Some of these hot starts will cool. Some of these laggard teams will turn things around. The best we can do is try to make sense of the potential fakeouts, ideally while sporting a handlebar mustache and looking amused.
It’s Week 5 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
1. DETROIT TIGERS
The Tigers capped a four-game sweep against the lowly Astros on Sunday, giving Detroit nine wins in its past 10 games and retaining its half-game lead in the AL Central over the hard-charging Royals. With apologies to the blistering-hot Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, the catalyst for Detroit’s early success has been the pitching staff, one that’s threatening to topple multiple records.
Leaguewide strikeout totals have been surging for several years now, hitting record levels. Like this:
2013: 7.7 K/9, 2.43 K/BB
2012: 7.6, 2.48
2011: 7.1, 2.30
2010: 7.1, 2.17
2009: 7.0, 2.02
2008: 6.8, 2.01
2007: 6.7, 2.00
2006: 6.6, 2.00
2005: 6.4, 2.02
Even with strikeouts at their highest point ever and strikeout-to-walk rate down just a hair from last year’s all-time record, what the Tigers have done through 30 games is mind-boggling. The Phillies set the all-time record for strikeout-to-walk rate by a pitching staff last year, at 3.39; the Tigers sit just shy of that record, at 3.37.1 Detroit’s straight strikeout rate is what really stands out. The all-time K rate record by a pitching staff is 8.68 K/9 IP, set by the Brewers last year. In 281⅔ innings this season, Detroit hurlers have struck out 310 batters — a staggering 9.91 Ks per nine innings.
To be fair, the Tigers aren’t alone in posting gaudy strikeout-to-walk rates this year. They’re one of six teams to have fanned more than three batters per walk in 2013.
Naturally, Justin Verlander has played a pivotal role in the strikeout-happy staff’s success. Verlander no-hit Houston for six innings on Sunday, striking out nine before giving way to the bullpen. Those results left Verlander with a near-4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate for the year, with just one homer allowed in 46⅓ innings, a 1.55 ERA that ranks second among AL starters, and a 1.96 FIP that ranks third.
Having three stars like Verander, Cabrera, and Fielder and an able supporting cast of hitters would be a good start for any contending team. But the reason the Tigers rank among the favorites to win it all this year lies with the starting pitchers brought in to complement Verlander, the staff ace.
Max Scherzer was a strikeout machine from the moment he started playing pro ball. In his first two seasons in the big leagues, Scherzer ranked fifth among all starters in strikeout percentage. Problem was, he rarely stuck around long. Scherzer routinely ran up high pitch counts early in games, partly because of his prolific strikeout rate but also because he couldn’t always command his electric fastball-slider combination. The Tigers saw Scherzer’s raw talent and pounced, reeling him in as part of the massive three-way deal in December 2009 that saw Curtis Granderson, Edwin Jackson, and Ian Kennedy all change teams, and landed Scherzer, Austin Jackson, and Phil Coke in Detroit. Through his first six starts this year, Scherzer has struck out 35 percent of the batters he has faced (second behind only the preposterously great Yu Darvish), while slashing his walk percentage to a career-low 5.8 percent. Though Scherzer’s superficial numbers look strong (4-0, 3.43 ERA), there’s room for improvement, given that he has posted a .333 batting average on balls in play that’s about 40 points higher than league average.
Anibal Sanchez was another Dave Dombrowski trade acquisition, scooped up from Miami last July along with Omar Infante in exchange for a batch of players who were all unlikely to be major contributors in a Tigers championship run any time in the near future.2 Sanchez struck out nearly four batters for every walk in his 12 regular-season starts with the Tigers in 2012. He was especially stingy in the playoffs, allowing just one home run and 20 base runners in three starts, en route to a 1.77 ERA. The Tigers won a fierce bidding war to retain Sanchez’s services, finally signing him to a five-year, $80 million contract. In return, Sanchez has posted the best defense-independent numbers in baseball, with a microscopic 1.33 FIP and one of the most overwhelming starts of the young season, a 17-strikeout obliteration of the Braves. In fact, Sanchez, Verlander, and Scherzer all rank in AL’s top four for Fielding Independent Pitching, along with Darvish.
Jacob Turner was considered the best prospect of the bunch at the time of the trade. He now owns a 5.76 ERA at Triple-A New Orleans.
Doug Fister was another Dombrowski deadline steal, nabbed from the Mariners in July 2011. Fister is striking out far fewer batters than his three whiffy rotation mates, fewer than league average in fact at 17 percent. But Fister has been excellent in his own right, with among the lowest walk and home run rates in the league. As Buster Olney recently wrote, Fister is a surprisingly good athlete for an angular, 6-foot-8 human, fielding his position well, and succeeding with an effective sinker-cutter combination. It’s a testament to the strength of the Tigers’ rotation, and the team in general, that they blasted the Braves 25-7 in sweeping a three-game series at Atlanta, without Verlander or Scherzer throwing a single pitch.3
Fifth starter Rick Porcello has been the weak link in Detroit’s starting five, posting a hideous 7.52 ERA. But even Porcello offers the hope of something better, given his low walk rate and the strong likelihood that his flukish 20.8 percent home run–per–fly ball rate drops substantially as regression sets in.
Tigers pitchers have already made history this year, becoming the first American League team to rack up six consecutive games with 10 or more strikeouts. When this season is done, they might make history a few more times and maybe make a run at their first World Series title since this Tigster jacket was last worn unironically.
9. OAKLAND A’S
The A’s took two out of three at Yankee Stadium last weekend, and they did it by following the formula that powered their Cinderella division title last year: They showed off one of the deepest collections of young talent in the game.
On Friday, the A’s shut out the Yankees, 2-0, paced by key 2012 fill-in A.J. Griffin. When injuries hit Oakland’s rotation last year, the team summoned Griffin from the minors, hoping for a few adequate innings. Instead they got 15 starts, a 3.06 ERA, and a 3.85 FIP, with quality starts in each of his first seven outings. He mowed down the Yankees in the series opener, firing seven shutout innings and outdueling the Yankees’ top starter, CC Sabathia. The A’s got gigantic contributions last year from their first-base platoon of self-pieing pioneer Brandon Moss (.291/.358/.596) and Chris Carter (.239/.350/.514). Nate Freiman, a rookie who made the current team to take Carter’s place as the right-handed portion of that first-base platoon, went 3-for-3 in Friday’s game. Adam Rosales, the utility infielder pressed into more frequent action when potential starting second baseman Scott Sizemore tore his ACL and potential starting shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima scragged his hamstring, drove in the only run the A’s would need with a first-inning homer. Sean Doolittle, the former first baseman forced to convert to relief pitching after a wrist injury and operations on both knees, tossed 1⅔ perfect innings Friday and another one on Sunday, lowering his ERA to 1.29.
The list goes on and on. When Bartolo Colon sat out the start of the season after a PED suspension, the A’s subbed in Triple-A starter Dan Straily and got an 11-strikeout, no-walk gem out of it. When Colon returned, the A’s sent Straily back to Triple-A only to resummon him for 5⅓ strong innings during Sunday’s 5-4 win in the Bronx. When Coco Crisp and Chris Young both hit the DL, Oakland called up righty-swinging minor league slugger Luke Montz Montz smacked a home run and a double Sunday afternoon against the Yanks.
That depth, combined with reinforcements in the form of unorthodox leadoff hitter John Jaso (.357 on-base percentage while leading off as a catcher) and Jed Lowrie (.322/.414/.496, giving him the seventh-best OBP in the AL as a shortstop/second baseman hitting in the three-hole), and a big start for 27-year-old third baseman Josh Donaldson (.302/.383/.491, including the game-winning homer on Sunday) and Crisp (.283/.388/.556) have the A’s right back in the thick of the AL West race. They might lack the star power owned by the first-place Rangers, or even the 11-20 Angels, but Oakland’s talent one through 25 and beyond gives the A’s a real shot at a repeat this year.
12. WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Coming into this year, you could have argued that the Nationals had more talent, on paper, than any other team. That talent, to date, hasn’t produced the expected results. Despite their winning record, the Nats have allowed 12 more runs than they’ve scored. Though we shouldn’t fixate too much on run differential, a deeper dive reveals one of the biggest underachieving teams of the early season, with the offense looking downright abysmal.
The Nationals own the fourth-worst offense in the majors, ranking as one of just four teams with a sub-.300 team Weighted On Base Average. Adam LaRoche has been the biggest disappointment. The only significant position player acquired by Washington this offseason, the Nats brought LaRoche back on a two-year, $24 million deal after the lefty-swinging first baseman hit .271/.343/.510 with 33 homers last year. So far, the move looks like the Giants’ infamous re-up on Aubrey Huff, a case of overpaying a thirtysomething first baseman coming off a big year while ignoring the rest of that player’s fairly mediocre track record and likely future results. LaRoche is hitting .168/.273/.295, ranking 28th among big league first basemen. LaRoche’s batting average on balls in play will surely improve from its current rock-bottom level of .213. But the Nationals had multiple alternative options that might’ve worked out better, from making a trade for a different first baseman to simply letting LaRoche walk via free agency and hanging onto slugger Mike Morse instead.
Given the size of the Nationals’ investment, LaRoche’s corner infield running mate Ryan Zimmerman might be an even bigger concern. The Nats gave Zimmerman a six-year, $100 million extension in February of last year. Wracked with pain caused by a sprained joint in his shoulder, Zimmerman owned a sub-.600 OPS in late June of last year. A round of cortisone shots helped turn his season around, as Zimmerman raked at a .320/.384/.586 rate the rest of the year. Offseason shoulder surgery was supposed to cure whatever still ailed him. Instead, Zimmerman lacked confidence in his repaired shoulder and struggled mightily with his throwing, committing four errors early this season, with a couple of additional errant throws saved by scoops. A hamstring injury sent him to the DL for 15 days. He made it back to the lineup on Friday, and is now hitting .222/.333/.365. Those results may well simply be the result of small sample size, and a second-half outburst like the one Zimmerman had last year might be on the way. But two of Zimmerman’s previous five seasons ended with 56 or more missed games, and you wonder if he’ll be able to shed the fragile tag, regain confidence in his throwing motion, and hit like he can without going through more horrific, multi-month slumps.
Many of the Nats’ early issues should get better over time. Danny Espinosa will stop hitting below the Mendoza line once his BABIP rises from .203. Jayson Werth’s on-base percentage should rise from a shade above .300 assuming his walk rate even remotely begins to approach his career 12 percent rate (it’s half that right now). Stephen Strasburg’s 1-4 record has more to do with getting a feeble 16 runs of support over seven starts than anything terribly wrong with his skill set, his still-best-in-baseball 95.4 mph average fastball boding well for better results.
But there are enough question marks here to suggest the Nats could be busy this summer. Maybe they trade for a LaRoche upgrade. Anthony Rendon could take over at third again if Zimmerman’s health doesn’t hold up, or for Espinosa at second if he remains one of the biggest out-makers in the game. If Dan Haren replicates the human piñata form he showed in his first three starts rather than the much-improved version of himself in his last two, an attempt at a starting pitcher upgrade might be possible too. The Nats have already dug deep into their system to acquire players like Gio Gonzalez and Denard Span over the past couple years. If some of their incumbent starters can’t turn things around as hoped, they might have to dig even deeper.
29. MIAMI MARLINS
Three things you should know about the Marlins:
1. We already covered Jose Fernandez’s exciting, and unexpected, major league debut. But his effort on Saturday against the Phillies will likely go down as his best of the year, and one of the best by any pitcher this season.
We know this for sure: Fernandez became the first starter younger than 21 to throw at least seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and one hit or fewer allowed since Kerry Wood did it in May 1998. The 20-year-old Fernandez is on a strict pitch count this season, and racking up that many strikeouts would seem a great way to throw a lot of pitches early in the game, cutting a day’s work short. Not so for Fernandez, who induced seven ground ball outs, several of them quick ones. For all the hype that came with his mid-90s fastball, Fernandez’s curveball has actually been his most valuable pitch, and was the key to his biggest inning of the game. Fernandez put the leadoff runner on in the seventh, bringing the heart of Philly’s order to the plate and making it seem like the right-hander might not make it out of the inning, especially after factoring in his pitch limit. Fernandez then proceeded to strike out Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Delmon Young in succession, all on curveballs, cementing his terrific start. Granted, Utley and Howard aren’t nearly what they used to be, and Delmon Young is Delmon Young. But in an otherwise dismal season for the Fish, we can see the kid growing up almost one start to the next, from warm-up jacket incompetence to pure mound mastery.
2. Marcell Ozuna might be worth a look in fantasy. Called up to replace the injured Giancarlo Stanton, Ozuna is off to a ludicrously hot start, hitting .478/.520/.783 to start his major league career. Caveats, caveats, caveats, including Ozuna having only 25 plate appearances; his .526 small sample size BABIP; him being a 22-year-old rookie with just 10 games played above Class A prior to getting called to the Show; and his iffy strikeout-to-walk rates even in the minors, which might not translate well as time goes on in the big leagues.
On the plus side, the Marlins have historically shown a willingness to be aggressive with young prospects (including Cabrera and Fernandez), Ozuna showed impressive power in socking 24 homers in 129 games in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League last year, and he should get a chance to prove himself for at least three more weeks, with Stanton likely out until at least late May. It’s tough to say what the Marlins’ outfield configuration might look like once Stanton returns if indeed the team decides to keep Ozuna up after that. But as a short-term plug-in who could deliver power with a so-so batting average, with the possibility of more playing time even after the team gets healthy, you could do a lot worse here.
3. We covered some out-of-nowhere hot starters on Thursday without mentioning Marlins right-handed starter Kevin Slowey — a grave oversight we’ll correct here. On Sunday, Slowey blew up the Phillies lineup, throwing seven shutout innings, allowing just two hits and two walks, and striking out seven. Slowey has always owned one of the best strikeout-to-walk rates in the league, thanks mostly to his ability to consistently rank among the league’s best for fewest walks allowed, with a career walk percentage of just 3.8 percent. Since the start of Slowey’s major league career in 2007, only Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee have bested his strikeout-to-walk rate of 4.7-to-1.
Slowey’s problems have been twofold — he routinely ranks among the league’s most generous pitchers when it comes to home runs allowed (1.4 HR/9 IP for his career), and he can’t stay healthy. The first problem might be helped by Marlins Park, one of the toughest stadiums in which to homer in its debut last year. The health issue still hangs over Slowey. But if he is still on waivers in your standard mixed league because no one’s buying a Marlins pitcher not named Fernandez, especially one with Slowey’s health record, this is another pickup worth considering. Slowey’s BABIP (.250) and strand rate (87.9 percent) do suggest a modicum of luck involved here. But his 1.81 ERA is still supported by an excellent 2.95 FIP and that long, long track record of extreme stinginess with bases on balls. The margin for error will always be small for a right-handed starter with a high-80s fastball and so many injuries in his past. But at the very least, you might be able to stream Slowey against the Padres and Cubs of the league. Scott Feldman is a healthier, slightly less successful version of Slowey, and he just got done crushing San Diego.
For the Marlins’ purposes, Slowey was brought in to hopefully soak up a few innings while the kids develop on the farm. Any kind of sustained success would be a huge bonus, and maybe even set up a trade scenario in which he lands on a contending team. Slowey is still just 29 years old, with a three-win season in his past (albeit five years ago). Maybe this is the year for another one.