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August 15, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Fast Breakers

by Jay Jaffe

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Over the past week, Justin Upton has launched about 1,300 feet worth of home runs into the stratosphere while helping the Diamondbacks reel off six straight wins against the Astros and the Mets to take over first place in the NL West. The 23-year-old slugger has 10 homers since the All-Star break, tied for third in the majors, while the Snakes' overtaking of the Giants stands as the only major upheaval to the standings since the Midsummer Classic. At that recess, four of the divisions (all three in the AL plus the NL Central) featured leads of one game or less, with the widest division lead at 3.5 games and the NL Wild Card gap at four games. Now, just three races are closer than four games, and one Wild Card is practically sewn up, while the other is no closer than it was before.

What follows is a trip around the diamond to identify two players at each position (regardless of league) who have most helped their teams stay close, turn things around, or pull away since the All-Star break, plus the ramifications those performances carry as we head into the stretch run. Admittedly, we're in small-sample theater here, but the performances promise to be entertaining just the same. All stats are from the All-Star break through Saturday unless otherwise indicated.

Catcher: Mike Napoli, Rangers (.435 TAv, 1.5 WARP); Carlos Santana, Indians (.290 TAv, 1.1 WARP)
Over the past four weeks, no hitter—not Upton, not Dan Uggla—owns a higher True Average than Napoli, who has hit a searing .395/.467/.691 with six homers in 92 plate appearances since the break while making 11 starts behind the dish, seven at designated hitter, and four at first base. For the season, he now owns a .288/.385/.585 line with 18 homers in 275 plate appearances, good for a team-high .344 TAv, and as Joey Matschulat pointed out on Friday, the combination of his hitting and his improved defense at catcher (zero passed balls and a 42 percent caught stealing rate) stands in stark contrast to the self-inflicted woes of the Angels' catching corps(e). In a race where the Rangers have widened their AL West lead from one game to four, Napoli stands as one of the difference-makers.

As for Santana, he started slowly this season, returning from knee surgery; through the end of May, he was hitting just .228/.358/.395—a decent combination of walks and power for a catcher but without many hits. Though short on walks lately, his .252/.314/.505 line since the break has provided some punch at a time when the Indians' offense is flagging; they're scoring just 4.07 runs since the break, down from 4.34 prior. What was a half-game deficit at the break is now two-and-a-half; the Tribe needs all the help it can get to avoid fading away.

First Base: Albert Pujols, Cardinals (.323TAv, 1.2 WARP); Freddie Freeman, Braves (.325TAv, 1.0 WARP)
At a position where the likes of Prince Fielder (.325 TAv, 1.2 WARP) and Miguel Cabrera (.340 TAv, 1.0 WARP) have been similarly productive since the break, it's the shapes of the above two players' seasons that gives them the nod. The 21-year-old Freeman was hitting just .231/.323/.366 as of May 15, and his first-half line of .274/.347/.459 was still nothing to write home about on a team averaging just 3.97 runs per game. His second half numbers (.363/.411/.522) owe plenty to a .452 BABIP, but he's injected color into that pallid offense, which has scored 4.82 runs per game since the break and is still holding a four-game Wild Card lead over the Giants.

As for Pujols, he hit "just" .280/.357/.500 prior to the break and missed 15 days due to a wrist fracture, so it rates as at least somewhat reassuring that he's bashing at a .309/.344/.650clip with a 11 homers in the second half; Sunday night's blast broke a tie with Upton and J.J. Hardy. Sure, you'd like to see more walks, but he's back in the NL lead for homers, so at least some things are right with the world. Were it not for his surge, the Cardinals might be even more buried than they are; they've fallen 5.5 games since the break.

Second Base: Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (.360TAv, 1.7 WARP); Dan Uggla, Braves (.386TAv, 1.4 WARP)
While respectable, Pedroia's .284/.395/.442 first half still would have represented career lows in both batting average and slugging percentage if they were full season marks. His .388/.423/.603 second half, on the other hand, has vaulted him into the AL's top five in WARP, making him a bona fide MVP candidate even on a team that has a couple of others in Jacoby Ellsbury and Adrian Gonzalez.

Meanwhile, Uggla's 33-game hitting streak came to an end on Sunday, but what a remarkable run it was. The 31-year-old was hitting .173/.241/.327 after going hitless on July 4, and not long after that, he earned a well-deserved spot on the Replacement Level Killers. Five weeks later, he's reeled off the longest hitting streak in five years, having hit .377/.438/.762 with 15 homers during the streak, including an MLB-high 12 since the break. His overall numbers (.232/.300/.453) still stink, but the Braves can feel a lot better about the production they can expect from him going forward.

Also worthy of mention: the Indians' Jason Kipnis, who has hit .279/.347/.603 with six homers in 75 plate appearances (the minimum I used for a cutoff) since being recalled on July 22, good for a .331 TAv and 0.4 WARP.

Shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians (.315TAv, 1.3 WARP); Yuniesky Betancourt, Brewers (.329TAv, 0.9 WARP)
Though Cabrera's second-half numbers (.290/.364/.505) are merely a wee bit better than his first-half ones (.293/.347/.489), they confirm that his breakout is for real. On Saturday, his three-run homer powered the Indians past the Twins, giving him 20 for the season—more than any other shortstop save for Hardy and Troy Tulowitzki (with 23 apiece) and two more than he had hit in 1,610 plate appearances from 2007-2010.

The much-maligned Betancourt—the major league leader in malignment in 2008-2009, when he was a combined 2.0 wins below replacement level in almost 1,200 plate appearances—was the poison pill in last winter's Zack Greinke trade. Worse, he spent the first half poisoning a Brewers' offense that was all too reliant upon just a few bats, hitting a putrid .237/.255/.342. Thanks to a .393 BABIP, he's batting a searing .374/.390/.566 in the second half with a True Average on par with teammates Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder (.331 and .325 since the break, respectively), and he's helped the Brewers open up a 5.5 game lead on the Cardinals. The hot streak won't last, but the division lead might.

Third Base: Ryan Roberts, Diamondbacks (.350TAv, 1.8 WARP); Pablo Sandoval, Giants (.329TAv, 0.8 WARP)
A 30-year-old journeyman who came into the season with just 451 plate appearances in his career, Roberts has been a godsend for the Diamondbacks. He took over the hot corner after Melvin Mora's bat turned up dead on arrival and has been nothing less than the team's second-best hitter behind Upton. In fact, he's in a three-way tie with Edwin Encarnacion and Curtis Granderson for the major league lead in WARP since the break on the strength of a .284/.400/.523 line, and it's helped the Diamondbacks turn a three-game deficit into a two-game lead.

Meanwhile, Sandoval has lately been just about the only player pulling his weight—or hitting it—in the Giants' lineup. Through Saturday, he was batting .327/.377/.554 with six homers since the break, while the rest of the team was flailing and failing at a .222/.268/.318 clip, which explains why they were averaging just 2.8 runs per game before Sunday's five-run outburst.

Left Field: Ryan Braun, Brewers (.331TAv, 1.3 WARP); Matt Holliday, Cardinals (.315TAv, 1.5 WARP)
It rates as something less than a surprise that two of the three most productive left fielders over the course of the whole season also rank among the most productive since the break, but that's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise. Braun's hitting .333/.363/.615 with six homers since the break, while Holliday's hitting .291/.421/.523. Carry on, gentlemen.

Center Field: Curtis Granderson, Yankees (.336TAv, 1.8 WARP); Jacoby Ellsbury Red Sox (.345TAv, 1.7 WARP)
Welcome to flavor country. While both the Red Sox and the Yankees have essentially sewn up playoff spots by now—the latter's just half a game back in the AL East race but holds an 8.5-game Wild Card lead—what's notable here is that both players are riding hot streaks that have put them in the AL MVP discussion. With five homers in his last five games, Granderson pulled into a tie with Jose Bautista for the major league lead at 33 (Bautista homered on Sunday to break the tie); helped along by a .291/.382/.609 line, his 1.8 WARP since the break is tied for the MLB high.

Meanwhile, the speedy Ellsbury has added a jolt of power to his game as well. He has slugged .700 in August and is hitting .315/.351/.573 with nine homers since the break; his 20 homers overall not only represent a career high but equal the total he had hit in 1,510 PA from 2007-2010 (shades of Asdrubal Cabrera). Ellsbury ranks second only to Bautista in WARP among AL hitters, thanks in large part to a 16-run edge on Granderson based upon defense; FRAA likes his work (+5.9) but dislikes that of his pinstriped counterpart (-10), and other systems agree; the latter's shallow positioning and adjacency to speedy Brett Gardner may be cutting into his chances afield.

Also worthy of mention: Shane Victorino, whose .368 TAv and 1.6 WARP since the break have him second in the league in WARP as the Phillies coast to the NL East flag.

Right Field: Justin Upton, Diamondbacks (.372TAv, 1.5 WARP); Nick Swisher, Yankees (.314TAv, 1.7 WARP)
Not that what came before this season—particularly in 2009—wasn't a pretty good start for a player barely old enough to drink, but 2005’s number one pick overall is living up to the Ken Griffey Jr. comparisons, leading the charging Diamondbacks into first place. Including Sunday's outburst (not reflected in the numbers above), he's hitting .345/.391/.743 since the break and now ranks among the NL's top five in WARP.

After suffering through a frigid first two months (.213/.335/.314 with three homers), Swisher caught fire (.324/.421/.575 with 11 homers) in June and July. While he's cooled off in August, he's tied for fourth in the majors in value since the All-Star break—a good time to pitch in, given Alex Rodriguez's absence and Mark Teixeira's uneven performance.

Designated Hitter: Michael Young, Rangers (.339 TAv, 1.2 WARP); David Ortiz, Red Sox (.321TAv, 1.1 WARP)
Young's hitting a sizzling .371/.407/.534 since the break while actually making more starts at the hot corner in place of the injured Adrian Beltre than at DH, but he deserves recognition for helping the Rangers remain ahead of the Angels just the same. As for Ortiz, since we last spoke of him, he bitched about being deprived of an RBI and—through an emissary—moaned about his unresolved 2012 contract status. A real team player, that guy.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  The Streak,  The Who,  Game 1,  Four Homers,  WARP,  All-star Break

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