We’re now more than a month into the baseball season, and while the Yankees and Phillies have assumed their usual positions at the top of the standings, there have been more than a few surprises elsewhere around the league. Here are a few team and individual accomplishments I didn’t see coming:
1. The AL Central is Upside Down
The Twins didn’t seem to get better this offseason, but they ran away with the division last year, and they’ve won six of the last nine division titles (and lost a tiebreaker) without ever looking all that intimidating in March. This year’s Twins can’t hit (they’re last in the league in batting, on-base, and slugging), can’t pitch (they’re last in ERA and quality starts), and have a lot of closer-types who can’t close out games. That all adds up to a 9-17 April, the worst record in the major leagues.
Meanwhile, the White Sox and Tigers, the two teams most likely to take advantage of a disappointing season in the Twin Cities, are scuttling along themselves (10-18 and 12-15, respectively). The Royals, who looked like a 100- to 110- loss team after dealing Zack Greinke, came out of the gate strong and finished April with a winning record.
The Royals are still looking up, though, at the Indians, whose 18-8 record in April was the best in either league. The Indians offense, with Matt LaPorta and Carlos Santana breaking out, Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore reestablishing themselves, and Shin Soo Choo quietly making a case as the best outfielder in the American League, may be for real. The pitching, with Fausto Carmona playing Jekyll and Hyde and Josh Tomlin getting by on smoke and mirrors, may not hold up, but if the division is as weak as it was in April, the bats might be enough to win the Indians 84 games and a trip to the postseason.
2. The Red Sox are in Last Place
It seems like every year, the Yankees look a little better than the Red Sox in the preseason, the Sox come out of the gate strong and lead the division through the All-Star break, only to fade late in the season. This year, the Sox did everything right in the offseason and convinced everyone they were the team to beat, and what did it get them? A season-opening six-game losing streak and an 11-15 April record, good for last place in the AL East.
After opening 2-10, the Sox ended their first road trip with three wins and got dominant pitching for a week out West, putting together an 8-1 stretch that almost brought them back to .500. Then they ended April with four losses in five games against the lowly Orioles and Mariners, and found themselves back in the basement.
As a team, they’re getting on base (their .331 OBP is fifth in the AL), but they’re doing it more with walks than hits (their .243 batting average is eighth), and their .212 April batting average with runners in scoring position led to a lot of frustrating losses. Similarly, their pitchers are getting guys out (their 1.29 WHIP is fifth in the league), but the guys getting on are hitting too many homers (27, sixth in the league), leading to a middling 4.24 ERA (ninth in the league). They will certainly hit better (Carl Crawford can’t hit .155 all year), and if they continue to pitch like they did the second half of this year, they may still be the favorites to win the World Series, but nobody expected such an uphill climb after April 30.
3. Jose Bautista is Still Raking
After breaking out with 54 home runs in 2010, Bautista has added another dimension to his game this year, getting on base at a staggering .530 clip. He also leads the AL in batting average (.357), slugging (.762), home runs (nine), runs (25), and walks (30). It’s no surprise that Miguel Cabrera (1.086 OPS) is crushing the ball again, or that Robinson Cano (.970) has put up MVP numbers, but Bautista, who looked like he may have been a one-year wonder, is putting both of them to shame.
4. Jered Weaver is Unhittable
I’ve written enough about Weaver this year, but it’s worth repeating his April numbers one more time. He went 6-0 with a 0.99 ERA, 49 strikeouts, and ten walks in 45 2/3 innings. That he was scratched from today’s start with a stomach virus reminds us that everyone is human and it’s hard to be unhittable every start for a whole year, but Weaver hasn’t had a misstep yet.
5. Rookie and Near-Rookie Pitchers are Dominating Everywhere
Alexi Ogando is 3-0 with a 2.30 ERA. Josh Tomlin is 4-0, 2.45. Zach Britton is 5-1, 2.63. Brandon Beachy has a 36/10 K/BB ratio and a WHIP under 1. Yet it’s Seattle’s Michael Pineda who leads all rookie pitchers in just about every meaningful category. Pineda has a 2.01 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP. He’s struck out 30 and walked 12 in 31 1/3 innings. He’s eighth in the American League with a Season Score of 85. The Mariners won’t compete for a playoff spot this year, but if they can hang onto Pineda and Felix Hernandez, and surround them with a modicum of offense, the rest of this decade looks bright in Seattle.
You may have noticed that I hardly mentioned the National League here, but a quick glance at the standings and leaderboards will tell you why. The Phillies lead the NL East, with the dangerous Marlins and Braves in second and third. The Cardinals, Reds, and Brewers are competing for the Central, as expected. And while the Giants struggled to a 13-13 April, it’s no surprise that the Rockies top the NL West. Josh Johnson (157 Season Score) isn’t surprising anyone who’s been paying attention with his dominant pitching, and while Lance Berkman may be turning back the clock, it’s no shock that Matt Holliday, Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, Troy Tulowitzki, and Joey Votto are among the early MVP candidates.
There’s a lot of baseball to be played, and the teams and players we expected to succeed will likely find their way to the top, but there will be more surprises to come. Maybe even one in the National League.