With the first half of the 2014 season in the books for many teams — including the Seattle Mariners, who played Game No. 81 of their 162-date schedule Saturday night — a recap is in order.
BEST DEVELOPMENT: The new replay review challenge system got off to a rocky start (if I never hear the phrase “transfer rule” again, it will be too soon), but wrinkles gradually were ironed out. Halfway through the season, there’s a consensus, even among those who oppose replay review on principle, that the challenge format hasn’t prolonged games, or otherwise altered the baseball-watching experience.
WORST DEVELOPMENT: Day-night doubleheaders long ago replaced conventional doubleheaders as a way to make up postponed games, so this is not really a “development.” But Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon’s recent rant about the format — other than paying the bills, Maddon said, “it makes no sense whatsoever” — reminded me of why I, too, rue how Sunday doubleheaders (two games in one afternoon: cool!) have gone the way of stirrups over socks, replaced by an obnoxious alternative (two games with a four-hour delay between them: yuck!).
BEST THEORY ON WHY THERE ARE SO MANY DOMINANT PITCHERS: “To be honest with you, guys just don’t hit the curveball any more,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said after watching Josh Beckett outduel the Cardinals’ Adam Wainright last week. “It’s a pitch that’s dying and guys just don’t see it through.”
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Mattingly’s insight is refreshing — historically high strikeout rates are about hitters having trouble with the curve, stupid, and not a reflection of MLB’s tougher drug-testing policy — but his insistence that Uncle Charlie is dying sounds premature. Given the success of such curveball masters as Wainright, Beckett and his Dodgers’ teammate Clayton Kershaw (and, closer to home, King Felix and rookie Roenis Elias), the beautiful pitch is alive and well.
BEST THROW: After misplaying a ball in the left field corner on June 10, Oakland’s Yoenis Cespedes fired a 300-foot strike to the plate to retire Angels’ baserunner Howie Kendrick. Beyond the arm strength Cespedes displayed, the throw was so accurate that catcher Derek Norris never even moved his mitt.
WORST THROW: The underhanded toss Mariners shortstop Brad Miller attempted to make to second baseman Robinson Cano for a game-winning force out in Texas on April 15. Miller’s rushed toss went over Cano’s head, allowing the Rangers to tie the score. They went on to win moments later, depriving pitcher Felix Hernandez a victory and, more important, putting the Mariners into the funk recalled as an eight-game losing streak.
Seems like three seasons ago, doesn’t it?
BEST RATIONALE FOR TOUTING MASAHIRO TANAKA AS POTENTIAL A.L. ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: The 25-year old Yankees’ ace took the mound Saturday with an 11-2 record, a 2.09 ERA, and a chance to continue his string of quality starts to 16.
The only other pitcher to begin his big-league career with that many consecutive quality starts was the Montreal Expos’ Steve Rogers, who put together 16 of them in 1973.
WORST ARGUMENT AGAINST TANAKA’S ROOKIE OF THE YEAR CANDIDACY: That Tanaka, having been a five-time All Star with the Tohuku Rakuten Golden Eagles in the Japan League, is not a rookie by any reasonable definition of the word.
Nonsense. Until the Japan League is recognized as MLB’s equal — until stats compiled in Japan are seen as viable stats worthy of Hall of Fame consideration — Tanaka is every bit a rookie.
He’s been required to adjust to a different kind of game, a different culture and different travel regimen, all while occupying a prominent place under the world’s brightest spotlight.
Tanaka, by the way, was born Nov. 1, 1988, which makes him six days older than Mariners’ rehabbing prospect James Paxton.
BEST TEAM: The Oakland A’s, who clearly whiffed on their decision to sign free-agent closer Jim Johnson for one year at $10 million. Johnson’s train-wreck spring allowed converted first baseman Sean Doolittle an opportunity to audition for the closer’s role, and going into the weekend, the left-hander’s strikeout-to-walk ratio looked like this: 53-1.
Dennis Eckersley, with the 1989 A’s, set the single-season record for most strikeouts per walks at 18-1, and Doolittle hasn’t merely bettered Eckersley’s ratio, he’s improved it times three.
MOST SURPRISING TEAM: The Mariners, who were 35-46 through 81 games in 2013, rate as a nominee, but no team has defied preseason expectations as emphatically as the Milwaukee Brewers. They finished 74-88 a year ago, and they won their 51st game Saturday.
MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM: The Boston Red Sox, the first defending World Series championship team to go on a 10-game skid since the 1998 Marlins. There’s no correlation between the teams, though. The Marlins’ slump was internally induced by a front office determined to cut payroll. The Red Sox were preseason favorites to repeat.
BEST EXAMPLE THAT BASEBALL STATS ARE FRAUDULENT WHEN ANALYZED BY A SMALL SAMPLE SIZE: Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager was hitting .156 on April 22, with no homers and two RBI. Over the 60 games between April 22 and Saturday, Seager was hitting .308, with 12 homers and 53 RBI.
MOST LOGICAL MIDSEASON CONCLUSION: Lloyd McClendon will draw some A.L. Manager of the Year votes. He’s got his team in the thick of a playoff race that’s shaping up as the A’s in front, followed by a whole lot of B-minuses and C-pluses behind them.
The Mariners are in that group, and they’re halfway home.
But then, so was Howie Kendrick, three seconds from being tagged out on a dart Yoenis Cespedes launched 300 feet away.