Last year at this time, Joey Votto was Joey Votto. On July 5, 2010, Votto was one of the best first basemen in the league. On July 5, 2011, Votto is one of the best first basemen in the league. If you're looking for surprises, look somewhere else.
But 365 days ago, there were three players who made the 2011 All-Star Game who were certainly not All-Stars a year ago. They weren't thinking of making an All-Star team last year -- they were wondering if they'd just be on a major league roster. Here are the three most surprising All-Stars:
Crow was a first-round pick in 2008 by the Washington Nationals, who didn't sign the right-handed starter. Crow then pitched for the Fort Worth Cats, an independent team, before being drafted by the Royals in 2009. The next year, he made seven Class-A starts, showing control and strikeout stuff, but he was hit hard The Royals moved him up to AA during the season, and he was hit harder.
In 2011, Crow made the Royals out of spring training as a reliever. Now he's an All-Star.
You don't have limit yourself to "what was he doing last year?" with Vogelsong. Eight seasons ago, he was the worst starter in the National League. Two years ago, he was okay for the Orix Buffaloes in Japan. Last year in AAA, he was so bad that he was released by the Angels. He was picked up by the Phillies, and pitched just as poorly. Last year, he walked 5.9 hitters for every nine innings pitched in the minors, which is Kaz Ishii territory ... but in AAA.
In 2011, Vogelsong came up from Fresno to fill in for Barry Zito. Now he's an All-Star.
Avila didn't start catching until he was a a senior in college, and was a fifth-round draft pick. When he made the Tigers as a backup catcher in 2010 despite a lack of experience above AA, much less a lot of catching experience at all, it was somewhat strange. By putting him on the bench, it was like the Tigers were okay with his development being stalled by not giving him regular at-bats in the minors.
In 2011, Avila was voted the starting catcher for the American League in the 2011 All-Star Game.
These three players caught everybody by surprise, but their success was still somewhat gradual. First you read that Vogelsong is invited to spring training, then you see that he's called up to fill in for an injury, then he has one good start, then another, then a third ... by the time July rolls around, you're still surprised that he's doing well, but there's still a little familiarity with the idea that he's morphed into some sort of good pitcher now. You'll never know what it's like to see their names last year at this time and know that they'll be All-Stars the next season.
For that, you'll need to look for:
- a first-round pick struggling in A or AA
- a pitcher with big league experience, mediocre numbers in Japan, and awful numbers in AAA as a thirty-something
- an under-25 backup catcher who isn't hitting especially well
So allow me to present three of the 2012 All Stars one year early:
All-Stars, all of them. If it reads like a ridiculous suggestion, then maybe that can give you an idea of how ridiculous it is that Crow, Vogelsong, and Avila are in the All-Star Game this season. Click the links. See what Simpson, Fossum, and Marson are doing this year. Then picture them standing on a first-base line after they're announced as All-Stars.
Baseball is so danged weird.