Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Around the Horn: April Recap (AL)

It was a wild first month of baseball in the American League.  Philip Humber tossed a perfect game, Albert Pujols failed to hit a home run, the Royals lost 12 in a row, Fenway Park celebrated it's 100th anniversary and the Cleveland Indians find themselves on top of the AL Central (for now).  I take a look back at two position players, one starting pitcher, one reliever, and one team that started well, as well as those who struggled out of the gate.

Scorching Hot

Josh Hamilton (.395/.438/.744)

Hamilton is raking right now and is looking like an early frontrunner for American League MVP.  He's leading the Junior Circuit in home runs (9), RBI (25), total bases (64), and intentional walks (3).  No surprise that the 2010 AL MVP is at the top of his game in 2012, his contract year.  The 30 year-old knows he's playing on borrowed time because of his past drug abuse and all-out style of play, so he has to get the most out of his prime years before his body inevitably breaks down.  He's listed as day-to-day with a back injury, so hopefully the layoff doesn't get him out of his groove.

David Ortiz (.405/.457/.726)

Who said this guy was done?  At various points in 2008, 2009, and 2010, especially early in the season, his bat looked slow and he looked lost at the plate, but each time he bounced back and finished the year with respectable numbers.  After enjoying a resurgence last year, the affable slugger revamped his diet, shed 25 pounds during the offseason and reported to camp noticably fitter.  The weight loss is paying big dividends for the 36 year-old DH, as he's off to his best start ever.  Several of his positive trends from last season, such as his improvements against lefthanded pitching and decreased strikeout rate, have carried over into 2012.  His heavy hitting has been instrumental in Boston's recent turnaround, and he's been a force in the heart of the Red Sox lineup.

Jake Peavy (3-1, 1.67 ERA, 0.69 WHIP)

The 2007 NL Cy Young winner has turned back the clock after a trio of frustrating, injury plagued campaigns with the White Sox.  He's kept the ball in the park, allowing just one home run (to Delmon Young) in 37 and two-thirds innings, and isn't hurting himself with walks, as he's issued only five.  Even more impressively, he's already faced three top offenses in Texas, Detroit and Boston.  Though his velocity is down from years past, it seems as though he has finally made the transition from a hurler who once relied on pure stuff (think Roger Clemens) into a smarter, craftier, finesse pitcher (Greg Maddux).  Who knows how long he can keep this up; he hasn't made more than 20 starts in a season since 2008, his last full year with San Diego.  With Mark Buehrle gone and John Danks struggling, Peavy's renaissance couldn't have come at a better time.

Jim Johnson (0.00 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 7 saves)

The AL saves leader has yet to allow an earned run in nine appearances.  'Nuff said.  The lifelong Oriole has never saved more than ten games in a season, but he could eclipse that total by the middle of May.  His 6/4 K/BB rate leaves a lot to be desired, and regression to the mean is due to strike at some point, but then again Baltimore probably won't be in second place much longer, either.  Enjoy it while it lasts.

Texas Rangers (17-6)

With the best record in baseball, the two-time defending AL champs are already firing on all cylinders.  The offense, potent as ever, leads the league in the three triple slash stats, hits, total bases, and is second in home runs.  After a rocky beginning Yu Darvish looks like the ace the Rangers paid for, Colby Lewis is back in top form and Neftali Feliz has been solid in his first handful of career starts.  The bullpen has been untouchable, and Joe Nathan has settled down nicely as the team's closer.  With the Angels scuffling, they've jumped out to a nine game lead over the last place Halos, their only serious competition in the AL West.

Honorable mention:  Derek Jeter, Josh Willingham, Felix Hernandez, Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays

Slow Starters

Albert Pujols (.217/.265/.304)

Another slow start for Pujols, but this one was even more magnified because of the $240 million deal he inked last winter. No, he's not the best hitter in baseball anymore (Miguel Cabrera is), but I can't believe that he hasn't hit a home run yet, even though he does have eight doubles.   It's obvious to the casual fan that he's pressing at the plate, trying to do too much. He's not being patient, as he's swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone and more frequently in general. It's concerning that so far he has whiffed more than twice as often as he walked, because during his peak it was the other way around. The pressure mounts every day he doesn't go yard, so he better break out soon. 

Mark Reynolds (.143/.260/.206)

Reynolds is a streaky hitter, and like all batters who strike out a lot (see Adam Dunn) he's more prone to extended slumps, but this is just embarassing.  He's fanned in nearly half of his at-bats, hasn't hit a home run yet and has shown no sign of snapping out of it.  Nothing is out of line with his batted ball data, but he's swinging the bat less often and looks a little gunshy at the dish.  Although he got off to a slow start last year and is only 28 years old, I have a bad feeling he could really struggle in 2012 like Dunn did last year. Feast or famine guys typically don't last too long as a general rule of thumb.

Francisco Liriano (0-3, 11.02 ERA, 2.33 WHIP)

The numbers speak for themselves.  He's walked 13 batters and struck out 12 while failing to pitch beyond the fifth inning and has allowed five earned runs in all four of his starts.  After a big spring training I think many were hoping for a bounceback campaign (the Twins certainly were), but it's become clear that he's just not that pitcher anymore.  At this point they'd settle for Liriano as a league average starter, but his command issues prevent him from being effective.

Mark Melancon (0-2, 49.50 ERA, 6.00 WHIP)

Melancon completed two innings in his four appearances before earning a demotion to AAA Pawtucket.  In those two innings he faced 18 batters and allowed:
-10 hits
-11 earned runs
-5 home runs
-2 walks
-1 wild pitch
That means two out of every three batters he faced eventually reached base against him.  Every time he came in he allowed at least one run to score.  Welcome to the American League, Mr. Melancon.  You're not in Houston anymore.

Los Angeles Angels (8-15)

How do they have the same record as the Chicago Cubs? Nobody's hitting.  Pujols, supposed to be the big bat the team was missing last year, has done nothing.  Vernon Wells is still terrible and overpaid.  Kendrys Morales doesn't quite have his timing and power back after an ankle injury derailed his career two years ago. Mark Trumbo's been their best hitter so far, and he can't even get in the lineup everyday (memories of Mike Napoli there).  The rotation has been about as good as advertised, except for the back end where Ervin Santana (0-5 with ten home runs allowed) and Jerome Williams have struggled.  Jordan Walden pitched so poorly that he lost his closer's role to Scott Downs.  The middle relief has been shaky, too.  I think they still need some time to gel, and wouldn't be surprised if they took off over the next few weeks.  They're simply too good, but by the time they pull it together the Rangers may have already lapped them.

Dishonorable mention; Ryan Raburn, Gordon BeckhamFreddy Garcia, Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals

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