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/.369/.470, 9 HR, 52 RBI
Having a nice little Saturday: Yunel Escobar is one of baseball's best shortstops, but he can be as maddening as he is entertaining -- getting thrown out on the basepaths, flipping his bat, jawing off to umpires, and seemingly unfailingly convinced of his own rightness. But the man can play, and he was just awarded the National League Player of the Week honor after going 7-for-14 with two homers and 8 RBIs in a four-game series against the Mets.
You're my boy, Blue!: Escobar is a good defensive shortstop — he's tied with Troy Tulowitzki(notes) for seventh-best in baseball, according to the Fielding Bible's Plus/Minus metric — and a great hitter with the third-highest OPS among starting shortstops. Amid woeful years from veterans like Jhonny Peralta(notes), Jimmy Rollins(notes) and J.J. Hardy(notes), Escobar has established himself as a top-5 performer at his position. It's no surprise, since he's been hitting since the moment he arrived in 2007. And he's flashing more power this year, hitting more line drives and homers than before. He doesn't see a lot of pitches (3.29 on average, compared to 3.83 for the league as of Sunday's games) and he swings at the first pitch more than his league mates (32 percent of the time, compared to the 26 percent league average). But he has good enough bat control — he doesn't swing and miss often and makes a whole lot of contact — that he can swing aggressively and still make a lot of solid contact.
Think KFC will still be open?: While Escobar has his bat speed and bat control, yes. His power was down last year following shoulder surgery, but it's back this year. He can be prone to slumps and he certainly grounds into a lot of rally-killing double plays and runs into a lot of outs on the basepaths, but he more than makes up for it with his bat and his glove.
Who else is streaking through the quad this week?
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The Naked Truth: 9-6, 2.81 ERA, 1.272 WHIP
Having a nice little Saturday: Don't look now, but Wandy's actually one of the best pitchers in the league. This month, he's just gone nuts: three wins in three starts, allowing just one run in 22 innings.
You're my boy, Blue!: Wandy's real breakout occurred last year. He upped his strikeouts by a fair amount. But an early-season DL stint combined with an inability to work deep into games — he only completed eight innings once, and seven innings twice in 21 starts after returning from the DL. He's never pitched 200 innings. But when he's on the mound, he's one of the best pitchers in the league, racking up strikeouts, limiting the homers despite pitching in the bandbox of Minute Maid Park, and not walking too many people. Since 2008, among pitchers with at least 250 innings pitched, he has the fifth-best ERA in the National League, behind Tim Lincecum(notes), Johan Santana(notes), Dan Haren(notes), and Adam Wainwright(notes) — pretty heady company.
Think KFC will still be open?: As long as he can stay on the field, yeah. His BABIP is right around his career mark, and his strikeout, walk, and homer numbers are right around last year's marks, though the walks are a tick up. But he's stranding a ton more runners — he's leaving 80 percent of men on base, compared to 72 percent last year — so he's getting a bit lucky in keeping runs off the board. Still, that ERA could creep up a good bit and he'd still be among the best left-handers in the NL.
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The Naked Truth: 16 HR, 57 RBI, .263/.408/.519
Having a nice little Saturday: Seems like he's been around forever, doesn't it? Thome, who will turn 39 next month, was named the AL Player of the Week this week after recording 14 RBI in the two games before the All-Star break and one game after it. Despite being held to pinch-hitting duty during interleague play, he's having another great year and is scorching hot this month, batting .363 in 14 games in July.
You're my boy, Blue!: Thome's been a very consistent hitter in his career, and he's hitting pretty much like he always does. He's not hitting quite as many homers as he used to, but otherwise his strikeout, walk, and line drive numbers are all right around career marks. He's rebounded from a slightly down year last year, when he had a Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) nearly 50 points below his career mark, and is getting hits at his usual rate.
Think KFC will still be open?: Thome appreciates that he's nearing the end of the line.
"As you get older ... you definitely savor every moment," he told the Associated Press. "You don't know how many more you're going to have so you try to take advantage of it every time."
Because of his DH duty, he's resting more, so he's putting up slightly reduced numbers to suit the reduced playing time. But that may help extend his career. He's always been a high power, high strikeout, high walk guy, and he has lasted far longer than players of his profile usually do. When the bat speed starts to go the end will be quick... but that hasn't happened just yet. And, hey, he's in a contract year!
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Here's a few other players that are hotter than hot ...
Carl Crawford(notes), Tampa Bay Rays: He has long been one of the best basestealers in the game, but his career high is only 59. He's already at 46, leading the majors, and is on pace for 80. No one has stolen 80 bases since Vince Coleman had 81 and Rickey Henderson had 93, both in 1988. Jose Reyes took a shot at it in 2007, ending with 78 bases. If Crawford keeps it up, look for a lot more coverage.
Matt Kemp(notes), Los Angeles Dodgers: One of the more egregious All-Star snubs, left off the team when Charlie Manuel rewarded his player Jayson Werth(notes) with a reserve spot. Kemp had a pretty good year last year, but he's been absolutely terrific this year, stealing bases, hitting with power, hitting for average, and playing great outfield. And he's still just 24. Manny's the most famous Dodger, but this guy might be their best all-around player.
Ryan Ludwick(notes), St. Louis Cardinals: How hot is this guy? So hot that, during a week that Jonathan Sanchez(notes) threw a no-hitter, Ryan Ludwick shared the Player of the Week award. He's batting .383 this month, with 5 HR and 22 RBI; after a slow start to the year with a low batting average, his power is starting to come around. Last year may have been a career year, but the power was no fluke, and it looks like he's still a serious middle-of-the-order threat. Albert Pujols(notes) says thank you and you're welcome.