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April 11, 2008

Prospectus Matchups

The Second Annual Knee-Jerk All Stars

by Jim Baker

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Are you the sort that asks a woman to marry him on the first date? Do you buy the first car you look at on the sales lot? Have you ever stood up in a movie theater after the opening credits of a movie and yelled, "We are witnessing the greatest film ever made!...?" If so, then the Knee-Jerk All Stars are for you.

These are the players off to the best starts, and, therefore, the players who will have the best seasons in spite of all previous career indications to the contrary. We know this because their numbers as of this very moment tell us as much. So knee-jerky are we being this year that we've moved the selection of the team up a week from 2007, making for even smaller sample sizes. At this rate, by 2011 we'll be picking the Knee-Jerk All Stars at the seventh-inning stretch on Opening Day!

Catcher

AL: A.J. Pierzynski (White Sox). Your Knee-Jerk MVP. Don't even think about it. Highest batting average, slugging average and OPS in baseball. Give him the award.

NL: Jason Kendall (Brewers). Suddenly, it's 1999 again! The Brewers have enough firepower in their lineup that anything Kendall does above league average for however long it lasts has got to be considered gravy.

First Base

AL: Carlos Guillen (Tigers). The quality portion of the Tigers lineup to this point. Among team regulars, only he, Clete Thomas and Brandon Inge have positive MLVr figures throughout the recent unpleasantness. What are the chances that the converted shortstop will still be the top first baseman at the end of the season? Consider that among the 14 men who have gotten the most playing time at the position in the American League, only four have lower career EqAs than Guillen: Ben Broussard, Casey Kotchman, Lyle Overbay and Ross Gload. One must surmise that at least one of the other nine is going to brush aside Guillen before it's all over.

NL: Albert Pujols (Cardinals). You know, it's no fun when the best guys at a given position get off to a hot start. It destroys the whole subversive snark that fuels the very concept of the Knee-Jerk All Stars; that is, the desire to question the morals/intelligence/breeding of those who lavish too much praise on players who are in over their heads in the early going.

Second Base

AL: Howie Kendrick (Angels). The majority of Kendrick's early value has come from hitting a high percentage of singles as opposed to other positive outcomes. Is this sustainable? Certainly not at this rate of success, but there's no surprise here. This is essentially what Kendrick has been doing since coming to the majors. He was never one to walk much in the minors, although he did show more pop there. More of that will return as he heads into his prime. Last year, he ran a line of .322/.347/.450 in 353 plate appearances. If you take three of his singles away, you have something very close to that: .321/.345/.464. That's pretty much what it comes down to for many players this time of year.

NL: Chase Utley (Phillies). Come on! Adam KennedyRay DurhamRonnie Belliard--I'm talking to you. This is your time to shine. If you go 13-for-24 in July, the most you can hope for is a line in a notes column. If you do it now, writers will talk about your resurgence or how all your hard work has paid off. Instead, nobody has risen to the occasion and Utley has a higher VORP than the next three National League second basemen combined.

Third Base

AL: Joe Crede (White Sox). Crede's 2007 was such a disaster that we may have forgotten that he was pretty decent the year before. He appears to be picking up where he left off two years ago.

NL: Mark Reynolds (Diamondbacks). You've got to have the major league leader in home runs and RBI on KJAS team, right?

Shortstop

AL: Jhonny Peralta (Indians). The only returning 2007 Knee-Jerk All Star, Peralta leads a very thin American League field at shortstop at this juncture. Déjà vu! Here's what I wrote under Peralta's comment last year: "Not a lot happening among American League shortstops so far."

NL: Hanley Ramirez (Marlins). It smells like April: four of the six teams I picked for last place are leading their divisions. Ramirez, picking right up where he left off last year, is the leading reason the Marlins have the standings turned upside down.

Left field

AL: Luke Scott (Orioles). As of this moment, Scott has a career .524 slugging average. Do you know how many players can say that? OK, it's over 20 active players, but before the offensive surge of the '90s it was only about 25 men. Yes, his career spans the length of a little more than one full season and yes, he's 30 years old now, but I'm trying to think happy thoughts here, so celebrate the moment.

NL: Pat Burrell (Phillies). Simply one of the most consistent players in baseball. All deviations to the north of that norm--like here in the season's first fortnight--are appreciated and understood to be what they are: the highs that will help compensate for the lows on the way to another .255/.395/.502 season.

Center field

AL: Torii Hunter (Angels). The American League home run leader.

NL: Nate McLouth (Pirates). Here's one we can question in terms of long-range sustainability. Something for Pirates fans to hope for: he did have a .292 EqA, and it's not unreasonable that he'll better than that in his age 26 season. Will he continue to hold the league lead in total bases, as he has now (he's tied for the league lead in doubles)? No, but that's not the point of the exercise with McLouth. Speaking of doubles leaders, Travis Buck--the same guy who got off to a 0-for-22 start--is now leading the American League with six. He's had one, two and three in each of his last three games, meaning he should get four tonight.

Right field

AL: Jermaine Dye (White Sox). Dye is operating at 117 points above his career EqA and 71 points above his career best season. That best was only two years ago, though, so if he can come within 5 percent of that figure, this will be a hell of a campaign for Mr. Dye.

NL: Justin Upton (Diamondbacks). Age-wise, Upton beat Willie Mays to the majors by 42 days. He's also not going to lose most of his age 21 and all of his age 22 seasons to military service (unless things go drastically wrong in the Middle East) the way Mays did. In other words, we might be witnessing the dawn of an era. I also think that he and his brother B.J. have a legitimate shot at being the best brother combo of all time. I'm not talking about a Hank and Tommy Aaron situation where one did all the contributing, but more like an upscale version of Joe and Dom DiMaggio, where one brother is great and the other is, at least, very good. And yes, I am including the Waner Brothers in this consideration.

Designated Hitter

AL: Cliff Floyd/Johnny Gomes (Rays). Is this legal? Can I do this? Can I name a platoon combo to an All-Star team as one unit? I just did. Ha! Gomes has started one game in right field, otherwise, these two have been splitting the Rays DH job to great effect. They're ranked one-two among DHs in MLVr. During the offseason, there was some talk about the Rays signing Barry Bonds to be their DH, but these two are making the decision to pass look great. (How's that for knee-jerk hyperbole?)

Starting Pitcher

AL: Zach Greinke (Royals). Joe Saunders would be an equally good choice, but Greinke is the better story. So far, he's done it without striking many men out, so it's going to be tough to maintain unless he starts whiffing them as he did in the past. Last year's AL Knee-Jerk starter, Felix Hernandez, wouldn't be a bad choice, either.

NL: Jake Peavy (Padres). I'm taking Peavy over Ben Sheets because Sheets had the good fortune to face the Giants already. Watching that game, there was something rather unsporting about it. San Francisco, overmatched in even the best of circumstances, looked like it did not belong in the same league as a healthy Sheets in his prime. Peavy has started two games and retired 47 of the 57 men he's faced. If you do that for your whole career, they'll put you in the Cooperstown shrine. Holding onto a .125 BABIP for a whole season would be a neat trick, though.

Relief Pitcher

AL: Santiago Casilla (A's). Casilla has the second-best WXRL in the American League at the moment and has retired 18 of the 23 men he's faced, striking out nine of them. He's also got the highest ARP in baseball. Joba Chamberlain has pitched in higher leverage situations with about equal results, except that he hasn't struck out as many batters. It's a close call, but one of the tenets of the KJ All Stars is that it's best to give the spotlight to someone who wouldn't get it otherwise. Chamberlain is going to get the glare quite a bit, while this may be the only time you see Casilla's name outside of a box score.

NL: Jason Isringhausen (Cardinals). He hasn't been called upon to face the leverage (does one face leverage?) that Kevin Gregg or Tyler Yates have, but he's got the fourth-best WXRL in the league and hasn't allowed a run yet and, for those keen on keeping track of such things, five saves in six appearances.

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