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May 16, 2012

The Lineup Card

11 Surprising Early-Season Stats

by Baseball Prospectus

1. Bryan LaHair Slugs Nearly .800
It's in my DNA to root for underdogs. I went to a small high school and a small college. I worked at a small newspaper for 26 years and competed against metropolitan newspapers with much greater recourses. That is why I look at the 1.158 OPS of Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair, who is showing life begins at 29 with 10 home runs this season. The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder had spent nine seasons in the minor leagues while getting the opportunity to log just 219 major-league plate appearances with the Mariners in 2008 and the Cubs last September. LaHair had received the tag of being a "Quad-A player" because of all the time he spent in the minor leagues. Well, guess what? He certainly looks more than a "Quad-A player" now with his .445 on-base percentage and .713 slugging percentage. John Lennon said give peace a chance. I say give the little guy—figuratively, not literally—a chance and maybe you'll find a gem. —John Perrotto

2. Albert Pujols' Line
There's no early season stat that's more surprising than just about any key stat one can pull out of Albert Pujols' line. His .212 batting average is 124 points below his career mark; he was below the Mendoza Line until Tuesday, when he went 3-for-4 with a pair of infield singles. Meanwhile, his .248 on-base percentage is 169 points below his career mark, and his .288 slugging percentage is 321 points below his career mark; in other words, it's less than half of what it normally is. His True Average, which has never been below .315 over the course of a full season, stood at .192 going into Tuesday, 148 points off his career mark. The man who's been more valuable than any other player from 2001-2011 (90.6 WARP) has been one of the game's least valuable players (-0.9 WARP).

But wait, there's more! Pujols has just one homer to date, about eight fewer than we would expect given his pre-2012 career rates. His walk rate, which had never dipped below 10 percent prior to last year, is at 4.6 percent, less than half of last year's 9.4 percent. His strikeout rate, which hadn't been above 11 percent since his 2001 rookie season, is at 12.1 percent. It's as though he's been replaced by a random replacement-level first baseman, one who's still adept at cashing checks for whatever fraction of $240 million he's made so far.

What's going on with Pujols is something of a mystery, but not entirely one. For one thing, he's swinging at far more pitches outside the strike zone—38.7 percent compared to a career mark of 21.8 percent—but his rate has been climbing steadily since 2009, from 22.9 percent to 27.5 percent in 2010 to 31.8 percent last year. For another, a hitting instructor named Chris O'Leary has made a convincing visual case that the unsteadiness of Pujols' back foot has been sapping his power by depriving him of energy that should be applied toward hip rotation. We do know this: He's not only making less contact, he's making less quality contact based upon his .236 BABIP and his awful power numbers, and right now, he looks like a shell of the future Hall of Famer the Angels thought they were getting. —Jay Jaffe

3. Fernando Rodney: Bullpen Stopper
Fernando Rodney's signing by the Rays was one that even the most ardent Rays fans had trouble wrapping their heads around. Rodney's FIP had been below 4.00 just once in the previous six seasons due mainly to severe struggles with control. Rodney's mid- to upper-90s fastball is a good pitch, and his changeup can be a great pitch, but he was rarely able to consistently get ahead of batters. He quickly fell out of favor with Mike Scioscia last season; the skipper handed the ball to rookie Jordan Walden and never looked back.

Jim Hickey gave an interview to the Baseball Today podcast at ESPN last week and specifically credited Director of Operations Erik Neander as one of the people responsible for identifying Rodney's hidden talents. At BP's ballpark event at Tropicana Field last week, I asked Neander about what attracted him to Rodney. His answer: "He was cheap." After the laughter subsided, he talked about how the talents for Rodney were there, and Hickey's work with Rodney—including the mound shift that R.J. Anderson mentioned in a piece a few weeks ago—helped him better harness his stuff.

The Baseball Prospectus annual mentioned that the Rays have had a different reliever lead the team in saves seven straight seasons. That illustrious list includes Danys Baez, Tyler Walker, Al Reyes, Troy Percival, J.P. Howell, Rafael Soriano, and Kyle Farnsworth. Farnsworth's success in 2011 made it seem as if that streak would come to an end, but Farnsworth has yet to throw a pitch in 2012, while Rodney has yet to blow a save. Just as improbable is the fact that Rodney has but two unintentional walks on the season in 16 2/3 innings of work considering he walked 28 batters in 32 innings in 2011.

The guy who once threw a baseball into Tropicana Field's press box after a game in frustration and frustrated fans and managers in previous stops is now the darling of Rays fans and their stat sheet. Go figure. —Jason Collette

4. The Orioles' Bullpen ERA
One way for a team to beat its pythagorean record is to get lucky, and one way is to have a good bullpen. Except it's not really having a good bullpen; it's having a bullpen that does well. There's a difference. The Orioles don't really have a good bullpen. They have Jim Johnson, Luis Ayala, Darren O'Day, Matt Lindstrom, and Pedro Strop. I like Strop, and there are days I like O'Day. The rest, eh. But the nature of relief work is that relievers don't have to be good to pitch well, and the Orioles' relievers have pitched extremely well: a 0.57 ERA for Johnson, and (in order) 1.86, 1.56, 1.29, and 1.35 for the rest. Those are remarkable ERAs by unremarkable pitchers with unremarkable stuff and unremarkable peripherals. So it turns out it's not "Luck or bullpen" so much as "Luck or luck." OK! I'll bet not one of those pitchers finishes below 2.00. But, for now, they all are, and for now, the Orioles get to do that thing where somebody says something bad about them and they just point up and say "Scoreboard!" —Sam Miller

5. Kelly Shoppach Steals a Base
The Summer Games are approaching, and the eyes of the track and field world will be on Jamaican sensation Usain Bolt, whose focus on gold is so absolute he dumped his girlfriend to train. But while Bolt has been the headliner, there has been nary a word about his training partner, a guy whose speed is so astounding that he has only attempted to steal a base once in his six-year major-league career. Red Sox catcher Kelly Shoppach finally decided to show off his wheels against the Tampa Bay Rays this year, and he successfully swiped a bag for the first time since his first year in the minor leagues... in 2002. 

With Ryan Sweeney at the plate and runners at third and first, Shoppach made the delayed decision to break for second base. But for the guy who runs with the speed of a Molina brother stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits and the grace of an acromantula on roller skates, this was an easy take. On his way down, Shoppach opted to show off a dance move he'd been developing—"The Shoppach Shuffle"? "The Shoppach Slide"?—but the name doesn't matter now.

So how do you do this fancy footwork? First, you do a sweet three-foot slide about 15 feet in front of the second-base bag so that your uniform looks nice and dirty and people will know you are gritty, gutty, and a team player. Then you pop back up on your tootsies to do a tricky little one-two step that resembles Michael Jackson getting his toes tied while trying to moonwalk. Then comes the grand finale, an epic belly flop and face plant—but you have to make sure your helmet flies off. You're almost done! Turn around, look at the umpire, and gently touch second base with both hands, just to prove what a good base-nabber you are.

Wait, where was I? Oh. Yes. Kelly Shoppach finally chose to show everyone why he needed a six-year buildup for his first career stolen base, and he made sure to provide one of the best GIFs ever. —Stephani Bee

6. Jason Grilli's Strikeouts
Every time I check in on Jason Grilli this year, I'm blown away. Through 2009, Grilli was an off-brand middle reliever with a 4.74 career ERA and 262 strikeouts in 357 innings. You could find Jason Grillis by going to your local middle reliever tree and shaking it really hard. At least one or two Grillis would fall out. Grilli signed a minor-league deal with the Indians for 2010 but hurt his knee in training camp and sat out the entire season, and he was left out of Baseball Prospectus 2011 entirely. After being released by the Phillies, Grilli latched on with the Pirates and finished with 28 strong appearances in Pittsburgh.

But this year has been ridiculous. In 14 innings, Jason Grilli has struck out 25 of the 60 batters he's faced. At 35 years old, he's throwing faster than he has in five years, his slider has more break, and he seems to have completely scrapped his changeup. Grilli took a year off and molded himself into a weapon at the back end of the Pirates' bullpen, and no one seems to have noticed. But he's either going to be a pretty interesting trade target come July if the Pirates fall out of the NL Central or the backbone of the ridiculously strong bullpen of a contender. Either way, who woulda thunk it? —Michael Bates

7. Todd Helton Steals a Base, Too
From August 17, 2006, to April 21, 2012, Todd Helton played in 679 games and made 2,891 plate appearances. His on-base percentage over that span was exactly .400. Given that he got on base so often, you’d think he would’ve stumbled into a stolen base at some point, just like every other baseclogger in baseball did. He didn’t. From 1997-2006, Helton averaged five steals per 162 games. From 2007-2011, he abstained from stealing entirely.

Helton’s streak of almost six full seasons without a single steal was easily the longest of any player’s over the same period. The player with the second-longest streak, Justin Morneau, played in almost 150 fewer games. To his credit, Helton didn’t stop stealing without a fight. Every two years, in odd-numbered seasons, he saved up enough energy for a steal attempt. He was thrown out all three times he tried it.

The streak came to a merciful end last month, on an 87-mph two-seamer from Mike McLendon with two outs and a 3-1 count in the sixth inning of the Rockies’ 9-4 loss to the Brewers. It was a double steal, and Helton was the trailing runner, just as he had been for the last steal several years earlier. (His last straight steal came on July 30, 2006.) Naturally, the 38-year-old cruised into second standing up, without a throw, looking for all the world like stealing a base was something he’d done since he turned 33.

SB: T Helton (1, 2nd base off M McClendon/J Lucroy)” is one of the most surprising sights I’ll see in a box score this season. —Ben Lindbergh

8. Heath Bell and Dale Thayer's Saves Totals
On December 5, 2011, the Miami Marlins signed former Padres closer Heath Bell to a three-year, $27 million deal with a vesting option for 2015. Bell, who had saved 132 games over the previous three seasons, saved three for the Marlins (in seven chances) before losing his job to Edward Mujica. Bell's ERA through Sunday was a mind-boggling 10.03 in 11 2/3 innings, and opponents were hitting .360/.484/.540 against the three-time All-Star.

On December 7, the Padres acquired veteran Huston Street from Colorado to work the ninth inning in San Diego. He notched four saves in as many tries before landing on the DL, opening the way for a man signed on December 6. That man was Dale Thayer, originally signed by San Diego as an amateur back in 2002. Entering the season, Thayer owned 174 career saves, with all but one (in his big-league debut with Tampa Bay on May 22, 2009) coming in the minors. With Street on the shelf, Thayer assumed the role of closer in San Diego. For a fraction of the cost of Bell, Thayer has saved as many games, without blowing a single opportunity. —Geoff Young

9. The Cardinals' Offensive Support
Here's how many runs the Cardinals had scored per game before Tuesday's games: 5.46. Here's how many runs the next-best NL Central team had scored in that same time: 4.11 (the last-place Astros, actually). Here's how many plate appearances Lance Berkman has for the Cardinals: 39. Here's how many plate appearances for Allen Craig: 50. Here's how many for Albert Pujols: 0. And yet, let's just cycle back around to that first sentence: 5.46 runs per game, which is more than the Yankees, who get to play with the designated hitter; more than the Tigers, who have two DHs playing the field; more than the A's, who have the Cuban Willie Mays; more than the Rockies, who sell bull testicles in their ballpark. It's more than everybody in major-league baseball except the Red Sox.

The best part about how the Cardinals are scoring all these runs is that while, yes, Rafael Furcal has a .331 TAv and Carlos Beltran is slugging .648, it's more about everybody hitting. The worst batsman with more than 25 PAs is Tyler Greene, and even his .231 TAv, while bad, isn't call-me-Sally bad. It's just bad. Same for Daniel Descalso's .244 in 75 PA. It's shrug-your-shoulders bad. And same for... hey, nobody, actually. No, really. After Descalso and Greene, Shane Robinson has the next-lowest TAv, at .279. Two seventy nine! Go look up where that would rank on the Pirates. It's really high. On this team, Robinson is 11th. I'm pretty confident that Shane Robinson will not finish 2012 at .279 (or .269, for that matter, and even .259 would be cause for some mild celebrations, perhaps with a light beer and some limes), but for now, the St. Louises are a real heavens-to-Betsy head-to-toe team, and that's a lot of fun. —Jason Wojciechowski

10. A.J. Ellis' Strong Start
Entering this season, A.J. Ellis had two career home runs. He was a nine-year minor leaguer who had enjoyed only brief cups of coffee in the majors, never appearing in more than 44 big-league games or receiving more than 128 plate appearances in a single season. An 18th-round pick in 2003, Ellis turned 31 shortly after Opening Day and was handed the Dodgers' catcher job mainly because of general manager Ned Colletti's past blunders.

Fast forward a month and a half, or 28 games, and the WARP leaderboard suggests the tables have turned. Colletti now looks like a genius for having Russell Martin keep Ellis' seat warm before letting him slip to the Yankees and for clearing Carlos Santana out of the way ahead of time. Ellis—a solid defender who was batting .314/.454/.500 coming into Tuesday's game—has been worth 1.5 WARP to date, better than all other major-league catchers; Santana is at 1.0 WARP and Martin is bringing up the rear at 0.4 WARP.

Ellis has always possessed outstanding plate discipline, logging a .406 on-base percentage over the course of his minor-league career and drawing 28 walks in 244 plate appearances in the majors. Now, though, he is showing previously unseen power, having already mashed three home runs, five doubles, and a triple. Add 15 unintentional walks in 110 trips to that, and you quietly have one of the most valuable offensive catchers in the league.

Is it sustainable? Only time well tell. For now, though, Ellis—alongside Matt Kemp—is the toast of Los Angeles and a key contributor to the MLB-best 24-12 Dodgers. —Daniel Rathman

11. MLB-Wide Scoring Levels and Strikeouts
Scoring may be down again this season, though it's only a tick below last year, and the warm weather months are still to come, so we don't know that for sure. Still, it appears that we are now in a third straight season of pre-1993 scoring levels. Just as we don't know for sure what cocktail of factors during the winter of 1992-93 led to the 17-year scoring explosion that I, personally, thought was a bit excessive, we don't know with any degree of certainty why scoring has once again dropped. What's most interesting to me about the scoring decline is that strikeout levels continue their inexorable ascension. This year they are already at a level that it's safe to say will be an all-time high. That will mark the fifth straight season that a record will be set for strikeouts per game. There have been lots of theories bandied about for all this, but I'm going to offer this transcription from when I asked Don Mattingly about this last season. I've left the Donnie-speak intact:

Me: Scoring is down to its lowest point in 20 years. What do you see as the main reasons for this?
Donnie Baseball: Well, the pitching is pretty good. Pitching has been good. To be honest with you, I think it's just a lot of guys come up, a lot of it is technique. Hitting technique, for me. They changed the standards (for the bats). I only know that because I have a bat company. This year, they're taking all the zing out of the bats because those kids are getting hits, line drives and all that, because the ball's coming off too fast. They're basically taking bats back to where it's like, you can't do that. They've been hitting with those for a long time. You see a lot of guys come up that are kind of spinners to me. I call them spinners; they kind of sit and spin, strikeouts way up. It changes the way you hit. I think it's been going on for awhile now. It's now kind of the end of the era. I quit in '95 when it seemed like the era was coming in. It's kind of gone now, but now kids have learned how to hit by watching their big-league heroes. Some of those heroes were hitting with dead power swings, and it's going away.

Me: So, batters haven't caught up with the new realities of the game?
Donnie Baseball: To me, technique has everything to do with it. Mark Grace was in the other day talking, and the most he ever struck out was less than 50. I know the most times I ever struck out in a season was less than 50. I didn't really look at that as being unusual. I was talking to him, even a guy like (Derek Jeter), I was shocked that he strikes out over 100 times a year. That's a big (thing). Now if a guy strikes out 120 times, you don't really think anything about it. It's just kind of normal stuff. If you're not putting the ball in play, to me you have no chance. I had a guy named Craig Wilson, played for the Pirates. He had some pop, struck out a lot. I said, 'I got to get this guy to put the ball in play a little more.' He goes, 'I'd rather strike out than hit into a double play.' That kind of floored me. The thinking has changed to that. They'd rather have a guy hit them into the seats, but if he doesn't, you'd rather have him strike out than hit into a double play. To me, the old school, you put it in play you might get a hit. And you might get a ribbie by hitting a ground ball. Now, how many times do you see a guy left on third base because he can't put a ball in play? How many jams does a pitcher get out of because a guy either strikes out or hits a little pop somewhere?

Me: Can you believe how fast and far the numbers have fallen?
Donnie Baseball: We're not the only team. I looked and we were at .250. We were in the middle of the pack. We were playing the Giants and they were at like .230, and they're in first place. They're getting more key hits and obviously their pitching is good, but you see those averages and you (shrug). —Bradford Doolittle

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