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The Monday Takeaway
Take a good look at the American League East standings this morning—you may not see this particular arrangement again for a long time. The Orioles are still on top. The Rays are two games back and the Jays three.  The Yankees and Red Sox? They’re tied for last, sharing the cellar at 21-21 and searching for answers.

On Monday night, Felipe Paulino had all the answers to the Yankees’ lineup, as the Royals pitched their first shutout in the Bronx since Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran graced their outfield with then-rookie Dan Reichert on the mound on August 18, 1999. I turned nine that day, and I graduated from college two days ago, so let’s just say it has been a while.

It has also been a while since the Royals had a true frontline starter, but if his first four starts of the 2012 season are any indication, the late-blooming, 28-year-old Paulino might be rounding into one. Those four starts include two victories over the Yankees, a loss to the White Sox, and a strong effort in a no-decision against the Orioles, during which he has compiled a 1.42 ERA.

Paulino has been the hardest-throwing starter in baseball to date, firing his fastball at an average of 96 mph, a tick better than those of Stephen Strasburg and Justin Verlander. Unlike most starters, he’s essentially a two-pitch pitcher, mixing that fastball with a sharp, 87-mph slider. Together, the fastball-slider tandem accounts for about 85 percent of Paulino’s offerings, enabling him to get by with only a show-me changeup and curveball.

In the past, Paulino’s struggles have mostly been the result of poor command and a lack of consistency. So it is fair to wonder if this early-season breakout, which comes after he began the year on the disabled list with a forearm strain suffered during spring training, is a fluke. It is also fair to be impressed, though. Through 25 1/3 innings, Paulino has allowed just one home run, walked only seven batters, and struck out 29—good for a 2.25 FIP.

You know who has a 2.24 FIP so far this season? This guy.

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • From bumping Mike Aviles into the leadoff spot to playing Kelly Shoppach because it was his birthday, Bobby Valentine has kept us guessing with his lineup choices throughout the first month and a half of the season. With Kevin Youkilis set to return from the disabled list for tonight’s game (7:05 p.m. ET) in Baltimore, and Cody Ross taking his place with a broken foot, both positions and batting order slots are up in the air. Will Youkilis return to the four-hole? Should Will Middlebrooks or Adrian Gonzalez invest in an outfielder’s glove? Is that piece of gum Gary Darling lost still stuck to Bobby V’s jacket? Stay tuned.
     
  • The Nationals are in second place, tied in the loss column with the first-place Braves. The Phillies are dead last, and they are the only team in either East division with a sub-.500 record. Jordan Zimmermann is 2-4—with a 2.58 ERA. Roy Halladay is 4-3 after losing just six games all of last season. It’s safe to say that things are a little topsy-turvy by the Atlantic these days. Those two righties will duel tonight (7:05 p.m. ET) in what, at least on paper, is the best pitching matchup on the slate.
  • Last year, Brandon Beachy was an extreme fly-ball pitcher with an astronomical strikeout rate and a 3.68 ERA that did not quite do justice to his 3.19 FIP. This year, Brandon Beachy is a balanced pitcher with a pedestrian strikeout rate and an outstanding 1.66 ERA that should soon rise toward his 2.54 FIP. His newfound secret is keeping the ball in the yard—Beachy has allowed only one home run in 54 innings—and only Matt Kemp has cracked it to date. Tonight (7:10 p.m. ET), it will be put to the test at Great American Ballpark, where Beachy’s teammate, Mike Minor, was taken deep four times in Monday’s loss.  
  • It’s hard enough to go 13-for-29 over an eight-game span, let alone to do so without striking out a single time. But Carlos Lee has done just that, picking up a double, two homers, and two walks along the way. He is 2-for-10 in his prior meetings with Tuesday’s (8:05 p.m. ET) Cubs starter Travis Wood, who is fresh up from Triple-A for his second outing of the season since coming over in the Sean Marshall deal with the Reds this past winter. Wood said he hopes to “stick around for a while,” and he’ll need to slow down El Caballo to earn a long-term rotation spot in Chicago.
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zbrady
5/22
Has it really been a while since Zack Greinke for the Royals?
statsrath
5/22
Not as long a while as the one between shutouts in New York; what I meant to say is that between Danny Duffy's injury and the rough going for many of their top prospects, they could use a surprise like Paulino. I certainly could have worded that better.
lvhawk
5/22
Would you consider Paulino a prime sell high candidate and do you feel he can hold up throughout the season due to the following factors: A) his aforementioned right forearm strain B) his reliance on his slider Thanks...
statsrath
5/22
I think he's more of a sell-high candidate from a fantasy perspective than a real-life one. Jason Collette discussed his fantasy potential a bit more in his piece today (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=17070). The forearm strain isn't of huge concern to me, because I wouldn't necessarily associate that with future elbow trouble, and there hasn't been much data to show that throwing lots of sliders leads to elbow injuries for big leaguers, even if that's true for youth pitchers. That said, in order to become a true frontline starter, Paulino will probably need to develop either his curveball or changeup into a reliable out pitch to reduce his reliance on the slider.
surfdent48
5/22
Fluke
hessshaun
5/22
I really enjoy how you curse at least one of the two pitchers in the best slated pitching match up.
statsrath
5/22
Haha, never fails.
mdthomp
5/22
Congrats on graduation, Daniel. I also graduated from college this past week.
mdthomp
5/22
dah. Ignore the comma. Need to retake English evidently
statsrath
5/22
Thanks! Pretty sure that comma is not grammatically incorrect, actually.
rbrianc
5/22
Congrats on graduating! I'll also note I really like reading your column every day - it truly is what i need to know.
statsrath
5/22
Thanks!
hessshaun
5/22
Second that, really look forward to reading this every day. Especially when I am on the road and out of touch.
statsrath
5/22
Thanks!