Misfire and Reload

OK, so I'm not Nostradamus.  Less than a week after I said the Blue Jays should consider playing Simon Pond in right field instead of Reed Johnson, they sent Pond the minors.  I'm disappointed on two levels because 1) they really didn't give Pond a chance - he had just 3 at bats.  Granted, he struck out all three times - 2 vs Jeremy Bonderman and 1 vs Mike Timlin - but it's still a pretty small sample size.  And 2) if they were worried about him striking out against everyone, why did they promote Chad Hermansen to replace him?

Just 5 years ago, Hermansen was one of the more highly touted hitting prospects in baseball, but then pitchers discovered that he had several very large holes in his swing.  Since then, he's wracked up some impressive strikeout totals.  In his brief major league forays since his debut in 1999, he has 165 strikeouts (vs 38 walks) in 485 at bats.  It hasn't been much better in the minors either: 311 Ks in 1095 at bats with only 99 walks. 

Last year he caught the Blue Jays eye when he hit .353 in AAA Las Vegas over 235 at bats.  However, what prompted them to make the move to sign him was that he struck out just 38 times and walked 19.   Has Hermansen finally figured it out?  If his start in Syracuse this year is any indication... probably not.  He was hitting .368 in 19 at bats with 2 homers, but had yet to draw a walk (giving him an on base of .333!) and had struck out 8 times.  The two homers is nice, but striking out in nearly half your at bats is not.  My guess is that his short season in Las Vegas was fluky and the Hermansen who's been fanning crowds since 1997 is the guy we'll see in Toronto.  Which is to say, we'll probably see Pond back with the Blue Jays in a month.

One pitcher I neglected to mention last week was Detroit's Nate Robertson.  His minor league record is fairly undistinguished, but for whatever reason this season he's wracking up a surprising number of strikeouts.  He has averaged around 6.16 per 9 innings for his career in the minors plus a couple cups of coffee in the bigs.  Using his spring training numbers plus regular season numbers, he has 36 Ks in 31 innings pitched to date this year.  And he's doing it against decent competition, like striking out 14 Blue Jays in 9 innings pitched.  This is quite a surprising output from a 26 year-old B prospect who's stuff is considered decent, but not overly noteworthy and no out pitch.  Can he continue?

The statistical indicators say no, at least with the strikeout rate.  And his walk rate is high, walking 8 in 11 regular season innings, so he's getting away with nibbling at the corners.  But the one thing that is said consistently about him is that he is a bulldog on the mound, so I'm not so certain he can't will himself to excellence at least for a short time.  Detroit's offense and defense are improved and they have a decent bullpen when Urbina is ready, so he could be a nice cheap source of decent pitching stats for the short term.  Other than Bonderman, he's the best starting pitcher the Tigers have so he'll certainly get the opportunity.  He'll have trouble with disciplined offenses like Boston and New York, but the fact that two of the most un-disciplined AL teams are in his division - Kansas City and Cleveland - and Chicago has been a little swing-happy this year, he could be vintage Mike Hampton-lite for a season.  Stranger things have happened.

Also falling into the "surprisingly good so far" category are Paul Wilson (CIN) and Dustin Hermanson (SF).  Both guys have enjoyed 2 solid starts against good offenses to open the season after struggling a bit the last couple of years.  The question is can they keep it up?  

Well, both pitchers have nice minor league pedigrees and are doing something they haven't been doing in recent years - throwing strikes.  Wilson has been a notorious nibbler even though his stuff, although not as dominating as it was before Dallas Green's exuberance sent him to the operating table, is decent.  Don Gullett is a phenomenal pitching coach - he turned Pete Schourek into an 18-game winner and made Elmer Dessens and Steve Parris look tradable - but maybe it's taken a season for Wilson to finally start believing what he's being taught.  Wilson was aggressive throwing early strikes to both the Cubs and Phillies, working quickly and never letting the hitters get settled in.  He won't be as dominating as he was potentially before his surgeries, but this is looking like a good year to ride him.

Likewise, Hermanson aggressively threw strikes in his first two outings.  While he doesn't have a great pitching coach working on his side - although Dave Righetti is pretty good - he does have a couple of things working in his favor that will help him along.  The first is that he'll pitch a good number of his starts at SBC (formerly Pac Bell) Park, which helps just about every pitcher.  The second is that the Giants understand that he's not a guy that can go more than 5 or 6 innings on a regular basis because he has never shown a great deal of stamina.  That's not surprising considering he was a reliever in college and in the minors.  What is interesting is that the guy who first converted him to a starter in Montreal, is now his manager in San Francisco, Felipe Alou.  And Hermanson was a pretty good starter under Alou, especially in 1997 and 1998.  If Alou can work his magic again, the Giants will have a solid #2 behind Jason Schmidt (no, Kirk Rueter does not qualify).