August 2011

Now for those UNpleasant surprises …

Earlier this week, I wrote about baseball’s most pleasant surprises of the season. Now I thought I should take a look at the other end of that spectrum; the guys we didn’t expect to have down seasons. Take a step back, and you’ll find there’s a lot of star (or star-ish) players that are having bad years.

Here’s a look at the five of the best (or, worst) …

Not-so-great signings: Jayson Werth — $126 million; .230 batting average, .713 OPS. Adam Dunn — $56 million; .165 batting average, 11 homers. Carl Crawford — $142 million; .290 on-base percentage. All were signed in order to get their respective teams over the hump, all have been nothing besides a hindrance so far. If not for a 33-game, season-saving hitting streak, Dan Uggla would’ve been a part of this group, too. Regardless, the cases of Werth (pictured right by The Associated Press), Dunn and Crawford are all head-scratching, and the most troubling is perhaps the situation of Dunn (an unfathomable 3-for-81 versus lefties).

Still not ready?: That’s probably what we can say about Kyle Drabek and Zach Britton, two young guns we thought would compete for the American League Cy Young Award but have struggled this year. Drabek posted a 5.70 ERA through his first 14 starts, prompting a demotion to the Minor Leagues. Now, he has a 6.51 ERA in 13 Triple-A starts. Britton is 7-9 with a 4.54 ERA, was demoted once and missed about two weeks with a shoulder injury recently.

We thought they were on the rise: But Jason Heyward, Carlos Santana, Pedro Alvarez and Brett Wallace only took steps back this year. Heyward, we thought, was a can’t-miss prospect, and he can of course still be a star. But right now, he’s the definition of “sophomore slump.” He’s been mired by injuries, he’s hitting only .220 with 13 homers, and now he’s been supplanted by a man named Costanza (no, not this one). Wallace won the Astros’ starting first base job with a great spring, but hit just .268 with four homers in 101 games before being sent down. He’s 25 now, and has played for four organizations. Will he ever produce like a first baseman should?  Santana, one of baseball’s best young catchers before missing the final two months of last year with a concussion, has 19 homers but is only hitting .241 and can’t even be considered the AL’s best catcher in a year when Joe Mauer is struggling (that title belongs to Alex Avila). And Alvarez not only doesn’t look too adept defensively at the hot corner, but he’s hitting .196 with three homers in 56 games in a struggle- and injury-filled second year.

Stars? Not this year: Hanley Ramirez, Ubaldo JimenezChase Utley and Mauer have all had uncommon struggles. By his lofty standards, Hanley’s 2010 season — .300 batting average, 21 homers, 32 steals — was a down one. This one — .243 batting average, 10 homers and 20 steals through 92 games — is flat-out mystifying. He has caught flak from teammates — particularly Logan Morrison – and now, he’s in Class A Jupiter rehabbing. Mauer missed time with leg weakness, has just one home run in his 70 games this year and has been tried out first base and right field this year. The Twins must obviously consider moving Mauer to a different position so they can keep him on the field, but does his bat play elsewhere? For the last six years, Utley has been one of baseball’s most consistent players and arguably its best second baseman. But knee tendinitis put him on the shelf at the start, and now he sits with just a .278 batting average and nine homers in 78 games. And one year after placing third in National League Cy Young Award voting, Ubaldo  has a 4.71 ERA in 26 starts this season. Many felt his head simply wasn’t in it in Colorado after frustrations over his contract situation, but he has a 5.79 ERA in his first five starts in Cleveland (though he did pitch seven innings of one-run ball on Friday night).

The lukewarm corner: So, who’s baseball’s best third baseman this year? Not Ryan Zimmerman; he has a .299 batting average but only nine homers and has been limited to 72 games. Not Alex Rodriguez; he has solid numbers for anyone else (.292 batting average and 14 homers) but was set back by a recent stint to the disabled list. Not David Wright; he missed almost 60 games with a back injury. Not Evan Longoria; he’s hitting just .237 after also missing time with injury. Nope, it’s none of those guys. Baseball’s best third baseman this year is … Aramis Ramirez, owner of a .311 batting average, 24 homers and 83 RBIs.

Honorable mentions: Ichiro Suzuki (.331 batting average and 224 hits per season in his first 10 years. This year? Career-low .273 batting average and .313 on-base percentage). … Rafael Soriano (Given $35 million to be a setup man; now has a 4.94 ERA as a middle reliever). … Shin-Soo Choo (One of baseball’s best-kept secrets while hitting .302 with 56 homers and 47 steals from 2008-10. This year, he’s hitting just .261 with eight homers in 83 games).

– Alden 

* Also filed this week: Aces’ contract decisions deliver parity

A stat on the (not so) quality start

I just wanted to share something one of my editors shared with me recently, which expresses just how silly the “quality start” stat is.

The minimum requirement for a quality start is six innings and three earned runs, which comes out to a 4.50 ERA. Not very good (or, quality). In fact, it’s not even the league average. Not even close.

This year — “Year of the Pitcher II,” I should preface — the Major League average in ERA is 3.89. Last year,  it was 4.07. And in 2001 — when Barry Bonds broke the home-run record and offensive production was at its peak — it was 4.41.

Now, of course, there is something to be said about pitching into the sixth and giving up less than three runs in each start, and the leaders in quality starts this year are all legit aces — Justin Verlander (24), Jered Weaver (23), Roy Halladay, Dan Haren, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, James Shields and Justin Masterson (tied with 20).

But it’s definitely not an end-all be-all by any means.

– Alden

* Filed this week: LoMo good for the game in milder doses; congratulations, apologies owed to Thome; baseball is family affair for the Valentins.

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