Kemp will obviously cool down at some point in the season, but he is off to a historically good start.
- The red-hot Atlanta Braves offense. The Braves are leading the NL in scoring so far on the young season, showing an excellent blend of team power and speed. They have 18 home runs and 14 steals already, and are getting production throughout the lineup. The star of the offense has been Jason Heyward, who is back to hitting a .900+ OPS, and showing good instincts on the base paths, with 5 steals without being caught. The Juan Francisco-Chipper Jones platoon at 3rd base is working wonders, combining for 3 homers, 12 RBI, and 16 hits while keeping the future Hall-of-Famer fresh for the stretch run. Michael Bourne has been the catalyst at the top of the lineup batting .338 and stealing 7 bases with 5 extra-base hits. The only issue for the lineup so far has been a propensity to strikeout, as Atlanta ranks 10th in the National League in the category. The Braves big question this season was whether or not they would hit enough to support a deep pitching staff, and the early returns have been excellent. The boys from Atlanta will be in competition all season long with this kind of offensive production.
- The stumbling, bumbling Royals. The Royals are currently riding a 10-game losing streak, and they possess the 3rd worst run differential in baseball. The Royals’ offense, which was 10th best in baseball last year, has declined to 25th in baseball so far. No Royal currently has more than 9 RBI total, and they rank 2nd to last in the American League in strikeouts. Eric Hosmer has had a rough beginning to his season, hitting a measly .183/.269/.367 in 15 games after showing some promise a season ago. Another hitter struggling early is Alex Gordon, who is also hitting under the Mendoza line and has struck out 19 times already. Gordon had a breakthrough year in 2011, hitting for a 139 OPS+ while winning a Gold Glove, so it’s too early to give up on him, but the Royals will continue to lose until his play improves. The pitching staff hasn’t been much better outside of Bruce Chen, who continues to show that last season’s improvement was no fluke. Chen has thrown 18 innings, posting a 2.00 ERA while only allowing 15 total base runners, and he has a 0-1 record to show for it. Danny Duffy has also been solid, showcasing a blazing fastball to rack up an elite 10.4 K’s/9. The rest of the rotation has been abysmal, with no player posting an ERA under 5.50. The bullpen has also been sporadic, finding ways to lose games that the Royals have the lead in, contributing to the 10 game slide. Kansas City needs to turn things around quickly if they want a shot at finishing higher than 4th place.
- Pittsburgh’s offense. Pittsburgh is currently hitting .202/.249/.281 as a team, while scoring only 30 runs in 15 games! The complete absence of production in any form around Andrew McCutchen is almost unbelievable. McCutchen has hit an excellent .351/.403/.404, stolen 4 bases and scored 9 of Pittsburgh’s 30 runs. Four of Pittsburgh’s regulars currently have batting averages under the Mendoza line, with Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas being particularly awful, hitting .089 and .091 respectively. The Pirates rank dead last in baseball in every offensive category outside of triples, homers, and stolen bases. Pittsburgh is hitting for a collective 52 OPS+ with 2 players doing the impossible and ranking negatively on the scale. The worst team OPS+ in the last 45 years was the Mariners historically putrid offense in 2010, which hit 27 points higher than the Pirates are currently hitting. Luckily for Pittsburgh the rotation ranks 2nd in baseball in runs allowed, so the Pirates have been able to post a 6-9 record. The pitching won’t be able to keep this up forever and if the offense doesn’t improve soon, the Pirates will start losing every night on the way to another 100-loss season.
- Pitchers on the DL. Cliff Lee threw 10 innings on Wednesday against the Giants, and now he finds himself on the disabled list for the next 15 days, due to an abdominal strain. “We’re being very cautious with this,” general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. `’There’s no reason for him to kind of completely blow it out because it’s an injury that if he hurts himself and really pulls it, we could lose him for a long time. We’ll shut him down, get him right and hopefully he’ll miss only a couple of starts and go from there.” The Yankees also had to shut newly acquired Michael Pineda down after only 15 pitches in his 1st rehab start. There is no timetable for his return and the Yankees, historically cautious with their pitchers, will probably give him a couple months to recover. Diamondbacks #2 pitcher Daniel Hudson will also hit the DL, a precaution due to shoulder soreness. Blue Jays closer Sergio Santos is also hitting the DL, becoming the 6th closer on the early season to have to miss time. He is complaining of shoulder tightness, which is never a good sign for a pitcher.
One of the best ways for a baseball team to maximize its pitching potential during any given season is for a franchise to call up young, talented arms and place them in the bullpen. This allows the young, talented pitcher to gain big league experience on a winning ballclub, without jeopardizing a team’s playoff potential. Once the rookie gets a little seasoning, many teams will try to convert these players back into starting pitchers, because starters have much, much more average value, due to the amount of innings thrown. This strategy has worked in the past with mixed results. David Price was a shutdown reliever for Tampa Bay during their AL pennant run in 2008, and became a Cy Young caliber pitcher with a 2nd place finish to his name. Joba Chamberlain helped the Yankees to the playoffs, throwing electric bullpen innings in 2007, but then he struggled when moved to the rotation.
This season multiple teams are attempting to move pitchers brought up in the bullpen back into starting pitching roles. The Cardinals’ Lance Lynn, the Rangers’ with Neftali Feliz, and the Boston’s Daniel Bard are making the transition back to starting. After catching Bard’s 11AM start yesterday, I’ve been able to watch all 3 pitchers, so let’s take a look at each and break them down:
Daniel Bard made his 2nd start for the Red Sox yesterday, and pitched rather well, but took a hard luck 1-0 loss to James Shields and the Rays. His final line was 6.2 IP, 4 hits, 1 earned run, 7 strikeouts, and 7 walks. He walked 3 batters in his final inning, and 2 of those after he crossed the 100-pitch threshold. It was obvious to anyone watching the game that Bard was tiring, and it made me wonder why Bobby Valentine didn’t pull Bard a couple batters earlier, potentially preventing the decisive run. Outside of the 7th inning, Bard was in control against the Rays, generating plenty of swinging strikes, and showing the ability to be a quality big league starter.
Bard’s repertoire in previous seasons had consisted of a fastball and a wipeout slider. He lived off his fastball, throwing it 69% of the time, and the slider was his go to out pitch, generating an outstanding 18% swing-and-miss rate. Bard has completely remade himself as a starting pitcher, showcasing his fastball evenly with his slider, while mixing in an excellent change-up. He was consistently hitting 93 with his fastball, with the ability to ramp it up to 96. If Bard continues to throw his pitches with this much velocity and movement he will remain an excellent strikeout pitcher as a starter. The only downside is that having pitches that move as much as Bard’s do can lead to control problems.
Despite his excellent K/9 rate of 10 so far this season, Bard is the owner of a mediocre 1.63 K/BB rate. He’s averaging over 6 walks per 9, a ratio that will kill him down the road. Bard has faced two AL East offenses that figure to rank in the top half of baseball, so that has to be taken into account as well. Both Toronto and Tampa have difficult lineups, with hitters who work the count and running games that pressure the pitcher. Bard will need to improve his control, and if he is able to, he possesses All-Star potential.
Feliz, on the other hand, has had the benefit of pitching against two of the lighter hitting lineups in baseball, based on last year’s rankings. Feliz over his 1st couple of starts is 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA. He has thrown hard, both starts averaging 93-95 with his fastball, and throwing a good slider and change-up. Against the Mariners, he suffocated their lineup, allowing only 6 total base runners over 7 innings. The Mariners offense won’t be the abomination of the past 2 years, but it probably won’t rank in the top half of the league, so Rangers’ pitcher’s domination should come as no surprise.
Everything Feliz throws has an elite amount of movement. He generates a swing-and-miss rate above 10% on 4 of his pitches, including the fastball, 2-seamer, slider, and change-up. Its difficult for a pitcher to master throwing two pitches at an elite level, and Feliz is the owner of four. Check out the movement he generates on his two fastballs and his slider:
He has primarily thrown his fastball, throwing it nearly 70% of the time, only relying on his breaking pitches when he is in desperate need of an out. This is an interesting skill, because he never shows the hitters much of his repertoire, Feliz is able to baffle hitters in the later innings. When the Mariners, were able to mount a threat, putting 2 on in the 7th inning of Neftali’s 1st start, he was able to turn to his breaking pitches and generate a weak grounder back to the mound out of Olivo to end the inning.
Feliz does have a couple warning flags popping up concerning his performance early in the season. His strikeouts have been way, way down, averaging only 5.3 per 9. His strikeout rate dropped a bit last year, from 9.2 to 7.8 per 9, so hitters may be learning to stay away from two strikes with Feliz. Two starts is too early to decide whether the league has caught up to him, but it is a trend that is worth monitoring.
The Cardinals’ 24-year-old righty is the least heralded pitcher in this group, but has easily been the most impressive so far. On the season Lynn is 2-0, with a 1.50 ERA, and 13 k’s in 12 innings. He has only allowed 9 total base runners as well, meaning that nobody has hit him hard either. Lynn throws a dizzying array of pitches, but is most partial to his 4-seamer, 2-seamer, and curveball. His velocity on his fastball sits in the low 90s and he has the ability to pump it up to 95 when needed.
Lynn’s control has also been sublime during this young season, as evidenced by his strike zone chart against the Cubbies, where he frequently painted the corners. The ability to hit the corners is tough for many pitchers to master, and Lynn displaying it at such a young age, which is a good sign for the Cardinals.
He also is generating plenty of swings-and-misses, possessing a k/9 above 10 so far on the young season. In his start against Milwaukee he was able to sit down 8 batters himself, and that is an offense that has some legitimate bats in it . In the 35 situations that he has used his curveball, Lynn is generating swing-and-misses 50% of the time. This number will obviously come down as regression sets in, but Lynn is displaying the ability to strikeout hitters at an elite rate, which is the most valuable skill to have as a pitcher.
Backed by an offense like the Cardinals, a pitcher like with the ability of Lynn will be able to pile up wins for his team. The Cardinals have been generating cheap, young pitching for the past decade, and Lynn looks to be another in the long line. With Lynn, Jaime Garcia, Adam Wainwright, and Shelby Miller, the Cardinals have the potential to have an elite staff for the next 5 years as well.