May Flowers

The most frequently asked question I get is, "will player so-and-so keep doing what he's doing?"  Almost always the answer is no because if he's hitting .450 or throwing shutouts every time out, he can't keep it up, and if he's hitting .040 or getting bombed every time out, his luck is bound to change.  So with that in mind, here's a look at some recent trends in the AL:

Texas Corners
Right now, Hank Blalock is about as hot as a hitter can be.  So far this season he's hitting .359 and slugging over .600.  There are a lot of people out there saying "I told you so", exorcising themselves of last year's failure by Blalock to live up to their expectations.  But the celebration may be premature.  There's a trend developing this month that doesn't bode well for Blalock's near-term success.  True, he's hitting .324 in May, but he also only has 2 walks against 15 strikeouts.  And anyone who saw him flailing at 3 straight Travis Harper curveballs his last game knows that there's a book developing on him and it doesn't include fastballs.  Meanwhile, his contemporary Mark Teixeira has picked up his pace considerably after a horrendous April; Teixeira's hitting .310 and slugging .500 this month.  But the difference is that he's drawn 5 walks (in 26 fewer at bats) and struck out just 8 times.  I'm not saying that Blalock will suddenly plummet to last year's levels, but I am saying that unless he learns to recognize the curve a little better, a big slump is coming soon.

Boston Corners/DH
Bill Mueller is about the hottest hitter on the planet right now and he may not cool off.  He's always had the skills of a .300 hitter, but he's hitting doubles at an astonishing rate, leaving many to wonder if he can keep his slugging percentage above .550.  His statistical history says no way, but the fact that he's playing at Fenway might mean that he can.  No one will ever accuse Jody Reed of being one of the all-time great second baseman, but his OPS while he was in Boston was 100 points better than it was at any other stop.  Why?  The only significant difference in any of his numbers was the number of doubles he hit.  He averaged 43 a year while playing at Fenway, about 24 at his other stops.  Wade Boggs also experienced a dramatic drop in doubles after leaving Fenway, from about 45 a year to about 25.  It doesn't happen with all hitters, but there does seem to be some evidence that a particular kind of hitter experiences a significant increase in the number of doubles he hits when he plays at Fenway.  Mueller might be that kind of hitter.  

So Mueller seems a virtual lock to get the most at bats at third.  What about first base and DH?  Well, if Grady Little wants to win games, he should probably keep Jeremy Giambi as his DH full-time.  Not that it's causal, but the Sox are 17-9 when Giambi gets more than one plate appearance in a game.  Over the last 3 years, he's had almost no split - .267/.385/.447 vs lefties, .267/.385/.465 vs righties - and given regular at bats has upper 20s/ low 30s home run power.  
However, under only the most dire of circumstances should he play the field.  Kevin Millar has been a better hitter versus lefties (.313/.392/.518) so he should get those at bats when he's not subbing in the outfield or at first.  So that leaves first base for David Ortiz, Millar and Shea Hillenbrand to battle over.  Millar and Hillenbrand have the best range and Ortiz probably has the softest hands of the three so it's a matter of picking one's poison.  Millar also has some flexibility to play the outfield, so it really comes down to dividing up 550-600 at bats at first between Hillenbrand and Ortiz.  Personally, I'd go with Ortiz, who seems to have a better understanding of the strikezone, but I can see why some would prefer Hillenbrand for his aggressiveness and ability to make contact.  But over the long haul, Ortiz is the better choice and Hillenbrand should be dealt for whatever the Red Sox feel they need on the pitching side.

Batting champs who don't walk?
Jacque Jones is one of the batting leaders in the American League, which is amazing considering how rarely he walks.  Despite striking out 34 times and walking just 3, Jones is batting a robust .341.  Like Alfonso Soriano and Rocco Baldelli, he defies conventional wisdom with regards to plate discipline and hits .300 anyway.  This month, he's drawn zero walks, yet is hitting .362 and slugging .551.  Normally, I'd say that he's due for a significant drop-off, but the fact that he's been hitting this way for 4 years seems to indicate that there are some guys for whom walks simply don't matter; they just hit.  The difference between Jones and someone like Hank Blalock is that Blalock has always drawn a fair amount of walks and kept his strikeouts down; his 2003 season is uncharacteristic in that regard.  With Jones or Baldelli or Soriano, they have always been this way and seem to thrive despite it.  So if you're looking for any of these guys to slow down significantly, you may be shaking your head for a while.

The Yankees Struggles
Even though they are still in first place in the East, there do appear to be some cracks in the armor of the Yankees.  Surprisingly, the thing that most people cited at the beginning of the season as being their weakness - age in the rotation - has had no effect whatsoever on their performance.  What has been exposed is that their bullpen is dangerously thin.  It also hasn't helped that their offense has been sputtering and it may be due to the competition they've faced.  Over the last month they've faced some of the best teams in the AL - Boston, Anaheim, Oakland - and they've had their collective lunches handed to them.   The Yanks are batting a collective .240 in May with an on base of .320 and a slugging percentage of .387.  Part of that has to be attributed to injuries to some of their premier hitters.  But what has to a concern is the ineffectiveness of their bench.  Todd Zeile is hitting .176 over that period and Bubba Trammel, .190.  Bernie Williams knee injury may have played a part in his .567 OPS in May, but the same excuse can not be afforded to Soriano (.708) or Matsui (.722).  If age does catch up to the Yankee rotation this season, there's a real possibility that the Yanks may not make the playoffs.  Fixing a bullpen AND an offense may be too much even for the Yankee resources.

If you're worried about Miguel Tejada wilting under the pressure of his impending free agency, fear not.  He's hitting .288/.346/.534 this month, numbers that are solidly in line with what he did last season... While Frank Thomas might not rebound to his 2000 level when he hit .328 and slugged 43 homers, his .920-ish OPS is still better than 4 of his last 5 seasons.  He's hitting .284 this month and should improve as the season wears on as he'll face the Tigers' and Indians' young pitching staffs 22 more times... Ichiro is hitting like he did as a rookie.  After a slow start to the season, he's hitting .429 (and slugging .597!!) this month... Speaking of Mariners, Mike Cameron seems to have turned a corner and is starting to control the strikezone.  His walk rate is up and strikeout rate is down from previous years.  His batting average surge this month (.317) may be trend rather than an aberration... The Blue Jays, as a team, are hitting .312 and slugging .526 in May.  Leading the charge are Vernon Wells (.391/.429/.690), Shannon Stewart (.321/.375/.536), Carlos Delgado (.270/.393/.608) and... Greg Myers? (.405/.488/.703).  Who knew?