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With the end of the regular season upon us, it's time to take stock of what we learned about baseball this year.
There are four games remaining in the regular season. And then a month of postseason action. But, sadly, there's much more baseball in our rear-view mirror than lays ahead in 2012. So let's look back and see what we've learned about baseball this year.
My list is not exhaustive, of course. Because one thing we know about baseball is that there are myriad ways to watch it, listen to it, analyze it, write about it, talk about it, tweet about it, and be exhilarated and torn apart by it. So enjoy this, and add your thoughts in the comments section.
We learned to measure in Altuves.
Jose Altuve is a second baseman for the Houston Astros. He's listed on Baseball-Reference at 5'5" and 170 lbs, which makes him one of shortest players -- and perhaps the absolute shortest player -- in the majors this season. Altuve is a pretty good ballplayer, too, so making note of his height was more of an afterthought than anything else. That is, until @howmanyaltuves came along. This informative Twitter account measures pretty much anything in Altuves, but is probably best known for converting monster home-run distances from feet to Altuves.
We learned about the power knuckleball.
R.A. Dickey has posted some incredible pitching statistics this season. He may very well win the National League Cy Young Award. But Dickey's knuckleball is not your father's or your grandfather's knuckleball. He throws it, sometimes, at speeds greater than 80 miles per hour. And as our own Rob Neyer found out when he interviewed other knuckleball pitchers: "R.A. Dickey is probably throwing a pitch no professional hitter had ever seen before he started throwing it."
We learned that even perfect games can be flukes.
Okay, maybe we knew this already (see Dallas Braden, May 9, 2010). We certainly have seen mediocre pitchers throw no-hitters. But perfect games are much, much more rare. There have been 256 no-hitters in major-league history that were not perfect games, but only 23 perfect games. And yet, there was the White Sox' Philip Humber, who threw a perfect game against the Seattle Mariners on April 21 at Safeco Field. His stats after his perfecto? Only 87⅔ innings, 107 hits, 73 runs allowed. Oh, and he lost his spot in the White Sox rotation.
We learned that experience isn't everything.
Another one we probably knew already, but this season really brought it home. We've watched two rookie managers with no previous managing or coaching experience at any level -- the Cardinals' Mike Matheny and the White Sox' Robin Ventura -- lead their teams to contention, with postseason berths still within their grasp. And we've watched experienced managers poison their clubhouse (Bobby Valentine), fritter away a winning season (Clint Hurdle), and create complicated pitching rotations that failed to solve his team's pitching woes (Jim Tracy). Of course, some experienced managers performed quite well this season, but "having been there before" simply isn't enough.
We also watched as Proven Closers™ turned out to be relievers with experience who couldn't execute the pitches to close out games. We're looking at you Jose Valverde and John Axford. We marveled at Fernando Rodney, who has a 72-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio this season after walking more batters than he struck out last year. And we've tipped our caps to Bruce Bochy's closer-by-committee in San Francisco, where five different relievers have recorded saves for the Giants.
Craig Kimbrel, you're the exception.
We learned that moving in the fences doesn't necessarily help the home team.
The Mets reworked the dimensions of CitiField just three years after it opened, to make it more hitter-friendly. New fences were installed, lowering the height by eight feet and the distance from home plate by twelve feet. And, not surprisingly, hitters whacked more home runs this season than last: 155 versus 108. But visiting teams hit 88 of those home runs, while the Mets hit only 67.
Hey! Mariners and Padres fans! Be careful what you wish for.
We learned that teams sometimes outperform their expected record based on run differential, but it's still rare.
Heading into Sunday's action, the Orioles boasted a 91-67 record and were tied with the New York Yankees for first place in the East, with only four games to play. The Orioles' run differential is now +8, giving them an expected record of just 80-78. But that's a vast improvement from where Baltimore found itself this summer, when the team had been outscored by more than 50 runs. In August, Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated explained how rare it is for a team with a negative run differential to make the postseason. The Orioles will probably end up on the plus side, which is a testament to their staying power.
We learned that ignoring Jose Canseco is the best course of action.
We learned that Brandon McCarthy is an exceptional human being.
We learned that the second wild card didn't ruin the potential for late-season excitement.
Entering Sunday's action, four games remain in the regular season, and no American League team has yet clinched a postseason berth. Four teams are legitimately fighting for two American League wild cards (the Orioles, A's, Angels, and Rays) while two of those teams are still fighting for their division title (the Orioles with the Yankees and the A's with the Rangers). Things are a bit more settled in the National League, but the race for the second wild card is alive, with the Dodgers chasing the Cardinals. Without a second wild card, there wouldn't be any excitement at all in the National League. We might not end up with another Game 162 scenario, but it won't be because of the second wild card.