Ten Observations From A Young, Young Baseball Season

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 15: Chris Narveson #38 of the Milwaukee Brewers pitches against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on April 15, 2011 in Washington, DC. All players, coaches and umpires are wearing #42 in honor of Jackie Robinson. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

(1) Chris Narveson has upped his game

Over the winter, the Brewers - already armed with Yovani Gallardo - dealt for both Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke in an effort to put together a fearsome front three in their rotation. Greinke, though, has been sidelined with a rib injury sustained while playing basketball. Without their No. 1 starter, it stands to reason the Brewers have probably been hurting, yes?

No matter. Head on over to Fangraphs and check out the pitching leaderboards, then sort by Contact%. Who do we see in the top spot? None other than Chris Narveson, at 64%. A year ago, Narveson's contact rate was a league average 81%, but through three starts in 2011 he's kicked it up a notch, then another notch, then another notch still. Quite the impressive feat for a guy who has trouble breaking 90 miles per hour.

Narveson's only allowed three runs, with 19 strikeouts in 18.2 innings. Contact% is one of those statistics that stabilizes quickly, so the Brewers have to be encouraged by the progress shown by their 29-year-old lefty. Not only will they get Greinke back soon; with Narveson and Randy Wolf, their fearsome front three could be more like a fearsome starting five.

(2) Michael Pineda is ready

When the Mariners elected to begin the season with the 22-year-old Pineda in their rotation, rather than sending him to Tacoma for a month or two to protect his service time, many verbal arrows were launched in their direction. The Mariners weren't expected to compete, and Pineda wasn't a finished product. Why start his clock now? What could possibly be the benefit?

Well, we can still argue about Pineda's service-time concerns, but there's no longer any questioning that he's ready for the highest level. Through three starts, his strike rate ranks fifth-best in baseball, and his contact rate ranks eighth-best. Perhaps even more impressive is that he ranks first overall in average fastball velocity. He throws hard, and unlike so many other live-armed young starters, he actually knows where the ball is going.

Michael Pineda isn't just good enough to belong in the Mariners' rotation. He's the second-best starter they have, and he's only going to get better.

(3) That whole make-an-effort-to-get-out-of-the-way rule still isn't being called

Here's the official rule on hit by pitches:

The batter becomes a runner and is entitled to first base without liability to be put out (provided he advances to and touches first base) when --
...
(b) He is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (1) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (2) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball

Here's Prince Fielder:

Fielderhbp_medium

(4) The Phillies' rotation is exactly what it was supposed to be

Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels have all made three starts apiece. Their combined numbers:

76 innings
26 runs (3.08 per nine)
14 walks
80 strikeouts

It's almost boring this way. We knew the Phillies had put together an awesome rotation. We expected it to perform like one of the better rotations in baseball history. It's never as interesting when something meets your expectations. It is kind of funny that, after the front four, Joe Blanton's ERA is 10.45. While Blanton is obviously a fine pitcher in his own right, in this context it allows one to pretend that the Phillies put all their eggs in four baskets. "Yeah they got four of the best pitchers in baseball but then ran out of money so they literally had to pull guys off of the street." That would also explain Pete Orr.

(5) The Angels' topheavy rotation is topheavy

Two pitchers in baseball have four wins. One is the Angels' Jered Weaver, and the other is the Angels' Dan Haren. We don't ever like to refer to pitcher wins unless convenient, but here I think it gets the right message across.

For as good as they've been through recent history, the Angels don't seem to receive a ton of attention, with the result now being that they may not get enough credit for featuring two of the AL's better pitchers. Last summer's Dan Haren trade kind of flew under the radar, but all he's done so far is issue two walks while striking out 27. And while Jered Weaver was billed as a potential young ace earlier in his career, he seems to be criminally underrated now that he's actually blossomed into a legitimate No. 1. Weaver's whiffed 264 guys in 252 innings since the start of 2010, and he's done it with excellent command.

If the Angels hang in the race all season long, there'll be several reasons why, but this - the front of their rotation - will be the biggest.

(6) Matt Garza is a case study

You're probably familiar with Wins Above Replacement, or WAR. There are two different types of WAR for pitchers available for public consumption - that hosted by Fangraphs, and that hosted by Baseball-Reference.

Fangraphs sees that Matt Garza has 25 strikeouts, five walks, and zero homers allowed in three starts. It thus awards him a WAR to date of 1.0.

Baseball-Reference sees that Matt Garza has allowed 27 hits and 13 runs in three starts. It thus awards him a WAR to date of...well it turns out Baseball-Reference isn't tracking 2011 WAR just yet. But Garza's Baseball-Reference WAR to date would be bad.

See, Garza has the lowest FIP in baseball at 1.18, but at the same time, he's allowed an unthinkable batting average on balls in play of .491. Garza has allowed 55 balls in play, and 27 of them have gone for hits. 27! Fangraphs writes all of this off as luck. Baseball-Reference writes none of this off as luck. Let me guess where the truth lies.

(7) Erick Almonte?

Courtesy of Hit Tracker Online, here are the hardest home runs of the young season, as measured by the speed of the baseball off the bat:

1) Justin Upton, 116.7mph
2) Torii Hunter, 116.5
3) Paul Konerko, 115.6
4) Erick Almonte, 115.3
5) Ryan Braun, 114.7

Four of those names seem appropriate enough. One of those names belongs to a 33-year-old minor league journeyman utility guy with all of 135 career plate appearances in the bigs. You can't fake hitting the ball really hard, so kudos to Almonte for inserting himself into some upper-crust company.

(8) The Indians have either been lucky or really good at defense

Fangraphs released its first team UZR update of the season on Monday morning, and there at the top of the list are the Cleveland Indians. Their pitching staff also has the third-lowest BABIP in baseball, at .249. The Indians are a surprising 11-4 right now and a big part of that has been their run production, but a bigger part has been their run prevention, as they've conceded just 50 runs in 15 games.

Obviously, the regression will come, as no team can sustain this kind of BABIP performance all year. But when you look around their depth chart, there are quality defenders almost everywhere, so it's possible that Cleveland's gloves may continue to make enough of a contribution to keep the team in the hunt. After all, the White Sox and Tigers are flawed, and the Twins aren't nearly as appealing today as they were last month.

(9) Pablo Sandoval is back and the same

Year BA OBP SLG
2009 0.330 0.387 0.556
2010 0.268 0.323 0.409
2011 0.340 0.386 0.583

He's back!

Year       
O-Swing%* 
Z-Swing%* 
2009 45% 84%
2010 44% 80%
2011 44% 77%

* taken from StatCorner. O-Swing% = rate of swings at pitches out of the zone. Z-Swing% = rate of swings at pitches in the zone.

He's still flailing like an idiot!

Indeed, Giants fans have to be encouraged by Sandoval's early offensive performance, even if he isn't showing any indication at all of improved selectivity at the plate. That might even make it all the more impressive. If Sandoval got better by swinging at more strikes and fewer balls, that would make him more of a normal hitter. If he can keep succeeding while swinging at everything, that makes him a freak, and the baseball world adores a freak.

(10) Jhoulys Chacin is different

Over 148.1 career Major League innings prior to 2011, young Rockies starter Jhoulys Chacin posted a groundball rate of about 45%. So far this season, however, he's kept nearly two-thirds of his 66 balls in play on the dirt. In his first start, against the Dogers, he generated 14 grounders. In his second start, against the Pirates, he generated 14 grounders. In his third start, against the Cubs, he generated 15 grounders. His season-high groundball total in 2010 was 13, and only twice did he reach double digits.

Chacin's pitch mix has remained the same, but his results in 2011 have been very different. Having been a groundball pitcher throughout the minors, it's possible what we're seeing is Chacin simply leaning back more towards what he was, rather than what he became. It may be that, at the end of Chacin's career, it's 2010 that stands out as the exception, rather than 2011.

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