Predicting the 9 Biggest MLB Resurgences and Tail-Offs of the Season
After the first complete weekend of the 2012 MLB season, the baseball world boasts several exciting storylines: the Red Sox and Yankees combining for a 0-6 start for the first time since 1966, an upstart Diamondbacks team sweeping their rival Giants by decimating San Francisco's stellar pitching staff punchout of Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain, and Los Angeles Angels' first baseman Albert Pujols winding up just north of the Mendoza line after Monday's action.
While the first weekend might send some of the most neurotic fans clamoring for change—suspend Ozzie Guillen, seriously?—or declaring their team of choice the best that ever was, the 2012 season is so incredibly young that if it lived to be 100 years old, Monday would mark its second birthday.
Very rarely are toddlers slated to win World Series, much less decide on a college major—okay, so maybe two-year-old Tiger Woods is the exception to the rule—but the young 2012 MLB season is anything but decided.
After all, in 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals—the team that eventually won the 2011 World Series—placed a whopping 13th in Fox Sport's Week 1 power rankings.
Still, the AL Champion-Texas Rangers had been given the No. 1 spot, giving some credence to the fine art of guesswork and predicting MLB results.
The following predictions encompass the biggest 2012 MLB resurgence campaigns and tail-off flops, wrapped delicately in a gift box with the message, "Don't open until the season's 60th birthday."
Resurgent: Yu Darvish
He might not have looked the part on Monday, but Texas pitcher Yu Darvish is on his way to MLB's pitching elite: even former Dodger Hideo Nomo struggled early on after making his way over to the Western Hemisphere from Japan.
Nomo, for the record, surrendered seven runs in just 4.2 innings of work in his second MLB start with Los Angeles. Nomo came back to earn a spot on the 1995 NL All-Star Team en route to winning the 1995 NL Rookie of the Year Award.
Expect similar from Darvish, whose chances might be helped more than Nomo's by virtue of the team for which Darvish plays. Even though Darvish surrendered five earned runs in just 5.2 innings of work Monday, his Rangers slugged away for 11 runs and a six-run debut victory for the import arm.
Tail-Off: Barry Zito
As the Diamondbacks finished pummeling the San Francisco Giants over the weekend, Bay Area fans came to the sobering realization that ace Tim Lincecum and touted hurlers Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain had collectively been lit up for 14 runs in just 15.1 innings pitched: Bruce Bochy didn't appreciate that fact one bit, getting ejected while arguing a clearly correct call on Sunday, the first MLB ejection of 2012.
On Monday, Barry Zito continued San Francisco's bizzaro-world, throwing his first shutout since 2003 and the first opening day shutout of the Colorado Rockies in the history of Coors Field.
Nonetheless, something's got to give. Lincecum, Bumgarner and Cain will not all collectively fail and Zito will not suddenly become the pitcher he was over six years ago when he was still in Oakland.
Zito hasn't had an ERA under 4.03 since 2006, and most notably, his average against hasn't seen the .220s since 2005, which was also the last season his WHIP was 1.20 or less.
Expect a true role reversal in San Francisco—Lincecum, Bumgarner and Cain will prove themselves worthy of the Nos. 1-3 spot in the rotation, while Zito will eventually taper off and legitimize his placement as a lower starter.
Resurgent: Jonathan Papelbon
Sept. 28, 2011: Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon blows a one-run lead before surrendering a game-winning, walk-off single to the Baltimore Orioles, preserving a Red Sox defeat and helping catapult the Tampa Bay Rays into the playoffs. As far as Game 162s go, the final day of the 2011 season was unforgettable.
Yet Phillies fans are hoping Papelbon will forget—and sooner rather than later.
With a 2011 strikeout percentage of 32.5—highest since 2007—and walk percentage of 3.8—lowest since 2008—Papelbon's 2011 campaign was far more than the epic Red Sox collapse that he only played a small part in.
With a 2011 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) of 1.79—his lowest ever—Papelbon very likely is still on his way up, even though he already reached the top in Boston months and potentially years ago.
Now in Philadelphia, Papelbon might take a few months to gain his bearings, but the numbers suggest a resurgence for the North Eastern pitcher.
Tail-Off: Manny Ramirez
Manny Ramirez will once again fall off the face of the earth, having really suffered ever since his first failed drug test and mandatory 50-game MLB suspension.
Now that Manny is serving another 50 games, the Oakland Athletics will have to act fast or else risk atrophying what little Ramirez has left to offer.
When Ramirez abruptly announced his Favre-style retirement in 2011, he had compiled just one hit in 17 at bats with the Tampa Bay Rays, scoring an OPS significantly lower than the batting average's Mendoza line.
Ramirez might be ready to earn a spot with Oakland, but once he arrives, it is very doubtful Ramirez will return to the best days of his career.
Resurgent: Josh Hamilton
With Rangers left fielder Josh Hamilton's renewed passion for all things baseball—not to mention that 2012 is a contract year—the slugger is poised to revive his 2010 performance, during which he hit .359 with a 1.044 OPS, 32 HR, 40 doubles and an even 100 RBI.
Though Hamilton might already be 5-for-11 in early 2012, most significantly, he looks comfortable at the plate and looks in his element, a picture not always seen in 2011.
The early 2012 returns are striking—a 1.144 OPS that features a .727 slugging percentage—though the numbers are not the end-all.
Where numbers and sabermetrics fail, the human element kicks in: if Hamilton continues keeping his focus on the field and stays the course, he is in for another monster season.
Tail-Off: Pirates Fail to Finish Above .500
After returning most key players and bringing in Clint Barmes, Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett, the Pittsburgh Pirates might just break their sub-.500 streak in 2012—as long as you use MLB's Opening Weekend to compute that.
This is a team that has already shown potential—on July 25 2011, the club reached a record of 53-47 before once again falling off the charts to finish 72-90.
Why should that be any different this year?
True, it might require another rally-killer from Jerry Meals, but the Pirates have continually shown a unique propensity to fall off the NL East radar at some point during the season.
Whether the Pirates finish above the .500-mark is a question that has been asked for years and years and years, but similar to the Chicago Cubs' perpetual inability to win a World Series, this is a question that ends with the same unfortunate response every single time.
Maybe next year.
Resurgent: Chad Billingsley
Unlike Barry Zito's stunner of a 2012 debut, Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley's surprise no-run outing during the new season's infancy suggests a resurgence in the wings for the 28-year-old righty from Defiance, Ohio.
And just as the name of his birthplace might indicate, the LA starter is already a far cry from the 12-11 soul he was in 2009 and again in 2010 (and 11-11 in 2011). Instead, Billingsley's first 2012 start suggests an eventual return to the numbers he put up in 2007 and 2008, with ERAs in the low three-range and a 2008 strikeout total above the 200-mark.
So what did Bills do this weekend to suggest such a drastic change?
Well, that's exactly what he did—he "changed."
A traditionally fourseam fastball, cutter and sinker pitcher, Billingsley did something in 2012 that he hasn't done in years—he threw significantly more change-ups (13 percent to just three percent in his career) and sliders (18 percent to just two percent in his career)—he varied speeds and established his command of the fine art of pitching.
For the record, the last Dodgers pitcher to change his approach and throw more off-speed filth was Clayton Kershaw, who tweaked his approach just in time for the 2011 season. A Cy Young Award recipient last year, there just may be something to pitching coach Rick Honeycutt's approach that has grown a ho-hum pitching staff into a contender in the pitching-intense NL West.
Tail-Off: Boston Red Sox Miss Postseason
Baseball is a numbers game, and though it's been nearly 50 years since the Red Sox and Yankees both opened with 0-3 records, this should signify absolutely nothing when it comes to predicting how the two big boys of baseball will finish the year.
Then again, the Yankees are in pretty good shape: after earning their first win of the 2012 season—a 6-2 victory over Baltimore on Monday—Yankees fans can sit back and breathe a loud sigh of relief. Derek Jeter went four-for-four, Ivan Nova pitched a two-runs-in-seven-innings performance and finally, all was right in the Bronx.
The same cannot be said for the Red Sox.
With fans still yearning to fully experience a post-Terry Francona, post-Theo Epstein world, skipper Bobby Valentine and GM Ben Cherington are still learning the Beantown ropes.
After closer Andrew Bailey fell to the MLB sidelines with a nasty bout of thumb surgery, the Sox called upon closer Alfredo Aceves, who promptly blew a huge save opportunity against Detroit on Sunday, marking the first time Boston has ever lost a game in which they had taken two multiple-run leads in the ninth inning or later.
Though Boston finally got onto the winner's list with a 4-2 advantage over Toronto on Monday, the Red Sox have considerably more than the Yankees to prove in 2012, the least of which surrounds the club's coaching staff.
Resurgent: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Return to Playoffs
Though the Angels lost two-of-three to the Kansas City Royals over the weekend, most Week 1 power rankings place the Angels in the Top 5, and for good reason: from Albert Pujols to C.J. Wilson—who had his own dominant performance during MLB's early-going—the Halos are poised to make a run in the two-team AL West.
While the Tigers, Rangers, Rays and Yankees comprise the Top 4, only the Angels have something to return to; while the other clubs all made the playoffs last season, the Angels have been shut out ever since the Rangers started winning AL Pennants.
After winning the 2002 World Series, the Angels saw the 2002 runner-up San Francisco Giants win it all in 2010, while the Halos haven't returned to the promised land since that last year of Walt Disney Company ownership.
With Mike Scioscia still at the helm—and penciled in for six more years there—the Angels have had time to be patient, but now with Pujols and Wilson aboard, GM Jerry Dipoto has put his foot on the gas and set course for a mid-September's clash with rival Texas.
That second Wild Card slot and ace-on-command Jered Weaver don't especially hurt the Angels' postseason chances, either.