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May 1, 2013

Painting the Black

Six Who Clicked

by R.J. Anderson

While there were plenty of April surprises—good and bad—to fill a dozen pieces such as this one, here's a look at six hitters off to better-than-expected starts. 

John Buck, C, Mets
Buck played better than a perceived placeholder traded twice in one winter is supposed to play. Fueled by nine home runs—including a six-homer barrage over his first 40 plate appearances—Buck showed his raw strength in quantity and quality. The quantity may have been unexpected, but the geographical spread of the home runs jived with his past, as only three of the home runs qualified as true pull jobs; the other six landed beyond the left-center or right field walls. 

The Mets also landed top prospect Travis d'Arnaud when they added Buck. The young catcher is likely out until mid-June with a fractured foot, and when he returns it'll be safe to promote him without risking a Super Two status. So what happens with Buck once d'Arnaud arrives? Does Alderson keep the free-agent-to-be until the deadline, through the deadline, or does he attempt to capitalize on Buck's hot start by moving him to a backstop-starved team as soon as possible? 

Brandon Crawford, SS, Giants
There were those last spring who believed Crawford's bat had more potential than he'd shown. The UCLA product rewarded the faith with a nice second half last season. He's at it again in 2013. Crawford had homered seven times in his first 209 games in the majors before hitting five in April. San Francisco happily started the all-glove version of Crawford, so any extra offensive production is a bonus. No, Crawford will not continue to outhit Troy Tulowitzki. He may, however, provide more offensive value than his days as an automatic out suggested. 

Marwin Gonzalez, SS, Astros
Houston chose against demoting the former Rule 5 selection in spring, and instead shipped out Tyler Greene. Smart call. Gonzalez stood out amid a predictably poor start by the Astros. He recorded 15 extra-base hits in 219 plate appearances last season, yet entered Tuesday with seven in 68—including three home runs (all of which, oddly enough, came against the Mariners). The switch-hitting Gonzalez adequately defends the position already. Thus, if any of the offensive boost proves legitimate, then Jeff Luhnow may have found one of the league's rarest items: a capable starting shortstop. 

James Loney, 1B, Rays
Sometimes the key to getting max production is letting a player be himself. The Rays may have approached Loney with this mindset, at least in some regards. Often lauded for his defense (and rightfully so) Loney's bat showed more life over the season's first month than anticipated. Leftover Casey Kotchman magic? Maybe not. 

Whereas Kotchman's big 2011 season depended on an inordinate amount of infield hits, Loney's early success feels more legitimate thanks to an opposite-field mindset borne from impressive bat control and plate coverage. Joe Maddon has platooned Loney in an aggressive manner to date, and it figures to continue. That doesn't mean Loney will continue to hit, it just lowers the odds of a 2012-like collapse.

Vernon Wells, OF, Yankees
When the Yankees acquired Wells a shortened swing became a symbol of hope. A month-plus later it seems Wells changed his mindset, too. Last season 46 percent of his hits were pulled; 37 percent of his hits in 2013 have been pulled. The Yankees figure to get some of their injured players back over the next few weeks. Wells' alterations, intended or otherwise, helped keep them afloat during the first few weeks, and bought him a reprieve from dollar-to-production ratio hectoring. 

Michael Young, 3B, Phillies
Another maligned big-money veteran addition and another changed approach. The nominal third baseman featured an opposite-field approach in the past, so that's not new. What is new is that Young is swinging less so far this season, as first noted by Jack Moore. By offering at fewer pitches Young is attempting to make up for diminished bat speed and physical abilities. He'll have to continue to hit to be worth playing, but here's a fun question: If he does then could the Phillies net more in return for Young than they gave up? 

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

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