Improbable Leaders II: The AL Strikes Back

Theo GeromeCorrespondent IIIJune 10, 2009

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 27:  Russell Branyan #30 of the Seattle Mariners bats during their game against the Oakland Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum on May 27, 2009 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

I got a mostly positive response from yesterday’s article, so I decided to write a sequel. In an incredible coincidence, while yesterday focused entirely on NL players, today’s is AL player exclusive.*

*Not kidding. I picked three players at random and realized after writing the article they were all NL. 

So, time to start with perhaps the most improbable of the all in the AL, Russell Branyan. He’s a bit of a journeyman, to be honest; in the last four years, he’s played on six teams, and he’s currently 33. 33 year-old breakout stars are not entirely common.

He’s on pace to set career marks in hits, doubles, home runs, RBI...Actually, scratch that. He’s on pace to set career marks in EVERYTHING. He has an OPS of 1.045 in Seattle’s pitcher’s park.* His OPS+ rates him as 77 percent better than an average league hitter, good for fourth in the ENTIRE MAJORS.**

*I feel there is something I should have stressed in yesterday’s article on Jason Marquis: Not only is he having a career year, he’s having it in Coors Field. Yes, he’s looking to have the best season of his career in Home Run Heaven. It is his walk year, though, so take it with a grain of salt.

**If you didn’t read yesterday’s article and are curious, go read it.

If you ignored what I just said in hopes I’d give you the answer if you read on, for shame. 

Branyan has, historically, been rather one-dimensional as a player. He has hit for power in the past, averaging almost 15 every year of his career, peaking from 2000 to 2002, in which he averaged 20 home runs per season.

His career average, however, was only .230. His season highs in OPS and OPS+ both came last year (.925 and 138, for Milwaukee), yet he played a limited role, only playing in 50 games.

In fact, he has only surpassed 100 games twice in his career: 2001 (113) and 2002 (134), both with Cleveland. Could it be he just needed a starting job? Probably not.

He’s probably just having a career year. I don’t expect him to finish the year as the fourth best first basemen, but I don’t see him dropping out of the top 10 (actually, I’d say he finishes eighth or better).

He already has 13 homers, and is walking more than ever before. This increase in pitch selectivity probably has something to do with his strong start, and leads me to believe he will keep going strong. Maybe not quite as strong as he started, but still...

I assumed Brian Fuentes has been having a disappointing year from what I’ve heard, yet he’s leading the league in saves. This aroused my suspicion. His 4.95 ERA and 1.500 WHIP seem to demonstrate his struggles. Additionally, his ERA+ claims he is actually seven percent worse than a league average pitcher.

However, saves are overrated as a statistic. It probably helped he inherited the low-scoring Angels from K-Rod. If his struggle continue, particularly in cavernous Angel Stadium, I don’t see him leading the league in saves.

With his lucky start, if he returns to form, he has a good chance (although being a decent closer for the anemic Angels* almost guarantees frequent save opportunities).

*Alliterative team nicknames may be something I need to look into.

And finally, per request, I’m covering Joe Mauer. Now, as you may or may not now, since returning from the DL, Mauer has been on fire. He would be leading the league in batting average, slugging, and OPS, and his insane 242 OPS+ would also be first if he had enough plate appearances.*

He’s already one home run short of his career best for a season. The question I was specifically posed was whether or not I thought he would reach .400. Right now, I’d say if he keeps it up until, say, the end of June, I’d say he has one of the best chances in recent memory.

He already has two batting titles to his credit, and, at 26, should technically still be improving, although it’s difficult to notice any obvious upward trends in his stats year-to-year.***  While the odds are never on the player to hit .400, I’d say Mauer should have better odds than most.

*I’m assuming that’s what it is, as Pujols is listed as the leader on Baseball Reference with a 191 OPS+.** And, on an interesting note, Baseball Reference seems to think Mauer qualifies in the first three, as it has him listed as league leader. At least, it has those bolded on his year-by-year batting line for this year.

**Okay, readers who didn’t check my last article, you win THIS round. But that’s all you get.

***That may be because, while his 2005 and 2007 seasons were strong, his 2006 and 2008 seasons were phenomenal. I’m seeing at least one MVP in his future, should he keep up.