Five Shocking Player Performances In the 2011 Season So Far

By E. Gardner //

Every season has its surprises. But not all unpredictable events are alike.

Take Matt Kemp. The LA Dodgers outfielder is on pace at the moment for 41 HRs and 46 SBs, totals that surpass the most aggressive, optimistic projections coming into the season. Still, it’s hard to flag Kemp’s superlative production this year as a shocking surprise. Such a season seemed to be within Kemp’s reach given all the right turn of events. Scouts had long viewed Kemp as being a potential 40/40 player. And though Kemp had a disappointing 2010 campaign, the guy who was once touted as the next Manny Ramirez is still only 26 years old.

Let’s take a look at true curveballs.  Here’s five player performances to date we’re pretty confident that nobody saw coming:

  1. Jeff Francoeur’s stolen bases: He’s currently got 15 steals, which ties him with Hanley Ramirez, Juan Pierre, Andrew McCutchen, and Carlos Gonzalez. Frenchie never had more than 8 steals in a full season before this one. What happened? As we pointed out early this season, the Royals are certainly being more aggressive on the basepaths, which has gone a long way. We also have to imagine that Francoeur is tired of the reputation of being a former top prospect who amounted to a good-for-nothing. Otherwise, there’s not much else to explain Francoeur’s new-found burst of speed. His strikeouts, walks, and on-base rate are all about on par with previous years. He just has the green light now.
  2. Asdrubal Cabrera’s home runs: Cabrera’s currently got 16 HRs, already more than his total from 2008-2010.  Perhaps just as impressively, his slugging ability has remained pretty consistent throughout the season. In April, he hit 5 HRs, more than any other month, but April is the only month this season where Cabrera’s OPS was below .800. His HR/FB rate has jumped from a terrible 3% last season to nearly 15% this year, but even adjusting for some luck, he’s showing legitimate 20 HR ability — which this year, thanks to a strong start, could mean he’ll finish with 25 HRs or more.
  3. Jacoby Ellsbury’s home runs: Similar to Cabrera above, Ellsbury is flashing power like never before. The Red Sox outfielder has long been known for his speed — he’s got 28 steals so far — but he’s shocking those who watch him by knocking balls out of the park regularly. He’s up to 13 HRs now — the same total as his teammate Kevin Youkilis — after never hitting double-digits in HR totals in the five seasons prior to this one in both the minors and majors. Oddly, his fly-ball percentage is actually down from the past two seasons, meaning he’s either gotten way more powerful or way more lucky.
  4. Anibal Sanchez’ strikeouts and walks: Hard to believe but the best player that the Marlins got in the famous Josh Beckett trade of 2005 isn’t Hanley Ramirez this year. Instead, as Hanley struggles, Sanchez is showing signs of being a true ace. He’s currently got 123 strikeouts, which ranks him 13th in the majors and puts him on pace for 214 for the season. His 9.28 K/9 rate is certainly the best of his career, but not a huge leap over the 8.71 K/9 rate shown in the 2008 season. No, what’s really impressive is that he’s upped his strikeouts just as he’s managed to cut his walks. He’s allowing less than 3 walks per 9 innings this year. Put that together with the ability to induce more groundballs than flyballs, and we’re looking at one of the best pitchers in baseball.
  5. Josh Tomlin’s wins: Is it possible we’ll see a 20-game winner from a pitcher who wasn’t even drafted in many deep AL-only leagues? Sure, there’s certainly a good amount of luck that goes into win totals, and Tomlin’s success also corresponds to the surprising success of the Cleveland Indians at large this season . Nevertheless, Tomlin is doing something (besides winning) better than almost everyone else. That something would be showing elite control. His 1.07 BB/9 is second best among all qualifying pitchers in the majors. Only Roy Halladay is walking fewer batters in a typical start. Tomlin barely has a strikeout rate over 5 per 9 IP so he’ll never be a fantasy darling, and maybe hitters will catch on here, but at the moment, Tomlin is doing his best  Mark Buehrle impression.

We’d have a hard time putting too much stock in these new demonstrated skills in terms of sorting out rankings going into the 2012 season. At some point, regression is extremely likely.

But for now, all bets are off.

We’re surprised at what we’re seeing from these five players so far, but if Francoeur steals 25 bags this year, if Cabrera and Ellsbury each manage 25 home runs this year, if Anibal Sanchez finishes the year as a top 10 pitcher, and if Tomlin comes close to 20 wins, it won’t come as truly stunning anymore.

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