10 Degrees: Examining some dubious starts

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

Over the weekend, my 4-year-old surprised some family friends by taking a look at his younger brother and declaring: "That baby looks dubious." The word floats around our household often enough that it has gained a nickname, doobs, which takes on varying forms.

For example, if he tries to explain how it's totally fine for him to eat a Peppermint Patty before dinner, I'll shoot him a look, and he'll concede: "You're throwing doobs on that."

Indeed, doobs-throwing is a favorite pastime, and now that the baseball season is six weeks old, doobs candidates – those who have gotten off to hot starts that may or may not last – have popped up across the sport. Instead of co-opting my home scale and applying it to work – mini-doobs, mild doobs, mega-doobs and ultra-doobs are the varying levels – it made sense to create a new one.

Of course, baseball blessed this endeavor with the perfect doobs face. Bud Selig may be the least photogenic person alive, his ever-contorting glower captured by photographers who delight in one-upping each other in posterity's archive. There is a treasure trove of Bud Selig Doobs Faces available, though the one I chose captures him in his most dubious glory. You can just imagine him saying: "No, Frank, $1,000 haircuts aren't normal."

My sincere thanks go to the commissioner for providing the proper face to accompany a 0-5 scale, with no BSDFs connoting a start that's very real and five meaning the fall is likely to be long and hard. Might as well start at one of those ends because if not for Josh Hamilton …

1. Adam Jones would be the MVP of the American League today. His Baltimore Orioles own the AL's best record in large part because of their major league-best 64 home runs. Jones has 14, second in the big leagues only to Hamilton, and the power is very real.

Jones does have his faults. He doesn't walk. His center field defense is inconsistent. But at 26, there's a very good case to be made that Jones simply is growing into his prime. Even if he's not Matt Kemp, Jones can play a reasonable facsimile, which makes this one cake.

More supporting evidence: Jones' batting average on balls in play isn't overinflated (.302) and his line-drive rate (15.7 percent) should grow, two things that portend even greater success. No, he's not going to launch more than a quarter of his fly balls for home runs, nor for that matter is …

2. Carlos Ruiz going to mash 21.9 percent of his out of the park. Chooch is playing out of his mind, keeping the Philadelphia Phillies' offense afloat, and there is absolutely no way it's going to continue to happen.

Career years almost never come in age-33 seasons – especially the age-33 seasons of catchers, none of whom in history have cracked a 1.000 OPS (Ruiz is at .999) and only six of whom have gone over .900.

Ruiz this year has swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone and made contact with a lower percentage, which doesn't bode well. No, he doesn't miss balls in the strike zone and rarely strikes out, but the hard contact he's making now is likelier a small-sample-size mirage than a fundamental overhaul in his offensive fortunes.

A Phillies fan on Twitter suggested Ruiz is the best catcher in baseball today. He's not even the best in his own division – that would be Brian McCann – nor the best in his league this season. That honor belongs to …

3. A.J. Ellis and his out-of-nowhere emergence whose underlying numbers beg for it to be taken seriously but whose level of surprise necessitates the greatest bit of doobs-hedging I'll undertake.

On one hand, there is the .403 average on balls in play, which, once it normalizes, will cut hard into Ellis' .324 batting average. There also is the likelihood of an impact player appearing out of nowhere at 31 years old. Such cases are eminently rare.

But that on-base percentage. Everywhere Ellis has been, from college at Austin Peay to four levels of the Los Angeles Dodgers' minor-league system, he has walked. His minor league OBP was .406. And nothing has changed in his first full-time major-league duty. Ellis' walkoff walk this week personified a season in which his .450 OBP has sat behind only David Wright's. He continues to hit seventh or eighth, the typical managerial response to a hefty catcher, instead of loading him in front of Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier and Bobby Abreu, where he'd do far more damage.

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Still, stories like Ellis' are nice, and any player who walks more than he strikes out is a player after my heart. One who walks almost twice as much as he strikes out is just a freak, and …

4. Asdrubal Cabrera couldn't possibly continue that pace, so he struck out twice Sunday against Josh Johnson to bring his season total to 12, against 18 walks. The ratio is still absurd and the latest sign that Cabrera's breakout season last year – in which he struck out 119 times and walked 44 – was no fluke.

Cabrera earned his doob and a place on this list solely because of a second half last season in which he hit .244/.310/.419 and balanced out much of his pre-All-Star break production. He was just a guy in the second half as opposed to the most dangerous shortstop in baseball, a stake to which he can lay claim with Troy Tulowitzki's mediocre start and the position's across-the-board meh feeling.

By offsetting a lack of power from the right side with a frighteningly precise swing – one strikeout in 46 at-bats – Cabrera has been the bellwether for an Indians team that loves having …

5. Derek Lowe in its uniform. That said, this was almost as easy as Ruiz.

No matter how good a pitcher's sinker, he cannot survive striking out 2.22 batters per nine innings. The last pitcher to qualify for the ERA title with a K rate that low was Nate Cornejo from the legendary 2003 Detroit Tigers. He went 6-17 with a 4.67 ERA and started 32 games only because the 43-119 Tigers were so awful. Only two more who qualified for the ERA title have struck out so few in the last 50 years.

Pitchers used to be able to get away without striking anyone out. Not today. Lowe's AL-leading 2.05 ERA could well double even if he continues to induce ground balls at a major league-best 65.4 percent. His sinker isn't moving any more than in recent years, according to PITCHf/x readings, which makes this even more of a sample-size hiccup. The Braves ate much of Lowe's salary because they figured he was done, and that …

6. Brandon Beachy was ready to step up. As Lowe's NL counterpart atop the ERA rankings with a major league-best 1.33 following his first career shutout last week, he certainly has. Beachy's story is so saccharine perfect – undrafted out of a small Indiana college, plays some summer ball, gets noticed by a scout, signs, makes the big leagues two years later and soon thereafter readies up for an All-Star appearance.

Yes, Beachy's strikeout rate is down. His stuff hasn't taken a step back, though, and a 10 percent jump in his groundball rate shows an evolution into the most valuable sort of pitcher: the groundballer with strikeout potential. Beachy has allowed one home run in 54 innings and opponents are hitting only .214 on balls in play against him, two numbers that beg for a heavy regression as well.

And he will, from 1.33 to … 2-something? Maybe in the low 3s? Either way, Beachy is an excellent commodity, a 25-year-old No. 2- or 3-level starter playing for the minimum. Tough to throw anything on that other than praise for brilliant scouting. Must be something about the name because …

7. Brandon Morrow is likewise breaking out, his three-hit shutout against the New York Mets on Saturday the latest in a string of command performances. Because of a hard fastball, an improved changeup and much better command and control, Morrow, at 27, is looking like the sort of pitcher who warranted Seattle choosing him two picks ahead of Clayton Kershaw and five before Tim Lincecum, a potential ace who, on the surface, doesn't deserve any doobs. And yet doobs do surprise.

"Do it against someone good," a scout said, and that had me scrambling to see his opponents. Turns out he has, actually, with two games against Tampa Bay (fourth in the major leagues in adjusted OPS), another against Baltimore (eighth), Cleveland (ninth), the Mets (10th) and Kansas City (13th). What he meant, presumably, was: Do it against Boston or New York, against whom Morrow has career ERAs of 9.53 and 4.08, respectively.

Because for so many years Morrow has underachieved against his raw numbers, it's foolish to cast severe doubt on his breakout. It's also perhaps a bit early, especially with this newfound command, to call it a sure thing. Thus the hedge. Throwing strikes consistently tends not to appear out of nowhere as it has with …

8. Fernando Rodney or, as he likes to be known, Eck 2.0. Seriously, where did this come from? It's one thing to throw strikes. It's another to turn into a machine. Rodney has two unintentional walks in 19 2/3 innings. In his career, Rodney has 31 games in which he has walked two batters – and 10 more in which he has walked three.

Yes, Rodney drank the Tampa Bay Rays Kool-Aid that invigorates everyone who plays there, but to be throwing 95 with command for the first time ever? It's just out of character. Fernando Rodney throws balls like I throw doobs. Which, speaking of …

9. Bryan LaHair is already beginning to doob himself. Since hitting his last home run six days ago, the Chicago Cubs' out-of-nowhere find at first base suffered through an 0-for-15 skid while the Cubs didn't win a game.

Now, this is when considering LaHair's current line, which remains a sterling .315/.415/.629. For nearly a decade, he had carved out a nice career as a 4-A player – the sort who's better than Triple-A but not good enough to make a big-league impact. Then he impressed in a short stint last September and has bombed away this year.

If LaHair happens to be the rare 29-year-old who morphs into an All-Star, more power to him – and doobs on me. Likelier is his replacement comes midseason when Anthony Rizzo, seven years younger and destroying Triple-A pitching more than LaHair ever did, takes the Cubs' first-base job and leaves manager Dale Sveum figuring out where – or whether – to put LaHair in. No such question surrounds …

10. Adam Jones and his first-place Orioles, who are two games up on Tampa Bay, four on Toronto, 5½ on the Yankees and 6½ on the Red Sox. If this exercise included teams, the Orioles might earn 5½ doobs out of five for how dubious their start really is. Rare is the first-place team whose run differential (plus-14) almost is equivalent to the number of games it is over .500 (12).

Only what if these Orioles, like their NL counterparts in Los Angeles, can spin presumed disappointment into a gilded season for more than six weeks? Or what if Derek Lowe defies history?

Part of baseball's charm is its oddities, and their annual presence renders prognostication inexact. A weak-hitting catcher can go on a tear. A strikeout-prone shortstop can stop striking out. A wild reliever can find the plate. Outliers are born daily, and any of these could be baseball's – no matter how dubious they may seem.

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