Friday, June 02, 2006

What Do You Know?
By Ben Valentine

And so we’ve reached June.

Two months of baseball have been played and things are starting to fall into place. We’re beginning to get an idea of who the contenders and the pretenders are as we move into the summer months. And if you haven’t, I urge you to check out Zach’s weekly NL and AL Pythagorean Standings for a good look at who’s looking good and who aien’t.

Of course players are what make up teams, so it’s only fair we take a peak at some of the top performers to this point. I went through the ERA leaders last week, so this week I did some perusing of ESPN’s OPS rankings. However, instead of just going through the top ten, which would have featured a long winded hailing of Albert Pujols as some sort mythical creature, I’ve decided instead to pick out ten players from the top 50 who caught my eye for some reason or another. These are all guys who have surprised in a positive light. And to start, we head down to the charred remains of the Florida Marlins.

Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Florida Marlins: It isn’t that Cabrera’s impressive .354/.444/.619/1.063 line is surprising. What is interesting is that he has 43 RBI and 39 runs so far this year in 51 games. Translate that to 158 games, which is how many he played last year, that comes to 133 RBI and 120 runs scored. In 05’ Cabrera had 116 RBI and 106 runs scored. So apparently all that talk about the Marlins youthful lineup destroying Cabrera’s RBI and runs totals has been completely erroneous. In the end despite the Marlins fire sale, Cabrera still figures to be among the league leaders in RBI and runs scored.

Bill Hall, Just About Anywhere, Milwaukee Brewers: The consummate utility man actually deserves a bigger role than that. Hall’s season to this point surprised me, so much so that I went and traded for him in my fantasy league. So far Hall has hit .275/.324/.593 for the Brew Crew, with 12 homers. And since he’s 26, it looks like this is going to be a breakout campaign. Not to throw race into it here, but how come when people talk about versatility and “grit” in today’s game, you hear the names David Eckstein or Joe McEwing but no mention of Hall? Hall can play every infield position, the outfield and, get this, he can actually hit a ton! Guess that means he’s not scrappy, or gritty, just good, huh?

Brad Hawpe, OF, Colorado Rockies: Because he plays at Coors, many will scoff at Hawpe’s impressive .326/.407/.562 splits. However, when one looks further we get a bit of surprise; Hawpe’s been a heck of a lot better on the road this season than at home. While he’s a solid .293/.391/.493 player at Coors, Hawpe has hit an astounding .349/.418/.661 outside of Colorado this season. Eight of his 11 homers have come on the road. Not even Matt Holliday, who most people had tabbed for a breakout season, has performed as well outside of Coors. (.303/.342/.578) With Hawpe’s solid eye at the plate, something he’s shown even when he was in the minors, the Rockies may have found themselves quite stud here.

Eric Byrnes, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks: A guy who’s always been a 3rd/4th outfielder has suddenly emerged as one of the league’s better ones. Byrnes is hitting for a better average this year, .318, than his .265 career mark. His OBP is very good at.386, but since his OBP has always been around 70 or so points higher than his BA, this isn’t a shock. Will his average maintain? Conventional wisdom says at 30, since he’s not doing anything else differently, no. However, he has gone from a pitcher’s park in Oakland to a hitter’s park in Arizona so perhaps that will make a difference. I don’t see him continuing to hit .318 but anything above .290 would be a huge leap forward and a great boon for the D’Backs.

Alfonso Soriano, OF, Washington Nationals: Okay, I hate to admit it, but with a .297/.347/.603 line I was completely off on Soriano. Of course, I did not expect him to suddenly start walking at the rate he has, but then I also didn’t expect his power to translate to RFK. Are they related? Soriano has never walked more than 38 times in a season; this year he’s on pace for 48. It may not seem like much, but it shows he’s not chasing as many pitches as he has in the past. He’s also on pace to hit 57 jacks. Though I doubt he will, give Soriano credit for succeeded where many thought he could not. He’s going to make a ton of money this off season and I fully expect him to end up back in the Bronx.

Casey Blake, OF, Cleveland Indians: The Indian no one talks about. I think Aaron Boone even gets more press. However, Blake has been a decent player for the Tribe for three years now. He regressed a bit in 05’ after a good campaign in 04’ but this year is back on track. He’s posted a .330/.411/.566 line so far this season. Of course at 32, I’d be surprised if he kept it a rate like that up for the full year. But since he’s always had a solid eye at the plate, a repeat of his 2004 .271/.354/.486 line should be well in reach.

Nick Johnson 1B, Washington Nationals: Two Nationals mentioned and John Patterson isn’t one of them! Well this is a column about hitting and Patterson has been on the shelf. Anyway, back to Johnson. The big lefty has always been a guy with a ton of potential, but could never stay healthy. Whether he will hold up over the full season still remains to be seen, but I assure you his .290/.410/.545 line will. By the way, the only first basemen with a better OPS this year are, in reverse order, Ryan Howard, Lance Berkman, Jason Giambi and some guy name Pujols. And none of those guys play in the pitcher’s park Johnson does. Johnson is currently out OPSing: Carlos Delgado, Paul Konerko, Todd Helton and Mark Teixeira, just to name a few. This guy is probably one of the most underrated players in the game.

Carlos Beltran, OF, New York Mets: Most telling stat of the Beltran resurgence: in 05’ Beltran walked 56 times. In 2006, Beltran is on pace to walk 96 times, the most in his career. (And he has missed time this year) Accompanying the return of centerfielder’s plate discipline has been his power. Beltran is on pace to hit 51 homers this season after clubbing just 16 all of last year. Heck he’s already got 14. If he can maintain his current pace, he will exceed the 06’ expectations as much as he failed to meet them in 05’. Right now, with a line of .270/.389/.604 in centerfield, there is no question Beltran has been not only the most valuable position player on the Mets but one of the best in baseball.

Jermaine Dye, OF, Chicago White Sox: About five years ago, people considered Dye one of the best young outfielders in baseball. Then he broke his leg in a playoff game against the Yankees. He fell off the planet, killing the A’s offense in the process. Then last year he resurfaced as part of the World Champion White Sox, taking home a World Series MVP in the process. So far he’s showing his 05’ success was no fluke with a .298/.402/.638 line. His 1.041 OPS is the 5th best in baseball. At 32, you wouldn’t think he would improve this dramatically. However he’s walking more this year than at any time in the past. (Seems to be a trend doesn’t it?) This season he’s already drawn 25 free passes, opposed to 39 in 154 games last year. Still think on base percentage is overrated?

Jason Giambi, 1B, New York Yankees: Remember last year when people were speculating that the Yankees might cut Giambi? The Bombers are probably quite happy they didn’t. The man who never swings at a pitch out of the strike zone is hitting just .262 but has an on base of .451. Think about that for a second. Giambi has an on base nearly 200 points higher than his BA! An on base 100 points higher is considered exceptional. 200 is Bonds-esque. (Coincidence oh you Yankee fans that hate on Bonds yet give Giambi a pass?) Regardless of what Giambi is or isn’t putting into his system, with an OPS of 1.021, good for 9th in all of baseball, he’s certainly put questions of his career being over to rest.

Those are some surprises on the positive end. Next week, I’ll take a peek at some guys who are underperforming so far in the 06’ campaign.


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