Big League Stew take a break from Manny Mania to go through the quad and into the gymnasium to look at five of the hottest players in baseball and their chances of keeping it going.
The Naked Truth: .360/.412/.517, 3 HR, 17 RBI
Having a nice little Saturday: Helton is currently working on a nine-game hitting streak with eight multi-hit games. During the streak, he's 18-for-34 with two homers, eight RBIs, and is batting .529/.575/.794. It's almost like he's Todd Helton from 10 years ago!
You're my boy, Blue!: Helton looked pretty close to done during last year's injury-shortened campaign, when he hit .264 with 7 homers in 83 games with a sub-.800 OPS, and then had back surgery after the season. He's making $52.3 million through 2011, so the Rockies would really like this to be legit. Said Helton recently, "I feel a little better with my swings. I'm not exactly where I was in the spring or where I need to be, but I saw the ball better today, which is a start."
Think KFC will still be open?: Helton hasn't slugged .500 or hit 20 homers since 2005, and he's played in the Mile High City his whole career. Even as his power eroded the last few years his batting average and plate discipline remained, but last year was the first year since his rookie season that he batted under .300. (He still had an OBP of .391, but that's less impressive for a first baseman with a sub-.400 SLG.) It's possible the back surgery took years off his life. It's also possible this is a mirage. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is 50 points higher than his career mark, despite a line drive rate right around his career mark. Meanwhile, his slugging has been boosted by the artificially high batting average; his isolated power (slugging minus batting average, a measure of extra base hits) is lower than it was in 2006 and 2007. If he plays a full season, he's still a good bet to draw around 100 walks and hit over .300, but his power will come down.
Which four other players are currently on a tear?
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The Naked Truth: .388/.487/.582, 4 HR, 18 RBI
Having a nice little Saturday: It's looking like another disappointing season in Queens, as the third-place Mets have serious problems in their rotation after Johan Santana(notes) and are in the bottom half of the league in scoring. But the best pitcher in the league and the leading hitter in the league should be free from blame. Last night Beltran snapped a fairly remarkable streak: He had reached base in every one of the team's first 25 games.
You're my boy, Blue!: Beltran's not just getting a little lucky. His BABIP is 150 points above his career mark, which means a LOT of his hits are likely to stop falling. His line drive rate is well above its usual mark. On the other hand, for the first time in his career he has as many walks as strikeouts, and he's not actually hitting more extra base hits or homers than usual. His isolated power is, in fact, slightly less than usual. The batting average is likely to come down, and it will pull the OBP and SLG down with it, but at the end of the year his OPS will be around .900, as it always is.
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The Naked Truth: 0-0, 0.00, 0.49 WHIP, 12 1/3 IP, 9 SV
Having a nice little Saturday: Ryan wins the Dante in Clerks award: He wasn't even supposed to be here. The Cards closer was supposed to be fireballing rookie Jason Motte(notes). But it's hard to take the ball out of the hands of a guy who hasn't given up a run. Seven saves later, Franklin is still getting the job done in the ninth.
You're my boy, Blue!: Ryan Franklin, who possesses a career record of 51-67 and a career ERA of 4.15, is the definition of "mediocre veteran," not to mention "former injured Mariner pitching prospect." Now in his 10th season, he's never opened a season with this many consecutive scoreless innings. He has also 1) never had as many as seven strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) in a season (he's currently at 7.3), 2) saved more than 17 games (a personal best set last year) or 3) had a WHIP under 1.00 (he's at less than half that). In other words, he's on borrowed time.
Think KFC will still be open?: Says one rival GM: ""You watch him and you think you're going to get this guy, but you don't ... It's a small sample size, but he has done great. Then again, I can't imagine the team believes this can go on forever." Put it this way: He isn't Zack Greinke(notes).
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Russell Branyan, Seattle Mariners
The Naked Truth: .317/.387/.659, 7 HR, 15 RBI
Having a nice little Saturday: In his last 12 games, Branyan has five homers, 12 RBI, and is batting .347/.400/.776. But he's sort of a hitting equivalent of Ryan Franklin — a journey utilityman with pop, some plate discipline, and way too many strikeouts. Thanks to that career .233 batting average, Branyan has never received 400 at-bats in his career. but he's well on his way this year with 82 AB through his team's first 28 games. If he keeps hitting like this, it'll be hard to keep him from the lineup. Problem is, he never keeps hitting like this.
You're my boy, Blue!: His strikeout rate is lower than usual, but so is his walk rate. His HR rate is almost identical to last year; his line drive rate is lower, but his extra base hit rate is higher. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is at an unsustainable high, but he's swinging and missing a lot less. Basically, everything about this season screams fluke, but he's doing a better job than usual of not getting himself out. Will that give him enough at-bats to challenge his career high of 24 homers? He certainly appreciates the chance to try: "I've never been given a shot to really play this game on an everyday basis," Branyan told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "and what's happened this year is really a first go-round for me."
Think KFC will still be open?: He has light-tower power. Give him 500 at-bats, and he'll hit 30, easy. But he'll also strike out a million times and put up an extremely low batting average whenever he doesn't get ahold of one. However, the Mariners don't really have any better 1B/DH options this year — frequently injured DHs Mike Sweeney(notes) and Ken Griffey are no better offensively than Branyan, at this point, and outfielder Wladimir Balentien(notes) is probably even worse at making contact — so Branyan will get plenty of chances to show what he can do. Just don't expect him to stay above .300.
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The Naked Truth: 5-0, 2.21 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 40 2/3 IP, 42 K, 16 BB
Having a nice little Saturday: Billingsley has gone from one of the game's top pitching prospects to one of the game's top pitchers. At the tender age of 24, he has a career record of 40-19 and career ERA of 3.24, and he's currently leading the NL in wins and quality starts.
You're my boy, Blue!: It isn't smoke and mirrors. The guy's nasty. He has a low-90s fastball, high-80s cutter, mid-80s slider, mid-80s change, and high-70s curveball, all thrown from the same release point. His K/9 and strikeouts per walk (K/BB) have increased every year he's been in the league, and his ERA has understandably decreased each year. He may be getting a bit lucky, as hitters' batting average on balls in play against him is low, and some of their hits are likely to start falling in. But his home run rate has always been low, and his K and BB rates are only improving. This guy's an ace.
Think KFC will still be open?: Yeah, Johan Santana won pitcher of the month in April, and it's hard to fault the voters — as good as Billingsley has been, Johan's ERA is more than one run lower — but it's very likely the two will be fighting over the Cy all year. (I would have put Johan in Streaking, especially after his ridiculous two-hitter of the Phillies last night, but he's not exactly streaking. He's Johan Freaking Santana. He does it all the time.)