How 'bout a little help, please!
Ubaldo Jimenez and Zack Greinke among the players doing much of the heavy lifting
Shortly before embarking on his summer vacation in late April, Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony drew some attention with a comment that made his frustration readily apparent. That's a natural byproduct of scoring 39 points when nobody else on your team surpasses 14. While making it clear how badly he wanted to beat the Utah Jazz, Anthony observed, "As a unit, we've got to do this together. I can't do this by myself."
If mellow 'Melo has trouble keeping his discontent under wraps in a best-of-seven NBA series, just imagine how professional athletes must feel when they show up night after night, game after game, and hold up their end of the bargain only to receive minimal support. It's a noteworthy phenomenon in Major League Baseball, where lots of players are producing to expectations and quietly suffering from a lack of aid.
In this week's installment of Starting 9, we recognize baseball's one-man gangs -- players who have been carrying their teams in a specific aspect of the game. Like a certain NBA forward, they can only sit back and wonder, "Is there a wing man in the house?"
Ubaldo Jimenez is 6-1 with a 0.93 ERA.
Colorado's other starters are 7-9, 5.68
The Rockies' pitching has been a portrait in chaos in the early going. Jeff Francis' recovery from shoulder trouble has taken longer than expected, and Aaron Cook's stuff has regressed. Cook has 18 walks and 18 strikeouts, and he's using his breaking ball more than he ever did in the past. When Cook won 16 games two years ago, he kept churning out power sinkers, and hitters couldn't get the ball airborne even when they knew what was coming.
Jorge De La Rosa, who seemed poised for a breakout year at age 29, recently went down with a torn flexor tendon in his middle finger. The Rockies hope he'll be back in June, but Adam Eaton, Joel Zumaya and others who have suffered similar injuries have taken considerably longer to return.
The Rockies would be in even bigger trouble if not for rookie Jhoulys Chacin, who has thrown 15 1/3 shutout innings since his arrival from Triple-A Colorado Springs.
Garden-variety superlatives aren't enough to describe Jimenez, who was unbeaten until dropping a 2-0 decision to the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw on Sunday. Jimenez's fastball averages a tick under 97 mph, and his professional comportment and work ethic are equally impressive. He's given the Rockies a quality start each time out, and thrown 115 or more pitches in four of seven outings. Like Roy Halladay in Philadelphia, he takes a huge strain off the bullpen.
"It's not just the wins, but the innings he has pitched, which has saved our 'pen," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "He has really stepped up, and he's done it with tremendous focus and humility. He's a pretty special young man."
Zack Greinke has 36 strikeouts and eight walks. Kansas City's other starters have 90 strikeouts and 79 walks
Kansas City's pitching staff has issued 145 walks, the third-highest total in the majors. According to Royals media director Mike Swanson, 44 of those baserunners have come around to score. This is not what manager Trey Hillman and pitching coach Bob McClure envisioned when they made strike-throwing a point of emphasis in spring training.
Brian Bannister does his best with guile and middling stuff. Kyle Davies and Luke Hochevar show flashes, but lack the command and focus to string together several quality starts in a row. At this point, it's hard to tell what's up with Gil Meche (0-4, 8.24 ERA). Royals blogger Rany Jazayerli contends that Meche has been mishandled and pitched out by Hillman, but one scout who's seen a lot of Meche doesn't think it's a question of health or a dead arm.
"He's throwing as hard as he did at any time last year, and there's the same crispness to his offspeed pitches, but he can't locate anything," the scout said. "He has a little 'stab' when he brings his arm back, and sometimes when guys have a little funkiness in their arm action and their rhythm is off a little bit, they really scuffle. If their timing isn't right, the command just isn't there."
With his 2.51 ERA, Greinke clearly deserves better than an 0-4 record. But his strikeout rate is down and he's already allowed five home runs compared with 11 for the entire 2009 season. Add a bad bullpen and a lack of run support to the equation, and he's gotten off to an exasperating start.
"It's easy to say, 'Let's feel sorry for Greinke,' but he's hung some breaking balls and made more mistakes with his pitches than he did last year," an AL scout said. "He hasn't been quite as sharp to this point. Then again, it's not realistic to expect that he would be."
Jason Heyward has eight of Atlanta's 22 home runs. Troy Glaus, Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Yunel Escobar and Matt Diaz have eight combined
Before the Atlanta offense perked up on the current trip to Milwaukee, manager Bobby Cox was ready to issue an all points bulletin for Greg Norton. The Braves have already been no-hit by Ubaldo Jimenez, nearly no-hit by Scott Olsen, two-hit by Jamie Moyer, and shut out a major league-high six times this season.
Escobar is on the disabled list with a groin injury. Brian McCann has vision problems. Troy Glaus has the same slugging percentage (.402) as Yadier Molina and Cristian Guzman. Outfielders Nate McLouth, Melky Cabrera and Diaz are hitting .182 combined, and one NL executive said Chipper Jones "looks like a shell" of the guy who hit .364 and won a batting title in 2008.
"We're doing our work," Diaz said. "We're all in the film room. We're all hitting extra in the cage. It's not due to lack of work by any one person who's struggling. But it's a universal theme. Other than [Martin] Prado, Heyward and [Eric] Hinske, you look at that box score and you're like, 'This isn't what we envisioned coming out of camp.'
"There's a saying that you always hit 15 points higher or lower than your career average. If that holds true, we're in for some really good offensive baseball in the coming months."
General manager Frank Wren is taking some heat for assembling this offensively challenged group, but hitting coach Terry Pendleton also deserves his share of scrutiny. Arizona's Kelly Johnson and the White Sox's Andruw Jones, both of whom had problems that couldn't be fixed in Atlanta, have a combined 19 home runs this season. That's three fewer than the entire Atlanta team.
Cincinnati rookie Mike Leake is 3-0 with a 3.10 ERA. Bronson Arroyo, Aaron Harang, Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey are 6-9, 5.57
Arroyo and Cueto helped improve manager Dusty Baker's mood with two straight gems against a weak Pittsburgh Pirates lineup, but it's rarely looked that easy for the Reds this season.
"I wish I could tell you," said Reds pitching coach Bryan Price. "Everybody came out of spring training healthy and throwing the ball well. But with the exception of Mike, we just haven't gotten off to a great start.
"We've told guys, 'You can't start to pitch when your team is out of competition.' It's obvious that St. Louis has gotten off to a great start. We can't start to run up our numbers in July if we're 12 games out."
Cincinnati's rotation has allowed 36 home runs, tied for seventh most in the majors. That's no surprise given that the Reds play in one of baseball's most homer-friendly parks. But the rampant gopher-itis has made the Reds susceptible to the big inning.
The one constant has been the performance of Leake, the eighth overall pick in the 2009 draft. He recently joined Tom Browning and the immortal Tom Shearn of the 2007 Reds as only the third Cincinnati pitcher in the last 35 years to go 3-0 or better in his first six starts.
Leake, who's generously listed at 6-1, 190 pounds, barely scratches 6 feet, if that. But like another undersized Arizona State Sun Devil, Dustin Pedroia, he's a terrific competitor who squeezes every drop out of his ability. Leake lives on the corners, keeps his fielders involved, and has the maturity to maintain his focus and buckle down with runners on base.
"His ball sinks and bores and tails and rides," a National League scout said. "He's got three different types of sliders. The one thing I question is his stamina when the innings start to build up. And the league doesn't know him yet, so stay tuned for the second half."
Vernon Wells is hitting .319. The rest of the Toronto Blue Jays are batting .226
The batting averages tell only a fraction of the story. Alex Gonzalez and John Buck have combined for 18 home runs, and Fred Lewis has fit in nicely since the Blue Jays acquired him by trade from San Francisco in mid-April. The Jays rank 12th in the American League with a .236 batting average, but they're also third in the league with a .450 team slugging percentage.
That said, some important hitters have yet to get rolling. Adam Lind is striking out at an alarming rate. Aaron Hill has yet to find his swing after missing time with a hamstring injury, and Lyle Overbay is playing like a guy who spent the winter expecting to be traded and never quite got over it.
Wells, who still has five years and almost $100 million left on his 2006 mega-deal with the Jays, took his lumps while posting some underwhelming numbers last season. To his credit, he appeared in 158 games despite an injured left wrist. When the season ended and Wells stopped taking anti-inflammatory medication, the wrist swelled up so badly that surgery was inevitable.
Now that Wells is free to swing the bat without pain, he looks more like the guy who made two All-Star teams and won a Silver Slugger Award way back in 2003. Oddly enough, even his defensive metrics have improved now that he's healthy.
"Vernon's only 31," said Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos. "He's still in the prime of his career. Do we expect him to hit .340 the entire year? No, but we think he can be that 25-to-30 home run guy with very good defense in center field."
Michael Bourn has 11 of Houston's 17 stolen bases
The Astros rank last in the majors with a pathetic 55 walks, and they're 29th overall with 15 home runs. It would be nice if manager Brad Mills could find a way to manufacture some offense, but Houston's lineup has too many aging sluggers (Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman), free swingers (Hunter Pence and Pedro Feliz) and role player types (Geoff Blum and Jeff Keppinger) to pressure opposing starters night after night.
The Astros entered the season with a plan to commit to two rookie regulars, shortstop Tommy Manzella and catcher J.R. Towles. A month into the season, Towles is back with Double-A Corpus Christi, and Manzella has a .498 OPS in 25 games. So much for transitioning to the kids.
Bourn, 27, has been one of the few reliable commodities in Houston. He's a Gold Glove center fielder, he gives the Astros energy, and he's made himself into a serviceable leadoff man through hard work and attention to detail. Bourn had 127 big league at-bats when Houston GM Ed Wade acquired him from the Phillies in the Brad Lidge trade, so he had to learn how to hit leadoff in the big leagues on the fly. And we emphasize the word "fly."
"He's made himself into a legit leadoff guy," said an NL scout. "He's improved his contact ratio. He uses the whole field. He'll take a walk, and he can bunt. He had to overcome questions about whether he could play every day and execute, and I think he's done that. He went to winter ball [in the Dominican Republic in 2008], and I think he learned an awful lot."
One thing Bourn still needs to work on is better comportment around the men in blue: He received a two-game suspension Tuesday for making contact with umpire Alfonso Marquez during an argument Saturday in Houston.
Jered Weaver is 4-1 with a 2.66 ERA. The Angels' other starters are a combined 6-16, 5.43
In spring training, the Angels insisted that they could survive the departure of John Lackey to Boston through free agency because their starting rotation was so balanced from top to bottom. They kept giving that answer long after they grew tired of the question.
So far, it's been a mixed bag. Ervin Santana, true to his history, looks like a world beater one start and just another guy five days later. Joe Saunders has 15 strikeouts and 19 walks this season, and his stuff just isn't good enough for him to pitch from behind that consistently. Joel Pineiro's ERA went into the stratosphere thanks to one horrific game against Detroit, and Scott Kazmir is usually good for five innings and 100 laborious pitches per outing.
The Angels are fortunate that no one in the American League West has gotten off to a particularly hot start. But if Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson keep it up in Texas and Oakland starts getting some players back from the disabled list, Mike Scioscia's team is going to need better starting pitching to stay in the hunt. Los Angeles' staff leads the league with 43 homers allowed. That is not a recipe for a sixth division title in seven years.
Evan Longoria has a .992 OPS against left-handed pitching. The Tampa Bay Rays have a team OPS of .678 versus lefties
The Rays have a 10-5 record against lefty starters, so it's a reach to say that southpaws are their kryptonite. But perfect game authors Mark Buehrle and Dallas Braden aren't the only left-handers who've done a number on manager Joe Maddon's lineup.
CC Sabathia took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against Tampa Bay in April, and John Danks, Brian Matusz, Jason Vargas, Brett Cecil and Gio Gonzalez have all pitched strong games against the Rays this season.
"I would think if that lineup has an Achilles' heel, that's it," said an American League scout. "They have some lefties [like Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena] who aren't going to cut down with two strikes and try to put the ball in play. They're going to swing through some offspeed stuff."
The other fringe benefit to throwing a left-hander against Tampa is that it helps neutralize the Rays' running game: Tampa Bay is tied for fifth in the majors with 31 stolen bases this season, and it's usually more challenging to run against a lefty pitcher.
Shin-Soo Choo leads the Indians in almost every major offensive category
We'd be remiss not to recognize Asdrubal Cabrera or Austin Kearns, who has revived his career in Cleveland after signing a $750,000 minor league deal in January. Now that Kearns is healthy and has an opportunity to play regularly, he looks more like the player who was tagged as a future All-Star in his Cincinnati days.
That said, Choo needs more support from the players who were supposed to help carry the Cleveland offense. Grady Sizemore is struggling to find his swing after two offseason surgeries. Jhonny Peralta is hitting .208, and Matt LaPorta has one RBI in 74 at-bats. Travis Hafner has looked more comfortable in the box recently, but each step forward seems to come with a corresponding step back.
Choo leads the Indians in hits (35), runs (17), homers (4), RBIs (19), walks (21) and on-base percentage (.422). Scott Boras, Choo's agent, recently told Yahoo Sports that Choo has a chance to be the "best Pacific Rim player ever over the course of his career." Yes, that includes Ichiro Suzuki. Coincidentally, Choo, a Boras client, is eligible for salary arbitration this winter.
"He gives you a consistent, quality at-bat almost every time up," said Indians assistant GM Chris Antonetti. "He's got good discipline and power, but he also has speed. He probably has five infield hits this year just because he runs every ball out."
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