The Best of the Overlooked: The first third of 2011
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Almost 50 games in, and the frenzy of the start of the season has all but died out. Hot and cold streaks are beginning to balance, and things are returning to the norm — except for the Indians and Jose Bautista. The Red Sox are on the way back up, the Royals are on the way back down, Albert Pujols’ average is rising (slowly) and Sam Fuld’s is falling (rapidly). Various stars have landed on the DL, and there has been a recent spree of rainouts and delays. It seems like most of the buzz is pretty run-of-the-mill and benign, generated by the usual heroes and duds, powerhouses and pushovers, with the occasional no-hitter, streaking rookie or closer change. Here are a handful of stories that have, relatively speaking, flown under the radar so far in 2011. Here are some of the best of the overlooked.
The Best Catcher No One Is Talking About: Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee
Alex Avila may have discovered a power stroke, and Wilson Ramos may have usurped Pudge in Washington, but Lucroy has quietly become the toughest out in the Brewers’ strong lineup. As of the writing, he’s hitting .327 and even showing a little pop, dropping four bombs in his first 104 ABs. And unlike many catchers who can put wood on the ball, Lucroy is no defensive drain. He’s currently leading NL catchers in RF/G (range factor per game), is third in fielding percentage and is said to be handling pitchers much better in his second season as the Brewers starter. His decreased rate of throwing out baserunners is probably attributable, in part, to a still-healing fractured pinkie on his throwing hand that landed him on the DL earlier this year.
The Best Starting Rotation No One Is Talking About: Seattle Mariners
Okay, so some people are talking about them, but certainly not in the same sentence with the Phillies, Giants, or Braves. The A’s are the common pick here, but they consistently develop nobodies into aces. The M’s recent surge is mostly thanks to the starting staff. King Felix is a household name of course, and a bona fide ace. Michael Pineda has been pitching way beyond his years — maintaining a low ERA and high K-rate while avoiding the walk woes that tend to plague even the most highly touted rookie fire-ballers. Perhaps, he is benefiting from this being his first run through of the league and will cool as opponents adapt to him. Erik Bedard has suddenly rediscovered the dominant strikeout pitcher he is capable of being when he’s actually healthy. The stocky lefty is a perfect foil to giraffe-like Doug Fister, who has harnessed his filthy sinker and improved his composure so that, despite a low strikeout rate, he sports a 2.93 ERA. Jason Vargas is not bad as far as odd men out go. The former Long Beach Stater has kept his ERA under four thanks to a 16-inning scoreless streak and his creepy, silent-film-makeup appearance. The Mariners boast an effective one through five — plus these guys benefit from pitching half their games in Seattle.
The Best Bullpen No One Is Talking About: Kansas City Royals
Ignore Vin Mazzaro’s ungodly 2.1-inning, 14-run outing — he’s gone now. Ignore Joakim Soria’s slow start — he’s quickly returning to form. The KC bullpen is the only reason the team hasn’t plummeted as their starting pitching and offense have reverted to the shoddy norm. Royals relievers have put together an 11-5 record, accounting for half the team’s wins and less than a quarter of its losses. Currently, seven rostered relievers have ERAs under 3.00 and, of the three pitchers with higher averages, two are arguably the best talents on the staff (Soria and Jeremy Jeffress). Jeffress was just optioned to triple-A, but I include him here because he is likely to return. Aaron Crow, a 2009 first-round pick, has been absolutely lights-out, to the tune of a 0.79 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. Youngster Tim Collins is starting to do a Billy Wagner impersonation in his role as lefty specialist. Louis Coleman boasts a 1.05 WHIP and is also striking out more than a batter an inning. Oh, yeah, and the average age in this pen? Under 25.
The Best Rookie No One Is Talking About: Darwin Barney, Cubs
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