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10 MLB Players Whose Very Hot, Cold Starts Should Be No Surprise

Rick WeinerFeatured ColumnistApril 19, 2014

10 MLB Players Whose Very Hot, Cold Starts Should Be No Surprise

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    Tom Mihalek

    It's easy to forget sometimes that baseball players are human beings, just like the rest of us, and not cyborgs sent from the future to kill Sarah Connor put up big numbers for our favorite baseball teams.

    Some of us are morning people, able to operate at the peak of our abilities shortly after we wake up, while others don't thrive until after the sun goes down.

    The same can be said of baseball players, with some able to hit the ground running when the season begins, while others need a month or two to truly get into the swing of things.

    It's primarily for that reason that we shouldn't be surprised by some of the stat lines—both good and bad—that we find around baseball through the first few weeks of the 2014 season, though there are other factors involved as well, including a player getting his first real taste of big league action.

    Let's take a look at 10 players whose early-season performances shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

     

    *Unless otherwise noted/linked, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

Billy Hamilton, CF, Cincinnati Reds

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: .176 BA, .477 OPS, 3 XBH (0 HR), 2 RBI, 3 BB, 12 K, 5-for-7 SB

     

    There were major concerns about Billy Hamilton's ability to hit major league pitching heading into 2014—concerns that have been validated through the first three weeks of the regular season.

    Hamilton simply looks overmatched at the plate, and for those wondering what that looks like, take a gander at this swing—I use "swing" in the loosest sense of the word—that Hamilton unleashed against Chicago's Jeff Samardzija on Friday afternoon.

    That's not even ugly—that's desperation.

    Point to his .222 BABIP and 83 percent contact rate as signs that Hamilton has been more unlucky than overmatched if you must, but the more telling statistics are his 5.9 percent walk rate and 21.6 percent strikeout rate—absurd for a player who offers little power and needs to get on base to be effective.

    At this point, the best thing for Hamilton and the Reds may be a trip down to Triple-A, where he can work out his issues at the plate without the pressure that comes along with batting leadoff in the major leagues.

Masahiro Tanaka, SP, New York Yankees

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: 3 GS, 2-0, 2.05 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 22 IP, 15 H, 2 BB, 28 K

     

    So far, Masahiro Tanaka has lived up to the hype, dominating major league lineups and setting a Yankees record with 28 strikeouts through his first three major league starts—and getting some praise from the man whose record he broke, Al Leiter, who struck out 25 batters over his first three starts in 1987.

    “Any time you have an out pitch (in Tanaka’s case, his splitter) which everybody knows you’re going to throw 60 times a game and the hitters still can’t hit it, you know this guy’s pretty good,” Leiter told the New York Daily News' Bill Madden.

    Really, we shouldn't be surprised that the 25-year-old has been this good, this early.

    Aside from his natural ability, Tanaka has a six-pitch repertoire that, no matter how much video a team watches, can only begin to be planned against after facing him in live action.

    Case in point: The Chicago Cubs, one of the finalists for Tanaka's services this winter, swung-and-missed at 10 of the 17 splitters (59 percent) that Tanaka threw to them in his last start on April 16, as noted by former Sports Illustrated scribe Joe Lemire.

    Teams often have a rough time against a pitcher that they've never faced before. How opposing lineups—and Tanaka—adjust as he faces them for the second and third times this season will be fascinating to watch.

Brett Lawrie, 3B, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: .138 BA, .451 OPS, 3 XBH (3 HR), 11 RBI, 3 BB, 14 K

     

    Only 24 years old, Brett Lawrie still has plenty of time to develop into the hitter that many around the game believe he's capable of becoming, which along with his outstanding defense, would make him one of the best third basemen in baseball.

    But if there's one thing that we've learned about the youngster over his short major league career, it's that nobody should expect much in the way of production from his bat early in the season.

    In 53 career games in March and April, Lawrie is a career .217 hitter. Those numbers are transposed just a bit differently over the rest of the season, where he owns a .271 career batting average.

    While hitting below the Mendoza Line is a bit of a surprise, that Lawrie is scuffling at the plate comes as no surprise at all.

Dan Haren, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Ralph Freso

    2014 Stats: 3 GS, 2-0, 2.04 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 17.2 IP, 16 H, 2 BB, 15 K

     

    One of the more underrated free-agent signings of the winter, Dan Haren has helped solidify a Dodgers rotation that has been without ace Clayton Kershaw for most of the regular season, flashing excellent command while posting some really impressive numbers through his first three starts.

    It's not the first time that we've seen Haren get off to a tremendous start.

    From 2005 through 2009, Haren routinely put together stellar first halves, only to fall apart down the stretch:

    '05-'09 SplitsGW-LERAWHIPIPHBB/K
    First Half9440-272.911.03634.0520132/530
    Second Half7433-254.231.32474.052699/430

    Recently, Haren has flipped the script, struggling early while finishing strong:

    '10-'13 SplitsGW-LERAWHIPIPHBB/K
    First Half7327-304.221.26461.049287/407
    Second Half5823-193.591.12358.233369/294

    But that he's returned to his earlier ways is no surprise, especially given the strong finish that he had to 2013 in Washington.

Ryan Howard, 1B, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: .214 BA, .744 OPS, 5 XBH (3 HR), 7 RBI, 10 BB, 20 K

     

    It's not that Ryan Howard traditionally puts up awful numbers in March and April—a career .258 batting average and .803 OPS in the first month (or so) of the season are numbers that more than a few players would sign up for—but when compared with how he produces over the rest of the year...it's not so good.

    A .273 hitter throughout the rest of the year, April is the only month in which Howard has an OPS below .859. Even more drastic are the differences between his production in the first and second half, where his batting average jumps up by 20 points (.261 to .281) and his OPS by more than 100 points (.853 to .962).

    The deeper we get into the season, the better Howard becomes.

Kyle Lohse, SP, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Tom Lynn

    2014 Stats: 4 GS, 3-1, 2.67 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 27.0 IP, 20 H, 10 BB, 26 K

     

    If baseball handed out its major awards on a monthly basis, Kyle Lohse would likely find himself in contention for his second or third National League Cy Young Award.

    According to Baseball-Reference's Play Index (subscription required), only five pitchers in baseball have made at least 19 combined April starts and pitched to a sub-3.00 ERA since 2011:

    None of them have been as effective as Lohse:

    PitcherGSW-LERAWHIPIPHBB/K
    Lohse1912-42.070.88130.29223/92
    Felix Hernandez2211-52.371.01156.012334/160
    Justin Verlander219-72.551.09144.211542/139
    James Shields219-72.631.04150.212433/132
    Dan Haren209-52.971.12118.111518/103

    Unfortunately for Lohse, he hasn't been able to maintain that level of performance over the rest of the regular season, pitching to a combined 3.48 ERA and 1.21 WHIP—solid numbers to be sure, but nowhere near as good as he is when the season begins.

Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: .429 BA, 1.198 OPS, 10 XBH (3 HR), 10 RBI, 5 BB, 6 K

     

    Chase Utley is one of baseball's all-time greats—at least in March and April.

    Since 1914, only three players have posted a higher career OPS over the first month of the regular season than Utley, according to Baseball-Reference's Play Index (subscription required), 

    PlayerCareer OPS in March/April
    Barry Bonds1.072
    Mark McGwire1.032
    Rogers Hornsby1.029
    Chase Utley.995

    That's pretty impressive, but Utley's been better.

    The veteran second baseman has a pair of opening months in which he's played in at least 20 games and posted an OPS above 1.000, pulling off the feat in 2008 (1.195) and again in 2009 (1.105).

    Did anyone expect Utley to be baseball's leading hitter at any point in 2014? Of course not. But we shouldn't be all that surprised to see him thriving early in the year, for he's done it his entire career.

Jason Hammel, SP, Chicago Cubs

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: 3 GS, 2-1, 3.05 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 20.2 IP, 10 H, 5 BB, 16 K

     

    Since 2011, only Milwaukee's Kyle Lohse has won as many games in the first month of the regular season as Jason Hammel, with both right-handers picking up 12 wins.

    But unlike his NL Central counterpart, who manages to post respectable numbers across the board for the rest of the season, Hammel simply falls apart.

    '11-'14 SplitsGW-LERAWHIPIPHBB/K
    April1912-43.031.12119.09736/85
    Rest of Season6212-244.931.45327.0347127/234

    If the Chicago Cubs want to maximize Jason Hammel's value in a trade, GM Jed Hoyer has roughly two weeks to get the 31-year-old out of town.

Juan Uribe, 3B, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: .362 BA, .980 OPS, 11 XBH (3 HR), 7 RBI, 1 BB, 15 K

     

    In a perfect world, Juan Uribe would take the summers off.

    For whatever the reason, the 35-year-old third baseman thrives when the season begins—and when it ends—but melts under the oppressive heat of the summer sun.

    MonthBAOBPOPSBABIP
    March/April.279.332.769.316
    May.244.298.658.283
    June.237.277.671.270
    July.220.269.641.238
    August.248.288.693.280
    Sept./Oct..293.333.882.313

    So enjoy his production while you can, Dodgers fans—things are soon going to take a drastic turn for the worse.

Ubaldo Jimenez, SP, Baltimore Orioles

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    2014 Stats: 3 GS, 0-3, 7.31 ERA, 2.06 WHIP, 16.0 IP. 23 H, 10 BB, 13 K

     

    I've never been a Ubaldo Jimenez fan, so I'm not surprised that the 30-year-old has gotten shelled over the course of his first month in a Baltimore uniform.

    But you shouldn't be surprised by Jimenez's ineptitude either, because he simply doesn't get off to a strong start to the regular season:

    MonthGW-LERAWHIP
    March/April3010-125.211.57
    May3412-153.891.35
    June3416-93.171.30
    July3615-114.111.33
    August4014-184.291.38
    Sept./Oct.4115-133.471.27

    The scary part is that those numbers are bolstered by his performance to begin the 2010 season with the Colorado Rockies, when he went 5-0 with a 0.79 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in the season's first month.

    Imagine how ugly they'd be without that performance.

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