15 Biggest Surprises in MLB Thus Far

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 26, 2012

15 Biggest Surprises in MLB Thus Far

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    No two baseball seasons are alike, and not even Nostradamus can predict how a given baseball season is going to pan out. With 30 teams playing 162 games apiece, a lot of weird stuff is liable to happen, and a lot of weird trends are going to develop.

    To this end, there's only one thing that all baseball seasons have in common: unpredictability. 

    We're nearly through the first four months of the 2012 Major League Baseball season. Some things that have happened in the first four months of the season should come as no surprise. The Yankees are still really good, Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto can still hit, Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez can still pitch, the Chicago Cubs are still doomed and so on.

    Then there's all the stuff that is surprising. There are some things that have happened this season that none of us saw coming, no matter how much we want to lie about it just to sound cool. 

    There is much to discuss here, but I'm going to narrow the discussion down to a select few surprises. In descending order, here's a look at the 15 biggest surprises in baseball thus far in 2012.

    Note: All stats come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

15. Buck Showalter Hasn't Lost His Touch

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    Buck Showalter's managerial career adheres to a certain pattern. Starting with the Yankees in 1992, Showalter's modus operandi has been to join underachieving, disinterested baseball teams and immediately set about getting the club's players to shape up and play ball like real men.

    This is something he's quite good at.

    Showalter fixed the Yankees in the early-to-mid 1990s. He turned the expansion Diamondbacks into a first-place team in just one year. He made a relevant team out of the Rangers in the early-to-mid 2000s.

    And now he's made the Baltimore Orioles relevant in an AL East that's tougher and deeper than any division in baseball. It's deja vu all over again.

    The O's entered this season with four straight last-place finishes in their back pocket. This season, however, they've been in either first or second place in the division virtually the entire season. They've done it while fighting through injuries and putrid starting pitching.

    The Orioles shouldn't be so good. Baseball-Reference.com has their Pythagorean winning percentage calculated at well below .500, and that makes sense given their pitching woes, their hit-or-miss offense and the soul-sucking presence of Mark Reynolds.

    Instead, the O's are well over .500. That's the Showalter effect at work.

14. Being a Big-Market Club Is Harder Than It Looks

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    To use a technical term, the Florida Marlins sucked in 2011. They lost 90 games and finished in last place in the NL East.

    Fortunately, not a whole lot of people noticed, as the Marlins finished dead last in MLB in attendance.

    The Marlins proactively tried to change their fortunes during the offseason. They moved into a fancy new ballpark. They changed their name to the Miami Marlins. They spent big bucks on free agents like Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle. They even acquired a fiery new manager in Ozzie Guillen.

    The Marlins weren't supposed to suck this year. With all their new talent, new manager, new ballpark, new name and new attitude, they were basically supposed to be baseball's very own answer to the Miami Heat: can't-miss entertainment with lots of snazzy special effects.

    It hasn't worked out. The 2012 Marlins are more like baseball's answer to the Charlotte Bobcats, which is to say they still suck.

    In the last few days, the team has finally realized this. Gone are Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante, who have been traded to the Tigers. Hanley Ramirez was traded to the Dodgers. Josh Johnson and Heath Bell may soon follow.

    It's an old-fashioned Marlins fire sale. Meet the new club, same as the old club.

    I, for one, never figured the Marlins' master plan would work to perfection. What I didn't anticipate was them blowing up the plan itself after a few short months.

    It just goes to show that it's easy to play at being the Yankees, and a lot harder to actually be the Yankees.

13. Carlos Ruiz Is the Best Offensive Catcher in Baseball? Well, Alright.

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    Before this season, my understanding was that Carlos Ruiz was a solid, middle-of-the-road catcher whose best talent was his ability to handle a pitching staff.

    The Phillies would not have put up excellent pitching numbers in 2011 without Ruiz behind the plate. Believe it.

    I have to admit, I never had the guy pegged as an elite hitter. After all, he'd posted an OPS over .800 just once before and had never hit more than nine home runs in a single season.

    It turns out that Ruiz is basically the next coming of Mike Piazza.

    Through 89 games, Ruiz is hitting at .345/.410/.574 with a .985 OPS, 14 homers and 55 RBI. Per FanGraphs, he leads all qualified catchers with a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .418.

    Joe Mauer is next on that list with a wOBA of .382. That's a pretty big gap right there.

    For that matter, there are only five players in baseball who have higher wOBAs than Ruiz. Their names are David Ortiz, Ryan Braun, Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Joey Votto.

    Sense? I see none. 

    But pretty cool.

12. Edwin Encarnacion Is an Elite Slugger, Apparently

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    Just as I never had Carlos Ruiz pegged as an elite offensive catcher, I never had Edwin Encarnacion pegged as an elite...well, an elite anything. He seemed to define the term "league average."

    Admit it: You thought so too. That's just what us baseball people tend to make of hitters with career lines of .260/.336/.453.

    This season, Encarnacion has duplicated the transformation that Sigourney Weaver underwent between Alien and Aliens. He's gone from being a moderate badass to a total badass of whom everyone should be afraid (especially xenomorphs).

    Through 93 games, Encarnacion is hitting .295/.389/.581, and he's already tied his career high with 26 home runs. With 68 RBI to his name, it won't be long before he surpasses his career high of 76.

    In fact, ESPN.com is projecting that Encarnacion will finish with 43 home runs and 112 RBI.

    He's probably going to finish with more homers and RBI than Albert Pujols. Nobody figured that was going to happen this year.

    Or ever.

11. Chris Sale Is Nasty

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    Chris Sale showed in 2011 that he had tons of ability. He posted an ERA of 2.79 and struck out 10 batters per nine innings.

    ...As a reliever.

    The White Sox stretched Sale out as a starter during spring training, and only White Sox fans really cared to notice. Everyone else regarded the White Sox as a collection of crusty has-beens and wide-eyed never-will-bes. The Sale experiment wasn't worth anybody's attention.

    Well, it turns out that the White Sox are pretty good. As for Sale, it turns out that he is filthy.

    Sale has the second-lowest ERA in the American League at 2.37, and the only two pitchers with lower FIPs than him throughout MLB are Stephen Strasburg and Zack Greinke, according to FanGraphs.

    Opponents are hitting just .211 off of Sale, and slugging just .309.

    A lot of pitchers are having great seasons this year, and Sale is one of them. He's in the same discussion as guys like Strasburg, Matt Cain, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Johnny Cueto and Gio Gonzalez.

    We knew before this season that those guys were good. None of us knew that Sale was this good, and even White Sox fans have to admit that Sale has shattered expectations.

10. Ryan Braun Is Still Insanely Good at Baseball

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    No single player in MLB had a tougher offseason than Ryan Braun.

    Fresh off of an MVP season, Braun found himself in the middle of a PED controversy that inspired people to call him a cheater and a liar. He argued from the start that it was a mix-up, but his plea for patience fell largely on deaf ears.

    Braun was ultimately able to clear his name thanks to a loophole in MLB's drug-testing system. He claimed innocence. Everyone else recognized that he had beaten MLB on a technicality.

    That didn't make him innocent; it just made him not guilty. Big difference.

    While all this was going on, by the way, Braun had to watch Prince Fielder sign with the Detroit Tigers. In a span of a couple months, Braun's reputation had been destroyed, and his primary source of protection in Milwaukee's lineup had eloped.

    I didn't expect Braun to duplicate his MVP numbers. Nobody did.

    Well, guess what. He is.

    Braun is hitting .313/.393/.603 with 27 home runs and 67 RBI. Per FanGraphs, he ranks fourth in baseball with a wOBA of .422 and fourth with a WAR of 5.1.

    At this rate, Braun could finish with 45 home runs and 120 RBI, numbers that he's never reached before.

    Not bad for a guy who supposedly needed PEDs and Fielder's protection in order to be successful.

    Is this the biggest "[Bleep] you guys" season, or what? 

9. And Tim Lincecum Is Not

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    I'm keeping the unpleasant surprises at a minimum in this slideshow. At heart, I'm a positive guy. My dog will vouch for me (and if he doesn't...).

    But we have to talk about Tim Lincecum. It is imperative.

    We have to talk about Lincecum because such badness simply cannot be ignored. Tim Lincecum hasn't pitched like Tim Lincecum this season. He's pitched more like Jason Marquis or Livan Hernandez—or Bozo the Clown, if he was a pitcher.

    Big Time Timmy Jim has shown flashes this season—just not many of them, and they've been few and far between. For the most part, he's been awful. That much is evident in his 5.88 ERA and 1.51 WHIP, not to mention his 4-11 record.

    The Giants are 6-15 in games started by Lincecum in 2012. They were 22-12 in games started by him in 2008.

    The warning signs that Lincecum was on his way down as pitcher were there as far back as 2010, but it was hard to take them seriously because of how dominant he was during the postseason. And though he had his ups and downs in 2011, Lincecum still managed to finish with a sub-3.00 ERA.

    This year, no such luck. It's clear that Lincecum is no longer an elite pitcher.

    Now, he's just a hip dude with long hair. He may as well be a barista.

8. Cole Hamels Was on Trade Block, Is Now Unfathomably Rich

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    It's been a weird season for the Philadelphia Phillies' starting pitching staff.

    Roy Halladay finally got hurt. Cliff Lee got hurt and then transmogrified into a back-end starter. Vance Worley went somewhere for a while. I think he's still around, but I can't be sure.

    But no Phillies starter has had as strange a season as Cole Hamels. Not even close.

    At the start of the season, Hamels was just another Phillies ace. As the team struggled more and more, he became an ace that the Phillies might end up trading. Then he became an ace that they might end up re-signing. Then he had to decide if he even wanted to be a Phillies ace for much longer, for the organization is no longer the happy-go-lucky place it once was, you see.

    Ultimately, Hamels decided to stay. His love for the Phillies compelled him to.

    That, and his love of six-year, $144 million contracts that have the potential to be worth $160 million. Hamels is now the second-richest pitcher in baseball history after CC Sabathia.

    And therein lies a new strange development. Hamels started the season as Philly's No. 4 starting pitcher. He's now paid like one of the best No. 1s in the game.

    Let it be written in the stars: The greatest trick Cole Hamels ever pulled was convincing the Phillies that he's a hell of a lot better than he really is.

7. Long Live R.A. Dickey's Knuckleball

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    If you have to resort to throwing a knuckleball, you're not an ace pitcher. And even if you do successfully master the knuckleball, you're not trying to be an ace pitcher. You're merely trying to throw something that qualifies you as a major league pitcher.

    Or at least, so said the rule book before R.A. Dickey. After what he's done this season, it may need to be rewritten.

    Dickey has come back to earth since the All-Star break, as he's given up 14 earned runs in just 19.1 innings for an ERA of 6.52. Hitters are hitting him at a .333 clip.

    But before the break...man...

    In 17 starts, Dickey went 12-1 with a 2.40 ERA, holding hitters to a .203 batting average with 123 strikeouts in 120 innings. He pitched three complete games, including two one-hit shutouts in back-to-back starts in June.

    Lesson learned: It may be a novelty pitch, but the knuckleball still has a strange power that major league hitters will never quite understand.

    And neither will most pitchers, for that matter. Dickey is the only knuckleballer active at the major league level. He's the last of his kind: a unicorn of sorts.

    We knew this before the 2012 season. What we didn't know was how crazy-good he was going to be.

    Long live the knuckleball.

6. Mariano Rivera Is Not Indestructible

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    I've been watching Mariano Rivera pitch since I was about eight years old. By the time I was 12, I was operating under the assumption that he was somehow related to the T-1000 from Terminator 2.

    Because, you know, you make those kinds of associations when you're 12.

    Rivera had much in common with the T-1000. He took no prisoners and preferred to cut his victims. And above all, he just...kept...coming.

    Mo finally met his match in early May. He was undone not by a beastly hitter or a prickly umpire, but by a mere warning track.

    The news sounded reasonable enough when it was announced: twisted knee, 42-year-old pitcher, torn ACL. Made perfect sense.

    But it didn't quite compute. No, no. Something was wrong with the news, for it implied that Rivera would not be taking the mound for the rest of the season or possibly ever again.

    Nearly three months later, it still doesn't make sense. 

5. The Pittsburgh Pirates Are Back

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    The Pirates gave us all a good tease in 2011, as they were in first place in the NL Central as late as July 25. They couldn't hit much, but they could pitch. Sometimes, that's good enough.

    Inevitably, the Pirates stopped pitching well. Worse, they started hitting even less than they did before. Emerging star Andrew McCutchen seemed to fall in love with his power, quietly slipping into a slump that saw him hit .216 in the second half.

    Basically, the Pirates went back to being the old Pirates that we all know and love. The world kept right on spinning.

    There was little reason to think that the Pirates were going to be any better this season. Outside of prying A.J. Burnett from the Yankees, they didn't make any big moves during the offseason. They were going to roll with what they had in 2011, and what they had in 2011 wasn't good enough.

    Wait a second. Experience tends to work in a team's favor, doesn't it? Shoot, forgot about that.

    Oh, don't look at me like that. You didn't see the Pirates coming either.

    The 2012 Pirates are a lot like the 2011 Pirates, except with a lot more offense and a lot more swagger. McCutchen leads the major leagues with a .370 batting average, and the Pirates have been one of the top offensive teams in the league since the start of June. 

    They still have work to do, of course. They're looking up at the Cincinnati Reds in the NL Central, and they're going to need as much help as they can get if they're going to catch the Reds.

    Hence the reason they got aggressive and struck a deal for veteran lefty Wandy Rodriguez, a pitcher who knows the Central like the back of his hand.

    I'm not sold the Pirates would have made a move on a pitcher like Rodriguez last year. That just goes to show that things have changed over the last 12 months.

    This year, the Pirates are serious. And it's about freakin' time.

4. The Oakland A's Are Good. Like, Really Good.

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    Before the start of the season, I picked the Oakland A's to finish dead last in the AL West. I found it hard to look at their roster without making jokes about them being the "Triple-A's."

    Again, don't look at me like that. If you saw a contender when you looked at the A's before the start of the season, you must have been on something pretty heavy, my friend.

    For a while there, the A's weren't a contender. Not even close. In fact, they were in fourth place in the AL West as recently as June 10.

    Now they're tied for second place with the Los Angeles Angels, who have a payroll three times as big as Oakland's.

    How have they done it?

    Great pitching never hurts, and the A's definitely have great pitching. They lead the AL in ERA, and the hell of it is that they have both the league's top starters' ERA and the league's top bullpen ERA. Not bad for a pitching staff that is littered with rookies and castoffs.

    Heck, lefty reliever Sean Doolittle was a first baseman not too long ago.

    These days, the A's also have plenty of offense. Josh Reddick has been one of the AL's best sluggers all season, and Yoenis Cespedes has been as hot as anybody since the start of June. The A's have steadily transformed from a below-average offensive club to at least an average offensive club.

    Occasionally, such clubs explode for 16 runs, as the A's did in Toronto on Wednesday.

    So stay tuned for Moneyball 2: How the A's Got Revenge on All the Teams That Stole Their Own Concept.

    Coming soon to a theater near you.

3. Ichiro Got Traded to the Yankees. Yes, Those Yankees.

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    Even as recently as last week, the notion of the Seattle Mariners trading Ichiro Suzuki was about as rational as Star Fleet trading Captain Jean-Luc Picard to the Millennium Falcon. It just wasn't going to happen.

    So, of course, Ichiro got traded. And of all teams, he got traded to the Yankees.

    The Yankees?

    Yes, the Yankees.

    The Yankees?!

    Yup, the very same.

    From a baseball perspective, the Ichiro trade is actually a pretty minor transaction. The Mariners got two pitchers nobody had ever heard of, and the Yankees got an aging outfielder whose prime is light years in the past. Had they made this trade eight years ago, the news would have been big enough to reach the indigenous peoples of Mars.

    Now, not so much. Regardless, he's still Ichiro. He's still one of the most important players in recent baseball history, not to mention the most popular player in recent history.

    And now he's on the Yankees, who are either a symbol of all that is good or a wretched hive of scum and villainy, depending on your point of view. The one thing we can all agree on is that they're nothing if not BIG.

    None of us are forgetting this trade anytime soon. The fact that none of us saw it coming only adds to the intrigue.

2. One-Hitters and No-Hitters and Perfect Games for Everyone!

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    Something weird started happening a couple years ago. Five pitchers threw no-hitters in 2010. Six if you count Roy Halladay's no-hitter in the playoffs, which we should. 

    Halladay, of course, was responsible for one of the five regular-season no-nos as well, and his was a perfect game. It came just weeks after Dallas Braden hurled a perfecto of his own.

    There were three more no-hitters in 2011. Clearly, something was up. Pitching was on the rise.

    It still is. We have five no-hitters, including two perfect games, to prove it this year. 

    So far.

    Philip Humber got the madness started with his perfect game against the Mariners in late April. Next came Jered Weaver's no-hitter against the Twins in early May. Then came Johan Santana's no-no against the Cardinals in early June, which of course was the first no-hitter in Mets history. A week later, the Mariners pitched a combined no-hitter.

    And then, on June 13, Matt Cain pitched his own perfect game against the Houston Astros. He struck out 14 and compiled a game score of 101, making his perfect game one of the most masterful performances in the history of Major League Baseball.

    Again, all of this is so far. We still have two months of baseball left.

    Oh, and by the way, there have already been eight one-hitters thrown this year. The one thrown by R.A. Dickey on June 13, the same day as Cain's perfecto, could have been a no-hitter. The same goes for Justin Verlander's one-hitter against Pittsburgh on May 18.

    Just think: If the two of them had gotten a lucky bounce or two, we could be sitting here reflecting back on seven no-hitters.

    That's the kind of year it's been.

1. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper Have Both Lived Up to the Hype

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    Before the season begins, all the various publications release their rankings of the top prospects in baseball.

    No two lists are ever alike from top to bottom, but the loose consensus this year was that the two best prospects in baseball were Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.

    To my recollection, nobody even dared to think that both Harper and Trout would be All-Stars as soon as this season. After all, that would have been unreasonable. The 19-year-old Harper wasn't even likely to be in the majors by the All-Star break, and the 20-year-old Trout showed in 2011 that he still had a lot of maturing to do as a ballplayer.

    Against all odds, both Harper and Trout were called up within a day of one another in late April. Harper got the call on April 27, Trout on April 28.

    All they've done since then is make all the scouts and assorted minor league experts look really, really smart.

    For a mere 19-year-old, Harper is having an excellent season. If he's able to hold his .785 OPS, he'll finish with the second-highest OPS ever posted by a 19-year-old. He has an outside shot of topping Mel Ott's .921 OPS from way back in 1928.

    As for Trout, the question we're all asking ourselves now is what can't he do. He hasn't just lived up to the hype; he's shown that the hype wasn't close to being good enough.

    Even despite his late start, Trout leads the American League in runs scored, stolen bases and batting average. Presently, the only AL hitter with a higher OPS is David Ortiz. Per FanGraphs, Trout is tied for the major league lead with a 5.8 WAR.

    He's a lock to win the AL Rookie of the Year award and the man to beat in the AL MVP race until further notice.

    Nothing that has happened this year has surprised me more than the dual emergence of Harper and Trout. It's rare for top prospects to live up to the hype. To have not one, but two top prospects live up to the hype in the same year is something that rarely happens.

    I'll speak for myself and say that I'm enjoying it.

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