Fast Starts and Other Oddities

I think it's safe to say that just about everyone knew going into this season that, despite having the second worst team ERA in the majors last year, that the Kansas City Royals would not only go the first 2 weeks without a loss but would boast the ERA leader of 2003 as well.  And that Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez would combine for more earned runs after 3 starts each than 14 entire pitching staffs.  And that the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that hasn't had a top starter since the last George Bush was in office, would have two pitchers in the top 20 in ERA.

No?  Granted it's early, but there are some strange things afoot this season.  Some of them real, some of them just a mirage created by the early season's small sample.

Mike MacDougal

Mike MacDougal's fast start can be attributed to one thing: the Royal's schedule.  Like the other Kansas City pitchers, the only veteran line-up he's faced is the White Sox.  While it's true he and Royals will get more than their fair share of days against the Tigers and Indians this season, it's doubtful the White Sox will be so docile the next time they meet.  And his propensity to walk batters certainly won't be overlooked by the Yankees, As, Red Sox and the other strong offenses in the AL.

Still, there is some precedent for wild closers to remain in the role for the entire year and even remain effective. Mitch Williams, John Rocker, Jose Mesa, Armando Benitez and Kelvim Escobar have each been relatively successful despite high walk rates.  As long as his strikeout rate remains strong, his ERA shouldn't be too adversely affected.  The only downside here is that his WHIP might get a tad ungainly.  For those who have him on their fantasy rosters, a good insurance policy is DJ Carrasco.  While he has little experience above A-ball, he has very good control of above average stuff and looks like the best candidate to get the save opps on days MacDougal has off or to take over if MacD pitches his way out of the role.

Runelvys Hernandez

Here's another pitcher who has benefited from a weak early schedule.  His record indicates he's a solid pitcher, but not the star he appears to be at this point.  He has good K/BB rates and K/IP rates, but he's never put up phenomenal rates at any level.  They're good, but not certainly great.  On the plus side, he's 25, so he's past the point where usage needs to be a real concern.

So the question is can he keep it up?  No, he won't win 35 games and post an ERA under 1.00.  But he can be like a young Kevin Appier with a low 3s ERA and sub-1.250 WHIP.  With moderate run support, he might win 20 games.

Esteban Loaiza

As I wrote in an earlier column, Loaiza has always frustrated pitching coaches because he has such quality stuff, yet still manages to get hit hard.  His problem has always been that he nibbled around the edges of the plate, getting himself into deep or unfavorable counts, which led to making mistakes over the plate.  This year, because of the team he's on, that might change.  Historically, he has done very well against Central division teams, Detroit especially.  This is readily apparent from his first 2 starts.

The White Sox have a strong offense, which gives their pitchers confidence that if they make a mistake, the other guys on the team will score enough to make up for it.  Loaiza no longer feels he has to make perfect pitches around the edges, so he can pitch more aggressively and therefore let his natural stuff get the hitters out.  It wouldn't be that surprising if he finished with similar or better numbers than anyone on the White Sox staff.

Brian Anderson

Seam-heads have always loved Brian Anderson because he walks so few hitters.  Unfortunately, he gets hit hard and ends up giving up just as many baserunners as wilder pitchers.  He has opened the season very well for Cleveland, placing in the top 20 in ERA so far and chalking up 2 wins in 2 starts.  However, that likely won't continue.

He's managed to avoid getting hit too hard so far largely because one of his two starts came against the Orioles.  His biggest obstacle to keeping this up, however, is his inability to strike hitters out.  Even against the Orioles, he wasn't fooling hitters, with many of the outs being hard hit balls right at a fielder.  He simply doesn't have the stuff to keep his strong start going.

Tanyon Sturtze

Sturtze has been a victim of bad luck: bad luck that he's been on the Devil Rays the past two and a half years.  Despite that, he has shown glimpses of quality work, so there's definitely some talent here.  After the All-Star break in 2000, he pitched in 10 games, 5 of which were starts.  His record was 4-0 over 36.2 innings, allowing 40 baserunners, 10 earned runs (2.46 ERA) and he struck out 28 batters.  The following year, again after the break, he made 15 starts, posted an ERA of 3.68 with a record of 8-5.

The point is that he has talent to be a decent, perhaps even a good starter in the major leagues.  However, the team behind him simply hasn't scored or caught the ball consistently enough for us to see this easily.  That has changed.  Now he's on a good team with excellent defense and this strong start is just a sample of what he can do.  Although he's not going to become an ace, he will be a strong 3rd or 4th starter on an AL-only fantasy staff.

Paul Wilson

Like Sturtze, Wilson will benefit from leaving the Devil Rays and moving to a team that can score and catch the ball.  And despite the fact that he's a predominantly flyball pitcher moving to a park that appears to be Coors lite, his numbers should still be pretty good.  For one, his strikeout totals will see a boost from facing pitchers instead of regular hitters.  And two, even if Griffey does not return, he'll have at least two excellent fielders running down the flyballs in the outfield, so far fewer of them will be turning into extra base hits.

Multiple arm surgeries and early overuse have taken such a toll on Wilson that he will never become the Mark Prior-like ace he was in college and in the minors.  But this move back to the National League, specifically to Cincinnati where pitching guru Don Gullett has a habit of getting the most out of his pitchers looks like a smart one for Wilson.  Despite facing a couple of pretty tough line-ups so far (Phillies and Cubs), he posted solid numbers.  Because he'll get to face poor offenses like Milwaukee and Pittsburgh so often, he could win 15 games this season if the Reds bullpen pitches better in his starts.

Rocco Baldelli

Like Alfonso Soriano, Baldelli has good tools but almost no pitch recognition or discipline.  But like Soriano, that shouldn't be too much of a hindrance.  No, he won't hit in the high .300s all season, but he won't be looking up at .240 either.  He has deceptively good speed so if he makes enough contact, he'll beat out 10-20 infield squibs for hits.

The main difference between him and Soriano is that there's little chance that Baldelli's walk rate will improve over the next few years.  Soriano was surrounded by guys who drew walks and who could communicate the value of drawing walks.  Very few of Baldelli's teammates draw many walks and his manager, Lou Pinella, averaged fewer than 25 walks a season during his playing career.  Anyone have a spare copy of "The Science of Hitting" by Ted Williams they could send to Tampa?

Jose Cruz Jr

It seems out of place to see Jose Cruz Jr atop the majors in home runs, but he's always had good power.  What's more surprising is that he's walked nearly as often as he's struck out.  The last two years, he's been quite the free-swinger, getting away from the career path his early seasons projected.  But previous to that, he was definitely on the right track, improving his walk totals while reducing his strikeout rate each year from 1997-2000.  So it's quite conceivable that what we are seeing now is the real Cruz.  While his average will probably drop to the .270-.280 range, if he continues to show this kind of discipline at the plate don't be surprised if he hits more than 40 homers this season.

Travis Lee

When Lee came up, there was a great debate as to who would be the more productive first baseman over the course of his career, Lee or Todd Helton.  Even adjusting Helton's numbers to a neutral ballpark, it's been no contest, but that doesn't mean that Lee's talent is simply not there.  Why it hasn't happened for him is anybody's guess.

Some have suggested that he simply wasn't motivated enough, so perhaps Lou Pinella is the right guy to do it.  True, Larry Bowa is a fiery manager like Pinella, but the difference is that Sweet Lou has a much better record than Bowa.  His teams have won as many as 116 games in a season and, unlike Bowa, Pinella has won a World Series as a manager.  That shouldn't really count against Bowa because part of that equation is the level of talent he's had on his teams.  But to some players, that's a big deal.  And so maybe the same advice coming from Pinella makes more sense to him.  Who knows.  One thing is for sure is that the talent level on display is for real because he's been this good before in the minors and early in his rookie year.  It's only a matter of whether has the strong desire for the results to continue.  With Pinella in charge, I'd bet yes.

Xavier Nady

A lot of people point to Xavier Nady's walk rate in the minors and say that his early success this season will be fleeting.  What they probably forget is that X has been playing for much of the last 2 seasons with a bum elbow that required ligament replacement surgery.  And while that is not as serious an injury as it would be if he were a pitcher, it still had to have some effect on his bat speed and control.

Nady broke Mark McGwire's Pac-10 slugging record while he was at Cal and most people agree he has the power to hit 40 homers a season in the bigs once he gets settled in.  He has good pitch recognition and plate coverage, but more importantly, a good plan when he comes to the plate.  No, he won't continue to hit .340 this season.  But .270 with 20-25 homers?  Sure, with improving batting average over the next few years as he learns the league, and a similar career path to that of Pat Purrell.