National / Sports / April 27, 2011

Early season breakouts

If there is one annual lesson to be learned from the first four weeks of Major League Baseball, it’s a simple proviso: it’s a weird game. How else could we explain Red Sox outfielder Carl Crawford being second-to-last in weighted on-base average (wOBA), only ahead of the brutally inefficient Ronny Cedeño?

And, on the flip side, what sense does it make that 30-year old Blue Jay Jose Bautista leads the league in wOBA, perhaps validating his absurd 2010 breakout season? Is he still all helium, or did he suddenly become the most fearsome hitter? Only time will tell. Here are three guys raising plenty of eyebrows.

Breakouts

Alex Gordon (Kansas City Royals): If ever there was a poster boy for the ineptitude of the Royals organization, it was Gordon. Formerly known as the “future George Brett,” Gordon has finally, at age 27, started to hit like he was supposed to six years ago (slash line of .351/.402/.521). His hot start, however, seems fueled by luck more than anything else. Gordon is swinging at an absurd 32 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, making 70 percent contact on those swings. Those are unsustainable rates—as is his .432 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Verdict: Gordon will fall back down to earth if he does not improve his walk rate and pitch selection.

Howie Kendrick (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim): He made a name for himself in the minor leagues as the sort of guy who could hit hard line-drives off mediocre pitching and find holes in a poor fielding defense. These skills did not carry over to the majors early in his career. Kendrick, now 27, seems to have found his power stroke in 2011. With a .563 slugging percentage and six home runs, Kendrick is powering an otherwise anemic Angels offense. Though Kendrick’s contact rate is down, he’s swinging at fewer and fewer pitches outside the zone—resulting in a 9 percent walk rate, more than double his career average. Verdict: Kendrick will not be able to sustain a slugging percentage above .500 if he does not bat at least .300; still, it seems if Kendrick can get his contact rate back in line with career norms and maintain his patient approach, he may finally fulfill his potential—albeit as a different sort of player.

Troy Tulowitzki (Colorado Rockies): This is a different sort of breakout. Tulowitzki has been a star for some time, but his name rarely came up in conversations about the game’s best player. But now Tulowitzki has elevated his game, and after a torrid finish in 2010, has started 2011 with an unbelievable power surge. Verdict: He’s for real—he’s walking more, striking out less and hitting the ball harder. Injuries have plagued Tulowitzki early in his career, but if he can maintain something near his unbelievable production, continue to play stellar defense and stay on the field for 150 games, he will be hard to beat for the National League’s Most Valuable Player award.

Kevin Morris


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