The baseball season is nearly two months old. Here are nine surprising developments that have already caught my attention.
Gio Gonzalez's Control
OK, so maybe he's still not exactly exhibiting Cliff Lee-like control, but Gonzalez has made excellent strides with his control this season. Part could certainly be due to facing a pitcher instead of a DH, but let's give him some credit for BB/9IP improvement:
2009 – 5.1 BB/9IP
2010 - 4.1
2011 - 4.1
2012 - 3.6
Combine that with an 11.4 K/9IP rate (by far a career high if it holds), and it shouldn't be a huge surprise that Gonzalez ranks sixth in baseball with a 1.98 ERA. Considering he also leads the league in strikeouts with 69, he's a somewhat surprising early contender for NL Cy Young honors. Interestingly, he's mixing in his changeup far more this year (12.1 percent of pitches) than in years prior (7.5 and 7.6 percent the last two seasons), and it's been an above-average pitch for him. I was a little skeptical of the trade with Oakland, as the A's got a boatload of young talent, but this deal looks to be a mammoth rotation upgrade in Washington. Last year, the Nationals were forced to start Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis a combined 49 times.
Pirates Pitching Staff
James McDonald – 2.51 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 9.1 K/9IP
Erik Bedard – 3.52 ERA, 9.4 K/9IP, HEALTHY
Charlie Morton – 4.35 ERA
A.J. Burnett – 4.78 ERA, but two earned runs or less in five of six starts
Kevin Correia – 4.50 ERA
Bullpen – 2.51 ERA overall, 2.07 if you don't count Evan Meek.
Now if the Pirates could only find a couple bats. McDonald has always shown the ability to miss bats while coming up through the Dodgers organization, so going on a near two-month solid run isn't a big surprise. Burnett pitching well (excepting that 12-run outing) in the National League is far from surprising, and Bedard gives them a solid No. 3, borderline No. 2, starter. McDonald could wind up with an ERA in the low-3.00s, as could Bedard if he manages to stay healthy. This team really needs a solid No. 3/4-type starter to solidify the back end, as counting on Morton and Correia to hold down two slots all year is pushing it. Still, McDonald is legit and Bedard and Burnett are solid fantasy options.
As for the bullpen, this is a bit of a mirage, as this sort of performance isn't sustainable for a group with a collective 4.0 BB/9IP. Still, when you have relievers like Jason Grilli posting a 15.2 K/9IP, you have something special going on.
Jim Johnson is Still the Closer ... and He's Leading the League in Saves
One might think that with a fastball that averages 94.1 mph, Johnson would have higher than a 6.1 K/9IP, but let's dig a little deeper. Johnson has driven down his BB/9IP from 2.1 to 1.7 year over year, so he throws strikes. Where he sets himself apart, however, is in his batted ball data this year vs. the league average:
LD% - 13.8/20.6
GB% - 70.7/45.5
FB% - 15.5/33.9
To say that's an excellent groundball rate would be a colossal understatement. Johnson did post a 61.5-percent rate last year, so this isn't flukish by any means. Sure, we'd love to see more strikeouts, but when a closer is 16-for-16 in saves with a 0.87 ERA and 0.77 WHIP, it's not an overstatement to say that he's been the most valuable fantasy reliever to date, particularly considering where he was likely drafted. I never like to spend early draft picks or big money on closers, so I usually end up with guys like Johnson. And, fortunately, he is on more than one of my teams this year.
The Re-Emergence of Johan Santana
I have to admit that after seeing Santana miss all of 2011 and parts of the previous two years, I thought he was done. Shoulder injuries for pitchers are particularly troubling, and Santana had more than his share of those maladies. Still, when he was on the hill the last three years, he was fairly effective, posting ERAs of 3.13 and 2.98 in 2009-2010, but the injuries and declining strikeout rate was concerning:
2007 – 9.7 K/IP9
2008 – 7.9
2009 – 7.9
2010 – 6.5
Factor in a fastball that wasn't as fast and I was left wondering if he'd finish his career either hurt or taking the Francisco Liriano path to irrelevancy. This year, though, Santana has a 3.24 ERA, 9.5 K/9IP and 2.9 BB/9IP. The solid walk rate isn't a surprise, but the strikeouts are. Is this really a pitcher who can post an ERA in the low 3s with 180 strikeouts? Maybe, but clearly that depends on his health, and while it would be easy to say he's going to get hurt again, the truth is, no one will know until the season is up.
The Sudden Turnaround of Adam Wainwright (but it was the Padres)
First eight starts: 5.77 ERA, 1.53 WHIP
May 22 vs. SD: four-hit shutout with nine strikeouts
So is he "back"? That's the question, and while Wainwright looked good Tuesday, it was still the Padres, who have just 16 team home runs, rank next-to-last in team OPS (Pirates) and who average a whopping 3.1 runs per game. Based on that, I still want to see how he does against a tougher opponent, but remember that the Adam Wainwright we once knew was capable of these kinds of games against all comers. Ultimately, I think he'll be good the rest of the way, but I'm not sure he's 100 percent "back."
From Wide Receiver ... to Big League Reliever ... to No. 2 starter?
Of course we're talking about Jeff Samardzija. (By the way, I am proud of myself for finally being able to spell his last name without looking it up.) Samardzija got some good auction action in a couple of my leagues this year after he posted a 16:1 K:BB in 20 spring innings to secure a rotation slot. He's kept that going with a 3.00 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 9.4 K/9IP and 2.8 BB/9IP. The mid-90s stuff was to be expected, but the surprise is how good his slider really is. He throws it in the 83-86 mph range generally, which is a good amount of separation from his fastball, and he's truly made it into an out pitch. Kudos for the Cubs (you listening here Cincinnati?) for not giving in and slotting him as their closer, as with his stuff, he could be an elite ninth-inning pitcher.
Carlos Zambrano: Pitching Well AND No Broken Water Coolers
Zambrano is doing his best to give that whole "change of scenery" thing some credibility. His last three years: