Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Five most improved players in 2013
By Jim Bowden
A former catcher, Josh Donaldson has transitioned to the hot corner very well and kept hitting.
Every year there's always a group of players who reward their general managers' or signing scouts' belief in them. Struggling and failure is a fact of life in baseball, but for the players who fight through it, redemption is that much sweeter.
There are a lot of players who have improved this season, such as Justin Upton and Matt Moore, but the difference between them and the five below is that they were expected to be good.
So let's take a look at the five most improved players in 2013 and examine what they did to overcome their struggles.
1. Josh Donaldson | 3B | Oakland Athletics After watching Donaldson in Oakland this past week, I was convinced he’s the most improved player I’ve seen this season. He’s always possessed raw power since the Chicago Cubs drafted him in the compensation round of the 2007 draft out of Auburn. But he has always showed holes at the plate, and many wondered how much he would hit. So his eight home runs this season aren’t necessarily a surprise, but his ridiculous power to right-center definitely raised my eyebrows. What impressed me the most was his ability to hit pitches on both sides of the plate. If you pitch him away he goes away, pitch him in and he’ll pull it.
He’s a converted catcher, and making that switch to third base was a trial by fire. He'd played just 53 games there in the minors prior to 2012, and was installed at the hot corner in Oakland last summer. The results were mixed, as he clearly began as a below-average third baseman. After watching him this past week make diving plays to his left and right, displaying excellent body control while charging and showcasing his arm, I saw Donaldson had transformed into a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman in just one year.
Manager Bob Melvin said this week that Donaldson has been the A’s best offensive and defensive player this season, and from what I saw, I expect to see him representing the A’s at this season’s All-Star Game.
2. Chris Davis | 1B | Baltimore Orioles Davis has become the American League’s best power-hitting first baseman, which is pretty impressive considering the AL is filled with top-level first basemen such as Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols and Edwin Encarnacion. Despite the presence of those guys, Davis leads all AL first basemen in runs, hits, home runs, RBIs, OBP and OPS.
He was a budding star last season when he hit .270/.326/.501 with 33 homers, but he has taken his game to a new level this year. He has never hit for a high average and was always prone to strikeouts on breaking balls and fastballs in certain parts of the zone. However, he's now reduced his preliminary action in his swing and keeps his head extremely still. He lets the ball get to him and drops the barrel head with a direct path and with consistent sweet spot contact. His approach at the plate is simple; he really understands the strike zone now.
He also has improved his glove at first base; he routinely takes extra work and takes great pride in his defense. In his age-27 season, Davis has entered his prime -- as well as his arbitration years -- and looks ready for a big payday next January.
3. Alex Cobb | RHP | Tampa Bay Rays Cobb possesses above-average baseball IQ, instincts and is constantly adjusting to improve his game. He throws his fastball just 45 percent of the time because he knows he can’t overpower hitters. He throws his changeup approximately 35 percent of the time and his curveball the other 20 percent. The key for Cobb is mixing his repertoire to keep hitters guessing and off balance. He pounds the strike zone, changes eye levels, planes, rotations and velocity and has cut down his walks. Simply, Cobb knows how to pitch. He has been the Rays’ second-best starter this season behind Matt Moore and is one of the main reasons the Rays have stayed in the race.
4. Carlos Gomez | CF | Milwaukee Brewers Gomez, 27, is a five-tool talent who never lived up to early expectations. Last season, the lights started coming on for Gomez in the second half. This season he has become one of the most complete players in baseball. He originally was signed by the New York Mets as an undrafted free agent in 2002 from the Dominican Republic. He was traded six years later as the centerpiece of the trade that sent left-hander Johan Santana from Minnesota to New York. After two years of disappointment, which included baserunning blunders, an absence of the fundamentals -- such as not hitting the cutoff man -- and a slow-developing bat, the Twins lost patience, and Gomez was shipped to the Brewers in the fall of 2009 in exchange for shortstop J.J. Hardy.
Brewers scouts, however, never gave up on Gomez because of his above-average tools across the board. Defensively, he was above average in center field with tremendous range, which made up for some bad routes. He had blazing speed on the bases, which made up for some bad baserunning.
Like a lot of major league players who enter their prime years of age 26-31, he started to figure things out at the plate. He studied the game and really learned how to play. By the end of last season he had hit a career-high .260, with 19 home runs.
This season he’s hitting .331, and his 10 home runs and 10 stolen bases have made him a legitimate 30-30 threat. He leads the league in slugging percentage, his routes are better and his baserunning mistakes have been reduced. Call it maturity or confidence, but Gomez is now one of the most exciting players in baseball, and I've already made it known that I believe he will keep it up.
In seven minor league seasons, McAllister accumulated a decent 56-39 record, 3.43 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP. However, his first major league cup of coffee in 2011 was horrible, as he posted a 6.11 ERA with 26 hits allowed in 17 2/3 innings. He got a little better last year, but his 4.24 ERA in 22 games did not inspire confidence.
While McAllister struggled, I remember Indians GM Chris Antonetti telling me he and his scouting staff firmly believed McAllister would develop into a solid mid-rotation stater. This season McAllister is rewarding Antonetti’s faith and is the most improved starting pitcher on the Indians’ staff. He has been arguably its most consistent starter behind Justin Masterson, yielding three runs or fewer in all nine of his starts this season.
McAllister’s fastball mostly is 90-92 mph with some cut to it. He is starting to throw his curveball with more confidence; his changeup and occasional splitter also have been effective. The key for McAllister is his fastball command, a pitch he throws almost 70 percent of the time, and he has done a good job this season of keeping the ball out of the middle of the plate. He might not be an ace, but he’s improved enough to be a cog in the Tribe's rotation.