Jones, Liriano, Pelfrey, Rasmus, Wells: Are these guys for real?
Frauds, fakes and phonies abound in April baseball. Anyone can do anything in a month's worth of games, and as the leaderboards show, they often do. When terrifically bad Nationals pitcher
Not all shock performances are tricks, though. Young players get better and older ones bounce back. Sometimes good play is just that, and not an illusion. Take the following five players.
Jones isn't going to hit 60 homers, of course,, but it's worth remembering that this is a player with as much natural talent as anyone in his generation with the possible exception of
Say Jones hits .250 with 20 home runs and some walks and doubles the rest of the year. That would give the Sox a perfectly acceptable designated hitter, and would doubtless secure him a contract in the majors for 2011. A month ago, these seemed dodgy bets. Now they seem almost likely.
In 2006 Liriano was the best pitcher on a staff featuring
Call it what you will -- recovery from his 2007 arm surgery, a mind focused by the threat of relegation to the bullpen -- but Liriano's fastball has more jump and sink than it has had in years. The results are telling: He's 3-0 with a 0.93 ERA and he has his highest strikeout and ground ball rates and his lowest walk rate since 2006.
Liriano is an extremely aggressive and not especially subtle pitcher, and for now at least -- he's still just 26 -- he's going to be no better or worse than his stuff. Right now he's good because it's good, and there's no real reason to think it will desert him. As they've showed the last two years, the Twins don't need an ace. But now they probably have one.
Pelfrey is the major league ERA leader, has four wins in four starts and, unexpectedly, one save, an elegant record that has Mets fans thinking that their team has finally found the credible No. 2 starter it has lacked for years. That's a bit much. Pelfrey, 26, is what he always has been and likely always will be: a horse with a strong arm and a heavy fastball who's going to have good and bad stretches but in the end will strike out too few hitters to front a rotation. His prospects for the rest of this year, though, are good.
If you look past Pelfrey's ERA to his underlying numbers, you'll blanch. He's walking an alarming 4.5 batters per nine innings, allowing a silly .249 batting average on balls in play that would have led the majors last year, and hasn't given up a single home run despite allowing more fly balls than he ever has. Those latter two numbers are almost entirely attributable to luck, which is why if he pitches just as well as he has the rest of the year his ERA will rise by a lot -- no great deduction, given that he's currently at 0.69.
All that being true, there is reason to think that this is the beginning of a career year. Pelfrey has struck out 5.24 men per nine in his career, an almost alarmingly low total. The only right-handed starters who can get away with a K-rate that low are, like Pelfrey, sinkerballers:
It might be useful to imagine two lines, one on an upslope and the other on a downslope, the first being the pitcher's knowledge and the second being his stuff; the career year comes at the point when they intersect. Sinkerballers, one might posit, don't repeat the career year because they don't have the secondary pitches to compensate as that second line keeps sloping down. But when everything is working they're marvels to watch, and Pelfrey could be for the rest of this season.
This year Rasmus is doing a lot more to show what all the early plaudits were about. In addition to his six home runs and 12 RBIs, he's batting .322/.459/.746, leading the National League in OPS and playing defense that would be worth a starting job even if he couldn't hit a lick. He's due for a slump, not just because no one other than teammate
Poor Wells is a victim of the great contract fallacy, whereby it's somehow a player's fault when executives with worms in their brains sign him to a silly deal. Wells obviously wasn't worth $126 million when he signed what has come to be thought of as one of the worst deals in baseball history, and he still isn't worth it. That said, he's a decent player, if a maddening one -- a solid performer when he hits .300, a lousy one when he doesn't, and a good bet to have the kind of minor injuries that keep him on the field hitting .240.
This year Wells, like Jones, is hitting as though he's Willie Mays, ranking second in on-base and slugging average and leading in total bases, runs and doubles all while batting .333 with seven home runs and 14 RBIs. He isn't going to keep this up, but there's really nothing in his track record to suggest that he won't be a valuable player so long as he's healthy. Say he cools down and hits for a .340 OBA and a .475 SLG the rest of the way. That isn't what you want from a player making $18 million, especially when he's a corner outfielder masquerading as a center fielder, but judged against what other players do rather than what his bosses decided once upon a moon to pay him, it's just fine.