National / Sports / May 12, 2010

Six storylines six weeks in

Major League Baseball will be entering its sixth week of the season soon and the storylines are plenty. Here are a few:

Are Doug Fister and Livan Hernandez really this good?

No, no, they aren’t. Fister, a 26-year-old righty who stands six feet, eight inches has dominated the American League thus far, posting an ERA of 1.71 and a league-leading WHIP of .881. Nine years older than Fister, Hernandez has a microscopic ERA of 1.04 and a .992 WHIP—neither of which lead the National League, thanks to the Rockies’ Ubaldo Jimenez.

This is a significant storyline for a few reasons: both are finesse pitchers and both are going to get beaten like a rented mule and soon. Fister has benefited from a Mariners defense ranked fourth in the league in UZR/150, while Hernandez’s Nationals come in the top 50 percent.

Unfortunately for Seattle and Washington, each pitcher’s current performance is wholly unsustainable. And by that, I don’t mean to say just that neither will continue to have a sub-1 WHIP and sub-2 ERA-I mean that both should finish with an ERA between 4 and 5 and a WHIP in the 1.30-1.50 range. Nothing to sneeze at from a fifth starter, but not the unforeseen April performance either.

But why is that? Why will they regress? Why can’t they maintain a great performance? Well, simply, most pitchers have to miss bats to be successful. There are exceptions, guys like Mark Buehrle and Jamie Moyer, but they are trailblazers in their own right. Guys who rely on the defense to record most outs are less likely to be elite pitchers. Even guys like Buehrle and Moyer are nice, but not ace quality.

That said, Fister is the more likely of the two to maintain a sub-3 ERA. His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) statistic is a solid 3.03. Hernandez? 4.61. Ouch.

Are the Rays for real, again?

Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes. This is a great team. They’ve got the third best defense in baseball by UZR/150, a top ten pitching staff by FIP and a league average offense. There’s more talent in the lineup than that, so expect a sizable improvement offensively.

Should that improvement stall, they’ve got valuable trading pieces in B.J. Upton-only tradable due to the emergence of Desmond Jennings. Jennings, a 23-year-old center fielder, has speed, power, plate discipline, defense, everything. The Rays hope he can turn into what Upton was supposed to be.

On the pitching side, their minor leagues are stacked again. While other teams will be scouring the market for pitching help at the deadline, the Rays can just look down on the farm and call upon another 23-year-old: Jeremy Hellickson. With pinpoint control and an improving strikeout rate, Hellickson should slot into the rotation some time this summer.

As good as they are now, wait until the reinforcements come.

Is Starlin Castro a budding superstar?

I doubt it. Sure, everybody loves 20-year-old middle infielders with good bat speed who improve every year in the minor leagues. And they should. But Castro’s not that guy. He’s a good player and will be a cost-efficient, non-Ryan Theriot solution at shortstop for years to come, but he’s not Jeter, not Nomar-maybe Michael Young. If he can make consistent contact and bat around .300, he’ll be an occasional all-star. If his contact rate falls or his numbers are artificially inflated by high BABIP, think Alex Gonzalez.

Nothing to sneeze at, really. Gonzalez has stuck around a long time and is off to a fairly hot start this season. Still, if I’m the Cubs, weathering the decline of Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, I want to build around a potential superstar. I’m just not sure Castro can do it.

Is Austin Jackson a budding superstar?

Like Castro, I’m going to cast doubt on this one. Castro’s only five games into his career and Jackson has been in the every day lineup in Detroit since opening day, but the comparison still holds.

Jackson is batting .360/.408/.493, which can most aptly be described as Ichiro-like. The Tigers received Jackson in the deal that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees and so far most Detroit fans have to feel like they ripped off the Yankees.

If we’re strictly talking value and surplus performance relative to salary, three cost-controlled years followed by three more team-controlled years of Jackson has to put Detroit ahead. That said, Jackson’s edifice is not quite so, well, natural.

Currently sporting a .500 BABIP, a 7.5 percent walk percentage, and a 28.7 percent strikeout percentage, Jackson’s performance is less sustainable than British Petroleum (hi’yo!). By mid-June, expect something more like .300/.340/.420. Good for a rookie? Absolutely-but just that: good. He’ll be in the league a long time, but I’m not sure he’s anything more than a poor man’s Alex Rios.

Bonus: Jackson almost attended the University of Illinois to play basketball. He would have played alongside Dee Brown and James Augustine. Ah, what should have been.

The Padres have the same record as the…Phillies?

Yes, oddly. I’m not sure what to make of this either, other than to say Jon Garland’s fall will be long, steep, hard and pleasurable for any White Sox fan who couldn’t stand watching hitters tee off on his thigh-high “sinker.”

Adrián González is certainly a factor, but he’s not carrying them (imagine if he was). His .871 OPS is very good considering half his games are played in PetCo, but he’s getting great help from journeyman extraordinaire Scott Hairston (.893 OPS) and Chase Headley (.763 OPS).

While it was once assumed the team would cut ties with González midseason, it’s anyone’s guess now. Sure, we are only 32 games into the season and no one should expect Wade LeBlanc or Garland to continue tossing sub-2 ERA ball, but there’s reason to think they could challenge for the wild card in a down NL West. It’s not like the Rockies have their shit together yet.

And, on a personal note, could the Padres have possibly done better unloading the entirety of Jake Peavy’s contract? With Clayton Richard making strides at the major league level and Adam Russell showing he’s, at the least, a guy you can put in middle relief, the Padres have nothing to complain about on that front.

Just how bad are the White Sox?

Not this bad, but decidedly mediocre. Vegas pegged them at 79 wins, which seems about right. Having taken their first game ever at Target Field, they cut into a colossal Minnesota lead.

New acquisitions Jake Peavy and Alex Rios have come around (with Peavy taking a little longer). Others though, such as Omar Vizquel and Juan Pierre have been predictably terrible, with only the latter showing any signs of life lately. A.J. Pierzynski has disappointed, Gavin Floyd looks like the guy who bombed out of Philly and Mark Buehrle is getting battered. Carlos Quentin looks lost, Gordon Beckham looks like a one-year wonder and Bobby Jenks continues his slow descent from a fat hillbilly who could throw a baseball to a fat hillbilly who cannot throw a baseball.

Sounds like a fun year, right?

Kevin Morris

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