Biggest Takeaways from the First 10 Weeks of the MLB Season
The 2014 Major League Baseball season has reached the month of June, providing ample time for contenders to emerge, pretenders to disappear and a pecking order to become well established across the six divisions.
Yet things are never as clear as they seem. On a week-to-week basis, parity, injuries and sudden downturns in performance can change the narrative of the season on a dime. Luckily, we have weekly introspection to deliver perspective.
Since the second week of play, Bleacher Report has been providing weekly analysis, with a combination of short-term reaction and long-term outlook.
When this column series began eight weeks ago, rises from the Milwaukee Brewers, Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Abreu dominated the early-season takeaways. Before long, pitching dominance in Atlanta and Albert Pujols' return to form headlined the week.
Six weeks ago, Pujols' 500th homer, Troy Tulowitzki's special talent and Cliff Lee's path to Cooperstown took center stage. Five weeks ago, it was time for an appreciation of the Oakland Athletics' AL West dominance, Francisco Rodriguez's revival and Jayson Werth's value.
Finally, the last month highlighted the Detroit Tigers' road to October, the red-hot San Francisco Giants, Jose Bautista's talent, the parity evident around the sport, Edwin Encarnacion's power surge and a comprehensive take on two months of action.
Here are the biggest takeaways from the first 10 weeks of the 2014 MLB season.
Rock Bottom Has Arrived in Philadelphia
Since the start of the 2006 season, the Philadelphia Phillies have displayed a remarkably consistent win curve.
From 2006 to 2011, the National League's best team won 85, 89, 92, 93, 97 and 102 games, respectively, during the regular season. In 2012, the wheels began to come off for an aging roster that held the remains of a championship contender. During the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the Phillies won just 81 and 73 games, respectively.
Entering play on June 6, the 2014 Phillies sat at 24-34, in last place in the NL East and on pace for a 67-95 season. Unless something drastic changes with an aging, decaying roster, Philadelphia is on pace for its worst season since 2000. That year, the Phillies finished 30 games out of first place.
With the sharks circling around general manager Ruben Amaro and the team mired in a six-game losing streak, rock bottom has officially hit a team that isn't talented enough to recover, spry enough to reel off a winning streak or smart enough to unearth ways to fix roster problems in the short term.
As the possibility of a fire sale percolates around veterans in the clubhouse, veteran shortstop Jimmy Rollins admitted that the losing streak has reached a dire stage, per Jim Salisbury of CSN Philadelphia.
"It's getting out of control now," Rollins said. "We have a chance to go out and change that tomorrow. If not, that's a decision management is going to have to make either way."
Masahiro Tanaka Deserves MVP Consideration
When the New York Yankees handed Masahiro Tanaka $155 million to make the jump from Japan to the big leagues, a certain level of performance was expected. Imagining Tanaka competing for the AL Rookie of the Year award in 2014 wasn't difficult to envision for Yankees fans.
Through the first 12 starts of Tanaka's career, he's been even more than that. Due to injuries to 60 percent of New York's projected rotation—CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda—and a below-average offense, the 25-year-old rookie sensation has been tasked with keeping New York afloat in the AL East.
Along the way, Tanaka has become more valuable than expected. In fact, it's time to mention Tanaka's name among a group of early-season AL MVP candidates that includes Oakland's Josh Donaldson, the Angels' Mike Trout, Baltimore's Nelson Cruz and the dynamic duo of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in Toronto.
After limiting the Oakland Athletics to one run over six innings on June 5, Tanaka owns the following numbers on the season: 12 games started, 9-1 record, 84.2 innings pitched, 2.02 ERA, 2.65 FIP (fielding independent pitching), 92 strikeouts and 13 walks. Without context, those numbers are staggering and proof of immense talent from last winter's top free-agent arm.
With context, however, they become MVP-caliber numbers. The last starting pitcher to capture an MVP award, Detroit's Justin Verlander in 2011, entered the MVP discussion during a 12-start run in the second half of that season. From July 21 to September 18 of that season, Verlander posted the following numbers over a 12-game stretch: 12-0, 2.28 ERA, 87 IP, 91 SO, 23 BB.
Because it occurred at the end of a season, Verlander's dominance—and team-aided win total—propelled him to the top of the MVP race. Tanaka, meanwhile, has started his career in eerily similar fashion.
It's early to crown an MVP, especially when it comes to adding a starting pitcher to the mix, but Tanaka's performance merits the conversation. When New York's MVP is on the hill, his team has won 10 of 12 games. When he's not pitching, the Yankees have played .426 (20-27) baseball.
Don Zimmer Lived the Ultimate Baseball Life
Baseball lost a legend when Don Zimmer passed away Wednesday at the age of 83. After six decades as a player, manager and coach, Zimmer left the game with a lasting legacy as a man who truly lived a unique and special baseball life.
Regardless of your age or generation, Zimmer became a fixture for baseball fans. Anyone who met Babe Ruth, played with Jackie Robinson, managed Carl Yastrzemski and coached Derek Jeter certainly could tell stories about how the game and modern athlete evolved over the years.
Although many will remember Zimmer for his altercation with Pedro Martinez in the 2003 ALCS, there's much more to his rich baseball legacy, including managing the 1978 Red Sox during a collapse and the Bucky Dent game, and his major role on the bench for baseball's last dynasty with the late '90s New York Yankees.
Zimmer connected baseball generations, grandfathers to sons to grandsons, while finding a way to relate with players nearly 50 years his junior. Roger Angell summed it up best in a Postscript of Zimmer for The New Yorker.
"He was a baseball figure from an earlier time: enchantingly familiar, tough and enduring, stuffed with plays and at-bats and statistics and anecdotes and wisdom accrued from tens of thousands of innings," Angell wrote.
Madison Bumgarner Should Be a Household Name
San Francisco Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner is off to another typically dominant start—13 GS, 80.2 IP, 2.68 ERA, 2.71 FIP, 90/18 SO/BB—as the ace of the staff of the NL West leaders. As the 24-year-old star rolls through his fifth season as a key member of the Giants rotation, national recognition still eludes one of baseball's best pitchers.
Since debuting as a 20-year-old in 2009 and making 18 starts for the World Series championship club in 2010, Bumgarner has been one of the best starting pitchers in the world. After pitching in the shadow of Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum during his early years, Bumgarner is now clearly the best arm on Bruce Bochy's staff.
From 2010 to 2014, Bumgarner ranks fifth in ERA (3.06), sixth in FIP (3.12) and sixth in SO/BB (3.77), and he owns 15 spotless innings of World Series work. Over that span, Bumgarner's ERA is better compared to Cole Hamels and David Price, his FIP is lower than Zack Greinke and Jon Lester, and his SO/BB is superior compared to James Shields and Justin Verlander.
After a recent shutdown outing against the Minnesota Twins, Bochy summed up Bumgarner's prowess in simple yet telling fashion, per The Associated Press (via Fox Sports).
"Madison was Madison," Bochy said. "He had his normal stuff and pitched great."
Bumgarner's normal stuff is great during the regular season and postseason. Still months from his 25th birthday, it's time for fans across the country to include San Francisco's great arm in the conversation of baseball's best pitchers.
Don Mattingly Is Looking for Answers
After a magical 2013 season, the rise of Yasiel Puig and a trip to the National League Championship Series, expectations for greatness abounded at Chavez Ravine. With a $235 million payroll, four star outfielders rotating in three spots and a deep, dominant pitching staff, a healthy Dodgers team looked to have 100-win potential.
Through 61 games, greatness hasn't come close to materializing for the mediocre Dodgers. While some impact players (Yasiel Puig, Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez) are performing at admirable levels, things haven't clicked yet for the defending NL West champions.
Prior to play on June 6, the Dodgers sat 8.5 games behind the division-leading Giants and behind the Miami Marlins in the wild-card chase.
Manager Don Mattingly—after nearly losing his job during a slow start last summer—is looking for answers to what ails his team. Recently, he broached the subject of chemistry and playing as a team, per Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles.
"It seems like we're talking so much about one guy or another guy or this or that instead of us being focused on winning a game and how we can win a game and what can we do to win a game," Mattingly said. "I think when we were able to start putting things together last year, you felt a real, true team focus, just a collective group."
Although revisionist history may paint the 2013 Dodgers as a season-long juggernaut, that team actually had a losing record (44-45) as late as July 9. For the current version of baseball's most expensive team, there's ample time to turn the season around.
Toronto's Power Is a Blast from the Past
As the Blue Jays reign atop the American League East, the substance of success in Toronto continues to be the long ball. After a mid-week blistering of Detroit Tigers pitching, the Blue Jays now have five players—Edwin Encarnacion (19), Jose Bautista (14), Brett Lawrie (10), Melky Cabrera (10) and Juan Francisco (10)—with at least 10 home runs on the season.
Despite playing in only 37 games due to a hamstring injury, center fielder Colby Rasmus has nine homers, helping Toronto to a league-leading 87 on the young season. With Rasmus on the mend, the Blue Jays could boast six players with 25 home runs this season.
How rare is that feat? It's only been done once in history, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required). Yes, folks, the 2003 Red Sox—famous more for losing the ALCS on Aaron Boone's walk-off home run—were the only team in the history of the sport to feature a lineup that deep in power.
Of the 10 teams to boast five different 25-homer hitters, 40 percent—the 1996 Orioles, 1997 Rockies, 2000 Angels and 2002 White Sox—played in the heart of the Steroid Era (1996-02). For the Blue Jays to be hitting for this type of lineup-wide power in an era dominated by pitching is truly remarkable.
Amazingly, the group at hand doesn't include middle-of-the-lineup threat Adam Lind. Despite a stellar .982 OPS, Lind only owns three home runs on the season. With two 25-plus home run seasons on his career ledger, the idea of Lind heating up and making a charge at giving Toronto an unprecedented seven record-breaking sluggers isn't out of the question.
Stephen Strasburg Has Become Baseball's Most Underrated Pitcher
A quick Google search for Washington Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg reveals a list of key words that are routinely associated with the pitcher. From "unlucky" to "shutdown" to "innings limit" to "Twitter" to "contract," the Internet is rife with distractions surrounding a truly special pitcher.
After watching Strasburg dominate the Phillies on June 4—7 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 11 SO, 0 BB—it's clear that one of the most dominant arms in the sport resides at Nationals Park. Years after an infamous innings limit, shutdown and social media uproar, Strasburg has quietly settled in as an ace for the Nationals.
Through 13 starts in 2014, Strasburg has racked up 101 strikeouts and boasts a 2.39 FIP. Both of those totals are among the top five, respectively, among all starting pitchers this season. Furthermore, Strasburg has been nothing short of brilliant since debuting in 2010.
From 2010 to 2014, among pitchers with at least 500 innings thrown, Strasburg ranks second in FIP (2.72), eighth in ERA (2.98) and first in SO/9 (10.56). To put those numbers in perspective, Strasburg is the only pitcher in the history of the sport to boast an ERA under 3.00 and strikeout rate of at least 10 during his first five seasons in the big leagues.
In a world where fans are always searching for the next big thing, Tommy John surgery, an innings limit and mediocre play from the other 24 men on Washington's roster have somehow made Stephen Strasburg into baseball's most underrated pitcher.
One of the most dominant young arms of all time is healthy and performing at a high level. Enjoy it, baseball fans.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted and are valid through the start of play on June 6. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.
What was your biggest takeaway from the first 10 weeks of the MLB season?