Quarter Masters

May 26, 2014

One fourth of the season is in the books, and what do we know? Tommy John is the most influential pitcher in the game. From Abreu (Jose) to Zobrist (Ben), there's an All-Star team of hitters on the DL. Strikeouts are up (again), batting average is down (again). And Victor Martinez and the Tigers lead the most compelling story lines so far

IT WAS just a bit more than two years ago that Victor Martinez was on crutches and Prince Fielder was the belle of the ball in Detroit. Martinez, the Tigers' DH--first baseman, tore his left ACL a month before the start of spring training in 2012, an injury that spurred Detroit to make on of the splashiest free-agent signings in recent years: Fielder, to a nine-year, $214 million contract.

Traded to the Rangers last November for second baseman Ian Kinsler, Fielder is struggling—his numbers were sub--replacement level before a neck injury felled him last week—for a team that's under .500, while Martinez is hanging MVP-type numbers for the team with the best record in baseball. Martinez, who missed all of 2012 after surgery, is hitting .331/.378/.595 while starting 38 of Detroit's first 39 games. At a time when even the best hitters are striking out at high rates, Martinez whiffed just nine times in his first 164 plate appearances. In fact, he had more home runs, 10, than he did strikeouts.

Martinez is just one reason why the Tigers, who suffered a spate of injuries this spring that was supposed to make them vulnerable in the AL Central, have the largest division lead (seven games) of any team. New manager Brad Ausmus has embraced the running game, helped by the addition this year of Rajai Davis. Behind the outfielder's 14 steals, Detroit leads the AL with 37 swipes and has a 73% success rate. The team stole just 35 bases in the entire 2013 season, and it hasn't had more than 72 since 2007. The steals are particularly valuable because the Tigers lead the AL in batting average at .278 and have the second-fewest strikeouts, with 253—they are making contact and getting the hits that move runners around from scoring position.

Of course, talking only about the Tigers' offense misses the point: They have allowed the fewest runs in the AL thanks to amazing work by the rotation. Six pitchers have started games for Detroit this season, and each has an ERA of 3.15 or lower. Max Scherzer is following up his Cy Young season with a 1.83 ERA and a 31.5% strikeout rate, both improvements over his 2013 marks. Righthander Rick Porcello, a first-round pick in 2007, has taken a long-awaited step forward at age 25 with a 2.91 ERA and just seven walks allowed in eight starts. Lefthander Drew Smyly (2.70 ERA) has stepped in for the departed Doug Fister, who was traded to Washington during the off-season. All of these pitchers are benefiting from the Tigers' drastically improved infield defense. Having added Kinsler and moved Miguel Cabrera across the diamond to first base, Detroit has gone from one of the worst teams at turning balls in play into outs—14th in the AL in defensive efficiency last season—to above average. Last year's Tigers staff led the majors in strikeouts because it had to. This year's is just 17th in the majors, not because it's not overpowering but because the defense behind it is making plays it wasn't making a year ago.

That defense could get even better. The Tigers will be one of the favorites to land free-agent shortstop Stephen Drew next month, once Drew no longer has a draft-pick penalty attached to him. That would help the Tigers fill the huge hole left by the loss of Jose Iglesias to shin stress fractures, one that has been filled poorly by Andrew Romine, Danny Worth and Alex Gonzalez. Leftfielder Andy Dirks should be back from back surgery next month as well, providing lefty balance in the lineup. Righthander Anibal Sanchez returned from the DL on Sunday. And Cabrera, who opened the year in a huge slump, has just begun to hit: After putting up a .735 OPS in the season's first month, his May figure is 1.112. What does it all mean? The Tigers have won two out of every three games so far—and it's quite possible we haven't seen them at their best yet.

MOST INTERESTING HITTER

Josh Donaldson

Ask just about any fan who the best player in the AL is, and the answer will probably be Mike Trout. That's not unreasonable, which is why it's so impressive that there's a player in the same division who is outplaying the Angels' star so far this season.

Donaldson, third baseman for the A's, leads the AL in WAR (according to baseball-reference.com): So far he's been worth 3.5 wins above a replacement-level player. (Trout's WAR is 2.8.) Donaldson's baseball-card numbers, a .280 batting average, 10 homers and 35 RBIs, don't scream at you. But he has a .362 OBP and a .520 slugging percentage while playing in a home park, O.co Coliseum, that just eats batters' statistics. Adjusting for that, he has produced the second most runs in the league.

The other half of the equation is just as impressive: Donaldson has been as good a defensive player as anyone in the AL, saving Oakland 12 runs with his work at third. That's not a fluke. Donaldson, a converted catcher, has been a plus defender since coming up for good in 2012. He is, quite frankly, the quintessential underrated player. He plays for a small-market team on the West Coast. Much of his value is wrapped up in his ability to hit doubles and draw walks. His traditional numbers are chopped down by his home park. He doesn't play an up-the-middle position, so while he is one of best defensive players in baseball, his excellence doesn't register the way it does for shortstops or centerfielders. Donaldson is exactly the type of player whose value is revealed by modern analysis, a well-rounded key for a team that may be headed for its third straight division title.

MOST INTERESTING PITCHER

David Price

When we talk about players making the leap, we're usually talking about players who have struggled, haven't matched their performance to their tools or perhaps were drafted low and rated poorly on prospect lists.

Then there's Price. The Rays lefthander, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, the No. 2 prospect in baseball two years later and the '12 AL Cy Young Award winner is making the leap as we speak. Ignore his 4.28 ERA and league-leading 78 hits allowed—both are the product of the variance on balls put into play that can haunt any pitcher over a handful of starts. Price has struck out 26.6% of the batters he's faced (that would be a career high for a full season), and he's done so while walking just six men in 10 starts. His 77-to-6 strikeout-walk ratio is astounding, a combination of power and command that marks him as one of the best pitchers in baseball, and one who has improved significantly from his award-winning campaign two years ago.

Price is building on what he started last summer. After opening 2013 with a 5.24 ERA in nine starts, Price went on the disabled list with a left triceps strain. Upon his return he began pounding the strike zone the way Cliff Lee does, walking one man in his first seven starts off the disabled list and just 13 over 18 starts to end the season. We've seen lefthanders do this before: Lee in '08, CC Sabathia in '07, Randy Johnson in 1993, Sandy Koufax in '61. That's the track Price is on now. He's learned how to pitch at 92-to-93 mph—down from 95-to-96 when he won the Cy—by using his changeup and cutter more, and he's going after hitters with an aggression that matches anyone's. So forget the ERA, and look at what Price is doing: He's becoming the best pitcher in the American League. Again.

MOST INTERESTING PROSPECT

Gregory Polanco

It used to be simple: Play well at one level, get promoted to the next. But now moving up an organizational chain is as much about the manipulation of a player's arbitration and free agency clock as it is about addressing wins and losses. The latest victim of this? The crown jewel of the Pirates' farm system.

While the 22-year-old rightfielder has destroyed the Triple A International League to the tune of a .389/.453/.623 line, with excellent plate discipline for his age (30 strikeouts and 16 unintentional walks in 181 plate appearances) and good defense, the Pirates have stubbornly refused to promote him. It's not because they're getting great work from their current rightfielders, who are batting .254/.305/.375, and it's not because they're playing so well that they don't need to make changes. (At 18--25 Pittsburgh is squandering the chance to build on last year's playoff run.) No, the Pirates are keeping Polanco down for one reason: money. By leaving him in the minors through mid-June, they can make it likely that he will not become eligible for arbitration until after the 2017 season. That's not just an additional year of being able to dictate Polanco's salary. It also increases the club's leverage over him in negotiating a long-term contract—a brazen attempt to keep future costs down at the expense of wins in 2014.

When Polanco does come up, he'll be a must-watch player. A centerfielder by skill set, he'll display his excellent raw speed in right, forming perhaps the best defensive outfield in the game with Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen. Polanco draws walks and makes contact at the plate, while applying his speed on the bases in the form of steals (137 in the minors) and triples (24). Like Rays rightfielder Wil Myers—a late promotion for financial reasons last year—Polanco could come up in June and walk away with the Rookie of the Year award.

MOST INTERESTING MANAGER

Mike Matheny

The Cardinals' skipper's track record should make him bulletproof: In his two seasons Matheny has taken St. Louis to within one game of the World Series and then within two wins of a championship. However, Matheny's curiously panicky handling of some young players makes him a manager to watch as the season grinds on.

This off-season the Cardinals filled a couple of holes from 2013, trading for defensive wizard Peter Bourjos to play center and promoting '11 first-round pick Kolten Wong to play second base, sliding Matt Carpenter to third in the process. So it was odd that Matheny voided both those plans in the season's first month, reducing Bourjos, 27, and Wong, 23, to bit players before either had reached 100 plate appearances. (Bourjos hit .178 in his first 49 plate appearances and lost his starting job in late April, while Wong struggled and was sent to Triple A on April 27.) For a manager with excellent job security and a top-tier front office, reacting so swiftly to a few weeks of so-so play was a criticism-worthy decision.

This is a particularly important issue for St. Louis because handling young players is going to be a critical part of Matheny's job. From Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez in the bullpen to Bourjos and Wong in the lineup to Michael Wacha in the rotation to top prospects Oscar Taveras and Stephen Piscotty, the Cardinals are flush with young talent. Matheny has to be patient with that talent because the worst thing for a young player isn't to play poorly—it's not knowing whether he'll be playing at all.

Matheny has the luxury of job security. There's no reason for him not to extend that same security to his young players. How he handles Wong—who was recalled on May 14—and the other young players will be a critical part in determining whether the Cardinals chase down the Brewers in the NL Central and get back to the postseason.

PHOTOPhotograph by Carlos Osorio/AP9 Strikeouts by Victor Martinez in his first 164 plate appearances—giving him more home runs (10) than K's. PHOTOELAINE THOMPSON/AP (PRICE)77/6 David Price's strikeout-to-walk ratio through his first 10 starts. PHOTOJOSE CARLOS FAJARDO/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.COM (DONALDSON)3.5 Josh Donaldson's WAR so far this season, the highest production among AL players. PHOTOCLIFF WELCH/ICON SMI (POLANCO)1.076 Gregory Polanco's OPS in his first 41 games at Triple A this season. PHOTOBRAD MILLS/USA TODAY SPORTS (MATHENY).523 St. Louis's winning percentage through 44 games, the lowest in Mike Matheny's three seasons at that point.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)