The 2010 MLB Season In Review: Reflecting On The Year Of The Improbable

ARLINGTON TX - NOVEMBER 01: Edgar Renteria #16 of the San Francisco Giants hits a 3-run homer to centerfield against starting pitcher Cliff Lee #33 of the Texas Rangers in the top of the seventh inning of Game Five of the 2010 MLB World Series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on November 1 2010 in Arlington Texas. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

With the 2010 Major League Baseball season having wound to a close, we take this opportunity to look back at the year in review and reflect on just how little of it actually made any sense.

If fortune-telling isn't the oldest profession in the world, it's among them. There's evidence of various forms of soothsaying, or attempts thereof, dating back throughout recorded history, and it played a central role in the cultural development of civilizations like ancient China, Greece, and Babylon, to name a few. For as long as man has existed and made a habit of writing things down, it has been trying to predict the future.

As this isn't a doctoral thesis, I'm not going to try to put together a thorough list of reasons as to why this may be. But a few of them are evident without having to give it much thought. There's simple curiosity, for one. We always want to know what we don't. And there's preparation. Ideally we want to make sure we're always prepared. As much as we may think we like surprises, no one wants to be caught completely off guard. We want to have some idea of what comes next in the future so we can make better decisions in the present.

Fortune-telling, of course, has taken many different forms over the centuries, and in more recent years we've seen a statistical offshoot pop up. Real estate or stock market projections - while not exactly predictions, they're along the same vein, as they take the best information known at the time and use it to try and project what happens down the road. Fortune-telling doesn't have to be all robes and smoke and scented candles. Any mathematical projection, no matter how objective and completely non-cosmic, may still fall under the header.

Just as we've seen statistical projection systems applied to other areas, we've seen them applied to sports. And in no sport have they received as much research and attention as they have with baseball. Being a state-to-state game, baseball lends itself perfectly to statistical records. It is a game that can be quantified like no other, and these quantifications of the present allow for attempts to project what comes next. It's simple extrapolation.

Every year, so much work goes into the development and advancement of baseball forecasting systems. You may have heard of some of them, with names like PECOTA, CHONE, and ZiPS. There are the simple ones and the not-so-simple ones, but they all try to do the same thing - project how a player or a group of players are going to do. They're discussed and considered by fans around the world all year long, and they help form the basis of front office evaluation. These projections, after all, are the best means by which one may know how much to pay a player, or how well a given team is likely to do.

These statistical models are given a lot of credence, and a lot of faith is put into what they spit out. Though the games may not be played on paper, that's where the preparation must be done. Yet, as with any forecasting model, the systems applied to baseball are flawed. Even the best, most funded, and most advanced systems can end up looking way off base. This is the hazard. We can attempt to project, but we can never predict.

This isn't a post about the inadequacy or uselessness of statistical forecasts. They are absolutely necessary for a countless number of reasons, and the teams armed with the best may be the teams with the biggest advantage. Rather, this is a post about their limitations, and the limitations of expectations in general. Because - and this isn't news - they do miss the mark. They do leave out critical details. They try to play the odds, and many are well thought-out, but oftentimes odds aren't good enough, and perhaps no season has ever defied the odds to the degree that 2010 just did. We had our expectations. And the 2010 season just kicked them in the balls.

In many ways, this was the season of the improbable.

***

This was the season that Jose Bautista led the bigs in home runs. More than that - this was the season that Jose Bautista led the bigs in home runs, by 12. Twelve being just four below Jose Bautista's previous career high for home runs in a year. For the first six years of his career, Bautista averaged one home run for every 34.5 trips to the plate. In his seventh, he averaged one home run for every 12.6. He beat Albert Pujols. He beat Adam Dunn. He beat Miguel Cabrera. He beat Ryan Braun and Jayson Werth, combined. He beat everybody. At the age of 29 and completely out of nowhere, a formerly busted prospect for the Pirates turned himself into one of the game's premier sluggers.

***

This was the season that saw seven no-hitters, topping the six in 1990 and in 1969. Technically, one of them didn't officially count as a no-hitter. And another of them came in the playoffs. But seven times during the course of the 2010 season did a pitcher go the distance without allowing a hit. And countless other times did a pitcher come close, as Brandon Morrow did against the Rays. Every week it seemed we were hearing about another no-hitter in progress, and seven times did it come to fruition. Only eight other seasons had as many as four.

***

This was the season that the Twins won the AL Central by six games. And this was the season that the Twins won the AL Central by six games despite losing star Justin Morneau halfway through the year. With Morneau, the Twins went 45-39 and held in second place. Without him, the Twins went 49-29 and blew past the competition. The Twins' hot streak and ability to cope were thanks in large part to the outstanding efforts of a 40 year old Jim Thome, who carried an entire offense on his back.

***

This was the season that the Rays fended off the Yankees and the Red Sox to win the AL East. They had done this once before, in 2008, but they were able to do it again despite an Opening Day payroll nearly $100 million below Boston's, and more than $140 million below New York's. With the Yankees and Red Sox each spending more than they'd ever spent before, and with the Yankees making a handful of deadline acquisitions, they were still unable to keep up with the low-budget young team from down South, who was supposed to be good, but not quite this good.

***

This was the season that the Padres were able to win 90 games and take their playoff chances down to the final day of the year despite having the second-lowest payroll in baseball, at $37.8 million. Projected by most to finish last in the NL West, the Padres instead held on to first for much of the summer and only wilted in the final weeks as the Giants caught fire. The Padres didn't trade Adrian Gonzalez, as they were expected to. They didn't have a fire sale. They didn't rebuild. They didn't languish in the cellar. The Padres very nearly rode Gonzalez and an excellent team defense to one of the unlikelier playoff appearances in history.

***

This was the season that the Reds pulled away from the Cardinals and won the NL Central by a comfortable margin. Prior to the year, the Cardinals weren't only expected to win; they were expected to win by such a large gap that one could envision them keeping Albert Pujols on the bench all year and still pulling it off. Instead, as the Cardinals trudged along, the Reds steamed ahead, powered by an MVP candidate in Joey Votto and an effective run prevention unit in a small ballpark. They would've made more news had the Padres not stolen their thunder.

***

This was the season that the Mariners lost 101 games. After adding players like Cliff Lee, Chone Figgins, and Milton Bradley over the offseason, the Mariners became media darlings, and a lot of people picked them as favorites in the AL West. Instead their season became an absolute disaster, and despite getting 47 starts from two of the five best starting pitchers in baseball, the Mariners had perhaps the worst year in franchise history, scoring an unthinkably low 513 runs and slugging .339 as a team. Things got so bad that a homerless Ken Griffey Jr. got benched and then suddenly retired, driving home to Florida and never again showing his face.

***

This was the season that Daniel Nava hit a grand slam in his first-ever Major League plate appearance. Daniel Nava was cut from the Santa Clara University baseball team and served as their clubhouse manager for two years before transferring to a junior college. He went undrafted, and was cut from tryouts for an independent league team. After signing with an indy league team in Chico the next year, he was scouted and signed by the Red Sox at the age of 25. From there he climbed the ladder all the way from A-ball to AAA Pawtucket, and on June 12, he was called up to Boston. And in Boston, in his first-ever Major League plate appearance, facing his first-ever Major League pitch, in front of a sellout crowd at Fenway Park, he hit a grand slam off of Joe Blanton.

***

This was the season that Jason Heyward homered in his first-ever Major League plate appearance. Hyped like few other prospects have ever been hyped, the 20 year old Heyward broke camp with the Braves and was in the starting lineup for their season opener at home against Carlos Zambrano and the Cubs. And on the third pitch he ever faced, with the Atlanta crowd on its feet and chanting his name, Heyward launched a home run into deep right field that stood as the fourth-longest homer hit all year long, at 476 feet.

***

This was the season that Stephen Strasburg struck out 14 in his Major League debut. Hyped even more than Heyward, Strasburg drew sellouts in college and through the minor leagues, and a popular game among fans and media types alike earlier in the year was predicting the exact date that the Nationals would call him up. He was finally slated to start on June 8 against the Pirates, and with all the build-up, and with the entire baseball world watching, Strasburg took the mound, threw 100 miles per hour, and struck out 14 hitters over seven effective innings in earning a win. He had the hype, and he exceeded it.

Granted, neither this nor the Heyward home run have a whole lot to do with projections, but both still seem improbable.)

***

This was the season that Aroldis Chapman threw a pitch 105 miles per hour. Said to have a rocket launcher for an arm, Chapman was moved into relief in AAA, and at one point reportedly threw a fastball at 105. Many were skeptical as radar guns are known to be flawed, and 105 just felt like an impossible mark, so Chapman came up to the bigs and did it again. On September 24, in a game against the Padres, Chapman threw a fastball that was clocked at 105.1. Not just by a radar gun - also by a series of cameras placed around the ballpark for the purpose of accurately measuring pitch speed and spin. It became the fastest pitch ever recorded in baseball history.

***

This was the season that Brandon Wood had arguably the worst offensive year of all time. Given the job of taking over for Chone Figgins with the Angels, Wood started at third base and lost his regular job in May. By the end of it all, Wood had come to the plate 243 times, collecting just 33 hits and reaching base just 41 times. He batted .146, he slugged .208, and by a measure called OPS+ - which compares a player's OPS against the league average - Wood's year was the worst since Frank O'Rourke's in 1912. He was worse even than 2008's Tony Pena, and Pena converted to pitching.

***

This was the season that Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum shined in their playoff debuts. The playoffs are supposed to be a different animal. They're supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff, and playoff experience is said by many to be absolutely vital. Instead, in his first-ever playoff start, Halladay no-hit the Reds, and in his first-ever playoff start the next day, Lincecum struck out 14 Braves and allowed two hits in a complete-game shutout. Halladay and Lincecum didn't disprove the necessity of experience, but they overcame any hurdles in spinning arguably the two best starts of the year.

***

And this was the season that the San Francisco Giants won the World Series. The San Francisco Giants, not with Barry Bonds, but with Tim Lincecum, and Buster Posey, and Matt Cain. The San Francisco Giants, with Aubrey Huff, and Cody Ross, and Edgar Renteria. The Giants had a solid core coming into the year. Their pitching looked strong, with Lincecum and Cain at the front of the rotation. And everyone knew Posey was a special talent. But that team wasn't supposed to come together the way that it did. That team wasn't supposed to win the whole thing.

And the way in which they did it was nothing short of remarkable. Outside of the core talent, theirs was a team built up of cast-offs. Huff was a first baseman that nobody wanted, and he led the team in hitting. Pat Burrell was cut by the Rays, and he came over to supply some much-needed power. Santiago Casilla was dumped by the A's, and he provided critical relief. Juan Uribe and Andres Torres - these were guys originally signed to minor league contracts.

The Giants got big performances from Lincecum. They got big performances from Posey, and the homegrown Jonathan Sanchez, and the homegrown Madison Bumgarner. But along the way, and throughout the playoffs, they got big performances from the lesser guys, too. Huff. Uribe. Ross, who drove in 10 postseason runs after coming over simply so he couldn't go to the Padres. Edgar Renteria, who'd spent much of the year on the bench and who'd considered retirement with everyone resenting his big contract.

You think about the Giants and you think about the games by Lincecum, and Cain, and Posey, and Brian Wilson. But you also think about the home run by Uribe that won the NLCS. You think about all the hits that Ross delivered throughout the month of October. You think about the two tie-breaking home runs that Renteria hit in the World Series. And you think about how amazing it is that it all worked. The Giants wouldn't have gotten to where they did were it not for the core. But they wouldn't have won it all were it not for the journeymen.

The Giants - the world champion Giants - help to drive home a message that 2010 has been trying to make practically from the beginning of the year. It's a message that, to some, might be frustrating, but more than anything else, it's a message of hope. And that message, as simple as it sounds, is that anything can happen. Anything really can happen. Despite all of the numbers and forecasts and odds that get bandied about, we never know for sure. We can note the guys we expect to do well, and we can pick the teams we see as favorites, but all these are are guesses. Informed guesses, but guesses all the same.

The 2010 season is done for. It's the offseason now, and 2011 looms ahead. Fans everywhere are going to spend the next few months talking about the players they want, the players they don't want, and how well they expect their team to do. And that's fine. That's encouraged. It keeps us all busy. But what must be remembered, and what's too often forgotten, is that nothing's guaranteed. Baseball is just a series of dice rolls, and sometimes the dice can roll funny. Are the Brewers going to win the World Series next season? Probably not. But they could. If the Giants could do it, the Brewers could do it. And so could anyone else.

There are some things that went the way we thought they would. A lot of things, really. There were a lot of things that played out about as we expected. But when you look back on it, 2010 feels a lot like a season that just didn't make sense. And that's so damn exciting.

Hope. Don't lose it. You just never know.

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