Big League Stew goes through the quad and into the gymnasium to look at some of the hottest players in baseball and their chances of keeping it going.
The Naked Truth: 9-6, 4.09 ERA, 1.398 WHIP
Having a nice little Saturday: The 37-year old Pettitte has put up his usual numbers this year — an ERA around 4.00 and a won-loss record boosted by the usual Bomber fireworks. However, he's been on fire since the All-Star Break, posting a 4-2 record and a 2.04 ERA in six starts. With Sabathia, Burnett, and Chamberlain, he makes up a solidly above-average and occasionally dominant front four that has helped the Yankees to a commanding lead in the American League East.
You're my boy, Blue!: Pettitte has been legitimately dominant lately. He doesn't strike out a ton of guys — he's just 6.9 per nine innings this year, and 6.6 for his career — but over the past month he's well over nine per nine. He's walking a lot fewer and he's only allowed one homer in his last six starts, after having allowed 10 homers in his previous 11. To what does he credit his success? His improved cut fastball. He's no Mariano Rivera(notes), but it has to be helpful to have the greatest cutter artist in baseball history sitting a few lockers down.
Think KFC will still be open?: Pettitte is old. He hasn't gone more than seven innings since April, he hasn't had an ERA under four since 2005 (when he was in the National League, the year after he admittedly used HGH) and before his recent hot stretch he was looking decidedly mediocre this year. The old lefty clearly still has a bit of fight left in him and a few tricks left up his sleeve, but he's a lot more likely to finish the year with an ERA over 4.00 than under. Of course, that prognosis could change if his cutter stays so dominant that he keeps on striking out a man an inning.
What other players are currently hotter than hot?
* * *
The Naked Truth: 14-7, 2.62 ERA, 1.267 WHIP
Having a nice little Saturday: He's not quite the Pujols of pitching, but Wainwright is getting closer. He leads the league in wins, is second in innings pitched, fifth in ERA and fifth in strikeouts. If you counted the best pitchers in the league on one hand, you'd probably have to leave a pinky for him. (His amazing, resurgent teammate Chris Carpenter(notes) is still having a better year, but Wainwright has managed five more starts and 41.1 more innings.)
You're my boy, Blue!: Since the All-Star break, Wainwright has been even better, posting a 1.30 ERA and 34 strikeouts against only five walks in six starts. He's throwing a faster fastball — averaging 90.8 mph this year, after averaging 90.1 last year and 89.4 in 2007 — and is getting more groundballs than flyballs for the first time in his career. He's also upping his strikeouts considerably, from 6.2 K/9 last year to 7.8 K/9 this year. His walks are up a bit, from 2.3 BB/9 to 2.8 BB/9, but his overall strikeout to walk ratio has improved, along with every other aspect of his game.
Think KFC will still be open?: Wainwright's dominance has coincided with a bit of a makeover: "I know it's not the mustache that makes us play better, but sometimes team morale needs to get flopped over, and the mustache has seemed to work." It sure has.
* * *
The Naked Truth: .285/.341/.517, 6 HR, 16 RBI, 8 SB
Having a nice little Saturday: At the end of July, Gonzalez was another young fourth outfielder having a frustrating year. But this month, he's hitting .400, with 4 HR, 10 RBI, and a 1.198 OPS in 14 games, and he's played his way into a starting role in the middle of a fierce Wild Card race. There haven't been many hitters hotter than Gonzalez this month — not even the scorching Matt Holliday(notes), the man he was traded for over the offseason.
You're my boy, Blue!: Gonzalez has been a top prospect for quite a while now, hitting with power in the minors from a young age. He was then involved in two blockbuster deals within 12 months, traded from the Diamondbacks in the Dan Haren(notes) deal in late 2007, and then from the Athletics in the Holliday deal last offseason. He wasn't ready for prime time last year, putting up a .634 OPS for the A's. So is he coming into his own this year, or is this just a mirage of one good month? Maybe a bit of both. His Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is .343, well above the ML average of .299 — but his career minor league is .344, so he may be getting lucky, but he's accustomed to doing well. He's doubled his walk rate from last year — from 4.1 to 8.2 percent of PA — while cutting his strikeout percentage from 25.6 to 22.9.
Think KFC will still be open?: He's been seeking out a lot of advice from coaches: "Don Baylor ... Vinny Castilla(notes) here. I have a leg kick right now, and that came from Glenallen Hill." A top prospect who eagerly seeks out advice is a coach's dream, and Gonzalez is clearly saying and doing the right things on his current hot streak. The thin air of Coors Field will help ease him into the majors, though it also makes him look better than he is. The Rockies will certainly hope he can play above his head until they've locked up a playoff spot.
* * *
Some quick temperature readings ...
Neftali Feliz(notes), Texas Rangers After Tommy Hanson's(notes) promotion to the majors on June 7, Feliz became arguably the best pitching prospect in the minors — and the Rangers couldn't keep him down on the farm much longer. In 10 major league innings, he has a 0.90 ERA and has 16 strikeouts. He still hasn't walked anybody. Ladies and gentlemen, your new Joba Chamberlain(notes) has arrived.
Fu-Te Ni(notes), Detroit Tigers I just couldn't ignore a guy with a name this great. The Tigers have been clinging to first place behind a strong pitching staff, and Ni has quickly established himself as one of their most reliable bullpen arms with 17 K against just six walks in 21 innings. He's a horse, too: he's gone at least four outs in 8 of his 19 bullpen appearances (and 5 of 6 in August) since a late June callup.
Josh Willingham(notes), Washington Nationals Willingham is country strong. He hit a homer Sunday night that went 461 feet, one of the longest of the year. Acquired from Florida in the offseason for Emilio Bonifacio(notes), he's quietly been one of the best hitters in baseball. He's one of only four players in the majors with at least 300 PA and an OPS over 1.000, behind only Albert Pujols(notes), Joe Mauer(notes), and Prince Fielder(notes). Oh, yeah — Bonifacio has a .620 OPS. For once, the Nationals got the best of a deal.