Thursday, May 5, 2011

Big Puma Tops Big Surprises | Baseball Digest

Big Puma Tops Big Surprises | Baseball Digest

Every year it seems a light-hitting shortstop powers up in April, a team that isn’t expected to compete comes out like lightning out of the gate, and a journeyman pitcher dominates. But, the biggest surprise this season has been the resurgence of one-time All-Star Lance Berkman, aka “Big Puma”.

Berkman’s numbers had dropped drastically the last couple of years, especially when the switch-hitting first baseman was facing a left-handed pitcher. But Berkman, who has moved back to the outfield with the St. Louis Cardinals, came out swinging this season. He hit .393/.455/.753 in March/April with eight home runs and 22 RBI. Though his numbers are still pedestrian in limited exposure to left-handed pitching, Berkman has absolutely destroyed right-handers to the tune of a 1.352. Berkman kept the pace through the first two games in May with a home run, five RBI and four hits in eight at-bats.

The American League Central division standings are upside down. Favorites Minnesota and Chicago are at the bottom of the division while the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals are 1-2 in the standings. The Tribe rolled out to a 20-8 start, thanks in large part to outstanding starting pitching and effective relief work. One-time Boston prospect Justin Masterson has started 5-0, 2.25, thanks to outstanding control, which has been a major issue for Masterson in the past. Though he walked five batters in one of his wins, he’s allowed just eight walks in his five other starts. Masterson has also allowed less than a hit per inning. The right-hander’s only no-decision came in his last start when he limited the Tigers to two earned runs over seven innings in a game the Indians eventually won.

Masterson’s teammate Josh Tomlin also entered his start Wednesday night with an unbeaten mark (4-0, 2.45). Like Masterson, Tomlin has limited the number of opposing men on base and has a better than 2:1 strikeout to walk ratio. The 26-yr old had shown promise since being selected in the 2006 amateur draft, including a 12 game stint with Cleveland last season. The Indians bullpen, which has allowed 27 earned runs in 79.1 innings pitched, has seen superb seasons from closer Chris Perez (1-1, 2.77, 8 SV), Vinnie Pestano (0.82 ERA) and left-handers Rafael Perez (2-1, 0.00) and Tony Sipp (1-0, 2.08).

Maybe the biggest surprise has been the Indians offense, which has averaged 5.36 runs per game, good for second-best in the American League. The Indians’ lineup has produced a balanced attack and received a boost when Grady Sizemore returned with force after missing the start of the season while recovering from microfracture knee surgery. The centerfielder has busted out a 1.058 OPS with four home runs and nine RBI in 13 games.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the power-packed Chicago White Sox lineup looks more like a bunch of Punch-and-Judy hitters. It’s the overwhelming reason the White Sox are off to an 11-21 start. Just when things seemed like they were at rock bottom, Chicago was no-hit by Minnesota’s Francisco Liriano this past Tuesday night. Liriano entered the game with a 9.13 ERA and had allowed over 10 hits per nine innings pitched.

Chief among the lack-of-offensive offenders is free agent DH Adam Dunn. The first year AL player is adjusting to a new league and being a full-time DH, but that being said, he entered Wednesday’s play hitting just .157 with three home runs, 12 RBI, and an anemic .582 OPS. He’s not alone though; outside of Paul Konerko (.298-8-24) and Carlos Quentin (.283-6-17), none of the White Sox regulars are hitting. The team is averaging less than four runs per game while the pitching staff has put up a decent 4.37 ERA.

Houston Astros first baseman Brett Wallace has heard the murmurs, “He’s a bust”, and things of that nature. The still just 24-yr old was drafted by the Cardinals with the 13th overall pick in the 2008 draft. He was then dealt to Oakland in July, 2009 as part of the deal that brought Matt Holliday to St. Louis. Eight months later, the A’s dealt Wallace to the Toronto Blue Jays for fellow prospect Michael Taylor, who was part of the Roy Halladay deal. Finally, in July, 2010, Toronto sent Wallace packing to Houston for a “project” minor leaguer in part of a three-way deal that landed Roy Oswalt in Philly.

Wallace showed 20-HR power in the minors and had a career .863 OPS in three minor league seasons. He got a cup of coffee with the Astros last season, but his splits (.222/.296/.319) were nothing to write home about. This season, Wallace was given the chance to prove himself at the Major League level, and so far he’s got everyone taking notice. He has an NL third-best .383 average with a pair of home runs, nine doubles, 10 RBI, 10 walks, and a .990 OPS. The Astros, who are surprisingly fourth in the NL in scoring, have even moved Wallace into the clean up spot. Only time will tell of course if Wallace can do it over the long haul.

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