Nate On Sports: 2 Months, 8 Observations

Somewhat unbelievably, to me at least, the 2010 Major League Baseball season is one-third over.  I say unbelievably because, as a Cubs fan (and considering their performance), I would have expected these past two months to go a lot slower, .  As unremarkable as the Cubs have been, however, this season as a whole has been a rather interesting one; at least from my point of view.  With that said (and in the absence of anything else for me to intelligently write about – it’s times like this that I wish I knew more about soccer), here are 8 of my observations on the still-young 2010 MLB season.

1.) The Best Team in the National League

I asked a friend of mine the other day “Who was the best team, record-wise, in the National League?”  Maybe it was the homer Cardinals fan in him talking, but he answered “St. Louis.”  And you can’t completely fault him for that, because if you don’t follow baseball closely, I’d guess there’s about a 1% chance of you guessing the correct team: the juggernaut that is known as the San Francisco Giants, wait, the Philadelphia Phillies, nope – the San Diego Padres.

If you read my preview a couple months back, I picked the Padres to be last in the NL West.  Maybe it’s just me being stubborn, but I still can’t see them finishing ahead of San Francisco, Colorado, and the Dodgers.  The starting pitching and defense has been outstanding (number 1 league-wide in WHIP, number 2 in ERA, number 3 in errors, among other things), which has been more than enough to support a bad offense.  It’s hard to envision the young pitching staff (and Jon Garland, for that matter) keeping this up for the whole year, but I believe they’ll at least keep things interesting through July.  Way to prove me wrong, Pads.

2.) Funny Name, Serious Stuff

After destroying his latest victim, San Francisco, on Monday, Rockies starter Ubaldo Jiminez saw his ERA drop to 0.78.  This is after 11 starts.  And to prove this isn’t a fluke – his WHIP is a meager 0.90.  This is an amazing start.  It’s actually even a historical start – Jimenez has the lowest ERA for a pitcher after 11 starts in MLB history.  While he certainly can’t keep up this kind of dominance (can he?), he is going to make a legitimate bid for a sub-2.0 ERA this season and his first Cy Young Award.

3.) Sleepless in Seattle

This could refer to either a.) Seattle fans as a whole, for having to suffer through the Mariners dreadful 19-31 start or b.) Milton Bradley (who else?)  I admit, I got caught up in the hype this off-season as it pertained to the Mariners, and actually picked them to win the division.  Boy, does that ever look bad right now.  Fortunately for the Mariners, there’s plenty of time to turn things around.  Will they?  I’m afraid that’s another story.

Seattle invested heavily in the offense over the winter,  signing Chone Figgins  (who is killing fantasy steams everywhere with his .211-.324-.272 line) and trading for Milton Bradley (who is compiling a similar .212-.291-.336 line, complete with the off-field issues which have plagued him his entire career), moves that have an unmitigated disaster.  Already there is talk of trading Cliff Lee, himself newly arrived via trade during the off-season.  Many restless nights lay ahead in Seattle.

4.) Umpires Gone Wild!

First it was “Cowboy” Joe West and his antics in a Chicago White Sox game last week.  And just this past weekend, a relatively unknown umpire, Bill Hohn, inexplicably ejected Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt.  Is there something in the water?

Umpire antics aren’t exactly something new in baseball.  But it seems like it’s been taken to a whole new level this year, almost to the point where some umpires think that they’re a part of “The Show.”  Here’s a hint Cowboy, you’re not.  Take your publicist and country music album and leave baseball alone.  Oh, and write us a song about how you lost your job, your wife left you, your dog died, and you ran out of beer too.  I’m sure it’d be more entertaining than watching you “call” a baseball game.

5.) Year of the Pitcher?

Already this year, we have seen two (two!) perfect games; one authored by Dallas Braden, the other by this writer’s favorite player, Roy Halladay. This is in addition to the regular, run-of-the-mill no hitter turned in by the aforementioned Ubaldo Jimenez.  In the early goings this year, teams are scoring an average of 4.4879 runs per game versus last year, when teams scored an average of 4.613 runs per game, which is a pretty sizable decline.  This trend isn’t exactly new either: teams scored an average of 4.651 runs per game in 2008, and ten years earlier (at the unofficial “peak” of the steroids era), teams were scoring an average of nearly 4.8 runs per game.

This begs the question; is the dominating pitching a side effect from the passage of the steroids era?  Albeit paltry, the aforementioned evidence would seem to support that claim.  As evidenced by the two perfect games and the no-hitter, the pitchers are back in control of the at-bats, and hitters are on the defensive.  It will be interesting to follow the runs-per-game numbers as the summer progresses; while the summer heat will likely spike the number somewhat, it’s hard to envision this trend quitting this year, at the very least.

6.) The Best Rotation That Isn’t

Or supposedly, on paper, to be the best.  Or second-best, depending on who you listen to (I have to believe that San Francisco has the best rotation in baseball.)  Here, I am referring to the Boston Red Sox.  On paper, the starting rotation is about as solid as it gets: Lester-Beckett-Lackey-Buchholz-Daisuke/Wakefield.  With the exclusion of Buchholz, these are names that have been around a while by now.

Unfortunately for Red Sox fans, a couple of them are just names right now.  Josh Beckett, before going on the DL, was certifiably dreadful – posting an ERA north of 7 and issuing 19 BB in 45.2 IP.  Lackey, Boston’s new $80 million man, hasn’t been too much better, with an ERA hovering around 5 and similar BB issues (32 in 67.1 IP.)  Daisuke and Wakefield have had flashes of brilliance, but that’s about it – both of their ERAs are well over 5 as well.  Only Buchholz and Lester have lived up to their reputations thus far.  Fortunately for the Red Sox, they have a more than capable offense and you have to believe that Lackey and Beckett  are still 4.0 ERA pitchers.  The turnaround has already begun, to some extent, and it’s a good thing too – especially when you’re in the same division as New York and Tampa Bay.

7.) The National League Rookie of the Year Race

It’s early, but it has the potential to be the best one in quite some time.  Everybody and their dog already knows about Jason Heyward and his near 1.000 OPS.  And at this point, he probably has to be considered the front-runner.

But let’s not dismiss Cincinnati rookie Mike Leake.  Through ten starts, he has an ERA of 2.45 and has been the linchpin of the Reds’ rotation, largely responsible for getting the Reds off to such a fast start.  All of his starts have been quality with the exception of one (against the Dodgers – one of the better offenses in the league) and he has been a reliable IP guy for the Reds thus far.  His stuff won’t blow you away, but he’s one of those guys who you watch and just think “This guy is in control.”  Again, it’s unlikely these numbers will hold throughout the year, but this guy is in the discussion for rookie of the year.

Oh, and stay tuned, because there’s this guy – maybe you’ve heard of him too – Stephen Straburgh who will be debuting for the Nationals 6 days from now.  He may very well make it a three horse race.

8.) The Early Contenders

If I had to name my playoff teams today, they would be: Tampa Bay, New York, Minnesota, and Texas in the American League; and Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Atlanta in the National League.  I think that all of those teams, with the exception of Texas (who still lack playoff pitching),  can and will make legitimate arguments for being the last team standing.  Odds for winning the whole deal (from shortest to longest): New York-Tampa Bay-Minnesota-Philadelphia-San Francisco-St. Louis-Atlanta-Texas .  To me, the real dark horse is Minnesota – the offense is more solid than in years past and their young pitching is developing soundly.  The only concern to me remains the back of the bullpen, but Jon Rauch has done a wonderful job in filling in for Joe Nathan.

Regardless, it’s shaping up to be another fun summer and fall.  Enjoy the ride, baseball fans.