With just over 90 games remaining in the regular season, it’s much too early to praise or condemn players for their play thus far, but a few have definitely stood out and not only made names for themselves, but majorly impacted their teams as well.
Below is a short list of players who have far exceeded expectations, based on a combination of the past history with an emphasis on their 2008 performance.
1) Matt Cain—SF (9-1, 2.39 ERA)
In his first six starts of 2009, his Giants went 2-3, while Cain only earned three of the decisions, going 2-1. In his last eight starts, Cain’s Giants have won all eight games, with Cain getting the win in seven of them. During that eight game stretch, Cain has only allowed 12 earned runs.
Cain has the fortune of being really good on the days his team struggles to hit, and on the day when he gets hit a little, his offense pours it on. He also has the luxury of playing with a very good defensive team.
Hence, the very good 9-1 record.
In the process of Cain's evolution into a big-time starting pitcher, the Giants have not so coincidentally put themselves in a position to battle for the wild card, and maybe even contend for the division, when, and if, the Dodgers falter.
Cain was 8-14 with a quality 3.76 ERA in 2008, and showed signs of being the pitcher he has become, but missed the timely hitting and support the team has given him this season. Couple that with his growing confidence and gaining knowledge of National League hitters' weaknesses, Cain has become an elite pitcher.
Reigning 2008 Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum is still considered the ace of the team, but Cain’s emergence gives the Giants one of the best one-two punches in the National League.
Should they make the wild card, there isn’t a team out there that wants to play them in the division series, especially with that kind of firepower to start a short series.
2) Zack Greinke—KC (8-3, 1.96 ERA)
After winning his first six decisions of the season in a dominant fashion that we haven’t seen since maybe 1986 with Roger Clemens or 1981 with Fernando Valenzuela, Greinke has settled down and shown that he can’t be perfect all the time.
He’s only had two wins in his last eight starts, but has given up only 20 earned runs over that span, showing that it’s more about a lack of support from the offensive and defensive end by the Royals than a matter of Greinke actually breaking down.
Greinke came up as a middle reliever in the 2006 and stayed in the bullpen for the bulk of the 2007 season, until he was called upon to start in September.
In the second to last week of the 2007 season, Greinke came up with eight shutout innings and 10 strikeouts against the White Sox and was immediately elevated to a full-time starter for the 2008 season.
In 2008, he won his first three starts, but then went into a tail spin that lasted until September, where he went on a 4-1 tear in his final five starts. He closed out the season with a 13-10 record and 3.47 ERA with hopes of continuing that momentum into 2009.
Boy, did he ever.
Greinke has arrived and is now one of the premier starting pitchers in all of baseball. His team still has a ways to go, and that gave him negative points on the list, but they can beat anyone on any night he pitches.
We are witnessing what looks to be the beginnings of one of a great career.
3) Juan Pierre—LA (.330 BA, 33 runs, 16 SB’s)
There have been some great stories this season regarding improved play, but none may be better and more timely than Pierre’s story with the Dodgers.
After a 2008 season clouded with injuries and a trade for Manny Ramirez that ultimately sent him to the bench, Pierre has been there to save the day while looking like the Pierre of old, who had four separate 200-hit seasons in his career.
At the time of Ramirez’ suspension, the Dodgers were the hottest team in baseball, and holders of the best record. The Dodger faithful all wondered how Ramirez' output and impact would be replaced.
No one ever expected someone like the slap-hitting Pierre to fill the giant void left in the lineup with their top slugger out.
All Pierre has done is hit .330 this season, and turned the Dodgers from a team waiting for a Ramirez extra base hit into a team that manufactures runs from base to base.
Pierre has helped generate and maintain a winning attitude while picking up the slack in the running game where Rafael Furcal has struggled. Pierre has also been getting on base at a better pace than ever, with a career-best .390 on-base percentage.
With Ramirez gone, this team has really gelled together and picked up for slumping Russell Martin and Andre Ethier’s inconsistent play.
Pierre has been the glue keeping the Dodgers rolling and for that, Pierre has been the most impressive turnaround among all hitters in baseball thus far.
4) Ben Zobrist—TB (.310, 14 HR’s, 39 RBI’s)
Tampa Bay, perhaps the smartest scouting unit in baseball, knew exactly what they were getting when they traded slugger Aubrey Huff to Houston for Zobrist in 2006.
For the first three seasons of minimal play, Zobrist showed signs of potential, but the returns were minimal, outside of a few key moments he produced during the Rays' playoff run in 2008.
His versatility has been a huge plus for the Rays and is what kept him on the roster while he struggled with the bat.
He can play shortstop, second base, third base, and all outfield positions, and for the last two seasons, Zobrist has seen action at those positions. He has played well defensively everywhere, with seven errors last season and only two this season, all at infield positions.
What has propelled him high onto the list of surprises this season is the way his offensive game has taken off, coupled along with his versatility.
Not only has his average risen from .253 to .310, but his slugging percentage has jumped from .505 to .678. He has done all this while playing at no specific position, and filling in for spot injuries and days off for regulars. His role on the team has increased immensely, and it’s been hard for manager Joe Maddon to keep him out of the lineup.
The Rays are currently three games over .500 after a sluggish start, and much of their change for the better can be attributed to Zobrist. He’s on pace to have a stat line of 100 runs, 32 doubles, eight triples, 30 homers, 100 runs batted in and 20 stolen bases—not bad for a spot player.
This kind of output makes him easily one of the better turnarounds in baseball for 2009.
Best of the Rest
Notable players who were considered that have had huge turnarounds, both with their personal stats and the success of their team, are Tim Wakefield, Torii Hunter, Aaron Hill, and Pablo Sandoval.
All have contributed mightily to their teams current runs and picked up the slack from others struggling on their team.
Justin Upton and Adam Jones are having breakout years, but because their team hasn’t been competitive, they were relegated to a lower level. Greinke got a huge nod over them in this category just because of how dominant he can be.