Biggest Takeaways from the First 11 Weeks of MLB Action
As Father's Day approaches, the 2014 Major League Baseball season is officially 11 weeks old, careening toward the All-Star break and never-ending questions surrounding contenders, pretenders and the state of the pennant races.
During a campaign of immense excitement, day-to-day and week-to-week results can get lost in the shuffle, replaced by season-long narratives and fans looking ahead to the months of great baseball still to come. If you need a dose of perspective on the season thus far, you've come to the right place.
Since the second week of play, Bleacher Report has been providing weekly analysis, with a combination of short-term reaction and long-term outlook.
When this column series began nine weeks ago, rises from the Milwaukee Brewers, Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Abreu dominated the early-season takeaways. Before long, pitching dominance in Atlanta and Albert Pujols' return to form headlined the week.
Seven weeks ago, Pujols' 500th homer, Troy Tulowitzki's special talent and Cliff Lee's path to Cooperstown took center stage. Six weeks ago, it was time for an appreciation of the Oakland Athletics' AL West dominance, Francisco Rodriguez's revival and Jayson Werth's value.
The last month highlighted the Detroit Tigers' road to October, the red-hot San Francisco Giants, Jose Bautista's talent and the parity evident around the sport.
Most recently, this column series has covered Edwin Encarnacion's power surge, a comprehensive take on two months of action and a reflection on Don Zimmer's ultimate baseball life.
Here are the biggest takeaways from the first 11 weeks of the 2014 MLB season.
Buckle Up for the AL Rookie of the Year Race
Unlike the annual MVP and Cy Young races, the American League and National Rookie of the Year voting always takes on an extra, long-term feel. While the awards—given to the most prolific pitchers and hitters each year, in theory—are instructive when defining current dominance, the ROY vote offers a peek into the future.
Although many recent ROY winners—Bobby Crosby, Angel Berroa, Chris Coghlan—didn't become franchise pillars, young stars like Buster Posey, Mike Trout, Evan Longoria, Ryan Braun and Justin Verlander went on to immense success.
The current AL Rookie of the Year race could one day be looked upon as a precursor to years of dominance from special players. Heading into mid-June, a seven-man race has begun to unfold, pitting the stars of tomorrow in front of the voters of today.
As the season moves along, keep an eye on what could be a great AL ROY race from the Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka (93.2 IP, 2.02 ERA) and Dellin Betances (15.19 K/9), the White Sox's Jose Abreu (19 HR, 149 wRC+), Boston's Xander Bogaerts (.367 OBP), Houston's George Springer (12 HR, .373 wOBA) and Collin McHugh (2.82 ERA) and Kansas City's Yordano Ventura (12 GS, 1.4 fWAR).
If Tanaka continues to mow down hitters at a Cy Young-caliber level, it will be tough for anyone to overtake him for this award, but don't be surprised if a player who finishes in third or fourth of this voting moves on to become a future MVP candidate.
Healthy Nationals Could Run Away with NL East
Here come the Nationals. After scuffling through an 11-15 month of May and a rash of injuries to key players, the most talented team in the National League East is close to whole and dominating the month of June.
Heading into play on June 13, Matt Williams' team owned an 8-3 record this month. As Bleacher Report's Scott Miller detailed, the return of franchise third baseman Ryan Zimmerman—as a left fielder—has keyed a turnaround for the current NL East leaders.
Prior to spring training, Washington looked like the only team in the division capable of winning 95-plus games and navigating through October. Through the first two months of the season, however, a franchise less than two years removed from a 98-win season profiled as a major disappointment.
Now, things are heading back in the right direction. If starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez and outfielder Bryce Harper can rejoin their surging teammates soon, this Nationals team may have enough to truly separate from a mediocre division.
At 34-31, the Miami Marlins entered play on June 13 as the only other team in the NL East with a positive run differential. Yet, without the help of Jose Fernandez for the remainder of the 2014 season, it's hard to imagine the Marlins keeping pace with a complete and healthy Nationals team through the entire summer and into September.
Tim Hudson Deserves Hall of Fame Consideration
San Francisco Giants starter Tim Hudson is off to a brilliant start this season. After spending nine years in Atlanta, the former Oakland Athletics ace has returned to the Bay Area to finish off a brilliant career on the mound.
Following a victory over the red-hot Washington Nationals on June 12, Hudson now owns the following statistics for the first-place Giants: 13 GS, 89.1 IP, 7-2, 1.81 ERA, 60-13 K/BB. On the surface, those numbers are good enough for NL All-Star consideration.
However, when digging beneath the surface and adding those numbers to Hudson's previous 15 big league campaigns, a future Hall of Fame candidate emerges. Hudson is now one of only 20 pitchers in the history of baseball to throw 2,900-plus innings with an ERA+ of 125, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).
Outside of Kevin Brown, every other member of that group is either in the Hall of Fame, a soon-to-be inductee (Greg Maddux) or on next year's ballot (Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling). If common sense prevails in the case of Schilling, 18 of the first 19 starters to reach Hudson's current level will reside in Cooperstown.
In the case of Brown, the only member of the list to have been cast off the ballot, a low win total (211) and surly attitude with the media may have a contributed to a poor vote total. With one more career win than Brown—and the chance to add many more through the end of the 2015 season—Hudson won't be left out of future Cooperstown discussions.
After Hudson's latest victory, former teammate and current Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche wasn't surprised by the success and consistency from the Giants star, per Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post.
“That’s what you get from Tim,” LaRoche told Kilgore. “He just doesn’t lose if you get him three or four runs. He was good. Even at his old age, he still finds a way to get it done.”
Houston Has Turned a Corner
At the end of play on May 23, the Houston Astros owned the worst record in baseball (17-32), second-worst run differential (-64) and looked poised to continue a streak of non-winning months dating back to the 2010 season.
Since that moment, Houston is 14-5 and sports a run differential of plus-28. To put that in perspective, the Astros have outscored their opponents by more runs (28) over the last 19 games than the Braves or Cardinals have since the season began. As Richard Justice of MLB.com pointed out on Twitter, Houston leads the AL in ERA, runs, OBP and OPS over that span.
Along with the New York Mets, this franchise has undergone baseball's longest streak of non-winning seasons, dating back to 2008. While it's still hard to believe that the Astros will make the jump to 82-plus wins this summer, a corner has been turned for a downtrodden franchise.
With young, ascending stars like George Springer (.852 OPS), Jon Singleton (.525 SLG), Jose Altuve (90 hits, 24 SB), Jason Castro (6 HR) and Dallas Keuchel (171 ERA+) all together in the big leagues, success is emanating from Minute Maid Park for the first time in more than a half decade.
By the time top prospects like Carlos Correa, Mark Appel, Domingo Santana and Mike Foltynewicz arrive to the big leagues, a new era of winning could commence and complete a thorough and one-of-a-kind rebuilding project.
Underrated Lucroy Should Start All-Star Game for NL
A quick look at FanGraphs' catching WAR leaders shows the work of a star leaps and bounds ahead of his peers this season. That's right, folks, Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy hasn't just been good in 2014, he's been worth a full win more than any other catcher in the game.
Despite outperforming more well-known National League backstops like Buster Posey, Yadier Molina and Carlos Ruiz, Lucroy hasn't garnered the support he deserves for an NL All-Star nod, per MLB Public Relations. While it's unlikely that a complete oversight could keep Lucroy totally off the NL roster at Target Field next month, one of baseball's most underrated players deserves more.
Lucroy should be behind the plate when the NL squad trots out to the field in the bottom of the first inning on July 15.
While comparing Lucroy's excellent season to fellow catchers is instructive, don't make the mistake of thinking the Brewers backstop is simply a product of a down year at the position. With a wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) mark of 153, Lucroy has out-hit more heralded offensive stars like Atlanta's Freddie Freeman and Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt.
When the recent All-Star Game balloting results were broached to him, Lucroy took the high road about his lack of fanfare, per Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports.
“It’s out of my control,” Lucroy said. “We’re in a small media market. We don’t get as much attention as other guys. Which is fine. You can’t do anything about it, so why worry about it? I’m more worried about the Brewers winning.”
Over the next month, baseball fans should do something about it. If you want the most deserving players starting in the All-Star Game, vote for Lucroy.
Gregory Polanco Could Be the Spark Pittsburgh Needs
When the Pittsburgh Pirates finally summoned outfielder Gregory Polanco from Triple-A, it was easy to see the instant improvement he would bring to production from right field.
With incumbents Travis Snider (.665 OPS) and Jose Tabata (.674 OPS) struggling at the plate, one of baseball's top prospects filled an immediate need and helped to form a dynamic, athletic outfield alongside Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen.
As Polanco attempts to ease into life in the big leagues, the Pirates have asked the 22-year-old to fill another hole: leadoff man atop the order. Heading into play on June 13, the No. 1 spot in Pittsburgh's lineup has produced just a .312 OBP, good for 24th in baseball and well below the league average of .327, per ESPN.
In preparation for the move to the top of the order in Pittsburgh, the organization began hitting Polanco leadoff in the minors over the last few weeks. According to Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, the left-handed hitter embraced the move, per John Perrotto of The Beaver County Times.
He embraced it. One of the few guys you tell everybody when you move them there, don't change your game. He didn't have to change his game. He's basically showed patience, aggressive within the strike zone, looking for a pitch, using the whole field. He bunted a few more times down there, hit and run. Very confident moving him up there.
In a postseason race that is wide open, a jolt from Polanco at the top of the order could be enough to put the Pirates back in contention for a trip to October.
Bob Welch's 1990 Season Will Never Be Topped
Bob Welch pitched 17 seasons in the majors, racked up 211 victories, captured a Cy Young award and sealed Game 2 of the 1978 World Series by striking out Reggie Jackson at the end of a classic batter-vs-pitcher duel.
Earlier this week, at the age of 57, Welch passed away. Upon his death, the baseball world lost a former star, marking the second consecutive week that a famed member of the baseball community died. Last week, Don Zimmer passed away at the age of 83.
For Welch, the seminal year of his career was 1990. By racking up 27 victories, the then-Oakland Athletics starter stole the American League Cy Young award from a deserving Roger Clemens. In a year that will live in infamy, don't expect any pitcher to ever top Welch's 27 wins again.
Due to pitch counts, specialized bullpens and hitters trained to take pitches, starters don't last deep into games often enough to rack up 25-plus victories. Furthermore, as the win has been devalued by the sabermetric community, starters won't argue with managers taking them out of a tie game in the seventh or eighth inning. The incentive to gain a personal victory has been lost to time.
Since Welch's 1990 season, no starter has won more than 24 games in a season. That feat, last accomplished by Justin Verlander during his AL MVP campaign of 2011, has only been done three times over a 23-year span, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).
Welch wasn't an all-time great pitcher, but his lasting legacy will live on through a win total from a different era. Expect to hear Welch's name the next time a top-tier starter racks up at least 14 wins in the first half of a season.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted and are valid through the start of play on June 13. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.
What was your biggest takeaway from the first 11 weeks of the MLB season?