Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Best Day of the Year

Today is the best day of the year.  And do you know why?  BASEBALL IS BACK!  Sure, there have been games for about a month, and yes, pitchers and catchers reported about 50 days ago.  But those were just teases.  Evan Longoria doesn't get pulled for a "defensive replacement" in the 5th inning; Roy Halladay doesn't come out after three perfect innings (see March 5th) because he's tired.  Don't get me wrong, Spring Training is great.  It's our first beacon of hope after a long, dreary winter.  After almost four months without strikeouts, it's nice to finally see Tim Lincecum blow away hitter after hitter and hitter.  But it isn't the same. Hit the jump for our Opening Day Preview:

Regular season baseball is unlike any other sport in so many great ways.  First and foremost, baseball is played everyday for 6 months, plus the playoffs.  The NFL season goes for only 17 weeks (about 4 months), and games are one week apart.  In the NBA, the Knicks recently complained about how tired they were after their 18-game "Manic March."  By contrast, even in July 2011, which features the 3-day All Star Break, the Florida Marlins will play 26 games--and I don't hear anyone complaining about that.  This is why baseball is great.  At least six days a week, you can turn on your television (or laptop, smartphone, etc.) and watch your team battle it out for nine innings (and hopefully more).  And this time they really battle.  How often in Spring Training do you hear about players jeopardizing their seasons by running full tilt into a wall to make a big catch?  Never.  But in the regular season that happens all the time--just think about Jason Bay's concussion in 2010 or Aaron Rowand's broken/bloody nose in 2006.  That's regular season baseball.  It's a battle day in and day out--and no other sport gives you that.

Another thing that no other sport gives you is the daily parity between teams.  Sure, in the end the Yankees will probably win 90+ games and the Pirates will probably lose 90+.  But on a daily basis, each team has a legitimate chance to beat every other team in any game.  If CC Sabathia can give up seven earned runs in one game, even if your starting pitcher has an ERA of 5.00, you still have a shot against him because you never know when Sabathia's disastrous outing will come.  And if Armando Galarraga can throw a perfect game (yes, it was a perfect game, and I don't care what the scorecard or Jim Joyce says otherwise) in the same year he posts a 4.49 ERA for the season, you know your team always has a shot.  Think about football.  Did the 2-14 Carolina Panthers ever stand a chance against the 13-3 Atlanta Falcons?  Not at all--the Falcons won both meetings 31-10 and were up by more than two touchdowns at halftime both times.  In other sports, you get these lopsided matchups where fans have no reason to ever watch the game because everybody already knows the result.  In baseball, the NL-worst Pirates actually beat the NL-best Phillies four out of six times they played in 2010.  Every game matters in baseball because every game is up for grabs.  No fan ever thinks (or they shouldn't think) that their team has no chance in that particular game, so they won't bother watching.  That's the beauty of baseball.  Every day is another chance for your team to pull out a win.

Now it's time for us to take a look at some of the most important baseball storylines to watch throughout the 2011 season.  These are in no particular order, but these are what I think are the 4 biggest stories to watch.  If you have others that you think should be on the list instead, feel free to let us know below in the "Comments" box.

1.  Will the Phillies Rotation Live Up to the Hype?
Assuming you haven't been living under a rock this winter, you know that the Philadelphia Phillies have been getting praise from all corners about their starting rotation.  Adding Cliff Lee to a group that already included Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt was a coup all by itself.  The hype has been other-worldly, with some predicting the greatest starting rotation of all time.  This is not an unrealistic prediction given that two of them (Halladay and Lee) have won the Cy Young before, and Hamels and Oswalt had ERAs last season of 3.06 and 2.76, respectively.  The credentials for this group are undeniable.  The question is: will they live up to the hype?  In some sense, it's almost impossible for anyone to live up to all these expectations.  Plus, the 1971 Orioles had four 20-game winners in their rotation, a feat that almost certainly can't be accomplished by anyone in the 21st century.  But the Phillies can be the best rotation in baseball.  The Yankees have question marks all over the place, the Red Sox rotation was not as dominant last year as people expected, and the Cardinals already lost Adam Wainwright for the season.  The path to the best rotation in baseball seems clear for the Phillies (sorry Braves fans, just not happening).  But it will take a lot more than just the best in 2011 for them to become the best starting rotation of all time.

2. As Derek Jeter Passes 3000 Hits, How Much Does He Have Left in the Tank?
Derek Jeter, the Yankees' all-time leader in hits, will almost certainly pass 3000 career hits this season, guaranteeing him what has already been assumed for some time: a place in Cooperstown.  With 2,926 hits for his career, it would take a terrible injury or some other unforeseen circumstance for Jeter to miss the 3000 mark this season.  But with his career greatness in mind during the bulk of the 2011 season, it's going to be important to think about how much longer Jeter--maybe the greatest player ever for the winningest franchise ever--can keep going.  Even fans of the pinstripes have admitted that Jeter's range at shortstop has declined substantially in recent years.  At the plate, too, Jeter has seen a precipitous decline.  A career .314 hitter, Jeter saw his average plunge from .334 in 2009 to a career-worst .270 in 2010.  His strikeouts were up, his slugging percentage was way down (almost 100 points), and Jeter grounded into more than 20 double plays.  Is this the end of the line for the 36-year-old Jeter?  The Yankees certainly hope not since they just signed him to a 3-year deal.  And last season could have simply been a down year, something that almost all superstars have at some point.  But it could be the harbinger of something more serious: the end.  Only what happens on the field in 2011 will tell us what Jeter's 2010 really meant.

3. Will There be a Sophomore Slump for the Great 2010 NL Rookies?
In 2010, the National League saw what could arguably be called the greatest rookie class of all time.  Buster Posey (see left) won the Rookie of the Year with a .305-18-65 line as the Giants' everyday catcher.  Jason Heyward was next, who went for .277-18-72 for the resurgent Braves.  This class was not just strong at the top, but it was as deep as they come.  Two rookie first basemen had more 19 home runs and more than 70 RBIs in 2010 (Gaby Sanchez and Ike Davis), and Jaime Garcia had a 2.70 ERA in 28 starts for the Cardinals.  (And let's not forget that Nationals' phenom Stephen Strasburg, who will miss this season after having Tommy John surgery, set the nation's capital abuzz last year with his electric stuff.) Now, in 2011, last year's amazing rookie class will seek to avoid the "Sophomore Slump,"a phenomenon which has some serious statistical basis. In 2009, the 2008 NL Rookie of the Year, Geovany Soto, saw his average drop from .285 to .218 and his RBIs plummet from 86 to 47.  Will Posey, Heyward, Davis, Garcia, and the rest of them be able to avoid this plague?  Only time will tell, but the answer to this question could help define the future for almost every National League team.

4. Will the Cardinals-Albert Pujols Relationship Remain Friendly Enough for him to Possibly Return in 2012?
In what was a relatively quiet February for signings and trades, perhaps the biggest story is about a signing that never happened.  The day he reported for Spring Training, Albert Pujols broke off talks with the Cardinals over a contract extension, meaning he will be a free agent after the 2011 season.  Granted, the Cardinals will have an exclusive negotiating window right after the World Series ends, but Pujols insists he will not talk about his contract until the season is over.  This means that, unless the Cardinals can secure Pujols to a long-term deal (and a lucrative one, at that), Prince Albert will hit the open market.  To say we've never seen a player of his caliber on the free agent market would be the understatement of the century.  If you take Pujols' worst yearly performance in the three big statistical categories (batting average, home runs, RBIs), his line would be a paltry .312-32-103.  In 2010, only four NL players hit better than .312, only four (not including Pujols himself) hit more than 32 home runs, and only five hit more than 103 RBIs (again, not including Pujols).  This means that, in his worst possible year, Albert Pujols is the fifth-best player in the National League.  Such a model of consistency is unheard of in this day and age, as shown by Alex Rodriguez's line of .270-23-84 in his worst years in each category.  That's a far cry from the worst Pujols has done--and now that man is about to hit the open market.  Given that Pujols has played his whole career in St. Louis, the Cardinals still have a good chance of resigning the 31-year-old.  However, if the dispute gets testy, awkward, or even confrontational during the season, then things could really go south for the Cardinals in what should be their top priority in 2011: convincing Prince Albert to stay.


  1. You are right about baseball having more day to day parity, but what does it matter if you're team is out of contention by the all star break? As you stated, Baseball's day to day parity is mostly a function of pitching; when your pitcher is on, you win. Great blog!

  2. Have you seen our pieces on the Royals and Pirates? They might not be THAT out of it...that would certainly do some things to your data.