NL Quick Pitch: Daniel Hudson's early-season struggles continued in a tough matchup against the Reds. Hudson hasn't had problems generating K's at the same enormous rate he posted after moving to the NL last year, but has struggled with command. Another struggling Diamondback has shown some signs of life lately as Kelly Johnson homered for the 2nd time in 3 games. Despite the recent hot streak, I have some legitimate concerns about Johnson that we'll dive into more detail on. Kyle Lohse continued his early season hot streak, but the peripherals and track record suggest its unlikely to continue. Jason Heyward got a day off from starting as he battles through an extended early season slump. The indicators suggest he's actually shown the improvements we'd expect but is having some timing issues. Now is an opportune time to buy-low. Matt Kemp's MVP start to the season continued with his 2nd walk off HR of the season. Andre Ethier extended his hitting streak to 18 games and those two constitute the only legitimate threats in the Dodgers lineup. Jason Bay was activated from the DL, while the Mets may have already found his replacement on the DL when Angel Pagan left with a potential oblique issue. The Marlins announced Logan Morrison would be out 2-4 weeks with a sprained ligament in his foot. Scott Cousins got the start in his place and delivered a big night. Mike Stanton also broke through with his 1st HR of the season (the first of many). Roy Oswalt delivered on his end of a pitching duel, while Mat Latos struggled with command, pitch efficiency, and the HR yet again.
Jason Heyward (OF - ATL): A week ago in this space I touched on the fantasy impact Heyward’s numbers had with the move down in the order. Shortly thereafter Heyward was moved into the #2 spot and as scripted Heyward has responded by hitting .118/.118/.294 in 17 AB’s. Wait… that’s not the script at all… things were supposed to improve in the 2-hole. It turns out the extended slump Heyward’s been in is immune to batting position. He got the day off on Thursday in hopes of clearing his head as he deals with a 3-30 slump. A look at Heyward’s indicators show little reason for concern. His BB Rate is the same as last year. He’s improved his K Rate, cutting it down to 17% , while being more selective at the plate overall (chasing 22% of pitches outside the zone, compared to 24% last season). The continued improvements in plate discipline have come with improved power rates as well. His ISO is up near .240 (.179 last year) and his HR/AB has improved dramatically. The recent slump appears to be timing related as Heyward’s seen an increase in his infield fly ball rate (31%), with a corresponding drop in his line-drive rate (down to just 13.5%). Even during the slump, he’s struck out just 5 times. All of this suggests Heyward remains a prime buy-low candidate. When you see a great young talent showing improved peripherals while the performance lags, it’s an opportune time to pounce. My guess is most Heyward owners won’t be interested in sending him packing, but if you can package a hot-starter who was priced similarly during the draft season (think Colby Rasmus, Shane Victorino, Curtis Granderson) you may be able to cash in some of peek performance for stronger future performance.
Daniel Hudson (SP - ARZ): Daniel Hudson did his best Edinson Volquez impression on Thursday afternoon as he allowed 7 consecutive batters to reach after retiring the leadoff hitter. After allowing 4 ER’s on 3 hits, 3 BB’s, and a HBP, he settled in to allow just 1 BB and 2 hits over the next 5 innings. Unfortunately those 3 base-runners crossed home plate as well and the final line ended up with 7 ER’s on 5 hits and 4 BB’s over 5 1/3 innings. Hudson struck out just 3 and clearly didn’t have his command or his stuff from the start. It marked Hudson’s third consecutive start in which he walked three or more batters which is noteworthy because Hudson posted a stellar 1.8 BB/9 ratio once coming over to the NL last year (career 3.0 BB/9, minor league career 2.5 BB/9). Overall Hudson is throwing 3% less pitches in the zone and getting 2% fewer chases outside the zone. The result has been that rising BB Rate which has exaserbated Hudson’s high FB tendencies. He’s still getting strikeouts at a great rate and all his swing data suggests those strong K Rates will continue, but his ability to pitch like the ace he flashed towards the end of last year will likely be decided by the BB Rate. Early on the indicators suggest elite command will elude him and Hudson will settle in as a high K, mid-rotation starter with upside.
Kelly Johnson (2B - ARZ): With extra base hits in three straight games it appears Kelly Johnson may be breaking out of his early season funk. Johnson went 1-3 with a BB and a solo HR on Thursday raising his 2011 line to a paltry .188/.263/.377. While the mini hot streak is a welcome sign for Johnson owners there are still some significant statistical concerns. Even during the recent hot streak, Johnson has struck out at least once in each game and now has gone in 10 straight games and 14 of 16 on the season. His K Rate is up over 33% and the plate discipline numbers are pretty ugly across the board. Johnson’s swinging at over 35% of pitches outside the zone (up 6%), making contact on just 72% of swings (career 80%, last yr 76%), and his swinging strike % is up over 12%. In addition to his strikeout rate sky-rocketing the BB Rate has plummeted down to just 5%. I was a big believer in Johnson coming into the season and ended up with him on a number of teams, but these peripherals are alarming. He did post some individual months with K Rates above 28-30% last season which gives me a small sense of comfort, but in order to feel really good about Johnson again I’m going to need to see more contact. I’m not full-force shopping Johnson at this point, but I’m more inclined to sell than to “buy-low” on KJ. With a K Rate over 30% and a BB Rate under 6% he’ll have a very hard time getting on base enough to be a fantasy asset. This is a legitimate concern.
Mat Latos (SP - SD): I was one of Latos’ bigger skeptics coming into the season with all of my fears stemming from a sharp rise in IP last year and a slump to the finish line. When he started the season on the DL with shoudler issues, I became even less enthused about Latos’ prospects for the 2011 season. While Latos struggled through his first two starts of the season he showed few signs of weakness. His K Rate remained high (even higher than last year at a stellar 9.49 K/9) and his BB Rate remained above average (2.92 BB/9), though higher than last year. He was just suffering from an acute case of “gopheritis”, surrendering 3 HR’s in his first two starts. Over time we’d think this would be something easily fixed simply by his home park. As a result, most walked away from the first two outings feeling relieved. But digging deeper I still saw some reasons for concern. The first is in Latos’ velocity which has dipped down to 92.2 mph (93.7 mph last season) based on average fastball speed. The next was in the number of pitches Latos has thrown in the zone, which was down to just 37%. Now perhaps these were just indicators of Latos still working through some of the rust, but dips in velocity and command issues are typically signs of fatigue and since I’ve questioned Latos’ ability to stay healthy coming into the year, their characteristics that have caught my eye early on (we call this confirmation bias). On Thursday night some of those issues reared their ugly head again. Latos walked 5, gave up 2 more HR’s, and threw just 59 of his 107 pitches for strikes. He labored through 4 1/3 innings, constantly working from behind and struggling to find his delivery. He did strike out 7, suggesting his stuff remains quite good, but I remain concerned about the command issues and what they mean for him over the course of the year. Only time will tell whether my concerns are legitimate, but I don’t own Latos anywhere and won’t be “buying low”.
Jerry Sands (OF - LAD): The hot call-up of the week was Jerry Sands who forced his way into the Dodgers lineup with a .400/.422/.875 start at AAA Albuquerque. Sands is an intriguing prospect that both Lou Blasi and David Regan have covered in depth over the past week through our prospect notes and prospect rankings but I figured I’d chime in with my opinion as well. When we talk about prospects we talk about opportunity and skill. Opportunity is without question a positive for Sands as his primary competition in the OF includes the likes of Marcus Thames and Tony Gwynn Jr. As we’ve already seen this season with Brandon Belt, competition is a very important part of the equation as it provides a longer leash. So the question comes down purely to skill. With Sands the tools are obvious. He has great power and plate patience as evidenced by a .390 OBP and .584 Slugging % in his minor league career. As a result, we know there’s big upside, but is he ready? With just under 300 AB’s above high A and a 22% K Rate above A ball I’m concerned Sands won’t make enough contact early on to be a fantasy force. Add in a tough home park to hit in and weak lineup support around Sands and I haven’t been adding. In very small samples early on we’re seeing some of Sands youth exposed. He’s struck out 5 times in the first 14 AB’s and hasn’t drawn a walk. The pop has been there with 2 2B’s, but he’ll need to make better contact to be a contributor right away. I just don’t think he’s ready yet.
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