My father-in-law posed this challenge to me Sunday night: “If you can make sense of this baseball season, you’re a smart man.”
I don’t think I can do that. But I can list 10 reasons I’m having a blast following this crazy, unpredictable season.
1. Parity. Baseball’s new secret weapon that will increase fan excitement throughout the summer. Right now, only the Indians, Phillies and Marlins are playing above .600 baseball, and only the Twins, White Sox and Astros are below .400. Last season, no team played .600 and only the Mariners and Pirates were below .400. The Indians and Marlins began the season ranked 26th and 24th in payroll. The Rays, currently tied with the Yankees, ranked 29th. The 30th-ranked Royals are above .500. Meanwhile, top-10 payrolls teams the Red Sox, the White Sox, Cubs, Mets and Tigers are all below .500. It all means that at about the one-fifth mark, every team is within 5½ games of the division lead or the wild card, except the Astros, Twins and White Sox.
2. The Rays start 1-8 but are now tied for first. Their first baseman is hitting .129, their shortstop .195, their cleanup hitter retired, their best player has missed most of the season, they have an entirely new bullpen from 2010 … and yet here they are, playing great defense (first in Defensive Efficiency and third in UZR entering Sunday), getting big hits from Ben Zobrist and the bullpen has an ERA under 3.00. Word of caution: Tampa has played the fewest games against above .500 teams of any team in the majors (five).
3. Roy Halladay. The Phillies’ rotation has lived up to its billing (25 quality starts, one more than Cleveland), but Halladay has been even better this season, if you can believe it. Every start of his has become must-watch TV, much like Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson or Greg Maddux in their primes. He’s upped his strikeout rate from 7.9 per nine to 9.6 and he’s allowed just one home run, after allowing 24 last season.
4. Michael Pineda. The new young gun. Granted, I’m a Mariners fan, but this kid is dynamite, a big, intimidating 6-foot-7 flamethrower who weighs 250 pounds and averages 88.9 mph … on his changeup. His fastball has averaged 96 -- the best among major league starters. He pitches Tuesday against the White Sox. Check him out.
5. The Cardinals’ Fearsome Foursome. Stealing a nickname from the NFL’s past, this is the label I’ve given the Cards’ middle of the order: Colby Rasmus, Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman. The Cardinals have survived the loss of Adam Wainwright and a major league-leading nine bullpen losses to lead the NL Central thanks to these four guys (and Pujols hasn’t even heated up). The rejuvenated Berkman has been the one-fifth MVP (sorry, Lance, no trophy for that) with his .374/.452/.738 line. If you’re getting tired of all the 3-2 games, turn on the Cards to watch some raking.
6. Red Sox angst. Don’t take this that I’m rooting against the Red Sox -- that’s not the case -- but it’s been kind of fun watching Red Sox Nation squirm, whine and complain. I hope the rest of the AL enjoyed it, because I have a feeling the Sox are starting to heat up.
7. Indians joy. If my counting is correct, 45 individuals made predictions for ESPN.com in our season preview. Not one picked the Indians to win the AL Central.
8. All the pitching gems. From Josh Johnson to Dan Haren to Cliff Lee to Justin Verlander to Jaime Garcia to Felix Hernandez to Jered Weaver to Francisco Liriano, knowing any night can give us a no-hitter makes for riveting television and/or Internet watching. There’s never a dull day in baseball, that’s for sure. For what it’s worth, the rate of “great starts” is similar to last year. Using the Bill James Game Score method, there have been 36 starts of 80 or better this year, compared to 150 last season. The top five in average Game Score: Johnson, James Shields, Weaver, Halladay and … Kyle Lohse. (OK, I wouldn’t have guessed him either).
9. Joey Votto. Hey, I’ve admitted to my man crush on Votto. When Joey hits, I’m happy.
10. And all this ... Jose Reyes legging out a triple, Ichiro hitting infield singles, Jose Bautista mashing home runs, Andre Ethier’s hit streak, Trevor Cahill’s changeup, Jeff Francoeur defying the experts, Brandon Phillips’ and Sam Fuld’s Web Gems, Tim Lincecum’s movement, Derek Jeter’s two-homer game right as everyone pronounced him dead …
SERIES OF THE WEEK
Tampa Bay at Cleveland
Lots of great series this week: A’s-Rangers, Cardinals-Cubs, Red Sox-Yankees over the weekend, Phillies on the road at Florida and Atlanta … but this one is intriguing as the Indians head back home trying to extend their 13-game home winning streak. Sonnanstine makes his first start of the season for Tampa, which was won four in a row and climbed back into a first-place tie with the Yankees.
PITCHING MATCHUP OF THE WEEK
Tuesday: Roy Halladay (5-1, 2.19) vs. Josh Johnson (3-1, 1.68), Phillies at Marlins
Following a four-start stretch in which he allowed one run and 11 hits over 28 1/3 innings, Johnson finally proved hittable in his last outing against St. Louis, as the Cardinals touched him for eight hits and five runs in 7 1/3 innings … raising his opponents’ batting average allowed all the way up to .160. He’s allowed a .444 OPS. Not that he can keep up this kind of pitching: Only four starters since 1920 have allowed an OPS under .500: Bob Gibson in 1968(.469), Pedro Martinez in 2000 (.473), Greg Maddux in 1995 (.482) and Luis Tiant in 1968 (.495).
As for Halladay, he may need to match his start of last May 29, when he beat Johnson and the Marlins 1-0 with a perfect game. The two faced off again on June 10 and Johnson won 2-0 with eight innings of three-hit baseball. In that game, Halladay went eight innings and gave up only one run.
1. Joey Votto’s 33-game on-base string -- he had reached base in every Reds game this season -- ended Sunday with an 0-for-4 effort. Votto, who had a 41-game on-base streak last season -- was called out on one checked swing on Sunday. “Not even close from my perspective,” he told Cincinnati.com. Votto’s average has dropped to .333 after going 7 for his last 33. Andre Ethier’s hit streak got all the attention, but on-base streaks are impressive in their own right; it’s hard to get hits if pitchers aren’t giving you much to hit. Votto leads the NL with 29 walks, seven more than teammate Jonny Gomes and the Mets’ David Wright.
2. The Giants completed a big sweep of the Rockies with a 3-0 victory Sunday, as Ryan Vogelsong allowed just one hit over 6 1/3 innings. Vogelsong has been one of the nice stories of 2011, as he made it back to the majors for the first time since 2006. He went more than 2,000 days between wins as a starting pitcher. As for the Rockies, their pitchers delivered six straight quality starts this week but they won just once, as the offense continues to struggle. The Rockies are hitting .233 overall -- .225 on the road. Carlos Gonzalez still hasn’t gotten untracked and Troy Tulowitzki is hitting .152 since April 18.
3. Two debuts this weekend from rookies we’ll be hearing a lot about for a long time: Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer and Braves starter Julio Teheran. Hosmer went 0-for-2 in his debut, but drew two walks, and turned a beautiful 3-6-3 double play, showing why scouts consider him a future Gold Glover. He went 2-for-4 on Sunday with a double and already has three walks -- or one more than A’s center fielder Coco Crisp and Astros third baseman Chris Johnson have drawn in more than 100 at-bats. I watched Teheran’s start against the Phillies on Saturday and he showed the nice, easy motion and good stuff that got him to the majors at 20 years of age. He didn’t have great command, however, and Ryan Howard tattooed one low fastball for a home run. Teheran is headed back to Triple-A after the spot start, but I suspect he’ll be back sometime this season, maybe even as a reliever down the stretch if the Braves don’t need him in the rotation. A good sign: A scene from the TV broadcast showed him listening intently in the dugout as Jair Jurrjens discussed a few things with him -- probably something about not pitching Ryan Howard low and in.
RANT OF THE WEEK
The Orioles looked like they could challenge for their first .500 season since 1997 after a 6-1 start, but they followed that up with eight straight losses, climbed back to .500, but have now lost six of seven after getting swept at home by Tampa Bay. They just haven’t been getting on base enough to score many runs. Robert Andino is the only guy hitting above .267, but he only has one RBI (on a home run) in 65 at-bats. Vladimir Guerrero, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Brian Roberts and Mark Reynolds all have on-base percentages below .300.
PHOTO OF THE DAY