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May 31, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL West
Streaking Snakes and Get-Well Cards
The more games they play, the more this year's Diamondbacks look like last year's Padres. The team that was almost universally picked to finish last in the NL West has taken over first place, moving a half game ahead of the World Champion Giants.
As of this writing, the Diamondbacks have won six straight and 11 of their last 12 games. The downside is that only two of those 12 games came against teams with winning records. Six came against the Twins and Astros, and four more came against the Rockies during their recent cold streak.
The point here isn't to denigrate Arizona's effort–you still have to beat the lousy teams–but rather to give their streak context. The Diamondbacks haven't been doing this against the Phillies and Cardinals, which is good to remember before getting too excited.
It is also good to remember that before the season, many experts considered the Diamondbacks to be one of the lousy teams. The fact that they are rolling over their competition–regardless of how strong said competition may be–has to be encouraging.
As the Padres and their fans will attest, finding oneself in the midst of a pennant chase–even if it's only two months into the season–can be intoxicating.
And sometimes it can be more than that. Sometimes a team that lost 90+ games the year before hangs around longer than expected and eventually sheds itself of the “fluke” tag. The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays are a recent example (this year's Indians are moving in that direction as well), but they are hardly the first; going back further, sometimes the 1987 Twins happen.
This isn't a likely outcome, but unlikely and impossible are two different things. If we knew the outcome beforehand, there wouldn't be any point to playing the games. We would just name the Mets champions in '87 on the basis of their great '86 season and save everyone the trouble.
But where is the fun in that?
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Speaking of last year's surprise team, the Padres appear to be on a road to nowhere. Management hasn't committed to looking toward 2012 yet, but it's becoming increasingly clear that this is the best course of action. From May 17 to May 28, the Padres went 3-8 and hit .186/.231/.273, scoring as many as three runs in a game exactly once and scoring just 15 runs total.
Granted, the Padres faced some good pitchers during that stretch (Michael Pineda, Felix Hernandez, Chris Carpenter), but they also faced some who are wading in mediocrity this year (Yovani Gallardo, John Lannan). No disrespect to Gallardo, who is a fine pitcher having a so-so season, but if the Washington Nationals touch him up for seven runs in a game and you make him look like Cy Young... well, maybe this is one of those “it's not you, it's me” situations.
Meanwhile, the calls for Anthony Rizzo continue even as Brad Hawpe transitions himself into one of the team's most productive hitters (a compliment and a putdown all at once). And although promoting Rizzo might infuse a little flavor into an otherwise unpalatable product, it also isn't necessarily a sound long-term strategy.
Put another way, when the likely outcome is 70-75 wins regardless, does it really matter whether Hawpe or Rizzo is out there? I liked what I saw of Rizzo in spring training, and he impressed me again this past weekend when I caught a couple of games in Tucson (more details at my blog).
That being said, Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium plays nothing like Petco Park. Tucson is 2,500 feet above sea level, is hot, and has almost no humidity. I don't mean to imply that Rizzo's power isn't legitimate; speaking as someone who was skeptical when he came over from the Red Sox, I've seen enough to believe that the talent exists.
But as we've noted before, it isn't in anyone's best interest to give Rizzo a 17-game audition and then decide he isn't ready a la Brandon Belt. And given that Petco Park destroys left-handed power hitters (Nick Hundley homers with greater frequency there than Adrian Gonzalez did), the right-handed-hitting Kyle Blanks is a better short-term option once the Padres decide they're ready to jettison the current plan and move in that direction.
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The Rockies, meanwhile, are in full self-destruct mode. We've discussed Troy Tulowitzki's struggles, and although Carlos Gonzalez has finally gotten his act together (.284/.378/.568 in May), he still isn't doing much damage away from Coors Field (.214/.274/.345). Gonzalez' performance isn't as problematic as, say, the continuing third base debacle or Dexter Fowler's unique combination of poor contact skills (26.1 K%) and poor base-stealing skills (2-for-8 from an alleged offensive catalyst?), but neither is it encouraging.
The Rockies are better than this; eventually, Tulowitzki and Ubaldo Jimenez will remember that they are awesome. It's too early to panic with a team this talented, but they cannot afford to wait around and hope for another 2007 miracle.
Blackmon hit three fly balls to left (although one turned into a home run; see below) and struck out swinging twice. Nelson went 3-for-5 with two doubles and hit the ball hard every time up; he also made a great diving stop on a grounder off the bat of Albuquerque center fielder Jamie Hoffmann.
Brothers ended up taking the loss, but he has a live arm. As I noted on Twitter, the stadium scoreboard had his fastball at 93-95 mph. He backed it up with a sharp breaking ball, even if it didn't always find the strike zone.
Caveat: I'm not a scout, nor do I play one on the Internet; these are just one man's observations based on one game. For a more complete picture of these and other prospects mentioned herein, I defer to my esteemed colleague.
* * *
I've been meaning to write about Kenley Jansen for a while, but every time I come around to the Dodgers' portion of our show, I get distracted by whatever silliness the McCourts happen to be engaging in at the moment. No more; today it's all about Jansen.
As I was preparing to file this article, Jansen landed on the disabled list with right shoulder bursitis. Those McCourts will do anything to keep attention on themselves. But all their scheming won't work; I'm going forward with my original plan, and there's nothing they can do about it.
The 23-year-old right-hander has had a strange season, to say the least. On the one hand, he has fanned 35.7 percent of batters faced; on the other, his ERA sits at 6.43. Although this shows just how unreliable ERA can be as an evaluative tool (Jansen's SIERA is 2.65), it also looks ugly (much like the entire Dodgers bullpen in 2011, which boasts an NL-worst bullpen ERA of 4.76).
Jansen finds himself in largely uncharted territory. He is a better pitcher than the results indicate, but if he somehow manages to maintain his current levels of production, he could obliterate the record for highest single-season ERA among pitchers with a K/9 of 14 or higher (minimum 50 IP). Granted, it is a very short list:
First off, how 'bout a nice round of applause for Billy Wagner? Not only does he account for three of the nine such seasons on record, he did it three years in a row.
As for Jansen, he is ridiculously far off the charts. Only one man in big-league history has broken double digits in K/9 while sporting an ERA north of 6.00. He is the life of parties he never attended. He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels. He is... Derrick Turnbow.
In 2006, while pitching for the Brewers, Turnbow posted a 6.87 ERA to go with an 11.0 K/9. Even then, he fanned “only” 23.6 percent of batters faced.
Could Jansen out-Turnbow Turnbow? I've heard rumors that Jansen's mother has a tattoo that reads “son,” so anything is possible. Either way, he is more interesting than the McCourts.
Somewhat relatedly (Goldstein ranked Jansen as the Dodgers #2 prospect before the season), I saw #3 prospect Dee Gordon and #4 Trayvon Robinson play at Albuquerque last week. Gordon looked good at shortstop but twice struck out chasing pitches way out of the zone.
Gordon was at his best when he bunted the ball. He grounded out to third on such an attempt in the first thanks only to a great play by Josh Fields, and when Gordon came to bat with two out in the 10th against hard-throwing Rex Brothers, he dropped down another beauty that resulted in a single. Gordon would come around to score the winning run two batters later.
Robinson started in left field. He fanned twice and singled in five at-bats, but those have been expunged from my memory. The only thing I remember about his night is that a fly ball off the bat of Charles Blackmon bounced out of his glove and over the fence for a home run to lead off the fifth.
* * *
Meanwhile, the big news out of San Francisco is an ankle injury sustained by catcher Buster Posey during a collision at the plate. This has been covered at Baseball Prospectus from several angles: the nature and severity of said injury, the impact Posey's absence could have on an already anemic Giants offense, and even whether the play might spur some sort of a rules change to protect catchers.
As I noted back in April, “Posey’s main objective now–and a challenging one given his position–is to stay healthy.” We should amend that last part to read “get healthy.” It won't be easy and, as Posey has already shown, neither will staying healthy once he gets there.
While your kids can make Posey a get-well card (I broke my ankle once; nobody's kids made me a get-well card... not that I'm bitter or anything), the Giants are stuck with Eli Whiteside behind the plate for the moment. Whiteside owns a career .227/.280/.358 line in 324 plate appearances, and his “highlight” consists of bouncing a grounder off the glove of San Diego's Mat Latos last year to break up a potential perfect game.
The loss of Posey, who following surgery on Sunday is confirmed to be done for 2011, creates a severe strain on an offense that couldn't afford one. Aubrey Huff isn't getting it done at first base, Miguel Tejada is battling Chone Figgins and Alicides Escobar for worst hitter in the big leagues, and after a hot start, Aaron Rowand has batted just .180/.239/.246 in May.
Only San Diego (3.38) averages fewer runs per game than the Giants (3.40) in all of MLB. That is a lot to ask a pitching staff–even one as good as San Francisco's–to overcome.
On a positive note, and one that transcends discussion of offensive shortcomings or even baseball, Barry Bonds has volunteered to pay for the college education of Bryan Stow's two young children. Stow, the Giants fan beaten at Dodger Stadium in March, is a single father who remains hospitalized after the attack.
Bonds may have superhuman strength, but he can't do anything about Stow's condition. Still, that is a mighty fine get-well card he just delivered.