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: 10-6, 3.22 ERA, 1.095 WHIP
Having a nice little Saturday: Are you sitting down? Randy Wolf — seriously, Randy Wolf — is 15th in the league in ERA. Yes, he plays his home games in Chavez Ravine, but still. Randy Wolf, who hasn't finished the year with an ERA under 4.00 since 2002, is having the best season of his career with the postseason-bound Dodgers. Heck, some people even consider him the ace of Los Angeles.
You're my boy, Blue!: What has been the key for Wolf, who signed a one-year deal with the Dodgers this offseason? He's stingier with the walk than ever before, issuing only 2.3 walks per nine innings. He isn't striking out quite as many people as he once did — 6.9 K/9, versus a career average of 7.4 — but his improved control is more than making up for it. Well, that, and his ridiculously low Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), which at .260 is almost 40 points below the major league average, 30 points below his career average, and is the second-lowest mark of his career. (The lowest was .256 in 2002, a major reason he had his career year that season.)
Think KFC will still be open?: Wolf has been around a long time and has an established level of performance — his career ERA is over 4.00 because he's only an average pitcher. He's been successful because he's getting lucky — that's what the low BABIP means. On the other hand, if he can really keep his walks this low and maintain a decent strikeout rate, he can be an effective starting pitcher and a positive for the Dodgers' playoff run. This year is an anomaly for him, but because it's so similar to 2002 it's not completely beyond the bounds of the imagination. He's due for a drop, either in the next few weeks or next year, but if his improvement in control is legitimate, he's definitely a useful pitcher for Los Angeles.
What other players are currently hotter than hot?
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The Naked Truth: 12-12, 4.23 ERA, 1.36 WHIP
Having a nice little Saturday: I guess the medicine cabinet has been working, because Arroyo has a 2.14 ERA in his last 11 starts, including two complete-game shutouts. However, he has a worryingly low strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio and since he pitches in the Great American Ballpark, he gives up more than his share of homers — 28 homers in 28 starts. Something's gotta give.
You're my boy, Blue!: In his first year in Cincy, 2006, he put up a ridiculous 3.29 ERA that he hasn't sniffed before or since. That year, he had a K/9 of 6.9 and a BB/9 of 2.4 — a far cry from this year's 5.0/3.0. He's striking out fewer and walking more. And, like Wolf, his performances in 2006 and 2009 have been bolstered by an unsustainably low BABIP — .273 in '06, .276 this year, as compared to a career average of .294. His ERA jumped a full run from 2006 to 2007 when his BABIP came back to earth, and it's a good bet it will do the same thing next year, particularly if his strikeout rate remains this low. It's awfully hard for a pitcher to survive with that few strikeouts.
Think KFC will still be open?: It's understandable why Arroyo would turn to the magic beans: he's always been a fringy guy, with decent stuff, decent command and decent control, but who isn't particularly good at any one thing, so his margin for error is extremely small. Like Wolf, he really needs good control, because he just doesn't have good enough stuff to make up for it, unless he gets really lucky. Problem is, luck doesn't last. If he can't hit the black, he may need to become a full-time guitar man.
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The Naked Truth: 12-7, 3.44 ERA, 1.22 WHIP
Having a nice little Saturday: Beckett is the putative ace, but Lester's been the best pitcher on the Red Sox for much of the last two years. He had a rough first two months with an ERA of 5.65 at the end of May, but since the beginning of June he has an ERA of 2.18, with 130 strikeouts and just 33 walks in 115 1/3 innings. He hasn't given up more than three runs or gone fewer than 5 2/3 innings since the end of May. If not for his first two months, he'd be a serious Cy Young candidate. As it is, he's just the ace of a possible playoff team.
You're my boy, Blue!: Lester has been striking out everyone in sight, which makes him awfully hard to beat. He has the highest K/9 in the American League, striking out well over a batter an inning. He's not getting gifts from umpires, either: 19 percent of his strikes are swinging strikes, well above the league average of 15 percent. A guy who misses bats is a guy who can have consistent success.
Think KFC will still be open?: Lester was terrific last year, and except for a couple of early blowouts, he's been far, far better this year. And the Sox have him through 2014.
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Seth Smith(notes), Colorado Rockies Utility players who want a starting role would do well to follow Seth Smith's example: Hit the hell out of everything. He had an OPS near .900 in the minors, and after a decent rookie year as a utility outfielder last year, he's just gone nuts in '09. He leads the Rockies in slugging and OPS, and is just a few points off Todd Helton's(notes) team lead in BA and OBP, despite making $16 million less.
Matt Diaz(notes), Atlanta Braves Diaz is one of the more curious players in baseball. He looks awkward at everything, hitting, running, fielding, throwing — and he pronounces his last name "DYE-az" — but he's 12th in career batting average among all active players with at least 1000 PA. When he swings and misses, he often winds up so off-balance that he looks as though he's never played baseball before, and he's never received a full season of at-bats. But in each of the years that he's received at least 300 PA, he's hit at least .320. He isn't shaped like a ballplayer, but he's a hell of a hitter.
Lastings Milledge(notes), Pittsburgh Pirates Finally, a small measure of redemption for the oft-maligned former top prospect. In 120 AB with the Pirates since being traded for Nyjer Morgan(notes), Lastings has flashed some of the tools that made him such a hot commodity with the Mets, and is currently batting .315/.358/.427. He's not a finished product — he has four CS against three stolen bases, and he's only got 10 extra-base hits on the year — but he's finally getting a chance to produce in about the lowest-pressure environment imaginable. Also, he's still only 24. Maybe there's a happy ending in sight after all.