The Best of the Overlooked: The first third of 2011

Despite his soaring average, Milwaukee's Jonathan Lucroy continues to fly under the radar. (AP/Matt Slocum)

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

Rookie Darwin Barney is making some noise for the Chicago Cubs. (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

Most of the high-profile rookies this year are pitchers, and, as a result, people haven’t fully appreciated the contributions of some unexpected regulars. Barney may not have Mark Trumbo’s power or Ben Revere’s speed, but fantasy players have quickly become familiar with him due to his steady production and 2B/SS eligibility (the latter being an especially thin position this year). Since emerging as Chicago’s everyday second sacker, Darwin has held down the second spot in the batting order by maintaining an average well over .300 and teaming with double-play buddy Starlin Castro to provide the offense that has kept the Cubbies in games as their veteran bats have stayed silent. He leads qualifying MLB rookies in batting average and is among the leaders in runs and RBI. The 25-year-old looks like he has the confidence and defensive skills to stick, even if he hits a few rough patches at the plate (which a low strikeout rate should help minimize). It’s natural selection.

The Best Team No One Is Talking About: Milwaukee Brewers

Everyone is finally respecting the Indians. The Brewers, however, who started the season amid a lot of buzz due to free agent signings, struggled through the first month-plus and lost everyone’s attention. Recently, they’ve taken off, winning eight of their last 10. Yet a lot of MLB followers seem to continue to regard the team as a collection of fantasy-ownable individuals rather than as an imposing machine. With Shaun Marcum pitching like Greg Maddux and Yovani Gallardo regaining his ace form, as he tends to do as the season progresses, Milwaukee is hoping Zack Greinke will also begin to pitch to his potential.  It is understandable he’ll need to be eased in after a rib injury. Chris Narveson and Randy Wolf fill out a very competitive staff. The bullpen features a nice mix of young and old — a decent if un-electric bunch. John Axford at the back end looks, at times, like 1998 Trevor Hoffman and, at other times, like 2010 Trevor Hoffman. Hint: the former is better; try to do that more often. There is little to say about the Brewers batting order except that you don’t want to face it. They have speed and power at the top, speed and average near the bottom, and one of the deadliest all-around offensive players in baseball, Ryan Braun, anchored in the center. Plus, that Prince Fielder dude can hit a bit. Strong all-around club though they are, the Brewers do have a bit of an Achilles heel: fielding. Hopefully it won’t prove an insurmountable weakness as they battle it out in a tough division with the Cardinals, Reds and … um … Pirates.

The Best Team Splits No One is Talking About: San Diego Padres and Pittsburgh Pirates

Both of these teams generally are considered creampuffs — the former owns a deplorable 19-29 record, while the latter has surprised people by fighting to a 22-24 mark. Besides a handful of no-name starters, what do these two teams have in common? They both have winning records on the road. The Padres are 11-10 in road games and the Pirates are 13-12. San Diego bats a pitiful .202 at PETCO, the worst home average in baseball, but musters a respectable .265 when playing away, good for sixth. Granted, the Padres do play in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks around, but this should affect opponents as much, if not more, than them. Pittsburgh can’t use the same excuse with its home park to explain the .215 home/.254 away split. Plus, the Pirates have an impressive team ERA of 3.00 at home — if they can start scoring runs there, the wins will come. As a rule, teams tend to perform better in their home parks (thanks to familiarity with the environment, even when crowd support is lacking). Therefore, one would expect these splits for San Diego and Pittsburgh to normalize somewhat — but whether that means performing better at home or worse on the road remains to be seen. Popular consensus would likely lean toward the latter.

The Best Power Breakout No One is Talking About: Asdrubal Cabrera, Cleveland

He’s not Bautista or Curtis Granderson. And, okay, some people are talking about it, but with A-Cab hitting like a young A-Rod, more attention is merited. This is a guy who came into the season with 18 career homers in 1,415 major league at-bats, a guy who never hit more than six in a year. In his age-26 season, he has so far slugged 10 HR in a mere 186 AB, including three in the last two games, putting him on pace for 30-plus on the season. He has additionally managed to hit for average, steal bases and generate runs, and is a huge part of the Indians’ completely unexpected success to date.

All of these selections are, of course, ultimately subjective. Share your own better choices in the comments below. Feel free to come up with new categories as I’ve only touched on a few arbitrary ones here.

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