The 2011 season is now a week-and-a-half old. Each team in baseball has played through three series, and every team has had the chance to go through its rotation—such as it is in early April, when off days allow some clubs to dispense with fifth starters—twice now. Some, like the Brewers, have even been able to squeeze three starts out of their Opening Day starter. The season is much too young to know anything for certain (other than that Manny Ramirez will not be contributing to the Rays this year), but that doesn't mean the performances that we've seen so far this year should be ignored completely. Even with all of the time and effort, researching and projecting, and discussing and arguing we do in the offseason, nothing can take the place of the actual games, and nothing will ever keep players from surprising us.
Listed below are the five biggest surprises in the National League Central so far this year. As with all statistical surprises (especially those that hinge in large part on small sample size), these observations are meant to be mostly descriptive, not predictive. Players are still subject to the tyranny of true talent, and hot (or slow) starts mean little in the long run.
Let's start with three interesting Brewers: Chris Narveson, Nyjer Morgan, and Tony Plush. Narveson began the winter as Milwaukee’s presumptive number-five starter, but his role was far from certain. After a 2010 season that started out slow (a 6.02 ERA and 1.569 WHIP in the first half), Narveson really pulled it together in the second half, managing a 3.89 ERA in an almost identical number of innings (86.2 versus 81.0). The turnaround began, unsurprisingly, when he started walking fewer batters and giving up fewer home runs. It seems simple, but when a player has a first half like Narveson did (13 HR, 71 SO, 35 BB in those 86.2 IP), an extended improvement does not look likely. However, he allowed only eight HR and 24 BB (vs 66 SO) after the break.
In Narveson's two starts in 2011, he has pitched in 13 innings and allowed zero runs. He has 14 strikeouts and four walks in those innings, and a WHIP of 1.00. The lineups he has faced—the Braves’ on Monday and the Cubs’ on Saturday—haven't been pushovers, either. With the injury to Zack Greinke, Narveson has risen to the number-four spot in the rotation by default, and it couldn't have gone better thus far. Brewers fans hope he can continue to pitch like this, especially considering the less-than-perfect start to Randy Wolf's season, even though Wolf may be the safer bet in the long run.
The other character lighting up Milwaukee's bulletin boards is Nyjer Morgan, known to many by his alter-ego “Tony Plush.” Morgan was a very late addition to the Brewers' roster, coming over at the end of March in a trade for infield prospect Cutter Dykstra. He was expected to be a backup outfielder for the Brewers, but his early play is making it hard for Ron Roenicke to limit his role. Morgan has appeared in all of Milwaukee's games so far this year, but he has only started five of them. In that time, he's accumulated 19 at-bats, with an additional three sacrifice bunts and two walks. He has nine hits, including two triples and a double for a .474/.524/.737 slash line. That kind of start will get any fan base excited, and Milwaukee’s has been no exception. The groundswell of support for Morgan has been aided by the fact that Carlos Gomez is seen as his main competition for a lineup spot; Gomez has managed only a meek .207/.258/.310 line in ten more at-bats. Morgan must continue to sit against left-handers (he has one hit in only five plate appearances against lefties so far), and his penchant for bunting is certifiably deadball-esque, but there's no doubt that he has been a pleasant surprise for Milwaukee in the early going. It's tough to see how Roenicke won't at least ride out this hot streak from Tony Plush.
On the other end of the small-sample spectrum, where the surprises are ugly and unwelcome, lie the Cardinals and Albert Pujols. Through the season's first eight games (before Sunday's victory made St. Louis's record 3-6), Pujols was nursing a .167/.257/.267 slash line with only one home run and five double plays. Cardinals fans, who were already coping with the loss of Adam Wainwright and the lesser blow of Matt Holliday's appendicitis, have not been pleased to see their superstar off to such a slow start.
Considering the unpleasant contract talks conducted during spring training—which weren't supposed to bleed into the season in any way—Pujols' slow start does have some worrying that his whole season could be spotty, but nervous Cardinals' fans are just victims of Pujols' excellence. It's easy to expect Pujols to be MVP-quality from game one to game 162; we've seen that many times already. However, even a player as great as Pujols is subject to bad streaks. This isn't even the first time his season has started poorly. In 2007, Pujols batted .167/.265/.333 with one homer through eight games. He rebounded for a .327/.429/.568 season with 32 home runs. That was the only year that Pujols finished outside of the top four in MVP voting (he placed ninth), so I suppose fans looking for something to worry about can latch onto that, but they’d be better off boosting their blood pressure over more serious matters.
After Sunday's disappointing loss to the Diamondbacks, the Reds sit atop the Central with a 6-3 record. The offense is still doing everything it was expected to do, placing second in the league in runs-per-game. There may not be many home runs on the team just yet, but the 800-plus OPSes from six of the team's starters (including a 1.228 OPS from Joey Votto) are more than making up for the lack of long balls. None of this should come as a surprise to Reds watchers. Instead, the biggest surprise of the Reds season thus far is the poor performance of Opening Day starter Edinson Volquez.
Tapped early in spring training for the honor, Volquez has not yet been able to show why Dusty Baker had so much faith in him. In his two starts, Volquez has pitched a total of 11 innings and given up nine runs. He has managed 13 strikeouts in those innings, but eight of them came against the lowly Astros; he has also managed to walk seven batters. It's still only two starts, and much of his poor pitching in the Astros' game came in the first inning, after which Volquez settled down. The Reds aren't hurting right now, so Volquez has some room to settle into the rotation after missing a good portion of spring training with visa issues. Even so, his start has been a disappointing surprise
The best news out of the Central, though, comes from Pittsburgh. The Pirates missed an opportunity to gain ground on the first-place Reds when they lost to the Rockies on Sunday, but they can still look at the standings this morning and see themselves in second place with a 5-5 record. It’s much too early for any team to take anything from the standings, but the Pirates were predicted by most to finish at the bottom of the division with somewhere near 100 losses. A start like that of the Astros (2-7 through nine games) would have been unsurprising; a record better than those of the Cubs, Cardinals, and Rockies, all of whom have a decent case for finishing at or near the top of the division, is nice to see. Hot starts from Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, and Andrew McCutchen have helped Pittsburgh achieve this early success, but the starting pitching—believed to be the team’s weakest point—has been the key. In seven outings from the top three of Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton, and Paul Maholm, the starters have given up a grand total of eight runs in 39 innings for a 1.85 ERA. It won't last—it takes a lot of good fortune to consistently work around a 13:15 strikeout-to-walk ratio—but even a fleeting taste of good fortune is a positive sign for the Pirates and the division as a whole. Better a flirtation with competent, winning baseball than an outright rejection of the same.
The season is young, and there is plenty of time for the divisions to shake out to something closer to their true talent. That doesn't mean that we can’t discuss and dissect results in the early going; we just have to remember that this early in the year, sample-size caveats rule all—even Tony Plush.