June 03, 2011
The 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: 6-3, 2.80 ERA, 64 1/3 IP, 3.83 FIP, 1.18 WHIP, 1.70 K/BB
Having a nice little Saturday: Jeremy Hellickson is a rookie pitcher with a low-90s fastball, which automatically makes him less sexy than Mariners rookie Michael Pineda(notes), the man with the fastest average heater in the game. But while Pineda has been famously spectacular, "Hellboy" has been even better since the beginning of May. In his past five starts, Hellickson has a 1.36 ERA and an opponents' .168 batting average. In the Stew's preseason predictions, Mark Townsend picked him for AL Rookie of the Year, and if he keeps pitching like this, he just might make Mark look like a genius.
You're my boy, Blue!: The trouble is, Hellickson's components haven't been nearly as good as his results. Over those amazing past five starts, when he's allowed just five earned runs in 33 innings, he's had just 23 strikeouts against 15 walks. Hellickson made his name with spectacular control in the minors, and a surprising number of strikeouts for a pitcher without a power fastball, with a career 9.8 K/9 and 4.63 K/BB on the farm. He struck out 10 men in 5 2/3 innings in his first start of the season, but he hasn't had more than six K's in a start since then — meanwhile, he's walked more than 10 percent of all hitters he's faced. His shaky control is a major reason that his FIP is a full run higher than his ERA. That said, he has a phenomenal 20 percent swinging-strike rate, so once he starts throwing a few more strikes, he'll start to rack up a lot more whiffs.
His other components indicate that he's gotten awfully good luck. His Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is .238. We don't have enough data from Hellickson to know exactly what his true average is likely to be, but it will almost certainly be between .280 and .310, like virtually every other pitcher in the majors. No one can maintain a BABIP as low as .238 over time. Moreover, his HR-per-fly-ball rate is 5.5 percent, well below the major league average of 7.2 percent. So he is bound to give up more hits and more home runs with time, and his ERA will begin to inflate toward his 3.83 FIP, or perhaps even his 4.36 xFIP. That wouldn't be exactly terrible — the average ERA in the AL this year is 3.91, and Hellickson is nominally the team's fifth starter. But if the team is to stay in the hunt for a division championship or even the wild card, they'll need Hellickson to find the plate with much greater consistency, or hitters will start to hit him like a fifth starter.
Think KFC will still be open?: Hellickson's minor league track record is incredibly strong, and he certainly has the talent to continue to succeed at the major league level, but he's been doing it with a bit of smoke and mirrors so far this year. Just because he's been having good results doesn't mean he's been pitching exceptionally well, and if his shaky control continues, the league could catch up to him. However, the swinging-strike rate indicates that he has the stuff to dominate as long as his control improves.
Ramirez often has been a frustrating player to root for in Chicago, unable to replicate the success of his rookie campaign in either 2009 or 2010, seasons in which he started extremely cold and struggled to turn his season around in warmer months. In 2011, he hasn't had to wait long, and he just might be the best shortstop in the American League. He had a terrific May, batting .325 with power and plate discipline, scoring 24 runs with a .905 OPS, while continuing to play his usual terrific defense. Strangely, his platoon split this year has been the opposite of his usual: For his career, his OPS is 85 points higher against lefties, but this year, he's crushing righties and has struggled in his few at-bats against lefties.
That could be a sign of greater success to come, if he's able to maintain his success against RHP while returning to his usual standard against southpaws. As it is, he hasn't been getting overly lucky: his BABIP is just 26 points above his career average, and his HR-per-fly-ball rate is actually 1.8 points lower than average. In his career, Ramirez has alternated seasons with a near-average walk rate with seasons where his walk rate is one of the worst in baseball. This year, his walk rate is the highest of his career, nearly twice what it was last year, which is a good sign for his continued success. Ramirez is a high-contact hitter who hits a lot of line drives, and as long as he can maintain his plate discipline, the "Cuban Missile" will continue hitting rockets.
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Erik Bedard(notes), Seattle Mariners 3-4, 3.41 ERA, 58 IP, 4.03 FIP, 1.26 WHIP, 2.60 K/BB
It's been four years since Erik Bedard has been in conversations as one of the best pitchers in the AL, when Bedard finished fifth in the Cy Young vote in 2007 and inspired the Mariners to trade a number of their best young players for him. He's only pitched 222 innings since the beginning of 2008, missing all of this past season with labrum surgery. But he's finally healthy and, over the past month, he's quietly been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. In six starts since the end of April, he's 3-0 with a 1.37 ERA, a .197 batting average against, and a 3.89 strikeout-to-walk ratio — essentially the same K/BB that he had in 2007. His FIP isn't terrific, but that's mainly because of his first four starts, when he allowed 19 runs in 18 2/3 innings, giving up 26 hits including seven homers. Whatever was wrong in the early weeks of April, he appears to have fixed it.
His stuff may not be quite as good as it was at his peak: His average fastball velocity is an about a mile an hour slower than it was in 2007, and his swinging strike rate is similarly much lower. ESPN notes that he's doing a better job of keeping his pitches down in the zone, and he seems to have increased his deceptiveness as well, as he's inducing hitters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone more than ever. He might never again get the number of strikeouts that he did in 2007, but he's still capable of being a very effective pitcher, particularly if he can limit his walks as he has done over the last month. In all events, his left-handedness will ensure that he keeps getting more chances.
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Mike Stanton(notes), Florida Marlins .267/.347/.568, 12 HR, 32 RBIs, 19 BB/51 K
Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton is one bad dude. He has hit 34 homers in his first 151 games in baseball at the ages of 20 and 21. He strikes out a lot and will probably always hit for a relatively low batting average, but the power production is reminiscent of Albert Pujols(notes), who hit 37 homers in his first 161 games as a 21-year-old.
Stanton is easily one of the top power hitters in the NL, and he's only been old enough to drink for seven months or so. He's been especially devastating over the last month, slugging .657 with 10 of homers since the beginning of May, after only hitting two in April. There are subtle signs that he may be improving as a pure hitter, too. Though he's swinging and missing more, he's cut down on his strikeouts and improved his walk rate over last year, and though his BABIP is lower than it was last year, his batting average is higher. Strikeouts were always his Achilles' heel in the minor leagues, and if he is capable of maintaining improvements in his plate discipline without losing power, as he has done this year, he'll be the best power hitter in the league before long.