Five Breakthrough First Half Performers

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This Fourth of July weekend I’ll take stock of a few breakout
performers and duds of the first half and possible breakthrough
performers for the second half.

First, five breakthrough stars of the first half:

Edwin Jackson: Doesn’t It feel
like we have been talking about this guy forever? Blessed with a
mid-90s fastball and sweeping slider, it’s remarkable that it took
three organizations for Jackson to finally break through as a top of
the rotation starter. Acquired from the Rays in exchange for Matt Joyce
last December, he entered the season with a 25-30 career record and a
5.09 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in 77 career starts. But so far in 2009, it
looks like the Tigers may have pulled off the best trade of the winter,
as he is currently 6-4 with a 2.49 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over his first 16
starts. Jackson has already pitched seven innings or more while
allowing three runs or less nine times this season. The big difference?
Jackson finally has his control in check, averaging 2.41 BB/9 as
opposed to a 4.11 rate for his career. Jackson, Justin Verlander and
rookie Rick Porcello combined for 14 wins in May. How good is that?
Nationals starters have combined for just 15 wins all season.

Ben Zobrist: Zobrist showed
promise with a .318/.429/.459 line in the minors, but he went deep just
23 times in 1336 at-bats. As a result, he was never viewed as anything
more than a utility player when the Astros dealt him to Rays as part of
the Aubrey Huff trade back in 2006. But finally handed an every day
role this season, the man dubbed “Zorillia” is hitting a surprising
.292/.412/.620 with 16 bombs and 46 RBI. The power looks to be for
real, as the 28-year-old has homered 28 times in his last 407 major
league at-bats dating back to last season. Only Albert Pujols, Joe
Mauer and Prince Fielder have hit at a higher OPS this season. If you
managed to pluck Zobrist off the waiver wire in your fantasy league,
chances are your fellow owners hate you right now.

Andrew Bailey: The 25-year-old
Bailey was an unlikely source for saves as the season began, but
injuries to Joey Devine and Brad Ziegler have opened the door for the
rookie right-hander. While not yet officially named the closer by
manager Bob Geren, the former Wagner Seahawk has run with his
opportunities thus far, compiling a 2.09 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, .173 BAA and
eight saves in 12 chances. Aided by a fastball that touches the
upper-90s, a traditional 12-to-6 curve and a biting slider, Bailey has
an impressive 57/19 K/BB ratio in his first 47 1/3 career innings. And
standing at a sturdy 6-feet-4 and 235 pounds, he has the durability to
handle the job. In fact, 13 of his 36 appearances this season have been
for at least one inning. Bailey fits the profile of a dominant closer.

Pablo Sandoval: Okay,
maybe this one is unfair. After all, Sandoval hit .345 in 145 at-bats
last season. The fact that he has a .329 batting average over the first
74 games of 2009 comes as no huge surprise, but he is notable here
because of his rapid progression in the power department. “Kung-Fu
Panda” has already homered 12 times in 277 at-bats this season after
going deep just three times last season. He lead the majors with an
insane 1.207 OPS in June. Granted, only his teammate Bengie Molina
swings more often than he does (58.1%), but he balances that with a
pretty decent contact rate (81.8%) and low strikeout rate (15.5% as
opposed to a 20% league average). He’ll likely never be known for his
glove and just where he fits in long-term — he was groomed as a
catcher/first baseman in the minors — remains to be seen, but he’s
gone a long way towards proving that his minor league totals were not a
fluke.

Aaron Hill: The power was never
a question for a Hill — he hit 17 homers in 2007 — but he was a
largely forgotten man after suffering a concussion last May. Naturally,
he entered the season as a huge question mark, but through just 348
at-bats this season, Hill has already established a new career high
with 19 home runs. Among second basemen, Hill leads in hits, homers,
RBI and total bases. He’s currently third in the majors with 32
multi-hit games and trails only Ichiro in hits (104). It’s easy to say
he’s getting lucky with the homers — roughly 16 percent of his
flyballs have left the yard– but he has a .307 BABIP this season,
actually nine points below his career average. Ian Kinsler and Dustin
Pedroia get a lot of the pub, and rightfully so, but Hill has matched
or outproduced them in most categories.

How Yu Darvish tipped his pitches during the World Series

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You hear a lot about pitchers tipping pitches. It’s often offered up post-facto as an excuse for poor performance by the pitcher himself or his own team. It’s sort of like the “best shape of my life” thing being offered in the offseason to talk about why the player got injured or played badly the previous year. “Smitty’s stuff is still great, he was just tipping his pitches,” said a source close to the player whose stuff is not really great anymore.

Which isn’t to say that pitchers don’t tip pitches. Of course they do. Opposing teams look for it, pick up on it and take advantage of it whenever they can. It’s just that (a) the opposing team has an interest in not talking about it, lest the pitcher STOP tipping its pitches; and (b) the guy actually tipping his pitches doesn’t want to talk specifically about it lest he starts doing it again.

Which is what makes this article at Sports Illustrated so interesting. In it Tom Verducci talks to an anonymous Houston Astros player who explains how Dodgers starter Yu Darvish was tipping his pitches during the World Series, leading to him getting absolutely shellacked in Games 3 and 7. The upshot: the Astros knew when a slider or a cutter was coming, they waited for it and they teed off.

Darvish is a free agent now. I’m guessing, whoever signs him, knows exactly what they’ll gave him work on the first day of spring training.