MLB: The 40 Biggest Storylines of the 2012 Season

Cody SwartzSenior Writer IAugust 8, 2012

MLB: The 40 Biggest Storylines of the 2012 Season

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    Before the season, not many people could have predicted what would end up being the top storylines of the 2012 major league campaign.

    The offseason saw a slew of changes—Albert Pujols went to the Los Angeles Angles of Anaheim, Prince Fielder signed with the Detroit Tigers, and the Florida Marlins changed their team, their logo and their manager and went on an offseason shopping spree.

    Yet there have been some surprises in 2012, with some of the game’s best players seemingly coming out of nowhere and some of the best teams shocking the world with their strong starts.

40. Daniel Bard Suffers

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    Daniel Bard has been one of the game’s best setup men over the past several seasons, having posting a 2.88 ERA, a 2.80 strikeout to walk ratio, and a ridiculous 6.0 H/9 rate since 2009.

    With Jonathan Papelbon headed to Philadelphia in the offseason for a four-year, $50 million deal, it seemed logical that the Boston Red Sox would move Bard to the closer role. But the Red Sox were determined to make Bard a starter, and it’s probably safe to say that move backfired.

    Bard has struggled immensely, to the tune of a 5.24 ERA and frightening 6.1 walk rate, and the Red Sox demoted him to the minors where he has completely failed to regain his form: Bard has had a 6.31 ERA in 24 appearances. In 25.2 innings on the mound, he’s walked 20, hit seven batters and thrown nine wild pitches. That’s downright scary.

39. Japanese/Cuban Imports

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    Yu Darvish started hot, winning his first four major league starts and earning a spot on the AL All-Star team. He’s cooled off recently, and he’s really going to have to work on his control before he becomes an ace (his 74 walks are the second-most in the league), but he has the stuff to become a superstar.

    Meanwhile, Yoenis Cespedes started slowly, hitting just .244 as late as early June, but he’s brought that mark up to over .300. Along with his batting average, Cespedes is a 20-20 threat and he’s helped the Oakland Athletics to remain in contention in the AL West.

38. Jered Weaver: MLB’s Best Pitcher

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    Before the season, most people probably would have picked Justin Verlander (reigning AL MVP) or Roy Halladay (two-time Cy Young award winner) as the game’s best pitcher.

    Jered Weaver has done his best this season to take the title of Best Pitcher in Baseball, although I don’t think enough people seem to be aware of his ridiculous winning percentage. Weaver is 15-1 so far, and he leads the American League in ERA (2.13), WHIP (0.916), hits allowed per nine innings (6.4) and adjusted ERA (175), and he has a chance to become the second AL pitcher in as many years to win the league MVP award.

37. Ernesto Frieri’s Hitless Streak

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    The San Diego Padres quietly traded Ernesto Frieri to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim earlier this season, even though Frieri had accumulated ERAs of 1.71, 2.71 and 2.31 in three years with the team.

    With the Angels, Frieri became absolutely unhittable and pitched a hitless frame in his first 13 appearances with the team. During that span, he did not allow a run and struck out a ridiculous 27 batters among the 50 he faced, and his team went 12-1 in games in which he pitched. For the season so far, Frieri is 1-0 with a 2.00 ERA in 45 innings, and he’s allowed just 23 hits in 45 innings while whiffing 73 batters.

36. Roger Clemens Trial

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    I’m tired of hearing about Roger Clemens, but the fact that he was completely acquitted of all charges is absolutely shocking.

    I guess that means we’re all wrong about the steroids. If Clemens said he didn’t use them, I’m sure he didn’t. After all, he has a great track record of being a perfect role model and great teammate, and it’s perfectly natural for a man in his mid-thirties to suddenly gain four to five miles per hour on his fastball and win four Cy Young awards, all at the age of 35 or older.

    Ridiculous.

35. Moneyball A’s

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    The Oakland Athletics were just 74-88 last year, and they were supposed to be probably even worse this year. Yet surprisingly, they’re in the hunt for the wild card in the American League, and it’s because of their very smart spending.

    The A’s are getting the most out of Bartolo Colon on a $2 million deal (9-8, 3.39 ERA, 1.4 walk rate), and guys like Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker, Brandon McCarthy and Travis Blackley are shining in the rotation, while the ‘pen is solid with Ryan Cook, Grant Balfour, Jerry Blevins, Jordan Norberto and Jim Miller. If they make the playoffs, GM Billy Beane gets a lot of credit for squeezing the most out of this team.

34. Craig Kimbrel’s Lights out Season

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    I recently ranked Craig Kimbrel as the best relief pitcher in all of major league baseball, and he’s having a season for the ages. Or you could just say, a typical Kimbrel season.

    Kimbrel has a 1.29 ERA, a 15.6 strikeout rate per nine innings, a 3.6 hit rate and 0.667 WHIP that are pretty much video game numbers. He’s saved 31 games already, and he’s a big part of an Atlanta Braves team that could make a deep playoff run.

33. Vladimir Guerrero/Manny Ramirez Comeback Attempts

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    Both former superstars were given another chance to play baseball this season, but neither really made the most of it.

    Vladimir Guerrero was signed to a minor league deal by the Toronto Blue Jays, but he then asked for and was granted his release because he wanted to play in the majors. He never got a call to do so, and it looks like Vlad has reached the end.

    Meanwhile, Manny Ramirez played well at the Triple-A level (.302) for the Oakland Athletics, but then he asked for his release and was given it. Like Guerrero, he has not been signed to another deal.

32. Chipper Jones’ Final Run

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    It’s tough not to respect a guy like Chipper Jones, who has been a Hall of Fame player for nearly two decades for the same city.

    Jones has said that he will retire after the season, but he’s still putting up good numbers even at the age of 40. He’s hitting .320 with a .395 on-base percentage and .514 slugging percentage, and his 143 adjusted OPS is his highest since 2008.

31. Ichiro Suzuki Traded to the New York Yankees

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    The only reason that the trade that sent Ichiro Suzuki to the New York Yankees is not higher on this list is because there was really no buildup to it: It just happened, and all of a sudden, Ichiro went from being a lifetime member of the Seattle Mariners to wearing the pinstripes.

    Suzuki actually is not doing too well with the Yankees—he’s hitting just .259 with a .656 OPS, very similar numbers to his .261 and .642 marks with the Mariners earlier this season—but he’s the kind of veteran player that could have a huge impact on the team down the stretch.

30. Philadelphia Phillies Trade Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence

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    The Philadelphia Phillies overhauled their roster this July by trading away All-Star outfielders Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence.

    Victorino was in the final year of his contract, and the team sent him to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a reliever and a Double-A starting pitcher. Pence still had all of 2013, though, under team control, but the $14.3 million he would have made in arbitration would be a lot for the Phillies to pay, so they shipped him to the San Francisco Giants, just a year after acquiring him.

29. Mathematically-Defying Baltimore Orioles

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    Someone explain to me how a team that has been outscored by over 50 runs this season and has sent nearly every starting pitcher to Triple-A at one point or another in 2012 can be eight games over .500 and still in the AL playoff race.

    The hot season by Adam Jones has certainly helped, and the fact that the Baltimore Orioles are 12-2 in extra-inning games and 22-6 in one-run games have played a major role in their inflated record.

28. Southside Southpaws

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    The Chicago White Sox have gotten tremendous performances from two very under the radar left-handed starters on their team, Chris Sale and Jose Quintana.

    Sale is 13-3 with a 2.59 ERA, and he’s posting a 3.90 strikeout to walk ratio that earned him an All-Star appearance in his first year in the rotation after two highly successful years in the bullpen.

    Meanwhile, Quintana is 4-1 with a 2.80 ERA through 12 starts, and he’s displayed excellent control with a 1.6 walk rate. That’s phenomenal for a 23-year old that was initially signed by the New York Mets as an undrafted free agent back in 2006.

27. Ryan Howard/Chase Utley Injuries

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    Much of the blame for the Philadelphia Phillies’ awful season can be attributed to the injuries sustained by Ryan Howard and Chase Utley that caused both players to miss nearly half of the year.

    Howard tore his Achilles tendon in the final swing of the 2011 Phillies season, and it was expected that he would miss a great portion of 2012 while rehabbing from his injury.

    Meanwhile, Utley dealt with another bout of patellar tendinitis—this time in both knees—and he himself did not see the field until June.

26. The Quest for Zack Greinke

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    Zack Greinke was not on the same level as Cole Hamels, but many teams were interested in the soon-to-be free-agent pitcher, who will likely command a $100 million salary once the offseason hits.

    Greinke made it clear he did not want to stay in Milwaukee, calling it a business decision when he was eventually traded to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

    Greinke is just 0-1 with a 5.14 ERA in two starts with the Angels, but he will settle down and pick up his numbers down the stretch, and he has a good chance to help LA win a World Series in October.

25. Andrew McCutchen: NL’s Best Player?

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    Once Albert Pujols signed with an American League team, the honor for the NL’s best player became up for grabs, and Andrew McCutchen is doing his best to grab that title.

    McCutchen is a true five-tool franchise player if there ever was one, and he’s hitting a ridiculous .369 with a .628 slugging percentage and 194 adjusted OPS, all of which lead the National League. Add in 23 home runs, 69 RBIs, 14 stolen bases, and he rates as the league’s best overall player according to WAR.

24. The Houston Astros’ Firesale

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    Good luck recognizing anyone on the Houston Astros these days. The team traded away Carlos Lee, Brett Myers, Brandon Lyon, Wandy Rodriguez, and J.A. Happ, and that’s probably a big reason why they’re dead-last in the MLB standings, a pitiful 5.5 games less than that of the Colorado Rockies, the next-worst team.

    The Astros have lost 26 of their last 30 games, completing one of the worst Julys of all-time, and they’re an absurd 0-11 in extra inning contests.

23. The Resurgence of Adam Dunn

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    Adam Dunn certainly is not hitting anything close to the .159 mark with 11 home runs that he put up all of last year. What he is doing however is putting up the single most unbelievable three true outcome season that the game has ever seen.

    Dunn is batting .206/.342/.482 with 31 home runs and 75 RBIs. While it’s great that his power is back, he’s got to be the most frustrating hitter to watch—he’s struck  out or walked in over half of his plate appearances this season, and considering he’s already at 160 strikeouts through 108 games, he’s a pretty safe bet to break Mark Reynolds’ single-season mark of 223.

22. Injured Closers

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    Mariano Rivera gets his own chapter in here, which I will address later, but there have been a slew of closers this year that have gotten injured.

    Joakim Soria and Brian Wilson underwent season-ending surgeries, and Drew Storen and Andrew Bailey have missed significant action. Ryan Madson has not thrown a pitch with Cincinnati (and won’t if they decline his option for 2013), and Matt Capps has missed extensive time with the Minnesota Twins as well.

21. Matt Kemp’s Impact

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    Matt Kemp has followed up his amazing 2011 with an equally impressive 2012, and he’s proving his true value to the Los Angeles Dodgers, fresh off a $160 million contract extension.

    Kemp is hitting .344/.415/.633 with 16 home runs in 248 plate appearances, and the Dodgers are 35-24 when he plays and just 24-28 when he doesn’t.

20. Kevin Youkilis Gets Traded

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    The Boston Red Sox shipped away longtime infielder Kevin Youkilis to the other Sox team, despite how Youkilis was hitting just .233 with a .692 OPS in 42 games for the Red Sox, and despite how he was in the final year of his four-year contract.

    Youkilis is doing remarkably better with the White Sox, as he’s at .260 with nine home runs and a .895 OPS, and he tore it up in his first series against his old team—hitting .417 (5-for-12) with two doubles, a home run and a 1.295 OPS.

19. Aroldis Chapman

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    Aroldis Chapman is one of the most unhittable pitchers that the game has ever seen when he’s on. In his first 29 innings this season, he didn’t give up a single earned run. He allowed just seven hits and struck out 52 of the 106 batters he faced. Batters posted a .255 OPS against him.

    He’s changed some since then, but still a 1.34 ERA, 4.0 hit rate and 16.8 strikeout rate have him in line for some serious Cy Young votes.

18. Ryan Braun’s Almost-Suspension

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    Ryan Braun had an interesting offseason, first winning the NL MVP award after his fabulous 2011 campaign and then testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs that brought with it a 50-game suspension.

    Braun somehow managed to have the suspension overturned, and he’s followed it up with an equally impressive ’12 season. Braun is hitting .307 a league-leading 29 home runs plus 19 stolen bases and a .972 OPS.

17. Jamie Moyer: The Ageless Wonder

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    What an interesting year for 49-year-old Jamie Moyer. He signed a minor league deal with the Colorado Rockies and won a spot in spring training as the No. 2 pitcher in the big league rotation.

    After struggling for eight starts (2-5, 5.70 ERA), Moyer was released. He then signed with the Baltimore Orioles and then with the Toronto Blue Jays after he was released from the Orioles. Moyer was released from the Blue Jays and remains on the unemployment list, but there’s always a chance that someone could sign him again.

16. Disappointing Miami Marlins

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    The Miami Marlins went all-in for 2012—a new team name, a new logo, a new manager, a new ballpark and three big free-agent acquisitions in Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, and Mark Buehrle.

    That backfired though, as the Marlins are 50-60 and buried in the NL East. Bell has had a miserable season as a closer and Buerhle is not worth anything close to the kind of money that the team is paying him. It got bad enough that the Marlins shipped longtime franchise player Hanley Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers right before the trade deadline.

15. Perfect Games

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    Just like 2010, two pitchers threw perfect games—first Phillip Humber and then Matt Cain. You get bonus points if you predicted, before the season, that Humber would throw one. Considering his 6.14 ERA, it’s tough to even remember that it happened.

    Cain though has all but taken the baton from Tim Lincecum for the title of the best pitcher on his team, and his perfect game was a beauty, as he struck out 14 batters.

    Johan Santana also deserves to be mentioned for his 134-pitch no-hitter, and don’t forget the no-hitter by Jered Weaver or the team effort from the Seattle Mariners.

14. Tim Lincecum Struggles

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    Tim Lincecum has been one of the game’s best pitchers since debuting in the league, winning two Cy Young awards and leading the NL in strikeouts three straight years.

    That’s why Lincecum’s 2012 season has been so shocking. He’s currently just 6-11 with a 5.43 ERA, and he’s leading the NL with 78 earned runs allowed and 13 wild pitches thrown. Lincecum is walking more batters than last year (4.3/9), but his strikeouts are up too (9.7/9), and much of his season can be attributed to bad luck. (He has a .323 BABIP, and his 3.82 FIP is not too much higher than last year’s mark of 3.17.)

13. Cliff Lee’s Winless Streak

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    Like Tim Lincecum, Cliff Lee has had a truly odd season. He is just 2-6 through 19 starts, which put him on pace for three or four wins this year.

    Yet Lee really has not pitched that bad; in fact, he’s pitched pretty well. Lee has a 5.17 strikeout to walk ratio that ranks second-best in the National League. His 1.62 walk rate is fourth-best, and he’s contributed 2.5 WAR to the Philadelphia Phillies.

    He’s managed to somehow accumulate only two wins, and he did not pick up his first win until July 4, believe it or not. This year, the Phillies are just 3-6 when Lee gives up two or fewer earned runs.

12. Boston Red Sox Injuries

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    The Boston Red Sox have been one of the league’s more disappointing teams, but they really can use the injury excuse.

    They have had 27 DL stints from their players this year, the third-most of any baseball team in the last 25 years.

    Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury have missed much of the season, and the other starting outfielder Ryan Sweeney just broke his hand. Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz have spent time on the disabled list, as have Josh Beckett (twice), Daisuke Matsuzaka (of course), John Lackey (all year) and Clay Buchholz.

11. The Pittsburgh Pirates

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    The Pittsburgh Pirates have a good chance to make the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. A.J. Burnett was a tremendous acquisition, as he’s 14-3 with a 3.19 ERA. James McDonald is 10-5 with a 3.42 ERA, and the bullpen has been terrific, led by two-time All-Star Joel Hanrahan.

    Andrew McCutchen has been spectacular, as I noted earlier, but so have players like Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez. Considering how the Pirates are 15 games over .500, there’s a pretty good chance that they make the playoffs.

10. Mariano Rivera’s Injury

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    After 16 fabulous seasons with the New York Yankees, Mariano Rivera suffered a devastating ACL injury earlier in the year when he was shagging fly balls in the outfield before a game.

    Rivera has said he will definitely come back as opposed to retiring, and he thinks he may even play this year. But it’s been weird seeing other pitchers close games for the Yankees, after seeing the same No. 42 year after year.

9. First Place Washington Nationals

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    The Washington Nationals are not just a fluke; they’re a really good team. Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman can hold their own against any 1-2-3 punch in baseball. Drew Storen (when healthy) is a terrific closer, and they made a great decision when they called up 19-year old Bryce Harper from Triple-A.

    The Nationals have the major leagues’ best overall record at 67-43—four games ahead of the Atlanta Braves—and they’re going to be a tough team to face in October.

8. Albert Pujols’ Struggles

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    After signing a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the offseason, Albert Pujols started off 2012 exactly the same way he started 2011—struggling immensely.

    Pujols was hitting .190 with a morbid .509 OPS as late as May 8, but since then he’s really turned it around. Pujols is batting .322/.394/.625 with 23 home runs and 67 RBIs in 350 plate appearances since May 9, and he’s completely regained the form that has made him one of the best players in baseball over the last decade.

7. Stephen Strasburg

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    This slide encompasses everything about Stephen Strasburg—his impressive return from his injury, his stellar 2012 year and the 160 innings limit that may or may not be enforced as Strasburg gets closer to the mark.

    He’s 12-5 with a 2.97 ERA, and he leads the league in both strikeouts (160) and strikeout rate (11.3) in 2012. He made his first All-Star team and he’s had a huge impact on the first-place Washington Nationals. He’s even hitting .343 with five extra-base hits at the plate, giving him a .953 OPS that would be terrific for any hitter.

6. R.A. Dickey’s Knuckleball

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    R.A. Dickey is an amazing story, having reinvented himself as a knuckleball pitcher after failing miserably with the Texas Rangers.

    Dickey is leading the National League in wins (14), and he has a 2.82 ERA through 22 starts. Dickey has suddenly become a strikeout pitcher, as he went from 5.8/9 IP last year to a ridiculous 9.2 per nine innings this year, and he’s also leading the league with a 1.030 WHIP, all of which earned him the first All-Star appearance of his professional career.

5. Philadelphia Phillies’ Struggles

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    After five straight NL East titles, including a World Series championship and two pennants, the Philadelphia Phillies’ season is shocking.

    The team is just 50-61, 11 games under .500 and buried in the NL East standings. They have dealt with a slew of injuries this year, notably to Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay, and they have had freaky bad luck (Cliff Lee’s two wins), and they have had players that have just flat out underachieved (Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence).

    Barring a historic turnaround in August and September, the Phillies won’t sniff the playoffs.

4. Bryce Harper: Best Teenager Ever?

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    The Washington Nationals went ahead and called up Bryce Harper back in late April, even though he was hitting just .243 with a .690 OPS in Triple-A.

    Harper has not been close to the player that Mike Trout is, but he’s a very talented all-around player, and he will only get significantly better as he learns the game more. Harper is hitting .254/.330/.415 with 10 home runs and 13 stolen bases, and he can play any outfield position. He’s got a cannon of an arm, he runs the bases very well, and he’s going to be the face of the Nationals for years to come.

3. Cole Hamels’ Contract

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    Cole Hamels’ contract situation was a huge story in the months leading up to the trade deadline, as it seemed nearly every team in baseball wanted a shot at the 28-year-old lefty with a World Series ring and the $100 million arm.

    Hamels ended up re-signing with the Philadelphia Phillies to the tune of a six-year, $144 million contract extension that will keep him in Philly though the 2018 season (plus a vesting option for 2019). He’s having another stellar season, as he’s 12-6 with a 3.14 ERA and a 3.83 strikeout to walk ratio and has had his third All-Star appearance.

2. Josh Hamilton’s Torrid/Horrid Start

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    For the first quarter or so of the season, Josh Hamilton was absolutely jaw-dropping. He hit .404 with 18 home runs, giving him a ridiculous .838 slugging percentage and 1.296 OPS that seemed like he would be a lock to win the AL MVP award.

    Since then though, Hamilton has cooled off to the point that it’s a little scary: He’s hitting just .218 with a .701 OPS in 66 games since. After averaging a home run every two games to start, Hamilton has hit only 11 home runs since then, coming out to a homer every six contests. He’s in a contract year, so he better step up his play down the stretch or he won’t get the $100 million deal that he could have gotten.

1. Mike Trout: The Best Player in Baseball

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    I really don’t think that it is too soon to call Mike Trout the best player in baseball. He has been freakishly good this season, and he’s still just 20 years old.

    Trout is leading the American League in so many categories—a .346 batting average, a 183 adjusted OPS, 87 runs scored and 36 stolen bases. He’s averaging nearly a run per game. He’s stolen over 90 percent of his attempts. He can play any outfield position, and he plays them very well.

    The team was 6-14 when they called him up; since then, they’re 53-38 and sneaking their way back into the playoff picture. Perhaps the best Trout statistic: He has a 6.9 WAR. The next-best AL player is Robinson Cano at 5.1.