April flew by quicker than a Justin Verlander fastball. It’s hard to believe that the first 1/8th of the season is already in the books. Triple Crown threats, preseason favorites already in trouble, surprise teams still surprising, and big money contract players bombing were at the forefront this week.
The Triple Crown
Yes, the Kentucky Derby is going to be run on Saturday, horse racing’s first leg of the Triple Crown. The last horse to win the Triple Crown, which consists of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes was Affirmed in 1978 but it isn’t that Triple Crown which is in my mind right now.
The last baseball player to win the Triple Crown was Carl Yastremski, who in 1967 batted .326 and hit 44 home runs and drove in 121 runs. I was asked a few years ago by a fan of both baseball and horse racing whether we’d see a Triple Crown winner in our lifetimes in either horse racing or baseball and if so, which sport would we witness it in? I responded that we would never see a Triple Crown winner in either sport in our lifetimes. I think that Matt Kemp, Josh Hamilton, or BOTH are going to make a liar out of me this year.
Matt Kemp’s April performance has been an incredible thing to witness. Kemp is batting .425 and currently leading the NL in batting average by 28 points over New York Met David Wright. Kemp narrowly lost the batting average category last year but with this incredible start is a solid favorite to win the batting title this year. Kemp has already hit 11 home runs, 4 more than Jay Bruce of the Reds who has 7 home runs. Kemp has 24 RBI’s, which have him in a tie for the NL lead with teammate Andre Ethier. Kemp’s biggest hurdle this season in his pursuit of the Triple Crown will probably be RBI’s, which are dependent on your teammates giving you the chance to drive those runs in by getting on base ahead of you. Kemp is challenged in the RBI category as he bats third behind two players with light OBP’s and obviously the pitcher in the 9th spot after the first inning. Most of the reason Kemp’s teammate Ethier has 24 RBI’s so far this year is that he follows Kemp and his .425 AVG, .495 OBP, and mind-boggling 1.382 OPS. If Kemp can win the RBI title, I do believe he will take the Triple Crown in the NL.
Josh Hamilton currently leads the AL in home runs and RBI’s with 9 and 25 respectively. Hamilton trails his elder Derek Jeter by 1 point in the batting average column right now. The only thing that can keep Hamilton from the Triple Crown in the AL is his health. The Ballpark at Arlington is a launching pad when the heat rises in the summer months and for Hamilton to already have 9 home runs bodes well for his chances at the home run title. As great as Derek Jeter is and nice as the David Ortiz stories is, it is very unlikely that either can keep pace with the younger column in the average department for an entire season. Hamilton bats third in a lineup that is the best in MLB by a mile in my opinion, and his RBI opportunities are amazingly high because of this. Hamilton did leave the game last night against Tampa Bay with a stiff back, but it doesn’t appear to be a serious injury. If Hamilton can play 135 games this season, he will be very likely to win the Triple Crown.
REMAIN CALM!! ALL IS WELL!!
Those famous words spoken by Kevin Bacon’s character in the final scene of comedy classic Animal House are now being heard spoken by Phillies and Angels fans, and they don’t sound any more convincing than Kevin’s character did. There are legitimate concerns for the two teams favored by many to meet in the World Series.
The Angels trail the Texas Rangers by 9 games in the AL West, which is the largest gap in any division in baseball from the first place team to the last place team. The Angels have two very serious problems beyond Albert Pujols’ slump in April. The Angels just can’t hit and their bullpen is lousy in the 8th and 9th innings. It’s one thing to need a few bats to wake up, it is another to need an entire team to wake up. Yes, the Angels have a great starting pitching rotation, but baseball games are not won with starting pitching alone despite the recent koolaid being pushed by the mainstream baseball media. Baseball is about equal parts offense, defense, starting pitching, and in this day and age the bullpen means as much as anything else. The Angels’ bullpen has blown an incredible 6 saves already and managed to complete only 2 saves. When your bullpen has only completed 25% of save situations you have a serious problem.
Pujols’ stunning April slump may be grabbing the headlines, but the Angels have far bigger issues than Pujols and look fully invested and unlikely to make any major moves before the deadline. Rarely is pressure an issue at the start of May, but with the lofty expectations that so many had for the Angels and with the money spent on free agents Pujols and CJ Wilson pressure is on this team to dig out of the hole they are in. That kind of pressure is the last thing that a team with a stagnant lineup and faltering bullpen needs. Already the Angels’ brass has hit the panic button, this week releasing Bobby Abreu and calling up Mike Trumbo from the minors. Trumbo was immediately put into the leadoff spot, a further sign that desperate measures are already being taken.
I went to check my phone for text messages yesterday, and the first one I saw was a message from my friend Michael, a diehard Phillies fan already at a level of high anxiety about the Phillies and their 2012 start. The message said “we made Garza look like Walter Johnson today”. The Phillies are making a lot of starters look like Walter Johnson these days.
Cliff Lee is on the DL for the Phillies, but his absence isn’t the cause of the Phillies’ woes and inconsistency. The Phillies’ team batting average is .244 and the Phillies’ team OBP is a pathetic .288. Only the Pirates have a lower team OBP in the NL. Obviously the absence of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have had a negative impact on the Phillies’ offense but counting on them to provide the boost they need offensively isn’t a sure thing. Howard and Utley both have serious conditions that they are attempting to work back from, and what level of help they can offer upon their returns is questionable. With the NL East obviously the toughest division from top to bottom in the NL, the Phillies are not going to have an easy time making the playoffs without a serious increase in their offensive production.
Orioles and Indians
That sounds like the answer to a trivia question like ”name two hopeless AL teams with long-suffering fans who haven’t won a title in at least 25 years”. Instead, it’s the answer to “name two teams currently in first place in their divisions.”
The Baltimore Orioles are perhaps the most unlikely division leader as April draws to a close. The perennial doormat in the AL East since Tampa Bay emerged from the cellar in 2008, the Orioles have parlayed great pitching, good hitting and solid defense into the lead in the powerhouse AL East. A key stat to the Orioles’ great start? Their pitching staff has an ERA of 3.06, which is 2nd only to the Texas Rangers in the AL. While the feeling of inevitability that the Orioles will be passed by most of the other teams in the AL East is strong, the Orioles really appear to have emerged from doormat status. It’s not just the Orioles’ record, but a sense you get from watching them play, that they are once again a real ball club with a very realistic chance at a .500 season.
The Cleveland Indians aren’t far behind the Orioles in terms of shock value as division leaders. It isn’t shocking that the Indians are in front from a talent standpoint. The Indians appeared to have a good young nucleus of position players and pitchers as well as a very good manager when the season began. What is shocking about the Indians being in first place in the AL Central is that they have a team batting average of .244(8th in the AL) and a team ERA of 4.10(7th in the AL). Key stat in the Indians’ early success? The Indians have been walk masters, and those walks have propelled the Indians to a team OBP of .342, which trails only the Yankees and Rangers in the AL in that statistical category. Baserunners win games.
47.9 Million Dollars Doesn’t Buy What It Used To
Albert Pujols signed a 10 year, 254 million dollar contract in the offseason. Pujols will make 25.4 million dollars this year to play first base for the Angels. Thus far Pujols’ time with the Angels can best be described as a nightmare. Pujols is hitting .216 with only a microscopic OBP of .266. Pujols has yet to hit a single home run for his new club and has driven in only 4 runs.
Pujols appears to be having trouble making an adjustment to being shifted on, seeing faster AL fastballs, and pressing to justify his big money deal which has altered his mechanics to the point where his swings are hard to believe. You’d have to think that at some point he’ll bottom out and start hitting but something that the great broadcaster Ken Singleton has said on Yankee broadcasts about slow starts has always stood out in my mind.
Singleton was a very good ballplayer(and even better in the booth, he’s the best Yankee TV broadcaster of my lifetime, and most Yankee fans wish he’d work every single game) for the Expos and the Orioles. Singleton on several occasions has spoken of his 1976 season, in which he got off to a terrible start in April that was then followed by an equally terrible May in which he pressed to make things happen. He said that a bad start will often make a good player press and make bad swings because the feeling is that a walk won’t do anything to increase their batting average and the instinct is to try to make something happen rather than letting good at bats come to you. It is indeed stunning that Pujols has only been walked 6 times so far this season and could be indicative of what I’ve come to call the Singleton Syndrome.
Mark Teixeira will make 22.5 million dollars this year, not quite as much as Pujols, but still a nice chunk of change to play a kid’s game.
Teixeira’s 2009 regular season was a phenomenal one, helping to propel the Yankees to the AL East crown and a one seed in the playoffs. His home run total and RBI totals remained high in 2010 and 2011 but everyone knows that RBI’s are a function of who hits ahead of you and following guys named Gardner, Jeter, Granderson, Cano, and Arod means that if you don’t have at LEAST 100 RBI’s that you are probably in a coma.
Teixeira’s lifetime .300 plus batting average was a huge reason the Yankees gave him an 8 year, 180 million dollar contract. Teixeira’s batting average/OBP have gone from .292/.383 in 2009 to .256/.365 in 2010 to .248/.341 in 2011 and he’s gotten off to a .229/.278 start in 2012.
In addition to his tiny AVG/OBP in April this year, Teixeira only has three home runs and an OPS of only .663
Teixeira’s postseason performance as a Yankee has been miserable, going 18-106 with only 3 home runs.
As a matter of fact, including the playoffs, since the end of the 2009 regular season Teixeira has gone 337-1379(.244)
Teixeira’s glove remains the best in the game at first base day in and day out and his home runs have been very valuable the last two years as his AVG/OBP took over 40 point plunges. He has had slow starts before but this start is very alarming because of all the preseason talk that Teixeira had gotten into better shape, vowed to work on beating the shift, was working on getting his level swing back, etc.
Many Yankee fans are largely in denial about Teixeira but the bottom line is that his contract is one of the worst in MLB and he’s been a huge disappointment. Teixeira was given that monster contract in large part because he was supposed to be the .300 plus, switch hitting, three man in the order for years. He’s now the .229 hitting 5 man in the order and it just feels like whether it’s the shift or changing his swing to chase the short porch in right field in Yankee Stadium, that the “old” Mark Teixeira isn’t ever coming back.
Tweet Of The Week
“I try to be lenient because some people act like it’s a crime to criticize your team” @NYYankeesFan92