June 16, 2003

Learning to fly

I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings

Coming down is the hardest thing

--- Tom Petty, "Learning to Fly"

Remember a couple weeks ago, I made my Most Valuable Player selections for the AL and NL and said:

"I think the 50-game mark is probably right around the time where the stats people are putting up finally start becoming "real." Nobody is hitting .420 anymore, the only .500 on-base percentages belong to Barry Bonds, and the leaders in wins are Mike Mussina, Jamie Moyer, Mark Mulder and Kevin Millwood, not Runelys Hernandez, Jeff Suppan and Albie Lopez."

We are now approaching the 70-game mark, which means all those "real" stats from two weeks ago are really real now.

The other day, as I often do, I was looking at some of those real stats and it struck me just how many players are in the middle of having extraordinarily surprising seasons...

Melvin Mora | Baltimore Orioles | 2B/SS/LF/CF/RF | Age: 31

Melvin Mora is currently hitting .360/.465/.585. He leads the American League in batting average and on-base percentage, is sixth in slugging percentage and second in OPS (on-base % + slugging %). He also leads the American League in Runs Created/27 Outs (10.70) and Equivalent Average (.363).

Prior to this season, Melvin Mora had 1,658 plate appearances in the major leagues and was a .249/.334/.388 hitter.

The amazing thing about Mora's season so far is that it isn't a case of a player getting off to an incredibly hot start and riding those early-season numbers the whole year:

Month      AVG      OBP      SLG

April .294 .438 .627
May .379 .458 .563
June .391 .508 .587

It's growing!

Mora has been good at home (.344/.466/.624), on the road (.374/.464/.551), versus lefties (.353/.522/.558) and versus righties (.361/.451/.584). He's been good during the day (.407/.478/.712), at night (.340/.460/.532) and, in what is my favorite stat of all, Melvin Mora has put the first pitch of an at bat in play a gand-total of 6 times in 243 plate appearances this season - and he's hitting .500 when does so.

Where exactly is this Melvin Mora offensive outburst coming from? Like you, I have absolutely no idea. I will say that, at various times throughout his career, Mora has been a good offensive player.

April 2002 - .267/.455/.453

June 2002 - .296/.367/.541

May 2001 - .333/.418/.409

June 2001 - .326/.404/.526

June 2000 - .312/.354/.519

August 2000 - .333/.406/.500

So, over the past 3 seasons, Mora has 6 very nice offensive months (5 of which came before all-star break). The problem with him has been the fact that, aside from those 6 months, he has been completely awful offensively for long periods of time.

2002 second-half - .195/.317/.363

2001 second-half - .210/.283/.284

Mora is a really great story (the man has 2 year old QUINTUPLETS people!) and has been a huge part of the Baltimore Orioles somehow continuing to hang around the .500-mark.

Javy Lopez | Atlanta Braves | C | Age: 32

Unlike Melvin Mora, Javy Lopez has actually been a very good offensive player in the past. In fact, during the middle part of Atlanta's decade-plus run of dominance, Javy Lopez was consistently one of the better catchers in baseball.

Year      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     OPS+

1995 352 .315 .344 .498 118
1996 526 .282 .322 .466 100
1997 464 .295 .361 .534 129
1998 534 .284 .328 .540 122
1999 269 .317 .375 .533 133
2000 525 .287 .337 .484 105

That would be a pretty nice 6-year run for a first baseman. For a catcher, it is great.

Those 6 years were Lopez's age 24-29 seasons and, shortly after the end of the 2000 playoffs, he turned 30. After officially joining the "wrong side" of that magical age for baseball players, Lopez followed up that great 6-year stretch by having the following seasons at 30 and 31:

Year      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     OPS+

2001 482 .267 .322 .425 91
2002 385 .233 .299 .372 76

That is a catcher in serious decline if I have ever seen one. At 31, Lopez had the worst offensive season of his career, the second straight year his offensive numbers had slipped.

And now, at age 32, he is doing this:

Year      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR     2B

2003 192 .301 .333 .683 19 9

Yes, those numbers are correct. And no, I don't get it either.

At this moment, Lopez's OPS figures since 1999 read as follows:

.908 - .821 - .747 - .671 - 1.016

He's a catcher, he's aging, he's past 30, he's declining and then...BOOM - he's got a 1.016 OPS and 19 homers in 49 games.

Like Mora, Javy Lopez is actually getting better as the season goes on:

Month      AVG      OBP      SLG

April .242 .275 .470
May .338 .376 .800
June .314 .333 .829

Lopez is currently on pace to hit 46 home runs. That would make him the only catcher in the history of baseball to hit 40+ homers in a season after the age of 31. Even if Lopez ends up with "only" 30 homers this year, he will join a very select group:

Catchers: 32 or older/30+ homers:

Player                   Year       HR 

Carlton Fisk 1985 37
Mike Piazza 2001 36
Terry Steinbach 1996 35
Walker Cooper 1947 35
Mike Piazza 2002 33
Roy Campanella 1955 32

In fact, even if you drop the home run number all the way down to 25 (just 6 more than Lopez has already), the new (32 and older/25+ homer) list looks like this:

Player                   Year       HR 

Carlton Fisk 1985 37
Mike Piazza 2001 36
Terry Steinbach 1996 35
Walker Cooper 1947 35
Mike Piazza 2002 33
Roy Campanella 1955 32
Elston Howard 1963 28
Carlton Fisk 1983 26

That's a total of 8 seasons over the course of about 125 years of baseball. The list includes just 6 players - 3 of whom are either in the Hall of Fame or will be someday. Now, barring some serious injury or complete power-outage, the list is about to get a 7th member: Javy Lopez.

Of course, a few years ago the idea that Lopez would hit 25 or 30 homers at the age of 32 wouldn't have been strange at all. But this isn't a few years ago and the fact that the 2003 season is coming up on 70 games old and Javy Lopez is on pace for 46 homers is pretty remarkable.

Greg Myers | Toronto Blue Jays | C | Age: 37

Time Period              AVG      OBP      SLG

2002 .222 .341 .382
1999-2001 .241 .317 .389
Career (1987-2002) .250 .307 .384
2003                    .345     .431     .559

After 15 years in the majors leagues as a reliable, run-of-the-mill backup catcher, Greg Myers is having a tremendous season and one that I don't think anyone could have predicted.

Not only is he hitting better than he ever has (previous career-best season is .224/.313/.447), he is playing more than he ever has.

Myers has been one-half of Toronto's incredibly successful catching platoon this season. He and Tom Wilson (and a few horrible at bats by Ken Huckaby) have combined to give Toronto the best team batting average by catchers (.317) in baseball, the third best slugging percentage (.516) and the fourth best on-base percentage (.385).

Myers has gotten the bulk of the playing time against right-handed pitching, against whom he is hitting .350/.443/.583 in 140 plate appearances. He has also been very good (.320/.370/.440) in his limited playing time against lefties this year, after hitting just .212/.255/.346 against southpaws from 2000-2002.

Myers is currently on pace for 387 plate appearances this season. That would be a career-high by over 50 plate appearances. He is also on pace for 127 games played, 336 at bats, 16 homers, 23 doubles, 51 walks, 56 RBIs, 60 runs and 116 hits - all career-highs.

Will this continue for the rest of season? I really doubt it. I mean, the odds of any catcher hitting .345 over the course of a full-season are slim and we're not talking about a young player who is breaking out here. We're talking about 37 year old catcher with 15 years of major league mediocrity under his belt, someone who has never even come close to this level of play before.

I'll definitely be rooting for him though. I've taken a real liking to Blue Jays this season and, more importantly, I have Greg Myers on one of my Diamond-Mind keeper league teams and that .345 average would look real nice in my starting lineup next year (and for only $7 too!).

Alex Gonzalez | Florida Marlins | SS | Age: 26

Ever since the Marlins promoted Alex Gonzalez to the majors leagues in 1998, there have been two Alex Gonzalezes playing shortstop in the major leagues. Florida's Alex Gonzalez has stayed with the Marlins his entire career, while the "other" Alex Gonzalez, who has been in the majors since 1994, played the first 8 years of his career with the Blue Jays, before joining the Cubs last season.

Prior to this year, they both had similarly bad offensive numbers for their careers:

Alex Gonzalez           AVG      OBP      SLG

Toronto/Chicago .245 .306 .392
Florida .240 .284 .372

On April 13th - two weeks into the 2003 season - the two Alex Gonzalezes were off to fantastic starts offensively...

Alex Gonzalez (Florida) - .326/.396/.721

Alex Gonzalez (Chicago) - .395/.458/.581

Like many baseball fans at that point, I dismissed both of their hot starts as anything but just that - hot starts - because...well, they were still Alex Gonzalez.

Then, on May 5th - over a month into the 2003 season - the Alex Gonzalezes were still chugging along:

Alex Gonzalez (Florida) - .336/.381/.664

Alex Gonzalez (Chicago) - .308/.387/.467

The Chicago version had seen his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage each drop about 100 points since his hot start, but he was still having a very good season. And the Florida version was barely letting up at all. His hitting batting average was actually higher than it was on April 13th and his OBP and SLG had gone down, but not a ton.

And now?

Alex Gonzalez (Florida) - .332/.375/.594

Alex Gonzalez (Chicago) - .254/.311/.400

Apparently, the go-back-to-playing-like-Alex Gonzalez memo hasn't made it to Florida - yet. The Chicago version has gone back to his craptastic ways and, despite his great start, is now within a couple of points either way of his career batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

Meanwhile, the Florida version is officially moving past "hot start" and into "great first half." He is sixth in the National League in both batting average (.332) and slugging percentage (.594). He is second in Equivalent Average (.313) among all MLB shortstops, trailing only Nomar Garciaparra (.323). Who would have thought that the best shortstop so far named Alex would be Gonzalez?!

I keep waiting for him to go back to being Alex Gonzalez. I mean, his namesake in Chicago toyed with the idea of being a useful offensive player for a little while, but eventually went back to being Alex Gonzalez. But this Alex Gonzalez in Florida is being very stubborn about the whole thing.

Esteban Loaiza | Chicago White Sox | SP | Age: 31

It is now June 16th and I feel completely safe in saying the following: Esteban Loaiza has been the best pitcher in the American League this season.

Loaiza leads the AL in ERA (2.24), is second in opponent batting average (.213), third in wins (9) and fourth in strikeouts (78).

He has made 14 starts this season, pitching a total of 92 1/3 innings with a 9-2 record and a 2.24 ERA. Exactly how out of the blue is this?

Esteban Loaiza:

Time Period               IP      ERA

2002 151 5.71
1999-2001 509 4.74
Career (1995-2002) 1254 4.88

Loaiza's play this season has been just as surprising and completely out of the blue as Mora, Myers and Gonzalez. However, I will say that, during spring training, the White Sox were talking quite a bit about how Loaiza was looking like a completely different pitcher and had made big changes to his pitching style. I didn't believe it at the time, of course, because there is talk like that from every team about one player or another every spring.

So far though, it's looking like the truth. Loaiza is striking out 7.60 batters per 9 innings. Prior to this season, his career-high was 6.19 in 2000 and he has spent the majority of his career in the 5.00-5.75 range. Loaiza has always had good control and, despite his sub par strikeout rates, has usually had a 2-1 K/BB ratio. This year he is on pace to walk 57 batters in 220 innings and is striking out 3.25 batters for every walk.

Perhaps even more impressive than the big boost in strikeouts is the fact that Loaiza has been able to keep the ball in the ballpark so far this season. He has given up just 6 homers in 92 1/3 innings - one every 15.4 innings pitched.

Innings per HR:

Year      IP     HR     IP/HR

2000 199 29 6.8
2001 190 27 7.0
2002 151 18 8.3

Since making lists and trying to predict the future is fun, here is how I would rank the chances of the 5 players I just discussed continuing to play at (relatively) the same level for the rest of the season:

1) Javy Lopez - Unlike the rest of the guys, Lopez actually has a history of playing reasonably close to this well and that has to count for something.

2) Esteban Loaiza - I have watched Loaiza pitch several times this year and have been as impressed with his performance as his numbers would indicate. From what I have seen, this is not some guy getting lucky breaks or incredibly good defense played behind him. He's genuinely pitching differently and much more effectively.

3) Melvin Mora - In thinking of Mora, I could have gone either way. On the one hand, he made great strides in his plate discipline last season (70 walks in 149 games) and has continued that this season, so his great start isn't completely reliant upon batting average. On the other hand, he's still Melvin Mora (how's that for serious analysis).

4) Greg Myers - As much as I'd love it for my Diamond-Mind team, I just can't go against 15 years of history and about 3,000 plate appearances that say Myers isn't gonna hit .345 for much longer. That said, I have watched the Jays a lot this year and I have been tremendously impressed with his approach at the plate every time. He works very long counts, rarely swings at a bad pitch and, when he has gotten a good pitch to hit, he's crushed it.

5) Alex Gonzalez - Gonzalez still isn't walking (10 walks in 62 games) and I can't see that batting average staying in the .310-.330 range, so, even if some of his new-found power remains, he's due for a big dropoff.

Twins thoughts...

The Twins began a 4-game set with the second-place Royals last night, losing game one 9-8.

The Twins were down 8-0 after six innings, but rallied back with 2 in the 7th, 3 in the 8th and 3 more in the top of the 9th, to tie the game at 8 heading into the bottom of the 9th. Ron Gardenhire pleasantly surprised me by bringing in Eddie Guardado to start the 9th inning in a tie game (not a save situation) and, wouldn't you know it, Eddie gave up a 4-pitch walk, a wild pitch, a single and, before I could even settle into watching what was suddenly a very winnable game, it was over.

Normally a 4-game series between a first-place team and a second-place team is pretty important, but I just cannot get that excited about this particular series, mostly because there is not a bone in my body that believes the Royals will be anywhere close to the Twins when the 2003 season is over. Maybe I will be proved wrong, but the Royals improved their record to 16-3 by beating the Twins back on April 24th and are now 18-29 since then. Meanwhile, the Twins are 29-18 over that same span.

A 16-3 start does a lot to carry a team throughout a season and the Royals are still above .500 despite losing 29 of their last 47 games. However, they are also 3 games behind the Twins already, despite that 16-3 start, and what they did in April isn't going to help them make up ground come September.

I still say the Twins' biggest threat this season is Chicago, who beat to the Red Sox last night to improve their record to 32-37. I guess that tells you all you need to know about what I think the Twins' chances of winning the division are, and that's actually strange for me, because I am normally very pessimistic regarding my favorite teams.

I think Ron Gardenhire has done a great job since taking over the Twins at the start of last season and I definitely think juggling a roster full of good players in order to get everyone playing time like Gardenhire has done is very tough to do. That said, his lineup for last night's game is a perfect example of one of his biggest flaws.

Against Darrell May, a left-handed pitcher, Gardenhire started Jacque Jones in left field and batted him leadoff.

Meanwhile, Bobby Kielty sat on the bench.

vs lefties (2003):

Jacque Jones - .243/.260/.378

Bobby Kielty - .311/.436/.756

vs lefties (career)

Jacque Jones - .218/.254/.318

Bobby Kielty - .293/.398/.522

Gardenhire is trying to constantly juggle lineups to find playing time for Kielty, Matthew LeCroy, Dustan Mohr, Lew Ford and now Justin Morneau. Yet, for some reason, Jacque Jones continues to get a "free pass" against lefties, when he has been absolutely horrible against them his entire career.

By the way, to all the people out there who sent me emails when Jacque started the season very hot against lefties (.364/.400/.500 after 22 at bats) - remember how I said it was early and you should wait until he had a few more at bats against them before you got all excited?


Same old, same old.

Bobby Kielty has struggled against right-handed pitching this year and, while I don't agree with it, I can understand why Gardenhire would not use him everyday against righties. But when there is a left-handed pitcher on the mound there is absolutely no way Bobby Kielty should be on the bench while Jacque Jones plays. None. Not this year, not last year, not next year.

"Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in!"

--- Michael Corleone, "The Godfather: Part III"

FREE BOBBY KIELTY! (against lefties, at least)

Today's picks:

Arizona (Good) +135 over Houston (Robertson)

San Francisco (Foppert) +180 over Los Angeles (Brown)

Toronto (Halladay) -150 over Baltimore (Daal)

Total to date: + $1,670

W/L record: 135-128 (Only made one pick yesterday and won it on Dontrelle Willis' 1-hitter)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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