In stat-savvy circles, the middle of May is too early to get excited about players off to surprisingly good starts. It's not unusual for mediocre players to be great over a stretch of 120 at bats or seven starts—all they have to do is get a little lucky on things like fly balls leaving the yard or balls in play being caught. But when those stretches of greatness come early on the schedule, and when they're produced by veterans who were thought to be in decline, it's hard not to investigate how those pretty stats are being generated. Here's a look at four fast starters and whether their stat lines are the real thing. (All stats through Sunday.)
VERNON WELLS, Blue Jays
Scoreboard Says! .298 BA, 10 HR, .603 SLG
Behind the Numbers: More than one of every five fly balls Wells hits is going for a home run, nearly double his career rate.
May 23, 2010
Outlook: That HR/FB rate is certain to come down, but it's not the only thing Wells has going for him. He's being more aggressive, with a career-high pace in pitches swung at (53.4%). He's also squaring up more balls, hitting more line drives than in any year since 2003. Wells, who's on track to set a career high in strikeouts, is trading more contact for harder contact, and it's working. It all adds up to the makings of his best year since '06.
ANDRUW JONES, White Sox
Scoreboard Says! .255 BA, 9 HR, .578 SLG
Behind the Numbers: Jones's HR/FB rate is even more extreme: 25.7% of his balls in the air have cleared the fence, fifth highest in the majors.
Outlook: Jones is the same low-contact hitter (25.5% strikeout rate) with a poor line-drive tendency (11.7%, among the bottom 10 in the majors) he's been for years. He can fill out the right side of a platoon, but he's going to be a drag on the lineup once those fly balls stop clearing the fence so frequently.
BARRY ZITO, Giants
Scoreboard Says! 6--1, 2.15 ERA
Behind the Numbers: Zito has the highest ground ball rate (44.2% of balls in play) of his career.
Outlook: Zito (page 86) has allowed just one homer on the 60 fly balls he's given up, after watching 11% leave the yard in his career. So his ERA is a little fluky. However Zito has returned to his roots, throwing his great curve more than he ever has as a Giant. All those curves are creating ground balls as well as the pop-ups Zito was so adept at generating in Oakland. As with Wells, you can expect some regression, but not a reversion to Zito's 2007--09 performance.
LIVAN HERNANDEZ, Nationals
Scoreboard Says! 4--2, 1.46 ERA
Behind the Numbers: Hernandez has a .197 batting average allowed on balls in play (BABIP).
Outlook: Pain. A pitcher's strikeout-to-walk ratio is a fundamental indicator of effectiveness; good pitchers are at 2 to 1. Hernandez has struck out 17 and walked 15. That .197 BABIP (a stat often skewed by luck) is the lowest in MLB by 21 points and 112 below his career mark. Hernandez's ERA is a mirage; it could triple by the All-Star break.
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Joe Lemire looks at the Nats' chances of hanging in the NL East race at SI.com/mlb
The Dodgers swept a weekend series in San Diego to close to within two games of the first-place Padres in the NL West, but there was a cost. Last Saturday rightfielder Andre Ethier(below), the early leader for NL MVP, broke his right pinky during batting practice. The Dodgers are fourth in the NL in runs scored but have been heavily reliant on Ethier and leftfielder Manny Ramirez, who were in the lineup together just 15 times in L.A.'s first 37 games. In those 15 games the Dodgers averaged 6.7 runs and played .600 baseball (9--6). In the other 22 they scored just 4.1 runs per game with a .500 mark (11--11). With a shaky starting rotation and a bullpen nothing like 2009's lights-out crew, the Dodgers need both of their best hitters in order to emerge in a tight division.