What a difference a year makes is the proper theme for this MLB season.
Last October, Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper and Angel’s outfielder Mike Trout were teammates playing for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League. Harper was already the most touted baseball prospect since Ken Griffey Jr. Trout was highly regarded, but not as awe inspiring. Harper was as advertised, hitting .333 with six homers and a 1.034 OPS in 25 games for the Scorpions. It was all there. The lightening quick bat. The freakish power. The Clemente-like arm and the Pete Rose hustle. Trout did his best second fiddle impersonation, hitting just .245 with a .600 OPS. A year later, both players have stormed the MLB scene and are All-Stars impacting winning franchises. But what a difference a year makes.
No one could have predicted that the next time they met, Trout would singlehandedly dampen Harper’s MLB coming out party. Harper’s having a solid rookie season hitting .270 with 22 homers and 59 RBI’s as of Sept. 30th. But Trout has put it all together quicker. Trout’s the first rookie to ever bang 30 dingers and swipe 40 bases and, if not for Miguel Cabrera’s assault on the Triple Crown, would be a shoe-in for AL MVP.
The similarities are endless as far as skills go. Trout is 21, Harper 19. Both players have an edgy-throwback approach to the game, and are known for smashing into walls. The paths they took to get here, however, were different. Trout is a Jersey guy who beat the odds. In 2010, Trout was considered the Angels' third best prospect and just 85th in all of baseball by Baseball America. Harper’s always been baseball’s best prospect. Harper donned the front of Sports Illustrated as a high school sophomore. He was the old Nas cover. It was written. He signed the thickest contract ever by a first-year player and there’s already been a book written about him. Trout waited until he reached the big show to get his first SI cover. All that hype doesn’t really matter now. The tide has turned and, moving forward, Mr. Harper is the one that has some catching up to do.
The rise of these rookies is just one of the stories that shaped the 2012 MLB season.
Old Man Jeter Keeps Rolling Along
What a difference a year makes. Derek Jeter hit a career low .270 in 2010 and had to fight like heck to get the three-year $51 million deal he eventually signed. The aging Yankees shortstop seemed to be on the decline and the Yanks took a serious look at his worth to the club. The Yankees even publicly dared Jeter to shop his services. That move had heads spinning, but Jeter did a head fake of his own and rebounded with a .297 average in 2011. He really poured it on this year, leading the league in hits, batting well over .300 and rediscovering his power stroke with 15 dingers, so far, his most since 2005. In 17 seasons, Jeter, 38, has missed the postseason just once, in 2008. He continues to solidify his place among baseball’s immortals, passing Willie Mays for 10th place on the all-time career hits list.
Showalter Bucks non-believers
The Orioles used to be the truth in the AL East, winning eight Division Championships, six pennants and three World Series Championships from 1966 to 1997. Then Cal Ripken left and the Os fell harder than BMF, compiling losing records from 1998 to 2011. In 2011, they started the season with a new skipper in Buck Showalter, but still won just 69 games. What a difference a year makes. While The Yanks were spending ridiculous free-agent cheddar and winning chips, Baltimore was stockpiling talent like All-Star center fielder Adam Jones, first baseman Chris Davis (31 homeruns) and Matt Weiters, a catcher with 20 plus homerun power. Nostradamus couldn’t have predicted the B-More rise of 2012. Buck Showalter has turned The Orioles from AL East laughing stocks to serious World Series contenders. The Os trailed the Yankees by double digits in July. Now they have clinched their first playoff berth since 1997 and have a great shot at the division.
Superman gets a dose of AL Kryptonite
Albert Pujols ended the 2011 season -- his last in St. Louis -- with a World Series Championship. He must have been thinking, “What a difference a year makes,” when he started his 2012 Anaheim Angels bid with the worst regular-season month of his career. Pujols was feeling the pressure of signing a record 10-year $254 million contract and leaving his beloved National League Cardinals after 11 years of Hall of Fame service. Not only was he held homerless in a month for the first time, April was easily his worst OPS for a month in his career [.569]. It was the first time Pujols ever had an OPS of less than .700 in a month. Superman was human after all. Eventually Pujols got his Rick Ross on and started to let his money work, finishing with another 30-homer, 100 RBI season.
Knucklehead of the class
The success of knuckleballers like Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro has done little to change the opinion that the knuckle ball is a merely a sideshow. What a difference a year makes. In 2011, the Mets R.A. Dickey was an 8-13 journeyman pitcher, who had learned the knuckle ball as a desperate attempt to stay in the pros. Fast forward to 2012 and Dickey is the Mets first 20-game winner since Frank Viola in 1990 and the first knuckleballer to win 20 games since Houston's Joe Niekro in 1980. Even more impressive, Dickey is the first 20-game winner on a sub-.500 team since Roger Clemens did it with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1997.
Cabrera Holds Down The Triple Crown Royal
The knock on Miguel Cabrera was never about his baseball skills. Like the great Mickey Mantle, Cabrera loves to sip the sizzurp. His battles with alcohol were widely reported as the reason why Cabrera was considered a risky investment when the Tigers signed him to an eight-year $153.3 million contract-extension in 2008.
This season, with all due respect to Josh Hamilton, Cabrera has his personal demons in check and is establishing himself as the game’s best hitter. Cabrera’s league-leading .329 batting average, 44 homers and 137 RBI leaves him in line to capture baseball’s first Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski did it for Boston in 1967.
Bobby V Bombs in Boston
Last year Boston manager Terry Francona was the scapegoat when Boston blew a nine-game wild card lead on Sept 1 by losing 20 of their last 27 games, and then endured the embarrassing “fried chicken and beer scandal”.
This season, Red Sox ownership brought in ex-Met manager Bobby Valentine to get his Cedric The Entertainer on and clean things up in the Boston Zoo. They expected Valentine’s lauded baseball acumen and discipline to translate into big winning. Since leading The Mets to the 2000 World Series, Bobby V has managed in Japan and done some TV work. No pressure. No sensitive MLB egos to massage. No media scrutiny. He seemed very content with life as early as mid-season 2011.
What a difference a year makes. Like a punch-drunk fighter, Bobby V thought he could get back up, return to baseball and not miss a beat. The 2012 version of The Red Sox was even worse than the dysfunctional group from the previous year. Valentine set a toxic tone by criticizing his team in the media early in the season. Boston never responded to his coaching and finished last in the AL East.
Nats start a New
The Washington Nationals have been one of baseball’s doormats throughout the franchise's seven-year existence. To put things in perspective, The Nats finished the 2011 season in third place in the NL East with an 80-81 record and the fans reacted like they were getting free tickets to see Jay Z at Barclays Center.
What a difference a year makes. The once down-trodden Nats have soared in 2012, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1933 and flossing baseball’s best record.
There are four major components to the Nats success:
- The sagacious old maestro, manager Davey Johnson.
- Drafting two of the best baseball players to be born in the last 25 years, in pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg and rookie stud Bryce Harper.
- Adding a few other young lethal arms, including a 21-game winner Gio Gonzales.
- The clutch hitting of shortstop Ian Desmond, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and slugger Adam Laroche.
The Nats’ recent success has been overshadowed by GM Mike Rizzo’s controversial decision to shut down ace Strasburg right before the playoffs. Regardless of how they fare this postseason, the Nats have finally built a baseball culture in Washington.
Year of The Pitcher Returns
Pitching is king again. In 2012, pitchers commanded the mound and put down light-hitting clowns with authority. MLB pitchers have thrown seven no-hitters this season, tying the modern record that was set in 1990. Pitcher’s are making a mockery of one of the rarest feats in baseball history. There have only been 236 modern-day (after 1901) no-hitters. This season everybody is getting in on the action. Cincinnati Reds pitcher Homer Bailey threw one last week for Cy Young’s sake, and he’s hardly a top flight pitcher. This season conjures memories of 1968, when baseball lowered its pitching mound and returned to the smaller pre-1963 strike zone after hurlers like Bob Gibson pitched to an astonishing 1.12 ERA and Denny McLain became baseball’s first 30-game winner since 1934.