Josh Johnson, Marlins
Clearly mended from Tommy John surgery, Johnson has come out breathing fire and making professional hitters look like confused little leaguers. The 6-7 righty has a 29/5 K/BB ratio in 28.2 innings, good for a 2.24 FIP that ranks 7th in the big leagues. What’s more frightening: the spike in velocity (Johnson is throwing his heater harder than ever, at 94.7 MPH), the improved control (55.9% of his pitches have been in the strike zone, well above the 49% MLB average) or the newfound groundball tendencies (60 GB%, compared to a 47.2% career average)?
Chad Billingsley, Dodgers
Billinglsey has always eviscerated right-handed hitters (career .633 OPS against), but southpaws have typically been his bugaboo (.764 OPS against). In ’09, however, the Dodgers ace has held lefties to a .615 OPS thus far. Over time, Billingsley has decreased his fastball usage (down from the mid-60% range in 2006-2007 to 53.6% in 2009). In its place, he’s become more reliant upon a hard upper-80’s cutter. The cutter usage has increased each year of his career (from 6.8% in ’06 all the way up to 20.8% in ’09), and his Outside Swing% has gone north as well: from 21.9% during that rookie season to 32% this year.
Kosuke Fukudome, Cubs
This is the sort of player the Cubs thought they had acquired. Fukudome (32 yesterday) has been an on-base fiend this season, with a 17.3 BB% and power to boot (.290 ISO). He won’t keep on hitting like a Barry Bonds clone, but the combo of outstanding plate discipline (his outside swing% is just 11.9%, compared to the 24.3% MLB average) and doubles is worth a roster spot in most leagues.
Nick Markakis, Orioles
Markakis’ name might not be mentioned in the discussion of the top players in the game, but he should be. The 25 year-old’s wOBA has increased every year of his big league career: .346 in 2006, .366 in 2007 and .389 in 2008. In 2009, he holds a gaudy .460 mark in 87 PA.
Javier Vazquez, Braves
Vazquez has taken the NL by storm, posting a sparkling 1.77 FIP in 24 IP. He has punched out a ridiculous 34 batters, while issuing 7 walks. In the early going, Javier has decreased the deployment of his low-80’s slider (from 22.8% in 2008 to 14.5% in ’09) in favor of more low-70’s curves and low-80’s changeups. Also of note: his groundball percentage is 47.4% this season, compared to a 39.2% career average. Keeping the ball on the ground more often would be a welcome development for a very good pitcher with an unfortunate proclivity for handing out souvenirs (career 1.18 HR/9).
A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at email@example.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.