A few weeks ago, one of the founding fathers of Place to Be Nation, Scott Criscuolo, asked me to write an end-of-season MLB wrap up.
To which I asked, “How much does it pay?”
Scott, with his typical grace and panache, replied, “Nothing.”
So, after a few gentle reminders, as well as the not-so-thinly-veiled threat of “hired goons”, I agreed to sit down and consider the surprises and disappointments of the 2014 Major League Baseball season.
(Note: I was also threatened with a Clockwork Orange-style eyeballs-taped-open, three-day marathon screening of HHH’s King of Kings blu-ray. *Shudder*)
Surprise: The Kansas City Royals
Yep, this one’s pretty obvious. A franchise that hadn’t been to the postseason since the Reagan administration finally broke through and made it to baseball’s big dance as one of the two wildcard teams in the American League.
The team then captured a nation’s imagination with a postseason run that, at one point, reached eight wins without a loss before KC ran into the San Francisco Giants in the Fall Classic.
It was a pretty incredible ride for a team that finished with just 89 regular-season wins. Some pundits declared that the World Series matchup of two teams with fewer than 90 wins — the first time that’s ever happened — was a sign of the apocalypse. While it wasn’t that bad, it was a reflection of MLB’s watered-down postseason.
Disappointment: The Detroit Tigers
For a team that everyone seemed to think was a mortal lock for dominance thanks to its top-flight starting rotation, the 2014 season was nothing short of maddening, saddening, stupefying, and agonizing.
Erstwhile ace Justin Verlander’s entire season was a letdown, as the 31-year-old righty posted his second-worst full-season ERA (4.54), surrendered a career-high in hits (223), and saw his K/9 rate dip to 6.9, the second-lowest rate he’s ever had.
Closer Joe Nathan, the supposed “savior” of the team’s lone 2013 weak spot*, had an absolute diaper-on-a-summer-sidewalk of a season. Something was amiss early, as Nathan’s nadir was an interleague game against the L.A. Dodgers on April 9. Protecting 6-3 lead, Nathan surrendered three earned runs on three hits and two walks in one inning. The Tigers scored once in the tenth, somehow giving Joe Nathan the win, and making me question oh so many things in this world. It never really got a lot better, as Nathan ended up with some of the worst overall stats of his career. He’ll be 40 when the 2015 season starts, with a very, very short leash.
*(Jose Valverde still gives us Michigan folks night terrors.)
The Tigers were an offensive force, finished second in all of MLB with a .757 team OPS and 757 runs scored. Both totals were second to the Colorado Rockies, who play in one of the most offense-friendly ballparks of this, or any, era.
But it was the pitching that failed, even with a revamped bullpen and the mid-season trade for lefty starter David Price. The team made the playoffs, fending off the Royals to win the AL Central, but it was three-and-out in the playoffs against the Baltimore Orioles.
This team’s getting older, not better, and it could get ugly in a hurry if the Tigers don’t fly a flag or two in the next couple of years.
Surprise: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
I know, I know. How on Earth can the winningest team in baseball be considered a surprise? Well, it’s all about context.
For the first four months of the season, the Oakland A’s looked unstoppable. The Green-And-Gold Express was a season-best 28 games over .500 at 72-44 on Aug. 9, and they had a four-game lead on the Angels. Over the next 50 days, the team crapped the bed.
There’s really no other way to put it.
Over that 46-game stretch to close out the year, Oakland went 16-30, while the Angels put up a mirror-opposite mark of 30-16 to take control of the AL West.
So, why is this a surprise?
Oakland loaded up on talent, adding pitchers Jeff Samardjiza and Jon Lester in mid-season trades, while Anaheim added Huston Street, Jason Grilli, and Gordon Beckham.
Hardly inspiring stuff (at the time) from Angels’ GM Jerry DiPoto.
But looking at Anaheim’s roster, only eventual MVP Mike Trout put up the kind of stats we would look for from members of a 98-win team.
It was a team that snuck up on just about everyone.
Disappointment: Oakland A’s
Okay, so maybe the Angels don’t rate as a true surprise for everyone out there. However, I think we can all agree that the Oakland A’s rank among one of the biggest disappointments.
As documented above, the team had a stranglehold on MLB’s best record for most of the season before a catastrophic fall over the season’s final seven weeks.
There’s no way this team isn’t a huge disappointment.
Surprise: Baltimore Orioles
The O’s were hit pretty hard by the injury bug this year, losing starting catcher Matt Wieters to an elbow injury after just 26 games, and third baseman Manny Machado went down with a knee injury after 82 games.
On top of that, slugger Chris Davis followed up his 52-homer, 138 RBI showing of 2013 in which he finished third in the MVP balloting, with a miserable .196/.300/.404 season in 2014. He also ended up getting busted for amphetamines in late-September, suspended for 25 games, including the O’s playoff run.
Baltimore’s biggest free-agent splash, a 4-year, $50-million contract to starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez was a colossal failure as well, as the 30-year-old righty posted a 6-9 record with an ERA of 4.41 in just 125 innings. Not what you want for that kind of dough.
In spite of all this bad hoo-doo, the Orioles still won 96 games, coasting to the AL East title with a 12-game margin over the Yankees.
So, how in the name of Boog Powell did they do it?
First, the defense was sharp. ranking third in the AL in both runs allowed (3.66) and defensive efficiency (.706). If you prefer more traditional fielding, the Birds made just 87 errors (tied for Toronto with third-fewest) and 155 double plays (tied with Texas for second-most).
Second, the bullpen was amazing. Tied for third in the AL with 28 wins, the O’s relief corps had a 3.10 ERA with a 1.16 WHIP. Closer Zach Britton really took to his new role after years of struggling as a starter, as did Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter. And mid-season pickup Andrew Miller was just fantastic, with a 1.35 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 20 innings after coming over from Boston.
Third, the surprises. While several key guys were knocked out with injuries, the Orioles had a very productive group of reserves. Primary back-up catcher Caleb Joseph slugged nine homers in 82 games; Steve Pearce hit .293/.373/.556 in 102 games at three positions (plus DH); outfielder Alejandro De Aza was picked up from Chicago in a trade and then batted .293/.341/.537 in 20 games.
Fourth, free agent gamble Nelson Cruz (1-year, $8 million) led the AL with 40 home runs and helped Baltimore club 211 homers, which was 25 more than any other MLB team.
Fifth, Buck Showalter’s a wizard who seems to have learned from his previous jobs in New York, Arizona, and Texas. He’s finally put it all together and Baltimore’s reaping the benefits, putting up a .535 winning percentage in Showalter’s five years at the helm.
Disappointment: Texas Rangers
After trading for slugger Prince Fielder and signing free-agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, many pundits figured the Rangers for their fifth consecutive 90-win season in 2014.
However, the injury bug infested Globe Life Park, and Chuck Norris’ namesake team was never the same.
Fielder was done for the season after 42 games due to a neck injury that required surgery. Choo was plagued by ankle and elbow maladies, the latter of which ended his year in late-August.
Piling on, the pitching staff was also a mess from the word “Go”, as starters Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, and ace Yu Darvish all spent considerable time on the shelf. The trio made just 31 starts (22 by Darvish) and managed to eek out just 13 wins. Darvish ended up tying with Colby Lewis for the team lead with 10 victories.
Manager Ron Washington then resigned with 22 games left to play, turning the reins over to interim skipper Tim Bogar, who went 14-8. Bogar has since been replaced by offseason hire Jeff Banister.
The major-league involves 30 franchises playing 4,860 games over a six-month period. Well over 800 players appear in the big leagues every year. There are countless disappointments and surprises over the course of it all.
So, as you all enjoy your turkey, cranberries, and stuffing over the Thanksgiving weekend, be sure to give thanks to all the surprises (and disappointments) that give us so much enjoyment to all of us fans throughout the year.
(Note: It did occur to me, as I was editing this post, that I only focused on American League teams. This was coincidence, but a surprises and disappointments of the National League could be forthcoming* to remedy the situation.)
(*Scott, get the King of Kings discs ready.)