Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How The Season Flies

I'm amazed that we have already reached the All-Star Game break in a season that seems as if it's just getting rolling. Maybe that's because it took until the last nine days for my Mets (my #2 team) to wake up and start playing the brand of crisp, winning baseball they played most of the previous two seasons. Their nine-game winning streak has included many amazing feats: their erratic pitching staff became the first since 1900 to hold opponents to three hits or less in five straight games; their much-maligned bullpen currently has a 19-inning scoreless streak; and their offense has been fueled by the late-inning heroics of second-stringers Damian Easley, Fernando Tatis, and Ramon Castro.

As we pause for the annual exhibition to confirm that an American League city will host the first game of the World Series, here are a few things worth noting after the first half (more like 60%) of this season:

1) JOSH HAMILTON: After last night's astonishing performance in the Home Run Derby, Hamilton affirmed his place as the most dramatic human story of this baseball season. As Joe Morgan noted on the telecast, it's tough enough to hit major league pitching after a few weeks off, but Hamilton went three full years without swinging a bat against live pitching, afflicted by a cocaine addiction which nearly killed him. He needed a special dispensation from Pope Bud I just to be allowed to go to spring training in 2007. Now he has 95 RBI at the break, second-most in the past 50 years, and has emerged as the star he was supposed to be years ago. His home run display at Yankee Stadium was mind-boggling. At one point he had 8 HR and 6 outs; he hit 20 balls into the far reaches of the stadium in his next 22 swings. He hit everything served up by his Everyman batting-practice hurler, 71-year-old Clay Counsil. Over the years, Home Run Derby participants have learned the wisdom of taking a pitch or two between swings, to help them relax, conserve energy, and remain patient enough to find the pitch in their sweet zone. Not Hamilton. When he rocketed into baseball lore with 13 straight blasts, he let only a handful of Counsil servings pass by unmaimed. He couldn't help himself. In the greatest BP groove ever, he swung at everything, and everything disappeared into the upper deck, adding up to 28 home runs covering nearly 2 1/2 miles. The question now is whether this is going to ruin Hamilton the way that Home Run Derby fame wrecked Bobby Abreu. Then playing for the Phillies, Abreu hit 24 home runs in one round in the 2005, the record smashed by Hamilton, then hit only 6 the rest of the season. His power swing somehow altered by that flash of stardom, he hit only 8 the first half of 2006, then was traded to the Yankees, who felt that he'd flourish with the Stadium's short right-field porch. But it just hasn't happened. In two seasons with the Yankees, Abreu has hit a far-from immortal 33 home runs, eight fewer than he launched in one night in 2005. Will Josh Hamilton fall victim to Abreu's Syndrome, or will that he continue as an RBI magnet with that sweet swing?

2) (INTRALEAGUE) PARITY: Look at the standings. Teams are bunched together as never before. The best record in each league is an unexceptional .600, by the Cubs and Angels, both on a pace for 97 wins, which would make this the fourth straight season with no team winning 100 games. Last season, no NL team won more than 90 games. Only 6 of the 16 teams in the NL are over .500 at the moment, none of them from the West Division. How mediocre are NL teams? Once again, they got drilled in interleague play, with an aggregate 103-149 record. Only the Mets, Reds, and Braves played winning ball against the other league; the first-place Phillies went 4-11. Things are more bunched in the AL, where 8 of the 14 teams are over .500, one is at .500, and only three teams are more than three games below the break-even mark. The Kansas City Royals, with the third-worst record in the AL, are struggling at 30-48 against their own league, but cruised to a 13-5 record against the NL. Was the schedule stacked against the NL? Because of the different number of teams in the leagues, all AL teams played 18 interleague games, but only four NL teams did so, the rest playing 15. Is it coincidence that the four NL teams forced to play that extra series against the tougher AL--the Padres, Nationals, and Astros--are in last place? Add the Giants, and those four teams went a dismal 24-48 in interleague play.

3) LOUSY LINEUPS: Where have all the scary lineups of a few years ago gone? We can speculate all we want about why there isn't as much offense or as many home runs this year (have the baseballs been de-juiced, or just the players?), but in the bigger picture, it's all part of the ebb and flow of offense vs. defense. Baseball history is full of cycles. Hitting dominated the 1890s, the 1930s and the 1990s. Pitching ruled in the 1910s and the 1960s, and we may be entering another pitcher-friendly era. Check the batting averages in the box scores and you'll find some teams with more hitters below .220 than above .280, even in the American League. Only a handful of teams have the kind of top-to-bottom intimidating lineup that seemed the norm ten years ago.

4) GREAT YOUNG PITCHERS: Which comes first, great pitching or weak hitting? Are the lineups looking sickly because players have forgotten how to hit, have the pitchers caught up in their knowledge of how to exploit modern hitters, or do we just happen to have a crop of extraordinary young pitchers bursting onto the scene all at once? Check out the array of pitchers who are 25 years old or younger.

NATIONAL LEAGUE
Edinson Volquez (25): 12-3, 2.29 ERA, 126 Ks in 117 innings, All-Star
Tim Lincecum (24): 11-2, 2.57 ERA, 135 Ks in 129 innings, All-Star
Jair Jurrjens (22): 9-4, 3.00 ERA
Manny Parra (25): 8-2, 3.78 ERA
Ricky Nolasco (25): 10-4, 3.70 ERA
Cole Hamels (24): 9-6, 3.15 ERA, 126 Ks in 142 innings
Mike Pelfrey (24): 8-6, 3.64 ERA
Chad Billingsley (23): 9-8, 3.25 ERA, 128 Ks in 119 innings
Add an even greater number of starters who have shown glimpses of brilliant potential, including Johnny Cueto (22), Matt Cain (23), Micah Owings (25), Max Scherzer (23), Homer Bailey (22), Ubaldo Jiminez (24), Andrew Miller (23), Scott Olsen (24), Yovani Gallardo (22), Kyle Kendrick (23), Zach Duke (25), and Jonathan Sanchez (25). Don't forget about currently injured starters Josh Johnson (24) and Anibal Sanchez (24), or this fine quintet of already-established relievers: Carlos Marmol, Jonathan Broxton, Manuel Corpas, Matt Capps, and Kyle McClellan. National League hitters are going to have their hands full with these guys the next 5-10 years.

AMERICAN LEAGUE
Jon Lester (24): 7-3, 3.38 ERA
Gavin Floyd (25): 10-5, 3.63 ERA
Ervin Santana (25): 11-3, 3.34 ERA, 122 Ks in 129 innings, All-Star
Joba Chamberlain (22): 2-3, 2.62 ERA, 76 Ks in 65 innings
Felix Hernandez (22): 6-6, 2.95 ERA, 101 Ks in 113 innings; 14-7 last year
Andy Sonnanstine (25): 10-4, 4.58 ERA
Scott Kazmir (24): 7-5, 3.04 ERA, led AL in Ks last year, All-Star
Justin Verlander (25): 7-9, 4.15 ERA; went 35-15 last two years
Zack Greinke (24): 7-5, 3.48 ERA, 104 Ks
John Danks (23): 7-4, 2.67 ERA
Matt Garza (24): 7-5, 3.96 ERA

Here's the "glimpses of brilliance" list for the AL: Edwin Jackson (24), Clay Buchholz (23, with a no-hitter), Garrett Olson (24), Aaron Laffey (23), Kyle Davies (24), Jered Weaver (25), Phil Hughes (22), Ian Kennedy (23), Dana Eveland (24), Chad Gaudin (25), and Jesse Litsch (23). Fausto Carmona (24, with 19 wins last season) and Jeremy Bonderman (25) are on the shelf, and the fine group of young AL relievers includes Joakim Soria (24, All-Star), Joel Zumaya (23), Jim Johnson (25), Huston Street (24), Brandon Morrow (23), and Jose Arredondo (24).

That's a ton of talent. Yes, you can look at any baseball season and find a lot of great young arms, and the caveat is that so many of those arms burn out too quickly. The Mets thought they had it made 15 years ago with the baby-faced trio of Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher, and Jason Isringhausen. They all blew out their arms early and never formed that dream core of the rotation. Pulsipher disappeared for good, Wilson surfaced briefly years later but was mediocre, and though Isringhausen has put together a decent career it has been as a one-inning reliever, not a starter. You never know. The Marlins and Rays always seem to have a lot of young potential; how would you like a starting rotation of Josh Beckett, Ryan Dempster, A. J. Burnett, and Brad Penny? The Marlins had them all in 2002, but now they're all pitching elsewhere. So keep an eye on these young prodigies. See how many survive, how many thrive, and how many nosedive.

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