Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
Ever hear the old adage that even a blind squirrel finds the occasional nut? Well, McCutchen is the legume uncovered during the otherwise comedic/tragic tenure of former Pirates GM Dave Littlefield. The 11th overall selection in a stunningly deep 2005 draft class, McCutchen has hit the ground running in the majors. He’s batting .293/.362/.500 in 337 PA, showing power (.207 ISO, 10 HR) that belies his 5-11, 170 pound frame and well surpasses his minor league dossier.
The 22 year-old is working the count rather well (9.6 BB%, 18 K%), chasing 21.6% of pitches out of the strike zone (25.1% MLB avg). McCutchen has also been a smart, efficient base thief, with 15 swipes in 18 attempts (83.3% success rate). Couple the quality bat and high-percentage running with ample range in center field (+10.4 UZR/150), and you have a franchise pillar who has racked up 3.2 WAR since his early June call-up.
Ervin Santana, Angels
Is Santana turning his season around? There’s reason to believe so. Not that Ervin has been his dominant 2008 self this month, but he has allowed 12 runs in 33 August frames, holding opponents to a .250/.338/.408 line. Santana’s ’09 campaign has been plagued by injuries (a partially torn UCL and a forearm strain) and a consequent loss in velocity (after firing 94.4 MPH bullets and 84 MPH sliders in ’08, Santana’s overall fastball velocity sits at 91.8 MPH in ’09, with an 82 MPH slider).
However, his stuff does seem to be trending up as of late. His average fastball velocity is up to 92.3 MPH in August, and the pitch has been moderately effective after a disastrous showing earlier:
Santana’s Runs/100 pitches value with his fastball, by month:
(note: these linear run values are dependent on things like BABIP and HR/FB rate. In the case of a guy like Santana, his BABIP was in excess of .350 during the first three months, meaning those numbers shouldn’t like quite as bad as they do).
John Smoltz, Cardinals
Smoltz’s good processes and awful results with the Red Sox spurred countless discussions on just how we can more properly evaluate pitching performance.
The easy, lazy narrative on Smoltz following his run of drubbings with Boston was, “he’s old, injured and washed up.” But his underlying numbers suggested that he was still capable of performing at the highest level.
Latching on with St. Louis, Smoltz has made two excellent starts to begin his Red Bird career (a combined 11 IP, 15 K, 1 BB and 1 R vs. San Diego and Washington). While clearly promising, Smoltz’s two dominant outings don’t declare “he’s back” any more than his brutal Boston stint announced “he’s done.”
I’m obviously in the more optimistic camp when it comes to Smoltz’s future, but declaring “I told you so” after two starts would be even more foolish than coming to the conclusion that he was washed up following his Boston tenure. In other words, it’s just best to avoid knee-jerk reactions based on a small smattering of playing time.
Barry Zito, Giants
By this point, saying that the immense financial commitment that the Giants made to Barry Zito through at least 2013 was unwise is like beating a dead horse. Frankly, it’s more like beating glue. But, the calls for the club to outright release the left-hander are hyperbolic to the highest degree. That Reign of Terror-like bloodlust (“off with his head!”) might make for headline-generating copy, but it would also be a terrible financial decision.
Zito isn’t worth nearly $20M per season; we get it. But that doesn’t mean he’s worthless, either. In 2009, Barry has posted his lowest FIP (4.20) since 2003, with his highest K rate (6.93) since ’02 and his lowest walk rate (3.49) since ’04. His vaunted curveball (+2.49 runs/100 pitches thrown) is in the black run-wise for the first time since 2005, and Zito’s slider (+2.24 runs/100) is also getting the job done.
Overall, Zito has been worth 2.2 WAR, which equates to about $9.8M worth of value. Yes, that falls well short of how the Giants are compensating him. But severing ties for the mere sake of satiating the scribes would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Rajai Davis, Athletics
A 28 year-old speedster originally drafted by the Pirates, Davis has gone from DFA’d Giant during the spring to everyday center fielder for the A’s. A plus defender and an adept base stealer (29 for 37 in ’09), Rajai could be a viable starter if he can avoid stinking up the joint at the plate.
While Davis’ gifts afield and on the bases are apparent, we don’t exactly know what to expect from an offensive standpoint. He was relatively patient in a productive 2007 season (10 BB%, 19.4 O-Swing%), an unabashed hacker in a letdown 2008 campaign (3.6 BB%, 36.2 O-Swing%), and he has essentially split the difference in 2009 (7.8 BB%, 30.9 O-Swing%). If Davis can work the count and get on base at a reasonable clip, he’s a perfectly acceptable regular and a person of interest in fantasy circles. If he reverts to chasing off the plate and in the dirt, he’s Willy Taveras.
Johan Santana, Mets
At this pace, Mr. Met will be inserted into the New York lineup by mid-September. Santana is just the latest in a staggeringly long line of Mets casualties, as he’s done for the season following arthroscopic surgery to remove bone spurs from his left elbow.
Something was clearly amiss with the ace southpaw, as his K rate plummeted after a dominant April and May and his fastball velocity dipped into the 80’s (89.5 MPH in August). What’s Nelson Figueroa’s WAMM (Wins Above Mr. Met)?
Hank Blalock, Rangers
The 28 year-old Blalock once looked like a building-block player for the Rangers (he posted 5.3 WAR in 2003 and 4.4 WAR in 2004). Since then, not-so-hammerin’ Hank has compiled 2.5 WAR. Combined. Injuries have assuredly played a part, but Blalock’s plate patience has progressively eroded:
2007: 9.2 BB%
2008: 6.9 BB%
2009: 4.7 BB%
Hank’s wOBA has dipped from .383 in ’07 to .317 this year. And now, he’ll grab some pine as Chris Davis gets another chance to, well, stop hitting like Blalock.
Bobby Parnell, Mets
Forced into the depleted Queens rotation, Parnell has been hammered for 24 runs in 21 innings as a starter. The 6-4, 200 pound righty (a 9th-round selection out of Charleston Southern in 2005) boasts a low-to-mid-90’s heater with good movement out of the ‘pen, but middling control and questionable secondary offerings call into question his viability as a starter. There’s certainly no harm in trying to figure out if the soon-to-be 25 year-old can handle lineups multiple times (all but two of his appearances in the minors came as a starter), but he appears to be Mike Pelfrey, with worse control.
B.J. Upton, Rays
Let me preface this by saying that I remain a big believer in Upton. The 2nd overall pick in the ’02 draft just turned 25. And at one point or another, B.J. has shown every skill required of a superstar player. He has popped extra base hits (.209 ISO in ’07), has generally worked the count very well (11.7 BB% career), can swipe plenty of bags (he’s on pace for over 40 this year) and has acclimated himself to center field after his nomadic “shortstop, no second baseman, no third baseman” experience.
With strong D, Upton has still been a valuable contributor this season (2.1 WAR). But from a fantasy standpoint, he has been a disappointment. B.J.’s walk rate is down to 9.5% after a career-best 15.4% in ’08. Upton’s relative power outage in 2008 (.128 ISO) was largely attributed to a shoulder injury that required off-season surgery and sidelined him early in ’09, but his ISO this year (.129) hasn’t climbed. His first-pitch strike%, just 55.2% in 2008, is up to 62.1% in 2009 (58.2% MLB average).
The overall package of tools remains tantalizing, and Upton’s down 2009 could actually present an opportunity to buy low in 2010. But, owners who invested a high draft pick back in March are surely bummed out.
Aaron Harang, Reds
Harang’s 2009 season is over, following an emergency appendectomy. And with that, three-fifths of Cincy’s rotation (Cueto, Volquez and Harang) has hit the shelf during the summer.
The popular narrative for Harang cites the massive change in his won-loss record from 2007 (16-6) to 2009 (6-14). Oh, how the mighty have fallen. But how much has Harang really declined? Not that much, when viewed through the scope of Expected Fielding Independent ERA:
2006: 3.89 XFIP
2007: 3.81 XFIP
2008: 4.39 XFIP
2009: 4.00 XFIP
As a fly ball-centric pitcher in a ballpark that inflates home run production considerably, Harang and Great American Ballpark go together like peanut butter and tooth paste. But he’s still largely the same guy who performed so admirably from 2005-2007.