As long as you weren’t a Red Sox or Braves supporter, 2011 was a pretty magical season. With two epic collapses that weren’t decided until the final day of the season, to David Freese’s moments of heroism in game six, the year offered baseball fans an endless buffet of delights, a constant bevy of joy. And while Frank McCourt tried his best to destroy baseball in Los Angeles and the new CBA punishes the most talented players, this is not the time to focus on such thoughts. This is a time to be joyous and merry.
Below are the thirteen best moments from the past baseball season, the ones that will keep you merry and warm until pitchers and catchers report in February. For 2010’s best moments, click here for part one and here for part two.
13. The Return of Wily Mo!
Removed from his heady prospect days when he was young and disappointing in Cincinnati, Boston, and Washington, we could finally enjoy Wily Mo for what he really was: a monster who could destroy baseballs on the off chance that he made contact. Armed with the ridiculously fun name (go on, holler “Wily Mo!” and see how much better you feel), Wily Mo Pena returned to the Major Leagues for the first time since he posted a .509 OPS for the Nationals in 2008. After bashing 21 home runs in only 271 plate appearances for the Diamondback’s AAA affiliate, Pena promptly homered in his second at-bat after being called up off of Luke Hochevar. The usually stoic Kirk Gibson said:
"That’s what we brought him up here for—to turbo it out of here. I’d like to say I used to hit them that way, but I don’t think so.”
Using science, I was then able to break down the aspects of Pena’s swing that made him so successful:
Before being traded to the Mariners later in the year, Pena posted the most self-representative batting line, hitting .196/.196/.522 with 5 HR and 0 walks in 46 at-bats with the Diamondbacks. He’d show more patience as the year continued, drawing five whole walks while with the M’s, finishing at .204/.250/.416 with 7 longballs.
Sadly, the Majors will have to go without Wily Mo next season as he heads to Japan to hit baseballs farther than they’ve ever been before. He’s young enough that, if we think really nice thoughts and are kind to one another, he may grace the States one final time after making his fortune in Japan.
12. Kershaw and Kemp and Pray for Rent
(Photo by Andy Shaindlin)
Things were pretty messy at Chavez Ravine this season. On Opening Day, Bryan Stow was savagely beaten and he is just beginning to speak. Then, after the messy divorce between Frank and Jamie McCourt, Frank had to file for bankruptcy, trying to quickly sell the TV rights to a below market deal just to stay afloat. Of course, the fact that he was in this position at all, funneling Dodgers funds directly into his own accounts to purchase homes and direct “V energy,” was just more fuel for the fire.
But while Dodger fans stayed away from Chavez Ravine in droves, at one point accounting for almost 75% of the attendance drop in the entire sport, Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp did their best to reward the remaining few. Kershaw finished the season at 21-5 with a 2.28 ERA, posting a 1.10 ERA from July 7th on, while leading the league in strikeouts, WHIP, and H/9 en route to his first Cy Young Award. Only 23 years old, the Dodgers have another pitcher to add to the team’s legacy.
Meanwhile, on the offensive side of the ball, Matt Kemp rebounded in a large way from his disappointing 2010. With an apparent renewed spirit, Kemp threatened for the Triple Crown, finishing with a .324/.399/.586 line, a league-leading 39 home runs and 126 RBI and tacking on another 40 steals. Though many believed that Kemp, and not Ryan Braun, should have been rewarded with the MVP, nearly becoming the first team since the 1962 Dodgers to feature both without reaching the postseason, the Dodgers will at least have two superstars to build around once the ownership situation is resolved.
Oh, and Vin Scully is coming back for another year. That’s reason enough to rejoice.
11. RA Dickey Is Just Like Us…In That He’s a Giant Nerd
After finally establishing himself in the Major Leagues in 2010 at the tender age of 35, it was a relief to learn that Dickey’s floating knuckler and absurdly amazing pitch face wasn’t a one year trick. But even better, he revealed what a wonderfully nerdy guy he is. Dickey, an English major at the University of Tennessee who is working on a book about his life, let on that he named his bats after The Hobbit and the epic poem Beowulf:
"His bats have no stickers. He writes his number, 43, in black ink in the middle, with a name curled around it.
One bat is called Orcrist the Goblin Cleaver and the other is Hrunting. Dickey, an avid reader, said that Orcrist came from “The Hobbit.” Hrunting — the H is silent, Dickey said — came from the epic poem “Beowulf”; it is the sword Beowulf uses to slay Grendel’s mother.”
RA Dickey even topped this during the season, tweeting images of he and his son dressed as Darth Vader:
It’s a fitting costume as only someone who is extremely advanced at using the force could primarily throw a knuckleball while posting an absurdly low 2.2 BB/9.
Though Dickey will be 37 next year, his knuckler and whip-sharp mind should make him the perfect candidate to pitch for another decade and inherit the mantle from Tim Wakefield. Unless the hike up Mount Kilimanjaro kills him first.
10. Worst to First. Kinda.*
*Rays excluded. They come later.
Before the start of the 2011 season, the Indians, Pirates, and Diamondbacks were expected to battle for last place in their respected divisions. Come July 15th and all three were in the thick of playoff races with the Indians a game ahead of the Tigers; the Pirates tied for first with the Cardinals; and the Diamondbacks 4.5 games behind the Giants in the West. Fan bases in these towns were reinvigorated with Cleveland leading the league with the largest attendance jump, ahead of even the 2010 pennant winning Giants and Rangers, with the Pirates fourth and the Diamondbacks twelfth.
Sadly, for the Indians and Pirates, they just weren’t built to last. After starting 32-20 through the first two months, and despite adding Ubaldo Jimenez at the deadline, the Indians went just 48-62 the rest of the way, including a frightening 6-12 record against the division winning Tigers.
For the Pirates, their smoke and mirrors performance seemed to collapse at one singular moment. On the 26th of July, and the Pirates standing 53-48, only one game out of first place, the Bucs started a game with the Atlanta Braves. But after 19 innings and the clock ticking over to the 27th, Julio Lugo scored the winning run off of a Scott Proctor grounder. Only problem, he never got near the plate:
While umpire Jerry Meals may have cost the Pirates a victory with his sleep-deprived call, unless he is a baseball genie, he didn’t ruin the Pirates season. It was simply a regression to the mean as they went 19-42 the rest of the way.
Only the Diamondbacks and their rebuilt bullpen would be the surprise contenders to finish strong. Thanks in large part to the Giants inability to score runs, the D’backs were able to make a 12 game swing in the division from July 26 on. Riding the rotation stalwarts of Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Joe Saunders, and axe-throwing Josh Collmenter, with contributions from unlikely sources like Ryan Roberts and Paul Goldschmidt, the Diamondbacks easily advanced to the postseason. Sprinkle in stars Miguel Montero and Justin Upton staying healthy and that’s a recipe for success.
With no other team in the NL West visibly improving their chances for 2012 and the Diamondbacks counting on a young and improving core, they stand a good chance to repeat as division winners. As long as Gibson remains at the helm, of course:
9. Jose Bautista Is No Brady Anderson
After Bautista’s beard and Dwayne Murphy-powered 2010 in which he went from utility man to 50 homer monster, many people re-told the cautionary tale of Brady Anderson. Anderson went from averaging 13 home runs per 162 games during his first seven seasons, to blasting 50 home runs in 1996, to never hitting more than 24 in a full season ever again.
Rather than give baseball fans a minute to worry, Bautista went 3-for-4 with a home run and a walk on Opening Day, finishing May with a .363/.505/.786 line and 20 home runs. Though he would slow down the rest of the year, Bautista still lead the league with 43 home runs, 132 walks and a .608 SLG and a 1.056 OPS and few would have blinked had Bautista been selected as the American League MVP.
Check out all of Bautista’s homers here at the Joey Bats Homer Tracker.
8. Super Sam Fuld
(Image by MarissaMoogs)
Through a perfect confluence of events, Sam Fuld went from little known fourth outfielder to the universally beloved social media darling he is today. After being acquired by the Rays as part of the Matt Garza trade, even statheads couldn’t pay heed to the small sample size warnings when it came to Fuld. A self-professed baseball nerd who was obsessed with numbers growing up and who even read The Extra 2%, the book about the very team he was on, watching Fuld was little like seeing ourselves on the ballfield. When he was hitting everything that came his way (.365/.407/.541 through April 23) and catching every flying object that entered the outfield’s jurisdiction, it was easy to ignore the seven years of Minor League evidence that pointed to Fuld’s eventual return to fourth outfielderdom.
Fuld helped establish and legitimize the impact of social media on the game as The Legend of Sam Fuld was built almost entirely through Twitter, possibly becoming the first viral athlete in the process. He even protected the Rays from embarrassment, allowing the team to make a last minute switch from a Manny Ramirez bobblehead day to the more unique and much more satisfying Super Sam Fuld superhero cape.
Though Fuld returned to his previous career norms by the end of the season (.240/.313/.360), he still has plenty of value as a strong defender with plate discipline and should still be good for a few more #Legendary moments every year.
7. The Year of the Bad Pitcher
If 2010 was the Year of the Pitcher, 2011 was the Year of the Bad Pitcher (which I say with all due respect). First there was the emergence of Ryan Vogelsong, a pitcher who had yet to find success at the Major League level since his debut. From 2000-2006, covering his first stint with the Giants to his time with the Pirates, Vogelsong posted a 5.86 ERA, at no point making a convincing argument for a more prominent role. Vogelsong then spent three years in Japan, pitching decently, but certainly not making a case for himself before returning to the States in 2010. Invited to Spring Training by the Giants as a favor, Vogelsong got called up when Barry Zito went down with an injury and never relinquished the role. Vogelsong established career highs in wins (13), ERA (2.71), innings (179.2), BB/9 (3.1), and K/9 (7.0). Most shocking of all is the lack of red flags for continued success.
Then there was Jeff Karstens, who has the best pitch face this side of RA Dickey. A soft-tossing righty who tended to tire out early, Karstens was the Pirates swingman for the past few years, regularly shuttling between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. Featuring a fastball that rarely went over 90, Karstens established career highs in every major category, finishing at 9-9 with a 3.38 ERA despite only striking out 5.3 men per nine innings, due in large part to his impressive control (1.8 BB/9).
Thanks to modern medicine, even Bartolo Colon made a return to the Majors, striking out over half of his listed weight (135 K, 245 lb) and stabilizing a taped together Yankees rotation with the help of another unexpected face, Freddy Garcia.
Then there was Doug Fister (2.83 ERA), Philip Humber (3.75 ERA), Kyle Lohse (3.39 ERA) and scores of others who have added years to their careers thanks to the downturn of offense. There’s no telling how much was luck, how much was due to the current pitching-oriented game, or if there were legitimate gains made by some of these players, but it sure was fun watching these guys dazzle with mediocre stuff.
Come back tomorrow for the the top 6!
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