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Only so many people can be in the best shape of their lives

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My judgment may be a little rose-colored by the terrible National TV broadcast, proof we're getting close to baseball season, but yesterday's game was the first one I managed to catch that made me feel like I was actually watching a baseball game, and not waiting for interesting prospects to come to bat.

Maybe it's because the interesting prospect was already pitching! Jaime Garcia's velocity was a little lower than I expected—mostly 88-90 on the fastball—but not adjusting a scout's 93 was my bad in the first place, and his fastball command more than made up for the iffy gun readings. And that curveball—I'm sure Rich Hill's is (or was) better than that, but I don't know how much better it could have been. That Garcia isn't known as "the left-hander with the curveball" is a testament to his other pitches.

But what got me most was this stretch of the batting order, between—eghh—Lugo and Pagnozzi—Pujols, Holliday; Rasmus, Ludwick. Two guys I don't have to be optimistic about, and two guys I'm optimistic about. Rasmus, especially, seems like a great chance for the Cardinals to pick up a win or two; we look at his season is a success, because Ankiel was so bad and his defense was so good, but if you'd shown me his numbers before 2009 I would have been pretty disappointed. A .307 OBP? A .407 SLG? It's nice and symmetrical, and all, but not particularly valuable.

Basically, having passed through the period of time during which everyone is in the best shape of his life, I'm left with unverifiable hunches about who actually is in the best shape of his life. Since I'm getting over—or just getting into—a nasty brain cloud-style cold, my opinions don't matter. That means it's time for a poll. The choices, and the reasoning for them, after the jump:

  • Colby Rasmus—PECOTA has him pegged for basically the exact season he had last year—ten points more in OBP, identical slugging—but gives him a 22% breakout rate, which is pretty good. (Breakout rate, in Prospectus parlance, is the chance that his EQR/27—insert offensive rate stat here—increases by 20% relative to his baseline in the next season.) It's easy to like Rasmus as a breakout candidate; he had the reasons to be in the worst (and now best) shape of his life, he was extremely well regarded as an offensive player as recently as last year, and he had times in 2010 where he looked the part.
  • Ryan Ludwick—Ludwick gets a low breakout percentage, perhaps because an enormous breakout season is already reflected in his last three years. PECOTA thinks he'll do about what he did last year, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if that happens—I'm not expecting this breakout—but a slugging percentage around .500 isn't out of the question.
  • Jason Motte—PECOTA really loves Motte, projecting him for a 3.41 ERA next year, mostly on the strength of halving his incredibly high home run rate from 2009. I think this is something we often forget about when projecting players' future chances—just because it looked like Motte should be giving up a ton of home runs doesn't mean that what happened in 2009 was normal. Even if he doesn't pitch any better it seems likely to me that 1.6 home runs per nine was on the high end of his range of possible outcomes. If he gives up half as many home runs as he did in 2009—five—and you assume they're all solo shots, his ERA is below 4.
  • Write-in vote—Mitchell Boggs? Albert Pujols? The Cardinals have a surprising number of known quantities this year; I like Skip Schumaker, but I don't really expect him to suddenly hit 15 home runs, or anything. But if you want to tell me this is the year Alberg finally hits .400 with 60 home runs—well, I'm listening.