Success in baseball can be a desert mirage, this thing that looks real from afar, keeps up the illusion upon further examination and, just like that, vanishes without warning or explanation. Scrub blossoming into star is one of the early season's great joys. It is also the sporting personification of caveat emptor: Anyone who buys into it being real better beware.
Because over the next few weeks, the breakout stars of 2014 will give us a keener sense of whose emergence is legit and whose is fiction. Accordingly, it's that time of year for 10 Degrees to spelunk into the pit of predicting the level of dubiousness for the most surprising starts to the season.
The scale, carried over from last season and the year before, is one to five dubious faces. Following in the tradition of Dubious Bud Selig and Dubious McKayla Maroney, we stay in the athletic world and thank Olympic ice skating judges for Dubious Ashley Wagner.
Ascertaining dubiousness is far from exact science. Asdrubal Cabrera's hot start two years ago got one face even though it preceded a steep decline. Carlos Gomez's last season prompted five faces because too much time was spent focusing on what he couldn't do rather than all he does.
Truth is, with most of these players there's a predilection to doubt what they're doing because baseball isn't some sport conquerable by sorcery. There is no magic wand to wave, no quick fix. There is, in most cases, the trickery of small samples. They are what allowed Mark Reynolds to slug .621 through this date last year and .313 the rest of the season, for Bryan LaHair to similarly halve his slugging percentage the year before, and for Jeff Francoeur and Ty Wigginton and Jorge Cantu to fall off in the seasons prior.
For every Chris Davis, where a mirage grows into reality, many more founder as the game's vagaries catch up. At this point in the season, the rates on most batted balls and strikeouts and walks have stabilized, but they cannot by themselves fully vet a player's transformation. Take the case of …
1. Dee Gordon, whose ascendance with the Dodgers this season coincided with a 15-pound weight gain that took him nearly 30 pounds above what he weighed during his debut season in 2011: 144 pounds. Attributing it all to a sturdier Gordon doesn't begin to do his story justice.
Two people close to Gordon agreed a confluence of factors have brought him from forgotten man to force. The first is simple: time and patience worked. Gordon first played baseball his senior year in high school. He then played a year of NAIA ball and another in junior college. When his career began at 20 years old, Gordon had faced nobody of consequence. That he forced his way up to the big leagues three years later spoke to the talent inherent within.
The second, too, is time-honored: failure motivated him. Gordon was awful in snippets over his first three seasons, and Hanley Ramirez's presence at shortstop blocked Gordon. He learned to play second base at the same time the Dodgers were spending $28 million on Cuban middle infielder Alex Guerrero. How much did the team think of him? Justin Turner started at second base in the season opener.
Now, it's difficult to imagine the Dodgers' lineup without Gordon atop it. And it's that emotion – where would the Dodgers be without him? – that blinds us to the issues that could vex Gordon. He still doesn't walk, and his lack of plate discipline is troublesome, especially when compounded by the next factor. His batting average is artificially inflated by tremendous luck on balls in play. Even though speedy hitters have higher such numbers, and Gordon's line-drive rate is at a career best, his .393 average on balls in play won't continue.
If Gordon didn't come with perhaps the second-best set of wheels in baseball behind Billy Hamilton, those three Wagners could be four or even five. Should Gordon's bat regress, though, he'll still have his legs, the sort of truly dangerous weapon that along with a decent glove can sustain his value. During …
2. Charlie Blackmon's breakout, he has shown off a weapon of a far different, though similarly rare, variety: making contact with the baseball. Heading into Sunday, Blackmon's strikeout rate of 8.4 percent – just 13 in 154 plate appearances – ranked ninth among 183 qualified hitters. Never mind that 25 years ago it would have placed him barely among the top 20 percent of hitters in the game. Baseball has changed, and in the strikeout era, bat-on-ball prowess matters.
What breeds skepticism in Blackmon is simple: the number 27. That's how old he is, and, generally speaking, players with fewer than 500 major league plate appearances before their 27th birthday do not suddenly grow into one of the best hitters in baseball. Considering how his contact rate has changed, it makes more sense.
After making contact with two-thirds of the balls he swung at outside the strike zone last season, Blackmon this year is squaring up more than 80 percent of balls outside the strike zone. He's still swinging at too many bad pitches, and his walk rate is abhorrent, which despite his power and speed this year leads some skepticism.
"Guys are going to learn to throw him junk," one scout said, and that adjustment will render the true verdict on Blackmon, whether he's someone on whom the …
3. Colorado Rockies can count or a Coors Field mirage (which is backed up by him hitting .414/.440/.800 at home and .296/.338/.408 on the road). Even without Blackmon playing like an All-Star, the Rockies' lineup is so stacked and their pitching staff so potentially deep, it's time to consider them legitimate threats in the National League and the West as its strongest division.
As the great Jeff Sullivan noted, it's not just Blackmon striking out less. It's almost all the Rockies. Yes, their absurd .306 average and major league-leading 56 home runs stem from playing at Coors, where as a team they're hitting .355/.401/.600 over 715 plate appearances. In other words, the Rockies at home as a team have been pretty much 1959 Hank Aaron, who hit .355/.401/.636.
Better yet, they're winning with far from their best pitching staff. Jhoulys Chacin is just off the DL. Brett Anderson looked very good before he went there. Same with Tyler Chatwood. And their two potential aces, Jon Gray and Eddie Butler, are carving up Double-A in Tulsa and are potential post-Super Two arrivals.
The Rockies are in the midst of a stretch in which they'll play 16 of 22 games on the road, which should test their bats' mettle away from Coors as well as their bullpen's ability to hold up. Tommy Kahnle has been a revelation, Adam Ottavino his typical underrated self and LaTroy Hawkins ageless as closer, helping the Rockies to a near-.500 record on the road. If the …
4. Miami Marlins could muster the same, they'd have the best record in baseball. Instead, they are 3-13 away from Boondoggle Stadium, though it's more than their seeming inability to win on the road that prompts this assessment.
It's the surfeit of dubiousness on the Marlins' roster. Too much swing-and-miss exists in their lineup for it to continue at the pace it held during a tremendous homestand. While Giancarlo Stanton is anti-dubious, the first two players on this short are-they-dubious-or-not list lead to questions about the Marlins' current viability.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia: Good signing. Not the second-best-hitting catcher in baseball, which he's been thus far. Fairly dubious.
Tom Koehler: A .195 average on balls in play. An 86.8 percent strand rate. Highly dubious.
Johnny Cueto: This is all relative. Cueto is very good. He's just not 1.43 ERA good, not with his a .160 BABIP and 99.5 percent (!) strand rate. Relatively dubious.
Aaron Harang: Even with another excellent performance Sunday, it's difficult to understand how a homer-prone, 89-mph-throwing right-hander turned into … this. Still dubious.
Chris Young: Throws 85 mph. Super-low BABIP. Probably gonna get hurt. Scale-breakingly dubious.
Sonny Gray: Ace-in-waiting. Scant traces of dubiousness.
Yordano Ventura: Nicknamed Ace and warrants it. Un-dubious.
Chris Colabello: A bunch of hollow April RBIs made him a great story. Reality hits hard. Ultra dubious.
Jesse Chavez: Four pitches. Good stuff. Throws strikes. Gets groundballs. Buy. Very mildly dubious.
Jean Machi: Anyone who does this to his bullpen mates is automatically the single most dubious player in baseball. Never mind his 5-0 record and 0.52 ERA that make him the sort of vulture the …
5. Milwaukee Brewers have in Zach Duke, who is helping anchor a much-improved bullpen that is becoming vital in the presence of a starting rotation having trouble duplicating its incredible April.
More than that is the Brewers' institutional issues so many overlooked amid their fantastic start: They never walk, and they strike out too much. Let's put it this way: When Carlos Gomez leads the team in walks, it is not promising for a team's long-term on-base prospects.
The Brewers have talent, yes, and if Kyle Lohse can keep up his newfound strikeout prowess (he hasn't his last two starts) and Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez return on time from their DL stints, they are a threat to the Cardinals. Their hot start almost guarantees them as much. Regression in that bullpen, however, is bound to happen, and when it hits Duke and Will Smith and …
6. Francisco Rodriguez – who, together, have an ERA this season of 0.82 and 73 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings – Milwaukee could find itself in trouble. K-Rod allowed his first run of the season and blew his first save on a Mark Teixeira home run … and the Brewers walked off the Yankees anyway, with a lineup that had Rickie Weeks hitting third, Lyle Overbay fourth and Reynolds fifth.
In the coming weeks, scouting reports will say: Fastball early in the count, change late. Against left-handers, when he's ahead, K-Rod throws 71 percent fastballs. With two strikes, it's 80 percent. And he's not shy against right-handers, either, at 59 and 62 percent in such situations.
Here's the thing: K-Rod's changeup is really, really good.
Ashley's limited presence is reflective of that. His fastball sits at 90 mph, which leaves him vulnerable enough to warrant that second dubious look. A strong season with a sub-3.00 ERA, though, is well within reason. When you have a true knockout pitch, you are capable of incredible things. Hitters who have faced …
7. Masahiro Tanaka and his split-fingered fastball can attest. Tanaka uses his splitter almost like K-Rod does his changeup, though not quite as often. Against left-handers, it is devastating, and against righties almost equally so.
After seven games, Tanaka is 5-0 with a 2.57 ERA. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 58-to-7. Scant few players are worth $175 million. If Tanaka can stay healthy, he is one of them.
Ashley shows up only because of the healthy question. No pitcher in baseball warrants zero Ashleys. The possibility of injury is simply too great, and too important, to deem someone impervious to dubious. Anyway …
8. Yangervis Solarte balances out Tanaka's dubiousness among Yankees.
Solarte is a 26-year-old rookie on his third organization. He spent six years in the Twins organization and two more with the Rangers. And while he steadily improved, Solarte spent the past two seasons in Triple-A with a combined OPS of .736.
Yes, he can play multiple infield positions, which may help him sustain a major league career beyond this season. To think of Solarte as a viable piece of the Yankees' future going forward because he parlayed 126 plate appearances into a .315/.394/.463 line, however, is ignoring almost a decade of performance that completely contradicts all likelihood of sustenance. The small-sample-size rhetoric applies to Solarte because there's no such history. With …
9. Melky Cabrera, on the other hand, his major league-leading 54 hits come as far less of a surprise. Granted, plenty of people had written him off after his involvement with Biogenesis and the absurd cover-up perpetuated in its wake. Last season, in which Cabrera hit .279/.322/.360, didn't help his cause.
Surgery last September for a benign tumor near his spinal cord may have explained Cabrera's disappearance more than the lack of drugs in his body. Cabrera worked out this offseason with teammate Jose Bautista, himself off to a roaring start, and "was like a man on a mission," according to a source who saw the workouts. "You could tell last season pissed him off."
Anger is the super unleaded of athletes everywhere, and Cabrera is back ripping line drives at a career-best rate of 24.2 percent. It's good enough for 32nd in the major leagues, one spot behind …
10. Dee Gordon and his 24.3 percent. Maybe it's that extra muscle, or perhaps him finally understanding how best to leverage his left-handed swing, or possibly something else.
Whatever the case, Gordon's dynamic game is almost as joyous to watch as Yasiel Puig's. The speed and the slash-and-dash game and everything the Dodgers hoped for when they took a flyer on him in the fourth round of the draft with so little experience. How great was the potential? Well, Gordon's brother Nick is a polished ballplayer, and he's not expected to slip past the Minnesota Twins in next month's draft. They pick fifth.
Their dad, Tom, passed along some righteous bloodlines, and their manifestation has been evident in baseball's first six weeks. A season is six months, of course, and the Dodgers only hope the same Gordon continues to show up. Last season, amid his struggles, the jovial Gordon turned pouty, traversing the clubhouse with a glower, as though he was better than this.
Turns out he was right. Now comes the hard part: avoiding the wormhole down which so many dubious eventually fall.
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