- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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The game of baseball is a fascinating invention. Just when we think we might actually understand it, just when we think we might actually know something about it, the game of baseball seems to enjoy reminding us what idiots we really are.
And that's never been more true than this season. Has it? Heck, it was only two months ago that this crazy season began. But as we look at the standings, it feels like those of us on the idiot patrol -- by which we mean all of us -- saw NONE of this coming.
Some of these developments, though, have been a little extra stunning. So this week, Rumblings and Grumblings presents The Five Teams That Have Shocked Us Most in 2012 (and trust us -- there were more than just five):
It's shocking enough that the Tigers are in third place, five games under .500, six games behind the almost equally shocking first-place White Sox. But a much bigger shock-a-thon lurks just beneath this team's surface. Did you know that
• Until Thursday, when Miguel Cabrera pulled them even, the Tigers had actually been outhomered (55-54) by the Mariners. Seriously. By the Mariners. All right, so Seattle has played two more games. Whatever. Tell us you predicted this -- and then please rise to hear how much time you're about to serve for perjury.
• The Tigers have had one winning streak of two-plus games since April 18. One. Even the Cubs have had three.
• And finally, there's this: Since their 9-3 start, the Tigers are 17-28. That's the worst record in the American League. The worst. Worse than the Twins. Worse than the A's. Worse than the Mariners. The worst. Unreal.
That isn't enough to explain why "other than Cabrera and Prince [Fielder], they're just not swinging at very many quality pitches," one scout said. And although Jackson's absence has been a big loss, it doesn't totally explain the Tigers' "horrendous" defense, either.
And it certainly doesn't explain why their closer, that thrill-a-minute Jose Valverde, could have had zero blown saves, a 2.24 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP last year -- and now has three blown saves, a 4.24 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP this year.
So did we all totally misjudge this team? Or is this merely a two-month mirage?
"They're a much better team than the way they've played," the scout said. "And injuries have really hurt them. If they get everyone back and get their offense going again, they can still get hot. But they've got to hit -- because their defense is not good."
Back in spring training, we did a poll in which we asked 10 general managers and assistant GMs how many teams in baseball they thought could win the World Series. One of them sized up the NL East and replied: "Everybody but the Mets."
Oh, yeah? Well, guess what? The Mets never got that memo. They've been shockingly good, shockingly dangerous late in games and shockingly fun to watch. But the big shocker has been their starting rotation. Did you know that
#43 Starting Pitcher
New York Mets
• Just as we all expected, the Mets' rotation has more quality starts (37) than the Nationals', Rays', Giants' or Cardinals'. And that doesn't count four other games in which a Mets starter gave up two earned runs or fewer but didn't make it through the sixth inning. That's not a fluke, or a product of Citi Field. They've been that good.
• Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey both rank in the top nine among National League pitchers in wins above replacement. The only other rotation in the league with two starters ranked that high is Washington (Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg).
Meanwhile, Jonathon Niese and Dillon Gee each have as many quality starts (seven) as Santana. And although the newest addition to this rotation, Chris Young, has been healthy enough to make only nine starts over the past three seasons, he's been tremendous (1.65 ERA, 1.04 WHIP) when he's made it out there.
Astounding Facts of the Week
Carlos Zambrano goes deep again, Henry Rodriguez gets wild again and some Mets no-hitter history.
But the biggest shocker in any team's rotation has been Dickey, who is 9-1, leads the major leagues in quality starts (11) and is trying to become the first knuckleballer since Wilbur Wood in 1977 to make it through a season with zero wild pitches.
"Dickey is the most incredible pitcher in baseball," one NL scout said. "He's the best knuckleball pitcher I've ever seen.
We know that all over this sport, people have their doubts about this team's bullpen and lineup. But that, said the same scout, "is where starting pitching comes in. That's the name of this game right now. And the Mets have it."
It was just one short season ago that this very team won 102 games and, at one point, got to 46 games over .500. But flip the calendar, and what do you find? That this year's Phillies actually have a losing record (28-31). OK, want to know how rare that is?
In the history of baseball, only two teams have won at least 102 games one season and finished with a losing season the next -- the 1970-71 Reds and the 1993-94 Giants. And those Giants barely count, because they were only five games under .500 when the strike of 1994 so rudely interrupted their season with 47 games to go.
But last year's Phillies resemble this year's Phillies about as closely as Danny DeVito resembles George Clooney. And the proof can be found in the records of the two biggest aces in their galaxy of aces -- Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.
Since April 16, those two guys have made 15 starts -- and have ONE win. And the Phillies have gone 4-11 in those 15 starts. That's a .267 winning percentage -- barely higher than the worst team of modern times, the '62 Mets (.250).
Now obviously, won-lost records often tell us less about how pitchers are really pitching than their horoscopes. And that's happened with both of these men, whose records have been sabotaged by the Phillies' bullpen and lineup mediocrity.
Nevertheless, this team was 1-7 in Halladay's last eight starts before he headed for the disabled list. Yep, 1 and 7. And Lee, not through much fault of his own, has no wins all season. In nine starts. Yep, nine.
So ask yourself this: How the heck did that happen?
"If you had told me that this spring," one scout said, "I would never have believed that -- not in 10 million years."
At least there's one thing we all could agree on when this season started: The Rays were the best defensive team in baseball.
After all, they were coming off a year in which they allowed the fewest unearned runs in the American League, committed the fewest errors in baseball and blew away the competition in every modern defensive metric known to mankind. And that was nothing new. They'd been spinning off that same defensive excellence for four years.
So this year, naturally
• The Rays have allowed 31 unearned runs, tied with Baltimore for most in the American League. They allowed 37 all last season.
• They've committed 50 errors already, the third-most in baseball. That puts them on a 142-error pace -- nearly double the 73 they committed last season.
• And although they continue to make plays other team teams don't, thanks to their 8,000 outside-the-box defensive alignments, not all the modern metrics treat these Rays kindly. According to FanGraphs, they rank 29th in refined zone rating and 29th in ErrR (runs saved or lost because of errors).
"It's a virus we have to get rid of," quipped their manager/choreographer, Joe Maddon, the other day. "We need some kind of infield antibiotic."
Ah, but that's not all they need. They also need to get Evan Longoria healthy. (They've started five different third basemen since he got hurt.) They need to upgrade at catcher ("Everybody knows they don't have a catcher," says one scout) and shortstop ("Sean Rodriguez," says another scout, "is a second or third baseman playing short"). And much as they love Ben Zobrist, he sure does grade out a lot better in the outfield than at second (where he has a messy minus-45 UZR/150, according to FanGraphs).
"I know they're trying to make up every inch of offense they can [by moving players around]," said one scout who covers the Rays. "But the trouble with that is, it's going to catch up with you in other areas."
The White Sox
Finally, let's reflect on what most of the planet thought of the White Sox coming into this season: a lineup full of swing-and-miss question marks. A bullpen in disarray. A manager (Robin Ventura) who had never managed and hadn't been around the major leagues a whole lot the past seven years. And a team that looked like an excellent bet to be selling off many famous household names in July.
All right, now let's review what's actually happened, in real life:
In the past month, that lineup full of question marks has scored the most runs in the major leagues (148 in 26 games since May 8). A bullpen that has ripped through four different closers (if you count Chris Sale, who was considered "the closer" for maybe 30 seconds last month) has blown a ninth-inning lead just once since April 16. The manager has been a stabilizing force in the post-Ozzie Guillen era. And that team everybody wrote off was the first juggernaut in baseball to rip off a nine-game winning streak this year, and has led the AL Central for the past week and a half.
#49 Starting Pitcher
Chicago White Sox
So who saw all that coming?
"I don't think anybody thought that, including all the White Sox," says one NL executive.
"I thought they'd be a team that was going to sell off pieces and build for the future," says another. "That's what I was told they were going to do all winter and all spring."
But in the game of baseball, this is why they play out the schedule. Maybe it's true that the White Sox weren't sure what to make of their team. But they also knew they had a roster full of veteran players who had had success in the past and underperformed last year. And they knew they had some intriguing young talents like Sale, new closer Addison Reed and emerging monster masher Dayan Viciedo.
So "from the start of spring training," their assistant GM, Rick Hahn, wrote in an email, "everyone -- the staff, the players -- expected more than we got in the past and to exceed many of the dire predictions that were out there for us. Robin and his staff established very early on that the focus would be on winning our next game, as opposed to anything that had happened in the past, and the players have carried on that approach through the first couple of months."
They recognize, obviously, that they have 105 games left, so nothing is guaranteed. But we'd like to thank the White Sox -- not to mention the Orioles, the Dodgers and all those other teams in this opus -- for summing up the many reasons that April predictions are approximately as worthless as Eastern Airlines stock.
No matter what we think we've figured out, the game of baseball writes its own scripts. And that, of course, is why we love it -- even if those scripts are always conspiring to make us look like the king of the idiots.
Ready to Rumble
• If you spend much time rummaging through Rumor Central -- and frankly, who doesn't? -- you might think the Padres are already auctioning off Carlos Quentin on eBay. But meanwhile, in the real world, GM Josh Byrnes talks like a man who's as interested in signing Quentin as dealing him.
"The truth is, he's exactly what we need," Byrnes said. "We need his home run production in the middle of the order. And I think his intensity is something we really need. So we're not looking to trade him in mid-June. We're definitely open to keeping him around beyond this year."
On one hand, Quentin's free-agent countdown clock is ticking, with less than four months to go. And it's hard for any team to ignore that he's made so many visits to the disabled list (five in five years), he could be a tour guide. He's already missed 49 games this year after knee surgery. And if the Padres are on the fence about moving him, they have to be tempted by the knowledge he'd be the most alluring power bat on the market.
On the other hand, Quentin already has reminded the Padres why they traded for him, by going 13-for-his-first-27 after coming off the DL. He's the first player in franchise history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, to thump nine extra-base hits in his first six games as a Padre. And his five homers are TWO more than any other Padre ever hit in his first six games. So he's proved he's one of those rare humans whose power plays in Petco Park.
But the Padres haven't approached him or agent Brodie Van Wagenen yet about Quentin's interest in sticking around, Byrnes says, because "in-season, he's playing. It's not [the time] to talk to him every day. When we're ready to talk, let's talk. But right now isn't the time. [With the team for sale] we don't even know who's writing the checks around here. So it's hard to have that conversation now."
But between now and the end of July, that conversation WILL happen. If Quentin wants to stay, and there's a new owner on the way, it's possible he isn't going anywhere. But if Quentin is determined to explore free agency, he has a month and a half to digest all the fish tacos he can eat -- because you can bet the biggest chip on the market will wind up somewhere.
• Even though the Padres are more games out of first place (18) than any other team in either league, and Byrnes concedes that "this season is probably unsalvageable," they haven't lit the FOR SALE sign yet -- on anybody.
Among the other Padres who could be in play before the deadline: Edinson Volquez, Huston Street and Chase Headley. But this club has had so many injuries, Byrnes says: "I want to see what this team looks like as it gets healthier." And even though he knows he'll be listening at some point, he's already warning the vultures: Don't expect a closeout sale.
"If we sell, it will be at very high prices," he says. "We can keep Headley and Volquez beyond this year. We want to keep Quentin. And Street has a mutual option. So I wouldn't be surprised if the prices are higher than people think."
• Clubs that have spoken with the Dodgers report that they're looking for a starting pitcher, a left-handed reliever and a bat. So they'll be busy once the selling/buying season begins. Their problem is, we haven't heard much enthusiasm over the prospects they have to deal. But they have the go-ahead to take on money. And, as one NL exec quipped, "money IS a prospect."
• Speaking of the Dodgers, Don Mattingly hears the talk that Andre Ethier's tremendous season is just a contract drive. But the manager thinks otherwise.
#16 Right Fielder
Los Angeles Dodgers
"I feel different," Mattingly said. "I'm sure there's always motivation there in that situation. I've been in that situation, where you know you have a chance to be a free agent and get a contract. So it's definitely there. That's just human nature. But to me, he's been different. He's been one of the guys. In the past, at times, there's been a little different feel there. Not this year. Maybe he's grown. He's a little older. Married. Got a couple kids. But he's definitely been a different guy. I think health has been part of it. He's not fighting that. But mostly, he's matured, as much as anything."
Mattingly says Ethier is also as focused as the manager has ever seen him: "He's not getting as frustrated by one bad at-bat. He's given away very few at-bats -- maybe 10 all year. And that's really good."
• In Jerry Crasnick's fabulous piece this week on Giancarlo Stanton, the outfielder says that getting a big contract isn't even on his radar screen yet: "I really don't care," he said, "until the time comes."
But there have been no indications from the Marlins that that time will arrive in the near future. According to one source who has discussed this topic with their front office, they've never done any deal with a young player that didn't buy out at least two free-agent years. And this regime has never signed any player to a contract longer than six years (Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes).
Stanton, on the other hand, is five years from free agency. So it would take a humongous seven-year deal to buy out his first two years of free agency. And when asked whether the Marlins would ever consider giving Stanton -- or anyone else -- a seven-year contract, the source said succinctly: "Never."
Stanton won't even be arbitration-eligible until 2014, which happens to be the last season of Ramirez's contract. Interesting timing. The Marlins are viewed as being likely to commit to one of those two long-term, but not both.
• Elsewhere on the Marlins' contract front, one NL executive says that if he were ranking the starting pitchers in this winter's free-agent market, he'd rate Anibal Sanchez as the most attractive starter who isn't named Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke. And the 28-year-old Sanchez, who has allowed two earned runs or fewer in eight of his 11 starts this year, is considered a lock to reach free agency.
The Marlins have Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Ricky Nolasco all under contract next year at a combined $36.25 million. There's even an outside shot Carlos Zambrano could vest his $19.25 million option by finishing in the top four in the Cy Young voting. So execs around the sport think there's no chance the Fish will sign another starter to an eight-figure-a-year deal.
• It doesn't appear that the Cubs have opened up their Matt Garza Shoppe yet. But he's about to become a very hot Rumor Central topic, even though it isn't certain they'll deal him. "He's going to be in very big play," one exec said. "If you overwhelm them, they'll move him. But they'll have to get so much back, they can't say no."
• Teams that have spoken with the Phillies have come away believing that GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is on a mission to get younger, after watching so many of his aging players get hurt. In a related development, folks around the minor leagues report that Phillies scouts are targeting young third basemen and center fielders, as Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino approach free agency.
• The latest on expanded replay: If you've watched the French Open, you probably wonder why baseball doesn't install the same Hawk-Eye technology that tennis uses to handle fair/foul calls. The answer is: MLB has looked into it, but because of the massive cost, it would come down to an either/or choice between replay and Hawk-Eye. And since replay can eventually be used on many more types of calls, that's the clear preference of most people inside the game. But remember, the umpires' union has to sign off on any changes, and sources say the umpires are big fans of Hawk-Eye. So the saga continues.
• By day, Don Mattingly seems like the mildest-mannered manager on Earth. But something must come over him at 7 p.m., because he's now gotten ejected three times just in the past three weeks, tying him for the 2012 major league ejections lead with Jim Leyland.
"I'm trying to get Bobby Cox's record," Mattingly said, chuckling. "How many does he have?"
Mattingly -- who's now up to six early exits in his two-season career as a manager -- was told that Cox finished with 158 ejections.
"Oh," he said. "Then I'm not going to catch him. [Knowing pause.] At least not this year."
Tweets of the Week
• It was fun enough to have 5-foot-5 mini-mite Jose Altuve lighting up the big leagues. But now we can even use him as a human tape measure, thanks to hilarious new Twitter phenomenon @HowManyAltuves. And if this tweet is any indication, don't think the Altuve tool is confined to only land:
The Gulf of Mexico contains roughly 8,494,208,494,208,494 cubic Altuves of water.
— How Many Altuves (@HowManyAltuves) June 1, 2012
• Like many of us, our ever-bemused friend Gar Ryness, the Batting Stance Guy (@BattingStanceG), got caught up in the splendor of the draft this week:
"@BattingStanceG: Congratulations 1st rounders. Most of you will be traded for Cliff Lee pretty soon."
— Capon (@ClearTheCrease) June 5, 2012
Late Nighter of the Week
Finally, from Jay Leno:
"Bottles of champagne that are 200 years old are going to be auctioned off in Finland. Apparently, they were left over from the last time the Cubs won the World Series."