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April 19, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL West

And Then Kemp and Upton Stopped Swinging at Everything

by Geoff Young

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Colorado owes much of its hot start to the double play combination of Jonathan Herrera and Troy Tulowitzki. One of these names should come as no surprise. In our preseason predictions, Baseball Prospectus staffers picked Tulowitzki to finish second in NL MVP voting.

Herrera, on the other hand, is a relative unknown. The 26-year-old owner of 323 big-league plate appearances entering the season has a .543 OBP through Sunday’s game. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that he and Tulowitzki, whose .836 SLG leads the National League, are carrying the Rockies offense:

 

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

HR

Herrera and Tulowitzki

117

.378

.509

.733

8

Rest of team

498

.243

.316

.378

10

If the season ended now, a compelling case could be made for Tulowitzki as MVP. Of course, this time last year, teammate Ubaldo Jimenez appeared to be on a collision course with the Cy Young Award... best to give these things a little more time before making such proclamations.

Speaking of Jimenez, pitching has played a large role in Colorado's early success. The ace has had almost nothing to do with that, making just one forgettable start. Instead, youngsters Jhoulys Chacin (age 23), Esmil Rogers (25), and Greg Reynolds (25) are leading the way. Here is their combined line through the club’s first 15 games:

GS

IP

H

HR

BB

SO

ERA

W-L

7

46.0

37

1

15

26

2.35

6-0

Foregoing the obligatory lectures about won-loss record, six for six is a slick trick. And although Reynolds still won't make anyone forget Clayton Kershaw or Tim Lincecum, maybe he can transform himself into Colorado's version of Tim Stauffer, another former first-rounder who survived a plethora of injuries to become a solid big-league pitcher.

* * *

In San Francisco, the decision to stick Aubrey Huff in the outfield to accommodate rookie Brandon Belt hasn't paid dividends yet. We've discussed Huff's defensive shortcomings, but the reality is that neither he nor Belt has hit enough to make the sacrifice worthwhile:

 

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

HR

SB

Huff and Belt

120

.226

.309

.321

2

3

The stolen bases are fun, but that is not why these guys are in the lineup. Heck, if the Giants had wanted an .095 ISO, they could have gone out and signed Alex Cora this past winter.

On a brighter note, the early returns on Pablo Sandoval's improved conditioning give cause for hope. Sandoval is hitting like he did in 2009. Next step: continue that for roughly 140 more games.

On the pitching side, the Big Three are doing their thing:

GS

IP

H

HR

BB

SO

ERA

W-L

9

55.0

46

3

15

56

2.13

4-2

Again, we will forgo the won-loss record lecture because you can see for yourself, and besides, you already know.

Meanwhile, in the bullpen, Guillermo Mota seems to think it's 2003 and is pacing a strong relief corps. If someone can get Brian Wilson out of bed and pitching like he did last year, the Giants will have a reason to smile.

* * *

The Padres have gotten great pitching but no offense. Right-hander Dustin Moseley recently became just the third pitcher since 1972 (Rudy May, 1972; Kenny Rogers, 2008) to have zero run support through his first three starts of the season.

As a team, the Padres are hitting .217/.305/.329, which is Freddie Patek without the batting average. They lead the league in stolen bases, and are tied for second in triples and walks, but are at or near the bottom of every other meaningful offensive category.

In 1992, the Padres had the Four Tops—Tony Fernandez, Tony Gwynn, Gary Sheffield, and Fred McGriff. This year, they have the Four Bottoms—Brad Hawpe, Jason Bartlett, Ryan Ludwick, and Will Venable. Here's what half of the Padres' starting lineup has done so far:

Player

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

Hawpe

40

.139

.200

.167

Bartlett

47

.167

.255

.167

Ludwick

57

.125

.263

.208

Venable

51

.159

.255

.182

Total

195

.147

.246

.182

At least Bartlett is playing a capable shortstop, and Ludwick and Venable have shown glimpses of life. Hawpe, unfortunately, looks lost at the plate. He is late on fastballs, lunging at off-speed stuff, and expanding the strike zone (15 SO vs 3 BB).

The last guy the Padres employed who looked this hopeless was Jim Edmonds, bringing us to the cautionary part of our tale. Here is how Edmonds fared in 2008:

Team

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

Padres

103

.178

.265

.233

Cubs

298

.256

.369

.568

Edmonds may have been the most indifferent ballplayer I've ever seen in San Diego. He had a good excuse, but still, all outward indications were that Edmonds had nothing left to offer. Maybe Hawpe has a similar explanation, maybe not.

With lottery winner Adrian Gonzalez now in Boston enjoying his new-found fortune and fame, there may be pressure to get Anthony Rizzo into the lineup at some point. Rizzo, part of the return for Gonzalez, was expected to spend the season at Triple-A but has gotten off to a blistering start (.378/.429/.689) for Tucson. If the Padres end up tanking the way everyone kept expecting them to do last year, and if Hawpe's funk turns out to be a permanent condition, Rizzo's timetable could be accelerated.

* * *

Los Angeles, like Colorado, has been running a two-man offense. It isn't quite Shaq and Kobe, but Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier are doing the bulk of the work:

 

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

Kemp and Ethier

134

.424

.493

.602

Rest of team

461

.202

.254

.282

No word on how they feel about expensive diamond rings or ancient Greek buildings. On a more serious note, opposing teams may be a tad concerned that Kemp appears to have figured out the difference between balls and strikes (9 BB and 8 SO in 66 PA so far).

Kemp already has more than 2,500 big-league plate appearances to his name, so it's easy to forget that he is still just 26 years old and capable of learning new tricks. If he addresses one of his few weaknesses without sacrificing any existing skills, that could be problematic for the rest of the division.

Speaking of youngsters, we pegged Kershaw for third in the NL Cy Young Award race. He hasn't pitched quite as well as the two men we placed ahead of him (Lincecum and Roy Halladay), but there is something to be said for leading the league in strikeouts, even if it's only April.

* * *

And speaking of two-man offenses, Arizona has Miguel Montero and Justin Upton. We looked at Montero last week; now we turn to Upton, who is hitting .304/.400/.571.

The parallels between Upton and Kemp are interesting. Both reached the big leagues at young ages, both teased with their talent, and both have improved their strike-zone judgment (Upton has 9 BB and 10 SO in 65 PA) – at least, if a few weeks' worth of data are to be believed.

Keep an eye on these two. Even in their previously undisciplined states, Upton and Kemp were dangerous hitters. It's scary to think what they might become with more refined approaches. And lest you be worried that Upton’s “shorter stroke” may come at the expense of power...

Uh, no.

Related Content:  Brad Hawpe

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