Johnny Cueto, Reds
Cueto displayed his superb talent last season, though his tendency to cough up homers and occasionally lose the strike zone dragged down his overall line. In 2009, he’s made progress on both fronts. In 39.2 frames, Cueto has a 3.13 FIP, the product of a 2.91 strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.32 in ’08) and 0.45 HR/9. There’s certainly been some lucky bounces here to produce that 1.59 ERA: Cueto’s BABIP is .260, his strand rate is near 90% and his 4.2 HR/FB% is extremely low.
On the bright side, he’s shaved a little more than one walk per nine innings off his 2008 total (2.50 BB/9 this year, 3.52 in ’08). While his K rate (7.26 K/9) is down from last season (8.17), the overall net effect is positive (as Justin pointed out in the comments section, Cueto’s K/PA figure is slightly higher this year due to his efficiency). Cueto’s Expected Fielding Independent ERA (XFIP), based on a pitcher’s K’s, walks and a normalized HR/FB rate, checks in at 4.34 (4.62 last season).
Jay Bruce, Reds
It’s the all-Reds edition of Stock Watch! A 22 year-old lefty with immense power, Bruce has adapted to major league pitching faster than most anticipated. With a .391 wOBA, 10 big flys and a sweet .262/.342/.570 line, Bruce has certainly been The Boss in 2009. Happily, his control of the strike zone (his biggest hurdle) has improved. Bruce has drawn a walk 10.1% of the time in 2009 (7.4% last year), whiffed less often (20.6% in ’09, 26.6% in ’08), and has cut his Outside-Swing percentage from 30.4% to 25.7%. In other words, he’s already among the best outfielders in the game, and he’ll only get better from here.
Carl Crawford, Rays
Crawford has probably stolen about six bases since I started typing this sentence. Tampa’s swift left fielder has been an absolute terror on the base paths in 2009, going a perfect 22-for-22 on stolen base attempts. With 3 more thefts, Crawford will match his total from an injury-marred 2008 season. If we use Tom Tango’s SB run value of +.19, then Crawford is closing in on half a win added in the stolen base department already.
Fortunately, Crawford is showing progress in other facets of his game as well. His Outside Swing% is down to 24.8%, from last year’s hacktastic 31.5% mark (24.4% MLB average). His 8.8% walk rate isn’t awe-inspiring, but it is the highest mark of his career. With 1.7 Wins Above Replacement, Crawford has been one of the ten most productive position players in the game.
Edwin Jackson, Tigers
Let’s give credit where it’s due: Jackson has been pretty darned effective in 2009. He came to Detroit with a reputation as a radar-gun curiosity who didn’t miss many bats or control the zone particularly well, but he’s making strides. Jackson isn’t a 2.60 ERA pitcher (duh), but his K/BB ratio is an impressive 3.18. With 7 K’s per nine and 2.20 BB/9, Jackson holds a 3.51 FIP. He’s looking more legitimate by the start.
David Wright, Mets
Wright’s early-season scuffle raised both panic and ire, but he’s just fine now. His wOBA is back up to .367, and he’s popped enough extra-base hits of late to raise his Isolated Power to .174. Wright is batting .364/.436/.697 in May. Hopefully, you didn’t sell low. One aspect of Wright’s game that is curiously diminishing is his stolen base ability. He was 34-for-39 in 2007, 15-for-20 in 2008 and just 5-for-10 in 2009.
Scott Kazmir, Rays
What happens to a control-challenged southpaw when he loses his ability to dominate hitters? Take a gander at Kazmir to find out. The 25 year-old’s walk rate has increased for a fourth straight season (4.97 BB/9), but he’s just not fooling batters the way he used to (7.11 K/9). Kazmir’s fastball velocity has dipped from 91.7 MPH in 2008 to just 89.9 MPH in 2009, and his hard, mid-80’s power slider is now more of a low-octane frisbee (80.4 MPH). With just 46.4% of his offerings crossing home plate (48.9% MLB average) and opponents making contact 84.3% of the time (75.1% career average), something is wrong with the Rays’ former ace.
Mike Aviles, Royals
Tony Pena Jr. might be on the DL, but Aviles has compensated by doing his best impression. After an unexpectedly productive rookie season, Aviles’ bat has flat lined in 2009. Impatient to a fault (2.9 BB%), the 28 year-old isn’t getting any favorable bounces on balls put in play (.247 BABIP). His nefarious .226 wOBA is fifth-worst among all batters, and he’s been nearly a win below replacement level with the lumber already. With lackluster play in the field as well (-12.6 UZR/150), Aviles has been an anchor on Kansas City’s hopes of staying competitive.
Conor Jackson, Diamondbacks
Never exactly known for his feats of strength (career .150 ISO and .431 SLG%), Jackson has been downright punchless this season. His microscopic .071 ISO ranks among the worst in the game. Jackson is not this bad, mind you: his .210 BABIP is incredibly low, so he should revert back more toward his usual level of production as the season goes on. The question is: is that enough? Underpowered as a first baseman, Jackson’s work in left field is still under review. Singles-hitting corner players aren’t exactly in vogue, so the 27 year-old is going to have to show some thump to do more good than harm to Arizona’s dwindling playoff chances.
Jeff Francoeur, Braves
Francoeur is this generation’s Joe Carter, compiling counting stats that mask the fact that he’s sort of a drag on his team’s offense. Frenchy continues to show next to no progress in terms of plate discipline, wildly hacking at 34.6% of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone. Not coincidentally, his First-Pitch Strike% is a career-high 71 percent (57.6% MLB average). Francoeur has gotten behind 0-1 or put the ball in play on the first pitch more than any other batter in the majors. With a wretched .290 OBP and little pop (.136 ISO), he’s produced a .299 wOBA. Showing apparent apathy toward working the count, Francoeur is an absolute mess at the plate right now.
Ian Snell, Pirates
Snell scarcely resembles the guy who posted a 4.01 FIP during the 2007 campaign. After walking 2.94 batters per nine innings during that year, Snell’s control took a giant leap back in ’08 (4.87 BB/9) and continues to go south in 2009 (5.4 BB/9). His K rate, 8.18 during his first full season in the big in 2006, checks in at just 6.08 this year (the continuation of a four-year decline). He’s not fooling much of anyone, and has put just 44.3% of his pitches within the strike zone (48.9% MLB average). Snell will continue to take his turns on a pitching-starved staff, but he hasn’t pitched like an above-average starter in quite some time. His FIP is 5.33.