We're now at the one-sixteenth point of the still-young season, a rather awkward time for ballclubs in that enough games have been played to pick up on some disturbing early trends and warning signs, but generally not enough games to actually do anything about them. With the Rangers still reeling from their weekend slaughter in the Bronx, here is your latest round of Texas-flavored overreactions that the organization may or may not be inclined to address in the next several weeks:
● When frenzied whispers and worried glances began shooting around the room after Rich Harden's fastball sat in the mid-80s through his first several Cactus League starts, he did his part to mollify the growing unrest by insisting that there were no physical issues, that he was primarily focusing on changing speeds and working on his off-speed pitches, that this was his usual spring M.O., and that he would sit at a far more comfortable 88-96 mph once "the bell rang," so to speak.
Furthermore, there was some precedent for Harden being accurate; after similarly sitting in the mid-80s during 2009 spring training with the Cubs and eliciting cries that he should be placed on the disabled list coming out of the gates, he went out and started routinely posting regular-season average fastball velocities (AFV) of 92-93 mph, peaking at 95-97 mph and delivering monster strikeout numbers in the process. And so the panic was quelled.
What happened last year doesn't appear to be holding true this year, though, or at least not to a similar extent -- through his first three regular-season starts in 2010, Harden has posted up a 90.4 mph AFV which has been progressively trending downward (90.6-90.5-90.2), which becomes all the more alarming when you recall David Brown's study in which he established that a 91 mph AFV is a significant inflection point for starting pitching performance. Sit below that, and your chances of being an elite-level pitcher sharply decline. Moreover, he's generating far fewer swinging strikes with his fastball relative to last year, as is the case with both his slider and change-up.
While some of that statistical divergence stems from his (huge) early-season control problems, understand that swinging-strike rate is a key predictive indicator of how many batters we can expect him to strike out in the future; in other words, if his velocity remains problematic and his control remains below average, he's not going to be a high-level strikeout pitcher for Texas, and since strikeouts are the only thing he has going for him right now ... well, do I really need to spell out the rest? I don't know what's wrong with him (e.g. wonky release point, "stiff" mechanics, elbow/shoulder pain and/or a pure mental block), but it's getting serious, and the Rangers aren't positioned so advantageously that they can roll with him indefinitely. Something's just not right.
● Nobody is going to castigate Vladimir Guerrero so long as he's posting a .340-plus batting average, but as with Harden, there are some early-season red flags: he's swinging at -- and missing -- more out-of-the-zone pitches than he has at any point dating back to 2002, is converting only about half as many of his fly balls into homers as usual and has rock-bottom walk rate and isolated power ratios working for him. What does this all mean? Not a whole lot, unless he maintains these numbers beyond the benchmarks when certain statistics stabilize and become, in a sense, statistically reliable. Guerrero's still a good 200-250 plate appearances away from those thresholds.
The upshot is that even though Guerrero has crafted a sturdy .366 wOBA thus far, it's almost entirely batting average-driven -- he's not walking and he's not hitting for power, so if that continues and a few less ground balls start squeaking through the infield for base hits, how much of a lineup asset do you really have in your possession? The Rangers' safety net here is presumably some combination of David Murphy/Ryan Garko/Max Ramirez, which isn't bad, but also isn't anything to write home about, nor worth inserting in the clean-up spot. Texas obviously won't pull the plug on Guerrero unless he goes down to injury, but that we're already having to worry about the ballclub's two biggest off-season acquisitions just two weeks into the season doesn't exactly induce a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
● Exactly one week after (temporarily?) extricating Frank Francisco from the closer's role, manager Ron Washington has rattled the cage housing his batting order by flip-flopping Julio Borbon and Elvis Andrus, placing his smoking-hot, .324/.419/.405-hitting shortstop in the lead-off spot and dropping his center fielder to the nine-hole. A defensible, if not downright smart move; there's making a move just for the sake of making a move, and then there's making a move to actively improve your team, and it's not as though Borbon is simply being betrayed by lady luck -- he has zero walks in 36 plate appearances and a 3.7 percent line drive rate, markers indicative of just how bad he's going right now.
But what happens when Andrus inevitably falls back to earth? Obviously, the hope is that Borbon will have found his offensive stride by then, enabling Washington to simply flip-flop the two again, but there's a pretty decent chance that neither one will post a seasonal on-base percentage greater than .340. In that sense, neither may be a truly ideal lead-off option, at least as far as this season is concerned. The only other viable lead-off option would be Ian Kinsler, an idea I could readily support if he can revert to something close to 2008 form, but he's almost more of a wild card at this point ... and that fact is rather troubling in and of itself.