When the White Sox dealt a handful of prospects for an injured Jake Peavy at the 2009 deadline, there was hope that he'd be able to return in time for a stretch run to the playoffs, but the deal was made first and foremost with the future in mind. Peavy was under contract through 2012 with a 2013 option, and given the rarity of arms with his talent, Kenny Williams decided to take a risk.
The playoff run in 2009 never worked out, but the real worry began in earnest this past April. Peavy was allegedly healthy, and he was supposed to re-establish himself as an ace. Instead, he got off to a rough start, and, as was the case with other high-profile arms like Rich Harden and Ben Sheets, speculation abounded that something was seriously wrong. Peavy couldn't throw strikes, he was having trouble missing bats, and after five starts, his ERA stood at a woeful 7.85.
Then the calendar flipped to May, and that's about the exact moment that things turned around. Let's look at a table, shall we?
In Peavy's first start in May, he tossed seven shutout innings, striking out nine while walking just one. Granted, it was the Royals, but it marked a departure from where he was before, and he's built off that success by putting together a strong run of starts. While Peavy hasn't been spectacular, and though he's still allowed his runs, he's erased a great deal of that early concern by whiffing seven batters for every free pass.
Unlike with Ben Sheets a week ago, the reason for Peavy's turnaround isn't quite as easy to figure out. He's had greater success with his cutter of late, and he's gotten more whiffs on his slider, but we can't trace it all back to one or two things. However, just because we don't have a great explanation doesn't make the performance any less real. I'll call your attention to the Strike% column in the table above. In April, Peavy was inconsistent, throwing strikes at a roughly league-average rate. Since then, he's thrown two strikes for every ball. He's verged on Roy Halladay territory, and in so doing he's gotten back at least some of the way to what made him successful as a Padre.
Jake Peavy is throwing strikes again, and between that and the fact that he's missing more bats now than he was early on, Sox fans and officials alike can breathe a little easier. While Peavy was always a little overrated, having benefited greatly from pitching in San Diego, pitching in a homer-friendly environment like Chicago might have the opposite effect, and at the end of the day, it's hard to struggle with a K/BB like the one Peavy's been racking up. He's a good pitcher, and though he's a good pitcher with question marks - such as the discomfort he currently feels in his arm that could render all of this moot - one can be far more confident in his ability to perform now than two months ago.
It's been a miserable few years to be a Pirates fan. It's been a miserable few decades, really. Since dropping out in three consecutive NL Championship Series between 1990-1992, the Pirates have ripped off a borderline unfathomable 17 consecutive sub-.500 seasons, with 2010 looking like a sure bet for #18. The Pirates have long been the picture of hopelessness, the NL equivalent of the Royals, as there are kids going to college who haven't been alive to see the Pirates in the playoffs.
However, things may finally be turning around. It's easy to get excited about young talent - perhaps too easy - but the benefit of being bad for a long time is that you can build up your farm system, and though for a long while that opportunity was squandered, it's gotten better under Neal Huntington, and the next wave is arriving.
Enter Pedro Alvarez. Pedro Alvarez is the Pirates' top prospect, and as he enters the Majors and grabs a starting job, he'll join Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata as young regulars who could and should serve as the organization's next position player four-man core. And note that this neglects older players like Garrett Jones and Ryan Doumit, and younger players who have yet to perform, like Jeff Clement, Lastings Milledge, and Delwyn Young.
The Pirates actually have the makings of a real foundation. McCutchen, 23, has established himself as an all-around asset in center. Tabata, 21, is raw, but he runs well and puts the ball in play with a little bit of power. Walker, 24, is a converted catcher who's developing in the field, but he's had the best offensive season of his career and finally built off the promise that made him the 11th overall pick in 2004. And Alvarez, 23, might be the best of them all, having slugged .533 in his first exposure to AAA. Alvarez is about as good a hitting prospect as they come, and he should supply production from the middle of the order for quite a while. Production the Pirates have been lacking for as long as I can remember.
It isn't the best foundation in the world, and, of course, the pitching is a step behind, as recent arrival Brad Lincoln is hardly an ace in the making. But for the Pirates, it's progress, and it's a reason to hope that better days lie ahead. After a long, arduous climb replete with scrapes and setbacks, the end may at last be coming into view.
When the Astros dealt Brad Lidge to the Phillies in November 2007, the consensus opinion at the time was that Houston got jobbed. Lidge was one of the better closers in baseball, having the season prior struck out 88 batters in 67 innings, and in return, all the Astros got was a mediocre reliever, a mid-level power prospect, and a slap-hitting minor league outfielder. Though Lidge had had his struggles, and though he was entering the final year of team control, critics thought the Astros should've been able to get their hands on more.
And when that slap-hitting minor league outfielder came up and OPS'd .588 in his first full Major League season while Lidge helped pitch the Phillies to a championship, the deal almost looked embarrassing. By batting the slap hitter and his .288 OBP out of the leadoff slot so often, the 86-75 Astros may have even cost themselves a shot at the playoffs by trying to squeeze some production out of a nobody.
That slap-hitting minor league outfielder's name was Michael Bourn. Michael Bourn, in his first full season with the Astros, was a joke.
But Michael Bourn is no longer a joke.
Over the last year and a half, Bourn has hit .279/.350/.368, spending the overwhelming majority of his time batting leadoff. Now, that line, on its own, isn't special. Bourn's still a slap hitter, and he's hitting about as well as a non-Ichiro slap hitter can hit.
But it's the rest of the package that makes Bourn a special player. He's a center fielder, which automatically makes him more valuable, but what makes him extra-more valuable is that he's a good center fielder. The advanced defensive metrics we have available at our disposal - namely Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved - consider Bourn to be roughly ten runs better than the average center fielder, mostly because of his superior range. He covers a lot of ground, because he's one of the fastest runners in the league.
It doesn't end there, though. As you can imagine, fast runners are good on the bases, and this might be where Bourn really shines. Baseball Prospectus keeps track of how well or poorly guys run the bases - how good they are at stealing, how often they take the extra base, that sort of thing - and assigns a run total in terms of runs above or below the average. That statistic has Bourn being the best runner in the league so far in 2010, ahead of Carl Crawford, and it also had him as being the best runner in the league in 2009 as well, ahead of Chase Utley.
In all, since coming over from the Phillies organization, Bourn has been worth 23.5 runs above average on the bases, which is the highest total in baseball. A big part of it, obviously, is that he's stolen 123 bases out of 151 attempts, which is terrific in terms of both volume and effectiveness. But it isn't just the base-stealing. Bourn has been helpful across the board in all baserunning situations, advancing on grounders, advancing on flies, and taking the extra base on hits. He's just always a threat to be on the move.
Bourn is not much of a hitter. He doesn't draw a ton of walks, and seldom does he hit the ball with much authority. However, hitting is only one way for a player to make himself valuable, and Bourn reaches base often enough to keep from being a liability while truly excelling at the other aspects of his game. Aspects that aren't quite as obvious as doubles or home runs. Michael Bourn is a player with a lot of ‘hidden' value, but productivity is productivity, and as we look back on the Brad Lidge trade now, we can see that the Astros wound up doing quite well for themselves after all.
2010's was not a spring to remember for Corey Hart. Not only did he manage to hit just .172 with a .221 OBP; he was getting shown up by the 40 year old Jim Edmonds, who hit .292 with power and patience. Though Edmonds came to camp as a non-roster invitee, by the end, there were whispers that he was going to cut rather dramatically into Hart's playing time, as the aged former star looked far more prepared to help the Brewers than the frustrating 28 year old Emile Hirsch lookalike.
Hart had batted just .265/.315/.442 over the previous two seasons to follow up a breakthrough 2007 campaign, and he had to know that he was running out of chances. Early 2010, then, became critical, as Hart would have to perform in order to preserve his status as an everyday player. This was to be a significant juncture. Further underperformance could cost Hart a lot, both in the present and the future.
He responded. Hart actually sat on the bench for three of the Brewers' first four games, but a week into the season, he was 5-14. Through his first 15 games, he'd driven in 11 runs. His OPS stood at .802 on May 11th, and he was beginning to earn Ken Macha's trust.
Then the run started. After an 0-7 spell dropped his OPS to .756, Hart homered on May 15th. Then he homered on May 16th. Then he homered twice on May 17th. Things just took off from there, and dating back to May 15th, Hart's batted .275 over the past month, with 14 home runs, 23 extra-base hits, and a spectacular .708 slugging percentage. His hot streak has pushed him to the top of the NL homer leaderboard, two ahead of Albert Pujols, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Hart has started in 34 consecutive games.
Hart's, of course, is a surprising name to be putting up the numbers he's posting, and everyone just wants to know what's going on. His .263 average is about the same as it was a year ago. His .336 OBP is about the same as it was a year ago. He's drawing as many walks and swinging through the ball just as often as ever. The only big difference is that he's slugging a full 103 points higher than his career mark.
It's a power burst. Power bursts can happen when a guy turns 28, as Hart's in the middle of his physical prime, but rarely do they happen to such a degree. Over the previous two years, 6.6% of the balls Hart hit in the air cleared the fence. So far in 2010, he's up to 15.9%, more than doubling his previous rate.
I can't tell you why Hart is suddenly hitting for so much power. I know he got in better shape over the winter, but lots of people get in better shape and then struggle to perform. In that regard, Hart's a mystery. But what I can do is pinpoint where he's been doing the most damage. Ordinarily, when a guy steps up his performance at the plate, fans and analysts will credit his development to a newfound ability to hit to all fields. That, though, isn't the case with Hart. Hart isn't doing much damage at all the other way. Rather, he's just having far greater success pulling the ball to left field.
Observe this spray chart from Texas Leaguers:
Look at left field. Look at the non-grounders. There are three outs, some singles and doubles, and 12 home runs. 12 home runs, and three outs. A year ago at this point, Hart had only managed two home runs to left, so, clearly, this is a rather substantial development.
Hart, it seems, is just doing a far better job of getting around on the ball and hitting it with authority. Entering 2010, Hart had put 647 balls in play to left field, with 38 home runs, for a 5.9% rate. This season, Hart has put 67 balls in play to left field, with 12 home runs, for a 17.9% rate. For reference, that's better than Miguel Cabrera. It's even better than the 2002-2007 version of Barry Bonds.
It can be dangerous when a hitter gets pull-happy. Coaches will often accuse a slumping bat of trying to pull every pitch. Hart, though, is pulling the ball far better than ever before in his career, and he's enjoying by far the greatest success. It's unlikely that he will sustain his current pace. Hart probably isn't going to finish the year with 45 or 50 dingers. But he's a stronger hitter now than he was in the past, and, for the sake of the rest of his career, this sudden development could not possibly have come at a better time.
5) 1, 2, 30
So maybe this is cheating, since those are three numbers being listed as one, but then, this is my column, and my column, my rules.
I like to talk about the NL West. I think the NL West, and the way it's played out so far in 2010, has been fascinating. To see the Padres in particular play as well as they have been has been a breath of fresh air and a total surprise. That said, I think the consensus opinion right now is that it's averaging out. On the radio this morning, the host remarked to me that "the Dodgers are back in first, where you'd expect them to be," and more and more often I'm hearing that the Dodgers are going to pull away, because they're the Dodgers, while the Padres and the Giants are the Padres and the Giants.
It makes sense. The Dodgers are littered with stars, from Manny Ramirez to Matt Kemp to Andre Ethier to Clayton Kershaw to Chad Billingsley to Jonathan Broxton. The Dodgers are a very good team with a number of recognizable players, and they score a lot of runs while generating a lot of strikeouts, which correlate well with success. What do the Giants have? The Giants have some pitchers. And what do the Padres have? The Padres have Adrian Gonzalez. Simply look their rosters up and down and you can see why so many people seem to think the Dodgers are far and away the class of the division.
But, naturally, it isn't that simple, and there's a reason why San Diego and San Francisco have been able to hang so close despite struggling to score runs. It isn't the hitting. It isn't the baserunning. It isn't the rotation, and it isn't relief.
It's the defense.
I've talked about Ultimate Zone Rating before as the cream of the crop when it comes to measuring defense. There are some sample size issues with individual players, but things even out in a hurry when you talk about full teams. With that in mind, take a look at the team UZR leaderboard, over at Fangraphs. A brief summary:
#1: Giants, +28.9 runs
#2: Padres, +26.2 runs
#30: Dodgers, -27.3 runs
I've used this space to talk about the Dodgers' team defense before, but I haven't mentioned the stark contrast between them and their rivals. According to UZR, there's been a difference of more than 50 runs in the field between LA and San Diego and LA and San Francisco, and as you can imagine, at this point in the season, 50+ runs is a whole lotta runs.
If you prefer, we can also look at Batting Average on Balls In Play, a raw measure of how often a team defense turns a ball in play into an out:
San Francisco: .279 BABIP
San Diego: .280 BABIP
Los Angeles: .297 BABIP
Neither the Padres nor the Giants has the sexiest roster of all time, but it's amazing what can happen when you have guys like Tony Gwynn or Andres Torres patrolling the field instead of Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier. Catchable balls get caught. Hittable balls, of course, don't get hit as well, but hitting is only one means of outscoring your opponent, and the Padres and the Giants have found an alternate route.
Gun to my head, I do think the Dodgers are probably the best team in their division. I don't think their defense is as bad as it's looked, nor do I think the Padres and Giants' defenses are as good as their numbers. However, it's a very tight race, and when you throw in the fact that the Rockies are hanging around as well, you've got all the ingredients for an exciting stretch. The Padres won't collapse. The Giants won't collapse. The Rockies won't collapse. The Dodgers are good, but despite what many might suggest, they can't afford to stumble. They'll get passed by.