Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Around the Horn: April Recap (NL)

A continuation of yesterday's post. All stats current through April 30th.

Scorching Hot

Matt Kemp (.417/.490/.893)

The 2011 NL MVP runner-up is on a mission to prove that not only did he deserve the trophy last year, but also that he's now unquestionably the best player in baseball. He talked about becoming the first player to go 50/50 in the offseason, and even though he nearly went 40/40 last year I doubt anybody took him seriously, especially after he slumped through Spring Training (another reason why you should never put too much stock in preseason statistics). Well, we're about 15 percent of the way through the season, and with 12 home runs he's already on pace for 84. He's got some work to do in the steals department (just two in four attempts) but 50 homers in and of itself would be an impressive accomplishment. Over the past four seasons it's happened just once; in 2010 when Jose Bautista shocked the baseball world by crushing 54 long balls in his breakout campaign. Kemp could make another run at the Triple Crown this year, too, since he's already leading the majors in all three categories as well as runs (24), OPS (1.383), OPS+ (280), and total bases (75). Nobody's done it in 45 years, since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, but I think Kemp can pull it off.

David Wright (.389/.494/.569)

After the team traded away Carlos Beltran last summer and let Jose Reyes go via free agency, Wright is now the face of the franchise.  The five time All-Star has been dinged up a bit in the early going and recently in general, but at least it looks like his batting approach has reverted back to the one that made him look like a future Hall of Famer from 2005 through 2008.  Over the past three seasons his strikeouts jumped and walks decreased as he started chasing more pitches off the plate, but this year his walk rate represents a career high and his strikeout rate is the lowest it's been since his rookie year in 2004.  Citi Field does him no favors and will continue to suppress his home run totals, just as the Mets thin lineup will curtail his runs/RBI figures, but when healthy Wright has the potential to be one of the best players in the league.  He's leading the league with five intentional walks, already one more than he received in last year's 447 plate appearances.

Stephen Strasburg (2-0, 1.13 ERA, 0.88 WHIP)

In Strasburg's brief, brilliant career that spans all of 22 starts, he's been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball.  He's allowed just four earned runs in his five starts to date, has yet to serve up a home run and has punched out 34 batters in 32 innings of work.  Poor mechanics be damned, his velocity is phenomenal and his command is impeccable.  That's a recipe for success right there.  Washington has said all along that they will probably try to cap his innings around 160 in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery, which will prevent him from making a serious run at the Cy Young award, but for now he's among the best starting pitchers in all of baseball.  Now that he and Bryce Harper are in the big leagues together, it looks as though all those years in the cellar are finally starting to pay off.

Jonathan Papelbon (0.90 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 8 saves)

One of the few high-priced free agents living up to his contract, Pap has been lights-out with the Phillies and one of the team's few bright spots in the early going.  The only earned run he allowed this year came in a non-save situation back on April 9th, when Austin Kearns took him deep.  Because of his experience in Boston he's used to pitching in a stressful, high pressure environment, so he was a good fit to replace Ryan Madson.  Philadelphia's weak offense means he'll have plenty of save opportunities in close games, so he could reach or exceed his career high of 41 from 2008.  Wouldn't be surprised if he has a career year in his National League debut.

Los Angeles Dodgers (16-7)

Their strong finish from last season has carried over into this year.  Buoyed by a soft schedule, hot starts from Kemp, Andre Ethier, A.J. Ellis, and the entire starting rotation minus Aaron Harang, LA has begun the season with the best record in the Senior Circuit while their American League counterparts have floundered.  Some think their hot start is unsustainable because they're too top heavy and lack the depth of other contenders, but I think they're legit so long as Chad Billingsley doesn't revert to last year's form and Ted Lilly can stay healthy. Sabermetricians would appreciate that the offense rates second in the league in OBP and the pitching staff leads the Senior Circuit in strikeouts.

Honorable Mention: David Freese, Chris Young Lance Lynn, Craig Kimbrel, Washington Nationals

Slow Starters

Giancarlo Stanton (.247/.286/.342)

Many predicted the third year slugger to threaten 40 home runs this year, but that looks like a longshot after the 22 year-old cleared the fence just one time in April. I'm more concerned about his 20 strikeouts against four walks: he's always been a big whiffer but drew 70 free passess last year. He's not chasing more pitches outside the zone but is seeing more pitches in the zone, so perhaps pitchers are challenging him more? He's hitting more grounders and fewer fly balls, but his line drive percentage is up. He'll turn it around, but the new ballpark seems to be hampering him so we should temper our expectations. 30 home runs is probably his ceiling this year, unless he goes on a Dan Uggla-esque tear during the second half.

Jair Jurrjens (0-2, 9.37 ERA, 2.45 WHIP)

Jurrjens made the All-Star team last year on the strengh of a stellar first half, during which he went 12-3 with a 1.87 ERA and 1.07 WHIP.  Much like Ubaldo Jimenez, he's fallen apart after a superb startand just hasn't been the same.  In the second half of 2011 his ERA was over four runs higher, his WHIP shot up to an unsightly 1.65, his K/BB rate fell in half from 2.60 to 1.32 and he allowed nearly twice as many home runs in about 40 percent of the starts.  Opponents' OPS jumped from .585 to .947, meaning the average batter performed like Alex Rodriguez against him.  The slump has continued in 2012.  He's completed five innings just once, owns an  8/10 K/BB rate and has allowed nearly two base hits per inning.  Luckily for Atlanta the Braves have a loaded rotation, so they could afford to remain competitive with an atrocious start like this.  It goes without saying that if Jurrjens can be something close to average from here on out then they will be that much better.

Joe Paterson (37.13 ERA, 6.75 WHIP)

Paterson enjoyed a solid rookie campaign last year, but that success has not carried over into 2012.  In his six appearances he's recorded just eight outs and has allowed:
-15 hits
-11 earned runs
-3 walks
-2 home runs
-Has failed to strike out a batter

He's the NL equivalent of Mark Melancon.

Miami Marlins (8-14)

The Marlins are toiling in last place, and it's not hard to see why. The offense rates in the bottom half of the league in just about every category you can think of, but the most discouraging sign is that they're second to last in OBP. When you don't get on base, you're not going to score too many runs. Simple as that. That explains why Omar Infante is slugging .726 with five home runs but has just seven RBI to show for it. The big three of Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, and Giancarlo Stanton simply aren't hitting, and neither is the supporting cast (Gaby Sanchez, John Buck, and Emilio Bonifacio, who has yet to record an extra-base hit yet). The rotation has been good but Josh Johnson, who's supposed to be the ace of the staff, hasn't pitched like one and carries an ERA two full runs higher than any other starter. Free agent acquisition Heath Bell has been an unmitigated disaster in the ninth inning.

Philadelphia Phillies (11-12)

We knew the Phils would struggle to score runs without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, but in April they averaged fewer than 3.5 runs per game and finished the month below .500. The team was counting on Hunter Pence, Jimmy Rollins, and Shane Victorino to pick up the slack for the fallen stars, but they've all gotten off to sluggish starts (J-Roll in particular; he has just three extra-base hits, all doubles). Carlos Ruiz and Ty Wigginton have carried the lineup so far, but at some point the big bats are going to have to wake up. The starting pitching has been as good as expected, and Jonathan Papelbon has been tremendous in the ninth, but the middle relief has been a mess (almost as bad as Boston's, in my opinion). The NL East is too good for Philadelphia to tread water while they wait for the return of the right side of their infield. 

Dishonorable mention: Rod Barajas, Blake DeWitt, Jose Reyes, Josh Collmenter, Manny Acosta,

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