Now that we're on the verge of the National League's annual humiliation in the All-Star Game, it's time to review the first half of the 2010 season. For some teams and players it has been business as usual, with baseball's daily smorgasbord punctuated by a number of surprises, most recently the failure of the Evil Empire to land Cliff Lee. Here's a look at the half-season's biggest surprises and least surprising events.
FIVE BIGGEST SURPRISES
1. UBALDO JIMENEZ: Winning 15 games in Colorado last season was impressive for a 25-year-old, but Jimenez has been off the charts so far this season. Through his first 14 starts he looked like Bob Gibson in 1968 but with a better record (13-1, 1.15 ERA). He's gotten roughed up a little since then but still has startling numbers (15-1, 2.20 ERA). Mixing an upper-90s fastball with wicked breaking stuff, he's holding the opposition to a .198 batting average. How good is this start? In 1978, Ron Guidry was 13-1 at the All-Star break and wound up going 25-3. In 1986, Roger Clemens was 15-2 and finished at 24-4. Denny McLain, the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season, was 17-2 on July 13. The last one before him, Dizzy Dean, was 15-3. You have to go back to Walter Johnson's 1913, for my money the best season ever by a pitcher, to find someone with a decisive edge over Jimenez so far; Johnson won his 20th game on July 13 en route to a 36-7 record.
2. CINCINNATI REDS: Hats off (so far) to my Reds, who sit atop their division despite a nightmarish weekend in Philadelphia going into the break. Following a decade of sub-.500 seasons, the team looked good to me entering the season. I thought they had the best infield in the league, and three of them are at the All-Star Game: Scott Rolen, the stabilizing pro at third base; Brandon Phillips, the versatile threat at second; and Joey Votto, having an MVP-caliber season so far (.314, 22 HR, 60 RBI). The outfield seemed young and uncertain, but Johnny Gomes has sparkled with 60 RBI while Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs have been productive enough to make the Reds the highest-scoring team in the National League. I thought the team's fortunes would hinge on their young pitching, and they've been better than expected. Bronson Arroyo and Johnny Cueto have combined to go 17-6, and rookie Mike Leake has been a pleasant surprise with a 6-1 record. Now Travis has arrived with eight perfect innings at Philadelphia, and the Reds might actually be in the race for the long haul.
3. SAN DIEGO PADRES: Another team that didn't figure to sit atop its division at the halfway point, the Padres have done it with pitching, mirrors, and super-glue. The rest of the league has underestimated them right into first place. I got a kick out of the Mets announcers spending the first two innings of their first game in San Diego harping about the Padres having absolutely no offense aside from Adrian Gonzalez, then shutting up as the Padres won 18-6. The fact is that even though Gonzalez is about a third of their offense (he has 18 HR and 56 RBI, and the next-highest totals on the team are 8 HR and 32 RBI), with their pitching and their spacious home park, they haven't needed to score a lot of runs to win. Mat Latos has anchored a solid rotation and Heath Bell is taking his dismay at being traded by the Mets out on the rest of the league. The injury to Luke Gregerson over the weekend will hurt, but unless The Big earthquake forces them to play their home games in a Little League park, their pitching will probably hold up and make things tough on the rest of their division.
4. VLADIMIR GUERRERO: After an injury-marred, unproductive 2009 season, Guerrero turned 35 years old over the winter, was exiled to Arlington, Texas, and saw his salary plummet from $15 million to a mere $5.5 million. Right now, he looks like the biggest bargain of the year. In 83 games he's driven in 75 runs (he projects to 142 for the season) and is batting .319 with 20 HR and only 30 strikeouts. Pretty much a full-time DH now, he has anchored a Rangers lineup that is third in the majors in runs scored, and with Cliff Lee added to a squad that already had a 4-game lead in its division, we can look forward to seeing more of Vlad in the postseason.
5. TWO PERFECT GAMES (marked down from three): It hasn't happened since 1880, a year when it took eight balls for a walk and pitching deliveries were restricted to what we would recognize today as fast-pitch softball. There's a reason why there have only been 20 of them in 130 years, so seeing three pitchers mow down 27 hitters in a row in the space of a couple of months is astonishing. If it weren't for that atrocious bit of umpiring by Jim Joyce, Armando Galarraga would have his name in the record books right there with Dallas Braden and Roy Halladay, instead of being back in the minor leagues.
FIVE LEAST SURPRISING THINGS
1. DAVID ORTIZ: His second-half resurrection last season might have been the only thing that kept the Red Sox from dumping him into the Atlantic after his horrible start this season (.143, 1 HR, 4 RBI in April), but is anybody really shocked that he bounced back to be the AL's Player of the Month in May (.363, 10 HR, 27 RBI)? Anybody who can hit 32 rockets in the Home Run Contest, as he did last night, isn't going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
2. ORIOLES & PIRATES: They really, really stink. They've been outscored by a combined 336 runs. Do I need to elaborate?
3. CUBS: They're in turmoil. Carlos Zambrano has self-destructed; did anybody not see that coming? Their best pitcher, Carlos Silva, is pissed off, too. The only guy who doesn't seem angry is the one guy who should be: manager Lou Piniella, who seems strangely resigned to mediocrity. The offense is old (only four of the 13 non-pitchers on the roster are in their 20s) and slow, and unless they can figure out a way to let Tyler Colvin bat two or three times an inning, help does not appear to be on the way. Cubs fans: wait till next century!
4&5. MILTON BRADLEY & OLIVER PEREZ: They really, really stink, and are starting to build legacies as the worst investments in recent history. After a lackluster, teammates-alienating season with the Cubs which consisted of a .257 average and 40 RBI, Bradley was traded to Seattle and somehow got a raise from $7 to $11 million. What has he done so far to earn that bonanza? He's hitting .210 with 28 RBI--and 64 strikeouts--in 210 at-bats, sparking the Mariners to a strangle-hold on last place. As for Perez, after amassing all of ten (10) wins in 2008, his agent, Scott Boras, hypnotized the Mets into giving him a three-year deal at $12 million a year. In 2009, perhaps feeling guilty about that contract, he compiled a record of 3-4 with a 6.82 ERA. And so far, that's the good news! This season, once again fighting vague injuries that mask a basically inability to find the strike zone, Perez has contributed zero (0) wins and a 6.28 ERA to the Mets in exchange for his bi-weekly $1 million paycheck. Add up 2009-2010 and you get 21 starts, 104 2/3 innings, 91 walks, a 3-7 record, and an ERA of 6.62. And remember one thing: as Mets fans (apart from the team's general manager) do not need to be told, this is all under the heading of "least surprising". Nuf ced.