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: .271/.352/.486, 21 HR, 62 RBI (.354/.440/.626, 8 HR, 19 RBI in 27 games since being traded to the Braves)
Having a nice little Saturday: Adam LaRoche wasn't one of the most heralded trade deadline acquisitions — Cliff Lee(notes) and Matt Holliday(notes) were both bigger names and both have performed brilliantly — but Adam may still have been the best, as the NYT's Benjamin Hoffman suggests. The Braves reacquired their erstwhile farmhand from Boston for nothing more than the offensively-challenged Casey Kotchman(notes) and LaRoche has an OPS over 1.000 since rejoining his old team. He has always been a second-half player — his career OPS split between the first and second halves is .773/.913 — and he has been the Braves' best hitter since he came to the team.
You're my boy, Blue!: LaRoche is one of the most extreme second-half hitters in baseball, and it's not exactly clear why. But even if he never figures out how to hit before July, he'll have a great career as the lineup equivalent of Terry Mulholland(notes), a lefthanded perennial deadline prize for any team on the bubble.
Think KFC will still be open?: Some thought that LaRoche's breakout second half in 2006 — .323/.387/.655 with 19 HR in 63 games, — would mark his emergence as a premier power-hitting first baseman, but they've been disappointed. However, the savvy Braves front office paid for the hitter he was in the first half and received the hitter always is in the second half.
For now, it seems reasonable to infer that LaRoche will remain a walking dichotomy. He probably won't get a premium contract when he hits the free agent market, but if other teams are smart, they'll start calling to inquire about him right after the All-Star Break. Once his swing comes together in time for the final two months of the season, he's a monster.
What other players are currently streaking?
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The Naked Truth: 13-8, 2.32 ERA, 1.077 WHIP
Having a nice little Saturday: In Zack Greinke's last two starts, he has given up two runs in 17 innings and has racked up 20 strikeouts while giving up just two walks. Luckily, he won both games, which is never a given with the team behind him. Greainke is leading the AL in ERA by more than half a run, and his won-loss record would be much more impressive if he played for anyone other than the hapless Royals. Even so, he's a serious Cy Young candidate, and considering that his performance is coming in the offense-heavy American League, Joe Posnanski writes that there's a serious case to make for Greinke as the best pitcher in baseball.
You're my boy, Blue!: As Royals blogger Rany Jazayerli writes, "His 2.32 ERA, as impressive as it is, is actually inflated significantly by pitching in front of the defense with the worst defensive efficiency in all of baseball." In other words, not only can the Royals not score, but they can't pick it either; he's giving up hits that would be turned into outs by most other defenses. (His career Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is .311, which may have something to do with the fact that he's played his entire career with one of the worst teams in baseball.) He didn't give up an earned run until the end of April, and he hasn't given up many since.
Think KFC will still be open?: I don't make many correct predictions, but here's what I wrote back in April, when his ERA was still 0.00: "He'll regress a bit to the mean, but his mean might legitimately be as the best pitcher in baseball this year." Thanks for making me look smart, Zack and good luck collecting that hardware. I hear September is your month.
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The Naked Truth: .320/.350/.526, 22 HR, 74 RBI
Having a nice little Saturday: From zero to hero, as they say. Cano has rebounded from an awful year last year — a .305 OBP and an OPS 136 points lower than 2007 — to set a career high in homers and reestablish himself as one of the premier offensive second basemen in baseball. He's only one of many Yankees having a terrific offensive year, but he's certainly been a major reason that they've taken such a commanding lead in their division.
You're my boy, Blue!: Can is succeeding the same way he always has — very few walks, few strikeouts, a lot of contact, a lot of hits, and pretty good power for a middle infielder.
(As an aside, an interesting comparison for Cano would be former Yankee second baseman Alfonso Soriano(notes). Soriano racks up a lot more homers and stolen bases, but he makes up for it with a lot more strikeouts. In a typical season, Cano and Soriano actually have very similar OBPs and SLG.)
Cano has been able to sustain a high BABIP in his career — his career mark is .320, about 20 points higher than average — which is why he's been able to hit for a consistently high average. He walked a little less during his down year last year, but his major problem was a dip in his BABIP. That seems to have been a one-time thing, as he's returned to being virtually the same player he was in 2006 and 2007. In fact, this year, he's almost exactly split the difference.
Think KFC will still be open?: Like Soriano, Cano's refusal to walk hampers his offensive effectiveness if he can't maintain a high average. That said, he's got a career BA of .305 in nearly 3000 career PA, so hitting for high average is clearly a repeatable skill of his. Slumps happen, and it's certainly possible that he could have another down year. But he's for real, and he'll stay for real.
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Jason Bartlett(notes), Tampa Bay Rays Seriously, where did this come from? Before this year, Bartlett was a light-hitting defense-first shortstop with a career OPS of .699 and 11 career home runs in parts of 5 seasons. (His defense was so prized that he was 18th in the MVP race LAST year, when he had one homer and a .690 OPS.) This year, he's hitting .338 with 12 home runs in only 108 games. What looked like a fluke in April is starting to look like the real deal in September. And he's making me look like an idiot: "He'll certainly go back to being a sub-.900 OPS hitter," I wrote in June. He's currently at .927. My bad, Jason.
Aaron Hill(notes), Toronto Blue Jays: A lot has gone wrong for the Jays this year, but Hill and double play mate Marco Scutaro(notes) have gone really, really right. Like the second coming of 1999 Jay Bell, Hill has exploded this year for 31 HR -- tied for third in the league with Russell Branyan(notes), for heaven's sake — after having hit 17 in 2007, and never more than six in any other year. Hill is actually leading the league in total bases, if you can believe it. This campaign is actually very similar to his breakout 2007, except that he's traded a lot of his doubles for homers. A lot of those homers are just barely going over the wall, so he probably won't hit 30 next year, but he's been a nice bright spot on a team sorely in need of them.
Chris Coghlan(notes), Florida Marlins J.A. Happ(notes) is probably the Rookie of the Year, but Coghlan is a strong dark horse candidate. Since being called up on May 8, and taking over the leadoff spot from the disastrous Emilio Bonifacio(notes), he's done nothing but hit. Along with perennial MVP candidate Hanley Ramirez(notes), he's a big reason the Marlins have made a surprising wild card push. His BABIP is a probably unsustainable .346 — it was only .326 in the minors — but his walk and strikeout rates are both decent, and he has a little pop. Where do the Fish keep finding these guys?