A season full of surprisesby John Beamer
July 14, 2008
Every year brings a surprise or two, pretty much. A couple of years ago it was the Detroit Tigers coming from nowhere only to fall at the last hurdle: the Cardinals in the World Series. Last year it was the Rockies who, with a phenomenal streak, soared into the playoffs. The Tigers proved their worth with a solid follow-up season, while the Rox have reverted to previous form and will struggle to best a .400 win percentage.
Let's take a look at two of the surprising stories that have emerged this year and whether they'll be sustained.
Tampa Bay Rays
For as long as anyone can remember, the AL East has been a two-horse race between the Yankees and Red Sox. In fact 2007 was the first year in 10 when Gotham's stranglehold on the division was finally broken. The one other certainty in the AL East has been that Tampa Bay would perennially pick up the wooden spoon.
Alas, no more. After a decade when the Floridians hoarded draft talent by virtue of being so poor, the assembled motley crew has started to perform. As we currently stand, the Rays have the best record in the junior circuit and hold a slender 0.5-game lead over the Sox in baseball's toughest division. Had this article been penned last week the results would have been wildly different—back then Tampa was the hottest team in baseball, but since then the Rays have been on a tough six-game losing streak.
Can they maintain their dwindling division lead?
The betting markets believe that the Red Sox are marginal favorites, with the Rays hanging on to their coat tails. Dial back to last week and the Rays were considered favorites, which shows just how quickly luck can change in baseball. Have a look at the Tradesports graph below:
There are a couple of reasons why the betting markets think like this. First is history. As mentioned above, no team outside the Sox and Yankees has won this division in over 10 years. Second, the Sox are defending World Champions and man for man have a higher talent level than the Rays. Turn back to any preseason forecast and there is a 10-game difference between the teams.
Based on latest data this gap may have closed some, but you won't find many who think that the Rays are the better team. A quick look at pythagorean records confirms as much. The Red Sox are one game off their projected records while the Rays are three games ahead. Boston is the better team.
Unlike their contemporaries in the East, the Rays have been getting it done through pitching rather than hitting. The most productive batter on the team is Evan Longoria batting .281/.383/.525—a good, but not great line. Taken as a whole though the batting isn't terrible. Only one player among the regulars and semi-regulars, shortstop Jason Bartlett, has an OPS+ lower than 90. There is something to be said for mediocrity!
Pitching, on the other hand, is a different story. A rotation of Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza and James Shields is strong. Andrew Sonnanstine, the worst of the starting five, has a very respectable ERA of 4.58 and has won 10 games to boot. All these guys are 26 and under and represent a fine foundation from which to build. The bullpen is also strong with Troy Percival and Dan Wheeler anchoring the starters. A glance down the roster reveals few weak links.
A combination of batting consistency and stingy pitching has held the Rays in good stead. Will it be enough to topple the Sox? Tricky question ... but probably not.
The biggest surprise of the season has been the form of the Cleveland Indians. Last year the Tribe dominated the AL Central and many thought that the young Indians team would dominate the division for several years to come. Midway through the season, Mark Shapiro's team haven't even won 40 games and are some 14 games behind the division-leading White Sox. The team has even had to trade prized pitcher C.C. Sabathia. What's gone wrong?
It's easy to point fingers but the first culprit is the famed batting line. Travis Hafner, who has been MVP-esque in the past few years, has been severely below par for this campaign. He line is a paltry .217/.326/.350—although some will say that the decline started last year. A DH at 31 doesn't bode well for the future.
The rest of the offense has been a mixture of good and bad. Well, to be more accurate there has been one bright point in Grady Sizemore. The center fielder continues to reaffirm his considerable talent but outside of him it is a woeful tale. Production from first, second and right field has been dreadful—Ryan Garko, Jamey Carroll and Franklin Gutierrez all under performing. The problem is compounded with a lack of depth on the bench.
Andy Marte, who a couple of years ago was the most touted prospect in baseball tried his luck again in the bigs. After 75 at-bats his line is .160/.203/.200—another stark reminder to teams contemplating taking a prospect from the Braves.
What about pitching?
Actually not bad. Sabathia continued to be as effective as usual with a 3.83 ERA in 18 games before being traded to the Brewers. Faustino Carmona, who played a starring role in last year's run has also been surprisingly effective this time around (to the slight surprise of quite a few pundits).
And don't forget Cliff Lee. Who can't forget his stellar start to the year when he won his first six games and had as sub 1.00 ERA until mid-May. Since then he has continued to pitch well and currently sports a 12-2 record with a meager 2.31 ERA. Other members of the rotation like Jake Westbrook (3.12 ERA) and Aaron Laffey (3.45 ERA) have proved useful.
It is the bullpen where the team has struggled. Closer Joe Borowski is showing his age and sports a hefty 7.36 ERA. In fact only Rafael Perez and Masahide Kobayashi are showing any sort of form in the pen.
Does some medicore batting, a poor bullpen and a healthy rotation really cause a 14-game deficit? Nope. The story lies in our old friend Pythagoras. In 2008 the Indians have been unlucky. They are underplaying their pythagorean record by some seven games. That would put them at a .500 record and level with their preseason rivals the Detroit Tigers.
Don't expect to find the Tribe on the floor of the division come September; they won't be on the top either.
We'll continue this series in a couple of weeks time when we'll look at the Minnesota Twins and New York Mets.
John is an unashamed glory supporter having followed the Atlanta Braves since 1991. He blogs the Braves at Chop-n-Change. He welcomes comments, criticisms and suggestions via e-mail