Hit and Run: Jose Fernandez's return draws near; Pujols keeps streaking
1. Say hey to Jose?
Jose Fernandez has already circled the date: Last week, he told reporters that July 2 is when he'll make his return, facing the Giants at Marlins Park in his first major league start since undergoing Tommy John surgery last May. However, the Marlins' 22-year-old ace looks more than ready now.
Fernandez has made four starts for Miami’s Class A affiliate in Jupiter this month, climbing from 54 pitches over three innings on June 6 to 90 over seven innings on Monday night. He reached 98 miles per hour several times, threw 69 of his 90 pitches for strikes and whiffed nine while walking just one, leading MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro to wonder aloud, “So why not bring him back this weekend to face the Dodgers at Marlins Park?” Fernandez would presumably be able to throw a more or less full complement of 100–105 pitches in that start.
Frisaro doesn’t have a definitive answer beyond the fact that Miami is being particularly careful and wants him to make his next start for the team’s Double A Jacksonville affiliate. The Marlins had originally planned for Fernandez to move up to Triple A New Orleans for his third, fourth and fifth starts, but bad weather forced the change, and so Fernandez has been able to stick to carving up less-experienced hitters. After allowing five runs and striking out two in his first outing, he’s allowed just two runs in 16 2/3 innings since, with a 23/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Beyond sticking to the revised script, the Marlins don’t appear to have great reasons not to bring him up yet. At 30–41, they’re not in contention for a playoff spot, and both this weekend’s start (wherever it would slot in) and July 2 are home dates. Perhaps it’s because Miami wants to boost ticket sales for the latter date, though it would hardly be beneath Jeffrey Loria’s team to bait and switch to goose last-minute ticket sales for the earlier date.
More likely, it’s because Jarred Cosart is ahead of Fernandez in terms of returning to the rotation. Cosart, who hasn’t pitched for the Marlins since May 13 due to vertigo, has made two rehab starts for New Orleans, throwing 103 and 104 pitches, respectively—figures that would appear to be in line with what the team has in mind for Fernandez. While Cosart was scheduled to rejoin the big club after the first one, his lackluster showing led them to order a second. On Sunday, he walked and struck out six batters apiece over five innings, but allowed just one run.
How the Marlins will fit the two pitchers into the rotation remains to be seen. Both Dan Haren and Tom Koehler have ERAs below 4.00 but unflattering peripherals that have boosted their FIPs above 4.40, though they appear to be safe. David Phelps (4.25 ERA, 3.83 FIP) has extensive bullpen experience from his days with the Yankees. Mat Latos has been largely ineffective this year, but he’s allowed just four runs in 12 2/3 innings since returning from a three-week DL stint due to left knee inflammation, lowering his ERA to 5.37, and his 3.22 FIP is the best among the current starting five. Rookie Jose Urena, who has a 4.18 ERA but is striking out just 3.6 per nine, is likely to go to the bullpen or the minors, but manager Dan Jennings—under whom the team is 14–19 despite losing their first five games since he took over from Mike Redmond—will have to figure out how else to shuffle his deck.
2. Albert’s awesome again
Another day, another impressive show of power by Albert Pujols. On Monday night against the Astros in Anaheim, the 35-year-old slugger continued his recent tear by belting two home runs, furthering his league-leading total to 23. Remarkably, 15 of those homers have come in his last 24 games.
In the fifth inning, Pujols connected for a two-run homer off Brett Oberholtzer, while in the seventh, he hit a solo shot at the expense of Josh Fields. Both came on fastballs, and both went into the ersatz rock pile in Angel Stadium, helping to power the Halos to a 4–3 win. Via MLB.com:
Via ESPN Home Run Tracker, the first homer was estimated at 418 feet, the second at 438. The latter is Pujols's longest in almost exactly two years; he hit one an estimated 448 feet off the Pirates' Gerrit Cole on June 21, 2013. With 23 homers, he's now four ahead of Nelson Cruz for the AL lead, which is rather remarkable given that he hasn't led a league in homers since 2010. What's even more remarkable is that Cruz had 18 through May 27 but has just one in 23 games and 92 plate appearances since, while Pujols has the aforementioned 15 during a binge across which he's hit .352/.430/.898 with 30 RBIs, 11 walks (four intentional) and just four strikeouts in 100 PA. He has 12 homers in June with seven games to go, putting him within sight of his single-month high of 14, set in April 2006 and matched in June 2009.
That incredible outburst has rocketed Pujols up the all-time home run list. Already this season, he has surpassed Willie McCovey, Frank Thomas and Ted Williams (all at 521), Jimmie Foxx (534), and Mickey Mantle (536). At 543 homers, he's five short of Mike Schmidt, and in the unlikely event he continues this 54-homer pace, he could also leave Manny Ramirez (555), Reggie Jackson (563), Rafael Palmeiro (569) and Harmon Killebrew (573) in the rearview mirror. For what it's worth, his career high is 49, set in 2006. He hasn't hit more than 30 since joining the Angels, and that total came back in '12.
Overall, Pujols is hitting .275/.336/.581 for a 156 OPS+; the slugging percentage and overall production are within range of his career marks (.588 and 162 OPS+, respectively), while the average and on-base percentage are almost right on the money with what he put up across his first three seasons in Anaheim (.273 and .332). So what's changed? For the moment at least, he's free of the various leg and foot injuries that have hampered him since leaving the Cardinals, though as recently as early May, he was out of the lineup for a couple of days due to a hamstring injury. Via Brooks Baseball, his batted ball speed against fastballs and breaking balls has increased by month along with his productivity, but without earlier data to compare it to, that's not particularly revelatory.
Via FanGraphs, Pujols's PITCHf/x data indicates that he's making contact more often when he swings at pitches outside the strike zone than in recent years (75.7%, up from 69.2 last year and 67.7 in 2013), which helps to explain why his walk rate is just 7.4%, up from last year’s career low of 6.9 and well below his career mark of 11.9 . Beyond that, it does appear that Pujols has been tinkering with his mechanics. Via FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards, his hands are lower and his left elbow is closer to his body, and he's using a leg kick as a timing mechanism, albeit not on every swing.
Alas, Pujols's hot streak has done little more than help keep the Angels afloat. Los Angeles is 13–11 during Pujols's throwback stretch, lifting the team's season record to 36–35, but among other Angels hitters, only Mike Trout (.307/.380/.636), Johnny Giavotella (.280/.337/.439) and David Freese (.260/.349/.411) have produced an OPS above .700 over the course of those 24 games. Trout (170 OPS+) and Pujols (156) are the only Angels regulars who are producing at an above-average clip for the season, though Giavotella, Freese and Kole Calhoun are right at 99. That imbalance helps to explain why the team is just 12th in the league in scoring at 3.99 runs per game and 11th in OPS+ at 96. Pujols is either going to have to keep up this unlikely streak or get some additional help from his friends if the Angels are to contend.
3. No power outage at Wrigley for Bryant
Speaking of two-homer nights, rookie Kris Bryant had the first one of his major league career. He also got the best of one of the best, clouting a two-run shot off Clayton Kershaw—the first time this season a batter hit a curve off the Dodgers' ace for a homer. The opposite-field blast, which came immediately after a fastball on the outside edge of the plate that might have been an inning-ending strike three, was estimated at 378 feet by ESPN Home Run Tracker. Bryant’s second homer, which came off a high fastball from Adam Liberatore, went to leftfield and was estimated at 413 feet:
The homers were Bryant's ninth and 10th of the season, and the first of them snapped an 0-for-15 skid; he's hitting .282/.384/.485 thus far. That pair was enough to power the Cubs to a 4–2 win in a game that was delayed for 10 minutes during the bottom of the sixth inning due to the failure of some lights at Wrigley Field, followed by some filibustering by Cubs manager Joe Maddon and even an official protest. Madden stalled for time in hopes that his team would not have to face the three-time Cy Young winner under anything but the brightest possible conditions. Via ESPN:
"Just be a little more patient and wait for the lights. That was my argument," Maddon said. "That's it. Nothing more complicated than that. I just thought it was inappropriate."
…"We felt that we would be able to continue playing, that it was sufficient lighting," crew chief Jerry Meals said. "Out of the six banks, none were out. There was scattered lights out."
The delay appeared to frustrate Kershaw at least somewhat. He told MLB.com, "I just wanted to say, 'Get off the field and keep the game going,' … But standing around for 10 minutes, my legs were getting heavy. I wanted an answer. I don't know if Joe was trying to do it on purpose or what? It didn't affect me, but it was a good idea."