Derek Jeter, Fallen Angels, and Other Early Surprises of the 2012 MLB Season
After a 2011 Major League Baseball season that left us amazed, confounded and breathless for seven months, Opening Day 2012 couldn't get here fast enough.
There were huge free-agent signings in the off-season (Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder among the largest), risky managerial appointments (Mike Matheny in St. Louis and Robin Ventura with the White Sox top that list), and the promise of amazingly talented rookies ready for their first full year in the majors (Matt Moore, Brett Lawrie, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout won't disappoint).
Of course, it's still early in 2012 and with "Warning: Small Sample Size" announcements abound, there are some real surprises in the first month of the baseball season.
Here are the Top 10 surprises in the MLB through the first month of the 2012 season.
10. Jamie Moyer: Oldest Winning Pitcher in Baseball History
On April 17, Jamie Moyer became the oldest pitcher in baseball history to record a win at 49 years, 150 days old, beating an old record which had stood, incredibly, since 1932.
While we have sad memories of historic geriatric hurlers like the Niekro brothers who appeared to be in their seventies, Moyer doesn't look a day over 38 and doesn't even rely on the aging and ineffective pitcher's last hope, the fabled knuckleball, to get grown men out.
It was also the 268th win of Moyer's long career, which tied him with the illustrious Jim Palmer, the pitcher-turned-pitchman. Moyer threw a tidy seven innings against the San Diego Padres and didn't even need a nap afterward.
Rumor has it the Hall of Fame requested Moyer's uniform, glove and half-empty tube of hemorrhoid cream. Just kidding on that last one.
And in case you mortals think anyone can climb off the couch and throw a baseball 78 miles-per-hour, eighty five people tried to win free tickets from the Fort Myers Miracle, a Class A Minnesota Twins affiliate. The contest: Think you can throw harder than Jamie Moyer?
Professionals really do make it look easy, don't they?
9. Cardinals and Rangers: First World Series Rematch Since 1978
Early indications are that is exactly what is going to happen.
The Cardinals and Rangers are clearly the class of their respective leagues. Both teams are among the best in baseball in both run production and pitching.
The Rangers are mashing their way through the early schedule with a 15-5 record and a MLB-best +51 run differential. The Cardinals are not far behind, sporting a 13-7 record and an NL-best +50 run differential.
This would be the first World Series rematch since 1978 when the Yankees beat the Dodgers in both the '77 and '78 Series. We can assume that FOX would prefer to see the teams featured in those World Series tilts, but this is a new era and these "flyover states" sure do like themselves some baseball, uh-yup.
8. Houston, We Have Some Offense
After an abysmal season in 2011 in which the Houston Astros ranked 26th out of 30 MLB teams in runs scored (alongside other lightweights like the Padres, Giants, Mariners and Twins) most pundits had them pegged for dead last in the mediocre NL Central.
To add insult to injury, one must also note that the Astros play in an "offensive" ballpark—unlike the other teams—whose home parks cause fly balls to fall out of the sky like wounded ducks.
But through 19 games in 2012 the Astros are eighth in runs scored, one behind the competitive Tampa Bay Rays. In addition, the Astros 8-12 record is extremely misleading as they have scored 10 more runs than they have surrendered—a run differential almost as good as the 14-6 Dodgers.
J.D. Martinez is leading the offense with 19 RBI and the team is giving Houstonians a reason to stay awake at Orange-Juice-from-Concentrate Field.
7. Lynn-Sanity: MLB's First Four-Game Winner
When the Cardinals brought up Lance Lynn in 2011 for two spot starts and some middle relief work to help shore up a bullpen that was in a shambles, they didn't want to overwhelm the tender 23-year-old by giving him too much responsibility (and that is probably the first time a 250-pound man-child has been called "tender" before).
After all, Lynn only sported an average 90-mph fastball in the minors and certainly wasn't an elite prospect with Triple-A ERAs of 3.84 and 4.77 for the Cardinals' Memphis Redbirds affiliate.
But something magical happened to Lynn in that bullpen late in 2011. He quickly began to excel in the setup role for Tony La Russa and in needing only three to six outs, he was able to bring more heat to his repertoire. Anywhere from five to seven more miles of heat per hour to be precise.
Lynn has taken that fastball and confidence back to the starter's role in the wake of Chris Carpenter's injury and the end result is likely even better than if they had the former Cy Young winner on hand: A 4-0 record, 1.33 ERA, 16 hits in 27 innings and a 4-1 K/BB ratio.
6. Yoenis Cespedes: Cuban Missile Yet to Be Grounded
Baseball scouts, GMs, fans and probably George Steinbrenner's ghost began drooling over the obvious physical talents of the still raw Cespedes following his 20-minute workout video on YouTube.
He began his MLB career by striking out 13 times in his first eight games, but he also showed production capability by driving in seven runs. Some were quick to wonder if Cespedes would have benefited from some time in the minors, but as a guy making $9 million per year for the Oakland A's, the only way he leaves the club is to bring four prospects in return.
Cespedes has now struck out just five times in his last eight games and has 18 RBI overall on the season while slugging .507 in his early MLB career. The lowly A's may have an All-Star on their hands.
5. MLB's Best Pitching Staff: The Washington Ex-Expos
Those NL East bullies with the 14-6 record and the best pitching staff ERA in baseball at 2.25 are threatening to make some real noise this year. Sure, the team is only ranked 25th in runs scored, but great pitching covers a multitude of injuries and inconsistencies on the offensive side of the clubhouse.
Wait, you thought we were referring to the Phillies? Oh, no, no, no. We are talking about the high-flying Washington Nationals, of course. It turns out that Jayson Werth did know what he was doing after all.
Much like how the NFL is considered a quarterback's league, this era of professional baseball is all about the man on the mound.
And while Washington waits for injured bats to return and struggling bats to heat up, its starting pitchers (Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Stephen Strasburg, Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmerman) have a collective 8-3 record with 113 Ks in 123.3 innings pitched and are averaging the fastest pitch speed of any staff since FanGraphs.com began keeping velocity records in 2002.
Their "average" fastball: 93.4 mph. Don't blink.
With the Phillies in decline the Braves figure to be the most likely club to win the NL East, but great pitching can neutralize great hitting. We will be watching the Nats with much interest this year.
4. Milwaukee's Pitchers Drained Already?
The Brewers were one of the hottest teams in baseball last year from mid-May to mid-June and from the end of July to early September, where their record surged from 55-49 to 85-57. The backbone of their franchise-record win total of 96 was their starting pitching staff.
The Brew Crew finished with the ninth-best ERA in the majors at 3.63, receiving at least 30 starts from four starters (and 28 from Zack Greinke who was injured at the beginning of the season). Their consistent pitching, balanced with an offense that finished 11th in baseball in runs scored, ensured that no team in the Central would catch them.
My, how things can change in a year.
The ERAs of Yovani Gallardo (6.08), Randy Wolf (7.17), and Chris Narveson (7.00) are hide-your-eyes-awful and Shawn Marcum (4.13) and Zack Greinke (4.56) have been average to below-average. Throw in four bullpen pitchers who all have an ERA over 5.00 and you get a pitching staff ranked 28th out of 30 teams at 5.32.
One has to wonder if it will be another 30 years before Milwaukee takes another division crown.
3. Fallen Angels Unable to Take Flight on Offense
The AL West stole most of baseball's Hot Stove thunder over the winter as the Rangers added ace Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish while the Angels went on a spending spree to land former MVP Albert Pujols and former Rangers ace C.J. Wilson.
The Angels didn't need a first baseman, but what Angels owner Arte Moreno wants Arte Moreno gets, and the team signed a slugger already on a three-year decline to a 10-year contract who nearly tied the NL record for grounding into double plays in 2011.
And they moved a promising Mark Trumbo to play third to accommodate "The Machine," a position where the young player has looked particularly uneasy on defense.
And they plugged said aging slugger into the three hole to "anchor" an offense that already seemed too deep.
And now the Angels find themselves 9 games back of first-place Texas, in last place at 6-14.
Pujols, recently released Bobby Abreu and Kendrys Morales have one home run between them. The team's best hitter, Trumbo, can't get into the lineup on a regular basis. The team is batting .245 with an OPS of .666.
Even if Pujols recovers and has an All-Star season—let's say .300-30-100—this is just year one of a ten year deal. The Angels may already feel like they have to dodge a bullet in year one and hope that Pujols isn't in a full-on decline.
2. Matt Kemp: Somehow Even Better Than Last Year?
Matt Kemp should have been the NL MVP in 2011. He was, in short, a force. Ryan Braun was also a force, just not to the same extent and with a much better team around him.
Sometimes, disappointment can be a valuable motivator.
Kemp was sublime in 2011, ranking first in HR (39), RBI (126) and third in batting average (.324). That's about as close to a Triple Crown as you can get. Even the Royal Family would be jealous of that.
Throw in 40 stolen bases, a Gold Glove, the top OPS+ (171), runs total (115), and total bases (353) and it's almost better than any MVP season Albert Pujols sported, especially when considering the down offensive period baseball is currently in and the fact that Dodger Stadium is no hitter's paradise.
Which brings us to Matt Kemp and his 10 home runs and .452 batting average on April 28, 2012.
So when Matt Kemp predicts that he will get 50 home runs and 50 stolen bases (a first in baseball history) and he busts out of the gate like this, you have a story line to follow for the entire summer.
Given, he only has one stolen base so far in 2012.
It's too bad he can't back up his big talk with some production on the field, right? Please note the sarcasm.
1. Derek Jeter: "I Feel Like a Phoenix Rising from Arizona!"
Hopefully you can forgive me for the Frank Costanza quote from Seinfeld.
One of the most compelling performances in professional sports is when an aging star is somehow able to reach down and pull out one more stellar season to pad their career resume. And not even for the stats, but for a chance for us to remember just how good they were.
I think of my favorite player growing up, Will Clark, being traded from the lowly Baltimore Orioles to the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of 2000 to play first base. Will the Thrill immediately did just that for the Cards, batting .345 in nearly 200 at bats, clubbing 12 home runs, and finishing with the highest slugging percentage and OPS of his career.
He hit a three-run home run off lefty Tom Glavine in the NLDS and batted .412 against the Mets in the NLCS before calling it a career.
No one knows how much Derek Jeter has left in the tank, but it's heartening to see him turning back the clock to 1999. Jeter is hitting everything in sight, showing power again with four homers already after hitting just six in 546 at bats last year.
With the Yankees pitching in turmoil and the overall roster aging, even casual fans want to see if the longtime Bronx Bomber Captain can lead the Yanks to one more championship.
It's going to be a heck of a year at the old ballpark.