Andruw Jones, Rangers
Remember the state of Jones’ career one year ago? He was coming off an incredulously bad beginning with the Dodgers (.159/.282/.250 last April), on his way to an apocalyptic .234 wOBA and -17.9 Batting Runs in just 238 PA. It was a startlingly abrupt fall for a guy who had posted 3.6 Wins Above Replacement in a “down” 2007 season. Essentially given a settlement package by the Dodgers to leave LA and never, ever return, Jones has crushed the ball thus far with the Rangers. The corpulent out-maker of ’08 is nowhere to be found, as the 32 year-old has a .507 wOBA (.333/.500/.718) in 52 plate appearances. With Jones channeling his inner Barry Bonds, David Murphy getting in touch with his inner Juan Pierre (.260 wOBA) and Josh Hamilton hitting the DL (finding his inner Milton Bradley?), Andruw should definitely be on your radar.
Dexter Fowler, Rockies
A lanky 6-4 center fielder endowed with a full complement of tools, Fowler is off to an excellent start with Colorado. Aside from his five SB bonanza versus Padres righty Chris Young, Fowler has a .363 wOBA in 82 PA after jumping straight from Double-A. He’s working the count well (10 BB%, 19.7 Outside-Swing%), has shown some pop (.153 Isolated Power) and he’s 9-for-10 in the steals department (a welcome change for a guy whose raw speed had produced a pernicious 66.4% SB success rate over the past three minor league seasons). The 23 year-old switch-hitter has earned an everyday gig with the Rockies, and his broad skill-set makes him well worth acquiring.
Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox
When Youkilis slugged .569 and thumped 29 homers in 2008, most figured that his power numbers would regress more toward his career averages in 2009. After all, his career-high SLG% prior to that was .453, in 2007. So far, the 30 year-old has done his best to quash those thoughts: with 6 dingers and a .744 slugging percentage, Youkilis has produced a .528 wOBA that leads all major league hitters. After four straight seasons of decreasing walks and increasing Outside-Swing percentages (chronicled in more detail here), Youk is drawing free passes at a career-high 15.7% clip.
Adam Jones, Orioles
Jones was covered here a few weeks ago, but his significant progress with the lumber deserves further mention. Jones was among the most free swingers in the game during the 2008 season (his 36.2 Outside-Swing% was leaps and bounds above the 25.4% MLB average, and ranked 9th-highest among all hitters), but he’s curtailed that Francoeur-esque approach in 2009. His O-Swing% is down to a more reasonable 26.5%, and his walk rate his climbed to 8.8% from a paltry 4.6% in ’08. As a result, the 23 year-old has put himself in the hole with less frequency this season: his First-Pitch Strike% has fallen from 66% in 2008 to 59.1% in 2009 (57.6% MLB average). No, he won’t come anywhere close to hitting .355, but Jones’ more enlightened plate approach is a welcome sight.
Yovani Gallardo, Brewers
Gallardo has been every bit the ace he was billed as, with a slick 3.78 K/BB ratio and a 3.37 FIP. He’s benefitting from a .220 BABIP, but with 8.83 K’s per nine, 2.34 BB/9 and a greater number of grounders (47.7 GB%, compared to a 38.7% career average), Gallardo has the skills to remain among the very best in the NL.
David Ortiz, Red Sox
During the off-season, I wondered if the days of “Big Papi” were now a relic of the past, to be replaced by the much-less-catchy “Medium Papi” era. Right about now, Boston would love to have even a mildly productive Papi: the 33 year-old has a sordid .271 wOBA in 114 PA. Ortiz has been uncharacteristically impatient at the dish: his 28.2 Outside-Swing% is well above last year’s 20.6% mark and his 18.3% career average. He’s also making more contact on those outside pitches (59.4 Outside-Contact%, 53.4% in 2008), likely meaning he’s been making more weak contact on “pitcher’s pitches” off the plate. Combine the hacking with an ISO that looks like a misprint (.094) and a tendency to get jammed (his Infield/FB% is 18.6%, compared to an 8.3% career average), and you have a fellow who has produced -6.8 batting runs on the season.
Daniel Cabrera, Nationals
The Nats brought in Cabrera from the O’s this past offseason, hoping to find even remnants of the 6-7, hard-throwing groundball pitcher who looked highly promising during the middle part of the aughts. Unfortunately, Cabrera’s skills have eroded even further this season. His K rate (just 4.75 in ’08, after sitting in the 7-9 range earlier in his career) has dropped to a microscopic 3.33 per nine innings, and he’s issuing an absurd number of free passes (6.29 BB/9). Cabrera sat at 96.2 MPH with his heater in 2005, yet he’s barely cracking 90 this season (90.5 MPH, down over 2 MPH from last season).
Perhaps in recognition of his diminished fastball, Cabrera is mixing in more breaking pitches: his league-high fastball usage in 2008 (82.5%) has been ratcheted down to 67.9%, with more sliders and changeups instead. Unfortunately, he has next to no control of those secondary offerings, either: just 41.8% of his pitches have crossed home plate (48.9% MLB average). The result of all this ugliness is a 5.72 FIP. Cabrera won’t turn 28 until the end of the month, yet it seems as though he’s completely lost the ability to pitch at the major league level within a span of four seasons.
Joe Saunders, Angels
How long can Saunders keep this act up? He posted a 3.41 ERA last season, but a low whiff rate (4.68 K/9) and good fortune on balls in play (.267 BABIP) indicated that regression would find him: his FIP was a less-impressive 4.36. In 2009, Saunders has posted an identical 3.41 ERA in 31.2 frames, yet his FIP has trailed further south (4.87), while his strikeout total (2.56 K/9) would make Kirk Rueter blush. Again benefitting from a low BABIP (.252), Saunders is a great sell-high candidate.
Travis Hafner, Indians
Wither Pronk? Hafner (coming off an ugly, injury-marred 2008 season) had been doing his best “Hulk Smash” impression in the early portion of the season, posting a .394 wOBA and a .270 ISO. Unfortunately, his surgically repaired shoulder again acted up, pushing him to the DL. On the positive side, Hafner’s absence should open the door for the recently recalled Matt LaPorta.
Oliver Perez, Mets
Perez’s scattershot control has come completely off the rails in 2009. Never known for painting the corners, Perez has issued 8.72 BB/9 this year, with a near-ten ERA and a 6.17 FIP. When he’s not walking the yard, Ollie has surrendered line drives at a 29% clip. Batters have understandably plastered the lumber to their shoulders, chasing Perez’s outside offerings just 13.2% of the time (the lowest rate among starters). The 27 year-old’s fastball is coming in at 89.2 MPH (down two ticks from last year). Is Perez hurt? And if not, isn’t that almost worse?