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May 8, 2013

The Lineup Card

10 Things We've Learned So Far

by Baseball Prospectus

​1. B.J. Upton Might Not Be Fixable
I think we're running out of excuses. He changed scenery. He's had a team that has committed to him, and 15 million reasons a year to be happy, plus he got to pick where he plays. The team that he signed for then traded for his brother (who's doing quite well). B.J. Upton is still hitting (as of the end of Sunday night) a nifty .148/.231/.269. He's probably not quite that bad, but despite all the nice warm fuzzy stories about him being reunited with Justin and hitting back-to-back home runs a couple of times, B.J. Upton has been... awful so far this year. And the stat line looks a lot more like the B.J. Upton of the past few years than the breakout candidate that everyone swore was still in there somewhere. And this time, we can't blame it on his circumstances. —Russell A. Carleton

2. Ryan Raburn Has Plenty of Streaky Hitting Spells Left
Hitting goes through peaks and valleys, and Ryan Raburn's hitting has usually gone from Mt. Everest to the Mariana Trench. Generally, he hits the tar off the ball in the second half of the season (career 834 OPS) vs. the first half (668 career OPS) and nobody knows why—especially since he usually posts terrific spring training numbers (929 OPS in 344 PA). He'll have a month where he can't hit a darn thing to another month where he's Mike freakin' Trout. But last year it was just bad month after bad month: so horrific that he was demoted to Triple-A and finished with a 480 major-league OPS.

This offseason I knew he would find another team, even if many Tigers fans (my wife included) vehemently believed he was a washed-up, good-for-nothin' ballplayer who should stick to beer leagues. The Indians took a flier on him and, sure enough, not only did he make the team out of spring training, but he had an April to remember and the week of his life, which earned him an AL Player of the Week nod. Last month, he crushed the ball for a .320/.370/.990 line, which featured back-to-back two-home run games, because who needs walks when you got dingers?

All we are waiting for is the other Raburn to show up. Here are his career OPS totals in the last five Mays: .432, .270, .269, .914, .416. I did not make up these numbers. A week into the month, he’s still raking at his April rate, so maybe 2013 is a glorious overcorrection of a dreadful 2012. So there’s more to learn, but this much we know a month into the season: My wife was wrong about something. —Matt Sussman

3. You Can Never Have Enough Pitching
Back in January, Los Angeles Times Dodgers beat writer Steve Dilbeck penned an article asking, "Is it possible Dodgers' eight starting pitchers is a good idea?" In it, he quoted manager Don Mattingly as saying, "You never know what happens," preaching risk aversion for a club that was widely expected to return to contention. As it turned out, carrying eight starting pitchers—seven, after Aaron Harang was traded to the Rockies—wasn't just a good idea. It wasn't enough.

The Dodgers needed nine starters to get through the first month of the season, as injuries befell Zack Greinke, Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano, and Stephen Fife, who all joined the then-still-recovering and now-re-injured Ted Lilly on the disabled list. Mattingly's patchwork rotation, whose ninth member was and still is rookie right-hander Matt Magill, fared reasonably well through Monday's loss to the Diamondbacks, amassing a roughly league-average 4.02 ERA. Magill struggled in his second assignment, lasting only 1 1/3 innings in a no-decision against the Giants, but organizations with less pitching depth than the Dodgers brought up from Arizona would have had to reach much further into the well, likely yielding poorer results.

The Dodgers entered Tuesday at 13-18 and last in the National League West, but their scuffling offense has been a more pertinent culprit than the fragile rotation. Had general manager Ned Colletti opted to let other teams dig into his stable, sending Capuano or another starter out the door with Harang, things could look even bleaker than they currently do. The lesson here is that the question, "How many starters will we need during the course of a 162-game campaign?" cannot be answered ex-ante. You don't know until you know. —Daniel Rathman

4. Mariano Rivera Could Have a Historically Good Season
A number of players who were the oldest in the major leagues at a given time have had productive seasons. Nolan Ryan led the AL in WHIP and K/9 in 1990, when he was 44. Hoyt Wilhelm had a number of extraordinary seasons in the late 1960s and early 1970s before he retired at age 49. Dominican relief pitcher Diomedes Olivo was a valuable member of the 1962 Pirates, despite being 42. Longtime reliever Joe Heving had a 1.96 ERA in over 100 relief innings in 1944, when he was 43 and too old to serve in World War II. And Hall of Famer Cap Anson was hitting over .300 into his early 40s back in the 1890s.

Rivera could lay a serious claim to the best season by a person who was the oldest to appear in a major-league game that year. He’s a perfect 11-for-11 in save chances this year, and in the 12⅓ innings he’s pitched as of this writing, his peripheral stats are all in line with his career norms. His cut fastball is still averaging about 91 mph, showing only modest decline since the 2009 season. In other words, he’s set up to have another Rivera-esque season of 40-plus saves and a sub-2.00 ERA. Even with the arrival of young fireballers like Chapman and Kimbrel, he’s still one of the best at his position—and if Jamie Moyer remains a free agent this year, he could do it as the oldest player in the majors. —Dan Rozenson

5. The Orioles Can Pick It
One popular narrative during the O's improbable run to the postseason last year revolved around their defense; namely, that it had improved once Manny Machado took over for Mark Reynolds at the hot corner. If the Orioles continue to win games this season, expect to hear more about their glove work. Baltimore led the majors in defensive efficiency during April. The O's drop to second (behind the Indians) when the numbers are park-adjusted, but for all the talk about Oriole Magic, there is at least one tangible reason behind their play. —R.J. Anderson

6. David Ortiz Can Still Hit
You may not recall last July 15. It was a relatively nondescript day at the time, but in retrospect, it has some significance. It was the last day David Ortiz had a healthy Achilles. The next day, he injured the tendon in his right leg, and between then and now, he hasn’t been healthy. Even now, 15 games into his season he admits he’s not quite healthy. That he has been playing through what is now discomfort is admirable. That he has been absolutely crushing the ball while playing through the discomfort is amazing. Through 63 plate appearances this season, Ortiz is hitting .414/.444/.776 with nine extra-base hits.

Of course, that’s a small sample of plate appearances in which any batter could run into a few. Witness Mike Carp, the only Red Sox hitter with a higher OPS than Ortiz. The thing is, Ortiz isn’t getting bloop hits. He’s driving the ball. Our data says Ortiz has two popups. What’s more, despite the shift he constantly faces, he’s driving the ball to all fields. Here’s his spray chart (from TexasLeaguers.com).

By my count, he has an equal number of hits to right field as to left field. He’s 37 years old, and running is, shall we say, not his strength, so he’s probably not going to hit .400 this season (though he does have a 27-game hitting streak, so I suppose anything is possible). The incredible thing is that Ortiz, in the face of age and injury, has, if anything, improved as a hitter. He still gets on base, he still hits for tons of power, he is doing so at an age most hitters’ careers are spoken of in the past tense, and he is doing it with an injury that would probably slow the rest.

We’ve been waiting for David Ortiz’s career to peter out for years now. If I had a kick in my Achilles for every article I’ve read that mentions David Ortiz’s old player skills, I’d be in physical therapy for decades. Yet, if this year has shown us anything, it’s that David Ortiz has more hitting left in him. Whether his body will let him do that hitting is another matter, but as long as the man can stand at the plate, he’s about as big a threat as there is in baseball. Even now, even with his injury, even at his age. I’m not sure there’s a more impressive story in baseball than that. —Matthew Kory

7. Interleague Play is Even Weirder
Interleague play was always weird, but at least you saw it coming. For three weeks, the alignment of scores in the newspaper, on the web, and the interleague scoreboard would be all screwed up, but you knew it would be over soon and we'd be back to baseball.

From a team's standpoint, we knew this constant interleague could make it hard to work in an isolated DH series or a pitchers-hit series amid a normal run of schedule. We all saw that coming, but the biggest surprise of this constant interleague play has been for the observer just looking at the scoreboard on any given night. It's that double-take at a scoreboard to see a really unfamiliar matchup—Minnesota vs. Washington. Is that a college game? A hockey game? Actually, it couldn't have been hockey—their two conferences didn't play each other this year. And as baseball's leagues act a little more like conferences every year, the latest step is still not sitting right.

By the way, the NL went 4-0 Tuesday night and now leads 19-17. —Zachary Levine

8. Pablo Sandoval’s Never-Ending Quest to Swing at Everything
All baseball players are created differently. Some have a more passive approach at the plate and some are more aggressive. Some players love to swing, some swing like their lives depend on it, and then there’s Pablo Sandoval. While it’s not surprising that Sandoval leads the major leagues in swing percentage, it is surprising that he’s found a new level of aggressiveness—and it has coincided with what would be career lows in strikeout rate and swinging-strike rate.

In fact, to put Sandoval’s current 60.9 percent swing rate (league average is 45.5 percent) into further perspective, there have only been 10 seasons of at least a 60 percent swing rate in the last 10 years. Not shockingly, five of those seasons have come courtesy of the player who good hitters often get compared to when they swing at everything, Vladimir Guerrero. Also not surprising is that two of those seasons have come courtesy of the player who bad hitters often get compared to when they swing at everything, Jeff Franceour. And the three hitters who have each done it once? Delmon Young, A.J. Pierzynski, and Ivan Rodriguez.

While we don’t know if this is a deliberate change in approach for Sandoval, there appears to be some causality between his offensive performance and his swing rate. He has exactly two seasons on the books of a swing rate below 58 percent (2010 and 2012) and in those two years, he had a True Average (TAv) of .260 and .294, respectively. Those are the only two years of his career with a TAv under .300. When he’s been able to keep his swing rate above 58 percent, those True Averages have been .325 and .324 (along with a .301 mark in only 145 at bats in 2008). It’s too early to tell if this trend will hold up over the full season, but he is off to a relatively hot start, hitting .323/.358/.467 through 134 plate appearances. So keep swinging, Panda. —Bret Sayre

9. The Angels Have Poor Roster Construction
I’m not much of a gambling man anymore, but I still follow of the odds. Thus, I was left scratching my head when many of the Las Vegas and online sports books were making the Angels the favorites to win the World Series at the beginning of spring training. Yes, the Angels figured to have a potentially awesome lineup after signing Josh Hamilton as a free agent to join Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Mark Trumbo. However, the Angels’ biggest need for 2013 was clearly pitching, and they did not address that in the offseason. Even when Kyle Lohse remained in free agency until the next-to-last week of spring training, the Angels stood pat.

The starting pitching was thin behind Jered Weaver when the season started. It has all but collapsed under the weight of him being on the disabled list, as C.J. Wilson hasn’t been able to step up into the No. 1 role, Jason Vargas has been so-so, Joe Blanton has been awful, and the Angels are considering having a speed pitch contest at Disneyland to determine the fifth starter. The bullpen? Yikes. That the Angels thought Ryan Madson was the answer to their closer problem was downright silly. The Halos are 11-21 after losing to the Astros last night. The one thing I’ve learned to this point in the season is that the Angels’ chance of finishing under .500 are a heckuva lot better than winning the World Series. —John Perrotto

10. The Yankees are the Masters of Dumpster Diving
The Yankees are usually known for having a team of All-Star-caliber players. In 2013, they have an All-Star team of injured players. With Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, and Derek Jeter shelved from the get-go, general manager Brian Cashman (who sustained a nasty spring injury of his own) had to scramble to find warm, healthy bodies to take the field. With his purse strings wound tight around the Steinbrenners' fingers in hopes of staying under a $189 million budget in 2014, Cashman had no choice but to put on the hazmat suit and go dumpster diving.

Cashman was only slightly less grabby than his Toronto rival, Alex Anthopoulos, in the bin, but unlike his counterpart, Cashman's scouring has turned up spades. He signed Travis Hafner before spring training to an incentive-laden deal, and Pronk has stayed healthy and delivered a .291/.417/.582 line with six home runs, thanks to a left-handed swing tailored for Yankee Stadium. Lyle Overbay, snagged from a waiver claim just before camp broke, isn't getting on base much, but he has popped five homers and played strong defense at first, earning more playing time now that Kevin Youkilis is also shelved. And perhaps the most widely-panned and joked-about deal of the spring, the one that fit Vernon Wells for pinstripes, isn't looking so hilariously lopsided anymore, as the left fielder is hitting .270/.328/.468 with six round-trippers. 

Not all of Cashman's efforts have struck diamonds—Brennan Boesch (.189/.231/.432 with two homers) and Ben Francisco (.133/.257/.233 with one homer), for instance, aren't setting the Bronx ablaze—but neither player costs a significant amount, and the latter will likely be on the way out when Granderson returns. However, for all of the talk about the Yankees' financial resources, Brian Cashman absolutely deserves a tip of the cap for finding a way to turn straw into gold long enough to allow his veteran players to heal. —Stephani Bee

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