As we have finished April, there are many surprises around baseball. Here’s what I feel are the biggest ones:
First, a major surprise to me is that the Rockies are leading the NL West with a 17-11 record. I don’t think that they will wind up at season’s end, but I didn’t think they had enough pitching to be where they are now, even this early in the year.
Everyone’s preseason pick in the NL West seemed to be the Dodgers, because of all the money they spent in the offseason. I was not one who picked them to win it. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I don’t believe you can buy a team. You can buy players, but not a team. The Dodgers had eight starting pitchers coming out of Spring Training. They traded Aaron Harang and the next day Zack Greinke breaks his collarbone in the fight with Carlos Quentin. Then Chris Capuano gets hurt. So the Dogers are hanging around .500.
Then we go to the other LA team. This team I did pick to win the AL West because I thought the additions of Josh Hamilton and Jason Vargas would help them because they are both low-key players who would fit in to the Angels clubhouse — which I have since found out from a player who has since left was not a very cohesive clubhouse. And it shows on the field.
Harold Reynolds pointed out one specific play that demonstrated this point perfectly. Albert Pujols was coming in for a pop-up and it bounced out of his glove. The catcher, Chris Iannetta, was there to catch it. There was no excitement on their faces, no laughing, nothing. This game is supposed to be fun. The minute you play the game just for the paycheck, it’s time to go home.
I can speak from personal experience on this. I always said that when the game felt like a job, I would retire. Because your ability won’t shine through. I retired at 32 because I wasn’t having fun anymore. The Angels have arguably the best all-around player in the game in Mike Trout to go with Hamilton and Pujols, and they are 10-18. Losing Jered Weaver didn’t help, but this team should be much better than they are.
In the NL, the Pirates started poorly and now are just one game back in the Central at 16-12 . They have started fast the last two years, but faded toward the end of the year. They traded a lock-down closer in Joel Hanrahan and gave the job to a career setup man in his mid-30s in Jason Grilli, who entered this season with five career saves. He is now 11-for-11 in save opportunities. I didn’t think this would be the year they broke the streak of 20 straight losing seasons in the Steel City, but it may be.
Over in the AL Central, the Tigers will win this division! But the Twins being at .500 after the first month is a shocker to me. I thought they had a lineup that could compete, but I didn’t see anything in their starting rotation that would have led me to believe that they could be anywhere near the .500 mark after the first month. Justin Morneau is back to his MVP form at the plate, and they have gotten enough pitching to keep them afloat.
Back to the Can’t Buy a Team Theory. The Blue Jays had the huge trade with Marlins this winter that made many people’s pick to win the AL East. The pitching they got via trade has been subpar to this point. So far R.A. Dickey has not been the guy who won the NL Cy Young Award last year. Mark Buehrle has not been his reliable self, and Josh Johnson is on the DL. But the biggest loss for them has been the Jose Reyes injury. This guy absolutely disrupts the opposing pitcher’s focus when he is on base. He was hitting .395 when he got hurt. Meanwhile, the man who was an MVP of the 2012 All-Star Game and well on his way to perhaps a league MVP award until failing a drug test and getting a 50-game suspension, Melky Cabrera — to whom the Jays gave a two-year deal and a $2 million-a-year raise — has not even come close to being what he was before the suspension. All of this leads to the Jays being 10-19 and in the cellar of the AL East.
The other surprise in that division is the Yankees. I picked them to finish last because of all the injuries they were dealing with coming out of Spring Training. They led the majors last year with 245 home runs, and 200 of those were not in the lineup Opening Day. Yet they are in second place right now behind what I consider to be the biggest surprise so far this season to everyone. (I wasn’t as surprised most by the A’s, as I had the chance to see them in the spring in person and talk with the players to get a feel for what this team was all about.)
The Red Sox are a very good team. I think the main reason is the change in the manager. Bringing back John Farrell to manage a club where he was the pitching coach when they won their World Series titles was pure genius on the part of the Sox. First, they needed Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz to return to their former selves. Secondly, they needed a manager who wasn’t the main focus of the team. Farrell is very content to sit back and let his players play, and wants none of the credit. They have three starting pitchers who have not yet lost. Buchholz is 6-0. Lester is 4-0. And Felix Doubront is 3-0. The Sox have the best record in baseball and — barring injuries — I think they will win the AL East.
And for the record, I didn’t see them being this good. I expected them to be much improved, but I would be lying if I said I saw this coming all along. Also, for the record, Buchholz and Lester returning to their old form under their former pitching coach, Farrell, is not a coincidence!
Now for my least surprising performance to this point: Mariano Rivera being 11-for-11 in save opportunities. Many people wondered about his knee. If it had been his landing leg, yes, there would have been concern on my part. But the fact it is his post leg meant I never doubted he would be the old Mo! He is only off to the best start of his career. And yet he has said he will retire at the end of this year. I hate to see that. I believe Mo could close for another five years. When you have his command and an absolute understanding of the mental part of closing — by that I mean he knows the pressure is on the hitter, not you as the closer. You already have the lead.
I don’t care if his cutter velocity drops to 85 mph. Any coach who wants to teach kids perfect throwing mechanics, put on a tape of Mo for them to watch. His mechanics are flawless. And simple. If he decided not to retire, he would put the save record so far out of reach that no one would ever come close to it. He could pitch five more years and be close to 800 saves. He is a guy who shouldn’t have to wait five years to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. The day he says “I’m retired,” he should be inducted. We will never again see anyone like him!