Biggest Takeaways from the First 12 Weeks of MLB Action
Time flies when you're enjoying a competitive, well-played baseball season. As you peruse the standings, cast last-minute All-Star Game ballots and take in vital series, the 2014 campaign has officially reached the 12-week mark.
With 25 of 30 clubs within six games of postseason position, the next 15 weeks of regular-season action are shaping up to be a wire-to-wire race for coveted seats in October. With the big picture in mind, it's instructive to react and opine on a weekly basis. If that's what you're looking for, this column is perfect for you.
When this column series began 10 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.
Eight weeks ago, Pujols' 500th homer, Troy Tulowitzki's special talent and Cliff Lee's path to Cooperstown took center stage. Seven weeks ago, it was time for an appreciation of the Oakland Athletics' AL West dominance, Francisco Rodriguez's revival and Jayson Werth's value.
Most recently, it covered Edwin Encarnacion's power surge, a comprehensive take on two months of action, a reflection on Don Zimmer's ultimate baseball life and a chronicle of Tim Hudson's case for Cooperstown.
Here are the biggest takeaways from the first 12 weeks of the 2014 MLB season.
Mike Trout Is the Best Young Player Ever
Extolling the virtues of Mike Trout can become an exhausting task.
Without much context needed, it's fair to call the Los Angeles Angels center fielder the best player in all of baseball. Despite finishing as the runner-up in back-to-back American League MVP races, anyone who values all-around play appreciates Trout's ability.
For a minute, let's put aside the yearly "Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera" debate and focus on a larger, more thorough comparison. While this may irk some, Trout's early career value has put him in a much brighter light than just current-day stars.
Right now, it's not hyperbole to call him the greatest young player in the history of the sport.
As the fourth-year superstar traverses through his age-22 season, he is on the verge of becoming the most valuable player in history through this age juncture. According to FanGraphs, he is currently tied with Ty Cobb at 25.9 WAR. Baseball-Reference (subscription required) has him second, just 0.7 WAR behind Cobb.
With over 90 games left in the 2014 season, Trout leads the league with a 185 OPS+, .611 slugging percentage and 1.012 OPS. If he simply shows up and plays close to his capability over the next three months, every objective measure will rate Trout over Cobb, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Alex Rodriguez and every great young player in history.
The numbers don't lie, folks. Trout has blazed an unprecedented trail to start his career.
Kershaw-Koufax Comparisons Aren't Crazy
Clayton Kershaw's no-hitter against the Colorado Rockies was another feather in the cap for baseball's best pitcher. At the age of 26, the Dodgers lefty is on the path to becoming one of the greatest southpaws in the history of the sport.
Of course, when lefties are mentioned, ex-Dodgers star Sandy Koufax headlines the conversation. While it's premature to list Kershaw alongside Koufax, Randy Johnson, Lefty Grove and Steve Carlton—baseball's all-time great left-handed pitchers—comparing Kershaw and Koufax at identical junctures of their careers is a worthwhile endeavor.
When staring at the numbers, one thing becomes abundantly clear: At the same career innings mark, comparing the special Dodgers lefties isn't unfair. If anything, it casts Kershaw in an even more remarkable light.
Upon recording the last out against Colorado, Kershaw reached 1,244.1 innings pitched. In the midst of the 1963 season, Koufax hit that career mark. Here is how the two Dodgers compare at that identical point:
Kershaw: 2.60 ERA, 3.22 SO/BB, 1,292 SO, 947 H
Koufax: 3.54 ERA, 2.18 SO/BB, 1,275 SO, 997 H
Before commenting below, double-check the numbers. They are accurate and eye-opening in favor of Kershaw. To be fair, Koufax went on to win 95 games and pitch more than 1,000 innings of dominant baseball after his 1,244th inning in the big leagues.
When the inevitable comparisons were first made between the two Dodgers stars, Kershaw was quick to deflect the praise and pointed to Koufax's great prime, per Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.
"If you're going to get compared to somebody, that's the guy," Kershaw said. "It's the biggest honor you can get. But I also take that with a grain of salt. In his prime, he was the best ever. I have to get a lot better to prove that right."
Kershaw may continue to rise, he could decline or he might just level out, but on his current path, he is good enough to rival Koufax.
Tony Gwynn Deserved the Chance to Chase .400 in 1994
Tony Gwynn's passing on Monday was a sad day for the game of baseball. As a star player, one-city superstar and ambassador for the game, his personality and legacy became the stuff of legend in San Diego.
As you might have heard, his hitting ability was pretty special too. With a .338 career average, eight batting titles and 3,141 hits, he didn't need one special mark to justify greatness in his career. However, if the 1994 strike didn't ruin a special season, the Padres star could have made history.
On August 11, 1994, the baseball season ended. When it did, Gwynn was sporting a .394 average and in striking distance of becoming the first player to hit .400 since Ted Williams did it in 1941.
While it's impossible to know if he would have reached and held onto the mark as the hype and media assembled upon his every at-bat, the numbers suggest that he was heating up as the summer moved along.
In 28 post-All-Star-break games, Gwynn was hitting .423. That hot streak included 12 hits over his final six games, with three in San Diego's last game of the strike-shortened season.
"What if" scenarios are a reality of the sports world, but Gwynn deserved the chance to match or best Williams 20 years ago.
Alex Gordon Has Delivered on Hype
When the Kansas City Royals made Alex Gordon the second overall pick in the 2005 draft, excellence was expected. Over the next two years, Baseball America rated the then-third baseman as the No. 13 and No. 2 prospect, respectively, in the sport.
Through the end of the 2010 season, he was anything but the star he was billed to be. After 408 career games, Kansas City's building block owned a .244/.328/.405 career slash line and 95 OPS+, good for five percent below average.
Since then, however, everything has changed. Quietly and below the national radar, Gordon has become the impact performer that Royals fans were once promised. Since the start of the 2011 season, he has racked up 19.5 fWAR and 21.2 bWAR.
Those marks have been buoyed by excellence in 2014. As the Royals have surged to the top of the AL Central, Gordon—now a defensive stud in left field—has provided 4.1 fWAR thanks to all-around excellence in Kauffman Stadium's outfield.
That WAR mark is good for third among all position players in baseball, trailing only Mike Trout and Troy Tulowitzki, per FanGraphs. Based on his offensive numbers—.826 OPS, 8 HR—team success and complete game on the field, Gordon is worthy of inclusion in the first-half AL MVP discussion.
Nine years after the Royals anointed Gordon as a potential franchise-changing player, his talent and production are helping to lead a downtrodden franchise back to prominence.
Young Pitchers Require Patience
For every young pitcher like Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg, dozens more don't achieve stardom from the opening pitch of their major league careers. While patience isn't typically associated with fanatics, it's required when observing and taking a vested interest in young arms.
Over the past week, two young pitchers with outstanding stuff and upside—Jake Arrieta of the Cubs and Zack Wheeler of the Mets—have shown why it's foolish to give up on impact arms as they develop.
Arrieta, the former Baltimore Orioles prospect, was sacrificed in a 2013 trade to net veteran starting pitcher Scott Feldman. While the Orioles were gunning for a second straight playoff berth, the rebuilding Cubs were seeking future assets. At the age of 28, Arrieta has quickly become one on the north side of Chicago. In 50 innings this season, the righty has struck out 55 and posted a 1.98 ERA.
For Mets fans, Wheeler's ascension from trade haul for Carlos Beltran in 2011 to top prospect to 2013 call-up to enigmatic 2014 rotation piece has been, well, a lesson in delayed gratification. Command issues have limited consistency for the 24-year-old, but his latest start gave a glimpse into what the future could hold.
Wheeler tossed his first complete-game shutout on June 19, limiting the Miami Marlins to three hits. After the game, Mets manager Terry Collins praised his young starter for harnessing the stuff that scouts have raved about for years, per Michael J. Fensom of The Star-Ledger.
“It was his night,” Collins said. “He is learning how to use his pitches to work through lineups.”
For Arrieta, Wheeler and most young arms, the learning process takes time. Keep that in mind next time you are discouraged with a subpar outing from an inexperienced starting pitcher.
Richard Durrett Wasn't Your Average Writer
For Texas Rangers fans, Richard Durrett's tragic and untimely passing at the age of 38 was a sad and shocking news story. The former Dallas Morning News and ESPN Dallas writer followed the Rangers as well as anyone in that market, along with covering the NFL and college sports.
As the touching tributes poured in from Durrett's colleagues this week, I was reminded of a personal interaction with him in 2009. My work at Bleacher Report rarely encompasses this type of writing, but his death struck a chord.
Outside of my role as an MLB Lead Writer for B/R, I am a sports talk radio host in New York and Philadelphia. In 2009, my first radio gig was as a co-host on a now-defunct show called The Shore Sports Report. It was, by any measure, a small-time show in a small New Jersey market. When high school sports are the main topic, mainstream writers rarely jump at the chance to guest on the show.
Durrett, then covering the Rangers for The Dallas Morning News, was one of the first (and only) well-known writers to come on the show as a guest in its early days. We talked about an upcoming Yankees-Rangers series, and he treated it like a segment on ESPN Radio.
We never met in person or spoke outside of 12 minutes on the air, but Durrett made me feel like an equal in this business. For that, I'll always be thankful.
Here Come the Dodgers
The 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers won 92 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series in October. While that success is noteworthy, it was even more spectacular in the wake of a 23-30 start to the season. Buoyed by 42-8 stretch in the middle of the season, they took off.
One year later, baseball fans in Los Angeles could be in for a similar uprising from the most talented team in baseball. While it's a fool's errand to expect another 42-8 run, Los Angeles headed into play on June 20 with a three-game winning streak and seven wins in its last 10 games.
When Don Mattingly's team was 9.5 games behind the division-leading Giants on June 8, it was easy to think of the Dodgers as a disappointing and underachieving team. Before writing them off, remember that the same things were said last year.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted and are valid through the start of play on June 20. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.
What was your biggest takeaway from the first 12 weeks of the MLB season?