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The Hanging Curve: Johan, Jays, Strasburg, Jeter And More
Authored by Andrew Perna - 26th April, 2012 - 10:06 am

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Each Wednesday, I will be writing a catch-all baseball column with tidbits on recent action, the upcoming slate, what players are hot, which are not and what prospects might soon be called up to the show.

The Hanging Curve is the latest original baseball feature from RealGM, joining our weekly MLB Scoop and Team Rankings, in addition to other team-specific and league-wide features.

The Left Shoulder of Johan Santana

The Mets are playing decent baseball to start the 2012 season and Johan Santana has made four starts, all as scheduled, after missing all of last year. Neither the health or effectiveness of Santana was certain entering the season.

Santana had his best outing on Tuesday night against the Marlins, striking out 11 batters while allowing just one hit over six-plus innings. He threw 105 pitches, a season-high, and lived to tell about it. His strikeout-to-walk rate is 3.00, which is close enough to his career rate of 3.5 that you can see his trademark command returning.

Batters are only hitting .209 against Santana early in the season, a rate closer to what he allowed during his prime as a member of the Twins than anything he posted over his first three seasons with the Mets. He is also keeping balls on the ground with a .61 groundball/fly ball ratio, which is important given the reconstructed outfield walls at Citi Field.

Only time will tell if Santana can make a complete return from the shoulder woes that cost him more than a season, but early on -- short outing against the Braves notwithstanding -- he looks to be on the right path.

Stephen Strasburg Making Life Difficult for Mike Rizzo

The first-overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, an event that Strasburg did not even attend, has dazzled early this season. In four starts, Strasburg has allowed just three earned runs in 25 innings of work. He has struck out 25 batters against six walks.

He has used his fastball very effectively, throwing it as the first pitch of an at-bat 73% of the time, and has showed no signs of slowing down for the Nationals. With four quality starts, he is throwing more pitches per appearance (94.3) than ever before and averaging 15.1 pitches per inning.

As well as Strasburg has pitched and Washington has played, leading the division with an impressive 13-4 record through Tuesday night, there is cause of concern.

The Nationals claim they will limit Strasburg to 160 innings this season, less than eight months removed from his return from Tommy John surgery. While the decision is a smart and cautious one, it may not be shrewd if the team is in the hunt for a playoff berth late in the season.

If he averages six innings per start, he will only be able to take the mound 26 times before he hits the team-imposed limit. He will almost certainly hit 160 innings earlier with electric stuff and a few dominant, shutout performances. Washington could choose to skip his turn in the rotation or bump him back a few days when the schedule allows, but doing so would not only change his routine but that of his fellow starters as well.

At this point in time, there is no reason for Mike Rizzo and the Nationals to make a firm decision on what will happen with Strasburg later in the season. If they are out of the hunt for October, shutting him down early would be an easy pill to swallow. However, if the playoffs are within sight come September, it would take extreme will power to keep their ace from the mound.

Someone Save the Blue Jays

The Blue Jays entered the season as a trendy pick to challenge the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox for bragging rights in the American League East and they have delivered to a certain degree. With a 10-7 record entering action on Wednesday, Toronto was tied with New York, Tampa Bay and Baltimore for first place in the loaded division.

However, John Farrell would have a lead in the division if it were not for his group of relievers. The Jays are tied with the Angels with four blown saves, the most in the Major Leagues. They have a save percentage of 50%, putting them 23rd in baseball. A season ago, they had the second-lowest save percentage in the game (57%) as they blew an eye-popping 25 saves.

If they had converted 68% of their save chances in 2011, which was the American League average, they would have won seven more games, giving them a record of 88-74. They then would have been playing meaningful games in the last week of the regular season and perhaps would have even played into the outcome of the battle between the Rays and Red Sox for the AL Wild Card on that infamous last night of the 2011 campaign.

They have not pitched poorly as a unit, falling in the middle of the pack in terms of ERA (3.86) and seventh in batting average against (.226). The weaknesses have been the bullpen and strikeouts. They rank ahead of only the Rays in strikeouts-per-walk (1.62) and just 25th in strikeouts per nine innings (6.35).

Toronto starters have pitched 68% of their innings, but allowed 66% of their earned runs. In 51-plus innings, the bullpen has surrendered 23 runs, including five homers. Sergio Santos, now on the disabled list with a shoulder issue, blew two saves. Darren Oliver and Casey Janssen have also blown opportunities this month.

With that said, there may be a bright side for the Blue Jays in all of this: Francisco Cordero.

He converted back-to-back saves on Sunday and Monday and the right-hander has only allowed one run in his last four appearances. If not overly taxed, he could prove to be the answer to their late-game issues.

Aging Gracefully in the Northeast

Take a look at the leading hitters in the American League through the first three weeks of the season and you will see some familiar and expected names. Josh Hamilton is red-hot, hitting .400 for the Rangers with eight home runs and 19 RBI. Evan Longoria of Tampa Bay is up there as well, reaching base 44.6% of the time with an OPS of 1.027.

But the two hottest hitters in the American League are a pair of aging veterans from the Northeast that were considered washed up as recently as the first half of the 2011 season.

David Ortiz, 36, is hitting .444 for the Red Sox with 11 extra base hits. It is a bit scary to think about where Boston would be if Ortiz were not producing well this month.

Then there is Derek Jeter. The iconic Yankees shortstop was considered closer to retirement than a career milestone last June when he hit just .239 and landed on the disabled list with a calf injury. However, since entering the 3,000-hit club with a home run off David Price in the Bronx, Jeter, who will turn 38 in June, has hit better than perhaps ever before.

He rebounded from a terrible start to hit .297 with a .355 on-base percentage last season and has been one of the most difficult outs in baseball this year. Jeter has a 14-game hitting streak going and has failed to record a base knock in just one game this season. He is hitting .416 with a .439 on-base percentage and an OPS of 1.088.

Jeter is not going to maintain his torrid pace, but through 17 games and 77 at-bats his averages across the board are all career-highs. He is not just hitting for average either, with four home runs. He had six in 131 games last season and has never gone deep at such a high rate.

After hitting a home run once every 91 at-bats in 2011, Jeter is sending the ball into the seats nearly five times as often this April. The only negative for No. 2? His walk rate (.049) is the lowest of his career, perhaps a sign that he is just seeing the ball incredibly well.

Brewing Coffee: Will Middlebrooks, Triple-A Pawtucket

The Red Sox have struggled because of their pitching, but if the need for a bat arises they have a hot hitter at the Triple-A level. Will Middlebrooks, playing third base for Pawtucket, is hitting .375 and is among the Triple-A leaders in home runs with eight. In 19 games, he has 25 RBI. He trails only Tigers prospect Brad Eldred (Toledo) in both categories.

Middlebrooks entered the season the top prospect in the organization and has not disappointed. He was dominating the Eastern League before being promoted to Pawtucket last summer and has rebounded after a bit of a slow start at the Triple-A level at the end of 2011.

The Texas native played shortstop in high school and is perhaps only an injury to Adrian Gonzalez/Kevin Youkilis or a regression to the mean by Mike Aviles from getting a few at-bats with the Red Sox.