Can these five surprisingly strong starters maintain their pace?
When Matt Kemp and Josh Hamilton put up slow-pitch softball numbers for a month it's exciting, but it's not a total shock. These are immensely talented players in the primes of their careers who have established themselves as MVP-quality talents. But what about when Brian LaHair does it?
When Clayton Kershaw brings a sub-2.00 ERA into late May it's not all that surprising -- he's one of the best young pitchers in the game and last year's National League Cy Young award winner. But what about when he has the second-best ERA in his own rotation behind that of 36-year-old Ted Lilly?
We're past the quarter pole on the 2012 baseball season and LaHair and Lilly are still among the most effective hitters and pitchers in the majors, and they're not the only names that seem a bit out of place among the league leaders. Here, then, is a look at five players whose performances this season far exceed their reputations and just how much we can expect each to regress from here on out.
LaHair is a 29-year-old minor league journeyman who entered the season with 65 major league games under his belt, most of them from 2008, and a career batting line of .262/.335/.395. Entering play on Wednesday, he was eighth in the major leagues in on-base percentage and fourth in slugging. LaHair has already started to cool off. Over his last six games he is 1-for-16 with nine strikeouts, but the question isn't whether or not he can continue to post a four-digit OPS, but whether or not he can avoid a total collapse.
LaHair has hit .297/.368/.528 in 653 career games at Triple-A and has increased his production at that level in each of the last four seasons, culminating in a .331/.405/.664 line, 38 homers and 109 RBIs for the Iowa Cubs last year. That is evidence that LaHair's performance isn't totally out of character and suggests he's a vastly better hitter than he was when he got his last extended look from the Mariners in 2008.
There are two complicating factors, however. The first is that the Cubs' 22-year-old first base prospect, Anthony Rizzo, is tearing the cover off the ball at Triple-A and was expected to take over for LaHair at some point this season, meaning even a mild slump by LaHair could cost him his job. Second, as hot as he's been, the Cubs don't trust him against left-handed pitching. That hasn't been especially noticeable because the Cubs have only faced a left-handed starting pitcher eight times this season, but LaHair has started just three of those games and sat again against lefty J.A. Happ Tuesday night. That means he's already a mere platoon player.
Look for LaHair to continue to cool off and ultimately to fall into a part-time role making spot starts against right-handed starters in the outfield corners as well as in occasional relief of Rizzo after the latter's inevitable promotion. He should remain valuable in that role, but don't expect him to have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title by year's end.
Another 29-year-old, Encarnacion is in his eighth major league season and is tied for fourth in the majors in home runs and tied for third in RBIs. Prior to this year, his only top-10 finishes in an offensive category were a pair of appearances among the hit-by-pitch leaders. His career highs are 26 home runs and 76 RBIs. A quarter of the way through this season, he's already half way to the former and nearly that close to the latter.
If we take a step back, however, we see that Encarnacion's batting average and on-base percentage are right in line with his career rates (.260, .335). So the only real changes here are his power and his RBI opportunities. With regard to the former, it's awfully tempting to credit his home ballpark, the Rogers Centre, which has been no stranger to sudden power surges in recent years. Thus far this year, Encarnacion has hit 10 of his 13 home runs at home, slugging .759 in Toronto and .376 everywhere else. He did something similar last year, hitting 14 of his 17 homers and slugging 171 points higher in Toronto. Looking at the Park Factors in the 2012 Bill James Handbook, the Rogers Center is indeed extremely friendly to right-handed power hitters -- it had a park factor of 114, with 100 being neutral, for right-handed home runs in 2011 and 121 over the last three seasons combined.
However, what Encarnacion is doing is more extreme than that. Going back to 2010, Encarnacion's first full season as a Blue Jay, his splits actually broke the other way, with him hitting for much more power on the road. Has he made an adjustment to his home park? Should we consider the rumors of sign stealing on the part of the Blue Jays that made the rounds last year? Jose Bautista was equally effective at home and on the road last year, suggesting this split is unique to Encarnacion. At this early stage of the season, it may just be a small-sample fluke, meaning those splits could even out as the season progresses. More significant is the fact that Encarnacion always seemed capable of this sort of power outburst and worked this offseason to make his swing more compact. It's not showing up in any other aspect of his offensive game, but his shorter, two-handed swing just may have been all he required to tap his full power potential.
As for the RBIs, per Baseball Prospectus's stats, through Tuesday, Encarnacion was just 40th in the majors among hitters with 100 or more plate appearances in percentage of runners on base driven in, but was 15th in total runners on base during his at-bats, a surprising figure given the unimpressive on-base percentages in the Jays' lineup. Add in the 13 times Encarnacion has driven himself in, and there you have it. Encarnacion is now hitting cleanup in the Blue Jays' batting order, so if third-place hitter Bautista can rediscover his on-base knack from a year ago, he'll continue to hit with runners on base, meaning he could hang around the league leaders in those two triple-crown categories well into the second half.
Theodore Roosevelt Lilly might be one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball. He's not a front-line starter, but he's a reliably above average lefty. In the nine seasons from 2003 to 2011, he averaged 31 starts a year while posting a 109 ERA+ with solid peripherals (7.6 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 2.62 K/BB). Only twice over that stretch did he post an ERA+ below average. If the flyballing lefty has a weakness, it's the home run, allowing 1.3 per nine innings over that span, or an average of 27 per season.
What he's done this season in seven starts bears little resemblance to any of that. Lilly has allowed just two home runs in 45 1/3 innings despite an only modest decrease in his fly ball rate, his strikeouts are down by two per nine innings and -- the ultimate red flag -- his opponents are hitting just .192 on balls in play. Now, Lilly is actually one of the rare pitchers who seems to be able to consistently suppress his opponents' success on balls in play, holding them to a .265 average on fair balls that stayed in the park over the last five seasons, but there's a big gap between .192 and .265, and a similarly large gap between the 3.3 percent of his fly balls that have cleared the fence this season and his career rate of 9.3 percent. Also, Lilly has allowed six unearned runs this season, putting his Run Average at 2.98, and has allowed nine runs (five unearned) in his last two starts.
In other words, a correction is coming. Ted Lilly didn't suddenly solve the league at age 36.
Wondering how the Dodgers keep winning with Matt Kemp and half of their Opening Day lineup on the disabled list? Andre Ethier and A.J. Ellis deserve mention, but the real answer is pitching. Only the Nationals have allowed fewer runs per game than the Dodgers, and not by much. Leading that charge have been the three lefties in the Dodgers rotation, Kershaw, Lilly and Capuano, who have combined to go 15-2 with a 1.99 ERA. The bad news for Dodgers fans is that Capuano is benefitting from some of the same types of luck that Lilly is: fly balls staying in the park and balls in play turning into outs at an above average rate.
The good news is that Capuano doesn't seem likely to suffer as extreme a correction. Capuano's home run per fly ball rate of 6.4 and BABIP of .241 are low, but not as freakishly so as Lilly's rates, particularly the former given the major league rate has been 7.7 percent thus far this season. His strikeout rate remains strong (8.0 per nine innings), and there have been no warning signs thus far as Capuano has reeled off seven straight quality starts, going 5-1 with a 1.57 ERA over that span with only one unearned run hidden by that ERA.
Capuano is actually one of baseball's best stories. He had labrum surgery in October 2007 and a second Tommy John surgery in May 2008 and didn't throw a major league pitch in either 2008 or 2009, but he was never a power pitcher, and hitters still can't touch his high-70s changeup. Since returning to the majors in 2010 at the age of 31, he has struck out 272 men in 308 innings with a strong 2.92 K/BB ratio. He's certainly pitching over his head right now, but not by all that much. He should settle in as a solid mid-rotation lefty and continue to give the Dodgers quality starts all season.
Undrafted out of college and a swing man in the minor leagues, Beachy was never a prospect, but he struck out 169 men in 141 2/3 innings over 25 starts last year and is currently leading the majors in ERA. That his strikeout rate is down by more than four per nine innings from last year suggests that the 25-year-old Beachy may ultimately prove to be more of a strong No. 3 starter than a front-of-the-rotation stud.
Then again, the fact that he racked up all those Ks last year (10.7 K/9 on top of a minor league rate of 10.0 K/9) suggests that the correction he's due to experience in, yes, balls in play and home runs (the latter of which started Tuesday night, when he gave up three dingers to the Reds, increasing his season total to four), could be counteracted by an uptick in punchouts.
Beachy has now thrown 217 2/3 innings in the major leagues and has 228 strikeouts, a 1.14 WHIP and a 3.10 ERA. He may not be sub-2.00 ERA good (who is?), but he just might be as good as his career numbers, which would be impressive for any prospect and downright mindboggling for a player like Beachy who was nearly passed over entirely.