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: .307/.391/.586, 33 HR, 101 RBI (through Monday's games)
Having a nice little Saturday: Not many things went right in the North Side of Chicago this summer, but Derrek Lee's comeback year was certainly one of them. He has hit 30 homers for the first time since his 2005 breakout (and April 2006 contract extension) and has over 100 RBI for just the second time in his career. In September, he's been ridiculous: seven homers, 13 RBI, and a 1.547 OPS in 12 games this month. Next year is the last year of his contract, so the Cubs will have to decide whether they want to take him off the market before the start of next season.
You're my boy, Blue!: A major wrist injury in 2006 sapped his power for most 2006-2008 — after slugging .559 from 2003-2005, he only slugged .485 from 2006-2008. He remained a productive offensive player by continuing to draw walks, hitting for a high average, and he hit 84 doubles the past two years. This year, as his strength has returned, some of those doubles are turning back to home runs. He's also grown progressively better as the year has gone on, producing an OPS of .537 in April, followed by .955 in May, .973 in June, 1.028 in July, and 1.014 in August. He just turned 34 on Sept. 6, so he's no spring chicken, but he's clearly returned to being a big-time hitter for the moment.
Think KFC will still be open?: As wonderful as it is to see Lee back to his slugging ways, he hasn't gotten any less fragile. He's only played 128 games this year, and he missed a week to start the season and another week in May. While staying off the field may help keep his swing young, it can't be much good for the rest of his body, or for his team. He's probably a good bet for a solid year in 2010, but as an aging first baseman, his prospects won't be good to receive a big extension or cash in on the 2010 free agent market.
What other players are currently hot to the touch?
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The Naked Truth: 16-5, 3.65 ERA, 1.23 WHIP
Having a nice little Saturday: Raise your hand if you thought Scott Feldman would be one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2009. Last year, his first in the Texas rotation, Feldman brought up the rear with a 5.29 ERA and just a 74/56 strikeout-to-walk ratio. This year, with an improved cutter and an improved strikeout rate, the Hawaii native has been murder on the league.
You're my boy, Blue!: How good is Feldman's cutter? A month ago, Erik Manning at Fangraphs calculated that it had been the most effective cutter in baseball this year, better at preventing runs than even Mariano Rivera(notes) and Roy Halladay's(notes) cutters. Feldman's ERA is actually inflated by a couple stinkers in long relief to start the year — since coming back to the rotation in late April, he has a 3.31 ERA in 163 1/3 innings. He has been blown out a few times, giving up five runs or more in three of his last ten starts — including six earned runs to Oakland on Monday — but he's still 7-2 with a 3.77 ERA over that span. Feldman either gives them up in bunches or not at all.
Think KFC will still be open? As good a story as he's been, Feldman may be in a bit over his head. His Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) for the season is an unsustainably low .268, against .282 for his career and a major league average of .299. He's also allowed seven fewer homers this year than he did last year despite pitching 18 2/3 more innings already. It remains to be seen whether he can continue to be that stingy with the longball in Arlington. Considering that he only strikes out 5.3 per nine innings, he'll have to do his best to keep the ball in the park if he wants to keep crooked numbers off the board.
One more thing: Feldman will have an interesting decision to make this coming weekend: his last start was September 14, so his next start would likely fall on the 19th, which is Rosh Hashanah. The Los Angeles Angels, against whom he's 2-0 with a 3.50 ERA this year, are almost certainly hoping that he'll spend the night in a synagogue rather than on the mound.
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The Naked Truth: .204/.305/.397, 13 HR, 37 RBI (.259/.348/.603, 6 HR, 9 RBI in 16 games since callup)
Having a nice little Saturday: Chris Young was about the worst regular player in the major leagues when the Diamondbacks finally sent him back to the minor leagues in early August. He came back three weeks later and started hitting the ball with an authority he hadn't mustered since his 30-30 rookie season and he's controlling the strike zone better than he'd ever done before. Maybe there's room for redemption in the desert.
You're my boy, Blue!: The first thing we have to ask: is this a fluke? Chris Young's been around for a while now — more than 450 games, and more than 1,800 plate appearances — and his career OPS is .744, so we can say with a fair degree of certainty that he isn't a great hitter. As impressive as his slugfest in his last 58 at-bats has been, we have to take this turnaround with a bit of a grain of salt, because it's such a small sample size.
Here's what we know about Young: he strikes out a lot, doesn't walk a ton, has a low batting average, but hits a fair number of homers when he does manage to make contact. His career contact rate is 76 percent, down to just 73 percent this year, well below the major league average of 80 percent.
Similarly, because he strikes out a lot and homers fairly frequently when he does make contact, his BABIP is low — .273 for his career and .254 this year, compared to a major league average of .299. For the last couple weeks, it's still just .281 — he's not getting particularly lucky on the balls that are staying in play, though he's hitting more homers than usual. Unfortunately, a number of his recent homers have barely cleared the fence according to Hit Tracker Online, which suggests that he has been getting lucky in his recent homer barrage. He's not likely to continue hitting a homer every 10 at-bats. His walk rate and strikeout rate for the last two weeks, unfortunately, are slightly worse where they were before. He's been walking in 10 percent of his plate appearances (versus 12 before being sent down) and whiffing in 28 percent (versus 26 before being sent down).
Think KFC will still be open?: After a simply awful last couple years following a promising rookie campaign, it's easy to imagine that Chris Young lost some confidence and started pressing at the plate. The minor league stint seems to have helped restore him to a guy who can hit better than .200 in the majors. But it hasn't changed who he fundamentally is: a guy who walks a little, strikes out a lot, and homers a fair amount. There's a value in a guy like that, as long as he keeps his batting average above .250 — something he's never done in the major leagues. He's got his confidence back, but it remains to be seen if he has the skills to stick.
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Ted Lilly(notes), Chicago Cubs Not many people know it, but Ted Lilly's got a 3.05 ERA, 14th in baseball, and since returning in mid-August from a month-long DL stint for shoulder inflammation, he's been nearly untouchable: six earned runs in six starts, 30 strikeouts against just eight walks, good for a 1.37 ERA and a 0.84 WHIP. He's got the lowest walk rate and best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career, and not coincidentally is having the best season of his career. Like Derrek Lee, his contract ends after the 2010 season and if his improved control is for real, the 33-year old lefty could find a very nice contract on the market next year.
Jair Jurrjens(notes), Atlanta Braves Jurrjens is already the second-best Curacao native of all time, behind former Brave Andruw Jones(notes). Since the beginning of 2008, the 23-year old Jair Jurrjens is fifth in ERA among NL starting pitchers, behind the likes of Tim Lincecum(notes), Johan Santana(notes), Dan Haren(notes), and Matt Cain(notes). His profile is lower than theirs mostly because of a pedestrian winning percentage: he's only 24-20 over that span, partly thanks to the Braves suffering one-run losses in 11 of his 61 starts. Don't be fooled. This kid is already one of the best young pitchers in the league, and he's still improving.
Scott Kazmir(notes), Los Angeles Angels Kazmir has a 1.86 ERA in three starts with the Angels since they traded at the playoff deadline to acquire him. Going back to his last three starts with the Rays, Kazmir is 2-1 with a 2.54 ERA in his last six starts and almost three times as many strikeouts as walks — 35 K against 12 BB in 39 IP. Credit the Angels with a savvy deadline pickup from a team loaded with too much pitching and no place to put it all.