Partnerships working out really well
A number of players thriving thanks to a new mindset, among several other reasons
Millions of Americans are about to gather in front of their televisions and celebrate a major current events phenomenon, where pomp and circumstance reign supreme, tears flow freely and everything from the outfits to the hairstyles will be scrutinized ad nauseam.
No, we're not talking about the first round of the NFL draft (or Marcell Dareus' choice of suits and Mel Kiper Jr.'s gel quotient). For the next two days, it's all about William, Kate and the festivities at Westminster Abbey.
In recognition of the Royal Wedding, this week's edition of Starting 9 focuses on Major League Baseball unions that have worked out happily ever after -- or at least gone exceedingly well through the opening month. Lots of players have benefited from a change of scenery, a new mindset, a positive synergy with a coach or improved health, and it's shown in the results on the field.
The Manny Ramirez-Johnny Damon reunion failed to pan out, Brian Cashman and Derek Jeter have had their issues in New York, and Frank and Jamie McCourt won't be having dinner anytime soon. But some partnerships really do work out for the best. Welcome to our "baseball marriages made in heaven'' edition.
Pablo Sandoval and Dan O'Brien
The 2010 season was magical for the Giants, but the pixie dust never landed on Sandoval. On the home front, he suffered through a divorce and debilitating custody battle for his daughter. Sandoval's numbers plunged and he lost playing time as a result. And the sunny exterior and upbeat persona that helped make him such a fan favorite were nowhere to be found.
The Giants made it clear that the stakes were high for Sandoval entering the offseason. They told him to get himself in better shape or prepare for a tour of the Pacific Coast League from base camp in Fresno.
Sandoval took the warnings to heart. He spent the winter working out at the Triple Threat Performance facility in Arizona under the guidance of O'Brien, the former Olympic decathlon champion, and reported to spring training about 40 pounds lighter. Some players perform better when they're angry or feel slighted. Sandoval is better when he's happy. And right now he's happy to the tune of a .329 batting average and a .959 OPS.
"The poor guy almost ate himself out of the league, but he's got his mojo and his confidence back,'' said a scout who knows Sandoval. "The smile is back on his face. He's more athletic, and you can tell he feels good about himself. I think he looks in the mirror now and says, 'Hey, look at me. I'm a handsome guy.'"
Amazingly, Sandoval is even showing some plate discipline. He's seeing a career-high 3.75 pitches per plate appearance and swinging away a career-low 52.2 percent of the time. His sore hips are no longer an issue with the weight loss, and he looks significantly better from the right side of the plate.
"Sandoval and Prince Fielder, they're good athletes trapped in bad bodies,'' said another scout. "But they're special hitters. You can't teach natural timing, and both those guys have that.''
Jose Bautista and Dwayne Murphy
Bautista emerged as an offensive force in 2010, leading the majors with 54 homers and tying Carlos Gonzalez for first with 351 total bases. He gave much of the credit to former Toronto manager Cito Gaston for showing so much faith in him, and to Murphy, the team's hitting coach, for some helpful swing adjustments that allowed him to maximize his power.
When Gaston retired and the Blue Jays hired new manager John Farrell, general manager Alex Anthopoulous could have cleaned house with the coaching staff. But he chose to retain third base coach Brian Butterfield, pitching coach Bruce Walton and Murphy, who oversaw a lineup that led the majors with 257 homers.
"We won 85 games last year, and we got the most out of a lot of guys we brought in here,'' Anthopoulos said. "We were already changing the manager off a team that had a very good year, so why change the coaching? There wasn't any need to blow it up.''
There's been no letdown for Bautista, who has cranked out eight homers and is slugging .767 even though opponents have become increasingly more wary about pitching to him. After Bautista laid waste to the Tampa Bay pitching staff recently, Joe Maddon compared him to the 2002 version of Barry Bonds, and Rays left fielder Sam Fuld joked that the team might as well open the gates and let him stand in the bullpen when Bautista came to the plate.
Anthopoulos received some criticism after signing Bautista to a five-year, $65 million contract extension based on one great year. If Bautista fails to live up to his end of the bargain, it won't be because he got complacent.
"There's always a concern when you give a guy guaranteed money,'' Anthopoulos said. "How are they going to react? But if we can't bet on Jose Bautista, we can't bet on anybody. In terms of putting your head on the pillow at night and not having to worry about the human being, the work ethic, the character, the integrity, the humility and all that stuff, I'm not going to worry about this guy a day in my life.''
Josh Johnson and Uncle Charlie
Last year, Johnson signed a four-year, $39 million contract extension with the Marlins, and proceeded to make his second All-Star team, lead the National League with a 2.30 ERA and finish fifth in the NL Cy Young Award balloting.
Rather than bask in the satisfaction of a job well done, Johnson focused on self-improvement, adding a curveball to his fastball-slider-changeup repertoire. Although Johnson throws the curve only about 6 percent of the time, it's another weapon in one of baseball's most overpowering arsenals. With apologies to Roy Halladay, Jered Weaver and Tim Lincecum, one scout calls Johnson and Felix Hernandez "the most dominant right-handed pitchers out there right now.''
Johnson's early numbers are cartoon-like. He's allowed 13 hits in 34 innings, and National League hitters are batting .116 against him. He's a 6-foot-7, 250-pound, morale-busting force of nature.
"The guy already threw three plus pitches,'' the scout said. "Now the curve just puts another thought in the hitters' heads. Normally pitchers come up and they're just trying to survive, and they don't experiment like that. This guy has matured and settled in and now he's trying to take it to another level. That's what Halladay does.''
The Dubee Brothers
Four weeks into the season, the Phillies rank among the major league leaders in U-turns. They appear to have no clue when Chase Utley will return. Ben Francisco is tied for the team lead in home runs, and Raul Ibanez is 38 years old and hitting below .200. They've already lost closers Brad Lidge and Jose Contreras to the disabled list, and manager Charlie Manuel just took offense to GM Ruben Amaro's suggestion that Contreras' injury was a product of overuse.
But the Phillies were No. 1 in the latest ESPN.com Power Rankings because of the performance of pitching coach Rich Dubee's starting contingent of Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, with Joe Blanton on background vocals. Lee, who spurned the Yankees and Rangers to sign a $120 million deal with Philadelphia in December, has been the most hittable of the four, and his stat line includes 39 strikeouts and four walks.
Last week the Phils won five straight games despite scoring four or fewer runs in every game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time since the franchise's inception in 1883 that the Phillies had managed to pull off that feat.
"Unless two of those big horses go down or something catastrophic happens, they're going to win 100 games,'' said an NL scout.
Lance Berkman and "Baseball Heaven''
Berkman had plenty of offseason options for a guy coming off his worst career season at age 34. The A's offered him a multiyear deal, and the Cubs, Rockies and Blue Jays all expressed varying degrees of interest. Along the way, Berkman came to grips with the sad realization that the Astros were turning the page and had no desire to bring him back to Houston.
When the Cardinals signed Berkman for one year and $8 million in December, the biggest questions revolved around his health and mobility. Could he stay in one piece and play a serviceable enough right field to justify putting his name on the lineup card every day? When Berkman complained of a sore throwing arm early in spring training, the concerns multiplied.
So much for first impressions. The Big Puma is not a thing of beauty in the outfield, but he looks a lot more spry now that his knee is healthy and he has a more solid base to swing away and chase down fly balls. Berkman ranks 36th on baseball's career list with a .409 on-base percentage, and he's the Astros' career leader with a .549 slugging percentage (compared to Jeff Bagwell's .540). If he's physically sound, the bat still works.
Beyond the numbers, Berkman has been everything the Cardinals could ask for as a professional and a teammate. Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, as great as they are, have never been "big picture'' kind of guys, so it fell to Berkman to stand in front of his locker and do the heavy lifting with the media when the Cardinals got off to a shaky and occasionally tense start. He's conscientious, funny, even-tempered and loaded with perspective -- qualities that wear very well over the course of a long season.
Alex Gordon and the No. 3 hole
Billy Butler hit .318 with 45 doubles for Kansas City last season, but he also grounded into a major league-high 32 double plays. So Royals manager Ned Yost dropped him from third in the order to cleanup this season, if only to help prolong some more first innings beyond three batters.
When Yost plugged Gordon into the No. 3 hole, it made for better left-right-left-right balance with Butler, Kila Ka'aihue and Jeff Francoeur in the 4-5-6 spots. But the move required a significant leap of faith given Gordon's middling production and reputation as an underachiever.
So far, so good. Though Gordon had his 19-game hitting streak stopped on Wednesday, he still ranks third in the majors with 11 doubles, and with each productive at-bat he's helping to dispel the notion that the Royals blew it picking him second overall in the 2005 draft.
Gordon looks more self-assured and less confused at the plate, and he's benefiting from the long hours he put in with hitting coach Kevin Seitzer making alterations to his swing. Gordon's mechanics were never the best, but it didn't matter when he was crushing inferior pitching at the University of Nebraska and in the minor leagues. When he arrived in the big leagues and pitchers began exploiting his weaknesses, Gordon needed to adapt. It just took longer than he or the Royals preferred.
"He's keeping his front side on the ball longer and the bat head in the zone longer now,'' said an AL scout. "That was the issue before. Because he pulled off, the bat head was in and out of the zone so fast, he gave himself no margin for error. About midway through spring training it was like, 'OK, I've got it,' and from that point on it's been pretty consistent.''
Here's a neat fringe benefit: In his first 100 plate appearances this season, Butler grounded into one double play.
Grady Sizemore and microfracture surgery
Brian Giles, Carlos Beltran, Chad Tracy, Carlos Guillen and Sandy Alomar Jr. are among the big leaguers who've had microfracture surgery through the years, with mixed results. Last June, Sizemore took a trip to Vail, Colo., where Dr. Richard Steadman drilled tiny holes in his knee to stimulate cartilage growth.
Nine big league games and 37 at-bats make for an awfully small sample size, but the early results are promising. The Indians didn't expect Sizemore to return until April 25 or thereabouts. But he was in the starting lineup April 17, and he homered and doubled in his first game back against Baltimore.
"You couldn't write a better script,'' Indians manager Manny Acta said by phone. "The last image we had of Grady was of him playing through pain last year, and we never saw what we're seeing now. He's swinging the bat the way he did presurgery.''
Sizemore has yet to steal a base, but he dove for a couple of balls in Kansas City, handled a wet track in the outfield and has already legged out six doubles. For a while longer, the Indians plan to rest him once a week when a lefty is pitching for the opposition. Sometime in August or September, when the at-bats have piled up, Acta would like to plug him into the DH spot. Wish him luck in that quest.
"No. 1, Grady doesn't like it,'' Acta said. "We'll force it on him later in the year just to keep him off his legs. But he wants to be on the field. That's the way he is.''
Aaron Harang and home cooking
From 2005 through 2007, Harang ranked third behind Brandon Webb and Johan Santana among major league starters with 677 2/3 innings pitched. In 2006, he led the NL in wins, strikeouts, starts and complete games. Then came an ill-advised 63-pitch relief outing, followed by a run of injuries, a loss of confidence and a declining profile in Cincinnati. In December, Harang left the Reds to sign a one-year, $3.5 million deal with his hometown team in San Diego.
The move to Petco Park has had a therapeutic effect on numerous pitchers through the years, but it's not all about nice weather and spacious gaps. Scouts and personnel people say that Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley is adept at taking what pitchers have and working with it to maximum effect. Whatever Balsley and manager Bud Black are telling Harang is resonating on the mound.
Harang was 4-0 with a 1.88 ERA before turning in his first clunker in an 8-2 loss to the Braves on Tuesday. He joined Andy Hawkins, Dennis Rasmussen and Randy Jones as the fourth pitcher to win his first four starts with the Padres. As the Atlanta game showed, too many straight 89-mph fastballs above the belt can be a recipe for disaster even at Petco. But Harang seems determined to reclaim his reputation as an innings-eater and all-around workhorse.
"I saw him in spring training, and his stuff was crisp, the confidence was there and he looked ready to go,'' said an NL scout. "He wasn't out there like a lot of veterans just getting in his innings and getting his pitch count up. He was out there competing like he was trying to win a job.''
The Dodgers' dynamic duo
The Dodgers are muddling along at .500, and heaven knows what the franchise's long-term future holds. But things would be a lot bleaker if not for the performance of Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, who is riding a 24-game hitting streak.
Kemp and Ethier have been together in Los Angeles since 2006, and they have the type of talent a contending team can build around. But in 2010 they had a hard time living up to their responsibilities as franchise mainstays. Ethier was on his way to a monster season when he fractured his pinkie in mid-May. He was hitting .392 at the time of the injury, and batted just .256 upon his return.
Kemp admittedly lost his focus too often, amid an industry perception that he was suffering from a Grade A case of "Hollywood fever.'' The Dodgers brought in Davey Lopes to give Kemp some tough love and baserunning instruction, and Kemp is 8-of-11 in stolen base attempts after going a mere 19-for-34 a year ago. He's also playing a more attentive center field, and his strikeout-to-walk rate of 23-to-15 is a marked improvement over the past few seasons. Regardless of the support system, Kemp is the one who deserves credit for getting his head on straight and playing like a superstar.
So what does the future hold now that MLB has assumed control of the Dodgers? Ethier and Kemp are both eligible for free agency after the 2012 season, and they recently told the Los Angeles Times that they want to remain with the franchise beyond that. To this point in the season, they couldn't have stated their cases for a long-term commitment any more eloquently.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick