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June 12, 2014

The Lineup Card

9 Unexpected Storylines of the Season to Date

by Baseball Prospectus


1. The Miami Marlins: Internet Clickbait Headline Edition

  • Click here to see 10 teal-colored clothes that everyone wore in 1997!
  • Now, one team from Florida is vying for the Eastern division title, but it's not who you think it is.
  • This story of a team that lost its "ace" starting pitcher to Tommy John surgery. What happened next will surprise you.
  • I knew Casey McGehee was a third baseman, but I never knew he could do THIS!
  • Does Jarrod Saltalamacchia have the longest name ever?
  • The Top Players under 25 in MLB. (No. 27 is amazing!)
  • Henderson Alvarez was born without a first name. But what he did next STUNNED everyone.
  • Here's how one team used this one weird trick to get a new stadium, get rid of all its good non-cost controlled players, and STILL put up a semi-respectable two-month stretch.

Russell A. Carleton

2. Mark Buehrle, Cy Young Award Contender
It's only June, but the AL Cy Young race has two leading contenders. Psuedo-Rookie Masahiro Tanaka and Totally-Not-A-Rookie* Mark Buehrle.

Let's work the conventional factors: I'm not a voter, and Buehrle wouldn't get my vote if I were. But numbers like his tend to tickle the fancy of the bulk of voters.

  • Buehrle: 10-2, 2.04 ERA, 52 SO, 25 BB, 88 1/3 IP
  • Tanaka: 9-1, 2.02 ERA, 92 SO, 13 BB, 84 2/3 IP

Okay, Tanaka has an edge with the SO and BB numbers. But who had Buehrle doing anything like this in 2014? Not us; he's beating his 90th-percentile projection. So let's argue about how much he'll regress. Or just hang out and enjoy the short outings and continued durability of the owner of two no-hit (one perfect) games.

*due to his fast pace on the mound Buerhle has only accumulated 13 days of MLB service time during his career. That's a totally true fact. Harry Pavlidis

3. The Crazy, Mixed-Up AL East
How are we at BP doing so far with our pre-season predictions? Let’s see, the first item on the list is the AL East. Ah, great, we just about nailed it: Jays, O’s, Yanks, Rays, Red Sox. Well, actually we had Rays and Red Sox reversed, but the vote was very close there, so all things considered we’ve done well.

Oh, wait, that’s not in order of worst to first? Um…

There are some things we’re supposed to be able to count on in life, and one of them is that Blue Jays can always be safely disregarded. The Orioles could challenge if they go 89-3 in one-run games, but otherwise they have not been a nuisance since Chris Hoiles. The Yankees dynasty is over but they’re still the Yankees, so figure them to get in or near the mix with all their expensive veterans and then run out of Geritol in August. It usually comes down to the Rays and Red Sox.

It’s not just that the standings are all wrong. It’s that they seem to run counter to the drama as it unfolds. I just watched David Ortiz hit one of his trademark late-inning go-ahead home runs, but the BoSox are worse than Kansas City. The Rays won three thrilling walkoff games in a row, which seemed to turn them around; but no, check the standings a little later and they’re the worst team in baseball. The Orioles lost Matt Wieters, have Manny Machado acting out and getting grounded, and are a pedestrian 12-9 in one-run games (although they do lead the AL in one-run games played); but they’re clinging to second place. The broken-down Yankees—the only team we got right (to date), in third place—are right behind the O’s only because it seems as though Masahiro Tanaka is something like 19-0, and is it any wonder? He was 24-0 in Japan last year.

Somehow the only team that makes any sense is actually Toronto. Of course Edwin Encarnacion is monstrous: “He’s a superstar in all but image,” we (okay, I) wrote in this year’s annual; it’s just that we needed a streak like the one he’s been on to prove that to us. Of course the unassailable Mark Buehrle and his 85-mile-an-hour fastball is the Cy Young frontrunner (q.v.); in a year of elbow blowouts, he’s the soft-tosser showing the world how you actually pitch. Why didn’t we see it coming that Brett Lawrie would play some games at second base and help fill the hole there? Granted, he complained about it—but he complains about everything. Oh, right, the Blue Jays got rid of sinkhole J.P. Arencibia. Lost Sergio Santos? Jeremy Jeffress didn’t work out and Esmil Rogers was sent back to Triple-A? No problem; back to bullpen stalwarts Casey Janssen (0.00 ERA till Monday’s blown save) and Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup, all of whom were good last year, too. None of this is really any kind of surprise, in retrospect. (You are, however, on your own with Juan Francisco. And Josh Thole.)

And if they should falter and need a late-season lift, don’t worry: The Blue Jays have the Great Pumpkin himself, Dan Johnson, down in Triple-A, waiting for his September summons. —Adam Sobsey

4. The Astros' Big-League Success
Okay, the Houston Astros aren't good. Not yet. But the Astros shouldn't even be this good, this soon. Houston's found success from unheralded players, such as Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, a pair of 26-year-old starting pitchers who are looking like legitimate starters. Furthermore, the Astros have begun to bring their first wave of prospects to Houston, calling up a pair of the organization's top young bats in outfielder George Springer and first baseman Jonathan Singleton. These players won't turn the Astros into a potential contender, but they don't need to. Remember, the Astros are betting on a couple of teenagers to carry their franchise. Carlos Correa, a 19-year-old shortstop with All-Star potential, is just in High-A. Just-drafted Brady Aiken hasn't even begun his pro career yet, but the ceiling is enormous and the floor is very high. And yet, both figure to move up the minor league ladder quickly, and that is when the Astros will become a powerhouse. But right now, Houston is showing flashes of a promising future much quicker than anticipated. —Ron Shah

5. Position Players Pitching
If the worst aspect of sports is that money controls everything, the worst on-the-field trend is the obsession to hyperspecialize every athlete role, even in baseball. Seventh inning pitcher? ROOGY? Director Of Figuring Out If We Should Challenge Via Replay? Heck outta here. But versatility is still valued in certain cults and the position player throwin' baseballs from the mound is the nexus of reverence. And this year the number of position players acting as pitchers has already matched the 2013 total, which was a "record" as far as anyone can tell.

My favorite this year had to be Danny Worth, who threw a MLB-quality knuckler (which currently stands as the highest-whiffed knuckleball in the PITCHf/x era). He was then was designated for assignment for not being good enough to stay as a shortstop or a pitcher, but maybe just maybe his career can continue as both. Mitch Moreland had a good fastball. Drew Butera wasn't bad either. Casper Wells is still a thing, right? Just think of the replacement-level minor league players who could crack a 25-man team not by taking steroids, but by throwing spheroids! (I'm so sorry.) —Matt Sussman

6. The First-Place Blue Jays
Entering 2013, the Blue Jays were everyone’s darlings entering the regular season. Reyes! Johnson! Buehrle! Dickey! Even Bonifacio! Toronto’s aggressive offseason combined with a division seemingly in transition led many to predict big things for the Blue Jays including a division title at a minimum.

Instead, the Blue Jays limped to a 74-88 finish, dead last in the AL East. After standing pat this offseason, most—including the staff at Baseball Prospectus—picked the Jays to finish last again in 2014. While the Jays had Edwin Encarnacion as an offensive anchor, it didn’t seem like the team had enough weapons around their star hitter to make a dent in the AL East.

However, where everything went wrong for the Jays in 2013 it has been going right this year. R.A. Dickey is the only player remaining from the team’s significant acquisitions who has remained somewhat disappointing. Mark Buehrle is putting up a Cy Young caliber season thus far, while Jose Reyes has stayed on the field nearly all season long.

However, the key to the Jays’ success has been a dynamic offensive attack featuring five hitters with double-digit home runs. Encarnacion has been the most heralded hitter of the five (and deservedly so), but Jose Bautista has been as much of an anchor for Toronto’s offense. Bautista combined for 184 games from 2012-2013; the time he missed was as much of a hindrance to the Jays as anything else. A healthy/productive Bautista has made a huge difference.

Buehrle aside, the key to Toronto’s pitching success has been a solid bullpen that doesn’t contain any superstars but does have plenty of depth. Casey Janssen leads a deep core of solid relievers that include Aaron Loup, Brett Cecil, and Todd Redmond. This depth has made up for otherwise ordinary starting pitching behind Buehrle. The Jays are doing what shouldn’t be possible: winning games on the backs of their offense without a stellar presence on the mound.

More than anything else though, the Jays are doing well because the division is as unsettled this year as it was supposed to be last year. The Yankees have suffered through injuries and have seen an underwhelming performance on the whole from their free agent imports. The Orioles have benefited from Nelson Cruz but this has been offset by Chris Davis’ struggles. The Red Sox are a long way from their championship caliber level of performance while the Rays have collapsed. This isn’t to take anything away from the Blue Jays—winners make the most of their opportunities—but the Jays are in a position to win in part because of what they have done, but also because they are in the right place at the right time in 2014. —Mike Gianella

7. The First-Place Brewers
It may not have been clear last season in Milwaukee, when the Brewers finished 23 games out in the National League Central, but there is value in trying. Doug Melvin elected to keep his core in place over the offseason, shipping off only Nori Aoki for some bullpen help, and even added Matt Garza to his rotation with a surprise late-winter signing. Melvin's trust in his players paid off right away, as the Brewers started hot. Milwaukee has cooled since, however, it has sustained a four-game lead in the Central over the Cardinals. Few, if any, thought the Brewers would in this position, yet it goes to show that unpredictable things can happen—and that alone makes it worth trying. —R.J. Anderson

8. The A's Are Really, Really Good
It’s strange to think of last year’s division winner, and 2012’s division winner, and the current division leader, as being unpredictably good. On the one hand, the Oakland A’s were predicted to be a good team, and have been a good team, so including them in a “most unpredictable storylines” list is somewhat unfair. On the other hand, their early-season news was dominated by their rotation and Tommy John surgery, and since then they’ve been so exceptionally good—allowing fewer runs and scoring more runs than any other team in baseball—that there’s a kind of “unpredictably amazing” aura about them. On March 30, we rated the A’s as having a 4.9 percent chance to win the World Series and a 45 percent chance to make the playoffs; that’s now a 13.8 percent chance to win the World Series and a 93 percent chance to make the playoffs. That’s a big jump for a team we already thought would be pretty good—similar in magnitude to real “surprise” teams like the Brewers, who are now rated as having a 63 percent chance to make the playoffs and started near 28 percent, or the Blue Jays, who are now rated as having a 78 percent chance after having started at 26 percent. But unlike these other teams, who have gone from “unlikely” to “likely," Oakland has gone from “maybe” to “near-lock." —Dan Brooks

9. Manny Machado's Makeup
Some young, talented players make names of themselves by being annoying to certain people. This is not a terrible crime. But Manny Machado’s actions in the last week have ventured into a different area of misconduct, where he is intentionally putting other players on the field in danger. He joins a short and infamous list of players who used the bat as a weapon against another player, including Roger Clemens and Juan Marichal.

It was not that long ago that Machado was considered just another really talented young player who made baseball interesting for all the right reasons. He was known as a hard-working and resilient man. Ken Rosenthal wrote in August 2012, “the Orioles love his makeup and mental toughness.” Until recently, we had no reason to think that was a bad assessment.

Machado’s actions necessitate some hard questions in the Orioles’ clubhouse. More likely than not, a suspension, fine, and team meeting will be sufficient to knock some sense back into his head. He’s still quite young and is dealing with physical and performance adversity he is not used to. The Orioles have plenty of veterans who can try to steer him back toward the good path.

Still, the seed of doubt will be planted in some minds about Machado’s value as a teammate. Teams will hire “annoying” but talented players without hesitation. However, they are much more reluctant to sign people who take out personal frustrations on other people. —Dan Rozenson

10 comments have been left for this article.

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