We’ve already written about the utter YCPB-ness of both the 2011 Cardinals and Red Sox. After the Cards won the World Series in similarly unpredictable fashion, we can’t help but crown them YCPB Team of the Year Champions, as well. However, several other teams had interesting seasons of their own.
Diamondbacks: Most people would probably name them YCPB Team of the Year, and we don’t blame them. The Diamondbacks won their division and made it to the NLCS in 2007 (oddly enough, they went 90-72 with a negative run differential), and then proceeded to go 82-80, 70-92, and 65-97 in the next three years. As you can see, before 2011, no one picked the Diamondbacks to do much of anything. We’re not excluding ourselves here; check the 2011 predictions, where Jordan and I both picked them to finish last in the NL West, and I actually said something like “Wow this team sucks.”
Of course, there’s a reason for that. Though most figured the Diamondbacks’ bullpen would improve in 2011 – because there was really no way it could not – their pitching still appeared shaky. With Brandon Webb (RIP) and Dan Haren gone from the Diamondbacks’ rotation, the 2011 rotation was relying on pitchers like Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Zach Duke, Armando Galarraga, and Joe Saunders, who were either not proven or in the case of Saunders, Duke, and Galarraga, proven to be pretty bad. Right fielder Justin Upton was pretty obviously a stud, but the Diamondbacks seemed to lack offense elsewhere.
The Diamondbacks got off to a 11-15 start and were already 6.5 games out of first by the end of April, which was more or less expected. However, they took off mid-May, finishing the month 19-10 and in first place. They battled the Giants for first until August, but when the Diamondbacks had another 19-10 month and the Giants struggled, Arizona took over first place for good.
Many players contributed to the Diamondbacks’ unexpected 94-68 record – raise your hand if, before 2011, you thought the Diamondbacks would have a better record than the Red Sox – and NL West championship. Justin Upton had a bit of a down year (for him) in 2010, but rebounded to put up an OPS+ over 140; he was a legitimate MVP candidate. Miguel Montero emerged as one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball. Gerardo Parra had been an excellent defensive outfielder who couldn’t hit, but in 2011 he apparently… learned how to hit. Ryan Roberts, their replacement at third base for the traded Mark Reynolds, had a great year.
The pitching, however, was what truly surprised. Ian Kennedy was one of the best pitchers in the NL and Daniel Hudson was also very good. Joe Saunders didn’t have the peripherals, but his results were solid. Josh Collmenter came up from the minors and had a great year, as well. While the bullpen was supposed to improve from OH GOOD LORD COVER YOUR EYES WE ONLY HAVE AN 11-RUN LEAD THAT’S NOT ENOUGH to just okay, it actually turned into a strength; JJ Putz was a great closer, and David Hernandez, who’d been in the Reynolds trade, served as a very solid set-up man.
The Brewers did eliminate the Diamondbacks in the NLDS, but the Diamondbacks fought back from a 0-2 series deficit, and even tied the fifth game in the ninth inning against Milwaukee’s excellent closer John Axford. Still, a season where the Diamondbacks quite easily won the NL West when they weren’t even supposed to compete cannot count as anything but a major success for Arizona – and a quite unpredictable success, as well.
Twins: The AL Central isn’t the strongest division in baseball, but the Twins have been the generally dominant team there, with only a few exceptions, since 2003. They won a thrilling Game 163 against the Tigers to take the division in 2009, and then easily won it in 2010. The Twins had the always excellent Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau – and Morneau had missed the second half of the season with a concussion, but the Twins actually had a better record without him – Danny Valencia had come up from the minors and provided great production, and Delmon Young and Francisco Liriano finally had the fantastic seasons many had been expecting based on their minor league pedigrees. The offense was strong, and their rotation and bullpen were solid, plus Joe Nathan would be coming back from Tommy John surgery.
Instead, the Twins absolutely fell apart. Mauer was okay when he was on the field, but not his usual MVP candidate self, but it was injuries that caused his season to be so disappointing. He only had 333 PAs, and fewer at catcher than Drew Butera, who hit .167/.210/.239. Yes, those numbers are real. Morneau battled concussion symptoms all year and was frequently injured, and his production was also awful – .227/.285/.333, with only four home runs all year.
They were representative of the entire team; almost no one could stay healthy, and those that did were mostly awful. Michael Cuddyer stayed healthy and good pretty much the whole year, and that’s about it. Young and Liriano regressed badly, to put up an OPS of .662 and an ERA of 5.09 (with a walk rate of 5), though, bizarrely and unpredictably enough, Liriano did throw a no-hitter.
If you had some doubts about the Twins before 2011, that made sense. Mauer and Morneau were injury-prone, many of their other great offensive pieces from 2010 were unproven or unlikely to repeat that year, their pitchers don’t know what a “strikeout” is, etc etc etc. If you thought a 94-win team would suddenly go 63-99, last place in the pretty bad AL Central by far, well, you’re lying. That’s why they’re a nominee for YCPB Team of the Year.
Pirates: 1992. Computers were the size of an entire room, Bill Clinton had just been elected, Barry Bonds’ head wasn’t huge, and the Pirates were over .500. A lot has changed since then.
The Pirates didn’t finish over .500 in 2011; indeed, they were a pretty bad 70-92. But their record is mainly due to a poor second half, where they collapsed more or less after this game, which ended on a notoriously bad call. But before then, the Pirates were a respectable 53-48, and had been in first place as recently as the day before – on July 25.
Maybe the most interesting and unpredictable thing about the Pirates was how, exactly, they managed to have a decent record for so long. Charlie Morton was a career 5.98 ERA pitcher before 2011, who ended up with an ERA of 3.88 the past season. Jeff Karstens (career 5.07 ERA, 3.38 2011 ERA) and Paul Malholm (career 4.48 ERA, 3.66 2011 ERA) also pitched very well in terms of results, despite meh peripherals and unimpressive career stats. Joel Hanrahan emerged as a fantastic closer.
At any rate, when we can take inspiration from your season to use as a tagline for our Twitter account – sadly, we changed it, but we were using “because sometimes the Pirates are in first place in late July” for a while – you belong here as a nominee. Congrats, Pirates.