April Surprises

Every year, several players start the season putting up gaudy numbers that dwarf anything they've done recently.  Most of these guys come back to their normal level of production.  But there are a few who have a history of high performance who are actually revealing their true level of expected production.  Either in college or in the minors or in a different role in which they have been commonly used, they showed a strong indication that they are capable of producing at a much higher level than they have previous to this season.  Here are some of this year's likely candidates to maintain most if not all the gains they've made so far this season.


Hideki Irabu
There have been a lot of comments made in the fantasy community about Hideki Irabu's ability to hold on to the closer's job in Texas.  I'm going to go out on a very thick limb here: unless Jeff Zimmerman comes back full strength, not only will Hideki Irabu close for the Rangers for the rest of the year, but he'll be one of the 5 best closers in the AL.

None of the other Ranger relievers have really distinguished themselves, and in spring training it was reported that Ranger pitching coach Oscar Acosta pointed to Irabu as the guy that should have opened the season as the closer.

Irabu's career numbers in relief to date lend some support to this idea:

Name         IP     H   ER   HR   BB    K     ERA    WHIP    OpBA
Irabu       20.2   15    7    1    7    23    3.05   1.065   .195

And lest you think these numbers were compiled against the AL's numerous patsies, they didn't.  They came largely against 3 of the best line-ups in the AL - Texas (when he was with the Yankees), Oakland and Seattle - and 2 other very good ones (Toronto and Cleveland).

Orlando Hernandez
As with Irabu, there hasn't been a great deal of confidence in the continued effectiveness of Orlando Hernandez.  He's either too old or too brittle or too whatever.  His listed age is 32, but everyone knows he's 36.  That's still 4 years younger than Roger Clemens and 3 years younger than David Wells yet no one is talking about their age and they're on the same team as El Duque.

As for his injury history, last year's performance had as much to do with his ailing father as his toe and elbow problems.  When healthy (and he is healthy this year) Hernandez is a very good pitcher.  His first 3 years in the bigs looked like this:

Name         IP     H    ER   HR   BB     K     ERA    WHIP    OpBA
Hernandez   551    486   245  69   190   429    4.00   1.227   .227

But what people forget is that last year, he didn't have much of a chance to explore the "new" strikezone.  Many older pitchers (Clemens, Moyer and Appier to name a few) enjoyed big years with more room up-and-down to work with.  Hernandez, with his numerous arm angles, should be able to exploit the changes just as well.

Jay Gibbons
Gibbons has been a big surprise opening the first month of the season among the league leaders in home runs.  He does have good power, as evidenced by his 15-homer output last year in just 225 at bats.  However, most people were scared off by his .236 batting average.  The bad news is that he doesn't have league leading power.  While he's averaged a home run every 20.1 at bats in the minors (30-homer power), he's always been much older than his competition.  The good news is that his average last year was probably the aberration.  His career minor league batting average was .332 and he showed a discriminating eye at the plate - 155 walks in 1268 at bats, but only 186 strikeouts.  Given the level of competition he's faced, he probably grades out to a .280-.290-ish hitter with 20-25 home run power.

Randall Simon
Simon has been a nice surprise for Tiger fans.  He's among the league leaders in homers, RBI and batting average while getting a third fewer at bats than others among the elite.  While his major league record doesn't support this kind of output, good power and batting average are not altogether foreign to him.  When he has a prospect in the Braves system, he showed decent power potential.

Year   Level    Age    AB    H    Ave    2B    HR    BB    K
1995   High A    20   420   111  .264    18    18    36    63
1996    AA       21   498   139  .279    26    18    37    61
1997    AAA      22   519   160  .308    45    14    17    76

As one can see by his relatively low strikeout rate, Simon makes contact.  The past couple of years he's improved his selectivity at the plate.  While he likely won't continue among the league leaders in power, it would not be that surprising for him to remain among the league leaders in batting average and finish with 20 homers.


Eric Gagne
Gagne came to spring training with outside hopes of making the Dodger rotation.  But the Dodgers were loaded there and were looking desperately for bullpen help.  Gagne got the call to the pen and has been absolutely dominating ever since.  But can he continue?  In all likelihood, yes.  His career ERA as a reliever is more than a run better than as a starter.  His career numbers as a reliever are also pretty impressive by themselves:

Name         IP     H   ER   HR   BB    K     ERA    WHIP    OpBA
Gagne       30.2   19    8    4   10    30    2.34   0.946   .171

The only troubling signs are the home run rate and the fact that batter hit better against him in his first 15 pitches than they do at any other time.  The plus side is that he is at his toughest when runners are in scoring position: batter hit just .222 w/RISP as opposed to .251 overall.

Odalis Perez
Perez was key to the deal that sent Gary Sheffield to the Braves and brought both Perez and Brian Jordan to the Dodgers.  He never really put up the gaudy numbers associated with top pitching prospects in the minors, but overall they were very solid:

Name         IP     H    ER    BB    K     ERA    WHIP    OpBA
Perez       355    317  116   118   387   2.94   1.225    .229

Injuries slowed his development, but there was no question he had a special arm.  What he lacked in Atlanta was steady opportunity.  The Dodgers were looking to add a power lefty to the rotation to complement Kevin Brown and Hideo Nomo and that's exactly what they got in Perez.  He won't continue to dominate the way he has so far, but given the home park he'll be pitching in, there's no reason why he can't be among the best young starters in the NL in ERA, ratio and strikeouts.

Michael Barrett
After Barrett's 4th season in the minors, he was being compared to Scott Rolen at the plate.  And why not: he had just finished a season in AA in which he hit .320 with 19 homers and 32 doubles, displaying a selective eye.  However, organizational mishandling regarding what position they wanted him to play undermined any consistency that he was trying to establish.  Last year, the Expos finally decided that Barrett was going to be their catcher.  This year, manager Frank Robinson decided to stick with him there, despite last year's woeful performance both at the plate and behind it.  Barrett has rewarded that confidence with a start indicative of his level of talent.  A year similar to his triumph in AA is definitely possible, perhaps even likely.

Danny Bautista
With the departure of Reggie Sanders, the Diamondbacks were looking for someone to give them production from right field.  Erubial Durazo was the strongest candidate, but a hand injury in spring training sidelined him for the first month of the season.  Bautista stepped into the opportunity and has made the Diamondback's decision much harder when Durazo returns.  Over his last 2 seasons he's combined for 16 homers, 9 steals, 85 RBI and a .291 average in 573 at bats.  There may be more upside than that:

Year   Level    Age    AB    H    Ave    2B    HR    BB    K   SB
1999    AAA     27    135   43   .319     8     8    11   18    3
1999    maj.    27    205   59   .288    10     5     4   30    3

Split between AAA and the majors that year, he hit 13 homers in just 340 at bats, a rate that would give him more than 20 homers with regular playing time.  The poor strikeout-to-walk ratio in his major league appearance that year shouldn't be a concern as he has improved in that regard in each of the last 3 seasons to a level similar to that of his AAA numbers.  His current pace of 26 homers, 13 steals and a high batting average is slightly optimistic, but only slightly.

© 2002, All Rights Reserved