Big League Stew goes through the quad and into the gymnasium to look at five of the hottest players in baseball and their chances of keeping it going.
Kosuke Fukudome, Cubs
The Naked Truth: .348/.457/.621, 4 HR, 15 RBI
Having a nice little Saturday: Since an Opening Day oh-fer, Fukudome has batted .371 with a 1.142 OPS. He leads the Cubs in OPS by a lot, which is a good thing because reigning Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto and free agent acquisition Milton Bradley have gone 6-for-66 to start the year.
You're my boy, Blue!: On May 1, 2008, Fukudome went 4-4 and finished the day batting .353/.455/.500. (Look familiar?) The rest of the season, he batted .233 with a .682 OPS, with a .188 average in August and September. He's definitely not picking up where he left off last fall.
Think KFC will still be open?: The eerie familiarity of Fukudome's hot start, considering that his season started to go south at exactly this time last year, has to give fans pause. So does his current, unsustainable .388 Batting Average on Balls in Play, which suggests that he's been getting lucky and some time soon some of those hits will just stop falling. But he was a good hitter in Japan, and while he's probably not as good as he's been this year, he's probably not as bad as he was last year. Can he find a way to follow a terrific April with an average summer, rather than a catastrophically awful one? Right now it's too soon to say.
Which four other players have we spotted streaking this week?
* * *
Zack Greinke, Royals
The Naked Truth: 4-0, 0.00 ERA, 29 IP, 36 K, 6 BB, 0.862 WHIP
Having a nice little Saturday: SI's newest cover boy hasn't allowed an earned run all year. He can't break Orel Hershiser's record because he gave up an unearned run in a three-hit complete game on April 24 — his second CG and second 10-K game in a row. Between his 95-mph heater and occasional knee-buckling 65-mph slow curve, it's sometimes hard to imagine how anyone ever manages to push a run across. He has given up 19 hits in 29 innings, only five for extra bases.
You're my boy, Blue!: Greinke's travails have been well-documented. The designated phenom for a moribund franchise, he pitched a nearly full season in 2004 at the age of 20, then lost 17 games in 2005 and missed nearly all of the 2006 season battling social anxiety disorder. Now 25, he appears to have worked out his issues, and is at the peak of his powers. Wrote Royals blogger Rany Jazayerli:
"Like an alchemist who has suddenly found the philosopher's stone, Greinke has overnight transmuted the weighty iron of his potential into brilliant gold that he molds into goose eggs every fifth day."
Think KFC will still be open?: He'll eventually give up an earned run, possibly as soon as his next start against the Jays, the top scoring team in baseball. (Greinke has a 5.12 ERA against the Jays.) But he won't give them up in bunches. He's been striking out many more people than ever before, and has been walking fewer than before. He's getting more swinging strikes than he used to. And his batting average allowed on balls in play is just a shade under .300, so he hasn't been getting overly lucky. He'll regress a bit to the mean, but his mean might legitimately be as the best pitcher in baseball this year.
* * *
Aaron Hill, Blue Jays
The Naked Truth: .355/.390/.581, 5 HR, 18 RBI
Having a nice little Saturday: Hill just snapped a 10-game hitting
streak, which included four straight two-hit games. In his last 12 games,
he’s batting .396/.448/.623 with five walks and only three strikeouts.
You’re my boy, Blue!: Almost the entire Blue Jay offense is overachieving. RF Alex Rios and C Rod Barajas are the only two starters with an OPS under .780, and Marco Scutaro and Scott Rolen are the only infielders with an OPS under .900. The 27-year old Hill leads the team in batting average, homers, total bases, and RBIs (tied with DH Adam Lind). "You just try to keep doing the things that you're doing on a day-to-day basis and try not to screw anything up," Hill said to MLB.com.
Think KFC will still be open?: Well, no. But he did have a very promising campaign in 2007, putting up 17 homers and a .792 OPS at the age of 25. Last year, he had a concussion in May and suffered from post-concussion syndrome much of the rest of the season. To say the least, Hill appears to be fully recovered. Like Fukudome, though, he's getting very lucky on balls in play, and his homer rate is absurdly high. The Blue Jays are in first place in the AL East largely because their middle infield has a combined OPS around .900. That won't continue.
* * *
Mike Lowell, Red Sox
The Naked Truth: .319/.355/.611, 4 HR, 22 RBI
Having a nice little Saturday: Lowell has an 11-game hitting streak. He's 19 for his last 46, with a voluptuous batting line of .413/.449/.761.
You're my boy, Blue!: Many people left Mike Lowell's career for dead after a subpar 2008 (including a .642 OPS in the second half), offseason hip surgery, and the continued ravages of Father Time in his salt-and-salt beard. They were wrong. Much as he did after being traded to Boston as a poison prize in the Josh Beckett deal, he's hitting the cover off the ball and appears to have yet another second wind in his career.
Think KFC will still be open?: Mike Lowell has never had a .900 OPS in his life. That probably won't change this year. His homers will come back to earth, and his walk rate is lower than usual, which implies that his on-base percentage may do the same. (Maybe as soon as tonight: he's batting .233 in 10 games at Progressive Field in Cleveland.) But reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.
* * *
Victor Martinez, Indians
The Naked Truth: .390/.440/.634, 5 HR, 9 RBI
Having a nice little Saturday: Martinez has a 7-game hitting streak, during which he's 13-29 with an OPS of 1.069.
You're my boy, Blue!: Like Mike Lowell, Martinez had a 2008 to forget. Elbow problems last year sapped his strength and kept him off the field: in 73 games he hit 2 homers and had a .701 OPS, after being one of the top hitting catchers in baseball the past 4 seasons. The Indians plan to protect him by giving him a lot of PT at first base. "I think over the course of the season, it's definitely going to save him," said hitting coach Derek Shelton.
Think KFC will still be open?: Martinez was a premier hitter from 2004-2007, so it's no surprise to see him back on the leader boards. He's still just 30. His numbers will undoubtedly come down — his batting average on balls in play is .386 this year, 80 points higher than his career mark. But he's increased his power numbers while walking more and striking out less than usual, which are good signs that his batting stroke is back. He probably won't keep flirting with .400 — especially not tonight, as he has a .701 OPS against the Red Sox— but he could hit 20 homers with an OPS of .850-.900, as he routinely did at his peak.