April 22, 2011
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: .411/.488/.644, 4 HR, 15 RBIs, 8 SB, 3 CS, 11 BB/16 K
Having a nice little Saturday: Last year, Matt Kemp was a sideshow: He was impatient at the plate, he struck out a ton, he stole bases at a horrendous 56 percent clip, he played bad defense, and he got as many headlines for dating Rihanna as for his disappointing play. But this year, his talent is on full display. On Thursday, he hit a walkoff two-run homer in the 12th inning against the Braves, and Fangraphs' Joe Pawlikowski upbraided Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez for not intentionally walking him. It was his second walkoff homer in a week, after hitting one off Ryan Franklin(notes) on Sunday. He's hitting everything and hitting it hard.
You're my boy, Blue!: In the L.A. Times, scout John Klima wrote approvingly of Kemp's approach this year:
Making it look easy. Plus, plus right-handed power, loose and easy explosiveness, quiet body, finally trusts hands. Loose and easy athletic actions, body looks better than it has in years, premium CF defender, better reads and routes, closing gaps, arm works easy, throws with carry and accuracy. Good first step, even better underway, gazelle-like runner, base-stealing threat at any time. Playing with a chip on his shoulder -— playing with something to prove ... Kemp is playing with an increased fervor, awareness, confidence and aggressiveness.
It's early, but 2011 is starting to look like the year Kemp was supposed to have in 2010, the year that all five of his tools shone on full display. Most notably, his strikeout rate has fallen from 25.5 percent of plate appearances last year to 19.1 percent of plate appearances this year, the lowest of his career, and his walk rate has zoomed from 7.9 percent of PA to 13.1 percent. Obviously, he won't keep hitting .400 all year — his BABIP is nearly .500, so we can easily expect to see his batting average fall by 100-150 points. But one reason that his BABIP has risen is that he's hitting more line drives and fewer ground balls, always a good sign.
Kemp is still getting caught stealing too much. While he's tied for the major league lead with eight steals, he's also leading the NL with three times caught stealing. In order to just break even, you need about a 75 or 80 percent success rate, and eight out of 11 just isn't quite good enough. But everything else is going right, and the improved plate discipline is a good sign for Kemp's continued success.
Think KFC will still be open?: Kemp is an extraordinarily bright spot on the field for a team that has a whole lot to worry about off the field. With Major League Baseball having taken over the club, the Dodgers may have to make do with the players they have, and may not be able to take on much salary to add players at the deadline. In Kemp, Jerry Sands(notes), Andre Ethier(notes), Chad Billingsley(notes) and Clayton Kershaw(notes), they have a fine core of talent under 27. But Kemp is by far their most gifted everyday player, and so far in 2011, he's demonstrating exactly why.
What other players are currently streaking?
How is Jered Weaver leading the league? Let me count the ways: Most wins, most innings pitched, most strikeouts, and even most complete games (one). Weaver was spectacular last year, with a 3.01 ERA over 224 1/3 innings, and this year he's been even better. The reason is that he's maintaining the gains he made last year in improving his strikeouts and control. In 2010, he took major strides forward in limiting his walks while hugely improving his strikeout rate, from 7.4 K/9 in 2009 to 9.3 K/9 in 2010. This year, it's 9.6 K/9, while his BB/9 has remained a healthy 2.2. Sure, he's getting a bit lucky — his BABIP is currently .198, and that won't last, nor will his remarkably low 4.4 percent homer per flyball rate — but his 2.41 FIP and 3.13 xFIP show that a lot of what he's doing is skill, not luck. He finished fifth in the Cy Young race last year, and that was no fluke. He might be one of the five best starting pitchers in the league.
Jonny Gomes(notes), Cincinnati Reds .228/.400/.596, 6 HR, 14 RBIs, 16 BB/16 K
Right now, Jonny Gomes is having the best .228 season the world has ever seen. He's leading the league in walks, he's tied for second in homers, and even though his batting average is 190 points lower than teammate Joey Votto's,(notes) his OPS is only 179 points lower — meaning that he's actually shown comparatively more power and plate discipline than the reigning MVP. His batting average is dragged down by a .194 BABIP, which will surely rise — but his 21.3 percent walk rate, more than three times higher than his 6.8 percent walk rate last year, will even more assuredly fall. Gomes is a nice hitter, but patience has rarely been his calling card. Last year was his first full season, and in 148 games he only drew 39 walks. He'll exceed that handily this year, but Reds fans would do well to temper their expectations.
Alex Rodriguez(notes), New York Yankees .366/.491/.780, 4 HRs, 10 RBI, 11 BB/6 K
Alex Rodriguez is killing the ball, leading the majors in OPS, just as I predicted ... well, OK, no. I didn't predict he'd resume his reign as the best hitter in the American League. Like Jonny Gomes, much of his success this year may have something to do with better plate discipline: His 20 percent walk rate would be the highest of his career and is more than twice as high as it was last year; even more importantly, his current 10.9 percent strikeout rate is the lowest of his career. His batting average will probably come down a bit (he hasn't hit higher than .321 since hitting .358 as a 20-year-old), but his BABIP is only .333, which he's sustained over a full season before. The strange thing is, he's actually hitting fewer line drives than his career average. So his plate discipline will remain the key. As long as he's Alex Rodriguez, pitchers will pitch him carefully, and he clearly still has the physical tools to make them pay.