Big League Stew - MLB

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.

Ubaldo Jimenez(notes), Colorado Rockies

The Naked Truth: 12-9, 3.36 ERA, 1.216 WHIP

Having a nice little Saturday: One of the least-appreciated aces in the NL, Jimenez is putting together one of the best pitching seasons in the history of Coors Field. Since a rough April, he's 11-6 with a 2.84 ERA and 135 K in 155 1/3 innings. Perhaps most remarkable of all is that at the end of August, he has yet to give up his 10th homer of the season.

You're my boy, Blue!: Jimenez is an old-school flamethrower. His average fastball velocity this year is 96 miles an hour, one of the highest in the majors. On August 12, he went eight shutout innings and gave up only three hits. Rockies beat writer David Martin reports that "out of 119 pitches that Jimenez threw, nearly 100 of them were fastballs." In other words, everyone in the stadium knows what's coming, and no one can catch up to it. The key to his success this year has been vastly improved control: he's cut his walks by nearly a third, from 4.7 BB/9 to 3.4 BB/9, while actually increasing his strikeouts and maintaining his remarkably low home run rate.

Think KFC will still be open?: He's still young — he won't turn 26 till January — and excitable, occasionally prone to losing his cool on the mound. "I was arguing with myself," he said after a game last week. "I was yelling at myself, 'Just calm down! Relax!'" He'll have a much easier time getting calm than anyone who steps into the batter's box against him. A well-commanded fastball in the upper 90s is enough to make anybody sweat.

Who else is currently hotter than hot?

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Barry Zito(notes), San Francisco Giants

The Naked Truth: 8-11, 4.09 ERA, 1.32 WHIP

Having a nice little Saturday: Let's get the required statements out of the way. Barry Zito still isn't a very good pitcher, let alone a good enough pitcher to deserve the absurd $126 million contract. However, Zito has been pitching better, a lot better actually, since a blowout on July 12 that left his ERA at 5.01 and prompted one beat writer to call for his unconditional release. Over his last eight starts, he's 5-2 wih a 2.06 ERA. 

You're my boy, Blue!: As Rob Neyer writes, "Statistically, Zito's 2009 is a nearly exact match for his 2004 ... It's pretty obvious that he'll never be a star again. He's not had the stuff of a star since 2002. But as long as he's striking out twice as many batters as he walks, he's more than worth keeping around." Zito's been striking out a few more batters than usual, and FanGraphs's Erik Manning identifies two reasons why: "This season, his velocity is up a tick... [and] Zito's started to get away from throwing that Little League changeup so often," throwing a slider in its stead.

Think KFC will still be open?: Thanks to that whale of a contract and his absolutely awful performance since signing on the dotted line, we'll see "Barry's back" stories every time he goes a month without embarrassing himself. Considering his established level of performance over the last several years, I think it's more likely the last month and a half has been an aberration, rather than a new norm — even in Monday night's start, six innings with just one unearned run, he still gave up six walks and only struck out four. It's always possible that he'll keep getting swings and misses if his velocity stays up and he keeps throwing sliders instead of changeups, but at best those changes will turn him from a 4.75 ERA pitcher to a 4.25 ERA pitcher. But, hey, at this point, the Giants will take what they can get.

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J.A. Happ(notes), Philadelphia Phillies

The Naked Truth: 10-2, 2.59 ERA, 1.172 WHIP

Having a nice little Saturday: It's hard to argue with results like those. The Phillies are so enamored of him that their refusal to deal him was a major reason the Roy Halladay(notes) deal didn't go through. He spent the first month of the season in long relief in the bullpen, but he's been terrific since joining the rotation three months ago, 8-2 with a 2.61 ERA in 17 starts. There are a few red flags, though. He hasn't struck many people out, he can be a bit wild, and he's no spring chicken: he'll be 27 in October, which means that this may be as good as he'll ever be. For right now, though, he's the Rookie of the Year frontrunner, and one of the major reasons the Phillies are in first place.

You're my boy, Blue!: Despite his success, Happ has had to fend off rumors that he's bullpen-bound, because of the Phils' recent additions of Cliff Lee(notes) (who's been stellar) and Pedro Martinez(notes) (who's been so-so), along with fixtures Joe Blanton(notes), Cole Hamels(notes), and Jamie Moyer(notes). Happ has just kept winning, but his strikeout and walk numbers have varied widely game to game. Over his last five starts, his strikeouts have been as follows: 5, 10 3, 3, 1. His walks have been as follows: 2, 2, 4, 6, 2. It's hard to win games when you walk twice as many people as you strike out, as he did two starts ago, and something's gonna give if he can't keep the walks down and the Ks up.

One other thing: he's been getting terrifically hit-lucky. Because he doesn't strike out a ton of people and gives up his share of walks, he has to depend on batters making a lot of outs on contact. His Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is .251, almost 50 points below major league average, and that's unsustainable. Sooner or later, more balls are going to fall in, and his ERA is going to go up.

Think KFC will still be open?: Happ struck out a lot of guys on the farm — he averaged more than a strikeout per inning over his minor league career — so he has the ability to put hitters away despite a fastball that averages a shade under 90 mph. On the other hand, he had an ERA over 5.00 in AAA in 2007, so he had an inconsistent career in the minors, too. He clearly can't stay this good — there aren't that many pitchers in the majors who can put up an ERA around 2.50, even flamethrowers with 100-mile an hour gas. Going forward, from his minor league career and wonderful but lucky 2009, he's shown that he can be an effective major league starter, albeit one likely to stay at the back of the rotation. Especially in a playoff race, it's better to be lucky than good.

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Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies This year's C.C. Sabathia(notes), except that the Indians didn't receive anything remotely approaching Matt LaPorta(notes) for the rental. He improved to 5-0 in the Senior Circuit last night with a win against the AAA Mets. He went seven innings and gave up six hits, two runs, none earned, lowering his ERA to an absurd 0.67 ERA. Whatever Happ does in the playoffs, the defending World Champs are legit thanks to the horse at the front of their rotation.

Troy Tulowitzki(notes), Colorado Rockies It's been a tale of two seasons for Troy. After winning finishing second for the 2007 Rookie of the Year and leading his team to a surprising playoff berth, he looked lost at the plate for a year and a half. On June 6, his average stood at .216, the Rockies were 23-32, and both seemed like a lost cause. But then he started hitting, and the Rockies started winning. Since June 6, he's hit .315/.397/.633, and the Rockies have gone 47-22. Coincidence? Nope.

Joe Mauer(notes), Minnesota Twins As Joe Posnanski writes, responding to the notion that Mark Teixeira(notes) may win the AL MVP: "There is not a single thing that Mark Teixeira has done as well as Joe Mauer this year. Not one thing. Never mind that Mauer's batting average is 87 points higher, his on-base percentage is 59 points higher, his slugging percentage is 57 points higher, his OPS+ is 40 points higher and he's a freaking CATCHER, and a good one, while Teixera's a first baseman." (OPS+ is a park-neutral and league-neutral measure of OPS.) Mauer's the best player in the American League by a fair amount. He's having a season so good that he went 0-4 last night and lowered his average to .374.

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