MLB's Most Surprising Teams Thus Far
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Every MLB season, teams that look good on paper don't translate come game-time. 2013 is no exception. The state of the National League West is especially worthy of a head scratch, but the failed-super-team Toronto Blue Jays and the 2012 powerhouse-turned-disaster Washington Nationals can at least say they won something this year: biggest shock.
What follows is a list of the teams whose performances up to this point are most likely to make even casual fans do a double-take when they look at the standings.
I used three criteria to rank the teams:
1. Initial spit-take factor (ratings go from 1-10, 10 being the highest)
2. Expert preseason picks
3. Offseason acquisitions (or lack thereof)
For a team to be included on the list, its record and place in the standings need to be generally baffling. Its performance (whether good or bad) thus far must both diverge sharply from the experts’ expectations as well as be incongruent with what its offseason appeared to behold for the following year.
Here are the most surprising teams in baseball thus far, in ascending order.
Statistics accurate as of June 7.
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Spit-take factor: 6. As in, David Ortiz is 37, kind of blind, batting cleanup, and doing what?
Experts weren’t expecting Boston to finish more than a few games over .500 at most. SI.com predicted that the BoSox would finish last in the American League East with a 77-85 record, the average finish predicted by the six experts at CBSSports.com was fourth (3.5, rounded up), and ESPN predicted that they would finish third with an 84-78 record.
Last year, Boston finished with a 69-93 record—its worst since 1965. Part of this was due to its housecleaning, which for the purposes of this article I’m going to include under the umbrella of “offseason.” The franchise was already crumbling prior to what was deemed the megadeal, but sending Adrian Gonzalez (four-time All-Star), Carl Crawford (four-time All-Star), Josh Beckett (three-time All-Star) and Nick Punto to the Los Angeles Dodgers sealed the team’s fate.
Boston’s winter was underwhelming enough to warrant the low picks seen above—the only players of note they acquired (who they retained) were Joel Hanrahan (bust), Mike Napoli (past peak but still productive, lifetime .260/.365/.505 hitter), and Ryan Dempster (4.39 ERA to date, impressions will always be more impressive than his pitching skills).
Boston doesn’t make the final countdown because All-Star caliber guys like Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Bucholtz, Jon Lester and Andrew Bailey didn’t disappear, no one really predicted them to be abysmal, and their current lead is fragile.
Spit-take factor: 6. As in, am I hallucinating or are Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton combined really averaging .230?
The Los Angels of Anaheim are in fourth place, and one year ago that would’ve been good enough for last. The Angels can thank Houston for somewhat ameliorating the humiliation.
Experts had a bit more faith in the Angels than they should have, but there were still doubts. Both ESPN and SI picked the Angels to take the AL West in their season previews. However, out of the SI experts, only one actually picked them to do so. CBSSports.com experts were a bit more skeptical, as their average predicted finish for LAA was second.
LAA’s offseason was questionable, but it still appeared to put the team in a favorable position. The biggest signing for the Angels last winter was Josh Hamilton, who we’ve already covered in as much detail as is necessary.
The odd part was that pitching should’ve been the team’s priority, and its net activity in that department was average at best. The Angels bid adieu to Dan Haren and Zack Greinke and acquired Joe Blanton (who without fail pulls a Joe Blanton each time he takes the mound), Tommy Hanson (4.19 ERA thus far in 2013, has been on a downhill slide since his rookie year), Jason Vargas (3.71 ERA, average) and Ryan Madson (basically a bust).
The Angels are just honorable mentions because they never had much pitching to begin with, experts didn’t expect them to dominate, and this whole situation is eerily familiar (see 2012).
Read on to find out which six teams made the cut.
No. 6: Arizona Diamondbacks
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Coolstandings.com gives Arizona a 54.9 percent chance of making the playoffs this year.
Out of all experts considered, just one at SI.com predicted that the Diamondbacks would win the division. Overall, SI.com predicted that Arizona would finish four games below .500, and all experts at CBSSports.com placed the Diamondbacks in either third or fourth. Although ESPN.com expected Arizona to finish with a winning record, it gave the Diamondbacks just a 23 percent chance to win the division.
Currently, Arizona is nine games above .500, and although SI labeled relief pitching as the team’s strength this year, they are middling in terms of team ERA (11th in the league) and eighth in batting average.
Last year, Arizona finished at .500. In the offseason, they most notably acquired Martin Prado, Heath Bell and Didi Gregorius. Prado, who was expected to be one of the team’s most important offensive pieces this year, is only batting .258 at this point of the season.
The hero who has emerged is, of course, Paul Goldschmidt. His 2012 was above-average (a .286/.359/.490 line), but this season—his third in majors—is clearly his breakout (try .332/.411/.610 with an 1.021 OPS and what seems like a walk-off hit per night).
Bell was an unknown. After his painfully bad season with the Marlins in 2012 (4-5 with a 5.09 ERA and 19 saves), he’s made quite a comeback (currently 2-0 with a 3.28 ERA and 11 saves), which could not have been predicted.
Reasoning Behind the Rank
Arizona deserves a spot on the list because its production has been coming from unexpected sources. It doesn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon (it split its series with the Cardinals, one of the hottest teams in baseball), and its performance is nowhere near what the experts had in mind.
It is the fifth runner-up, however, because although experts couldn't have seen this coming, the Diamondbacks do have a tendency to defy odds.
No. 5: Pittsburgh Pirates
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Spit-take rating: 7.5. As in, are the Pirates really tied for second in the NL Central with the Cincinnati Reds (otherwise known as the pick to finish first in the division by SI.com, CBSSports.com, and ESPN.com)?
Not to mention they’re 11 games over .500, meaning they’d lead the AL East, AL Central and the NL West if they pulled a Houston Astros. And Andrew McCutchen is leading all qualifying batters with a .279 average?
SI.com predicted that the Pirates would finish 10 games under .500 in 2013, good (or bad, really) enough for fourth in the NL Central. The average CBSSports.com pick for Pittsburgh was also fourth place, with Jon Heyman as the lone man expecting the Pirates to finish last. Behind the Cubs.
ESPN.com also followed suit, picking the Pirates to finish eight games under .500 with a 28.9 percent chance of finishing last and just an 8.8 percent chance of getting a wild card spot. If the season ended today, a wild card spot would indeed be Pittsburgh’s.
Pittsburgh’s offseason was mediocre. SI.com singled out Joel Hanrahan as the player the Pirates would miss the most this year, but as we saw early on, he’s a non-factor. Coincidentally, however, relief pitching is where this team has shined.
Jason Grilli—re-signed in the offseason after he posted a 2.91 ERA in 2012—and Mark Melancon—who finished 2012 in Boston with a swollen 6.20 ERA—have both been utterly sublime this year. And we know they’re not pitching in an easy division. The two are likely the best eight-nine combo in the league, Grilli with an 0.98 ERA and 23 saves and Melancon with a 1.15 ERA and an 8.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32 games.
And who is this lights out starter with a 1.75 ERA, and what has he done with Francisco Liriano? The man has a career 4.29 ERA, and somehow he’s found his groove. Yet another erratic pitcher—AJ Burnett—currently has the highest strikeout-per-nine innings rate of his career (10.4) at age 36.
Reasoning Behind the Rank
Pittsburgh gets the fifth spot because this team was not supposed to be a pitching powerhouse, yet that’s become its game. It has one of the best records in the league right now despite ESPN.com calling it just “slightly competitive.”
It can’t move up a spot, however, because the Pirates tend to have a better first half and then tail off after the All-Star break (the trend they’re following now), whereas this next team champions the late-months surge.
No. 4: Colorado Rockies
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Spit-take factor: 8. As in, are you telling me this team has a record over .500? In the beginning of June? And their team ERA is under 20?
ESPN.com gave the Rockies a 2.1 percent chance of winning the NL West, a 3.5 percent chance of winning the wild card and a 5.6 percent chance of making the playoffs in preseason.
Coolstandings.com currently gives the Rockies a 39.7 percent chance of winning the division, a 17.8 percent chance of winning the wild card, and a 57.5 percent chance of making the playoffs.
Those discrepancies are 37.6 percent for winning the division, 14.3 percent for earning a wild card spot, and 51.9 percent for making the playoffs.
All but one CBSSports.com expert picked Colorado to finish last. SI.com predicted that the Rockies would win 68 games this season, and ESPN.com predicted 70. The Rockies have 33 wins to date, meaning they’d have to nose dive pretty soon to meet the expectations.
We heard nada Hot Stove-wise when it came to Colorado this offseason. SI.com’s “biggest addition”—unlike the rest of the teams—was Troy Tulowitzki, who in fact isn’t new at all, but rather has been a Rocky for life up to this point. SI.com’s “biggest loss” was Alex White, which arguably says even more than the mention of Tulo, because White went 2-9 with a 5.51 ERA last year.
The Rockies basically signed a bunch of guys to minor league contracts and prayed that Tulo, Cuddyer, Helton, Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin, Juan Nicasio—okay let’s just say everyone—would stay healthy this year.
This is a team that finished with 98 losses last year, and they are essentially the same team. Colorado’s pitchers finished 2012 with a league-worst 5.81 ERA, and now they combine for a 3.89 ERA. And remember they’re at Coors, which is an extreme hitters park.
Tulo is healthy and so far is having the best year of his career—as is Cuddyer for that matter (.339/.397/.603—I’m sorry, career .273 hitter say what?). Jorge De La Rosa, who finished 2012 with a 9.28 ERA, is an outstanding 7-3 with a 3.38 ERA.
Reasoning Behind the Rank
The Rockies don’t crack the top three because their record isn’t outstanding—it’s got the shock factor because they’ve always been a second-half team, plus they’re actually relatively healthy. They’re still only four games above .500.
The top three spots are all awarded to teams that were supposed to soar but have completely tanked, so the Rockies would’ve needed to be soundly in first to receive a higher slot.
No. 3: Los Angeles Dodgers
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Spit-take factor: 9. As in, you’ve got 16 All-Star nods between six of your players and a Cy Young award thrown in there, and you’re in last place? Plus the terms “megadeal” and “superteam” have been used in relation to you. And for good measure, the Houston Astros have five fewer wins than you.
SI.com picked the Dodgers to finished second in the NL West (one game out) with a 90-72 record, good enough for the second wild card spot. Three of the seven SI experts picked the Dodgers to win the division.
The CBSSports.com experts were also divided, as half picked LA to finish first and half picked second.
ESPN.com—like SI.com—predicted that the Dodgers would finish 90-72 but that it would be good enough for first place in this case. ESPN.com also predicted that there would be a 41.5 percent chance the Dodgers would win the division, just a 2.9 percent chance that they’d finish last, and 60.9 percent chance that they’d make the playoffs.
If we hop on over to Coolstandings.com, we see that LA now has just a 2.3 percent chance of winning the division and a 4.8 percent chance of making the playoffs. The difference in percentages for wining the division between ESPN.com and Coolstandings.com is 39.2, and 56.1 for making the playoffs. They’re now expected to win 71 games—19 fewer than SI.com and ESPN.com projected.
The Dodgers finished with a respectable 86-76 record last year and narrowly missed the second wild card spot. Considering the moves they made at the end of last season and during the offseason, they’re a massive flop.
We covered the megadeal already. Adrian Gonzalez (.320/.374/.498) and Carl Crawford (.301/.358/.470) have performed this year, but Gonzo’s power isn’t what it used to be (when he was in in San Diego of all places), and Crawford is recently injured (now there’s something that’s not a surprise).
Josh Beckett has made us completely forget the 2003 World Series, as he’s 0-5 with a 5.19 ERA. Did he really get second in Cy Young award voting in ’07? The offseason itself was spent focusing on pitching, but LA’s biggest move in acquiring Zack Greinke hasn’t translated like the franchise thought it would.
What’s also noteworthy is that the Dodgers didn’t lose anyone significant. Sure, Shane Victorino went to Boston, but he’s been worthless.
LA’s net worth appeared to be positive going into 2013. One would’ve expected them to tack on at least a handful of victories to last year’s record. Puigmania may be giving the city amnesia, but LA still resides in the basement.
Reasoning Behind the Rank
LA wasn’t a unanimous first by any account, seeing as the reigning World Series champions also reside in the NL West. The Dodgers are a bust and were expected to compete with the Giants the whole way, which is why they occupy the third rank.
However, they weren’t the only star-studded team heading into the 2013 season. The team above LA in the ranks was expected to make a fourth-to-first jump in a matter of a year, which is far from what’s happened.
No. 2: Toronto Blue Jays
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Spit-take factor: 9. As in, you started the year with how many aces in your rotation and now have used how many pitchers total?
Identical to LA’s situation, SI.com picked the Blue Jays to finish second (one game out of first) with three of the seven experts picking them to win the division. At CBSSports.com, four out of the six experts picked Toronto to take the AL East with two picking second, and ESPN.com predicted that Toronto would finish first, six games ahead of the Rays.
In the world of percentages, ESPN.com gave the Blue Jays a 42.9 percent chance of winning the division, a 68.1 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 5.8 percent chance of finishing last.
According to Coolstandings.com, Toronto now has a .4 percent chance of winning the division and a 3.3 percent chance of making the playoffs. That’s a 42.5 percent difference and a 64.8 percent difference, respectively.
The acquisitions of 2012 Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey, Melky Cabrera, Mark Buerhrle, Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson were expected to end this team’s streak of 19 seasons without a trip to the playoffs, but they have all self-destructed.
Dickey is 5-7 with a 4.66 ERA, and after posting a 4.26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2012, he has lowered that to just 1.88. Melky Cabrera post-steroids is back to being average. Buehrle—who has a career 3.86 ERA—has posted a 5.42 ERA thus far. This guy has made four All-Star games?
Reyes was killing it, and then in perfect Reyes fashion, down he went. And it wasn’t even a muscle pull—he momentarily forgot how to steal a base despite having 415 total stolen bases on his career.
Johnson—another injury prone guy—has been sidelined with a triceps injury. Not like he was doing much before then (winless with a 5.40 ERA in five starts).
Reasoning Behind the Rank
The Toronto Blue Jays were one of the biggest stories of the offseason. A rotation headed by Dickey and Johnson was supposed to be invincible, and now Toronto never seems to know who’s pitching until game time.
They don’t earn the top rank because this next team was the best team in baseball last year, its offseason rivaled Toronto’s for most talent acquired, and unlike Toronto, many thought this next team would be crowned World Series champion—and they likely won't come close.
No. 1: Washington Nationals
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Spit-take factor: 10. As in, the Washington Nationals were the best team in baseball last year, they acquired more pieces, and not only are they below .500 but their top MVP candidate and top Cy Young candidate are both injured?
Easy: experts were unanimous. Washington was to be the best team in the league in 2013. SI.com picked the Nats to finish 100-62 and ESPN.com picked them to finish 94-68. All six CBSSports.com experts had them as NL champs, and four of these six had them winning it all (four of seven at SI.com said the same). Just for kicks, three of the CBSSports.com experts and two at SI.com picked Bryce Harper to win MVP and the same numbers for each predicted that Stephen Strasburg to win the Cy Young (neither of which will happen). ESPN.com gave the Nats a 50.2 percent chance of winning the division, an 0.4 percent chance of finishing last, and a 73.8 percent chance of making the playoffs—the highest probability so far. According to Coolstandings.com, however (they seem to always be the bearer of bad news lately), now the 29-31 Nats have a 2.9 percent chance of winning the division and a 12.5 percent chance of making the playoffs (a 47.3 percent difference and 61.3 percent difference, respectively).
The Nats lost Michael Morse and picked up Dan Haren, Denard Span and Rafael Soriano. If Dan Haren is projected to be your team’s fifth starter, that’s saying something. He has a career 3.72 ERA but has been pretty dreadful in 2013, as he’s posted a 4-7 record and a 5.45 ERA. Span is a career .283/.354/.386 hitter and is currently hitting .267/.318/.360. He also generally steals around 24 bags a year, but has been pretty silent on the base paths up to this point. SI.com labeled Span as the key pickup for the Nats, but he’s not proving to be so. Soriano has hovered right around his career average for ERA and is walking significantly fewer batters than is typical for him, but the issue for a closer on a team that doesn’t score is that he likely won’t get a ton of save opportunities.
So as it turns out, the Nats could’ve used Morse this season. They have the third-worst batting average in the league, the second-fewest runs scored and the second-fewest hits.
Reasoning behind the rank
This team was supposed to be led by Strasburg and Harper, and they’re both sidelined until further notice. Washington’s offense is anemic (as mentioned above) and its team ERA is 21st in the league, which doesn't help its cause. The majority thought the World Series was this team’s to lose. Well, it has probably lost it.