The 30: Angel in the Outfield

After a slow start, Mike Trout is delivering a worthy encore performance to his historic rookie season

By
Jonah Keri
on May 27, 2013

Baseball is a game marked by failure. Even the very best hitters fail six out of 10 times. Even the best fielders make humiliating mistakes. Umpires — especially with the league’s stubborn refusal to expand the use of replay — have begun finding new, innovative, and preposterous ways to fail.

To cure your baseball blues, I submit … Munenori Kawasaki. Filling in for Jose Reyes at short for the languishing Blue Jays, Kawasaki hasn’t lit the league on fire, hitting .219/.301/.259, with a career homerless streak of 231 plate appearances, dating back to his 2012 debut. What he has been is wildly entertaining. From his A-plus dance moves to his skills as a tattoo critic, Kawasaki has become something of a cult hero, even as his numbers lag. So when he does do something truly great, people lose their damn minds. And when Kawasaki gives a postgame interview to celebrate such a great thing, salutes the fans, grabs the mic from an interviewer, pulls out an English phrase book to help, then gets pummeled by a pie/Gatorade combo, you get the best one-on-one of the year. So in hono(u)r of the Japanese Michael Jackson, let’s roll up our sleeves and celebrate those times when failure takes a holiday.

It’s Week 8 of The 30.

Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.

4. ATLANTA BRAVES

A blown lead in the eighth inning Sunday night snapped the Braves’ eight-game winning streak. Atlanta won in nearly every way imaginable during the streak, averaging nearly six runs scored and allowing just 2.6 runs a game. They did it with blowouts and they did it by the skin of their teeth, with two extra-inning wins and three wins by one or two runs. If you believe in the power of regression,1 Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton, and Dan Uggla figure to improve from their horrendous starts, which could give the Braves more fuel in their quest to take back the NL East.

But as June approaches and teams start thinking about ways to address their needs via trade, the Braves face one of the most intricate playing-time questions of any team in baseball: How the hell can they get Evan Gattis into the lineup?

We’ve already profiled the Braves and Gattis in this space. The thought six weeks ago was that Gattis would surely cool off, and that Brian McCann’s return would make the question moot either way. No, and no. In one recent stretch of six at-bats, Gattis cranked three homers, knocking in nine runs over seven at-bats from May 18 through May 24. As much as his backstory is both haunting and inspiring, the Braves need to consider whether he’s simply too good to bench. Acknowledging that coming through in clutch situations might not be a sustainable skill, at a certain point you might want to ponder what to do with a hitter who has either tied or won four games this year with home runs.

So far the solution has mostly been to turn Gattis into McCann’s backup and a sort of platoon partner, seeing fewer at-bats both because the league has far fewer lefty starters than right-handed ones and because McCann has been a pivotal member of the Braves for years, and it’s tough to simply bump him out of a job. But the Braves are trying different things, giving Gattis snippets of playing time at first base (three games) and left field (seven games). With Heyward and Freddie Freeman back from DL stints, that extra playing time might be tough to find. The solution could be to try to trade McCann. But with the Braves ranking among the league’s best teams, it’s hard to imagine them flipping McCann for prospects. They could try to shop him in exchange for win-now help at another position. But given McCann’s recent history of injuries, the fact he’s in the walk year of his contract, and the unlikelihood that another contender would take on a rent-a-vet while giving up something else of immediate value, that’s probably not happening either.

This might mean that Gattis gets to play the role that much older players like Matt Stairs and Jim Thome have played in the recent past: an old-school, ace pinch hitter who can and will end games with one swing of the bat. That might seem like a waste of resources for a hitter who’s slugging .576 with 10 homers in 125 at-bats. But assuming Heyward, Upton, & Co. bounce back as expected, Atlanta simply might not have any major weaknesses to address.2

All of which would leave the Braves with baseball’s most powerful luxury item.

17. CHICAGO WHITE SOX

As FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron wrote in February, the White Sox have consistently beaten preseason projections over the past few years, thanks primarily to reliable, and very durable, pitching staffs. They’re back at it again this year.

The Replacement Level Yankees Weblog collected projections from multiple sources this spring, then produced consensus forecasts. The White Sox were projected to go 76-86. Through 34 games, that prediction looked generous. The Sox stood at 14-20 at that point, dead last in the AL Central. They’ve been on fire since, winning 10 of 14 games while clawing their way back to .500, within shouting distance of the division’s leaders.

Once again, their pitching has led the way. White Sox pitchers collectively rank fourth in Wins Above Replacement, trailing only the loaded Tigers staff, as well as Texas and Boston.

Chris Sale has been the latest pitcher to buck the supposed Verducci Effect,3 posting a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate, 2.53 ERA, and 3.22 FIP through nine starts. His numbers over his past six starts rival any other pitcher’s: 44 strikeouts, 10 walks, two home runs, a 1.40 ERA, and an opponents’ line of .155/.211/.219 in 45 innings. On May 12 he hurled one of the best games any pitcher’s likely to throw all year, tossing a one-hit shutout while striking out seven and walking none against the Angels. By throwing just 98 pitches that day, he achieved one of the rarest feats for any pitcher: a Maddux.

The bigger surprise has been the performance of the rest of the staff. For all the durability the starting rotation has shown over the past few years, injuries have shaken up the starting five in 2013. Among the five pitchers expected to make up this season’s rotation under normal circumstances, John Danks just made his return from shoulder surgery on Friday, while Gavin Floyd had Tommy John surgery earlier this month. And yet …

The bullpen has responded in kind, with Addison Reed and Jesse Crain quietly emerging as one of the best late-inning duos in the league. The offense has been another story, posting worse numbers than any team other than the Marlins. But even in that mess, there’s hope: Paul Konerko is almost a sure thing to show some positive regression at some point given his sudden plunge below replacement level, and you would have to figure Adam Dunn and Jeff Keppinger will do the same at some point, or else cede their jobs to players who almost by default would seem likely to fare better. This is a middle-of-the-pack attack over the past two weeks, so some of that bounce-back has already begun. Will that be enough to push the White Sox into the thick of a playoff race? Probably not. Are they a good bet to beat expectations yet again this year? Indeed they are.

18. LOS ANGELES ANGELS

They’ve won eight in a row, overcome swarms of bees, reaped massive returns from their 21-year-old franchise player after a relatively slow start, and they’ll get their ace back from an extended DL stint on Wednesday. It took a while, but the Angels are finally playing good baseball, and maybe, possibly, are becoming a threat in the AL playoff chase.

All of this starts with Mike Trout. After hitting just .252/.322/.402 through the first four weeks of the season, Trout has destroyed the league since, hitting .358/.441/.747 with 17 extra-base hits in 25 games. He’s walking more, striking out less, and hitting for more power than he did in his off-the-charts rookie season. Josh Hamilton, who started the year looking like he would be doomed to bust on his $125 million contract, has warmed with six homers in his past 18 games. Albert Pujols still looks like he’s running in quicksand thanks to foot and knee injuries, but he’s at least showing more power over the past couple weeks. Howie Kendrick is hitting for average, Chris Iannetta is walking a ton, and role players like J.B. Shuck have chipped in here and there. The Angels expected to hit, they’re now hitting, and odds are they will continue to hit.

It’s the pitching, Marty. Something’s got to be done about the pitching. Joe Blanton has been absolutely atrocious, rocking a 6.19 ERA that would be lovely if he were paying tribute to the good citizens of San Diego, but is much less so if he’s trying to win ballgames. Tommy Hanson’s superficial numbers have been better, but he’s striking out far fewer batters and allowing far more homers than he did at his peak three years ago. Jerome Williams pitched respectably in Sunday’s win against the abysmal Royals, but he’s shown nothing to indicate that he’s a viable long-term option in the rotation. The good news is that Jason Vargas and C.J. Wilson have pitched better lately, as has the embattled Angels bullpen. Ryan Madson suffered a setback in his rehab so there’s no reason to expect him back soon, but with Ernesto Frieri and Scott Downs handling the back of the pen well lately and Sean Burnett and others holding down their end, that might not be a major problem.

Despite the current winning streak, the Angels dug such a deep hole that they’re still four games under .500, with some distance to cover to approach the wild-card leaders, much less cut into the Rangers’ nine-game lead. For that, they’ll need Jered Weaver to pitch like he did at his best. Thing is, we haven’t seen his best in a while. Weaver yielded 15 homers in his final 15 starts of 2012, tossing high-80s fastballs but getting away with it thanks to a stingy Angels defense and some luck. He was throwing about 86-87 by the time he hurt his non-throwing arm in early April. The hope then was that a long absence could, in a strange way, help the Angels: If Weaver’s right arm returned to full strength while he sat on the shelf, that would become a huge asset for the remainder of the season. Having traded away Jean Segura and other prospects (and spent ungodly amounts of money) in recent years to support Arte Moreno’s all-in approach, the Angels have few attractive assets to offer if they want to upgrade their pitching, let alone find a true ace. Weaver’s matchup against the reeling Dodgers on Wednesday could start to tell us if they might have their old ace back.

25. MINNESOTA TWINS

Granting that the excellent Tigers, Braves, and Red Sox were responsible for most of the streak, losing 10 in a row is going to bury you ’round these parts. For that, the Twins can thank their starting rotation, which for seemingly the millionth year in a row4 is stuffed with chuckers who couldn’t dent a loaf of bread with their fastballs. Consider this: Twins starters own a 5.75 ERA (only the Astros are worse) with a 4.86 FIP (only the Astros, Jays and Padres are worse) and a 10.8 percent strikeout rate (nobody has been worse).5

In fact, the Twins starters’ inability to miss bats isn’t just bad by 2013 standards — it’s spectacularly, historically awful. The last teams’ starters to strike out hitters at such an infrequent rate were the K-deficient Royals and Angels staffs of the early ’80s. But league-average strikeout rates were much lower 30 years ago than they are this season, when they’ve reached an all-time high. According to FanGraphs, if you line up the Twins starters’ strikeout rate against league average this year, then compare that number to other rotations in previous seasons, you get … the worst strikeout rate by a starting staff in the history of baseball.

The Twins have tried to address this gigantic problem. Over the winter they traded Denard Span for Nationals pitching prospect Alex Meyer. They dealt Ben Revere to the Phillies for Vance Worley and prospect Trevor May. They’re waiting on Kyle Gibson to graduate from Triple-A sometime this year and teenage phenom J.O. Berrios to crack the big leagues in two, three, or four years. But the Twins’ system is still far deeper in position player talent than pitching talent, with Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, and others considered higher-ceiling players than their pitching counterparts on the farm.

Both Meyer and May have shown the kind of strikeout potential this season that the big league club’s staff lacks, but with control issues that cloud their futures. They also cost Minnesota two of its best trade chips in cost-controlled outfielders Span and Revere. There are still a few dangle-able pieces on hand, most notably Justin Morneau and Josh Willingham. But Morneau is not the elite threat he used to be and would only offer a few months of team control before he hits free agency, while all of Willingham’s numbers are down this year except his walk rate, as the 34-year-old outfielder shows signs of fading. Assuming franchise player Joe Mauer is not going anywhere, that leaves the Twins facing the prospect of several more years of soft-tossing sadness, making the road to pitching respectability long and painful.

The 30: Angel in the Outfield
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