Early standouts are often April fool’s gold
The April mirage is a time-tested baseball tradition. In some cases, it is a one-day trip to Rhodesia – or, if you prefer, Tuffyland – and in others a two-week binge from a guy whose lasting legacy is an unfortunate resemblance to Sloth from “The Goonies.”
No shortage of will-they-or-won’t-they-keep-it-up cases exist as we enter the last week of April. Kelly Johnson(notes) hit his seventh home run Sunday, and while Barry Bonds(notes) is probably more worried about his kid breaking something than Johnson breaking his record, it’s conceivable that he hits 30 home runs. Just as it’s possible Andruw Jones(notes) continues his home run barrage, even if he is striking out an obscene 32 percent of the time. And no one knows whether Vernon Wells(notes) is doing something magical on his fly balls to make more than 25 percent of them leave the stadium. If he doesn’t have that fairy dust, maybe it’s Barry Zito(notes), who hasn’t allowed a home run and has seen his line-drive rate plummet while still throwing an 86-mph fastball.
In the case of the San Diego Padres, the Little Team That Might, wild speculation prevails. Cincinnati snapped the Padres’ eight-game winning streak Sunday afternoon when it blew up what was heretofore an impermeable bullpen in a 5-4 win. Still, the Padres became the first team this decade to drop an eight-game jag in April, something accomplished by a dozen others in the aughts.
The first two, the 2000 New York Yankees and New York Mets, met in the World Series. The next year, Seattle won eight straight in April – and a big league record 116. The 2005 Chicago White Sox won a championship. Then there was Cleveland in 2002 (74-88), Kansas City a year later (83-79) and the 2005 Los Angeles Dodgers and 2007 San Francisco Giants (71-91).
April supremacy guarantees nothing outside of a spot in 10 Degrees, and though such a thing has catapulted others to worldwide fame, riches and ubiquity, in this case, it’s not exactly a badge of honor, because …
1) The San Diego Padres highlight the miragiest of April mirages. Along with Philadelphia and St. Louis, they sport the best record in the National League at 11-7. Their plus-21 run differential is third behind the Phillies and Giants. And though it’s not a complete apparition, it’s not going to last, either.
The Padres’ hallmark is pitching, and their rotation of Jon Garland(notes), Kevin Correia(notes), Clayton Richard(notes), Mat Latos(notes) and Wade LeBlanc(notes) is serviceable. Garland eats innings, Correia a little more, and Richard, Latos and LeBlanc are too young to expect too much (though Latos has star potential if he can increase his strikeout rate). The bullpen works, too, with Heath Bell(notes), Luke Gregerson(notes) (and the slider he’s throwing 62 percent of the time), Mike Adams(notes) and Tim Stauffer(notes). That part is there, as is a defense that looks good early.
The bats, however, remain absent, and as such it leaves the best-case-scenario Padres as a clone of the 2009 Mariners, who overachieved but lacked the pop to contend. This is closer to May 2009 redux, when the Padres ripped off a 10-game winning streak and finished with 74 victories. Ground control eagerly awaits their re-entry into orbit, as they’ll be traveling alongside …
2) Carlos Silva(notes), who no longer is the size of a rocket ship. He’s merely satellite-sized these days, and it’s working out rather well for him, as his reinvention in a Chicago Cubs uniform is the oddest seen in years.
Rarely does a pitcher actively ditch ground balls and try to induce fly balls. And yet it seems Silva is aiming for that with his new repertoire: Over his three starts, Silva has thrown a changeup 30 percent of the time after spending the first eight years of his career throwing a sinker nearly three-quarters of the time. The new approach has been effective, too, thanks to only one of his 25 fly balls leaving the park. That will not last. Nor will opponents’ .178 batting average on balls in play (BABIP).
Still, Silva is delivering a first in his career: an eagerly anticipated two-start week. The latter, in fact, is among the week’s 10 best pitching matchups:
• Francisco Liriano(notes) vs. Justin Verlander(notes) (Tuesday)
• Jair Jurrjens(notes) vs. Adam Wainwright(notes) (Thursday)
• Roy Halladay(notes) vs. Jonathan Sanchez(notes) (Monday)
• Cole Hamels(notes) vs. Tim Lincecum(notes) (Wednesday)
• Dan Haren(notes) vs. Silva (Saturday)
• Wandy Rodriguez(notes) vs. Tommy Hanson(notes) (Friday)
• A.J. Burnett(notes) vs. Brian Matusz(notes) (Thursday)
• Edwin Jackson(notes) vs. Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) (Tuesday)
• Luke Hochevar(notes) vs. Matt Garza(notes) (Thursday)
• Colby Lewis(notes) vs. …
3) Doug Fister(notes) on Friday. The Mariners’ right-hander is the only man in baseball with a pitch better than Silva’s changeup: Fister’s sinker tops FanGraphs’ runs-saved leaderboard through three starts.
At 88 mph, Fister’s sinker is no Jimenez torpedo. In 61 innings last year, 14.4 percent of his fly balls went for home runs, yet he hasn’t given up one in 27 innings this year, which bodes poorly. He’s simply following Seattle’s M.O.: Let them hit the ball, let the fielders do their work and win with pitching and …
4) Defense, which is pretty much the only reason Alex Gonzalez remains employed. Toronto signed him this offseason to fill a hole left by Marco Scutaro(notes), among the league’s best defensive shortstops last year, and expected little out of Gonzalez’s bat. He leads shortstops with a .582 slugging percentage and five home runs – including one off Zack Greinke(notes), another off Rich Harden(notes) and two off Kevin Millwood(notes).
Of course, he’s still Alex Gonzalez, so his 19 strikeouts are the worst among shortstops, and only 10 regulars at any position have fewer than his two walks. Another baker’s dozen are stuck with a pair of free passes …
5) And none wears the free-swinging tag more proudly than Jose Guillen(notes). He hit his seventh home run Sunday and his .716 slugging percentage is fourth best in the big leagues. Guillen is prone to weeks-long spurts, so if this stretches into June, we can start to take it seriously.
After all, seven Royals regulars are hitting over .300 right now. And still, they’ve managed only a 7-11 record in spite of having …
6) The best hitter in the American League, Scott Podsednik(notes). OK, the guy with the highest batting average. He’s still at .387, with 24 hits in 62 at-bats. Now, 23 of them have been singles, which means Podsednik’s slugging percentage is .016 higher than his batting average, a tough feat indeed.
Even better, when he has put the ball in play, it has resulted in a hit 42.9 percent of the time. The average is about 30 percent. And he’s swinging at more pitches out of the zone than ever. And though none of it portends well for Podsednik for the next five months, at least he’s stealing bases like someone 10 years younger than his 34, which is about …
7) How old Livan Hernandez(notes) was 10 years ago. The only two-time Degree this season – fame, riches and ubiquity! – Hernandez kept his ERA under 1.00 this week due to:
• a .158 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), the lowest number in the major leagues
• stranding every runner on base this season, as both his earned runs have come on solo homers
• the slowest curveball in baseball, at 65.8 miles per hour
Hernandez has nine strikeouts in 24 innings. Of the 40 balls hit in the air against him, only eight have been line drives. There are a dozen reasons he’s going to devolve into the disaster he’s been, and coming right along with him will be …
8) His catcher, Pudge Rodriguez, who is among the BABIP kings this season: .439. Now, Rodriguez’s strikeout rate has dipped, and runners seem disinclined to attempt steals against him, but let’s remember: He’s a 38-year-old catcher, and only one of those, Bob Boone, has ever played in more than 122 games. The position is a meat grinder, spitting out …
9) One-dimensional players like Jason Varitek(notes), who has become the undisputed champion of solo home run hitting. In 23 at-bats this season, Varitek has seven hits: a single, two doubles and four solo homers. Of his last 35 home runs, 27 were with no one on base.
Varitek is not going to slug .913. He could, however, continue to plumb the depths of catch-and-throw futility. In 55 innings this season, opponents have stolen 11 bases off Varitek. He hasn’t thrown out anyone. It’s even worse than last year, when in 924 innings Varitek allowed 108 stolen bases and nabbed just 16, a ratio reminiscent of …
10) The San Diego Padres of late last decade. In 2007, the Padres allowed 189 stolen bases and caught 20. The next year, runners went 168 for 206. Last year, they were 100 for 142. And now, they’re nine for 15. Nick Hundley(notes) has caught three. Yorvit Torrealba(notes) has caught three more. The Padres’ pitchers are significantly more cognizant of baserunners. It’s an organizational point of pride.
The Padres have plenty points of pride at the moment. For a team with a miserable budget, they’re putting together a solid group under new GM Jed Hoyer. His predecessor, Kevin Towers, built a deep farm system, one that could get ever deeper after the June draft.
Soon thereafter, the Padres will decide whether to trade first baseman Adrian Gonzalez(notes), their do-everything franchise player, and Heath Bell, a top-of-the-line closer. If they’re out of contention, it’s a no-brainer. If they’re still here, though – if this April mirage turns into a May surge, and if that May surge doesn’t bleed into a June swoon – Hoyer will face the biggest decision of his young career.
Maybe, just maybe, the Little Team That Might will grow into the Little Team That Could.