The stories we predicted to define MLB’s 2012 have far from disappointed. They’ve happened.
When the season began in the cool spring days of early April, I set out to predict what stories would ultimately define the 2012 MLB season. Naturally, I missed a few things. I didn’t see the Pirates, or the Dodgers, or the Nationals coming, in a season where every National League Division is led by a team that no one expected to rise so quickly. I failed to see that the pitching dominance would continue to ascend, with no-hitters and perfect games dropping like fly balls. And somehow, I didn’t foresee that the ethics of umpiring, using replay, and getting it right versus staying tradition finally taking center stage within the national conversation.
It’s been an amazing season, to say the least. And we’re only halfway through. But despite my inability to prognosticate all the tidbits that would make the 2012 season as exciting and action-packed as it’s been thus far, the ten storylines I did place in that article have made for some compelling baseball. Here’s a midseason report on those ten stories, and where they stand at the All-Star Break:
10 | A New Look in South Beach
For fans of the Miami Marlins, Opening Day 2012 must’ve felt like Christmas morning. From the fancy stadium to the fresh faces, there were new toys everywhere, and the promise of an upcoming new year. Management was excited, feeling that they’d put the pieces together that could reclaim South Florida as a viable baseball market. As the season approached, and Miami gleamed anew, it felt as if only two things were possible; either a rise to greatness, or a major disappointment was coming. The truth lies somewhere between the two.
Much of the new-look Miami Marlins franchise has been disappointing. They find themselves 41-44 at midsummer, a record that puts them fourth in a tough NL East division. The lineup isn’t producing as expected, with their runs scored placing 12th of fourteen in the National League. The rotation isn’t mowing down lineups as promised, instead boasting an ERA that ranks 11th in the National League. That’s a losing combination, no matter how new your stadium is.
To make matters worse, that new stadium isn’t drawing the crowds that the promise of air conditioning and a contending team had led Marlins management to expect. They currently rank 12th in National League attendance. But the Marlins probably wish that the stadium was the only new arrival not living up to expectations. Most of Miami’s key offseason additions have fallen short.
In that pre-season article, I referred to Heath Bell as the Marlins’ “safest offseason addition”. In retrospect, that was stupid. The once All-Star closer currently sits at 2-5 with a 6.75 ERA, giving up 43 hits in 34.2 innings, walking over five batters per nine innings, and earning a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of -1.3 (Yes, a negative WAR). His 19 saves are misleading; he’s blown six, which is already his second-highest season total…ever. Fittingly, he blew a save on the final game before the midseason break, arresting any momentum the Marlins hoped to carry through.
Others have been disappointments, as well. Jose Reyes is hitting .264, which is nearly thirty points below his career batting average, and has a 0.2 WAR. Carlos Zambrano is 4-7 with a 4.20 ERA, and is averaging less than six innings per start (see above why handing it to the bullpen so soon may be a bad thing). And I would be remised not to mention new addition and manager Ozzie Guillen, who made a little news by freaking praising Fidel Castro while all of the Marlins fans in Little Havana watched on in horror.
And to make matters worse, upcoming star Giancarlo Stanton is going to miss four to six weeks after requiring arthroscopic knee surgery. Aye dios mio.
But there are bright spots, believe it or not. New addition Mark Buehrle is having a solid season. His record (8-8) doesn’t show it, but he currently has a 3.25 ERA (his lowest since 2005), is only walking 1.3 batters per nine innings (lowest in the NL), and has a 2.9 WAR (fourth among NL pitchers). He’s exceeding expectations. And despite Reyes’ slow start, it can be said that he’s played 84 games. Considering that everyone was afraid of the fragility of his hamstring, that has to be a plus.
The Marlins aren’t currently setting the world on fire, but fans should look at the facts. Despite the Guillen controversy and some underperformance, the Marlins are on pace to win 82 games –ten more wins than last year. If some of these players can find themselves in the second half, this team still has a chance to be one of the best stories in the league. There’s a reason that acclaimed TV show The Franchise is following them around. They’re worth watching.
Perhaps fans in Miami should take a few seconds from celebrating their NBA title to take notice.
9| D-Fense in D-Troit
When Prince Fielder followed in his father’s footsteps and joined Miguel Cabrera in Detroit, there were two prevailing thoughts about the Tigers’ 2012 season. 1) That offense is going to be unstoppable. And 2) Any ball going through the infield is going to be unstoppable.
Needless to say, the decision to team up these two incredible sluggers was an offensive decision. And most analysts seemed to fill it was a decision that would do less harm than help. Most experts pegged the Tigers as the most certain division winner in baseball, on the heels of their ace, Justin Verlander and their now jam-packed lineup.
Well, Verlander has delivered. He’s starting the All-Star game for the American League. And the offense is certainly producing at an incredible rate. It’s a lineup that is in the top five in the American League in all of the following categories: hits, doubles, triples, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases. It’s a lineup that has posted a total offensive WAR of 10.2.
But it’s a team that is third in the AL Central, with a mediocre record of 44-42. So what gives? Well, it may just be the defense.
At the plate, the Cabrera/Fielder combination has been lights out. In the infield, it’s combined for fifteen errors.
The Tigers as a whole have allowed 46 unearned runs, largely thanks to 56 errors (6th in the AL) and a .982 fielding percentage (9th in the AL). More advanced defensive statistics tell an even worse story. The Tigers’ total zone rating (which combines all defensive statistics) is -54 below average, and it’s projected that they’ve lost 22 runs due to fielding. This has culminated in a defensive-WAR of -3.5.
It will be interesting to see if, ultimately, the Tigers’ inability to stop a ball will put a stop to their win-now mentality. It’s early, but right now, it appears the problem isn’t offensive; but the defense is offensive.
Jamie Moyer’s return to the major leagues was one of the best stories of the MLB Preseason. It continued to be inspiring when, at 49, Moyer became the oldest pitcher in baseball history to earn a win. But this story doesn’t seem to have a happy ending. The moral of this story seems to be this: that Jamie Moyer is very much a mortal man.
In 2012, Moyer has signed more contracts than he has won games. He’s 2-5 with a 5.70 ERA, allowing almost 13 hits per nine innings. He’s been released by the Rockies, Orioles, and Blue Jays –the last two teams didn’t even call him up to the big-leagues. It was a great story, but it looks as if it’s ended before the season ends. Moyer sits at 269 career wins and an all-time record 522 career home-runs allowed. For his sake, I hope he doesn’t see either of those numbers continue to climb.
All careers must end. And even Father Time isn’t fooled by a 78 mph fastball.
7| AL West versus AL East
This is a narrative that can’t be judged in the middle of the plot. Time will tell which division will reign supreme, as it seems almost inevitable that the AL World Series representative will come from one of the two. But here’s a brief look at how they stack up now:
AL EAST: Yankees (52-33), Orioles (45-40), Rays (45-41), Red Sox (43-43), Blue Jays (43-43)
AL WEST: Rangers (52-34), Angels (48-38), Athletics (43-43), Mariners (36-51)
The AL East appears to be deeper, boasting a five-team pool in which each franchise is playing at .500 or better. That being said, the Rangers and Angels are arguably the two scariest teams in baseball right now. If the season ended today, the Yankees and Rangers would take the guaranteed playoff spots, with the Angels and Orioles playing in the new Wild Card One-Game playoff. But the season doesn’t end today. This narrative is only just beginning. And no one’s out of the picture.
Except for Seattle…but who’s counting?
6| Pujols, Fielder, or Votto –Who responds best to their new monster contract?
So far, I think the stats speak for themselves:
Pujols: .268 BA/.334 OBP/.460 SLG/14 HR/51 RBI/35 Extra-base hits/2.3 WAR
Votto: .348 BA/.471 OBP/.558 SLG/14 HR/48 RBI/49 Extra-base hits/4.5 WAR
Fielder: .299 BA/.380 OBP/.505 SLG/15 HR/63 RBI/35 Extra-base hits/1.5 WAR
Pujols continues to rebound strongly from a slow start, and Fielder’s putting up his usual impressive power numbers. But so far, there is no denying the superior value and production of Joey Votto. For more on that, you can read this article.
Since this is a question about who is best living up to monster contracts, just take a look at who is most valuable to their team. Joey Votto boasts the best WAR (Wins above Replacement) on the Cincinnati Reds by far, with the next highest teammate coming in at 1.8. Pujols, however, is third in WAR on his team behind Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo; Fielder is also third, behind Austin Jackson and Miguel Cabrera. That’s all you need to know about this debate, as of right now. It’s not even that close.
5| Three Redemptions
In April, I pinpointed three players seeking redemption in 2012. Ichiro Suzuki was coming off his first season in which he failed to reach 200 hits and a .300 batting average. Carl Crawford was coming off his worst season in a promising career, leading Boston fans to hiss at the huge contract he had signed to join them. And Joe Mauer was coming off a crippling leg injury that had torn his season in half and led to not-so-subtle whispers about his long-term viability as a catcher and franchise player.
Luckily, this is baseball, where one out of three isn’t bad.
Ichiro, after joining the Major Leagues in his prime, appears to be continuing to decline to something closer to normalcy. Once again, those once automatic benchmarks may be out of reach. He’s hitting .261, which would be a career low, and is on pace for only 186 hits (last year’s 184 being his lowest). It’s also clear that he lost a step; he’s on pace for 24 stolen bases, which would also be a single-season low for the Seattle superstar. Ichiro, and rightfully so, is one of the most beloved baseball players in the league. Thanks to his incredible first decade of seasons on this side of the Pacific, we’ve been able to witness one of the purest hitters in the game’s history. But these last two seasons have been humbling, grounding. And this might be a grounder he can’t beat out.
Crawford’s redemption may still be yet to come, but as of now, fans in Boston can only sit, wait, and wish. Crawford has yet to return from the arm injury that ended his 2011 season. He’s currently playing rehab games in the minor leagues, poised to play in the second half of the season. It’s a small sample size, but his 24 at-bats in the minors and on-base percentage of .452 may be a good sign for a Red Sox nation quickly losing hope in their team as constituted.
Ichiro is a fading star. Crawford is an unknown commodity. But Joe Mauer –he’s a redemption story.
After so many doubts crept into Minnesota about Joe Mauer’s ability to come back from his bilateral leg weakness and an even more hurtful media barrage of criticism, he has done so with style. It’s not just because he uses Head and Shoulders, either. The guy can just plain hit. So far, he’s stayed healthy, playing 77 games. And more importantly, he stayed good. He’s batting .326, with a .416 OBP, five home-runs, 41 RBI, 18 doubles, and a WAR of 2.1. He currently leads the American League in On-Base Percentage, is fourth in AL Batting Average, and will represent the Minnesota Twins in this week’s All-Star Game.
Not bad for a guy that can’t last. In the second half, Mauer will surely set out to prove just how long he can.
4| A Collapse Relapse?
This story has yet to play out. When the Braves and Red Sox illustrated historic collapses last fall, they rendered the spring and summer meaningless, watching on as other teams from their divisions snuck into the playoffs. Fans in Atlanta and Boston, then, could probably care less where there team sits at the All-Star Break. They, more than anyone, know how much that is subject to change.
They arrive on and face much different roads. The Braves have won four straight and stare upward at a division foe with little experience, little hitting, and Stephen Strasburg’s ominous inning limit. The Red Sox have lost five of six, belong to the toughest division in baseball, have the most difficult schedule left of any team, and have had oddly bad luck thus far (their run differential, for example, predicts a team with a 47-39 record; they’re 43-43). But these teams do have something in common; they both face the ghost of their recent past.
If there is any reconciliation for these two fan bases, it would appear that, for now, neither team is in a position to once again collapse down the stretch. That would require being in first place, which neither the Braves nor Red Sox can currently claim. In a truly ironic twist, these teams could take the position of comeback kids in the 2012 season.
After last year’s historic fall, imagine if these teams had to instead rise through the rankings…now that would be a story.
3| Rising Stars
If any prediction I made before the season seems suddenly profound, it is perhaps the idea that 2012 is the season of transition –the season in which new stars are anointed in the Summer Classic. There’s a youth movement going on in Major League Baseball right now that has everyone talking and everyone watching. This sport needed a buzz, and it needed stars that were not old enough to have any connection to the Steroid Era.
It got them.
In the original article, I mentioned the up-and-comers named Bryce Harper, Eric Hosmer, Giancarlo Stanton, Brett Lawrie, Stephen Strasburg, and Matt Moore. There aren’t many misses on this list –and boy, are there some hits.
My biggest crime was failing to see the promise of Mike Trout. The impact that he and Harper have had on the league as they both head to the All-Star game has been well-documented. If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t seen anything about the historic, incredible rookie campaigns these two guys are producing, read this article. Trout and Harper are in their own stratosphere –rarified air that’s not just goodness, or greatness. It’s legendary.
But let’s not ignore some of these other promising stars. Beneath the noise of Harper and Trout, other very young stars are strutting their stuff in Major League Baseball.
Giancarlo Stanton has been the MVM –Most Valuable Marlin. His first-half earned him an All-Star selection, much thanks to a batting line of .284/.364/.554, his 19 HR (some of which break scoreboards), and his WAR of 3.0. Before he was forced to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery, he was many people’s favorite to win the Home Run Derby –and for good reason. Some people hit home-runs. Giancarlo Stanton hits the laws of physics upside the face.
Brett Lawrie (pictured above with glorious tattoos and glorious defense) has quietly been a force to be reckoned with in Toronto this season. For one, he’s hit and run well, posting a batting line of .291/.334/.425, stealing eleven bases, and slugging eight home-runs from the top of the line-up. But his true value lies at third base. Lawrie’s WAR of 5.0 is largely because he’s quickly becoming one of the best defensive infielders around. He’s first in the American League in defensive-WAR, as well as numerous defensive statistics, both old-school and sabermetric. No matter how you measure it, the guy can catch the ball. It’s easy to ignore our neighbors to the north. But with Lawrie joining Bautista on a constantly improving Blue Jays team, Canadian baseball is about to get really interesting.
Stephen Strasburg, like his teammate Bryce Harper, also seems to be exceeding incredible hype. In just his second season, he’s returned from Tommy John surgery with a strong start to 2012. The first-time All-Star leads the league in strikeouts, has a record of 9-4, an ERA of 2.82, and serves as the ace of the first-place Nationals. It would appear that the sky is the limit for Strasburg…or at least it would be if the Nationals hadn’t decided that his actual limit is 160 innings pitched. With the playoffs suddenly very much in play, we’ll see if that continues to be the decision coming out of Washington.
Matt Moore and Eric Hosmer, God forbid, have come closer to acting their age this season. Don’t count them out for a second-half resurgence, but so far, their respective seasons don’t deserve to join the mighty company of the young-guns mentioned above. Moore has pedestrian statistics with a record of 5-6, a 4.42 ERA, and a -0.6 WAR. And Hosmer, after hitting lights out toward the end of 2011, returned in 2012 to hit .231 with a low OBP of .299 and uninspiring power numbers of 9 HR and 39 RBI. His WAR is also -0.6. But don’t set these names aside. Their potential ceiling is higher that most players at their age.
With performances like these, a new generation seems to be emerging in the sport of baseball. And it’s nothing like what we’ve seen for the past several years. These guys aren’t juiced –they’re hustlers, they play defense; they’re five-tool athletes with as much heart as talent. 2012 is officially the year of the rising star. The torch has been passed –and the game is much better for it.
2| Fading Stars
With a new generation of stars coming in, the cycle must naturally force us to say goodbye to some of the game’s greatest ambassadors. Many names and records of players that began their careers in the 1990s will forever be stained and questioned. I don’t believe that Chipper Jones or Mariano Rivera will be among them. At the year’s beginning, it looked as if both of these players were poised to fade into the sunset, taking one last trip on this train that leaves in the coolness of spring and reaches its destination in the frosts of fall.
But neither story has played out as we expected.
For one, Mariano Rivera isn’t done. After a devastating ACL tear ended his season, people subsequently wondered if one of the most prolific Yankee careers had ended so suddenly and cruelly. The man who had never suffered a bad injury had been seemingly removed from the game in the least-ceremonious way possible –shagging fly balls during batting practice. But according to Rivera, this isn’t the end. He has vowed to return. And that seems right. Rivera, more than anyone in this generation of baseball, knows the right way to close.
This will be the last season for Chipper Jones. But, despite knees that ache, this guy refuses to lamely limp through his final games. This could have easily been a farewell tour of less-than-average play –with a fading star injuring his legacy by playing badly through pains injuring his body. But Chipper has always been clutch, and he’s finishing strong.
Even though he’s only played in 49 games, Jones earned an All-Star bid with a .318 batting average (keeping his career average safely above .300), 6 home-runs, 33 RBI, and more importantly, for the impact he’s had on this game. For two decades, he’s been the face of one of America’s most popular franchises. But he’s also been one of the faces of baseball –one of the names that didn’t let baseball down when the consequences began to fall.
The respect Chipper has earned can be seen in every final road trip he makes this season. At every stadium he visits for the last time, he takes something with him. Every team has honored him, paying homage to one of the best third-baseman and switch-hitters to ever play this game. Few recent stars have left the game as gracefully and as heralded.
This week, Jones will play in his eighth and final All-Star game. I expect it to be another great paragraph in this final chapter –a chapter of long, sweet goodbyes. It’s not often we know when something great is about to end. It usually happens suddenly, without warning or ceremony. Chipper Jones’ swan song gets to be cherished –and that’s special.
He’s a man that’s played many a baseball game in the cold nights of October. Something tells me he and his teammates will stop at nothing to give him one last shot to play beneath the brightest lights of baseball. And even if he has to crawl around the bases, or limp like Kirk Gibson, you can almost be sure he’ll deliver.
1| Bobby V’s Antics
Bobby Valentine circa Boston 2012 has been disappointingly devoid of costume or extremely controversial rejection. But his season has certainly been newsworthy. Whispers of a divisive locker-room continue to pervade the Boston storylines, and his handling of Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia’s early-season comments certainly raised eyebrows. With all the animosity in Boston, Bobby Valentine would probably gladly walk the streets in a disguise.
This article deserves the ultimate disclaimer: these stories are just beginning. That’s the beauty of baseball’s All-Star Break. It’s not the game itself, the home-run derby, or celebrity softball. It’s the knowledge that we’ve just witnessed a great start to the season, and yet, we’re only halfway…and anything from here on out is oh, so possible.