Top 5 Surprises One-Third of the Way Through the MLB Season
So we are about a third of the way through the 2011 baseball season and there are some definite surprises and things most baseball fans are not used to seeing. All five teams in the AL East are within 3.5 games of first, and there are just three games separating first and last in the AL West. The Chicago White Sox are slumping in the surprisingly weak AL Central and the LA Dodgers are doing even worse. There are a few signs of normalcy, however. Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals are dominating and the Chicago Cubs still suck. Houston Astros and San Diego Padres are once again barely a blip on the radar and the NY Mets are one owner tirade away from becoming the Dodgers. That said; here are the top five surprises so far:
- Cleveland Indians – Not only do they have the best record in the majors (30-15) but their run differential (the difference between runs scored and runs allowed) is +67, by far the best in the majors. Their bats killing opponents (Third in Batting Average (.265), On Base Percentage (.334) and Slugging Percentage (.425) and fourth in Runs (231)). Their pitching is dynamite as well (Sixth in ERA (3.38) and seventh in Opponents Batting Average (.239)). They have a legit early MVP candidate in shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and they are in a division that, up to this point, has been under-achieving. As of May 23, they are seven games in front of the Detroit Tigers (the only other AL Central team over .500) and if this keeps up, they could be playing a lot of playoff baseball in Cleveland. That’s something the city of Cleveland can celebrate (as opposed to the #1 draft pick…again!)
- Jose Bautista, OF Toronto Blue Jays – How can a career .250 hitter start out a season like this?! Through 39 games (he missed eight due to an injury), he has 19 home runs, 32 RBIs and an astounding .353 batting average. Usually, if a player is hitting for power, he either homers or strikes out (see: Mark Reynolds, OF Baltimore Orioles). Bautista only has 23 strikeouts in 139 plate appearances. As of May 23, Bautista leads the AL in home runs, runs scored (39), walks (41), On Base Percentage (.503) and Slugging Percentage (.827) and he’s second in Batting Average. If he keeps up this pace, he will have 65 home runs, 110 RBIs and only 79 strikeouts. That is a unanimous MVP right there.
- Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals – These two perennial cellar-dwellers have posted respectable records so far this season. Both are just two games under .500 (22-24) and appear to be building for the future. In KC, outfielder Alex Gordon was actually starting to live up to his #2 overall draft pick status before the month of May knocked him back to reality. He’s only batting .158 in May as of May 23. OF Jeff Francoeur is enjoying a nice resurgence leading the team in homers (9) and RBIs (28) and On Base Percentage (.860). First baseman and top prospect Eric Hosmer was called up early in the season and has been a pleasant surprise as well. The Pirates have not had a winning season in two decades. So, like a forlorn Cubs fan “Could this be the year?!” Well, with Neil Walker and speedster Andrew McCutchen (who also leads the team with eight homers and is one of my favorite players), it’s a start. As long as the upper management doesn’t clean house like they tend to do every year, the Pirates may just have a winning season yet.
- Minnesota Twins – The Twins are almost always in the playoff hunt, but at the third-year point this year, they have the worst record in the majors (15-31). Why? Injuries have ravaged them. Mainly franchise catcher Joe Mauer, who has missed 37 games and counting with leg fatigue and there is no end in sight. Designated hitter Jim Thome is just returning from a stint on the Disabled List as well. They are last in runs scored (160) and On Base Percentage (.295), next-to-last in Slugging Percentage (.337) and 28th in Batting Average (.233). The other franchise player, first baseman Justin Morneau is batting just .229 with a measly .288 On Base Percentage. If they are going to get out of the bottom of the AL Central, they have to get a healthy Mauer and Morneau needs to step it up.
- Albert Pujols, 1B St. Louis Cardinals – The start of the season has not been kind to Pujols. A career .329 hitter, he is batting .268 and he just snapped a 105 at-bat homerless streak May 23, the longest drought of his career. This is a guy who is a free agent at the end of the year and before the season started, experts were throwing around numbers like $300 million. As in, Pujols may be asking for a contract in the vicinity of 10-year $300 million. Is he worth it? Well, he has been so good for so long that if he is even remotely below a .300 average, he’s not playing up to his lofty standards. But he is a former Rookie of the Year and three-time NL MVP, so you know what you are getting with Pujols and this isn’t it. I think he’ll pick it up and lead the Cardinals to another NL Central divisional title, especially with a potentially historic payday on the horizon. It also helps that the Cards are leading the majors in Batting Average (.282), Runs (246) and On Base Percentage (.361) and are second in Slugging Percentage (.425) even with Pujols slumping.
So there are my surprises. What are yours? Leave me a comment and let me know what I hit, missed and fouled off.