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: 13 HR, 38 RBI, .309/.424/.667, 2B/3B/SS/LF/CF/RF
Having a nice little Saturday: We're finally getting the answer to that age-old question: What if Denny Hocking had big-time power? Ben Zobrist isn't just the best supersub in baseball, he's actually been the Rays' best hitter this year, leading the team in slugging and OPS, not to mention most positions played.
You're my boy, Blue!: Zobrist was a good hitter last year, with 12 HR in just 62 games (while playing the same six positions), but he's already bested all his marks from last year, hitting for more power and average, walking more and striking out less.
Interestingly, last year his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) was only .252, while that of an average hitter is around .300, meaning that he actually got unlucky last year, even though he was extremely valuable. This year, it's way in the other direction, at .325. While he may not end the year hitting .300, or keep averaging a homer every 13 at-bats, Little Big Ben is clearly a good hitter with some serious pop. His performance the last two years, coupled with his .887 minor league OPS, makes that obvious.
Think KFC will still be open?: The real question is, should the Rays stop moving him from position to position? Zobrist talks a good talk — "I like being in the lineup, so if I can get in there wherever it is, I'm not going to be picky" — but he's frankly just too good to keep jerking around. The Rays seem to have given him Akinori Iwamura's(notes) starting 2B job, wisely, as he's started at second base for the past two weeks, but has slid over to short twice over that period with starting SS Jason Bartlett(notes) on the DL. It's wonderful to have Ben's versatility, but it's best not to overuse it. Just let him focus on hitting.
What other players are currently streaking through the quad?
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The Naked Truth: 16 HR, 51 RBI, 11 SB, .319/.397/.616
Having a nice little Saturday: Spiderman had a bit of a down year last year, in the first year of a $90 million contract. This year, he's hitting like the guy the Angels thought they were getting. During his current nine-game hitting streak — highlighted by a three-homer game on Saturday — he has four homers, nine RBIs, and a 1.211 OPS. He slammed into an outfield fence on Monday night, but says he'll be back soon.
You're my boy, Blue!: His homer rate is way up and probably unsustainable. But his walks are up and strikeouts are down, and though his BABIP is a bit elevated, it's within 30 points of his career average of .299. In other words, he's been getting somewhat lucky, but he's legitimately having a great season at the plate and that probably won't change. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for his fielding, which isn't what it used to be; all the major defensive stats (UZR, Plus/Minus, TotalZone) agree that he's been an actively below-average CF the last few years. So his great hitting is masking a real and serious decline in the field. But amid season-long slumps and injuries from Howie Kendrick(notes) and Vladimir Guerrero(notes), he's been the Angels' best hitter by far. They need him to keep it up.
Think KFC will still be open?: He's hitting homers nearly twice as frequently as he did last year, and that won't continue. But he's enjoying the best walk-to-strikeout ratio of his career, which along with a still-impressive stolen base rate indicates that his instincts and baseball IQ are high as ever. They will likely keep Hunter among the league's better hitters and, if he stays hot (and healthy), could send him to St. Louis for his third career Midsummer Classic.
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The Naked Truth: 9-1, 2.39 ERA, 1.258 WHIP
Having a nice little Saturday: In his last two seasons, despite being one of the better pitchers in his division, Matt Cain was 15-30. This year, he's 9-1, and hasn't lost since May 2. Ain't life grand?
You're my boy, Blue!: Over the last few years, no one has been a hard-luck loser more often than Matt Cain, who's been one of the few bright spots on the woeful post-Bonds Giants. This year, the team is six games over .500 for the first time since 2004, and Cain's performance — almost identical in walk rate, strikeout rate, and homer rate the last two years — is being rewarded by his teammates. He's tied for the league lead in wins.
Think KFC will still be open?: Cain's ERA is lower than we'd expect — more than a full run lower than his career average — but his BABIP is right around his career average, so while his ERA may come up a bit, his performance is pretty legit. After all the losing the last few years, he certainly deserves it. As he says: "These guys are giving me tons of (run) support. Everything's clicking right now." Tim Lincecum(notes) (who actually has a slightly higher ERA right now) may block him from the Cy Young, but the two are living up to their preseason hype and almost singlehandedly lending the Giants credibility in a weak division. Cain's the real deal.
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Mark Reynolds(notes), Arizona Diamondbacks: Reynolds is second in the majors in strikeouts (behind the slumptastic Chris Davis(notes)) but still absolutely raking. In 13 games this month, he has four homers, 15 RBIs and a 1.116 OPS. He was just rewarded with the NL's player of the week award.
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Jered Weaver(notes), Los Angeles Angels: Weaver is second in the AL in ERA, behind only the Zack Attack. (Greinke, that is.) He hasn't been mentioned in Cy Young discussions, which have been mostly confined to Greinke, Doc Halladay and maybe Justin Verlander(notes), but if he keeps pitching like this, that could change.
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Kevin Millwood(notes), Texas Rangers: Though he pitches in a total bandbox in Arlington, Millwood is sixth in the AL in ERA — despite being tied for sixth most homers given up. His much-lowered K rate suggests it may be a mirage, but considering where he pitches, it's a mirage worth acknowledging.