Moving the Needle

Jose Bautista - Typically you don't pay retail for a player coming off a career year. But three weeks into 2011, Bautista's 54-homer, .995-OPS 2010 seems quaint in comparison. Through April 24, Bautista sports a .359/.506/.750 line, including seven homers and 19 walks, and that's while missing three games to attend to the birth of his daughter. Rays manager Joe Maddon even compared him to Barry Bonds in the 2002 World Series, and Rays All-Star pitcher David Price dubbed him "probably the best hitter in the league right now." All last season, we waited for him to fall to earth, and he did not. It's possible he's still getting better at age 30, and given how much the Jays are running this year, I'd expect him to wind up with more than the nine steals he had in 2010 while qualifying at both third base and outfield. If we were to draft all over again, I'd take him in the middle of the first round.

James Shields - I've been destroying Shields for the last year on our Sirius XM radio show for being sabermetric fool's gold. Along with Ricky Nolasco, Scott Baker and Aaron Harang, Shields was one of those pitchers with sterling strikeout to walk ratios that simply gave up too many hits and home runs. According to Voros McCracken's seminal study, widely subscribed to in the sabermetric community, pitchers have very little control over balls in play, so the only way to prevent hits is by striking batters out, something Shields has always been able to do. That he still gave up so many hits then was widely considered to be bad luck and not an indication of his skills going forward. My theory was he learned the importance of missing bats and not issuing free passes too well. That sometimes it's better to walk someone rather than give in with a fastball down the middle, and sometimes it's better to induce weak contact than expend energy going for the punch out. Shields, Nolasco, et al. then, were "extreme strike throwers" in my view, putting the ball over the plate even in instances when it was suboptimal.

But Shields has either made a significant adjustment over his last couple starts, or my theory was simply false, and his bad luck has finally regressed to normal. Either way, he's now pairing those enticing peripherals (27:8 K:BB in 38.1 IP) with actual results (two straight complete game wins with 16 Ks and 1 ER). Because Shields faced the struggling White Sox and Blue Jays (though he was smart enough to walk Bautista twice), I'm not buying in completely, but it's enough to back me off my "fool's gold" stance.

Brett Anderson - Anderson's been one of the better per-inning starting pitchers in the American League since his debut in 2009, but a forearm injury last year and a small market have partially obscured his rise. So far this season, Anderson's got a 27:4 K:BB ratio in 34.2 IP and an ungodly 3.94:1 GB:FB ratio. It's very hard to hit a home run on a ground ball, so unsurprisingly, Anderson has not allowed a single one yet, after giving up just six in 112.1 IP in 2010. A pitcher-friendly ballpark and an above-average defense behind him only help.


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